Most cameras are similar in many ways, but they also have unique features that other models lack. Choosing the wrong camera can be an expensive mistake. Here are things to consider before spending your hard-earned cash.
Over the last few months, I fed images from dozens of cameras through various raw development software to test the software. All the big brands produce cameras that can produce great images. Although I have been publishing images from modern pro-end cameras for those articles, I also tried raw files from mid-range and consumer cameras and some older models. None of the cameras produced shoddy photos, and neither did any of the software; they were all good.
Sensor technology is such that all cameras from household name brands – Canon, Fujifilm, Leica, Nikon, OM System (Olympus), Panasonic Lumix, Pentax, and Sony – can produce great-looking professional-grade photos. You can put any consumer-end camera in the hands of seasoned professionals, and they will be able to take great pictures. So, how can we choose between them? After all, most photographers widely recognize the old megapixel argument as redundant. There are exceptions, but for the majority, 18-20 megapixels is more than sufficient, and a bigger count only means bigger file sizes. Furthermore, if you go back in time, top-end professional cameras were less than 10 megapixels, and photographers still produced huge prints.
However, some cameras are more versatile than others. Some features allow you to get photos that others don’t, while others make it much easier to get those results. So, here are things you should look for in a camera that will make your photography more enjoyable and give you a higher success rate.
1. Articulating Rear Screen
One of the secrets of taking great photographs is to put your camera in places where human eyes don’t usually go. This may mean shooting with the camera just a few inches from the ground. A tilting or fully articulating rear screen allows you to hold the camera at floor level and still compose the shot. Otherwise, it means crawling on your knees or lying on the ground. Similarly, holding the camera up high above head height is necessary, and it’s difficult to see what you are shooting if the screen does not rotate.
I prefer a fully articulating screen that turns to the side, swivels up and down, and rotates by 270 degrees. This is because I also use my cameras as webcams when broadcasting video, allowing me to see the camera controls from the front. I’ve also been known to push my camera between the branches of a bush or between the railings of a fence to capture something that would otherwise be inaccessible.
2. Two Control Dials
I mentioned this in a previous article. Also called command dials, or just front and rear dials, they give you enormous control over how your camera exposes the shot. The front dial is rotated by your forefinger and the rear by your thumb. To understand how important this is, one must look at the main alternative: pressing a +/- button to switch between the primary exposure adjustments, in most cases, aperture and shutter speed. The button method is clumsy and slow in comparison.
Twin dials allow you to choose the best possible exposure settings quickly. They are also the fastest way to scroll through and zoom in on the photos you have taken.
3. A Big, Clear Viewfinder
There’s nothing worse than squinting through a tiny viewfinder and trying to compose a shot. I heard an excuse for viewfinders being small because you only needed them to focus and autofocus was that good; one didn’t need to see what one was shooting. That’s poppycock. A large, bright viewfinder is necessary to see the depth of field, what is in the background, and around the edges of the frame.
Also, make sure the camera has a diopter adjustment that changes the focus of the viewfinder to match your eye.
4. A Viewfinder That Gives a 100% View of the Scene
One of my clients arrived at a course, and I was explaining the rudiments of composition. Although she tried not to, she repeatedly shot a landscape with the horizon running through the middle of the frame. I gave her camera a try and got the same result. The viewfinder was cropping off the bottom of the scene, making it impossible to compose the shot correctly. Having a viewfinder that shows 100% of the scene is essential for getting the composition right in camera.
5. Oodles of Focus Points
My first-ever DSLR had three focus points; my newest mirrorless camera has 1,053. Most consumer cameras sit somewhere in between those. I recommend looking for a camera with no fewer than 100 focus points. Any less than that, and you will have to focus and recompose your shot, or may miss focusing on the subject altogether,
6. Silent Mode
Many cameras have an appallingly short lifespan. Cameras are not alone in this. Planned obsolescence happens in everything: lightbulbs, printers, smartphones, and clothing are all designed to fail within a far shorter period than they could. I had to scrap a 10-year-old car a couple of years ago because the brake disks had worn out and were no longer made. Cameras are the same. Most have poor-quality mechanical shutters that fail, sometimes as soon as 80,000 actuations.
Always check the shutter’s life span; it’s a good indicator of the overall quality of the camera. If you use the silent mode on a camera, where there is no movement within the camera’s body, you can significantly extend the camera’s life. There are occasional photos where silent mode is not the best option because of an effect called “rolling shutter.”
