Once someone gets interested in photography, the first thing on their wish list is a DSLR camera. Maybe it's a Canon 5D Mark II or a NIkon D700. Whichever your preference, all DSLR cameras essentially function the same way. They are also all roughly the same size, and nowadays they all hover between 10-20 megapixels. There are other options out there. Depending on your needs, these alternatives may be a better fit for you.
The DSLR camera is a capable tool. This article is not meant to dissuade you from buying one. It's also not meant to stop you from learning how to use one. If you know how to shoot with a DSLR, those techniques all translate to most other cameras. This article isn't necessarily even meant to save money. These other cameras can cost as much or more than a DSLR. The purpose of this article is to help you find the right fit for your style and needs.
Mirrorless cameras, as they've come to be called, are interchangeable lens camera with no direct viewfinder. A DSLR has a prism and a mirror that allows you to see through the lens. Mirrorless cameras rely on live view screens on the back of the camera or electronic viewfinders that are basically little screens behind a peephole.
The advantage of these is their size. They typically have all the functions of a standard DSLR, but are tiny. You can even change lenses. The downside is the sensor size. The small sensor means slightly poorer low light performance and slightly more depth-of-field. If you shoot a lot in low light situations and require big final images that will show noise, then maybe these aren't for you.
Sony Nex Series
The next series is regarded by some to be the strongest performer in the mirrorless category. It has a 14.2 megapixel APS-C sized sensor that is bigger than the 4/3 size sensor in most other mirrorless models. APS-C sensors are the same size as most digital SLRs with the exception of FX or full frame cameras. This means it can compete in low light performance.
It also has a tiltable scree and HD video capabilities. You'll need to jump into the menus in order to take full control of the camera, but in terms of image quality, you get a lot in a small package. It currently comes in three general variations. The Nex-7 is about $1200 USD without a lens, the Nex-5N is about $700, and the Nex-C3 seems to always be sold with a kit lens for around $550.
Nikon 1 Series
This is Nikon's first attempt at a mirrorless camera. It features a very small sensor which made a lot of people unhappy at first. What set the 1 series apart is the unique features it sports. According to Nikon, it has the fastest auto focus system in the world. Combine that with a blazing fast 10 frames per second and you start to get the picture (literally). Nikon also offers this in two flavors the J1 and V1. The main difference being that the V1 has an electronic viewfinder instead of just a screen. Finally, there is a compact that you can really shoot sports with. The J1 with a kit lens starts at $650 USD or so, and the V1 with a kit lens starts around $850.
Olympus Pen Series
In my opinion, this was the first mirrorless camera that was truly accepted by the public. The retro styling helps, but the whole camera just works. The newest version of this camera, the E-P3 features a touchscreen interface with touch-to-focus. You can also attach an electronic viewfinder to it. All of these mirrorless cameras perform well, but if looks mean anything you to, this may be your winner. An E-P3 with a kit lens starts at $800 USD.
Rangefinders used to be the primary competition of SLRs. They use an optical viewfinder, like many point-and-shoots, but a double-image patch allows you to manually focus your lens very accurately. The viewfinder is also more sophisticated in that it often corrects where it points to correspond with your distance.
There is only one digital camera being produced today that uses the rangefinder system, the Leica M9. The Epson R-D1 series is the other viable option in digital, but it is not currently being produced. There are a lot of options in film that you're willing to go there. The M9 and R-D1 are both manual cameras: manual focus and manual exposure.
There are few things in life more polarizing than a Leica. They are extremely well made and gorgeous, and at the same time they are pretty pretentious. The M9 is no exception. It has uncompromising knobs that control shutter speed, and less buttons on the back than a decent watch. But if this calls to you, it's really the only thing that will fill the void.
I'd talk about interesting features, but really they have less than most point-and-shoots. Unless you want to count price as a feature. $7000 USD is pretty interesting, right? Oh, you want the P model that's almost exactly the same but with no logo? Make that $8000. And a lens you say? Add another $1500 at least. Unless you want to buy used, and ewwww, who does that?
The short lived R-D1 and shorter lived R-D1s was the rangefinder lovers answer to the digital revolution. It's based on the Bessa rangefinders and is very functional and has great looks. Unfortunately, they don't make them anymore. So they're specs are getting a little dated.
Another downside is that people still really want them. They fetch $1500-2000 USD in online auctions. Don't calculate the cost per megapixel because it's 6.1 megapixel sensor makes the math pretty ugly. Regardless of the availability, someone will come out with a camera just like these soon enough. Don't forget, they use M mount lenses, same as Leica, so factor that into the cost.
The main reason people take the step from point-and-shoot to DSLR is control. You want the shutter to click right when you press the button. You want to control shutter speeds and apertures. You may even want to control white balance and ISO. What most people don't realize is that there has been an advanced point-and-shoot market for many years. The Canon G series has been a big hit for years, and Fuji more recently made big waves with their genre bending camera, the X100. There will always be people who want the control without the weight.
