In 2007, I upgraded from a Canon Powershot Pro1 (2004) to Nikon D40X SLR (2007), mounted with the flexible Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens (27-300mm equivalent).
[ I have upgraded cameras since this article was posted. Click here for Tom’s latest camera recommendations. Click here for my personal photo gear history. ]
Compact versus DSLR cameras
- Compact cameras can focus very closely with good depth of field, and their live LCD view (like a high definition video camera, capturing stills, movies & sound) makes framing shots easy at arms length over your head or on the ground.
- To photograph this 1-inch cicada insect (above), I flipped out the LCD at a good viewing angle, I knelt comfortably, and slowly stretched my arms fully towards the insect. In the low forest light, I stabilized the camera against the ground for a sharper image at a slow 1/10th second exposure at f/6.3 aperture. I easily framed the insect by looking down on the live LCD, though accurate focus took several tries.
- An SLR would have required me to put my head on the ground with my eye to the viewfinder, in a very uncomfortable & dirt-stained position. Also, my tripod would have taken too long to set up before the insect flew away.
- The Super Macro feature (not found in SLRs) gives extra magnification (at 5 megapixels for the Canon Powershot Pro1, capturing better resolution than digitally cropping the Pro1’s normal 8-megapixel Macro Mode). The Pro1 can focus as close as 1 inch / 2.5 cm using 5 megapixel Super Macro Mode ,which can be impressively “fast”: f/3.0 at 90 mm equivalent.
- The all-in-one lens in many other modern compact digital cameras can focus as close as 0.5 inches or 1 centimeter, great for macro shots, much closer than most standard SLR lenses.
- All-in-one lenses and live LCDs on compact cameras let you more spontaneously and creatively capture fleeting moments. You can switch very quickly from macro close focus, to wide view distant focus, to telephoto. Even the smallest compact cameras can make decent prints to 16 inches or A4 size.
- Disadvantages of SLR-style cameras: Heft and bulk may discourage you from carrying the SLR camera when you need it. Since a good shirt-pocket sized camera can make good prints to 16 inches, an SLR is overkill for most people. A bigger camera won’t make you a better photographer – you can get great shots with most any camera (click here for examples). Since most SLRs don’t have a live view on the LCD (due to their viewfinder mirror blocking the sensor), you must look through their viewfinder to frame shots, which is difficult for low-to-the-ground macro photographs, or for shots held overhead. SLRs may require the inconvenience of switching to separate (expensive) lenses such as for macro. Switching lenses gathers dust on the sensor, which can be hard to clean.
- Advantages of SLRs over compact cameras:SLRs make bigger prints. SLRs capture less noise at higher ISO settings, giving much better light sensitivity. SLRs shoot with faster shutter response (with little shutter lag) to capture fleeting moments. SLRs capture images with less distortion using higher quality sharper lenses.
- Of my images in New Zealand this year, I could have improved the print quality of about 50% of the photographs if I had taken them with the D40X SLR with 18-200mm VR lens, which has a longer telephoto and at least 6 f/stops greater light sensitivity.
- Only 10% of my images (in the form of macro images; movies & sound recordings) would have required my compact Canon Powershot Pro1.
The following question from Chris De Schepper May 16, 2007 motivated this article:
I noticed that you bought a Nikon D40x [described on Tom’s Equipment page]. I am still in doubt about the Canon G7 and I can buy a Nikon D40 with kit lens for nearly the same money. Maybe it would be smarter to get the DSLR and buy eventually later on a cheaper compact. Is there an obvious difference in quality between the pictures taken with your Nikon D40x and your Pro 1 ? I have always used an analogue slr camera and assume that the big advantage in use would be the optical viewfinder in bright sunlight. I would use it a lot for hiking. Disadvantage being the weight of course, but the Nikon is not so heavy. If I buy the G7 I would also buy the adapter for a polaroid filter. kind greetings – Chris
Tom Dempsey responds:
Nikon D40X SLR, versus compact Canon Pro1, G7, or Panasonic FZ8
In May 2007, I started using a great new lightweight travel camera, the Nikon D40X SLR, mounted with a 27-300mm equivalent zoom with 4 f/stops VR image stabilization. The D40X is Nikon’s answer to the similar lightweight Canon EOS 400D Digital Rebel XTi camera (2 ounces heavier).
