The internet is full of camera reviews ready to tell you what camera to buy. The problem is, that more often than not, what you are getting is a long list of features and statistics which mean little to the average first time DSLR buyer. Often laypersons get sucked into a specific camera based on a feature set which sound “neato” but in reality has little or no importance at all in how you use your camera. The features which truly matter are often downplayed (or deliberately excluded) from the marketing materials so that manufacturers can focus on their latest gimmick.
The following article covers those features/attributes of DSLR cameras which are most often presented in reviews, and attempts to explain their importance (or complete lack of importance) and where to focus your research.
Do you need a DSLR?
I bring this up first because the very first thing you want to think about it do your REALLY need a DSLR? Very often people say “I want to get better at photography, therefore I need a DSLR camera”. This is simply not the case. Getting better at photography means learning about how to improve your composition (which has nothing to do with what camera you own) and learning how to control exposure of your images via manual controls (ie: ISO, f-stop, shutter speed, etc). There are a number of small, nearly “pocket sized” cameras out there which give you all the manual control over your images that any entry or mid level DSLR camera will provide (I recommend the Nikon P7100, Cannon G12, Cannon G1X). These cameras are cheaper, easy to carry and fun to use while still giving you the ability to hone your camera skills in all the same ways as a DSLR. The only major difference in features will be the lack of an interchangeable lens and a generally smaller sensor size (though the Cannon G1X has a nearly APS-C sized sensor which is standard for most entry and enthusiast level DSLRs). You can read below why sensor size matters.
The point of the above paragraph is this: Most people getting into a better camera, are just trying to take better photos. They are not yet to the point where they are willing to invest in expensive lenses (which ends up costing far more than you spent on your camera). And if you are not ready to invest in a collection of lenses, then there is little reason to own a DSLR. The larger size and weight of DSLR cameras may cause you to bring your camera with you less often (much less often), and as a result you are LESS likely to improve your camera skills. “The best camera to own, is the one you take with you”..
Now, assuming you still want your DSLR, let’s get to the business of what you need to know before making that purchase.
Choosing a brand
This topic is actually far more important than you might expect. Not because one brand is better than another (which can be the case), but because the lenses you will purchase in the years to come are specific for that brand (ie: the mounts are different, so your Nikor Lens will not fit on a Canon Camera, etc). Other photography accessories can have similar issues between brands (for example External Flashes). The point is that once you begin to invest in accessories for your camera you will have invested much more than the camera costs. If four years down the road you decide you want to switch to from Nikon to Canon or to Pentax or whomever, you are looking at having to replace all your lenses, flashes, and many other accessories which were brand specific. So you may end up looking at selling off and repurchasing five grand in equipment (or much more), not just the price of a new camera.
The moral of this story? Unless you have mad resources, you are probably going to be sticking with a single brand once you’ve committed. I highly recommend that you “test drive” different brands and research the hell out of them before picking out a camera brand (that is not the focus of this article). If you don’t wish to bother with all that, then you can’t go wrong just picking Nikon or Canon. Either of these two will give you the most lens and accessory options over any other brand. You can be assured of the quality of the brand, and the lenses. Which one to pick between the two? Truly it doesn’t matter. I’m a Nikon man, but had I bought a Canon as my first DSLR, then I’d be a Canon man.
Specs and Stats: What’s it all mean?
(these options are selected as most important as they can vary greatly between cameras and have a huge impact on how much you enjoy your camera and/or are relevant toward future purchases like lenses)
Body – When considering the body you are generally considering size and ergonomics. Ergonomics, of course, will differ for each person’s hands, preferences and usage needs. With that said a few other things to consider are:
- Frame materials – better cameras often have a metal frame within the body rather than all plastic. This will help protect your investment when it hits the ground (which at some point it probably will).
