Are you considering buying a DSLR camera, but unsure which features you need? In this post I will explain what many of the features are, to hopefully help you decide if you need it or not.
By knowing what most of the features are in advance, this will help you make a more educated purchasing decision; As opposed to just buying the most expensive camera that has it all, and lots of features you’ll likely not need.
I’ve split this post into standard and extra features. Where standard features are common, whilst extra are cool features, but you may end up paying extra for.
– Standard features –
Here are some of the standard features that you can expect to find on most DSLR cameras.
RAW and JPEG picture format
Almost all cameras can capture images in JPEG format, which is one of the main formats for processed images. JPEG files are compressed so that the file sizes aren’t too big. This is great for travelling when you will likely take tons of photographs.
RAW files are unprocessed picture files. They contain large amounts of picture information and are great for making adjustments to your images, or correcting images that have gone wrong.
Do you need a camera that can capture RAW? If you are a serious photographer and want to make lots of edits to your photographs, and potentially sell them, then yes you do need to be able to capture RAW. However if you are just wanting to take photographs, make minimal or no edits and then print or share online, then you can get away with not having RAW, and I’d recommend shooting in JPEG format even if your camera can take RAW images.
Most DSLR cameras have the option to change the lens. This means that you can fix different lenses onto your camera body for different uses. Such as a wide-angle lens for capturing interiors, and a telephoto lens for taking pictures of subjects that are far away.
What should you think about when purchasing? The main thing to think about when buying a lens is what you will need it for. For beginners, I would recommend a flexible lens that can handle a fairly wide scene (ie 24mm), and can also zoom a little, such as to around 100mm. The lens I use for much of my photography is a 24-105mm lens.
Many DSLRs can now capture high-quality video, such as HD and sometimes even 4K. However, capturing high-quality video will require extremely large memory card capacities.
What should you get? This depends on whether you are keen to shoot video or not, and also what you plan to do with the video footage. Unless you plan to take tons of video and show on large screens, then you don’t need 4K or even HD.
Most people think that having a camera that takes extremely high megapixels images is best. Although the images will be a higher resolution and you can print at a much larger size before the image looks bad, it will also mean that your images will require a lot more storage space.
What megapixels do you need? A camera with around 10-15 megapixels would be totally adequate for those wanting to capture images that they want to print at home, or on a poster or canvas.
On almost every DSLR camera you will find lots of camera modes. Such as Auto, Aperture Priority (AV or A), Shutter Priority (TV or S), Manual (M) and various other modes. As well as this some cameras have scene modes, such as landscape, fireworks etc.
Do you need lots of camera modes: I’d say it’s good to have the main ones mentioned above, but all the extra scene modes I personally never use. If you are a beginner and you’re not that keen on learning all the technical functions you may find them useful though.
ISO is how much gain your DSLR camera will add to the image to have it well exposed and detailed. Many cameras now have a huge ISO range going well over 10,000 ISO. Although having a high ISO can allow you to get pictures in low light, it will also mean that your images may come out grainy with lots of noise.
What ISO range do I need? Many cameras now have a huge ISO range, but this doesn’t necessarily mean your camera will take great pictures at these settings. They may be lower quality and have tons of noise. I generally find ISO 8000 on my Canon 6D is the highest setting I can use before the noise and quality becomes unacceptable for me. You’ll find most cameras have at least ISO 100-6400 which is a good range, and then any higher is a bonus, although you may never use it.
When shooting with autofocus the camera uses the focus points to find the elements of a picture that should be in focus. The more focus points then the more accurate the camera should be.
How many do you need? Around 9 focus points is a good number for beginners and intermediates. If you are shooting events or wildlife then you may want more though. If you are planning to shoot night photography, landscapes and still life, then it’s less important as you can manually focus.
Depth of field preview
The depth of field preview is a button that allows you to set the aperture and then see through the viewfinder how much of the scene is in focus. When this button isn’t pressed then the image you see through the viewfinder will be the focus at the widest aperture (such as F/4), and then the camera would normally only adjust to the chosen aperture (ie (F/16) once you press the shutter button and take a picture. So using this button allows you to test your aperture setting for focus, before actually capturing and recording an image.
Full frame vs cropped sensor
When you are buying a new DSLR camera you will probably come across the term Full Frame. The main thing you need to know about Full Frame cameras is that when using lenses, ie a 35mm lens, then you will capture images at this zoom setting. Whilst a camera that has a cropped sensor with a magnification ratio of 1.6x your 35mm lens will actually be operating at 56mm. You effectively lose part of the image (21mm) around the edges between 35mm and 56mm.