I compared the same images shot side by side with my favorite compact camera, the Canon Powershot Pro1, (released 2004) versus the Nikon D40X (new in 2007) mounted with the powerful Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens (27-300mm equivalent), which has four f/stops faster hand-held shooting using Vibration Reduction (VR).
Results: The D40X SLR (10-megapixels) captures the same or better quality images in bright daylight, but significantly better quality in low light than the Pro1.
The Canon Powershot Pro1 (8 megapixels) still stands up surprisingly well to the SLR: even though its sensor area is 6 times smaller, the Pro1’s great Canon “L” 28-200mm f/2.4-3.5 lens has excellent light gathering power & sharpness. The Pro1 (25 ounces with battery) compares remarkably well despite being older, much smaller and lighter than the D40X with 18-200mm VR lens (38 ounces with battery). Where there is enough light, such as for outdoor landscapes in the sun, the Pro1 seems equally sharp as the Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens on the D40X.
Putting a better lens on the D40X might more clearly exceed the Pro1’s quality, but that would require multiple separate zooms (extra weight and inconvenience). I prefer an all-in-one zoom lens solution for travel photography, such as this Nikkor VR 27-300mm equivalent. (Note that 8 versus 10 megapixels are not a significant difference when choosing between cameras.)
A compact camera with flip-out-and-twist LCD (such as the Canon Pro1) is more fun to use and great for macro (see cicada insect image above), but the Nikon D40x will capture better images when using the Nikkor 18-200mm VR 11x zoom lens in a greater variety of hand-held dim lighting conditions. Other users report that the D40X captures quality equal to the excellent Nikon D200, which weighs 13 ounces heavier.
Upgrading to the Nikon D40X improves the printing quality of over 50% of my shots, versus using compact cameras such as the Canon Powershot Pro1. As a supplement to the D40X, I will continue using a pocket camera such as the Canon Powershot SD700IS which is great for movies, sound recording, and certain spontaneous shots when I’m not carrying the bulkier SLR. For me, using an image stabilizing (VR) lens is very important to make the SLR more clearly superior in overall performance & quality to justify its size and weight, versus a compact camera.
Compact cameras still offer an all-in-one photography solution at a great price value when compared to SLRs. If you choose a compact camera as an alternative to an SLR, I highly recommend optical image stabilization, and raw file support to compensate for the noisier small sensor.
Click BUY menu at left to see the latest Best Travel Cameras.
Compare the Canon G7 and Panasonic FZ8:
- Panasonic DMC-FZ8: 36-432mm f/2.8-3.1; 12x image stabilized zoom lens; 7.2 megapixels; only 12 ounces with battery; slightly less bulky than the Canon Pro1 but half the weight. 5 cm closest macro focus. Sharp 2.5-inch LCD (which unfortunately doesn’t flip out). Raw support. A great price value. 1/2.5″ sensor size. Truly powerful and fun to use, this camera is very small & lightweight, making good prints up to A4 size (around 18 inches). Image quality is good at ISO 100 to 200 (but noisy at ISO 400 or higher). The raw file support can compensate for noise reduction problems (Venus III processor). Read the full review, “Highly Recommended (just)” at this external link: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/panasonicfz8/
- Canon G7: If you don’t need raw mode, you could also be very happy with the excellent Canon G7, which can conveniently fit into a big shirt pocket (one inch flatter than the FZ8), and can make good prints up to 20 inches. [Better yet, upgrade to the Canon G9 supporting raw files.] The G7 has an 35-210mm f/2.8-5.9 lens, 6x image stabilized zoom, 10 megapixels; only 13 ounces with battery. Great 1 cm / 0.4″ macro close focus at 35mm. Bright 2.5″ LCD visible at high angles. 1/1.8″ sensor size (bigger than the FZ8). Image quality is good to ISO 400 (one stop better than the FZ8). Sophisticated Canon DIGIC III processing. Read the full review, “Highly Recommended (only just)”: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/canong7/
- Disadvantages of Canon G7 and Panasonic FZ8: These compact cameras only zoom as wide as 35 or 36mm equivalent; but I prefer a camera which zooms at least as wide as 28mm for flexibility indoors, tight spaces, or wide landscapes (workaround: stitch images together). In comparison, SLRs can shoot good images at ISO 800-1600 and can make bigger, higher quality prints. These cameras all lack a flip-out-and-twist LCD (which is a great feature of the earlier Canon G5 and Pro1).
