Why buying a DSLR might not be a good idea21 Dec 12 10:41AM EST |
There’s no shortage of camera reviewers on the internet. Some are competent and detailed in their assessments and some are not, but most make a simple assumption that appears to be incorrect for a significant portion of their audience. They assume the camera will be used in a variety of modes other than fully automatic.
This is important because the results of their tests and observations will probably have little relevance for consumers who do rely entirely on the Auto setting.
There are many technical reasons about why this may be the case, but the simplest way to describe it is to make an analogy between driving a car with an automatic gearbox and one with a manual gearbox and clutch.
The former will make decisions for you based on the manufacturers decisions as to when gears should be changed for varying conditions. You can point the car and select a given speed via the accelerator or through a cruise control, but everything else is out of your hands. Obviously, in a manual car you have to select the right gear based on the conditions and your experience.
The similarity with cameras is that in Auto mode the camera is making decisions for you as if the camera has a cruise control. It’s not just reading the amount of light entering the lens, but it’s also reading:
- whether you’re in difficult circumstances such as snow or at the beach
- what orientation the camera is in (landscape or portrait)
- the focus distance of the lens, and
- many other parameters as the manufacturer thinks will produce a focussed, well exposed picture in the majority of cases.
Increasingly the camera will also recognise what lens is attached and make some adjustments to correct for distortion or other errors specific to that lens.
This results in a very different experience to the photographer who opts for full manual control and has to make most of these decisions based on their expertise and experience.
There are two main reasons why experienced photographers might choose a manual approach. Either they want an effect that the Auto function can’t or won’t provide, or they don’t trust the manufacturer’s settings will produce the image they want.
Most DSLRs will allow you a large number of manual settings. As the cameras move closer to professional models these manual controls not only increase, but are made more accessible.
The assumption is that the experienced photographer wants these controls to be prominent and easy to use because they’ll be using them often. This adds cost and often bulk, because you need a certain amount of surface area to put knobs and dials on. Touch screens may look cool, but if you need to change a setting in a hurry a manual control will usually be faster and more accurate.
When a reviewer assumes you’ll use the best possible lens available (often costing significantly more than the body of the camera), or tweaks the cameras settings to get the best possible results in a particular test, they are actually telling you nothing about how it will perform with the bundled lens in Auto mode.
Their results may be perfectly valid, but if you never intend to use the camera in that way they are at best only a guide and at worst irrelevant.
Who should buy a DSLR?
If you intend to use your DSLR in Auto mode most or all of the time, all the expense of including manual controls is wasted. You would be better off looking for a camera that produces reasonably good images most of the time in Auto mode. If you feel the need to have a number of lenses to fit different circumstances, there are plenty of mirror-less system cameras that will rival most DSLRs for image quality often at a lower price point and usually with less bulk.
All our camera tests are carried out in Auto mode because it’s the only way we can see to reasonably represent how the cameras will perform in normal use for most consumers. It also means they have a level playing field without user experience becoming a factor. Each manufacturer gets their best shot at producing a camera for taking your best shot.
*Sony NEX Study 2012, non professional DSLR users. 1012 people surveyed; research completed by The Digital Edge. Our sister organisation in Holland did their own research and found around 57% of respondents use the Auto function on their DSLRs all or most of the time.