Should you buy a full-frame camera? If you are only taking pictures for non-professional use, or aren’t a serious photographer, then I suggest you just get a cropped sensor camera. These tend to be more beginner-mid range models. Full Frame cameras and the accompanying lens can get pretty expensive too so bear this in mind.
– Extra features –
Here are some of the extra features that you may find on a DSLR camera. Some of these features are just gimmicky and would be easy to live without.
A flash for your DSLR camera allows you to take pictures in low light, such as of people at events etc. A flash will normally illuminate objects fairly close to the lens such as a couple of meters. Having a built-in flash means that the flash is in the camera body and you don’t need to connect an external one and carry it around.
Do you need this? If possible I would recommend buying a camera with a built-in flash, unless you have an external flash already. You will probably find that a lot of more expensive DSLR cameras don’t have a built-in flash, whilst many beginner and mid-range cameras do.
This feature allows you to visually see the frame of the image through the digital LCD screen. For more advanced Live Views when you change settings, such as exposure compensation, or the settings in manual, the Live View will instantly update with the expected exposure result. Live View is a great feature for when you need to hold the camera above your head, combined with the swivel feature mentioned below. It’s also great for night photography so that you can check your shot is properly exposed and on some cameras you can zoom in to check the focus is correct.
Do you need this? Live View is one of the features of a DSLR that I wouldn’t want to be without. I use it all the time for night and long exposure photography and sometimes during the day too. So yes this feature is definitely something I suggest you get.
Swivel and adjustable LCD screens are a neat feature. They allow you to take pictures with your camera above your head, such as at festivals and events, and also are great for taking selfies.
Is this necessary? Although definitely not necessary, it’s a great feature to have and I’d recommend getting a camera with this feature if possible.
A touchscreen will allow you to use your fingers to access and use various functions of a camera. Many of us now use our fingers on smartphones and tables so it’s becoming quite natural for us to operate electronics this way.
Do you need this? Although a touchscreen is great, it’s definitely not required. If the touchscreen has a good design and well-designed software then it can make your life easier, otherwise, I’d say it’s not worth the cost if you are paying extra for it.
GPS allows you to geo-tag your images. It is particularly useful if you are submitting your images to stock agencies, or uploading to sites that can use this data to help people find your images. I find this feature does use a lot more battery power though so bear this in mind.
Do you need this? GPS is cool but due to how much battery it takes I would be fine to not have it. If it becomes more efficient down the line then it would be a great feature. If you do decide to go for a camera that has this and you want to use it, then consider getting extra batteries whilst you are out and about.
Having built-in WiFi allows you to connect to your DSLR camera using your phone or other devices. You can then access the pictures and sometimes act as a remote to control the camera. To access the camera via WiFi you will likely need software or an APP to do this. With my Canon EOS 6D and Canon G7X I often connect to my camera while on the go, to download photos that I want to share through social media.
Do you need this? Being able to download images to your phone whilst on the go is pretty helpful, and is most useful if you are wanting to transfer your photos to another device, such as to back up, or to quickly upload to social media. I think this is a good feature, although you wouldn’t be missing out too much without it.
Built-in ND filter
Some DLSR cameras have a form of built-in ND filter which allows you to take longer exposures during the day, such as to get smooth water and wispy clouds. It can add a cool effect to images and make an image look a lot more interesting.
Do you need this? I would say no. If your camera has it then great, but don’t pay extra for it. I would instead recommend buying filters that go in front of your camera and use them instead.
High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography allows you to take images that have a lot more detail, such as in the shadows, mid-tones and highlights. It does this by taking multiple photographs (often 3 or more), and then merging them together into a final image. I have used built-in HDR features before and the results are ok, but I have found the results less impressive vs taking three images yourself and then merging in Adobe Lightroom.
Do you need this? Personally, I wouldn’t pay extra for this feature due to the results I have seen so far. However, as cameras get better this may be a good way to get great and detailed photographs.
Dual memory cards
This feature is where you have dual memory cards so that you instantly save two pictures of the same image. This is an important feature that is most valuable to professional photographers, such as for sports, weddings and events. It adds that extra security that should one of your memory cards have a problem, then you won’t lose the images because you have two copies.
Do you need this? If you are an amateur or beginner photographer then you definitely don’t need this feature.
Dust and water resistance
This is a handy feature and can make your camera better at working in more challenging environments, such as near waterfalls, humid places, etc. You would still need to be careful when changing your lens, but it definitely helps.
Is this necessary? These features are great but sometimes you have to pay for it. The dust protection may help prevent dust from getting into the lens and on your sensor. And having some water residence may mean your camera is less likely to break, say if it starts raining.