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Do you really need an expensive DSLR camera? Point-and-shoot vs professional DSLR

Just how important are the camera and lens for a photographer? This is our bread and butter. All our work depends on it.  A good camera and a high quality lens can do wonders in the right hands.

However, in this post I would like to talk about cameras for those of you who are just entering the photography field, working on building a portfolio and wondering what to buy with that never-deep-enough budget. As usual, I’ll be talking about things I know: studio photography.

Here in the studio, lighting is the most important thing to know. If you know how to work with lights, you’ll be able to shoot products. If not, there is no way you can convince the client that the crappy photos you took represent your unique “vision” of the subject: There are very specific lighting requirements for product photography.

In my opinion, the most important thing for a beginner to do is to build a good portfolio: solid, clean and distinct from the rest of the crowd. Without real assignments you can only fill your portfolio with images created for self-promotion:  this is what I had 6 years ago in my portfolio. Most were done with a Sony Cybershot, my first digital camera.
The only “technical” requirement (excluding the actual content of the photo) for a portfolio image is to look good at web resolution, about 1200×1024 pixels, max. Which means the camera/lens combination can be very inexpensive… continue reading and you’ll see my point:-)

Let me show you what can be done with some knowledge, 3 strobe monolights and an empty room (read: studio)  and a little 10Mpx point-and-shoot Canon G11 camera. Virtually every family has this kind of camera. But how many of us make maximum use of it?

Here is our hero:

Canon g11 by photigy

This camera has everything you need as a studio shooter: manual focus, manual exposure control, RAW, and macro shooting mode.
I was simply re-doing our recent photo shots, composing the same or similar photos we did recently. All the shots were done with 1/2500 sec ( the max x-sync I was able to set on the camera.) and F6.3 (similar DOF on 35mm will be achieved at F22).  We spent about 20 minutes on each shot, including setup time.

I’ve included 100% crops to show the real quality, but remember: here I am talking about web-size images for a portfolio, Flickr, etc..

  • Product macro photography.

    The same watch we had on the latest masterclass. Similar lighting setup, 1/2500 sec F6.3:

    canon G11 powershoot example studio image watch product by photigy

    This is only 20 minutes of effort, and what you see is almost an as-is image.
    100% camera  RAW  crop:

    canon g11 full crop watch product example
    canon g11 full crop watch product example

    Sharpness was the worst (of all 3 shots described in this article), probably because I didn’t do a good job of setting the manual focus here. However, for a web-size photo, the result is quite acceptable for a portfolio. It is not as refined as the shot I have on the masterclass announcement, but on this one we did not spend even 10% of the time in post production that we used on the “real” one.

  • People photography

    Similar to what we did for our recent Kids Fashion photoshoot.

    Canon G11 studio canon G11 example kids photography atlanta
    Canon G11 studio canon G11 example kids photography atlanta

    Can anyone say what camera this was shot with? No way: I’ve seen so many great photos, shot with $8K cameras looking less sharp, simply because people were not good enough at optimizing their hi-res images for the web.

    100% crop of the similar one form the same set:

    canon g11 kids portrait 100 crop example studio product photography
    canon g11 kids portrait 100 crop example studio product photography
  • Water splash

    This is where the little G11 really shines: an X-sync of 1/2500 of a second (this is what I was able to set, 1/4000 was not available for unknown reasons) made it possible to use standard Paul C Buff monolights for this shot: an extremely fast shutter speed freezes the action. Something I was not able to accomplish with my Canon 1Ds MKIII.

    Canon G11 splash water sample image studio by Alex Koloskov
    Canon G11 splash water sample image studio by Alex Koloskov

    Looks pretty good, doesn’t it?  We spent 20 minute in total for this shoot, including setup time. Would you put something like this in your portfolio?
    100% crop of the camera RAW:

    canon g11 water splash 100 crop sample
    canon g11 water splash 100 crop sample

    For the comparison, here is a similar type of shot done with the same Paul C Buff lights at the same power level, using my Canon 1DsMKIII at 1/250 sec (more about this shot here):

    photigy water splash masterclass long flash duration example 100% crop

    What a difference! There is a huge advantage to a point-and shoot electronic shutter, which makes it possible to work with inexpensive, long duration monolights, when capturing water splashes in this way. Also, working with high-power monolights is much easier than trying to get something similar with hot-shoe dedicated speedlites.

