When photography starts to become a hobby and you're stepping up to a more serious camera than your $150 compact, you'll likely find yourself at a crossroads: do you buy a superzoom or a dSLR? Do you save money and go for extra zoom and out-of-the-box versatility, or do you spend a little more and buy a truly powerful photographic tool? We lay out the pros and cons of each below.
The Pros: Superzoom cameras, also known as extended zooms, bridge cameras, or mini-dSLRs, are fixed-lens cameras with huge zoom lenses. They’re relatively small, at least compared to dSLRs. A novice could pick up a superzoom and start shooting within seconds (though a good read-through of the manual would yield much better results). A superzoom’s out-of-the-box versatility is unmatched: even the lowest-end superzooms like the Olympus SP600-UZ can shoot a flower at your feet or a sparrow perched on a power line 25 yards away.
Cons: Though they’re designed to look like dSLRs, superzooms are really just point-and-shoot cameras with big lenses. Even the top-notch models like the Canon SX20 or Panasonic FZ35 can’t reproduce the level of detail that even entry-level dSLRs do. They use small sensors like any other compact camera, so even with the best lens and best processor, there’s a ceiling on image quality. And in the long term, the set-up that comes out of the box is the set-up you’re stuck with, for better or for worse -- no interchangeable lenses here.
The Pros: Speaking of pros, these are the cameras that the professionals use. The main draw is image quality. dSLR images are much sharper and true-to-life than any shots a compact or superzoom can hope to produce, thanks to much larger sensors. (For example consider that the brand-new Panasonic FZ100, a high-end superzoom, has a 0.28 cm2 sensor, while the two-year-old, low-end Canon XS/1000D dSLR has a 3.28 cm2 sensor). The lenses are interchangeable as well, so you can swap out glass for a whole new perspective. If the bundled 18-55mm kit lens isn’t cutting it, swap it for a fast prime or a huge telephoto. Other dSLR benefits include lag-free performance, more manual control, and the ability to show off your expensive purchase to friends and family.
The Cons: dSLRs are quite large. Superzooms won’t exactly fit in your pocket, but dLSRs are especially bulky and heavy, which can be strenuous if you’re carrying it around all day. The elephant in the room is that dSLRs are expensive. At the low-end, you can get the Pentax K-x or Canon XSi for close to $500, but additional lenses can quickly drive the cost well into four-figure territory. They’re more complicated to use and could end up being “too much camera” for folks that have just a passing interest in photography. At the very least, they require some extra reading.