Boats at the Poti River, Terezina, Brazil

Point-and-shoot – the name cannot be more specific and these cameras do exactly that: you just need to point the camera to the desired scene and shoot! Done! You can get a reasonably good picture ready to be downloaded and shown to friends without any concerns about focusing and metering. If there is not enough light, a flash automatically pops up to assist you. Their simplicity and low price make them available to everybody under their various denominations as a regular camera, a cell phone, or a tablet. They are designed to be used mostly in automatic mode for photographers that have little patience or ability to deal with cameras. Ultimately, the goal is the pictures and not the convoluted way they can be obtained.

On the other hand, “Digital Single Lens Reflex” or DSLR cameras are designed to provide a big set of interchangeable lenses, a much better sensor and a rich set of controls that can put professionals at ease for any kind of work.

In the middle of the scale, there is a new category of cameras called “bridge cameras” that bring the compromise between the sophistication of a DSLR and the simplicity of a point-and-shoot although I would categorize them more to the side of a DSLR because of their price and resources.

The Shocking Reality: Buying a DSLR is Not Enough

All considered, DSLR cameras attract a lot, the temptation to move to one is really big and I speak for myself when I finally decided to do it. My first action was to start working in manual mode as I thought at that time “automatic mode and other simpler controls are for point-and-shoot photographers, right?” Barely I remembered that just until a day ago I was one of them.

To this great decision, followed the disappointment as my pictures started to look uglier than ever. To add pain to the disaster, I bought the camera and started shooting right away without even touching the manual just because, as I state a bit further down, “I know how to take pictures.”

I understand that not everybody is as brave as I was but, when it comes to transitioning from a point-and-shoot to a DSLR, there are some steps to be taken aside from the simple act of possessing the new camera; otherwise, a shock wave of differences between cameras will hit your work as the pictures we used to take before do not present the same level of success now. As for me, more pictures were candidates to the trash bin than keepers.

The Suspects at Hand: A Point-and-Shoot Can Take Great Photos

While still with a  point-and-shoot camera, I took these two pictures that became my iconic work. They seemed to be so good that I set them as a reference for all the pictures that I took afterward. Overall, they are not bad although taken with careless focusing and shooting controls (that is, automatic mode). In these two cases, the wrong white balance also added some character.

Bottom line, if these two “beautiful” guys were taken with a simple point-and-shoot, why would not a DSLR do a better job under the same conditions? This assumption blinded my practices for quite some time.

Sunset in Manotick. Taken with a Canon PowerShot S3 IS at f/6.5, ISO 100 and 1/15s.

Sunset in Santa Tereza, Rio de Janeiro. Taken with a Canon PowerShot S3 IS at f/6.3, ISO not revealed and 6s.

The Real Suspects: Scaling the Learning Curve

Thousands of pictures later, and after an assortment of specialized courses, a lot of reading and many discussions with other frustrated guys facing the same situation (and, I dare to say, many will face it), I realized that, regardless of the type of the camera used, I knew very little about photography. This gap was not noticeable before because my point-and-shoot cameras were doing almost everything for me; however, with the DSLR, all of a sudden, it became evident that I was neither prepared to take good pictures nor to deal with the technology in my hands.

In essence, understanding photography is one thing and mastering your camera another. With both, theoretically, anybody could take good pictures. But, because of the reference bar that I had set for myself, I took a long time realizing why the transition from a point-and-shoot to a DSLR was so traumatic and troublesome.

It was only after I locked these pictures away and forgot about them that I understood the transition problem. Here is my summary:

1. So many controls to deal with at the same time: the ISO, the shutter speed, the aperture, the focal length, lens types, focal distances. They are still there in a point-and-shoot albeit more or less concealed. We need to understand their meaning and where, when and how to use them. Sure, we could still use the automatic mode but the consensus is that it contradicts the act of having a DSLR as we are missing almost everything that a DSLR camera can offer at a higher price. Therefore, the ability to get a higher rate of good pictures with a DSLR is directly related to our ability to make the camera a natural extension of our brain and arms. And this takes time. Some people grasp this quickly while others take longer (by the way, I bought my first DSLR at a good price from someone that took no more than 100 pictures and sold it as he was frustrated with the results).

2. Equally relevant in all cameras, concepts like the composition, rule of thirds, golden hours and focusing on the eye of the person (among others), if not known yet, now acquire even greater importance and add more pressure because now “we are becoming professionals.”

Blue Jay in Low Resolution. Taken with an old Point and Shoot Canon S3 IS. Cropped approximately 25%, f3.5, 1/250s, ISO not specified. Notice the high level of noise basically due to its small sensor.

3. A big sales pitch for point-and-shoot cameras is their optical zoom qualities in a small package: 6x, 10x, 30x…! All that with a touch of a button. With a DSLR, longer and bulky lenses need to be changed all the time, something not practical. Novices tend to buy packages that include only basic lenses that do not necessarily perform the way as expected or imagined.

4. The small focal length of a point-and-shoot camera lens, a crucial fact and a trap for DSLR beginners: in complex terms, the smaller the focal length, the wider the depth of field of the associated lens. In lame terms, the lens of a point-and-shoot camera is small but is capable of correctly “seeing” a scene from short distances to long distances which translates to higher levels of sharp pictures under most of the situations. With DSLR, every lens has its specific depth field and, without mastering this detail, there is no way to get good pictures.