The video, as promised:

The bottom line:

There is no arguing that a good camera is a must-have for a professional photographer. All DSLR’s are much faster and most of them are more convenient to work with than point-and-shoot cameras. However, do you really need a new, expensive DSLR to learn how to shoot, and to build your portfolio? I think not.
I have a hard time answering my amateur but want-to-be-a-photographer  friends when they ask me about what camera (canon 7D or 5D ? for example) and lens to buy to get started.
Usually they do not understand what I am saying, thinking I am kidding or playing stupid…:-)

Here are my thoughts:
Unless you have $5000 to start with, the camera is the last thing you should consider buying. For in-studio photography there are so many other things to spend money on…
Things like:

Lighting. 3-5 monolights (or heads with power pack or even like these screw-in poppers), and various light modifiers (honeycombs, different sizes soft-boxes, snoots, diffuser panels, gels, etc…).  Shooting table and accessories, such as flex and articulated arms, clamps, tripod, remote trigger, a laptop PC for shoot tethered…

You can use this list I’ve compiled to get most of the gear that is required, for very few $$: Studio equipment buying guide for beginners

And, you can buy the new Canon PowerShot G12 :-)

Get the lights and start to shoot!
Learn the lighting, invest your time and energy in building something unique, something which will catch the eye of every portfolio viewer. Hold on to your money, then get a better camera WHEN you’ll really need it: owning pro gear does not make you a pro:-) We all know this, right? But that excitement when you hold a big expensive SLR body… it’s so tempting… I know:-))

Ok, I may be exaggerating it a little. A point-and-shoot camera may be too much for some of us to start working with… However, I still hope you’ll embrace the main idea of the article :-)



Good luck for you and your photography!


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26 responses on "Do you really need an expensive DSLR camera? Point-and-shoot vs professional DSLR"

  1. Hi Alex,
    A quick question. Can we use todays crop censor cameras for assignments or large prints. Say Canon 70d or Nikon d7100. Or 35mm is the only option to start with?

  2. I would like to say, I own a Nikon Coolpix S3500 20.1 Megapixels, And I have used it for Taking Portraits, And the quality is Amazing. And yes its a Point and Shoot Camera. You don’t have to have a DSLR to take amazing photo’s as long as you know the lighting and have the eye you can shoot photography. I have seen photographers with Dslr cameras and Take not so great photos…

  3. Alex, but the difference between this point and shoot and some proffesional DSLR is that when you have a client requesting you do make an AD for big prints, than stuff like canon G11 won’t do , will they?

    I think it’s the main determinant of why some proffesionals are either forced to get prof. eqipment or rent one ;-/

    • Thuy, yes, you are right: for commercial work G11 and similar cameras won’t work.. in general. I know people are selling on stocks iPhone shots and making money form it, soo there are exceptions, as always. :-)

  4. Heh, I probably will be switching to the Large Format (4″ x 5″), as I’ve recently tried that on landscape photos and love how the images come out. Will do my last attempt with the digital back though, and if I do not like the result, then shall desperately go to use film.

    My cameras are:
    1. Canon EOS 50D (crop);
    2. Canon EOS 5D Mk II (Full Frame);
    3. Hasselblad H4D-31 (Medium Format Digital);
    4. Crown Graphics/Graflex (Large Format).

    The last one, that is at least 60-70 years old, with the lens that looks like shit if you compare that with the contemporary ones, with the scratched matte ground glass – this old camera produces images that unbelievable much better than all that new and contemporary digital toys. Whoever saw the slides it makes said that they feel the depth of the picture, as well as they were amazed with the level of details, like dead fly legs at the window, that I’ve shot through in Fort Ross (Northern California).
    I really feel like the digital photography is like a joke after all. The only concern I am still having with the film is that it is quite expensive ($3 per sheet of film + $5 for processing), and it is by no means fast and instant, as the digital one is. And it is gonna die soon, thanks to the people who wondering around with their point-and-shoots.

  5. Олег ГавриловApril 9, 2013 at 01:22

    Английский не знаю,по этому по русски.У меня тоже электронный затвор,SONY A99 и моноблоки Jinbei DPsIII-400 Series Pro Digital Studio Flash пишут китайцы 1/2600 про импульс,по этому и купил их,но реально такого нет,смаз.С моим затвором как заморозить жидкость,или это не реально???