7. In-Body Image Stabilization
Image Stabilisation is an amazing technology that allows you to handhold your camera for longer shutter speeds than were previously available. Having it built into the camera means you can buy smaller and cheaper lenses and still take advantage of that facility.
8. Comfortable to Carry and Use
Ergonomics is the study of the efficiency of people in the working environment. If a camera is well matched to the user, they will find it easier to use. Years ago, I suffered a neck injury from carrying a heavy camera and lens combination using a neck strap. Consequently, I now use a shoulder sling and a far lighter system.
There was once the attitude that good cameras had to be big and heavy DSLRs. This was strange as most technologies had been moving towards miniaturization long before DSLRs came on the scene. The behemoths that dominated the pro-camera market were far larger than their film predecessors.
It’s a very personal thing, the match between photographer and camera. My cameras feel comfortable in my hands, the whole system is not too heavy to carry around, and all the buttons and dials are in the correct position for my fingers. Additionally, the buttons on the camera are programmable, which means I can access essential settings without scrolling through the menus. I’ve tried some cameras that don’t work for me and others that come close, but nothing beats it. But that doesn’t mean it necessarily fits your hands. That is why I always tell people looking to buy cameras to get into a shop and try them.
Entry-level cameras usually come bundled with a “kit” zoom lens. Most, but not all, of these are better than they once were. However, it is worth looking at whether that lens meets your needs. An 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens is neither fast nor particularly wide and cannot drag distant objects in close. A landscape photographer might choose something sharper and wider, whereas a budding wildlife photographer may be better off buying a longer lens. Most 75-300mm lenses are affordable and sharp at around 200mm. Similarly, if portraits are your thing, then an f/1.8 prime lens may serve you better than a kit zoom.
10. Weather- and Dust-Sealing
Nearly 30 years ago, I helped lead a youth expedition to Namibia. There was so much dust that got in everywhere. Although not dust-sealed, my SLR was the only camera still running at the end of the visit as all the compact cameras with motorized zooms and film winding mechanisms had seized up. A few years later, I bought a Nikon bridge camera. That died on a beach when I was photographing in a sandstorm. I now live in Northern England, and it rains here. For me, sealing against weather and dust is essential.
It might not be an important feature if you are shooting solely indoors. However, weather- and dust-sealing become essential as soon as you start to be a little adventurous with your camera.
Other Considerations When Choosing a Camera
Depending on your needs, other things might persuade you to buy or not buy a particular camera.
If you are planning to shoot landscapes, then a high frame rate is not crucial to you as it would be to a wildlife photographer. Meanwhile, a wildlife photographer might want 50 or 120 frames a second. Or someone who likes capturing birds, lightning, or water droplets might like the feature where half-pressing the shutter continuously buffers up to 20 images that are only recorded to the memory card when you press the shutter. Thus, your reaction time is removed from the equation, and you don’t miss the action.
Most camera manufacturers publish how many shots they will get from a single charge of a battery. My camera is rated for 520 photos in the standard (not quick sleep) mode. I get many times more than double that. Furthermore, I can plug an external power bank into the USB port and charge the battery or run the camera directly from it, too. I thought that would be important for me and bought a power bank. But I’ve not had to use it so far because the battery life is so good. I replaced the battery once for the last wedding I shot, and I was shooting from 9 AM to 9 PM.
If you are not interested in developing raw photos, then the quality of the camera’s JPEGs may be vital to you, and some brands produce better JPEGs than others. Some models have artistic filters that emulate different styles such as sepia, bleach bypass, cross process, or polaroid film. Others output images that copy film types.
I often shoot at night, so I find the ability to tether my camera via Wi-Fi to my smartphone a boon, as I can fire off shots without touching the shutter release button.
Finally, and this is a contentious issue, if you photograph art, you should surround yourself with beautiful objects. When digital cameras first arrived, a major complaint was how soulless they seemed compared to their predecessors. Apple users often cite the attractive design of their products. Would people drive Ferraris if they looked like Citroen 2CVs? Probably not. Should we not consider the same with our cameras? A stylish and attractive camera is more inspiring than a shapeless plastic lump.
Are there any particular features that you are looking for in a camera? Have you bought a camera and found it lacking in some way? Are there functions that your camera has that you could not live without? It will be great to hear about them in the comments.
For me a camera must be comfortable to hold and easy to use, so a good grip, nice dials and buttons. The menu system must be clear and intuitive. When functions are easy to find and use, you will use them.
I like a bigger camera, small cameras are not comfortable for me and cause cramps in my fingers. If a camera has a grip that fits your hands , the weight isn’t that important. Like you sad ,that’s why it’s so important to hold a camera before you buy it.