5. Another subtle factor that contributes to the overall disappointment is the length of the lens: to keep their “pocket-size” attributes and also because sensors are smaller, point-and-shoot cameras have lenses that are physically very short and light – around 2 to 5 cm or 1-2 inches – whereas DSLR lenses are much longer and heavier – normally in the range of 10-15 cm (4-6 inches). To understand what is going on here, take a newspaper and roll it to make a long tube. Now, while holding it with both hands by one of the extremities, try to keep the tube horizontally in the air. You are going to see that the other extremity visibly shakes no matter how firmly you hold the roll. Now, do the same with a pen. It will barely shake. The same idea applies to cameras: a point-and-shoot, being light and short, shakes less whereas the set of a DSLR camera and its lens is heavier on average, thus being more difficult to be handheld and more prone to shaking and fatigue. This is called “camera shake” in photography, which ruins many otherwise good pictures. If not ruined, they have that “soft” look that post-processing sharpening is not able to correct. There are some techniques to prevent camera shake but, for me, the most important one is not taking any handheld pictures at shutter speeds slower than 1/100 of a second and at least as fast as the focal length of the lens in use.

6. That clack-clack made by DSLR cameras: it seems ironic but that attractive and so “professional” sound is the cause for more camera shaking due to the mechanical movement and shock caused by the system of mirrors and prisms used by these cameras to display to your eye what the lenses see.

7. The “professional” look and feel: we barely realize it but, the minute we move to and possess a DSLR, we instantly become professionals. Reality quickly shows how this misconception affects the quality of the pictures and lowers our self-esteem.

Why Buying a DSLR Camera?

Regardless of the camera in use, sophisticated or not, you – and only you – can take good or bad pictures. Granted, great cameras, such as DSLRs, help you to take great pictures because of their great set of resources; however, they are powerless unless you direct them to take the right pictures. Similarly, it is like thinking that expensive pots will turn anyone into a chef de cuisine or that perfect brushes handled by a painter will make him or her a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh. You are only going to disappoint yourself and your friends if you think that a DSLR, by itself, will make you a great photographer.

If you are still serious about going for a DSLR, take a deep breath and check the list below for the reasons why you would like to have one:

1. My point-and-shoot camera is old: is it really old or is it because your friends and/or advertisement are telling you so? If you consider that your pictures right now have a good and acceptable quality, then maybe you do not need a new camera.

2. My camera is faulty: well, no doubt you need a new camera!

3. I am a casual photographer: if you only take pictures here and there, mostly from the family or for fun, and you do not care much about them after a while, then a DSLR may not be for you. If you want to replace your old camera just because you want it, then buy a better point-and-shoot, save a bunch of money and continue taking the pictures that were pretty much satisfying to you.

4. I am annoyed by the quality of my pictures: are you saying it because the pictures have a bad quality or because, in reality, you do not know how to take pictures? Remember, over and over, that it is not the camera that takes the pictures; it is you, as a photographer, the one responsible for seeing the scene, preparing the camera, pointing it to the scene and then shooting. If you realize this assumption, then the suggestion here is that first you learn to take pictures with a simple camera and then go for a more sophisticated one.

Woodpecker. Taken with a DSLR Nikon D7000 and f/11, 1/160s, ISO 320. Focal length 200mm with a tripod. This picture was cropped almost to 1/4 of its original size and still has good quality and low noise.

Getting the Most Out of Your DSLR Camera

It is never too much to stress out that a DSLR camera is not a point and shoot device and that some technical aspects should be known to get the most from it. Therefore, be patient because learning to master a DSLR requires time and mistakes and successes will be part of your new photography life.

This is just inspirational; let us go for the sweating part:

1) Get acquainted with all the details of your new camera: read the manual and spend a lot of time browsing through the Internet looking for tutorials and texts explaining all that you need to know about your camera.

2) Understand the concepts: get to know focus, aperture, shutter speed, lenses and other related details.

3) Understand what is Photography: composition, light, Rule of Thirds, lines, etc.

4) Know what the shooting modes mean: when and how to use automatic, aperture, shutter speed and programmed modes.

5) Take a look at other photographer’s art: compare your pictures with theirs. Watch their tutorials.

6) Practice and practice: take lots of pictures trying to apply what you have learned before.

7) After a shooting session (say, after an outing, family reunion, etc), download the pictures and check them to learn from your mistakes: resist the impulse of immediately showing every single picture to somebody else. First, select the ones you consider to be good and do not be afraid of throwing away the bad ones. Only then you show what was left over to whoever you think might be interested. In this way, you are going to boost your morale, learn how to make the distinction between the good and the bad and, finally, create the feeling among your friends that you are a good photographer.

8) No double, you must have a post-processing software: preferably, start with a simple one and then progress to a more sophisticated one while your taste and feel for photography increases. Take a look at Picasa, GIMP or Photoshop and choose the one best suited for your needs.

9) Catalog your pictures on your computer and have a system to easily retrieve them whenever needed: do not let your pictures lay around anywhere. You could create your system (nothing really difficult; it is just a matter of organization) or take a look at lots of suggestions on the internet on how to do this. Even a simpler system is better than nothing.

10) Did I mention practice and practice? Well, practice and practice and practice…

You are going to be a good photographer and – why not – a renowned professional one day!

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