When I was at the air show last Sunday, I was amazed at how many "serious" photographers were sporting DSLRs with huge lenses. I assume that most were amateurs, as this sort of event doesn't normally draw magazine or newspaper coverage. And there was I, with my humble Panasonic DMC-FZ28.
Now, my FZ28 has a zoom with a 35mm equivalent of 27mm to 486mm and it weighs about a pound. Most DSLRs would need several lenses to match the zoom range of my camera, which means they would need a gadget bag to tote all this gear, and the inconvenience of switching lenses to go from wide angle to extreme telephoto.
Let's look at the telephoto part, since that's you would need when photographing planes in the sky. For this, you could either have a zoom lens that maxed out at around 500mm, or a fixed focal length lens of about 500mm. The zoom is probably the better choice, since it will make framing the picture a lot easier, but it would cost a lot more than a fixed focal length lens.
As for the weight of the camera, a DSLR with a 500mm equivalent lens is probably going to weigh somewhere between five and seven pounds. And that doesn't include the gadget bag with the other lenses and gear. (After all, one of the big selling points of DSLRs is the lens interchangeability.) That's a lot of weight to schlep around for an afternoon. This is why so few of these photographers actually carried the camera in their hand, like I did. They either let it dangle from a neck strap or shoulder strap, stood it on a monopod or, for the ultimate, had the camera mounted on a tripod. (How you could photograph something like a air show, with things happening all over the place, wanting to switch between vertical and horizontal framing, with a camera mounted on a tripod, will remain forever a mystery to me.)
How about keeping the image steady with a long focal length lens? For this, you need some sort of image stabilization system, like the one built into my FZ28. With DSLRs, you can get a camera which has image stabilization built into the camera body, built into the lens, or none at all. Image stabilization systems built into the DSLR body are not as effective as the ones built into the lens. The ones built into the lens add greatly to the cost of the lens and work with just that lens. And, for the DSLR with no image stabilization, you can always set the camera to a higher ISO and use a faster shutter speed. Oh, I forgot to mention that the image stabilizer makes it easy to frame the picture by holding it steadier in the viewfinder.
Let's talk about depth of field, which will be critical with a long telephoto lens. My FZ28 has a much smaller sensor than the average DSLR, and therefore uses a lens with a much shorter focal length to get the same size image. The shorter focal length lens will have much greater depth of field than the equivalent lens on a DSLR. This can be a pain when you're shooting a portrait and want the background out of focus, but it's a blessing when your telephoto setting gives five or six times the depth of field of an equivalent DSLR lens.
And then there's the cost of the equipment. The FZ28 is around $400 and you can get the earlier FZ18 for about $300. A DSLR outfit with the same range will cost you thousands of dollars for the camera, lenses, and accessories.
The other thing that I noticed was that the folks with the DSLRs didn't seem to be having that much fun. Maybe it's a DSLR thing to look serious, or perhaps they were tired after lugging those heavy cameras for several hours. I didn't seem them running around and taking pictures like I was. For some, the camera was more of an adornment. But the real question is whether they were able to take the sort of photographs they had in mind.
And I got to thinking that, for these photographers, their big, impressive DSLRs were the photographic equivalent of a Hummer or SUV -- large, expensive, and not quite what you thought it would be (by comparison, my FZ28 is a Prius). I think that a lot of DSLR owners are having the same sort of second thoughts as the folks who bought SUVs. It seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, the DSLR promised things like faster focusing and better image quality. And besides, how could you take a little camera like the FZ28 (or its ilk) seriously? Carry a tiny camera like that and you would for sure be seen as an amateur, but with your big, heavy DSLR, you might be taken for a professional photographer.
This wasn't meant to be a definitive discussion of the pros and cons of the different types of cameras, but just a look at a particular photographic situation and how well each type of camera was suited to it. In the end, it's about pictures. I don't know how the other photographers fared at the show. One of my pictures is and the top of this page and the rest of the results are here