Three Camera Specs Manufacturers Love to Sensationalize That You Should Actually Just Ignore

Three Camera Specs Manufacturers Love to Sensationalize That You Should Actually Just Ignore

Another day, another new camera has been announced. Most of the time the latest and greatest doesn't actually solve any real world problems or improve the shooting experience for the average photographer in any way. That said, camera makers have become rather adept at writing specs sheets designed to make you think that the latest and greatest in camera tech will revolutionize your shooting experience and thus, in turn, your work. I call hogwash, especially in terms of some of their favorite specs that they use to hide the fact that you really don't need a new camera.

Resolution

Pretty much every DSLR on the market boasts about the resolution of their latest camera despite the fact that, with the exception of a few outliers, the vast majority of DSLR and mirrorless cameras fall in the range of about 16 to 24 megapixels. Certainly not revolutionary and also not something that is likely to have a meaningful impact on the quality of your work. Sure, you may notice a big difference between a 6-megapixel camera from a decade ago and a 36-megapixel modern beast, but a difference of 4 megapixels just isn't going to make a difference in your photography. A good photo will still be a good photo, regardless. And in case you were wondering, magazines looked just as good a decade ago as they look now with images that were half the resolution.

What really matters: Far more important, and meaningful, is dynamic range which is often something camera makers don't even bother mentioning. A camera with superior dynamic range can completely change the way you shoot as it turns creative directions that were previously impossible into opportunities. I remember when I upgraded from a D700 to a D800 years ago it was like redefining how I worked with my camera. Not because of the giant increase in resolution but because of how much I could push shadows and highlights in post.

ISO Range

Boosted ISO is now formidably jumping up into the millions. For the vast majority of photographers this is completely useless, but camera makers are sure excited about being able to put the word "million" in their brochure. It's just such an impressive number, especially for photographers who never go over ISO 400 or 800. I've got a secret for you: even when you buy that new camera you still probably won't be pushing your ISO much higher because the noise still sucks. Being able to boost to a million ISO is does nothing for the vast majority of photographers. 

What really matters: The true key to ISO that I look for is low noise at relatively low ISO values. I don't care if my sensor can boost to a trillion if the noise at 800 still is pretty bad. Camera makers never really talk about noise levels at usable ISO ranges, but personally that is what I look for in ISO. Using that same D800 above as an example, one major failing of that camera was its ISO performance in the lower range. The difference between a D800 and D810 at ISO 800 was formidable yet you never see that printed on any specs sheets.

Buffer Size

Fantastic, I can shoot dozens of photos in burst mode before the buffer fills and the camera slows down. For the vast majority of photographers this spec ranges from utterly useless to mostly useless yet it is often one that is near the top of spec sheets being used to market a camera. Being able to burst 50 or 100 images at once really isn't useful or helpful in the real world. Even action shooters aren't bursting long enough to need a buffer that size.

What really matters: The main reasons that many photographers burst is to capture an ideal moment in time or in order to increase the odds of capturing a sharp exposure. In both cases, better, faster, and more accurate autofocusing systems offer far more benefit than a massive buffer ever will be able to. 

Conclusion

As a whole, stop obsessing about specs sheets. Most of the time they are simply designed as marketing machines to build hype about features that don't actually deserve any hype. Instead, if you feel you need a new camera, evaluate why you think that your current camera is failing you. Define what it lacks then look for a camera model that fills those gaps with as few compromises as possible. This method will ensure that you are upgrading in a meaningful way rather than just letting some arbitrary specs sheet vacuum money from your wallet for no reason other than to own the latest in marketing jargon. Finally, if you ever need a reminder of how ultimately unimportant camera specs are, head over the 500px and search for images made with a camera that is several generations out of date only to be amazed by results that can stand up against work created with the latest R&D magic. It doesn't take a billion dollars in new R&D to make an amazing photo. All it takes is an amazing photographer with the dedication to create something special.

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18 Comments

Thanks a lot for this reminder.

+1 on resolution and ISO, for buffer size YMMV.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

I keep coming across articles that tell me that larger pixels capture better information and therefore produce better images. It's obviously impossible to have larger pixels AND more pixels, so chasing after 50MP or more seems pointless if better images come from 20MP to 36MP.

And in any event, the images will either be digitally reproduced on a screen with FAR less pixels, or printed on a dot matrix printer which simply can't make use of huge pixel numbers - so they add nothing to image quality, except under extreme magnification on your post processing monitor.

I'm 110% with you on ISO vs noise. My cams are all rated with an ISO range extending past 12000, but none of them have satisfactory noise levels after about 4000 ISO and I generally find even that is "pushing it".

As for the buffer, no - not unless you use your cam as if it was a camcorder.

Dot matrix printer?? I haven't used one of those since 1990 or so.

