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Thrifty Thursday: What’s the difference between a $200 and a $2000 camera?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Consider the following pair of similar images:

Image #1

Image #2

One was taken with a Canon 50D dSLR through a 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, costing slightly over $2000 for both lens and camera. The other, with an inexpensive Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 consumer digicam.

Can you guess which is which?



Does it matter?

The hard work for both photos fell in arranging the scene. I wanted to spotlight a single flower against a simple dark background, so I crafted a mini-studio with a desk lamp, aluminum foil, cardboard, and a piece of black posterboard from the supermarket:

The DIY spotlight allows me to light just the subject but keep the backdrop completely dark.

Before I even set a camera on the tripod I’d already created the lighting, the subject, and the backdrop. The camera itself is a relatively minor element. It is one variable in the mix, but certainly not the most important one.

I bring this up because an odd perception persists in our culture, helped along by a not-entirely-disinterested camera industry, that purchasing a good camera is all an aspiring photographer needs. “Your camera takes great pictures!” is perhaps the strangest compliment a photographer routinely receives. I’m never quite sure of the best response.

(Although, “Would you tell Wynton Marsalis his trumpet plays great music?” is high in the running.)

I won’t argue the point that a good camera is a powerful tool. But it’s just that: a tool. A camera is a box we point at a scene to form an image. In the mad modern obsession with gadgetry, it’s easy to forget among the megapixels and the autofocus that the photographic subject itself is and should be the main point. The most expensive camera in the universe won’t turn a bland scene into an interesting one; it will just reproduce it with a broader color depth.

As to the images at the top of the post, #1 was el cheapo, and #2 was with the expensive Canon gear. The difference becomes apparent when examining the photographs up close:

On inspection, we see that the top photo lacks the clarity, smoothness, and color range to make high-resolution enlargements. For this and other reasons I won’t be submitting it to National Geographic any time soon.

But suppose I wanted not a wall-size poster, but an illustration to adorn a powerpoint? Or just a photo for a web page? For most electronic media, and for many potential photographic subjects, the expensive gear isn’t as important as a practiced eye, a clever composition, and decent light. Camera gear makes a difference, but an order-of-magnitude $1800 worth of improvement? Certainly not for a simple flower to post on a blog.

A few weeks ago I became obsessed with this topic, the primacy of photographic subject over gadgetry, and started a new weekly feature at my other blog called Thrifty Thursday. Every Thursday I share an image taken with a desktop scanner, a webcam, or a small digital camera. It’s a challenge, but a fun one. The point of the series is to demonstrate that compelling photographs are about vision rather than gear.

Compound Eye being a blog about photography, I have decided to move Thrifty Thursday here. I hope you enjoy reading this feature as much as I enjoy creating it.


Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. criener 3:21 pm 07/14/2011

    It is not the camera, or even the subject, but the trained eye of the photographer that adds value. This value is not only in dollars, but in hours. Both of those pictures are taken with the benefit of thousands of hours of experience and practice. That benefit mostly overwhelms the difference of a 1800 measly bucks.
    Great stuff.

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  2. 2. 4:22 pm 07/14/2011

    There’s an upside and a downside to this. Upside: great photos are within everyone’s reach. Downside: If your photos are consistently sucky (like mine), it’s not the camera, it’s YOU. Haha!

    Great post! Can’t wait for more. I need all the tips I can get :)

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  3. 3. ityllux 8:35 pm 07/14/2011

