Each post in this series builds on information discussed in previous posts. See the Photography for Beginners page on the menu for links to all the posts.
In the previous posts about buying a camera we discussed when it’s a good idea to buy a new camera, the different types of cameras, and the different sensor sizes.
At this point you should have a general idea of what you want and how much you’re willing to spend to get it. But you still need to figure out which specific camera models of that type will best fit your interests and needs.
That’s where camera features come into play. Features and technical specifications are the nitty-gritty details that can differentiate one model from another.
Make a list for features/specs. The list should have three categories. Write each feature down in its appropriate category.
The categories are:
* Must-have. The features that are a make-or-break deal for you. You won’t buy a camera that doesn’t have them.
* Want-to-have. Features that are important to you, but if some are missing it won’t automatically disqualify a camera.
* Nice-to-have. These are features that you think of as pleasant a bonus, but don’t have real weight in your decision-making process. If two or more models are fairly equal in the first two categories these can potentially serve as tie-breakers.
Any features that you don’t care about should be left off the list. No sense in cluttering it up with distractions.
Features and Specs
I can’t cover every single feature that cameras can have. I’m going to list some that people commonly consider, and some that many may not think of on their own but might want to consider.
It’s up to you whether a feature matters a lot, a little, or not at all. If there’s something important to you that I left out make sure to put it on your list in the appropriate category.
For some of these features it may not be obvious from product listings and photos if a particular model has them or not. If the feature is on your must-have or want-to-have list you can download a copy of the user manual so you can find out. It’s extra work, but helps you know if you need to cross a camera off your list.
AE/AF Lock Buttons
This refers to buttons on the back of the body that let you lock in auto exposure or autofocus (or both) so that they won’t be reset when the shutter button is pressed to take a photo. The buttons are useful in a lot of different situations, but especially if you want to use the back button focusing method.
Some cameras don’t have the lock buttons, some only have one button and you designate how it behaves, and some cameras have two buttons (one for each).
If a camera allows a lot of user customization you may be able to assign something completely different to the lock button(s) if you have no use for AE or AF lock.
The number of autofocus points a camera has is often hyped as an important specification when a camera has a lot of them. But just because it’s hyped it doesn’t mean that it actually is an important spec.
How often do you use AF points other than the center point? How often do you wish your current camera had more AF points? Your answers tell you how much importance you should assign to this feature when comparing models.
Autofocus – Phase Detect, Contrast Detect, Hybrid
This is an extremely technical topic to understand, and understanding doesn’t really matter to the average photographer. But since you will see references in product listings to the type of autofocus used here is a very broad overview.
Phase detection was originally only in DSLRs, and it’s why for a long time DSLRs always had faster autofocus. Phase detection is faster and is the best type of autofocusing for moving subjects like in sports or for wildlife.
Contrast detection used to be the only autofocus method used in mirrorless cameras. Contrast detection is a bit slower because of how it determines something is in focus. However, it’s also more accurate.
These days a lot of cameras use both types of focusing, with some AF points being contrast detect and some phase detect. The latest advancement is hybrid AF points that use both contrast and phase detect.
The upshot is, unless you are doing action photography, the type of autofocus won’t matter much to you in real world usage. But when comparing models, cameras that have both types of AF points, or hybrid points, are better.
Auto ISO Customization
All cameras let you choose between setting a specific ISO yourself or using Auto ISO. But some also offer the ability to customize Auto ISO.
Custom Auto ISO allows you to set the minimum shutter speed and max ISO that Auto ISO will use so that you don’t get undesired results. It provides a safety net that makes Auto ISO much more usable in more situations.
There might be only one custom slot or a few. If you have more than one custom ISO slot you can make your own presets for different types of shooting conditions, such as one for low light, one for standard conditions, and one for quickly moving subjects.
Not all cameras have a fully automatic mode. Camera makers skip putting it in some of their more advanced models.
If you want to make sure you’ll have access to Auto Mode, verify that all models you’re considering offer it as one of the shooting modes.
Body Design – DSLR vs. Rangefinder
This is related to the types of cameras discussed in a previous post, but there is one additional thing I want to mention here.
You’ll often see cameras described as having one of two body types, regardless of sensor size. The body types are DSLR and rangefinder. In this case DSLR doesn’t refer only to actual DSLRs, but to all cameras that have a body that looks similar to one, with the viewfinder in the middle of the body above the screen.