I'd agree on resolution. And Max ISO for sure isn't too relevant, but high(ish) ISO quality has been improving considerably each generation and is a big factor in capability and image quality. Also buffer size is of value (to a point), on my D600, I can get about 9 shots in raw until it slows to a crawl, so even though I don't shoot fast, it is a limiting factor, and something I would like to increase in my next camera (along with better ISO performance above 1600-3200)

Brandon Vrvilo's picture

I was just thinking about this the other day! If only every camera manufacturer ever would see this!!

Anonymous's picture

While I agree with the comments about overhyping things, especially for new shooters, a lot of this depends on what you shoot. High ISO performance may be pointless to many people, but for wildlife or sports shooters, it's often critical (the same applies to the RAW buffer size). DR may be the end-all-be-all for landscapes, but much less important for studio work. Finally, Megapixels might be overhyped, too, but for clients wanting 40x60" or larger prints with tons of detail, you'll need all the pixels you can get. The same applies to camera size & weight, lens choices, and many other factors.

Since there is no single perfect camera, the best camera is the right one for what you shoot -- and understanding the compromises that come with each camera. Or just buy multiple cameras as most of us eventually do :-)

Clickbait-- I regret reading this article

Phil Newton's picture

Yeah I guess they're all ways for camera manufacturers to advertise why the new mk17 is soooo much better than the mk16, and why everyone needs to upgrade right now. Years of practice to slowly get better doesn't sell cameras, but jazzy new specs do!
If a person buys a faster car, it doesn't make them a better driver. A more talented driver can get more out of a faster car, however.

Patrick Hall's picture

I wish Nikon and others would take a page out of Sony's A7s series camera. If someone would make a 10-12 mp camera that could capture the same clean extreme high ISO that the A7s does in a DSLR format (which I still believe to be better at events, sports and weddings than mirrorless), I bet a lot of photographers would jump on it.

As a wedding photographer, being able to shoot a clean natural lit image during the reception at ISO 128,000+ would be amazing! It might not be the first camera everyone buys but it would be a perfect 2nd or 3rd camera for photographers that shoot for press, sports, events, weddings, etc.

So then why did you buy a Nikon D800 Ryan?

He was referring to relatively small incremental increases.
"...you may notice a big difference between a 6-megapixel camera from a decade ago and a 36-megapixel modern beast, but a difference of 4 megapixels just isn't going to make a difference in your photography."

Ryan Cooper's picture

Honestly, I didn't "really" want it. At the time my 700 died so I wanted a new full frame and the only choices were a D800 and the D4 at twice the price (or another used 700). I bemoaned the lack of a 24mp option in my price rice quite a bit. The D600 didn't come out for another 6 months and it was a disaster.

Harry Aaron's picture

"Magazines looked just as good a decade ago as they look now with images that were half the resolution."

I mean, a decade ago you still had Hasselblad systems pushing 39MP being the main tool for agency shooters, plus 6x7s and 4x5s for bigger campaigns. Nobody was shooting a Rolling Stone cover with a 40D.

I still prefer an RZ67 for bigger shoots over most DSLRs, but now you have 40-50MP options from 5 different companies under $10K, which is crazy awesome for a lot of us.

Ryan Cooper's picture

While, yes thats true for an elite minority, the majority of magazine imagery shots a decade ago was on DSLR. (Though granted higher quality ones). Guys like Joe McNally, for example, shooting many of the national geographic and sports illustrated covers would have been on a 12mp Nikon D3 or D700.

For the most elite shooters doing high end campaigns spending $50-100k on a camera setup was viable, for most shooters it wasn't.

Rob Mynard's picture

I remember reading a few years ago that the resolution required for a full page fashion spread in Vogue was about 8mp.

Jeff Jones's picture

Two of three actually do matter for me quite a lot. High ISO performance is very important as several of the high school gymnasiums I shoot basketball in have stopped allowing flash (even the the state's rules say it is allowed) and they often have burned out lights. To get anything near properly exposed and freeze motion a bit I need to shoot at ISO 8000 to 10,000. Then I have to run Imagenomic Noiseware in all of my stuff.

The buffer size also matters. Shooting a track meet today in JPG on my Nikon D7100 I filled my buffer repeatedly and missed shots - only able to get a 9 frame burst. I had to go in ad disable the lens correction feature to bump it up to 15 shots.

Buffer size and ISO range matter an insane amount to me. That's why Nikon made the D500. I get the magnification of a crop sensor camera and the speed and ISO range of a D4/D5 body.

You make great points. I will say that those insanely high ISO values are indeed marketing hype. However, behind the hype, once can find that usable low-noise ISO values are increasing. While testing is required to validate, one can usually find that as the maximum ISO value increases one stop, the usable ISO similarly increases one stop. It's just that the two are often far apart. :)