What can a dSLR do that a Serious Compact can't?


Super Moderator Emeritus
Nov 5, 2010
Down Under
My recent time spent with serious compacts has been a wholly positive one. So much so that I find my dSLR gear languishing in its bag gathering dust. I know there are many folks here that maintain both big clunky and compact kits - with some using their compacts simply as back-ups to their dSLR. So before I take the hasty jump to selling off all my big clunky and assorted paraphernalia and reinvesting in more compact gear I'd love to hear opinions as to why one does, or should, maintain their dSLR kit?....as there might just be something I am missing.

I predicate this discussion with a focus on big sensor Serious Compacts. Not with the intention of degrading small sensor compacts, but more to steer folks away from the argument that you need a big camera to retain big sensor image quality. Also as a Sigma DP shooter who is a fan of the sneaker zoom, we can also premise the discussion with the fact that a serious compact does offer interchangeable lenses - just to put the versatility argument to one side. The only concession I will make is for shooters above 35mm - who can make a rather strong case for maintaining a big kit. I wouldn't expect a compact to approximate MF image quality....well not until Sigma releases their DP range with the SD1 sensor anyway :biggrin:

So, again, folks, why maintain your big clunkies?
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Jul 14, 2010
Well, there is one big difference: speed. There is another big difference: performance in low light or, more generally speaking, difficult light. And another: image quality. Larger sensors are better in nearly all aspects regarding image quality: smaller sensors can be good enough for ones purpose, but larger is usually better. One can compensate much weaknesses by improving ones shooting discipline. I have learned, that one can get better results by shooting with a compact camera in a disciplined way than with a DSLR in an undisciplined way. But shooting both types of cameras in an equally disciplined way means: larger sensors are better.

I have sold my DSLR. At the moment I own two µ4/3 cameras and two compacts (Canon S90 and Canon G12). There is no way to deny that my Nikon D90 produced a significant better image quality than my µ4/3 cameras. The difference between the D90 and the E-P1/E-PL1 is more significant than the difference between my compact cameras and my µ4/3 cameras at the same ISO setting. The Nikon D90 is better in every aspect except: the D90 is bigger and heavier and stayed at home much more often than the gear I own now. Any camera which is with me is better than a camera which lies at home.


Hall of Famer
Jul 9, 2010
Caguas, Puerto Rico
I agree wholeheartedly with Christian. Speed is a big difference, in all aspects such as autofocus, shutter delay, frames per second, and viewfinder blackout. Image quality is another big one, particularly noise performance at high ISOs.

I would add to that the ease of using a big and bright OVF (particularly if the DSLR has a pentaprism) the availability of high performance autofocusing glass, sophisticated off-camera flash, and the ruggedness of the system.

The tradeoff, of course, is the not insignificant difference in size and weight.

I do most of my shooting with my m4/3 gear, but would not get rid of my EOS system.




Jul 10, 2010
Canton Texas
A33 has phase detection auto-focus which is lightning fast and accurate and even works on video. Relatively big APS-C sensor and will fire off around six frames with jpeg+RAW, clears the buffer in about three or four seconds.
This is not an easy question to answer and I don't think there really is an answer or even a need for a definitive answer.

Nothing in this thread is wrong. A dSLR is indeed faster and all that stuff and certainly under more extreme conditions will often produce better photos than a serious compact in the right hands.

I don't see the Sony SLT-A33 as either a serious compact (other than in the terms of this forum of being a small dSLR style camera that is more compact than earlier generation dSLRs). It is not significantly smaller than the more compact APS-C sensor dSLRS currently available. What distinguishes the A33 is its fixed mirror that is used as a splitter; it could have been designed to spit the light to an optical finder. Such arrangements have been used before and were common in cine cameras circa 1970. I seem to recall that beam splitters have been used in digital cameras before as well. Mind you, the A33 is a brilliant implementation of the technology but the camera uses alpha mount lenses doesn't it? There is a lost opportunity to provide a more compact mount (as the mirror is more steeply inclined and could have enable a shorter distance from lens mount to sensor) and consequently more compact lenses.