    I understand the point being made, but it’s a little over-simplified. Vision is certainly important, but having the tools to realize that vision is also important.
    You do not need to be a National Geographic photographer to know and feel the difference between a point-and-shoot and a DSLR. If you do know what you’re doing, the choice of equipment matters a lot. As someone who uses both a small point-and-shoot and a high-end DSLR, I can tell you that there is often no substitute for the level of control I get with a DSLR: the ability to change lenses, precisely control your exposures, and focus by hand. But I still have a “cheap” camera too.
    I like my point-and-shoot because it’s smaller, I can always have it with me, and its resolution is actually almost the same as my DSLR. But its dynamic range and light-sensitivity are very different. And it lacks any fully-manual controls. And if I want a tight depth of field while zoomed in, I’m out of luck.
    To your point, yes, a cheap compact, a minivan, and a convertible can all drive you to the store. But most people aren’t only driving to the store. Only one of those will let you put the top down while you’re driving down the coast. And only one of those will let you pack in 6 kids on the way to a soccer game.
    If you’re only driving to the store, you’re wasting your money on the convertible. If you don’t know how to make the most of a $2000 camera, then definitely do not get one. $1800 certainly isn’t worth the improvement people are going to get with the added resolution and clarity of a DSLR. But people aren’t necessarily wasting their money by getting one.
    Focusing on the supposed lack of value of DSLRs is missing the point. The point is that if you have a picture to take, don’t let the fact that you have a cheap camera get in the way. Sure, that shot might be easier or little sharper with a more expensive camera, but ease and sharpness are not the ultimate goal.
    As Chef Gusteau said in Pixar’s Ratatouille — “Anyone can cook. But only the fearless can be great.”

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  4. 4. bjnicholls 8:50 pm 07/14/2011

    Set up a strawman and knock him down.

    You staged a photo that effectively neutralizes many of the differences between the two cameras, and then roll out the tired old cliche that “it’s the photographer, not the camera”.

    That’s a half-truth at best, otherwise really excellent photographers would happily clean out their studios and give up carrying big, heavy, expensive equipment secure in the knowledge that talent will make up for such trivial differences in image quality.

    Well, you chose a semi-macro setting which favors the extreme depth of field that cheap cameras with small sensors deliver in abundance. Try taking the same shot without decent light where the tiny sensor will deliver mush as it applies noise-reduction processing to the poor quality data it’s capturing.

    The $200 camera won’t give you a raw file, so if it doesn’t get white balance, color and contrast just right in your jpegs, you’ll have to destructively edit the files to make corrections. And you can’t push or pull very much before a cheap sensor’s data falls apart. A DSLR sensor’s raw data gives you far more capability.

    What does that have to do with photography? Have you ever seen an Ansel Adams photo without his darkroom artistry? Imagine Ansel without his clothes on.

    Things even a great photograher cant’ do with the cheap camera:

    Shoot in low light with any reasonable expectation of image detail.
    Use creative depth-of-field control.
    Track anything like fast action.
    Shoot with high frame rates.
    Choose lenses for their specific characteristics and use them creatively.
    Learn how to really control ISO, aperture, and shutter speed for creative effect.

    Yes, too many people go to the “that’s a great photo, what kind of camera took it” mentality, but I hope you’ve gotten that out of your system. I suspect very few people buy DSLR system with intent of taking flower photos for blogs, but maybe I’m out of touch.

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  5. 5. jason hunter 2:21 am 07/15/2011

    i concur with the others. This is not rigorous science, and the title should more appropriately be: If you don’t know how to use a camera, don’t buy a DSLR. My cell phone takes great pictures of evenly lit flowers close up. And that’s about it.

    Most people take digital snapshots to post on the web or at most to make 4×6 prints of. They are happy with 72dpi representation of posed subjects smiling contrived smiles in front of whatever landmark they think is worth recording. They need a $200 camera. That’s why $200 cameras flood the market.

    So to summarize this blog in one sentence, cheaper cameras have lower resolution.

    See bjnicholls’ list of considerations, and let me add also that the capability for serious HD videography with DSLR’s wasn’t mentioned.

    At least the comments add some meat to this blag.

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  6. 6. Chris Grinter 2:29 am 07/15/2011

    I don’t see the straw-man. Alex isn’t suggesting that high-end equipment isn’t necessary, at least not for all applications (which is obvious). It seems pretty clear to me that this is more of an encouragement for people to learn the techniques so they can take really “good” shots with cheap equipment and less of a critique of expensive gear (if at all). Every professional out there knows why their gear is amazing, but amateurs don’t always know the details.

    I suspect far too many people buy DSLR’s hoping to magically turn into a photographer only to end up with a $2000 paperweight.