In film cameras rangefinder referred to a different (less popular) type of focusing system than the “see through the lens” method of SLRs. An optical viewfinder was set in the camera body in the upper left corner and focusing was done by aligning two images when looking through it.
Digital cameras don’t use the rangefinder focusing method, but some bodies maintain the physical design and are called rangefinders to specify that style. Rangefinder style cameras are more compact and have little to no grip. Some have optical VFs and some have electronic VFs.
Which style is better is up to personal preference.
All cameras should have an exposure bracketing feature. How flexible the bracketing is varies by model. More expensive cameras usually have more options.
Some let you choose by 1/3 stops, some by 1/2 stops. The max number of full stops also varies. Three to five is common, but some allow more.
At a minimum three images are recorded, the primary exposure, and one lighter and one darker. Some cameras expand that and you can choose between 3, 5, 7.
If you don’t bracket much don’t worry about comparing bracketing specs between models. Those who frequently do extensive post processing, especially exposure stacking, may want to investigate the details.
Some cameras also allow you to bracket other things. My camera can also bracket WB, color profiles, and ISO. The camera has two bracket slots and I can choose which of the four to assign to each one.
Bulb Mode & Max Length Shutter Speeds
Cameras have a timed shutter maximum limit, with 30 or 60 seconds at the longest being most common, but a few cameras allow up to several minutes. If you do a lot of night photography or ultra long exposures the longer the max limit is the better.
If you plan to use exposure times longer than what the shutter timer allows you’ll have to use Bulb Mode. I think all cameras have a Bulb Mode these days, but if you will be using it check to make sure. In Bulb Mode you manually start and stop the exposure, the camera doesn’t time it for you, so a remote shutter release is also required.
There are a few models that do have a built-in Bulb Mode timer so that the camera will start and stop the exposure for you, so no remote release is needed.
You can get around any timer limit your camera has by using an intervalometer remote shutter release. You program it to automatically start and stop the exposure for you and it keeps track of the time. That way you don’t have to manually start and stop it yourself while watching a clock like you do in Bulb Mode.
Buttons and Dials
The camera should have enough buttons and dials that you don’t have to go to the menus for your most commonly used settings.
Whether through default buttons/dials or customizing, you want to make certain it’s quick and easy to at least change ISO, exposure compensation, and white balance on any camera you get.
Buttons and dials should be arranged on the body so that they are easy to use on the fly and so that you hopefully don’t accidentally turn or push them every time you touch the camera. Though I’ll note that most cameras seem to end up having at least one that often gets accidentally pushed anyway.
They should be designed so you can use them by feel without looking once you’ve developed the muscle memory for where everything is. Some buttons are so flat to the body surface you can’t feel where they are. (Aftermarket button bumps can be purchased from companies like ShutterBands to deal with flat buttons.)
Most cameras have a circular 4-way button or D pad on the back of the body, with the Menu button in the center. The 4-way buttons are used as directional arrows for the menus, and also provide individual buttons to access 4 different settings. Some cameras don’t have one, and that usually means you have to hunt in the menus a lot more often.
The majority of cameras only have one memory card slot. But upper tier cameras often have two slots, especially models aimed at professionals.
The two slots can be used different ways. You can record JPEGS on one and RAW on the other. Still images on one and video on the other. Double your capacity by filling one card and then the other. Or record all images on both cards so you have a backup in case of failure. (Cards have a very low failure rate, but they can fail.)
The majority of current cameras have SD card slots. SDHC and SDXC are the actual cards used, since they’re much faster than just plain SD cards. Some DSLRs still use the older and larger Compact Flash (CF) cards. Some cameras have slots for the newer XQD card type. XQD cards are faster and more reliable, but slots for them are usually only found in more expensive cameras.
For SD cards, UHS bus speed can be important. Some cameras take UHS-I cards and some UHS-II, the latter being faster cards for read/write speeds.
For most people card type and speed won’t factor into your decision process. You just need to make sure that once you have your camera you buy the correct cards for it. But if you do lots of high burst mode shooting in RAW, card speed is more important and you may want to put it on your specs list.
