The Most Important Camera Feature Photographers Overlook

The Most Important Camera Feature Photographers Overlook

What is the most important camera feature for you? Dynamic range? Burst rate? Autofocus performance? There are a lot of key camera specs that have objective impacts on our image-making, but spec sheets fail to capture one of the most important aspects of a camera.

What is your favorite camera you have used? Think about your experience shooting with it. Why was it your favorite? I am willing to bet that for most of us, at least part of it was simply how it made you feel — how the sum of its individual functions, its menu system, its ergonomics, its controls, and its overall design added up to your total experience behind the viewfinder. It was a combination of perhaps some objectively identifiable things and a certain je ne sais quoi. 

Dating My Camera

My favorite camera (photo by Don DeBold used under Creative Commons).

Working with a camera is somewhat like relationships. You can take two people who have all sorts of compatible qualities on paper, who are looking for what the other has, and put them together, and there is no spark. Ok, so maybe my camera doesn't care what kind of music I like, but you get my point.

We are lucky in the sense that modern camera technology is incredibly mature, meaning you can pick just about any brand and build a very competent and capable system for yourself. And that means you can afford to be picky. And that is why you should also consider intangibles. 

I included a picture of my favorite camera above, the Rollei 35. It isn't even a digital camera. My model, the 35 SE, was released in 1979. It has no autofocus; in fact, it is neither an SLR or a rangefinder — merely zone-focusing on this device! The hot shoe is upside-down. Changing film is a tedious chore that requires removing the entire back of the camera. All the exposure settings are on strange dials on the front of the camera that you can't see when your eye is behind it in the normal position. Oh, and its fixed lens is a bizarre 40mm. 

This adorable stray dog was just wandering Paris and enjoying the beautiful weather.

So, why is this weird little camera my favorite? It is just so much fun to shoot with. It is absolutely tiny — one of the smallest 35mm cameras ever produced, and so, it's very unobtrusive; in fact, it basically lives on my wrist. I basically keep it focused at 10 feet at all times and follow the standard "f/8 and be there" rule. Why do I like it so much? I'm sure it's both a dose of nostalgia and the fact that it feels like such a pure form of photography to me: it has a very neutral focal length, there's no autofocus or even an efficient means of manually focusing, no burst mode, etc. For me, this camera is about as close as a device can come to simply replicating what my eye saw. Yes, that's extremely subjective, but that's the point. 

It Is Not Just the Specs

Sure, I am not carrying my little Rollei 35mm film camera along with me for serious work. That call generally gets assigned to my 1D X Mark II. However, the same principles carry over here. For years, working pros have heaped praise on Canon for the ergonomics of the 1 Series, which got its start in the film days. In case you doubt just how good they are, check out how unchanged the ergonomics are from the original 1D from 2001 to the 1D X Mark III of 2020:

Original Canon 1D photo by Flickr user pointnshoot, used under Creative Commons. 

When I say intangibles, I am referring to how a camera makes you feel. Do you genuinely enjoy shooting with it? 

I may sound like I'm spouting a bunch of fluff, but this is actually something that really matters. Your frame of mind when you bring the viewfinder to your eye can make a big difference in your shooting experience, especially when it comes to creativity. Liking your camera and feeling inspired by it can put you in a more positive state of mind, and that can not only help you take a better image, but it can also motivate you to simply pick up the camera in the first place. 

It seems like a lot of the cameras with the most devoted fans are the type that fit nicely in the hand and have controls and menus that get out of the way. In other words, there is a certain purity to the experience of using the camera. That is one of the top reasons Fuji X Series users give for their enjoyment of the cameras: large analog dials that help you keep your eye to the viewfinder and make it easy and intuitive to change settings without breaking your train of thought. A camera that is intuitive feels less like working a computer that takes images and more like a conduit through which creative ideas can come to fruition.

Different Priorities and Conclusion

No doubt, these qualities might not matter to you that much. For you, the camera may be a tool and nothing more, to be chosen based on objective, measurable quantities that clearly define it as the best for your line of work. And certainly, there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, that is how a lot of photographers approach equipment.

On the other hand, for a lot of us, the way a camera feels in our hands makes a substantial difference both in how we shoot and how motivated we are to do so, often more than we might realize. And with cameras as advanced as they are nowadays, unless you are working in situations that require the bleeding edge of camera tech, you can afford to consider other attributes, such as how a camera feels. Can you build an intuitive relationship with it in which the camera is less an obstacle to be overcome to create an image and more an extension of your creativity? It is something worth considering the next time you are looking at a camera. 