    And in my mind, Ansel will always remain clothed…

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  7. 7. InsectoNerd 3:13 am 07/15/2011

    It is a good reminder, even for those with high priced DSLRs and professional experience, that getting creative with a shot and experimenting will inevitably improve your technique. Temporarily switching over to a point-and-shoot strips a photographer down to the bare essentials and forces him/her to work with what he/she’s got.

    I look forward to the challenges that will come with shooting insects on a point-and-shoot, and to prove that there is a lot of room for creativity on these kinds of cameras, refer to Alex’s other ‘Thrifty Thursday’ posts on his Myrmecos blog. Those pictures should also prove wrong some of the critiques that point and shoots are only comparable to DSLRs in the staged setting shown above!

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  8. 8. Alex Wild 9:35 am 07/15/2011

    Of course the photo was set up to play to the strengths of the digicam. That is precisely the point!

    Obviously, professional gear is superior for most applications. Necessary, even. I absolutely require it for 99% of the insect photos that make up my own photo business.

    The Thrifty Thursday series was inspired by a different observation, though. Many people who are attempting to photograph insects with their digicams aren’t using the cameras to their full (albeit limited) potential. THAT is what these posts are about: using cheap equipment wisely.

    Not everyone is about to spend $2000 for entry-level dSLR gear & decent lenses. Not everyone is in the same photographic league as Jason Hunter & bjnichols, nor do they aspire to be. But they might want to make the best use of the equipment they do have, and that is where I am aiming these Thursday posts.

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  9. 9. rustyburlew 10:47 am 07/15/2011

    To the critics of this post (especially bjnicholis) I’d like to point out that Alex doesn’t need an explanation of why a DSLR is superior to a digicam. Have you ever studied his work?

    There are many people out there, and I am one, who are not photographers but must nevertheless produce photos to be used online or in presentations and instructional materials.

    Up until this series started, I’ve been using a Canon DSLR. But I was so fascinated with Alex’s comments, that I bought a digicam to play with. For my purposes, I’m getting better pictures with the digicam. This is partly because I’m usually under a bee veil when taking pictures and all the extra equipment was getting in the way. Now I can get more shots more quickly and it is paying off.

    It’s elitist and short-sighted to think that everyone has the same goals you do. If I can learn something–even if it’s just how to set up the strawman–then I’m ahead of where I was yesterday.

    Thanks, Alex, for making my job easier.

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  10. 10. Niran 11:14 am 07/15/2011

    I have to agree, learning to take a decent photo is far more important than the equipment you use. Understanding lighting, composition, and exposure is a far greater role in creating a photo with impact than the type of camera a person uses. However, I think point-and-shoot cameras do macro photography for far cheaper than digital SLRs. On the other hand, if I want to take good photos indoors under low light conditions, I want my digital SLR with a bounced flash. Without the proper understanding of photography it is pointless to spend more money on expensive equipment, unless you have the knowledge and desire to use that equipment well.

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  11. 11. Kevbonham 1:21 pm 07/15/2011

    It’s refreshing to come here and watch the “Camera vs Photographer” debate flushed out so rapidly. I only started getting into photography about 6 months ago, but it’s already become a tired cliche on just about every forum I’ve looked at. Can we all just agree that:
    a) The best camera in the world won’t take great pictures if the photographer doesn’t know how to use it
    b) Any camera can take great pictures, but dSLRs offer more control, better resolution etc, and in a skilled photographer’s hands, the shots will probably be better.

    For me personally, I think I’m a better photographer with my dSLR simply because it’s forced me to learn things that weren’t necessary with my P&S. Along the way to learning those, I’ve found a lot of great advice that I probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t gone searching.

    One of the greatest shocks was when I first got my T3i and started taking pictures, they were uniformly worse than all the stuff I had taken before. I had no idea how much processing my P&S was doing until I started shooting in RAW and had to do it myself.

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  12. 12. Alex Wild 1:31 pm 07/15/2011

    An off-topic announcement:

    You may have noticed that our current commenting system is limited and does not allow links from names back to websites.