- Covers and doors – most DSLRs have several doors and covers on their body. It is well worth checking these out as some are made so cheaply that you can guarantee their failure after a short period of time. This not only exposes important and sensitive components to the elements (for instance your memory card door), but will drastically reduce your ability to re-sell for a good price when you decide to upgrade in the future.
- Weather proofing – since this is your first DSLR, chances are you are not dropping the big bucks for a properly weather sealed camera. But if you have the funds and this is something you want, be sure to research this well. MOST cameras are not weather sealed, and while a few claim some ability to resist rain and humidity you had better find out just what that means (make sure it’s not just marketing “speak”). Just because you can get a waterproof pocket camera for $300 don’t assume that your $2,000 DSLR can be carried around in the rain.
- External Controls – for me personally this is the first thing I will look at when considering any camera. I DO NOT want to have to dig through a screen menu to reach anything. Now in reality some things just have to be that way, but if you get into your photography at all, you will be very unhappy if you made a camera purchase where the essentials are not physical buttons on the outside of the camera. Things I consider essential in this regard include ISO, aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, focus modes, exposure modes, flash compensation, exposure/focus lock and bracketing. Sadly a large number of DSLRs in the lower end do not have much in the way of external controls. Some people may not care, but usually those people will quickly change their minds once they become more proficient at their photography.
Sensor – There are four main categories of sensors that you’ll hear about. Realistically there are much more, but for your purposes you need only consider two (APS-C at approx. 24mm and Full Frame at approx. 35mm). Note, that if you’re looking at a micro 4/3 type camera the sensors are different; however these are not considered DSLR cameras even though the lenses are interchangeable. As such I’m not discussing them directly even though most of what we talk about is applicable to them as well.
- For most purposes (but not all) the bigger the sensor the better. In reality however, most of you will not be buying a full frame camera. They cost a whole lot more! Below is a short list of how a full frame sensor camera will differ from the more common APS-C sensor. I will not detail this list, but instead will point you toward this article (Digital Camera Sensor Sizes) for more information on how sensor size influences your photography.
- Lack of crop factor allows full frame cameras to use a larger selection of lenses.
- Lenses are larger and heavier for full frame cameras (this is actually a negative). However APS-C specific lenses can be used on full frame cameras (but not vice-versa).
- Shallower depth of Field for a given aperture. (usually this is a positive, but that still depends on your specific needs).
- Improved dynamic range (always a positive).
- Less image noise (always a positive).
- Beyond the sensor size there are differences in quality between sensors of the same size and type. The only way you will know which sensors are best is to read model specific reviews which use detailed controlled experiments to test a camera model’s abilities. I recommend www.dpreview.com In fact I recommend you use this site to research just about everything for any given camera model you want to consider.
Image Stabilization (IS) – IS can greatly enhance your ability to take quality images. It allows you to shoot photographs at lower shutter speeds, smaller apertures and/or lower ISO settings. In other words it reduces the stops of light required. It does this by use of gyroscopes and/or magnets (depends on the system) which help to stabilize the image from motion (caused by camera shake). There are three types of IS you’ll find in your DSLR.
- Digital IS – This is useless and should be a red flag.
- In Camera IS – The image stabilization occurs within your camera body. This allows you to use any compatible lens on your camera while still providing IS.
- In Lens IS – : “In lens” IS relies on you purchasing lenses that include IS within the lens.
ISO – Did you ever use film when you were younger? Well, ISO plays the same role as film speed did back then. Higher ISO values allow you to ‘capture’ more light faster. This in turn gives you more leeway when it comes to faster shutter speeds and larger depth of field (smaller apertures). In general the higher the ISO values on your camera the better. Especially if you like shooting in low light conditions or hate using Flashes. The thing to keep in mind here is that just because a manufacturer says the camera can shoot ISO 12,800 does not mean that it does so at a quality you would want to use. The higher the ISO setting the more noise will show in your photograph. Eventually there is a limit to how much noise you can accept in a photo. So again I point you toward dpreview and other related sites which test this sort of thing for you. I would not consider a camera that provides less than 3,200 ISO at an “acceptable” print quality. Not long ago this would have been asking too much, but in today’s market at the time of this post, 3,200 ISO should be your minimum acceptable benchmark in my opinion. Personally I would want much more.