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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I'd say that ergonomics are one of the more under-recognized important camera features.

I really miss decent camera shops (I used to have 4 great little shops in my local area years ago, nothing now). Guessing the ergonomics when buying online is really difficult.

I remember buying a compact film camera years ago to take to Florida as I didn't want to lug my Minolta SLR. Digital was in its infancy and expensive. The sales assistant brought out 4 cameras for me to try and I instantly rejected two of them because of the ergonomics.

Always support your local camera shop, even if it might be a tad more expensive.
For that reason alone.

I think the essence of this is that the emotional and physical feel and connection with the camera is critical. It's one reason I still shoot with Canons despite their historical lagging IQ vs. their competitors.I just like the "feel" of my 7D2 and 5DS that transcends just the physical or ergonomics of them.

100%. I yearn for simplicity. I use a Nikon D850 and it is incredible, definitely the best camera in the world for what I do BUT my favourite camera ever was a 1959 Leica M3 which I owned 30 years ago. If I could afford one, I’d buy a Leica M10 Monochrom, in fact if they did a ‘D’ version of the Monochrom (the one without the rear screen) I’d have that one.

The most useful thing I find on my camera is the tilt screen, saves crawling around on the floor

Combined with silent shooting, the tilt screen is great for candids

Light weight is one of the most forgotten features.

Great piece Alex never thought about it. In my film days, I carried three Nikon bodies around my neck with prime lens. Now I hand carry a single Canon using one zoom lens most of the time, ergonomics is everything.

I want high quality images, lightweight and quiet. The a7 that I use now is a bit too heavy, noisy and clunky, ergonomically not that great. But high quality images are important for me and I had to stretch my budget to buy a used one.

Also, I don't like taking photos with my phone, though I do for convenience. It's too light.

Can your camera become part of a hand to eye reaction of shooting efficiently and effectively, if that is your style. Smaller cameras work better for this type of work or approach.

My fav was a brassy Leica M2 BLACK that I purchased for $350 in 1990.

This might sound strange, but build in picture styles, is what makes it for me.

I think, it comes from the film days, where you chose the film, depending on what you were going to shoot.
Films was different and not all films were equally good for all things. Of course, you had the generic negative film at iso 100, 200 and 400, but if you went positive film (slide) or even used some of the more extreme negative film, it really changed how you was shooting and what you could shoot.

Today I really like putting my camera in picture style mode and just go shooting for that style.
That means shooting in JPG, but it still gives the same feeling of "creative constraint" that the old film day gave.

And before someone comes in and say, but RAW and postprocessing.
It is not the same and I really, really hate postprocessing.
It is standing in the field with a camera in your hand and visualizing the picture, before you even take it,
Will this picture even go with his style?

NB: I always set my camera to save both RAW & JPG, course memory cards are cheap, so I do have a RAW backup.

Yes I agree. ergonomics is very important, finding a camera that is comfortable and another reason why I went from DSLR (Pentax K3-too heavy) to a mirrorless (Olympus OMD-too small) and now back to a DSLR (Pentax KP- perfect!) 😊

Something that you never knew was useful until you've had it...illuminated buttons. Especially for night shooting during a new moon, it's a game changer.

This may be ergonomics related but... Physical dials... Any dial that keeps me out of the digital menu is my best friend.

An open an honest(?) comment. I doubt that, judging by the candor of your response, this is quite the case, however I enjoyed your answer. j

So true! I purchased the Sony RX100 mk7 blind (online) and when it comes to ergonomics, this thing fell off the design line completely. It's a fumbling disaster which is such a shame for an EDC pocket device.

Ergonomics are such a personal thing. I've always loved the feel of a Nikon DSLR, but can't say the same for anything else I've ever held. My Canon friends say they same thing about their Canons, and Fuji friends say the same about theirs, Sony, ditto. Big hands, little hands, button placement, size, weight. It's all personal.

I truly believe that THE MOST important and overlooked feature of a camera is the quality of the image which the camera can produce. This is also affected by the combinations of the lens and photographer but, the image quality is the key. How it feels in your hands, the features, speed, battery duration, etc., are all nice but, if the picture quality isn't there or if it is of low quality do any of them really matter?

Is there such a thing as a camera that takes bad images from the last 10 years? I could buy a Nikon D3200 for about a hundred quid on eBay and with the right skills produce an image that’s as good as anyone will ever need.