digital SLR vs. prosumer cameras (comparison)

laura k asked some questions from a previous post about buying a digital SLR vs. buying a prosumer digital camera. If you want to skip all the nitty gritty details, just go to the Conclusion for a summary.

Here’s my two cents:

Just as background info. I use a Nikon D100, a 6 megapixel SLR at work. I’ve been using that camera for about 4 years now.

At home, I own the Nikon Coolpix 8800. an 8 megapixel camera with a 10x optical zoom. That’s about a 350mm lens! It has an excellent macro lens built in. (I can get within 1″ of the subject matter.) I bought it at for $600 (after the $100 mail-in rebate)… incredible deal considering the camera was introduced 10/2004 for $1000.

I decided to buy the 8800 rather than an SLR. To get an 8 megapixel SLR in March 2005 would have cost me well over $1000, maybe even over $2000 or $3000, and that doesn’t include any of the lenses. Sure there were 6 megapixel SLRs out there for $700, but 6 megapixel cameras seem so 2002 to me. That’s old technology. I’ll spend a couple hundred bucks for a 6 megapixel camera, but i ain’t spending $700 for 6 megapixels without the lenses no less. I don’t care how fancy the camera is. That’s just me. I’m stubborn.

solid build on the 8800.
it’s a nice solid magnesium body. So many of the low-end SLR bodies are made of cheap plastic. Really, I don’t think it matters much. But when I’m plunking down $600+ for a camera, I want it to feel solid in my hands.

You cannot preview your subject matter with a digital SLR. You can only review your photos or play with the camera’s settings with the SLR’s LCD panel. You must frame your subject the old-fashioned way: through the viewfinder.

The 8800 lets you frame the subject either with the viewfinder or the LCD.
AND! the 8800’s LCD panel is rotatable. I can’t emphasize the importance of this enough! Having a rotatable LCD lets you take photos at all different angles. You can hold the camera way above your head and still be able to frame your shot. If you hold an SLR camera way above your head, you will not be able to frame the shot. You will have to take the shot and review it afterwards in the LCD. Major downside for SLR cameras. Me, personally, I can not stand having a camera where I can’t twist the LCD at different angles. That’s essential for me. I love taking shots at different angles.

8800: 10x optical (35mm – 350mm) and a great macro.
background on millimeters (mm) in cameras.
35mm means that thats the starting point for the 8800. So let’s say I’m taking a photo in a small room. A 35mm lens is average. Most digital cameras have a starting point of 35mm. I can get a fair portion of the room in the shot. If the 8800 started out at 28mm, then I would be able to get more of the room in the frame. If I had 24mm, then I’d be able to get just about all the room in the shot. A 17mm lens will get the whole room in the shot. If you have a 17-24mm lens, then you’re dealing with what they call “wide-angle lenses”. Once you start getting down to about12mm, then you’re dealing with fisheye lenses. So the lower the number, the more you can get in the shot.

350mm is really strong. Most digital cameras have a 3x zoom (about 100mm). The 8800 has a 10x zoom (350mm). I’ve been getting some really great shots with my 8800 when I go to Cubs games.

So the 8800 is not a wide-angle camera. Though it’s a great zoom camera and don’t forget about the great macro feature. All this is in one lens.

LENS ON 8800 IS NICE SIZE (physically speaking)
The lens itself on the 8800 isn’t too big. I was going to London a week after I bought my 8800. The 8800 is not a small camera by any means. I was prepared to carry a camera case everywhere we went. However, the 70-300mm lens for an SLR is much larger than the lens on the 8800. By the way, you can get the Nikon 70-300mm lens for an SLR for about $100 ($169 retail). I thought it would be much higher than that.

to be able to get the functionality found in the 8800, you will need to buy the following lenses for an SLR:
70-300mm f/4-5.6D ED AF Zoom-Nikkor $100 on web ($169 retail at Helix in Chicago)
35-70mm f/2.8D AF Zoom-Nikkor $500 on web ($700 retail at Helix in Chicago)
28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G AF Zoom-Nikkor $70 on web ($120 retail at Helix in Chicago)
60mm f/2.8D AF Micro-Nikkor $350 on web ($409 retail at Helix)

side point:
Why the big price difference between the 35-70mm f/2.8D AF Zoom-Nikkor and the 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G AF Zoom-Nikkor?

The main reason is that the 35-70mm will let you shoot at f2.8 no matter what mm you are at. So if you’re shooting at the base 35mm, you can shoot as low as f2.8. If you’re zoomed in all the way at 70mm, you can still shoot at f2.8.

With the 28-80 lens, there’s a different story. Shooting at the base 28mm lets you shoot as low as f3.3. If you’re zoomed in all the way at 80mm, you can shoot as low as only f5.6.

For this discussion, we’ll ignore the 35-70 lens since it’s aperature settings is better than the lens on the 8800. The 8800 lens is more like the 28-80 in terms of minimum aperature.

