Experienced photographers only need the basic camera settings of focusing, metering and exposure. It’s necessary having a grasp of these fundamentals, but extra features and technologies make our lives a lot easier. Here are ten I need. What are yours?
Designers Sometimes Get It Wrong
A few years ago, not far from where I live, a new high school was built. It was a wonderful, modern, open-plan design. Only a few weeks into using the building they discovered an error. They had not made an enclosed area for the students to sit the exams. (Exams are a big thing here in the UK.) A bit further back in time, another school was constructed, and they forgot to include any cupboards for the janitorial staff to store the cleaning equipment.
Similarly, if you look at, say, Canon's range of beginner cameras, of the six or so DSLRs, each lacks some features that other ones have, making the choice difficult, especially for a novice. Those are features that the beginner may soon miss and be forced to change model. This, of course, is bad news for both the photographer and the planet. Nikon used to be the same, but they reduced their range to just three camera models under $1,000. Most other brands have just one or two interchangeable lens cameras with viewfinders in that price bracket, and they tend to be packed with more features; they are not missing janitor's cupboards.
Even if It's There, You May Have to Hunt for It
I recently helped a novice photographer with their beginner’s camera because, in Av mode, the shutter value did not change when the flash was popped up. Consequently, in low light, the shutter was still reading around a second. This was the default setting. Changing the behavior to how most learners would want it, i.e., increasing the shutter value to the flash sync speed, was buried deep in the menus.
However, bad functionality and missing features are not limited to beginners' cameras. Even some advanced models lack in areas of design and functionality that I would want in any camera.
The Features I Could Not Do Without
For landscape and macro photographers, an articulated Live View screen is a boon. It allows you to photograph at low and awkward angles and see what you are shooting without crawling on the floor. I use it when wading into the sea or river and wanting to shoot close to the water.
There are two types of articulated screens. The first just tilts up and down, so it can be viewed from above or below. The other fully articulates from the side, so it can open and swivel to face forwards, upwards, and downwards. Both types are good for shooting at a low level. The fully articulated version is better for times when the shooting angle is difficult, or you are recording yourself on video and want to see the screen from in front of the camera.
One drawback of the fully articulated screen is that it can be obstructed by cables, such as the microphone, when twisted to face forward. However, I use a separate digital recorder for video, which gives much better audio results, so for me, this isn’t a problem.
Back in the days of film, I used a mechanical shutter release cable, that screwed into the top of the shutter button. I had one where you pressed a button on the end of a cable and a pin would pop out of the other end, and another which has a pneumatic bulb to squeeze. Things have come a long way since then.
Being able to tether your camera to a phone, tablet, or computer without trailing cables, so you can see what your camera sees on that device, and then fire remotely, is a boon. I use it especially for shooting long exposures at night, so I don't jog the camera pressing the shutter, and in the studio when doing product photos. I’ve also used it for birds in flight, pointing the camera on the bird’s flight path to the feeder while I stay hidden.
A recent project required me to photograph an enormous antique map in sections and then stitch the photos together in Photoshop. The map was flat on the floor, so I had the camera suspended above it on a boom. I could check the composition, exposure, and even light distribution from the studio flashes on my phone. Without this technology, the shoot would have been impossible.
I have big hands and long fingers. I once thought that having a larger camera would be better for me. However, years ago, when I got into the camera shop and picked up the Canon 5D Mark III that I had my heart set on, my fingers couldn’t find the buttons, the grip felt awkward, and my nose pressed uncomfortably onto the back of the camera.
This is, of course, is a personal thing. Someone with short, stumpy fingers and a stubby nose may find the 5D perfect to use, and many people do. However, it emphasizes the importance of trying a camera before buying. Ergonomics is everything.
Light Weight and Compact
Talking of ergonomics, many full frame and most crop frame cameras are far larger and heavier than the old 35mm film SLR cameras I have in my collection. In fact, I have TLRs that are smaller and lighter than some DSLRs. I ended up with a sore neck and back after carrying such a DSLR and a big telephoto lens all day. Consequently, a major factor for me now is how light the camera is. I’m relatively fit, cycling and working out most days, and I am a long way off retirement, but I really don’t want to be lugging huge amounts of heavy kit around.
Nevertheless, I am not getting younger, and with the aging population, lightweight, smaller systems are becoming ever more popular with older photographers for whom big, bulky systems are, literally, a pain. Saying that, smaller, lighter cameras aren’t just for the older shooters. Many younger photographers want that convenience too.
Exposures Longer Than 30 Seconds
Many of my seascape photos are shot either at night or with an ND1000 filter attached. Often, I am looking at exposures of tens of minutes. Many cameras have their maximum shutter time-limited to 30-seconds, except when in bulb mode. That is inadequate. My cameras allow me to see long exposures gradually develop over many minutes on the Live View screen, or on my tablet. But just having the ability to shoot 60-second exposures, as opposed to just 30, makes a big creative difference.
Two Command Dials
Does your camera have one or two dials to alter the exposure? If it has only one, then you will need to press a +/- button to apply exposure compensation in aperture and shutter priority modes, or to switch between aperture and shutter in manual mode.
With almost every image I take, I apply exposure compensation because TTL metering is easily tricked by predominantly light or dark subjects. It’s also a creative tool I use a lot. Having two dials is faster and easier to manage. I have the rear dial to adjust the aperture and the front dial to adjust the shutter, or exposure compensation if in aperture priority mode.
On the mode dial on top of my camera are three custom sets. Each of these is programmed with the settings I would usually employ for shooting subjects I usually take. Of course, these settings are just a starting point, and they are tweaked on every shoot: C1 is set for landscapes, C2 is for birds in flight, C3 is for long exposures
So, if I am shooting a landscape and spot a flock of swans flying past, a quick twist of the mode dial and I can capture them. Or, if I have been shooting long exposures during the blue hour, when the sun comes up, I can turn the dial from C3 to C1, and I am ready to go.
Of course, if I am shooting a wedding, family portraits, or clients’ products, I can back up my settings to my computer, change them in-camera for that shoot, and then reload my usual settings again later.
In-Body Image Stabilization
For writing this article, I thought I would put an old 200mm lens (400mm full frame equivalent) on my camera and see how slow a shutter I could handhold: I managed ½ second. Being able to shoot handheld in low light is essential for me, especially when photographing weddings and parties when a flash isn’t possible.
I made the leap from DSLRs to mirrorless in 2015, and would never turn back. Being able to see the histogram inside the viewfinder, or boost the brightness, so I can see through an ND1000 filter, plus having a 100% field of view – many DSLRs crop what you see in the viewfinder – makes a huge difference.
I've lost count of the times when my cameras have been splashed, dunked, or blasted with sand on the beach.I haven't had to make an insurance claim yet.
Your Favorite Features
Of course, these features are personal to me and the type of photography I do. If you work solely in a studio shooting fashion, then your needs may be quite different from mine. It would be great to hear what your extra essential features are, or don't you have any?