    • Oleg,
      Sony A99 has a mechanical shutter, and it can’t sync after .. 1/200 or whatever is x-sync speed. Meaning that you have to use fast strobe (short flash duration) or a hyper sync to freeze the action.
      Only small sensor cameras has electronic shutter…

  6. Alex, wow what a journey to say the least. I am in shock, and learning very quick. My dad always said, make a mistake once , but make again again, shame. I live by same rules. I been searching for clues and didnt know if I was a fool or if it was true

    So all the above , reflects the brilliance of art, so I will pick up the Camera for the studio I am using in my profession. I help take pictures of my sons basketball team and his playing :) and therefore, being good at it, I take pictures of other teams and am working on a magazine

  7. This article is very helpful, im really starting in the field of photography and ive been offered the canon t3, I have a Canon Power Shot SD950 IS Digital ELPH, do you think I can do the job with this sort of camera?

  8. Hi Alex,
    Just ran across your blog/posts, and am thoroughly enjoying them. Thank you for all the effort put into them!
    Just a note on one thing you mentioned, about a “leaf shutter” on P&S models like the G11…sorry, no such thing. Nearly all P&S models have no mechanical shutter whatsoever — the “shutter” is actually just timing on the sensor chip, a so-called “electronic shutter.” No moving parts, just electronic timing (for when the pixel data is shifted out of the pixels). But this is a good thing, if what you want is insanely high flash sync speeds. Some of the older Nikon DSLR models (D40 for example), while still having a focal-plane shutter, use “electronic shutter” for anything above 1/250th of a second, so they can do the super-high speed sync trick, too.
    Thanks again for the great series, your lighting is superb and inspiring.

  9. Do you mind (tell me if you do) if I “steal” your picture?
    In a few weeks I will have a high school student for a week going with me everywhere I work. She wants to be a photographer and I want to destroy some myths about being a photographer. The problem is that if I just show her your article she will guess my point before I make it. I promise to destroy the pics as soon as I have shown her your work.

    You have my email address and you give me your answer in private if you want or do it here cause I will come back to check it out.

  10. Nice article you wrote.
    Some times I wonder about your question. I guess all about what you would like to catch in your images.

  11. What you think about the Canon G12 versus the Panasonic DMC G3? I just need a camera for pro looking product images,,, for my website. [and easy to use!]

  12. great shot on the bottle water splash. learned something new again. I wonder if x100 can also synch at super fast shutters.. or if micro 4/3 cameras can also do that. hmmm i’ll try to research more on that.

    again thanks for the share

  13. This is the first time I have seen anyone talk about using anything besides a digital SLR for professional photography. The photos are really good. The splash shots are a total surprise in clarity. I knew the G11 was good, but I am really impressed with it now. I have heard that the lens is as important as the camera when talking about digital slrs, but you have shed new “light” on lighting.

  14. Good video, and good points made about gear being less important than technique. I now use a point and shoot for all my macro photography at weddings, it’s easier to use and cheaper to buy than some macro lenses + I get an extra camera! The files are excellent quality and big enough for small filler shots in albums.

    The high speed stuff was also interesting, I will have to start experimenting.

    Thanks, Dave.

  15. Hi Alex,

    Great blog and post.

    What steps do you take to optimize your photos for the web?


  16. Cameras will very soon not be a determining factor. They will be so affordable and capable. Other issues related to photography will be the determining factor.

  17. An interesting point of view and probably good idea to play with water drops.
    As for an exercise, probably you right, but for real use P&S is good for traveling and picture “we are where here”….
    Even .RAW will not survive pure glass and small sensor.

  18. Very interesting read. And a lot of new words that popped up for me. But that’s a good thing, since I want to learn more.

    I also have to agree with Tobi on small objects. Perhaps it was just the DSLR camera I was trying out. But getting a good focus with that one was next to impossible.

    Never the less, I’m an all DSLR fan, even if I’m running a P&S at the time due to my budget.

  19. There’s one more reason pro point&shoot: The depth of field when shooting macro. For small products, this makes a huge difference, especially when combined with short focal length.

    24mm at 1:1 is either impossible with an SLR or requires really expensive equipment.


    • Tobi, you are right.
      However, I do not see any “real” use for P&S for the assignments (at least for me): image quality is too poor, low linear resolution, etc, etc.. The images will be suitable only for web..

      You’ve made a good point though..

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