Don’t worry too much about what the max gigabytes is for the card slot. Unless you’re shooting RAW in burst mode for extended periods, do a lot of video, or you shoot events, you’re usually better off rotating small capacity cards than using a single large card in order to protect against losing too many images in case of card failure.
For a chart of camera models and their memory card slot details you can look at this link.
This applies primarily to JPEGs since you have a huge amount of control over color when processing RAW files.
When researching which camera to buy you may run into chatter from users and hype in marketing materials about “color science” and which brand has the best. It’s mostly bullpucky (as proven in blind tests) and can be ignored. Here’s why:
* Color perception is subjective, and is altered by all sorts of variables. Only a small percentage of people perceive color with a high degree of accuracy and reliability.
* Colors in images are rarely an exact representation of reality. And that doesn’t matter much because viewers tend to prefer the altered/exaggerated colors in images. Where they may disagree is on how they are altered, such as preferring warm tones to cool tones, or muted vs. saturated. (Back to subjectivity.)
* White balance has a greater impact on how colors in individual images are perceived than a brand’s “color science.”
* The color output for JPEGs in most cameras can be altered with built-in presets chosen by the user.
You can use these presets to get different looks when shooting the same subject in the same conditions. Each brand has their own variations on what the color presets look like and what they are called. My Panasonic calls them color profiles I think, my Fujifilm calls them film simulations.
Typical options include standard (default with bright colors and good contrast), neutral (flat profile more easily adjusted to personal taste with processing), vivid (highly saturated), soft (good for portraits), monochrome (B&W). Some cameras offer more options and the preset terms can vary by brand.
What matters most is, do you personally like how the colors look from the cameras you are considering? Do you like the color profiles? Don’t buy based on what others think of the colors, it’s your eyeballs that must be satisfied.
If connectivity matters to you it’s best to know that all camera brands have lots of room for improvement in this area. Some cameras have no connectivity at all.
With GPS tagging an interesting development is that fewer new models are including it. The feature is mostly useful for pinpointing where a shot was taken when out in the wilds, so most won’t miss having it.
Bluetooth as a connection method is becoming more available, but WiFi is still far more common.
Cameras that can connect to a mobile device use an app from the camera maker. The apps from some brands are better than others, but they range from okay to awful. None are great.
Most apps can be used to remotely control the camera. The apps also usually provide the ability to transfer images to your phone, send them to cloud storage, and/or share them on social media platforms. Transfers can be quite slow.
This is related to buttons and dials. There should hopefully be at least one fn button that you can assign to whichever setting you want, like the self-timer or exposure metering mode. More than one of these buttons is better.
Dials on the front or back of the body may be customizable as well. They have a default function, but good cameras let you change it to something else if you prefer.
Some cameras let you change the 4-way buttons on the back to settings of your preference rather than being stuck with the defaults. If you can customize this it can alleviate the need for extra fn buttons.
A good camera also has either a quick menu that you can alter or a custom menu option, or both. Setting up a custom menu with camera settings that you don’t use all the time but want to find easily when you do need them saves you from frustrating menu hunting.
The basic rule here is, the more things you can customize the better because you can set your camera up to work in the way that feels most right to you.
Face detection has been around for over a decade now and is pretty good in cameras that have it. Though some cameras can struggle keeping track of a moving subject or with detecting partially hidden faces.
Eye detection is newer and found in fewer cameras. Because it hasn’t been around as long and eyes are very small it’s less reliable. But it’s very nice when it works because getting eyes precisely in focus is the most important thing when photographing people.
Face detection for animals is in its infancy and available in very few cameras. (I think maybe only in Sony mirrorless at this time, but not positive.) Reliability can be poor, depending on animal type. Expect this feature to become more common in the future with improvements to reliability, especially in mirrorless cameras.
Only some cameras have a built-in flash. These flash units have limitations and are only just barely useful. Some cameras allow you to adjust the strength of the flash and the shutter sync so you can include some background when using flash in dark conditions.
If you want to make real use of flash you need a camera with a hot shoe on top so you can attach a more flexible and powerful flash unit of your choice, or a transmitter so you can use off-camera flash.
Some back screens are solidly attached to the body and do no flipping. Tilt screens only go up and down. Flip screens tilt up and down and also flip to the side or up, but usually not forward.