AE Lock – Exposure lock is something that most people will never use to start with, but once you learn how to use it, you will find it absolutely invaluable for getting quality exposure. In short it allows you to lock exposure on specific areas of a scene while recomposing to direct your composition or focus to a different area. This is a must have option and must be located as a physical button on the outside body. Most DSLRs will have this, but be sure to check and be certain.
Exposure Compensation – This feature allows you to quickly and easily increase or decrease the exposure in a scene to compensate for poor metering by the camera. Most DSLRs will have this. Again this is a feature most people don’t use at first, but in time will become an important tool and so is a must have (and should be an external dedicated button).
Bracketing – Bracketing is the camera’s ability to take multiple photographs with a single press of the button while changing a specific camera setting for each shot. For example I could bracket my exposure such that I take photo 1: normal, photo 2: overexposed, photo 3: underexposed. This allows me to select the best image in difficult metering situations. It also allows me to blend images in Post to enhance dynamic range. Bracketing can be done with many other settings as well. White balance, aperture, shutter speed, and many others.
- Note that not every camera has bracketing. I consider this to be a must have feature. You will too in time, so be sure to check.
- Bracketing can vary from 2-X photos. Two is kind of useless. You want a minimum of three bracketed images at once, and preferably more. You also want to make sure that there is not a limit on exposure bracketing. I have seen some high quality cameras which only allow 2 stops of exposure bracketing. This is would be very limiting in many situations (especially if you enjoy HDR photography).
- While having more bracketing options is great. I would mostly concern yourself with making sure it has bracketing with at least three images and a minimum of three stops of exposure. (ask your camera professional if you can’t find this information as it tends not to be shown in most stats).
Continuous Drive Mode – How fast can your camera fire off photos in continuous succession? If you like sports, kids, or event photography this will be very important. I would recommend that you get a camera capable of a minimum of three shots per second. I would want more.
- Burst Speed: Many cameras will shoot very quickly for short bursts, but after a couple seconds they slow down considerably.
- Buffer Size: The buffer size will determine how many photos you can take in a row before the camera has to stop shooting so that it can start processing the images. A buffer with only five photos is not going to be super useful no matter how fast the photos are taken.
- RAW: Usually photos taken in jpg format can be shot much faster than those shot in RAW. In addition RAW is a larger file size and thus fills the buffer faster equating to fewer continuous shots. You’ll want to know the difference between your camera’s jpg and RAW shooting speeds. You might buy a camera which claims “7 fps rapid fire”, but that means nothing to you if you like to shoot in RAW and the camera can only shoot 2 fps in RAW.
Top LCD – many cameras will have a small monochrome LCD on top of the camera which provides all the relevant information about your settings (iso, shutter speed, aperture, meter modes, focus modes, etc). The prevents you from having to turn on your rear LCD all the time just to check on your settings. I consider this a must have, though it will great reduce your low end camera options.
Viewfinder – This is what you look through when taking your photograph. There are a number of options out there, but two basic categories are what you’ll be considering. EVF (electronic view finder) and OVF (optical viewfinder). While EVF has improved greatly over the years I would never purchase a camera with EVF. You will never get the clarity you get from seeing the actual light coming through the lens. This will play a big role in how well you can manually focus, identify and follow moving subjects and many other skills.
- Viewfinder coverage refers to to how much of the captured image you can see from within the viewfinder. The choice option is of course 100%. However this is generally not the case with lower end cameras. I would not recommend the purchase of a camera that does not have at least 95% coverage. This of course is up to you, but It’s something I think you’d regret down the road.
(these features are also very important, but often are included in all modern DSLRs, similar between most brands in the “entry level” and “enthusiast range” or these features are not “make/break” options for many people).
