Digital camera economics

I’ve been looking at digital cameras (again) lately, and I’m a bit confused about the economics of the various classes of camera. It seems like one relatively new category is the super-zoom camera. There are several cameras in the $350-$400 range with 5 or 6 megapixel CCDs and good 12x zoom lenses. Examples include the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7, the DMC-FZ5, and the DMC-FZ20. There’s also the Canon Powershot S1 IS and the Sony Cyber-shot H1.

These cameras have features that I generally associate with higher end SLRs, like image stabilization and fast lenses. Megapixel-wise, they’re in the same range as lower end DSLRs. The 12x optical zoom seems incredibly economical when compared to the replacement cost in SLR lenses.

What’s the catch? What do cameras like the Canon EOS 350D and Nikon D50 bring to the table that the super-zooms don’t? Is it that the sensors in the DSLRs work at higher ISO settings, whereas in the super-zooms, anything above ISO 100 is noisy?

9 thoughts on “Digital camera economics

  1. Well, I have an Olympus 8080, and anything above 200 ISO on it is noisy. I think the real benefit of a DSLR is not more pixels but a larger sensor. This makes a great difference to image quality, and, as you say, to low-light performance.

    If you already have a film SLR whose lenses will fit a digital model, I would go for that without hesitation. The other drawback of these big zoom models is bulk and weight. So I have come to think that the sensible choices are either small compact cameras with moderate zooming capacity that you can forget are in your pocket, or a proper DSLR.

    The other point about zoom lenses is that a good lens with an 8MP sensor will pick up a huge amount of detail that you can later crop down to areas of interest. What can’t be faked is the wide-angle end, and I would look more closely at what the widest angle is than what’s the greatest telephoto setting.

    credentials for camera at http://www.flickr.com/photos/seatrout/sets/677025/

  2. one point on using film lenses on a digital body is that the digital sensor is smaller than the film so you won’t get the same telephoto zoom.

  3. I use a Canon 300D, while one of my friends uses one of the Panasonic superzooms. The Panasonic is light and compact, and takes great shots, but its CCD sensor is noisy at higher ISOs. The Canon is big and heavy, but its CMOS sensor is far superior to a CCD at high ISOs. But the main advantage of any DSLR is the ability to change lenses. I have four different lenses, along with one macro extension tube. The Tamron 28-75 aspherical zoom lens is excellent for the price – about $400. SLRs can shoot in RAW mode, which gives you a greater ability to correct exposure and white balance. Basically, an SLR is much more versatile than any other type of camera, but there’s a price to pay in size, weight, and dollars.

  4. Basically what you get with a DSLR is more light hitting a larger sensor which means more information and better images. Better images at higher ISOs, better images at lower shutter speeds, the ability to use “fast” glass (i.e. lenses which let in more light – i.e. f2.8 and larger).

    The balance between size and quality is what you are looking at.

  5. In addition to the above. A smaller sensor will mean that, in relative terms, smaller appatures are harder to get/more expensive to manufacture(I’m not sure which) – but either way it is harder to produce a large depth of field.

    eg: i’ve only been able to get my fuji s9500/9000 down to f11, but many DSLRs kit lenses can get down to at least f22

  6. I have the Panasonic FZ5 with the 12X zoom. It works pretty well for me. But I am not coming at it from the standpoint of a professional photographer. I rarely if ever print my photos. I was frustrated with the limitation of the miniature cameras you can get these days. But on the other hand, I had no need for changeable lenses and all the expense and inconvenience that goes with the more professional models. It depends on what level you are seeking to shoot, really.

  7. I’ve been a superzoom user since the Sony FD-91 back in 1998 – 518mm equivalent! Currently using a Panasonic FZ10 from two years ago. It’s very nice, but noise is a problem.

    I agree with Andrew that the DSLRs tend to have larger sensors, which means less noise. There’s no inherent reason they can’t make a fixed-lens digital camera with a nice big sensor, but so far they are rare. One notable exception is the Sony R1 from late 2005 which has an APS-C size sensor.

    I refuse to buy a DSLR until the sensor dust problem gets solved, so I’m hoping more large-sensor fixed-lens cameras show up.

  8. The Panasonic cameras are using Leica lenses, which are excellent in design and build, fro Germany. The hi-end Sony digital cams are using Zeiss lenses, also German, also above the average in quality.

    That said, I recently bought a Nikon D70s, with one zoom lens and a 60mm Micro Nikor for macro photography. The remark about sensor dust, I don’t understand – you use canned air and blow it off, problem solved, after all, the reason dust can get on it is because it’s easy to get to wheh changing lenses – or you ask your dealer to clean it under warranty…

    I had and used a Coolpix 4500 for several years, and many things about it irritated me, none of which apply to the DSLR. The only drawback to the DSLR between the two is that you can’t use the LCD to compose a shot while holding the camera away from your eye.

    But that’s not a deal breaker for me.

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