I also like a camera that has good autofocus in low light and good image quality at high ISO’s.
Yes, having the camera fit your hands is so important for me too. Thanks for the comment.
You mentioned focus points and autofocus being good even though a viewfinder may not be great. What I'd like is an alternative for manual focus. Focus peaking is ok with wide aperture lenses, but not always accurate. It is more difficult with a smaller aperture lens such as the Sony 18-135mm F3.5-5.6. Good lens covering a useful range and is a light, everyday carry lens, but apertures are too small for peaking. Too much in the scene (in front and behind the point of focus) is highlighted in peaking. Makes it difficult to nail the focus. Digital zoom to aid focus helps, but it is too slow, and requires careful attention to details (and your viewfinder diopter set well).
With mirrorless, why can't we have a digital split image finder similar to the optical split image screens we had before autofocus. Seems it would be quick and accurate. The relative position of the two parts of the split image would tell you which direction to rotate the focus ring as it did in the good old days.
I miss that too! Saying that, on my camera (OM-1) there is a feature where the outlines of the in-focus areas with a thin colored line. It not only highlights the subject, but the depth of field too. I have mine set to yellow, although the default is red. I swapped it so as not to be confused with the blown highlight "zebras", which are also red. Is that available on the camera you use?
Thank you for commenting.
For a wildlife or action photographer, Pro Capture would be extremely important.
With manual focus , I like the focus guide on the canon system with two arrows above the focus point. It doesn’t work with lenses without any electronic connection, then you have to make do with focus peaking, but with lenses like the Zeiss Milvus and Irix lenses it works a charm.
Quite agree - much as I like using AF for somethings, I still miss my split image range finder for other work.
For me, it was important that my camera get along well with my favourite lenses and accessories.
This does not necessarily mean "same brand." But I do look for a camera that is flexible in available adapters for other systems, standard memory cards, standard plugs, and such.
One or two brands seem to have a "not invented here syndrome," and they make it difficult to mix-and-match gear, forcing you into re-purchasing something you already had for something from your new camera maker that may well be less capable than what you had to give up.
That is very true. There are some superb lenses out there, and some brands do put restrictions in place. I read yesterday that Nikon are limiting the production of third-party lenses. Thanks for taking the time to comment.
Of you can..rent them...spec on paper is something else in real life use....
That is absolutely right. I tell beginners to always go into a shop and get their hands on a camera before buying.
How about sensor size.
Thanks for the suggestion.
I've spent the last month feeding raw files from various top-end cameras, 35 mm, APS-C, and Micro Four Thirds through different development tools. The difference in image quality was indistinguishable in most cases.
I think the big disparities we saw ten or more years ago have disappeared for most circumstances. Contemporary crop frame cameras are producing even better images than full frame pro models were just a few years ago. So, from that side of things, it's mostly an obsolete argument. There will always be the odd exception. For example, Astrophotography would benefit from the huge pixel counts of some large sensors, while for others that huge file size would be a nuisance.
The only big difference regarding sensor size is the resulting lens size, as most camera bodies are now shrinking and are about the same. Therefore, if an overall bigger and heavier or smaller and lighter system is important to the buyer, then sensor size is an important factor.
At base ISO there’s still a 1,5 to 2 stops difference in dynamic range between the Canon R6 II and the OM systems OM1 ( source photonstopphotos.net) and there’s a difference in high iso noise performance. That might make a difference for some users. https://www.photonstophotos.net/Charts/PDR.htm
If it's relatively small, has some decent third party manual lenses, a tilt screen (no articulating) and FF, that's my small list of preferences.
We certainly all have different needs. I couldn't cope without an articulated screen, and I definitely prefer it to a tilting one!
Dual card slots; and not just for backup in case a card fails, but for other reasons as well.
I have dual card slots but only use them as a backup for shoots I am being paid for. At other times, I use the second card as an overflow, so I don't have to swap it, especially in bad weather. Is your reason the same?
In my world, the absence of an anti-aliasing filter is appropriate, as are more than three custom modes (I have five in my G9), Focus peaking is great for assuring the tightest focus. An intervalometer built in is quite appreciated. Having a night mode in which the red and green guns are turned off to the monitor and viewfinder is helpful when doing low-light or astrophotography. A top LCD is also good to have, as is the ability to use a power pack to power the body and a dew collar are also features I seek. WiFi and Bluetooth are great for moving images as well as adding geotagging GPS information. Crappy ergonomics were the cause of me divesting myself of an otherwise very decent body. One thing that will cause an instant rant on my part is mixing storage media types on a single body. I utterly fail to see any validity in having a slot for SDXC cards and a slot for CFExpress cards on a single body. Most photographers I know use one body for stills and another for video, seldom mixing the jobs. I shoot only stills, so two UHS-II SDXC slots is perfect. If I shot video, two CFExpress slots would be as perfect. A high-resolution mode is nice to have, but rarely used.