Image Size – Image size is simply how large an image can your camera capture. It equates to that famous stat that everyone loves to brag about, MegaPixels. Image size is important as it determines how large a print you can produce while still keeping maximum quality and it determines how much of an image you can crop while still keeping an acceptable print size. So you do want to consider megapixels in your purchase. HOWEVER, nearly every DSLR on the market today has more megapixels than 99% of average users require. Are there are disadvantage to more megapixels? Yes, there can be. The more pixels you stuff onto a sensor the more image noise you will get. How much this matters to you depends on how you use your photos and what sizes you print at. In addition the more pixels on a sensor, the smaller those pixels become. For more information on why any of this matters visit here (http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/digital-camera-pixel.htm). You may notice I send you to this website a lot. That’s because it is a wonderful source of information if you want to know the science behind a particular photographic feature or concept. I consider this one of your best photography resources on the web for understanding photography concepts.
Video – Do you care about video or not? I’m not a big video guy, so I’m not going to say much about this except to keep the following points in mind.
- Focus – does the camera have “continuous focus” during video capture? Many do not and this is a huge let down once you get into the field.
- Exposure – does the camera have “continuous exposure metering” during video capture? Again, many do not and this will lead to poor quality videos when shooting in varied light conditions.
- Audio – does your camera capture mono or stereo? Does it have a wind guard to prevent breezes from making horrible sounds in your microphone? Does the camera have a silent zoom? This refers to being able to zoom your lens without hearing the lens and the focus motor through the microphone while zooming. You’ll find this problem is quite common.
File Formats – The standard file format options you will encounter are Jpeg, (sometimes TIFF) and RAW. All modern DSLR cameras now shoot in jpeg and RAW formats so this should be a non-issue when selecting your camera. This is the only reason it is not listed under the “important features” list. However, IF you find yourself looking at an older model which does not have RAW abilities I would recommend not purchasing it. If you wish to learn more about RAW advantages read this (http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/RAW-file-format.htm).
Focus Modes – Most DSLRs are going to have the same focus modes. There will be some variations, but in general they have the same three (sometimes four) focus mode options. The thing to consider here will be the quality and reliability of the focus system overall. This is not something you can determine from looking at it nor from reading the camera’s marketing material. Visit quality review sites like dpreview.com which thoroughly test these factors and look up the model your interested in. In most cases you’ll find that the big differences in focus quality come with a camera’s ability to focus in low light and/or the speed with which it can lock onto a subject and obtain focus.
AF assist lamp – this feature is a small light which beams outward in low light conditions to help the camera focus. It is quite useful if you shoot lots of low light photographs, but is only useful up to a short distance (usually around 10-20 feet).
Metering Modes – Metering modes allow you to control what areas of the picture frame are being metered for light and in what percentage that area is “weighted”. This information is then used by the camera (or yourself) to determine shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Much like the focus modes, you’ll find that most DSLR cameras have the same options with slight variations. Again, please refer to depreview.com for analysis on specific camera models and how they perform.
Exposure Modes – This refers to exposure options like manual, aperture priority, speed priority, program and others. These will generally be the same on all DSLRs The only thing you may wish to consider here is the ease of access to these these modes (you do not want to have to go into a menu for this) and does it allow for “custom modes”. Custom modes allow you to preset most features of the camera so that everything is where you want it with a turn of a dial. Very useful.
Shutter Speed – This stat refers to the fastest shutter speed possible with your camera. It is rare that a modern DSLR will not have a shutter capability which exceeds anything you are likely to need. But I would recommend that you make sure it can handle at least 2,000 th of a second minimum. Preferably 4,000 th. This will allow you to capture images in extreme bight sunlight without sacrificing depth of field options (for example a sunny day in the snow).