Only fully articulated screens flip and turn in every direction, including forward so you can see it while pointing the camera at yourself. Forward facing screens are mostly only important for people doing a lot of video work, though they are also nice because you can turn the screen over against the camera back to protect it from scratching.
Flip screens (of any kind) make it much easier to shoot from odd angles, especially from down low. They also help make you less obvious for street photography. (You can look like you’re fiddling with the camera instead of snapping a pic.)
Frames Per Second
FPS is how many images the camera can capture in one second while holding the shutter down in burst mode. Product listings usually just state what the max fps rate is for the camera, like 12 fps. But that’s not the whole story.
Achieving the listed max fps rate can sometimes only be reached with restrictions, like only when using the electronic shutter, or only by cropping the sensor. Even without restrictions, cameras often don’t actually shoot at the max advertised rate in real world conditions.
Many cameras allow you to choose between different burst speeds like low, medium, or high. The frame rate is different for each. This is good because you don’t always want the max, often slower is better.
Some cameras let you adjust the frame rate for each speed. So for low you might be able to set it for 3, 4, or 5 fps, and for high 8, 11, or 14.
Buffer size is also important. If a camera has a small buffer it will fill quickly with a high frame rate and then the fps slow down dramatically.
Super high frame rates are really only useful to those who shoot things like sports or birds in flight. For the average hobbyist even 8 fps might flood you with more images than you want to sort through. When comparing specs be realistic about what you need.
Highlight Warning (AKA Blinkies)
This feature blinks to warn you when highlights are blown out. Sometimes the blown out portion is displayed with a stripe pattern rather than blinking. The feature can be turned on or off and can work two different ways, depending on the camera.
One is the warning displays in the live view. This is helpful because you know you might need to adjust settings before you take the photo. But it can also become irritating because it will always give you the warning, even when it doesn’t matter that some small spot in the frame is blown out.
In some cameras the warning only functions when reviewing an already captured image. This method lessens the possible irritation factor, but you have to remember to actually check your photos in situations where blown highlights would be detrimental so that you can adjust and shoot again.
Image stabilization helps counteract camera shake. It’s especially useful with long lenses (much more difficult to hold steady), dim light conditions (for hand holding at slower shutter speeds), and for people with unsteady hands.
There are two types. Optical image stabilization (OIS) is in the lens. In body image stabilization (IBIS) is part of the camera sensor. The sensor sort of floats on a mechanism so it can move slightly to offset camera movement.
IBIS is less common, but often considered more valuable because with it you have IS no matter which lens you use. However, OIS is often better than IBIS.
If IS is important to you and you’re considering buying an ILC that doesn’t have IBIS, check to see if the zoom or telephoto lenses you’re planning to buy have OIS. (IS doesn’t matter much for short and standard focal length primes because they are relatively small and light.)
Interval (Timed) Shooting
Some cameras have a built-in interval shooting feature. It’s primarily used to make timelapse videos, but it can also be used if you want to take timed shots when away from the camera.
Without the feature you have to buy an intervalometer (timer remote) that plugs into the camera’s remote release port.
Some cameras with the feature give you the option to combine the JPEGs into a timelapse video in the camera. The video is then ready to view immediately and to download to your computer. You also still have all the original individual images in case you want to do something else with them.
Some cameras with interval shooting don’t have the video feature so you have to download all the images to your computer and use software to create the timelapse movie.
All cameras have a native ISO range. Most cameras also offer extended ISO that is lower and higher than the native range.
Base ISO varies by brand. Some brands use 80 in most of their models, some 125, and others 200, etc. The max high ISO is heavily dependent on sensor size.
The actual range isn’t as important as how the images look. A very low base ISO is considered an advantage, but whether the base ISO is 80 or 200, what’s most important is that the images should look very clean and free of noise.
For high ISO, performance is directly related to sensor size, but not all sensors of the same size are equal. If you plan to do a lot of low light shooting you have to do some research as to which models perform well. If the consensus is that 3200 is the highest you can go for usable images for a particular model, it doesn’t matter that the max ISO for that model is 51200.
Kelvin Scale White Balance
If you are a JPEG shooter and start paying more attention to white balance you may realize the camera’s WB presets (daylight, tungsten, cloudy, etc.) don’t always get it quite right.
If you want more control, make sure the cameras you look at have the option to use the Kelvin scale. The Kelvin scale allows you to fine-tune WB to fit the exact light conditions, and also to exaggerate warm or cool tones for artistic effect.
