It is a question that keeps coming back. Will getting a better camera give better pictures? Some people do not even ask, they simply assume that they need a better camera to produce better pictures. Too bad they are wrong.
Recently, after seeing pictures taken from a high-end full-frame DSLR, someone noticed that those pictures were not much better than his own, taken at the same time and place with a compact digital camera. He was surprised by his own observation and started wondering what could possibly make it worth it to pay so much for a digital camera.
Of course, with photography, as with any form of art, what is better is highly subjective. However, it is widely accepted that a photograph’s beauty mostly comes from composition, lighting and the subject matter. Notice that none of these elements depend on the camera used. That is why the camera itself does not really matter. Even on a site like photo.net, where talented photographers post some amazing images, there are a large number of superb images produced using compact digital cameras, like the Canon Powershot A620. Since this camera offers full manual controls, it can easily be used creatively.
Having said that, there are many reasons to pay for a better, more expensive camera. Not to produce better pictures, but mostly to increase photographic opportunities. After all, if you can take a picture with a compact digital camera and you took exactly the same picture with an expensive DSLR, the DSLR version would not appear much better. The lower noise and potentially higher resolution of the DSLR would allow for larger print size, but that would not make the picture fundamentally better.
The opposite, however, is not as easy. There are limitations to compact cameras which make certain pictures more difficult to realize. Some pictures produced by a DSLR camera cannot be taken with a small digital camera. The flexibility of interchangeable lenses can produce pictures with angle of views not possible with any fixed lens camera. There are no such cameras with angles wider than 24mm and telephotos reaching beyond 420mm (in 35mm equivalent terms). There are no fixed lens cameras with fish-eye or tilt-shift lenses. High-ISO capabilites allow faster shutter-speeds in low-light than is possible with most compact digital cameras. Even if a longer shutter-speed is possible to get the same exposure, the creative result would not be the same.
There are several factors which increase the probabilty of obtaining better pictures with a higher-end camera. Faster autofocus and shutter-lag, for example, means less possibility of missing the shot. Faster continuous drive speeds provide more chances to capture the perfect expression for candid and action photography. Sure, the same picture can be obtained with a slower camera, but not as easily.
In sum, better cameras provide increased possibilities and probabilty for photographs, but do not improve the quality of images beyond what print sizes are acceptable. To invest for better pictures, better pay for photography books and courses, than for a more expensive camera.
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