White Balance – White Balance is a topic beyond the scope of this article. Go here for more information (http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/white-balance.htm). Most DSLRs will have all the same white balance options. Again you will need to refer to quality review sites for details about each model/sensor quality results. This is rarely an issue and is not likely to be something you need to worry about in your decision process.
Timer – I think most of you know what this is. It’s just a timer which allows you to take a delayed photo after pushing the shutter release. Most people use this for family shots where the photographer wants to be included. However, you’ll find this far more useful down the road as a way to reduce camera shake when taking HDR photos, Macro and long exposure shots. This is rarely something to think about as I’ve never seen a DSLR without it. However it is nice to have a 2 second option and not just the standard 10 seconds.
Flash – Oddly enough, the more you pay for a camera the less likely it is to even come with a built in Flash. Things to consider:
- Does the camera have flash compensation (to reduce or increase the intensity of the Flash)? This is pretty important if you do Flash work.
- Is the Flash high enough on the camera body so as not to produce a shadow when using a long lens?
- What type of “hot shoe” mount does the camera have? This will determine your selection of external Flashes you can use.
LCD Monitor – All DSLR cameras will have an LCD monitor on the back. It’s where you access your menus and review your images. All LCD are not created equal and a poor LCD will make life unpleasant as a photographer. Things to think about include:
- LCD screen resolution. Just like a High Definition TV looks so much better than the “old school” screen, So too do cameras have varying screen resolution. I would recommend 921,000 or better screen dots.
- Articulation – Some screens can change position to the side of the camera, or slant up/down allowing you to view the screen from odd angles (great for shooting over heads in a crowd and other such situations). For an articulated screen to be of any real use you must also have “live view”.
- Live View allows you to view what you are shooting in your LCD screen while photographing. Exactly like all the pocket cameras. You may think that since the cheap cameras all have this, then the DSLRs surely will too. This is not the case (though quickly is becoming standard on most newer DSLRs).
- Anti-Glare – This might seem to be a “who cares”, but in actuality it is a big deal when shooting outside. A screen which has high reflectivity can be impossible to view when outside in the sunshine.
Storage – What type of media format can you use to store your images on. Many cameras have multiple options. Some even have multiple slots for carrying two cards at once. The most common will be SD cards, though new ones are already on their way out. Since SD cards are the most common and most affordable option, I would recommend that you make certain your camera can handle standard SD cards.
Battery – Battery life is important. You want to make sure that you are not forced to recharge batteries all the time. I would recommend a minimum of 500 shot battery life. Preferably more
Things That Do Not Matter (these options should not be a major concern at all when choosing your camera)
Aspect Ratios – Many DSLR cameras allow you to photograph in a variety of aspect ratios (width x height ratio). This is “cool”, but not particularly useful.
- Cropping – To get these other aspect ratios the camera must crop pixels from it’s original capture size. In other words, you are loosing image size by doing this.
- Do it at home – You can crop an image to any aspect ratio you want in post when you get home. So why force yourself into a smaller image size, when you can make that decision at home in post.
- Full Frame – The only time this is truly useful is when using an ASP-C specific lens with a Full Frame sensor camera. And as far as I’m aware all full frame cameras come with this built in.
Digital Zoom – In short, this is a marketing ploy and has NO value at all. All digital zoom does is to crop your photo down in size so that the remaining image “appears” larger. This reduces print size and pixel resolution and thus image quality. If you want to crop an image in order to “get closer”, then do it at home in post, but don’t think that digital zoom is actually increasing your focal length in any way.
Scene Modes – Scene modes are those “presets” you see on cameras like “portraits, sports, landscapes, etc. These can be useful, but in reality they do nothing you cannot do on your own (and should do on your own if you wish to become a better photographer). Do not consider this when purchasing your camera.
Effects and Digital Filters – Much like the Digital Zoom. This is a marketing tool with no real benefit. For a number of reasons beyond the scope of this article, you do not want to create photo effects within your camera. Do this in post production software at home on your computer. This feature should play no role in your purchase decision.
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