In camera product listings this is usually referred to as setting the color temperature.
Manual Focus Assist
MF Assist is an electronic aid for manual focusing. The two main assist types are magnification and focus peaking.
Magnification is just what it sounds like. Turning the focus ring and/or pushing a button will magnify what you see to make focusing easier.
Focus peaking is when a bright color highlights the edges of anything that is currently in focus. The color used varies. I’ve seen light blue, red, green, and white.
Some cameras let you select from different colors so you can pick the one that works best for you or the scene you’re shooting. Some also let you adjust the strength of the highlight display. The more options the better.
Some cameras also offer a kinda hazy split image method that is supposed to simulate the split prisms of film SLR lenses, but in my experience it doesn’t work that great.
Manual Focus Method
Manual focusing is usually done with a focus ring on the lens barrel. That’s what you want because it’s the easiest way to focus.
I’m bringing this up because compact point and shoots with a lens that completely retracts into the body won’t have a focus ring. You usually use the 4-way button on the back and it makes manual focusing difficult. There may be some bridge styles without a focus ring too. So if you’re buying a P&S of any kind double-check first to make sure how it manually focuses.
Maximum Shutter Speed
This won’t matter to most people, but if you do a lot of shooting with a wide aperture in bright light with no ND filter it could come into play. Especially if the camera doesn’t have a very low ISO option.
All cameras have a max for how fast the shutter can go. It might be 1/4000 on one camera and 1/8000 on another.
Mirrorless cameras often allow a much higher max when the electronic shutter is used. My camera can go as fast as 1/32,000 with the electronic shutter, which boggles my mind.
For a full discussion of megapixels please see the previous post on sensors. (Link at the top.)
What I’ll say here is that any camera you buy will have more than enough megapixels. Unless you have need of a high-resolution sensor for a specific reason, there are other things that are usually more important when comparing camera models.
Also, buying a sharper lens will usually do more to increase IQ than buying body with a few more megapixels.
Moving the AF Point
A lot of people use the focus and recompose method for focusing. If that describes you then you may not care how the AF point can me moved around the frame. For those who do care, there are four methods and many cameras have more than one of them.
The basic way is using the 4-way buttons on the camera back as directional arrows.
Most touch screens let you tap on the spot you want the AF point to move to. Some touch screens allow you to move the AF point by sliding your thumb around the upper right corner as you’re looking in the viewfinder.
The method people seem to like best is by using a joystick, which is actually just a small button that moves in 4 directions. Joysticks are usually only included on more expensive cameras.
You can shoot a panorama without any special help from your camera as long as you have a tripod and editing software capable of stitching separate images together.
If you don’t want to go to that trouble many cameras offer the ability to create a panorama in-camera, no stitching software needed. You do this by selecting the panorama mode and panning the camera across the wide scene. When you’re done panning, the camera automatically stitches the images into a single panoramic image file for you.
It’s a temperamental feature. Using a tripod helps, though isn’t required. You have to pan at exactly the right speed and angle or it fails completely, and even when “successful” you can get weird results. This means you often have to make multiple attempts.
Still, it’s a nifty feature to have for those who want to dabble in making an occasional panorama without ever having to mess with editing software. (Though you still often have to do some cropping of the image to get rid of white sections.)
PASM vs. Fujifilm and Leica
The vast majority of digital cameras have what photographers call a PASM dial that is used to select a shooting mode. (P = Program Mode, A = Aperture Priority Mode, S = Shutter Priority Mode, M = Manual Mode.) There are usually additional modes on the dial as well, like Scene, Auto, Panorama, or Movie.
Many Fujifilm and Leica models shun that design and kick it old school. They use physical controls like those found on film cameras instead of relying on a PASM dial.
These types of cameras appeal to those who prefer a more tactile and less electronic shooting experience, or who miss the simplicity of shooting with a film camera. You get the design of a film camera with all the high-tech features of a digital camera.
It depends on the model, but at a minimum you set aperture with a ring on the lens barrel and shutter speed with a dial on top of the camera. There may also be dials for ISO, exposure compensation, or drive mode (single shot, burst, bracketing, movie, etc.). Each setting also provides an automatic option to let the camera choose for you.
