DSLR vs. Point-and-Shoot Cameras

Main differences include price, skill level, and accessories

Nikon Coolpix L20
The Nikon Coolpix L20 is a point and shoot camera with a fixed lens.

 Nikon

A DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera differs quite a bit from a point-and-shoot model in terms of image quality, performance speeds, size, and price. Generally, DSLR cameras produce better photos, allow for more creativity, and offer more speed and features than their point-and-shoot counterparts, but they cost more and require more skill. Point-and-shoot cameras are easy to use, relatively inexpensive, and adequate for casual, everyday use.

Overall Findings

DSLR Cameras

  • Offer lots of manual control options.

  • More power, speed, and features.

  • Require more skill.

  • Higher cost.

  • Best for hobbyists and professional photographers.

Point-and-Shoot Cameras

  • Work best with automatic settings.

  • Easy for novices to use.

  • Less expensive.

  • Best for casual users.

Creative Control and Flexibility: DSLRs Offer More

DSLR Cameras

  • Allows finely tuned settings.

  • Can use a wide variety of interchangeable lenses for various effects.

  • Lots of accessories and custom options available.

Point-and-Shoot Cameras

  • Best used on automatic settings.

  • Typically offer several preset modes, such as nighttime, portrait, sunset, etc.

  • Lenses not swappable.

One of the biggest differences is in creative control. DSLR cameras allow you to manually control certain aspects of a shot, while most point-and-shoot cameras work best when shooting in fully automatic mode.

A point and shoot camera is sometimes called a fixed-lens camera because it cannot swap lenses. The lenses are built directly into the camera body.

Ease of Use: Just Point and Shoot

DSLR Cameras

  • Require more know-how and technique.

  • Heavier and larger.

  • Viewfinders allow instant previews of shots.

Point-and-Shoot Cameras

  • Very simple to use.

  • Not much of a learning curve.

  • Smaller and lighter.

  • Small (or even no) viewfinders mean more guesswork.

A point-and-shoot camera is easy to use because it doesn't always offer fine-tuned manual control options that a DSLR camera offers. You just point the camera at the subject and shoot in fully automatic mode.

A key difference between the two models involves what the photographer sees as he frames a shot. With a DSLR, the photographer typically previews the image directly through the lens, thanks to a series of prisms and mirrors that reflect the lens image back to the viewfinder. A point-and-shoot camera often doesn't even offer a viewfinder. Most of these tiny cameras rely on the LCD screen to help the photographer to frame the photo.

Availability and Cost: A Tradeoff

DSLR Cameras

  • Widely available.

  • Ongoing technological development.

  • Much more expensive.

Point-and-Shoot Cameras

  • Fewer available as camera phones advance.

  • Cost less.

Camera manufacturers are cutting back on the number of point-and-shoot cameras they create, as the cameras on smartphones are improving to the point where people would rather carry the smartphone alone, rather than carrying a smartphone and a digital camera. Such drops in demand typically result in cost reductions, too.

DSLR cameras, with their greater capabilities and options, are far more expensive. An enormous variety of accessories, such as interchangeable lenses and external flash units, is available at both big-box and specialized retailers in brick-and-mortar stores as well as online. These, of course, add to the cost for serious photographers, but they add versatility and creative options.

Using a DSLR camera.
Ida Jarosova / Getty Images

Other Camera Options

Ultra-zoom cameras look somewhat like DSLR models, but their lenses aren't interchangeable. They work well as transitional cameras between DSLR and point-and-shoot cameras, although some ultra-zoom cameras can be considered point-and-shoot cameras because they can be simple to operate. 

Another good type of transitional camera is a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. The mirrorless ILC models don't use a mirror as the DSLR does, so ILCs are thinner than DSLRs, even though both cameras use interchangeable lenses. A mirrorless ILC comes closest to matching a DSLR in terms of image quality and performance speeds over a point-and-shoot camera, and the price point for a mirrorless ILC sits between those of point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras.

Final Verdict

The best camera for you depends on the way you plan to use your camera. Naturally, professional photographers use high-end DSLRs. Likewise, if you're taking up photography as a hobby and would like to learn the fine points of capturing images, you'll likely find a lower-end DSLR fun, interesting, and challenging enough to help you advance your skills. If the quality of your shots matters to you more than the average person but you're not a photography enthusiast, a transitional camera such as a mirrorless ILC or an ultra-zoom model will serve you well. On the other hand, if you're just taking occasional shots of everyday life, friends, family, etc., a point-and-shoot camera is more than adequate. In fact, as phone cameras advance rapidly in technology, capabilities, and availability, you might just opt to use the camera that's always in your pocket.