Size is an important aspect for many photographers and it is why, when I returned to serious photography, I choose the Olympus E-P1 over the Nikon D90. A year later and I have a Nikon D90 because my photography has taken me in directions where that camera does what I want more with less effort but there are times when I prefer to use the Olympus. Mind you, I went for the D90 as it is still a relatively compact dSLR camera rather than going to full-frame sensor which many of friends have done so in the last year.

Everything is relative and serious compact cameras, dSLRs or pseudo dSLRs, full-frame cameras and medium format cameras all have important roles to play. It isn't "us" or "them". In the end, it is what you do with a camera that counts. Oh and have fun doing it - the camera is just a tool and a means to the end.


Hall of Famer
Dec 24, 2010
Brisbane, Australia
I only have an E-P1 as a comparison against a DSLR, but for me it is a matter of trust. I can take my EOS 50D out of it's bag, bring it up to my eye, half-press the shutter button, and it will wake up in an instant, focus, and take the shot. I rarely have to compensate for it's shortcomings, I don't need to wait for it...ever. It is clinical and efficient.

My E-P1 has...character, which ironically is one it's best assets. It makes you think about and work for your shot. That is why I find it perfectly suited for using legacy lenses.

To me the Canon is unquestionably the better camera. The E-P1 is the one I like to use most.


Nov 22, 2010
Central Texas
I agree with everyone above. The main reason I see to keep a DSLR is birds and wildlife and how fast they move, plus my investment in lenses. But if I want to have FUN, I pull out the NEX5 or the EPL1. And I usually do want to have fun these days. I am continually blown away by how much I like both the EPL1 and the NEX, and definitely will move to the smallest, cheapest DSLR that will satisfy my desire for easy action shots. Oly colors and art filters and NEX lowlight performance, HDR, Handheld Twilight, and panos have opened new doors for me that I would not have missed for anything!


Super Moderator Emeritus
Nov 5, 2010
Down Under
Hmmm.....some serious considerations here.

Admittedly, each camera is a tool and a tool for a specific trade. I suppose I have moved away from wildlife (and especially, bird) photography. So the need for fast focus and a long (+300mm) lenses has dissipated. Maybe the sheer reason that I am feeling more comfortable with a shift away from dSLRs is that my style of photography has changed. I no longer chase after, or stalk, wildlife...nor do I have the need to employ a similar modus operandii with small children or more grown-up folks running around after a ball.

Suppose it depends on how you interpret noise. My BC (big clunker) shows noise from ISO800 upwards. Also its noise, compared to that of the Sigma for example, is far more unpleasant.

Also I'm getting very used to the Sigma's manual focus and actually find the markings pretty reliable, and I'm slowly getting the knack of the DoF and hyperfocal with each f-stop and focus mark. I'm certainly gaining some parity with AF times and can usually rely on it far better than the AF - even from my BC.

Finally, you are right about the viewfinder. But, again in my defence, I have come to really enjoy an OVF. Not only is it bright enough for my purposes, but with the +100% FoV and the other eye open on occasion, I can better predict what's entering the frame than my 98% pentaprism.

So, agreed, different strokes for different folks. But maybe it's my preferred style of shooting that sees the proposition such a viable one.


Top Veteran
Sep 26, 2010
Like rangefinders, the better serious point-and-shoots excel at the typical case: not too far, and not too close, and not too wide and not too narrow.

Where the better DSLRs excel are the edge cases: rendering in shadows due to sensor size differences; ability to effectively use really long (and very very expensive) lenses; more macro options than you can possibly need; ultra high-speed photography; ultra-slow photography. Oh, and the best of those lenses are, no question, better than the ones available on the serious compacts, but the difference may not matter to you or me.


Hall of Famer
Aug 15, 2010
Main reason for me: speed of shooting and surety of auto-focus (the two combined) for my kids in action/motion. Honestly, the surety of AF withe DSLR is almost more important than the speed of focus, though the shutter lag on my EP1 would not cut it either.

A secondary reason: shallow DOF with my 5D and certain lenses (85/1.4, 50/1.8).

If I could replicate those in a compact, then I'd drop the DSLR. The Panny 25/1.4, might come close enough to replace my 50/1.8, but I'm still left with the first reason.

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