Don’t Tell Your Friends To Buy a DSLR

The holidays have come and gone, and so I’m not getting as many requests from friends and family for advice on what camera to buy as I did over the last six weeks or so. If you are a photographer, or at least someone who is seen in public often enough with a larger-than-credit-card-sized camera, you probably get these requests often enough as well. And I’m here today to ask one thing of you: stop telling your friends to buy a dSLR. They don’t need one.

There are some truly amazing dSLRs out there; I am the proud owner of a D40, and I use it regularly, and for most intents and purposes that don’t also require a contract, this simplest of dSLRs is just brilliant. Of course, it also got a little bit dated in the rush to include video functions on all cameras, and now it is no more. The functions are streamlined, the menus are deep enough for good customization but not so deep as to be daunting, the controls are simple and easy to understand, learn, and use. Once you toss the kit lens off an ocean liner and replace it with something worthwhile such as the 35mm f1.8 (a steal at around $200), you have a nice little camera that breaks neither your bank account nor your shoulder.

That being said, it is still more camera than most people need. How many people do you know who have bought dSLRs, and either leave them in P mode, or use one of the other presets on the mode selector, and never, ever set anything manually…not the shutter speed, nor the aperture, nor the ISO? And I’m not even getting into image optimization options, or D-lighting, or shooting modes, or metering modes, or autofocus modes, or programming the function button, or exposure compensation, or flash compensation, and on and on and on. They essentially use their dSLRs as point-and-shoot cameras, because that is what most people, I think, are looking for. DSLRs, on the other hand, are meant for manual operation. Sure, the automated functions sure do come in handy in some situations (it’s not that odd for me to shoot much of a wedding in P mode, with the flash on TTL), but a camera, even the D40, separates itself from others by the customizability that is the hallmark of dSLRs.

So when someone who really wants a very good automatic camera shells out for a dSLR, they are paying for hundreds of dollars of features they never intend to use. That just isn’t smart.

The typical rejoinder here is that dSLRs “take better pictures”…even though, as a cartoon I once saw put it, saying that cameras take pictures is like saying that mouths make compliments. While it is technically true that dSLRs are capable of making images of much higher quality, I think it is smart to really consider the practical limitations of quality an average person is interested in. As photographers, we are hopefully full-on OCD about quality. But the average person who wants good snapshots does not have the same demands for quality that we do, and again should not be coaxed into paying double or triple what is necessary to meet their needs.

Are they going to be shooting in RAW, or JPEG? Probably JPEG. They’ll get perfectly good images, but they don’t need a camera that shoots RAW. Should they shoot RAW? Really. Does an average snapshooter need the flexibility brought by RAW? No. So don’t pay for it. Are they color calibrating their monitors to get the most accurate prints possible? No? Then why have them worry about the fractional improvement in color rendering offered by the larger sensors of even crop-frame dSLRs? Are they using image editing software, or just printing straight from the camera via USB cable? Are they using a professional printing service, or are they using CVS? Or are they just uploading everything for viewing on the web, or are they even just keeping everything on their camera and showing it people on the LCD display? At each of these steps, the argument for the higher quality of dSLRs falls apart a little bit more. Your friends are not interested in making professional-quality images, and so they don’t need a camera that has that as its designed goal. Save the money and take a photo class at your local community college.

And we haven’t even gotten to lenses yet. Sure, there are some great all-purpose walk-around lenses like Nikon’s 18-200mm, but even that lens has an aperture that will leave you taking mostly flash pictures indoors, and there is nothing more frustrating for your friends than dropping $800 on a camera and $700 on a lens, taking that first flash picture indoors, looking at the LCD, and then thinking, “Hey…that looks just like what my $90 camera took…blasted highlights and shadow-mullets on the wall.” Of course, we all know the cost of replacing that consumer-grade glass with something that really will make a difference. The cost of all that camera is now going into the thousands.¬†Plus, is your non-photographer really going to carry around a bag with three different lenses? Really?

I always recommend two cameras: the Nikon P100, and the Canon Powershot SX30 IS. Both approach the quality of dSLRs. Neither has the fuss nor cost of interchangeable lenses, which your friends won’t bother with. In fact, the lenses on these are, arguably, better than those consarned f3.5-5.6 kit lenses. They are more compact. They are, in essence, exactly what your friends and family want, and at a fraction of the cost. Not that they are cheap–the Canon costs about the same as my D40 kit did. But since I bought my D40, I’ve bought two more lenses for it, and it still doesn’t and won’t ever do video (not that you should be buying a dSLR for its video functions). Recommend these cameras to your friends.

I am just a susceptible as the next person to getting excited about equipment, and wanting to pass on that enthusiasm. But more than passing on an enthusiasm for gear, I hope to pass on an enthusiasm for images…and those come from capturing moments, capturing light, thinking about what you are photographing. These are artistic considerations, not technical ones. And while I realize that the technology assists and empowers the art, most of the snapshooters we know don’t need seven frames per second; they need to know more about framing and composition. ¬†They need to have a camera in their hands when they are just sitting or walking around. They need to lie down on the floor with their kids and put the camera at a novel angle. They need to climb a tree and shoot down on their next picnic. They need to fall in love with light and learn that photographing shadows can be just as compelling, and sometimes more so, than photographing the same face again. They need to learn to take candid shots and not lines of people in front of walls.

No amount of gear can instill this sensibility. So don’t ask your friends to pay for it.