So, to get all the functionality found in the 8800, you’ll need 3 lenses. And the zoom lens doesn’t quite zoom as far as the 8800. The zoom lens goes up to 300. The 8800 goes up to 350. If you shop around on the internet you can get them for $520 (not including shipping). If you go to Helix or Calumet, you’ll spend about $698.

Now, with an SLR, you buy whatever lens you want. You could save a ton of money if you don’t need to take any macro shots. Or if you’re happy with a 100mm lens (“3x optical” in the digital world), then you’ll be spending only an extra 100 bucks or so.

If you get the more expensive SLR lens you not only are getting lenses that let you shoot with a wider range of aperature, but you are getting a nicer piece of glass which creates better image quality.

To manually focus a digital SLR, you just flip two switches: one on the lens and one on the camera. Then you can use the focus ring on the lens the old-fashioned way. That’s nice.

You can’t manually focus on the 8800. You can fudge it though. There’s a “manual focus” option the 8800, but it’s based on distance. You have to know the distance of your subject and the camera doesn’t provide the distance. You either have to guess how far awy the subject is or you have to carry around one of those golf sensors that measures distance. You can’t rely on the LCD panel to visually determine whether or not your subject is in full focus.

The other way on the 8800 to fudge manual focus is to use focus grid. You can select which area of the screen you want in focus. There’s 9 areas you can choose from. I use this feature quite a bit. It’s still a ton easier with an SLR.

There is a bit of shutter lag on the 8800. That’s the amount of time it takes for the camera to take the picture once you hit the shutter button. The 8800 is better than most digital cameras when it comes to shutter lag.

However, there is ZERO shutter lag on SLR cameras. That’s a huge plus if you’re shooting something like sports. With my 8800, i know that must plan out my shot beforehand. So if I want to have a picture of a batter hitting the baseball, then I know to take the shot halfway through his swing.

Now, the image quality on the 8800 is great. It blows away any standard point-and-shoot digital camera.

Image quality on the 8800 is almost on par with SLR cameras when you are shooting in sunny or partly sunny or partly cloudy conditions in ISO 50. When you start changing the ISO to 100 and above, then you’ll notice a huge difference in image quality.

Image quality with an SLR is smooth as a baby’s butt. It’s great. And that’s even when you’re shooting with ISO 400! Shooting ISO 400 on the 8800 produces alot of noise when compared to SLRs at 400.

So SLRs provide flexibility for different shooting environments. You can feel safe shooting with ISO 400. I avoid shooting with ISO 400 with my 8800 at all costs.

Whether I’m shooting with my D100 (SLR) or my 8800, I usually set the camera to Aperature priority. Depth of field can have a huge role in the nature of photograph. So I’m always conscious of what aperature I have my camera set to. Then, I’ll check and see if the shutter speed is ok. If the shutter speed isn’t ok, then I know to bump up the ISO to a higher number or I have to consider changing my aperature if I don’t want the noise that comes with shooting with higher a ISO. Sometimes, I have to shoot with the lowest aperature and the highest ISO. Your hands are tied at times. For me, that’s the basics when shooting semi-professionally.

Yes, the 8800 lets you select which aperature to shoot with. And yes, it’s easy to select. Some digital cameras let you choose the aperature, but it’s a huge pain in the butt. It’s super easy with the 8800. It’s exactly like setting the aperature on an SLR.

Now, another big downfall of the 8800 is the aperature range. It maxxes out at F8. That’s pretty sad when a standard SLR lens will max out at F22. The difference between F8 and F22 is huge. I’m sad that the 8800’s lens doesn’t go any higher.

When I bought my 8800 in March there was only one other competitor that offered Vibration Reduction in a digital camera. And that was a 5 megapixel camera. The fact that the 8800 was the only camera in its class to offer VR made my decision very easy. And I don’t know if any of the digital SLR cameras offer something similiar to VR.

Vibration Reduction is a feature you can turn on and off. When on, it helps fix for camera shake. So, if I’m shooting with a low shutter speed, then VR will account for the tiny bit that the camera moves while the image is being exposed. Nikon claims you can gain two shutter speeds with VR on. And my testing found that to be true. So if I’m shooting with 1/8 second shutter speed, it will actually be like I’m shooting with 1/30 shutter speed with VR on. It’s very cool. I have been able to take photographs with a 1/4 shutter speed!

VR also helps when you are shooting zoomed in all the way at 10x (350mm). The further you zoom in, the more stable the camera needs to be. VR helps alot with that.

Essentially, VR will help you avoid shooting with a higher ISO which is very good.

I like to think of megapixels in terms of what it translates into dpi. I have a chart that covers all the megapixel to dpi conversions. It’s the only one of its kind on the internet!
8 megapixels (10.9 x 8.2″ at 300 dpi)
6 megapixels (10″ x 6.7″ at 300 dpi)

When you compare the inches, 8 megapixels isn’t really that much bigger than 6 megapixels.