These are good points.
You are right, ergonomics is really important, and it's a very personal thing. I've said to others before, that I once set my heart on a Canon 5D III, but it didn't fit my hands at all. Others I knew were very comfortable using it. Given that my photography often involves a lot of walking in the wild, I am now glad that the heavy camera and lens didn't work for me. What I use now feels really comfortable.
I have four custom modes on my camera, and that covers everything I need. It also retains the settings previously used in M, A, and S modes.
I actually use the same body for still as video! I don't use the high-resolution mode much either.
I've heard that the G9 is a fabulous camera. It's good to hear its praise being sung.
Thanks for commenting.
Yeah, that's true if the person is photographing portraits. I think there are features available from all brands that help people get the most from the genre they shoot. Cameras have come a long way from the days when the autofocus point would focus on the tip of the eyelashes and not the eyeball.
An on off switch that can be accessed with the right hand as you're raising the camera to your support hand, and without having to compromise ones grip with the right hand.
Good to see that Canon is finally conceding that others were always right about that one...
Edited to add: a mode dial that's also accessible with the right/shooting hand, without having to press a lock button or break ones right hand grip to do so, in other words, a camera should be designed so that it can be turned on/off, and most critical settings adjusted with the right hand, without compromising the right hand grip, and the left hand should be nearly exclusively a support hand, until more obscure settings adjustments are needed.
Sorry, but I'm unwilling to give up a control on the already-crowed right hand to a function that is used no more than ONCE per shooting sequence!
As someone who's been shooting Olympus since the original OM-1 film camera, they almost always got it "right:" put seldom-used controls (like on-off switch) away from all the stuff you use multiple times while shooting.
Or perhaps you've only used cameras with inadequate "sleep" capability? The Olympus/OMDS cameras I have used with the seldom-used power-on switch on the left have all had excellent sleep management. I turn it on. I use it. If I don't use it enough, simply half-pressing the shutter button "awakens" it. No power switch needed!
Now, if you want to talk about the neo OM-1's moving the heavily-used MENU button to the left, so it now takes BOTH HANDS to drive the menu system, instead of just one thumb…
Olympus? Never heard of them...
Ha ha! They've probably never heard of you, Christopher.
I'm still in business, Olympus is not, and for good reason.
Actually, they are. Olympus as a business still exists and owns a share in OMDS, which has been turned around and is thriving and growing as a company. For good reason.
There are so many great cameras that check most of these boxes, even at entry level prices. For a beginner, without knowing which direction your hobby will take you, having a camera that makes you want to pick it up, carry it everywhere and take more photos is so important.
You are right. It's a point that I often make that all the known brands can produce great cameras. There are some duds out there at the very cheapest end of the market, and a new photographer might not know what a camera has that is useful or what it lacks. My hope with this article is that those wanting to start photography, or parents buying their child a camera, might read this and, maybe, consider these features when buying. Thanks for commenting.
[Most cameras are similar in many ways, but they also have unique features that other models lack. Choosing the wrong camera can be an expensive mistake. Here are things to consider before spending your hard-earned cash.]
That is actually a funny paragraph, as following all those "must haves" for many will lead to them spending way too much on a camera they don't actually need. They are all nice to have but they are not all a must have at the same time.
[I had to scrap a 10-year-old car a couple of years ago because the brake disks had worn out and were no longer made.]
I think you got scammed. Almost all cars today and 10 years ago, share the same type of brake disks, across brands. Way too expensive to make new ones every time a new car model comes out.
What was it?
I tried several different garages and parts suppliers. The only ones available were from a scrap merchant, but I was unwilling to risk fitting brakes from a car that had, potentially, suffered a crash. Furthermore, the next car (a different brand) I bought from a completely different retailer in a different town. I can't quite see the scam there. It would have been the garages that lost out not getting the work that I would otherwise have given them.
I'm not sure if I can agree with everything you say in the first paragraph. You are right that some people will buy a DSLR or advanced mirroless camera and use it as a point and shoot. That's fair enough, they won't need any advanced features. Lots of people buy very basic and cheap cameras that lack the functionality of slightly higher models. They are, consequently, restricted in what they can do with the camera. Consequently, they are either inclined to give up photography, or buy an upgrade. It's a bit like someone learning to draw and paint, and giving them HB pencils and a cheap children's watercolor set. They will quickly find they are restricted by the limitations of the equipment.