    If you’d like people to be able to follow your comment back to your website or portfolio, you should place a link directly in your comment.

    We’re working on changing to a more open system, although it may take some time to implement. Bear with us.

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  13. 13. TimDeaton 3:56 pm 07/15/2011

    I came to this article expecting a discussion of camera differences, and got something else. Thank you to those with additional comments that fleshed things out.

    I’m a basic amateur who mainly takes pictures at family gatherings. Many years ago I used a 35mm SLR camera, but due to technology & other changes have now been reduced to a cheap digital camera. That leaves me with two primary frustrations: (1) the time lag between when I hit the button and when the photo is actually taken, and (2) the inability to take indoor pictures without a flash. (I used to use 1600ASA slide film to do the latter.) What would I have to look for today that would solve those two problems?

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  14. 14. Alex Wild 4:36 pm 07/15/2011

    It occurs to me, reading Tim Deaton’s comment, that 90% of the trouble here is that I chose a title for this post that bears only a passing resemblance to the content.

    To answer Tim’s question- the older and cheaper the digicam, in my experience, the worse the lag and the less manual control over things like ASA.

    If your budget allows, you might want to look at micro 4/3rds cameras, a sort of hybrid between SLRs and little consumer cameras. They’ll give you the manual control and choice of lenses of an SLR, without the bulk and price added by a glass viewfinder.

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  15. 15. snofoam 6:43 pm 07/15/2011

    I agree with many of the commenters above, although for wildlife photography, I would say that almost more than image quality and aesthetic control, the main advantage of a DSLR is being able to get usable photos at all. For example, being able to take photos from several inches away with a macro lens versus a P&S that may be a centimeter from the subject before it is big enough (or a longer lens to photograph a bird that you might not be able to approach closely). The shutter lag with P&S can also be a big problem in the field, or especially underwater (as is battery life, since you can’t change batteries underwater). If you are lucky enough (or persistent enough) to have a perfect opportunity (ample light, a subject that is accessible and waits for you to get a shot, etc.) then the difference is much smaller.

    On the other hand, P&S are pretty good at taking photos of people, so it can be great to have one around to capture the human element or the general environment. Often if I’m doing macro work, I don’t bother to get those shots because it’s too much of a hassle to swap out the lens and flashes to switch to something wide angle.

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  16. 16. 10:20 am 07/17/2011

    Having just returned from several locations abroad where carrying my DSLR was unwise, I had opportunity to use my wife’s point-and-shoot. I captured a few satisfactory images (e.g., though the shutter lag, to mention only one thing, was certainly limiting.

    With this experience fresh in my mind, it’s clear that Compound Eye will be extraordinarily useful. The entries are starting points for community-wide conversation. Alex has the technological, scientific and business knowledge, as well as the writing and people skills needed to initiate, lead and maintain fruitful discussions.

    On a technology note, I think the Lyrtos point-and-shoot camera ( has great macrophotography potential for SOME situations if Lytros were to add an automatic image stack option. That would certainly cause me to think about adding a P&S to the camera bag!

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  17. 17. Steerpike 3:52 am 07/18/2011

    I tend to agree more strongly with the orignal premise, and less with the comments on this blog. I have recently started using my Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 for almost everything. This camera is perhaps the top of the line in the small form factor world, and does fit in the pocket (just!). It has full manual control, shoots raw, and has a 24mm (equiv) F2.0 lens. It shoots very well in low light.

    I also have a Canon DSLR with a variety of lenses. The VERY BIG problem with the DSLR is that it is VERY BIG! I can (and do) carry my Lumix everywhere I go, and I am there when I see something. The last time I used my DSLR was when I was out at dinner and saw some nesting owles right across from the restaurant. I could not get a good shot with the Lumix, so drove home, picked up the DLSR, and came back. Having a 300mm lens and a powerful flash was useful in that situation, but that was the first and last time this year it has seen the light of day (night!). I go hiking and carrying the DSLR is a chore.

    I will confess that the images from the DSLR will blow up bigger, but – I’ve also discovered after 40 years in the game that 99.99% of my pictures are viewed on computer monitors and you just don’t need that extra detail that the bigger sensor gives you.

