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What Camera Features Would You Be Lost Without?

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

Articulated Screen

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.

WiFi

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.

Comfortable Grip

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.

The Canon 5D range are super cameras, but they feel uncomfortable in my hands and my long fingers cannot easily reach the buttons. There's no articulated screen either, which is essential for me.

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. 

At just 1.28 lb this lightweight camera is not lightweight in performance or features.

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.

100 second exposure. Inner Farne Island three miles away at sea, plus Bamburgh Lighthouse, off the coast of Northumberland, UK. Shot after sunset.

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.

Two command dials allows for quick changes in exposure value.

Custom Sets

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.

These swans flew over after sunset while I was photographing long-exposure seascapes. A quick turn of the mode dial, and the camera was ready for them.

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.

Electronic Viewfinder

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.

Weather Sealing

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?

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38 Comments

Ryan Handt's picture

Definitely the shutter release. the sensor is close second.

Dan Seefeldt's picture

or the viewfinder

Ryan Handt's picture

I can live without a viewfinder depending on the camera.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Ha ha.

Ivor Rackham's picture

It's interesting what different people need, don't you think?

Jan Holler's picture

Of this list I only need:
+ the comfortable grip and
+ the two command dials. (I shoot in aperture mode or manual mode with auto ISO mostly. )
+ I need a ISO invariance camera. (+ I need fast lenses.)
+ I need at least one button: to quickly activate spot metering.

I would like to have (and I have)
o a camera with weather sealing
o buttons and dials to quickly access functions
o a good menu system

What I do not really need:
-I don't need IBIS (my objects move) and
-all the rest being listed in the article

Cheers, -jan

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks Jan. I wonder if it's horses for courses for Menu systems. I've read a few reviews that claim my camera's menus, quite different from the Canon and Nikon menus, are difficult to use, but I find them intuitive.

Jan Holler's picture

One gets used to it eventually. Fast access to important entries is the most relevant aspect, I'd say.
I find the Nikon System not very intuitive. I still struggle to remember where some rarely used entries are. In real life I only need a few options. I put these in the quick access menu (or whatever its name is). But most important: Most, if not all, of the functions I need have a dedicated or an assigned button.
I shoot RAW and know that many functions in the menus are settings for JPGs. So I don't struggle with Nikon's complicated solution to save default values with pro cameras (many photographers hate it). What I need besides the basic functions is the ability to quickly set white balance (dedicated button), ISO (dedicated button), show a virtual horizon, a button to quickly switch to spot metering (could have been solved better by Nikon) and one to change AF mode (dedicated button).

Now, let's talk about flash systems and their menus - just kidding.

EDWIN GENAUX's picture

You have named most! But Lens IS and mentioned IBIS. High ISO and dual ISO - remember 6400 was max. (well extended), in the beginning Playmemories on camera apps A7/M2, two different autos, the biggest was/is having companies make adapters for other camera makers lenses before release - was able to use Canon FD and EF-S/EF lenses when first bought A7s (2014) still use FD able to use old prism filters that digital programs can not do also able to use FD 14mm/20mm f/2.8, 24 f/1.4,35 f/2, 50 f/1.2, 55 f/1.2, 85 f/1.2, 100 f/2, 135 f/2, and several Zooms years before digital lenses and no star elongation in corners like many early wide lenses, focus peaking for manual focusing, Zebras for good lighting. All allowed for saving $ and geariest. A big big thing is bright monitoring for night capture, you can see the MW on the LCD and frame. Oh, it was the age of HDR and A7s has 5 @ +/- 3EV great for 5 @ +/- 2ev sunrise and bluehour and infocus moon and landscapes with 5 @ +/- 3EV SS/ISO 125 center .5s for 30s without using Ps/Lr.

Ivor Rackham's picture

All good points, Edwin. Super photos too. Focus peaking and zebras I use loads too.

Justin Sharp's picture

I’m not the intended audience, but I’m going to chime in anyway. My camera is a view camera so the camera itself has very few features unless you count the movements: rise/fall, tilt/shift, and swing. I once left my film at home which pretty much ruins a day of shooting, I guess you can consider that essential.

Tom Reichner's picture

What is "LF"?

Ivor Rackham's picture

I think it could be a typo for MF, although years ago I had a joke with friends about Lazy Focus: wide-angle lens, f/11 and leave the focus at the hyperfocal distance.

Tom Reichner's picture

Yes, it could well be a typo for MF. But that only covers the focusing functions. There are some camera features that are extremely important, but don't have anything to do with focusing. So even those who always focus manually will still need, or benefit from, some of the "fancy schmancy" features that J.D. Davis says he doesn't need. That's what makes me think that perhaps J.D. meant something other than MF when he typed LF.

Tom Reichner's picture

Oh, ok ... I get it now! Thanks for the explanation.

I would LOVE to shoot large format, because of the incredible image quality it can yield. But LF manufacturers don't seem to make gear that is optimized for the type of photography I do.

I wish they would make LF supertelephoto lenses in the 600mm to 800mm range. And I wish that they would make LF bodies and lenses that had state-of-the-art subject tracking autofocus, for subjects such as running deer and flying birds.

But I don't think they've figured out a way to make such long focal lengths that cast such a large image circle in weights and sizes that are manageable for photographers who need to carry them long distances over rough, steep terrain. 'Tis a pity, really.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I have film cameras I use too. My third DSLR (an Olympus OM2n) had Aperture Priority, and I remember thinking that it was the bees knees. It and it's two predecessors all had TTL metering, which was a novel feature not too many years before. I enjoy getting out with my TLRs and light meter, the only problem is, everyone stops to ask me about them and I never get to shoot.