But I still can’t get over the fact that no manufacturer has been able to introduce an affordable SLR beyond 6 megapixels. It’s been almost 4 years! It’s crazy! The D100 came out 3 years and 6 months ago (June 2002) for $2000. I think the D70 came out in June 2003 for $1000? I’m just stunned that they can’t make an 8 megapixel SLR for under $1000. It’s almost 2006!

Honestly, after working with both the 8 megapixel 8800 and the 6 megapixel D100(SLR), I would say that image size is actually about the same. You can get away with blowing up the D100 photo more than the 8800 because the quality of the D100’s photos are better than the 8800.

now the 8800 does have some accessory options.

wide-angle adapter. That takes the camera from a 35mm down to a 28mm. Not bad. That’s about $100

fisheye adapter. about $60 (and requires a $30 adapter ring) which puts the lens down to a crazy 7mm.

teleconverter lens. about $500. almost doubles the zoom! brings the zoom to 600mm. fyi, a 600mm nikon lens retails for $10,000. you get a much, much crisper shot with the $10,000 lens and you can shoot at a lower aperture too. But c’mon. $500 vs. $10,000?

It all depends on what your needs are. If you want a camera that can take a variety of shots on the go, then go with the 8800. If noise levels and range of aperature options (quality of photograph) is all you care about, then go for the SLR.

– high resolution 8 megapixels (10.9 x 8.2″ at 300 dpi)
– Take extra-excellent photographs from macro (one inch away) or 350mm (10x optical), without the hassle or cost of extra lenses.
– Expect to get much noisier pictures with higher ISO settings.
– shutter lag not best for fast paced subject matter.
– Spend an extra $100 if you want standard wide-angle capabilities. Or spend about $100 for extreme wide-angle capabilities (fisheye).
– Don’t forget the great functionality in the rotatable LCD preview screen.

– If you get an SLR on a budget you get the following:
– almost high resolution 6 megapixels (10″ x 6.7″ at 300 dpi)
– Take stellar photographs even at high ISOs like 400. Virtually any lighting condition will consistently produce top-notch, butter smooth photos.
– great for fast-paced subject matter (no shutter lag) assuming that have the necessary lens on the camera and don’t need to swap out lenses.
– Gain the functionality of being able to shoot aperatures up to F22 and beyond. (8800 maxxes out at F8).
– If you’re on a budget, then you’ll be buying one or maybe two lenses for a couple hundred bucks total. Between the two lenses you’ll have a range of 28mm-300mm. But be prepared to have a large camera bag to carry around the extra lens. And have the patience to swap out lenses when needed. Sometimes your subject matter won’t have that same patience.
– Or you could just get the one 28mm-70mm for about $100 and live with a below average zoom capability.
– You’ll lose out on the macro capabilities. (That’s an extra $500 for that lens).
– You’ll also lose out on being able to frame your shot in the LCD. Taking pictures at extreme angles is much, much more difficult that way.

So there’s pluses and minuses for prosumer and SLR. It can be a tough call.

For myself, i decided to go with the prosumer 8800. Though I didn’t realize how affordable SLR lenses can be. I almost wish i went with an SLR now. The image quality is really better with an SLR. And I don’t like being constricted with an maximum F8 aperature. And I do find myself wishing I could take photos with a better wide angle. An SLR would let me take wide angle shots, but that’s extra money for the lens. And actually, carrying around extra lenses isn’t terrible. I don’t carry around my 8800 casually. I only carry it around when I plan on taking photos. So what’s the difference I’m carrying around a bigger camera bag? Man. Now I’m really wishing i bought an SLR.

But my focus was on my planned trip to London when I was looking for a camera. I really didn’t want to be carrying around three lens throughout London. The 8800 is the perfect casual travel camera for the serious photographer. Plus, a few years ago, I bought a digital camera that didn’t have a swivel LCD. It drove me nuts. I’m not sure I’d spend $700 for a camera (without lenses) that doesn’t have a swivel LCD.

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Laura K.
18 years ago

wow, being a squeaky wheel has totally paid off for me! thank you so much!

Mark R
Mark R
18 years ago


Laura K.
18 years ago

i have a few more questions:

1. what do you mean by the size of the sensor? what’s a good size? also, i heard that there’s different kinds of sensors. do you know anything about this?

2. so, megapixels don’t matter when buying an SLR? but they do matter when buying a prosumer? i tried to read that Ken Rockwell article. it was a bit confusing.

3. i like to zoom in. so i suppose erik’s camera rather than dan’s would be better for that?

Laura K.
18 years ago

this information is really great. thank you.

Laura K.
18 years ago

wow, i just checked out the Nikon 8800 is now going for about $800 [which includes a $100 rebate]. on the other hand, they’ve got a Nikon 8700 for $489. i’m not sure what the difference is between the two [i did notice a small change in zoom lens]. but that is a heck of a price gap.

Laura K.
18 years ago

here’s something i thought of: Erik, as a left-hander, how is it operating the 8800? it looks like it’s very right-hand oriented.