Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

DSLR vs Point-and-Shoot: a Journalist’s Consideration

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My Canon Powershot S120, and Canon 450D DSLR; the photo was taken with my crummy mobile phone camera.

My Canon Powershot S120, and Canon 450D DSLR; the photo was taken with my crummy mobile phone camera.

Lately I have been using my digital SLR. It’s a Canon 450D (also known as a Digital Rebel XTi). I’ve had my DSLR since 2008 but in the past two years I’ve neglected it, preferring to use my compact point-and-shoot: a Canon Powershot S120.

I dug out the DSLR as I wanted to walk around my neighborhood, shooting. It’s a very different experience. It’s the physical tangibility, that reassuring weight of a DSLR that is, I think, most influential in changing the approach you take to photography.

However, on journalism assignments and on freelance trips — to Burma, to North Korea — I have left behind the DSLR, and only brought my little camera. This is because the agility of the S120 and the ease of taking a usable photo with it is far quicker and more efficient than a DSLR.

Another thing I noticed when I was out and about with the DSLR was that the mere sight of it, the fact I was stopping and using this quite obviously noticeable camera changed my surroundings. People noticed me more, people actively tried to avoid the camera’s glare, and I, in turn, tried to be more conspicuous.

This is perhaps even more important.

If I used my DSLR in North Korea I would’ve taken fewer pictures and fewer photos of sensitive things, and the North Koreans would’ve been more sensitive to my presence. People have an almost instinctive reaction to a big, professional-looking camera far more than they do to a little compact.

Also, the quality produced by my point-and-shoot compared to the photos coming out of the DSLR are not massively different. With a DSLR, you can see more clarity, more cinematic colours, more depth of field, things that contribute to a more “3D” effect in the photo. But looking at photos taken with my S120 on the internet, you barely register the “inferiority”. For evidence see the photo galleries, which I took with the point-and-shoot, here and here.

I’ve sold photos using the S120 and the value of those images are in the fact they tell a story. The camera was inconsequential.

Sometimes I do feel wistful when I see fellow freelancers scoring photo galleries that I know would be difficult to manage with a compact camera. My friend Brent Crane’s photo story for Condé Nast Traveler is a case in point. The 12-picture gallery — ‘China to Pakistan: Road Tripping Across the World’s Highest Border’ — was shot on Brent’s DSLR and the vibrancy and sweep of the landscape shots are quite detailed in the way only the larger sensors found in DSLRs are capable of.

But I still trust in my little Canon compact to deliver the goods and I don’t foresee myself replacing it with a DSLR on journalism assignments.

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