Gary Bowen's picture

Exposure compensation on my film cameras.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Yes!

Axina Risler's picture

The Green Button on Pentax cameras. Shooting with solely vintage lenses, because they're cheap, and then having a single button to essentially meter and then lock exposure with one press in manual mode is my favorite feature of any camera I've ever used.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Oh, that's interesting, I didn't know about that green button, but have now read up about it. I have learned something! Thank you.

I love my collection of vintage lenses too.

Kevin Connery's picture

The one thing I would be 'lost without' is autofocus. My eyes have deteriorated sufficiently that getting sharp focus--especially with cameras designed for AF--is very spotty, and it's the reason I switched from Canon's FD system to their EOS one.

All the rest are 'nice to have' items, though I'd add tethering capability to the top of that list. (But I haven't had to deal with a single control dial on any of my cameras, and that might be another must have.)

Ivor Rackham's picture

Yes, Kevin. My eyes are not as sharp as they were ten years ago and rely on AF too. That's one of the advantages of being able to see the live view on a large tablet instead of through the viewfinder or back screen.

I wonder whether it's an evolutionary advantage, seeing the world in soft focus, so we look attractive to others are age!

Wolfgang Post's picture

AF and aperture coupling. That's why I stay clear of these vintage lenses and all the singing about them. My focus is on the picture, not on some odd and perceived 'character' of a 50y old piece of lens.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Two Command Dials:
While I endorse this priority and will NOT buy a Sony a6xxx due to the lack of two dials, in retrospect I have to concede that this was not an issue on my older Panasonic cameras (GX1, G3) because I could simply press the rear dial and, voilà!, it would assume the function of a front dial. Nice. Occasionally confusing, but still a decent solution.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Yes, that is a good system. Saying that, I have used, though not owned, Panasonic cameras in the past and I found the pressure to be too sensitive for my ham-fistedness, I was pressing it when I didn't want to. I think that was me and not the cameras that was to blame though.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Some models required a lighter touch than others. I think Panasonic perfected this just before they dropped it in favor of dual dials.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Must Have: The ability to use a touchpad or joystick to select and track one out of many "boxed" faces in a crowd. AFAIK, no manufacturer is providing this. :-( Center-lock-recompose-shoot is so 1990.

Jan Holler's picture

Yes. "center-lock-recompose-shoot is so 1990": true.
I would like to have a small square touchpad, exactly where the circular button for moving the active AF area is on Nikon or Canon. I could move the focus point freely with my thumb. When it is on the rear AF trigger button, the AF is in automatic mode, when you move your thumb on the pad, the AF is in manual mode.

Ivor Rackham's picture

One of the snazzy features on Olympus cameras is that you can run your thumb around on the touch sensitive rear screen and the focus point will move around accordingly in the viewfinder.

Jan Holler's picture

Does it also work when the screen is off? With full-frame cameras I fear that the distance to the screen is too great to reach with the thumb.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Yes, it does Jan. I can operate it with either my right or left thumb. I don't know if that function would be practical with full frame, as I no longer have one. I've just tried to see if I could reach around the back of my 35mm film cameras, and I can. But I do have long fingers.

Jacques Cornell's picture

I love Touchpad AF on my Panasonic MFT bodies. But, when I use it, the AF point becomes fixed. I just noticed that DPR's review of the S1R indicates that camera can use either Touchpad AF or the joystick to switch from one boxed face to another. This is what I've been hoping for. However, the review indicates it doesn't work very well. One caveat: the review doesn't say much about it or mention any performance difference between Touchpad AF and joystick. My Sonys don't to this at all. If I want to select a specific face among many, with Wide Area AF active, I can put that face in the center and half-press, but the success rate is pretty low. Or, I can switch from Wide Area to a central Flexible Spot - Small and put that over the face, but too often the AF jumps to another face when I recompose. I could use the joystick to move the Flexible spot around the frame, but this is simply too slow. In these cases, it's actually faster for me to use Touchpad AF on my MFT bodies, using my thumb to place a fixed spot over the face and then firing off a few frames. I give up tracking, but with slow-moving subjects it works quite well. I have tried the same approach with my Sonys, but the touch AF is horribly slow and laggy.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Jan, I don't find the reach too far on my a7III & a7RIII, with just the right half of the touchscreen active, but the Sonys' touchscreens are horribly slow and laggy.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Yes, facial recognition does tend to jump around in a crowd, especially if the subject is moving. I guess this is a processing power issue. Manufacturers, take not of Jacques's comment! :)

Jacques Cornell's picture

I wouldn't mind if the camera dropped eye-detect to free up CPU cycles to prioritize face tracking in a crowd.

Tom Reichner's picture

1: Menus and controls that I can "just figure out" in a minute or less. I should never, ever have to read a manual or watch a tutorial - If I do, then the menu is far too complex and confusing.

2: Autofocus that is rapid and accurate, especially when tracking subjects that are moving quickly and erratically.

3: Weather sealing and rugged build quality that let me shoot in the rain and snow, and knock around in the rocks or lay in the sand, with no concerns whatsoever.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I go along with all of those, Tom. It's funny what you say about menus, I find the one I use to be intuitive, yet it usually faces criticism in reviews. Then there is one of the biggest brands whose menus and button functions just seem stupid to me.

Autofocus has come such a long way in the last few years. But, I was teaching a client how to use their basic model camera and the camera just would not lock on to the foreground at all. We were shooting along a boardwalk, so the grain of the wood ran across the frame. It turned out that the all except the centre phase detect focus points were not cross-type but horizontal, so it could not lock on. So annoying.

I utterly agree with the weather sealing. My camera has been dunked in rivers and sprayed with seawater, and bounced off rocks more times than I care to count, and it's still going strong.