Thanks for joining the dicsussion.
I really appreciate this article because it causes folks to think carefully about what specific features they want in a camera and assess their needs from a practical standpoint.
Here are my thoughts on the features that Ivor listed:
1: articulating screen - I could use this very much. I have never had a camera with any kind of movable screen at all, but such a screen would really fit the type of photography I do, especially now that I photograph herps as much as I photograph mammals and birds.
2: Two control dials: Every DSLR I have ever had has two control dials. I didn't realize there was such a thing as a serious camera with only one such dial.
3 & 4: Viewfinder: I would certainly want a viewfinder that shows the entire part of the scene that is going to be captured. Of course!
5: Lots of focus points: I love to put my subjects way off center at times, and have them in the deeper corners of the frame, or on the far edge of the frame. So having very accurate focus points way away from the center of the image circle is very important to me.
6: Silent Mode / shutter life: I do not think that shutter life is something that limits the lifespan of the camera as a whole. When a shutter fails, I just take it to my local repair guy and have him put a new shutter in for me. It's easy and cheap, and shutters are such a commonly replaced part that new parts can be sourced via 3rd party suppliers even if the manufacturer hasn't made them available for years. A bad mother board is a true replacement problem. A bad shutter is a minor inconvenience.
7: IBIS: I have never had a body with stabilization. This hasn't been much of an issue because most of the lenses I have had already have stabilization. But there are now some 3rd party lenses that I am interested in getting, and they do not have stabilization, so IBIS would be increasingly helpful as I move forward with new lens acquisitions.
8: Comfortable to Carry and Use: To me, these are two very different things. For carrying around, I want a light, small camera. But small cameras are VERY uncomfortable to use. I want a camera that FILLS my hand fully, as this is most comfortable. But a large camera that is very comfortable to use is uncomfortable to carry around. So it really comes down to what is most important to me, a camera that is comfortable to carry around, or a camera that is comfortable to use?
9: Lenses: it is very important to me that the camera I have has a wide array of highly specialized lenses available in NATIVE MOUNT. I want and need a camera that has dedicated macro lenses capable of 2X or greater magnification, wide angle lenses that are also true macro lenses, such as the Laowa 15mm with true 1:1 magnification, tilt/shift lenses, and true supertelephoto zooms such as the Sigma 60-600mm and 300-800mm. I do NOT want to have to use adaptors to make a lens fit my camera, and I do not want to have to use extension tubes or tele-converters to get my lenses to do what I need them to do.
10: Weather and dust sealing: very important to me, as I shoot in horrible conditions and do not want to have to be bothered with protecting my camera. I want a camera that is tough enough to protect itself. I have had two bodies die because of a fried motherboard, due to prolonged exposure to rain, so I know firsthand how important weathersealing can be.
Hi Tom, thanks for that. I think every genre and photographer will consider different features as more or less important. I have big hands and long fingers. Yet, I find some of the large, full-frame Canons and Nikons don't work for me because the buttons are all in the wrong place, so my fingers won't easily reach them. This took me by surprise when I first tried them. On the other hand, the tiny OM-5 and some of the Fujifilm cameras, plus my own cameras, were far more comfortable and easy for me to manipulate. Every human is different and it is really important that folk try cameras before investing in them.
The same applies to every camera feature. We all have different needs and like to work in different ways. That's one of the many things that makes photography so exciting!
Tom, always a thorough response!
1. Since I mostly shoot people, I think I could live without an articulating screen, but I love having them. The 3-way tilt on my X-T3 is great for quick waist level shots, the fully articulating screen on my X-T4 is nice for more peculiar angles but cumbersome to deploy compared to a tilt screen.
2. My old D5300 had only a rear command dial, which I think is standard for the lower entry level DSLRs. That said, there are plenty of APS-C and 4/3 cameras with a front and rear dial.
7. I used to think IBIS was mostly a video-centric feature since human subject movement requires reasonably fast shutter speeds that negate shake. I mostly shoot non-stabilized primes and the IBIS definitely improves the keeper rate when I have more stationary subjects and I get the creature comfort of a stable image through the viewfinder.
8. Agreed. I have an optional grip that essentially stays on my X-T4 (not a small camera body to begin with) and it greatly improves my comfort with large lenses. Smaller cameras tend to feel better over the course of a long day by virtue of less weight, but a heavy lens will negate any "compactness" advantage.