Modern cameras are mightily advanced technological instruments, full of a bevy of features and capabilities, some more important than others. This is the feature that's most important to me.
Before I get into my most important feature, I should mention that of course, what's most important to me may not be all that important to you. Next, I spent a lot of time thinking about what "important" really means. I finally decided that the term meant the thing that which, if taken away, would most hinder or fundamentally change my workflow and output for the worse, not necessarily the thing that gets me the most excited. For the sports photographer, that might be good autofocus or continuous frame rate. For the landscape photographer, that might be resolution or dynamic range. For the wedding photographer, that might be good ISO performance. For the portrait photographer, that might be color science. And I haven't even touched upon features video shooters prefer or need.
When I really thought about it, I have to admit I was actually surprised by my answer, but for me, it's dynamic range. When I moved from Canon, I essentially gained about three stops of dynamic range. I knew that would be nice to have, but I didn't anticipate how much an impact it would truly have on my workflow. I frequently shoot classical music concerts in a hall with a giant 60-foot glass wall behind the stage with a view of a garden and the sky. It's beautiful, no doubt, but afternoon concerts with a bright sky and dark stage (particularly with a dark black piano) were always a problem. If I exposed for the performers, the background was completely blown out. If I exposed for the background, the stage was so far in the shadows that trying to bring it back up created a noisy, blocky mess. If I tried to go somewhere in the middle, the gap was so wide that both looked bland. To get around this, I generally kept my shots tight, and while that made for nice performer images, I didn't really get to show off the hall much.
And of course, when it came to landscapes or cityscapes, you can never have enough dynamic range. With the Canon, I had to bracket a lot, which was fine. It got the job done (when bracketing was actually possible), but of course, only having to work with one file in post takes far less time. Finally, when it came to portraits, the difference was probably the least needed, but it certainly never hurt, especially for outdoor work.
I realized that having extra dynamic range simplified my workflow, enhanced my editing capabilities, and allowed me to get some shots that weren't possible before. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I worry less about my exposure now when shooting and feel more freedom to go for the shot I want without having a technical limitation in the back of my head, which is very freeing creatively and takes a lot of stress out of my work.
With my work, I can and have lived with slow frame rates, mediocre or limited autofocus, and lower resolution. I've also worked with less dynamic range, but none of the other features fundamentally changed my work when they improved; it was more that they made shooting more convenient. Surprisingly, sometimes, they were actually too much. For example, I thought 10 fps was great for getting those moments of artistic abandon onstage, but I found it just made me mash down on the shutter whenever I thought there was a miniscule chance that something good was about to happen, which generally meant that I came home with about 1,000 shots that were a pain to cull through — an unnecessary pain. After a couple concerts shooting like this on autopilot, I realized how silly I was being: after all, I'm a musician by training and can easily anticipate the moments I need to shoot. All I was doing was creating unnecessary work for myself when I got home. So, I stopped shooting on burst mode, and went back to using my natural skills, and things were easy and more efficient again. I know a very talented sports photographer who shoots all three major professional leagues and rarely uses burst mode. Everyone shoots differently, and thus, everyone has different needs as a photographer. You might need top of the line autofocus and burst speed. You might need the best resolution.
My point is that I was actually a bit surprised by what made the biggest difference to me. I thought about the 10 or so most commonly discussed camera features and realized that the one that made the biggest difference in my work and workflow was one that, while I knew the value of, had actually severely undervalued in my own work. And in knowing that, it's informed me a bit more about how I work and thus, how I should tailor my shooting style to match what I plan to do in post.
At the end of the day, I think it's important to take some time to consider what camera features you truly prioritize the most. That's not what features are tantalizing; after all, most of us are enamored by the marquee specs of the latest and greatest, but it might surprise you what capabilities are actually essential to your creative style and workflow. Figuring out what matters the most to you can not only help guide your purchase decisions, it can help you understand your own workflow and therefore, tailor your shooting decisions to better match your creative vision.
What camera feature matters most to you? Tell me about them in the comments.