    I’m about to explore the new batch of micro-4/3 sensor cameras. I had an Olympus OM-1 when I was young … I’ve always appreciated the benefits of smaller size and lower weight when it comes to photography.

    Thanks for the interesting post!

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  18. 18. HBG_Dave 10:55 am 07/18/2011

    Interesting to compare the elitism inherent in some of the above comments with the usual perhaps too adulatory comments one finds at myrmecos.
    I’m glad there are people like Alex and perhaps some of the above commentators who are willing to spend the money, lug around the equipment, and take the time processing the images to provide their own interpretations of Nature. As a scientist ‘artistic’ nature photography makes me feel uncomfortable, but then I’m a person too and as susceptible to drama, cuteness, and other interpretive embellishments.
    My impression of the point Alex was making in this post is that the detail won’t be available at the low end of the camera market. My impression of the point of the Thrifty Thursdays series is that striking pictures are not limited by the image capture device if one works to the limits of one’s particular machine.
    Personally, I am looking forward to the day when inexpensive P&S’s which take and stack multiple depths of focus are available. I get my kicks from the details in Nature and documentation and identification are my primary goals when photographing insects, flowers, and the like. Of course, it is always nice when the picture is striking as well as detailed, but perhaps detail can be striking enough on its own.
    For example, last year the Canadian Museum of Nature had an exhibit called ‘Moths at Large’ with images of dead moths with spread wings taken on a Epson 4870 flatbed scanner. Sounds pretty abstract and dully scientific perhaps, but if you check out the images and read about the techniques at Jim des Rivieres website you may be pleasantly surprised.

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  19. 19. snofoam 12:16 pm 07/18/2011

    “As a scientist ‘artistic’ nature photography makes me feel uncomfortable…”

    This is sort of an interesting comment to me, because some of the best P&S shots over at myrmecos are ones that are more about capturing the bigger picture, I guess you could say artistically, rather than ones that are good for identification or other scientific purposes. (see:

    Generally, I would say the worse the camera, the more likely I am personally to try to do something “artistic” to compensate for the technical quality of the photo. (I think the use of stuff like Hipstamatic on cameraphones comes from a similar impulse.)

    I lug around heavy camera equipment mostly to capture details like ocelli or mouthparts, not so much to do artistic things. In fact, although it’s nice to get an aesthetically-pleasing photo, I find myself frequently making choices in composition and lighting that make my photos less artistic, but more useful for identification, etc.

    The conflict between artistic and scientific goals might actually make a nice topic for a post on this blog. Particularly interesting might be techniques to get the best of both worlds, like using enough flash to have a greater depth of field for the subject without making the whole composition seem flat.

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  20. 20. Alex Wild 8:53 pm 07/18/2011

    Dave’s comment “As a scientist ‘artistic’ nature photography makes me feel uncomfortable” stood out for me as well. I agree.

    Photography is more about storytelling than science. In my eye, “Science Photography” is normally part of a narrative about science, rather than an integral part of scientific study itself (although photography can be used to generate data- more about this later). An excellent suggestion for future posts, though.

    I briefly touched on this topic elsewhere:

    Most Wildlife Photography is Fake

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  21. 21. Sean McCann 3:02 am 07/20/2011

    I started out with a P+S, and still go back there sometimes (although sadly I no longer have my old S-series Canons). I still recommend point and shoots for those getting into photography, because it is more likely that someone will be compelled to bring it with them, get some quality images, and then hopefully really get the photography bug than if they have to spend megabucks and lug around a bunch of crap.
    I eagerly anticipate your post on photographic generation of data! It is what I have done in several studies, and the fact is without photographic imagery, much of modern science cannot be done. It is not often that the images themselves are super pleasing to the eye, but it does happen.
    That being said, even when your data is not photographic in nature, it helps enormously in communicating your results if you have artistically pleasing renditions of your subject. After all, communicating effectively is also what science is about as well. I have found that it doesn’t matter if your are talking to a random stranger or a roomful of your scientific peers, having good imagery to convey what you are talking about is key.

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