Point-and-shoot cameras have very small sensors, so getting the dreamy, creamy backgrounds is sometimes hard. The shutter delay in the models mentioned below isn't that bad, much better than a $60 camera that comes from a big box store. Their megapixel rate is usually slightly lower than their big brothers, but not dismal.
Sigma DP Series
Kicking off our line-up is this line of fixed lens cameras. That's right, no zoom. The DP1x has a 28mm equivalent lens. The DP2s has a 41mm equivalent lens. There's also a DP2x which is a newer DP2s. The reason these cameras are cool is the sensor. It's a good size for a compact camera, but more interestingly it's a FOVEON sensor. These sensors are different than both CCD and CMOS sensors and turn out images with a unique feel.
Like the rest of the point-and-shoot cameras mentioned here, it offers full manual override and a hotshot for flashes. The DP2s is sold for around $550 USD, the DP1x for $650 and the DP2x for $700.
Ricoh GR DIgital IV
If there's one film camera from back-in-the-day that professional photojournalists loved as a back-up, it was the Ricoh GR. This digital version features some of the same great functionality. It sports a fixed 28mm equivalent f1.9 lens with RAW image capture and great ergonomics.
It has front and rear dial, just like a DSLR making manual exposure control a breeze. It even offers manual control, but the combination of it's "Hybrid AF" system and spot focusing option, you may never need it. Unlike the sometimes clunky menus of other point-and-shoots, Ricoh uses a standard layout like those of Nikon and Canon DSLRs. You can grab a GR IV for around $600 USD.
So you want to point to your camera and say "see, it's a Leica," but you'd also like to pay rent without hiring yourself out as unicycle clown. We've got the answer. The DMC-LX5, along with many other Panasonic cameras, has a big LEICA right on the front of its 24-90mm equivalent f2.0-3.3 lens.
There aren't too many bell and whistles on this camera, but unlike the other compacts on this list, it does have a zoom lens. To go with that adding functionality, the price is better, too. You can have your very own advanced point-and-shoot DMC-LX5 for around $370 USD.
Remember how I mentioned that this article wasn't necessarily written to save you money. This next set of cameras will display that point pretty nicely. These cameras have retained the name medium format, even though that is just a nod to film cameras these resemble. The funny thing is that these cameras are actually DSLRs in the most basic sense. They have a viewfinder, a prism and a mirror that allow you to see as the camera is seeing. But medium format cameras fall into a different realm.
First, they are big. I mean next to impossible to use one-handed. Next, they start around 28 megapixels and increase dramatically from there. The sensors could hold their own up against a business card. These cameras are built for serious landscape, portrait and fashion photographers. The weight means that sports would be tough, though. Maybe just strap on a wide angle lens and crop in on the action later.
Mamiya DM Series
So you want a 54x40mm sensor. The Mamiya DM series is perfect for you. The cameras in this series come with the Leaf Aptus-II backs. Mamiya claims that once the body, lens and back come together, "your life will be forever changed." This camera is for serious commercial and fashion work, so tethering is easy. You can even control it with your iPhone.
This series features versions ranging from 28-80 megapixels. The 28 version with an 80mm lens will set you back around $10,000 USD. The 80 version will set you back around $34,000. That's a pretty nice car. On serious note, the 28 version is deal. You can easily drop that much on DSLR gear if you're serious, so if portraits or landscapes are your thing, why not get a camera built for it.
So you looked at the Mamiya DM 28 and you said, "I can get a cheaper DSLR that produces that resolution." I understand. For around $10,000 USD, you can the Pentax 645D that produces 40 megapixel images. That won't get you a lens though.
The 645D is a natural step up from the DSLR. It has good autofocus and a big LCD screen on the back. It is ugly in the most dramatic fashion, but if we're honest, so are most high end DSLRs. I consider this camera a slight step down from the Mamiya, but the Mamiya is more modular. It's for people who have worked with medium format before. The Pentax is a much more cohesive package.
So you love the Leica M9, but it's just too inexpensive. And you really want to tether your camera with firewire 800. The H4D is probably one of the best digital cameras in the world. Like the Mamiya, it comes in a range. The prices are a little more expensive. The lowest model (31 megapixels) with a 80mm lens will cost you about $14,000. The other models are comparably more expensive.
Don't forget to factor in memory cards. A 4GB compact flash card will hold about 50 images. It also comes with built-in GPS embedding the location, altitude and time on all your image.
Before You Make the Jump
Jumping from your phone or a cheap compact into the DSLR can be pretty daunting. There are a lot of options to consider. I'm here to throw a few more options into the mix. I think that mirrorless cameras are very similar to what people think they want from a DSLR. Just remember, before you make the jump, really consider what you want to use the camera for. If you're looking for something that will always be by your side, a point-and-shoot or mirrorless might be the answer. If you're looking for total old-school control, consider a rangefinder. And if landscapes and portraits are what gets you going (and you have deep pockets), the medium format camera are unmatched.