It’s up to personal taste as to whether you prefer PASM or traditional. My current camera is the Fujifilm X-T20 and I bought it precisely because of the physical controls. I felt like they had designed the camera just for me.
Lower end Fujifilm and Leica models do use a PASM dial. The nifty controls are found on the middle and upper tier cameras.
You should buy a camera that is capable of shooting in RAW. I think that all cameras you’ll probably be considering can do that, but if you’re shopping for a small sensor P&S check just to make sure. (For an explanation of RAW vs. JPEG see this post.) Even if you are a JPEG only shooter now, that may change in the future and you need a camera that can keep up with you.
Remote Release Port
If you do much shooting on a tripod, especially at night, it makes things easier to use a remote shutter release. There has to be a port in the camera body designed to plug one in or you’ll always have to use the camera’s self-timer instead. Using the timer for things like light trails and fireworks makes things difficult.
If you ever plan to use Bulb Mode you must use a remote release.
Touch screens are becoming more common, but a lot of cameras still don’t have them.
Touch screens are implemented differently on different models, even from the same brand. Some are basic and let you move the AF point and swipe through or zoom in when reviewing photos. Some let you focus and take a photo with a touch. Some let you use the menus with touch.
My current camera has one and I keep it turned off most of the time. My nose has snapped a photo more than once, and I’ve accidentally moved the AF point numerous times with an inadvertent brush of my finger. The touch to shoot feature is handy in some situations though.
Some cameras provide the option to recharge the battery while it’s still in the body. There’s a port where you plug in a USB charging cord.
This can be nice to have if you don’t want to keep track of or pack a battery charger. The feature is most useful for those who are away from electrical outlets (or a car with a charging adapter) for extended periods of time. You can keep the camera topped off with a USB battery pack.
This series has been about still photography. Videography is an entirely different thing. If you use your camera for video a significant amount, especially if you do extensive editing, you need to read up on video specs and features at video websites.
If you’re like me and just occasionally make short clips of squirrels at the park or a family member’s birthday party don’t get hung up on video specs. Whatever the camera can do will be good enough for your own enjoyment or sharing with Nana on Facebook. There’s a lot of hype about 4k, but it’s overkill and even problematic for casual usage.
It’s my personal opinion that any camera you buy should have a viewfinder. All DSLRs have one, so no issue there.
Using a VF reduces camera shake because the body is pressed against your face, not held out in front of you to compose with the back screen. You can always see the VF, but on bright days it can be difficult or impossible to see the back screen. An EVF uses less battery power than the back screen.
The big decision is do you want an optical VF or electronic VF. All DSLRs have an OVF. Very few mirrorless models do.
The main advantage of OVFs is their clarity. And with a DSLR you’re seeing exactly what the lens sees. Some users have a strong preference for the non-electronic nature of an OVF. Some people find OVFs more difficult to use, especially for manual focusing.
With EVFs the display is provided directly from the sensor. So an EVF is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get view for framing, WB, exposure, etc. You also get a full display of all your current settings, and manual focus assists. EVFs provide a technical advantage, but some people are put off by the electronic experience.
Other things to consider about VFs are where they are located on the body, size, resolution, and magnification. What’s acceptable in these categories is down to personal taste. It’s best to try cameras out in a store to make sure the VF satisfies you.
Virtual Horizon – Level Indicator
Sometimes it’s the little things that have high value. My first digital camera didn’t have a virtual horizon, but now that I’ve used cameras with it I wouldn’t go without.
A virtual horizon or level indicator is an option you can turn on to display on the LCD screen and EVF. It’s a tilty line that goes across the frame to indicate when your camera is level.
Crooked horizons and leaning statues are plastered all over the web. Nothing ruins an otherwise good photo quicker than it not being level. It can be fixed with an editor, but that’s an extra step to bother with if you don’t normally do any editing. Plus, fixing it after the fact means you’re cropping a bit of the image.
Also called environmental sealing or weather resistance.
Weather resistant cameras are more expensive, but if you do a lot of shooting around waves, waterfalls, rain, snow, or in dusty desert conditions it’s probably worth the extra expense. If you buy an ILC, weather resistant lenses are also available.
The seals around the buttons, doors, and lens mount can’t prevent all dust and water intrusion, but a camera with resistance is much more likely to survive getting caught in a bad rainstorm.