More details regarding the Nikon D40X SLR with Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens:
- The Nikon D40X body, battery & Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens weigh a total of 38 ounces.
- Plus I carry the following 72mm filters: UV lens protector; polarizer; 3-stop ND (Neutral Density) filter for blurring waterfalls. (I wish SLRs built in ND digitally like my Pro1 does!). A polarizer is important for any outdoor camera kit.
- Nikon D40X’s batteries (EN-EL9) are 1 ounce lighter than Canon Pro1 batteries, so for my trek to Nepal away from electricity, I save 6 ounces on six batteries. The number of shots per battery charge may end up similar for both D40X and Pro1 cameras since the new VR lens seems to consume a lot of power – I may have to save power by using the LCD less often on the D40X, and by using VR more judiciously (in dimmer light only). I will regret not seeing the LCD more often to check image quality on the SLR, but it may be necessary when trekking for two weeks away from rechargers. I can also bring more batteries if needed:
- The best place to buy batteries (for most digital cameras) is at www.bluenook.com. Best battery for the D40X: the Digital Concepts BP-EL9 1200mAh lithium ion batteries (with 5-year warranty) is more 20% longer lasting and 20% less expensive than the Nikon brand 1000mAh battery.
- For 13 ounces heavier than my Canon Pro1, my new Nikon D40X with 18-200mm VR lens focuses more quickly, increases the zoom to 11x (versus the Pro1’s 7x), and shoots six f/stops faster, a good reward for carrying more weight. And for some outings with the D40X, I may no longer need a travel tripod, which saves 32 ounces, making the new system much lighter.
- Using the Nikon D40X mounted with the 18-200mm VR Nikkor, at wide angle without a tripod, I can hand-hold the camera and shoot indoor rooms lit by only two lightbulbs (without flash), which is not possible with the Pro1! The D40X can shoot fairly noiselessly at ISO 800 (and not bad at ISO 1600), which in combination with 4 f/stops Vibration Reduction, is far beyond the speed of shooting the Pro1, which requires ISO 50 to avoid noise.
- Out of my 251 favorite images that I shot this year in New Zealand (out of 3500 images shot entirely on the Canon Powershot Pro1 and SD700IS), I estimate that 27% would have been better shot on the D40X (using low light & telephoto); 10% would have been better shot on the Canon Powershot Pro1 (using macro; also sound & movies that are not available on SLR); and 63% would have been equally okay shot with either camera. However, the D40X introduces new low light and telephoto capabilities not possible with the compact Pro1, which should increase the D40X advantage for over half of my new shots.
- The Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens can focus as close as 18 inches / 0.5 meters throughout its range, which gives a good closeup of a subject 3.5 inches wide at the telephoto end, which is not as good as the Pro1’s Super Macro, but should serve most of my needs very well, especially considering the astounding 4 to 6 stops advantage in hand-held shooting. (See my cicada insect discussion.)
- The D40x viewfinder is vastly more detailed such as for better focusing of macro or other shots, but you cannot see the digital result or live digital view like you can through the Pro1’s handy EVF (Electronic ViewFinder). However, I seem to be able to see the LCD okay on the D40X (even in sunlight) immediately after each shot. The SLR’s viewfinder and the compact’s EVF each have their own advantages, and I like both.
- Adobe Photoshop users: Adobe Camera Raw version 4.1 (released June 2007) supports the Nikon D40x. I recommend buying Adobe Photoshop and/ or Lightroom (instead of buying Nikon Capture NX raw converter program). Nikon ‘s insufficient PictureProject provided with the D40X does not adjust raw white balance or exposure. Canon does a better job with their excellent free Zoombrowser raw converter provided with Canon cameras.
- Six months before the D40X was released, Nikon released the D40 camera, which has 6-megapixels; good quality at a lower price; a faster flash synch (1/500th versus 1/200th second on the D40X); the same size and weight; and another excellent travel camera.
— Tom Dempsey, photographer, www.photoseek.com, Seattle, WA