The Essential Camera Feature Nobody Talks About

by Oct 11, 2021Photography Blog

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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The Essential Camera Feature Nobody Talks About

Here’s an interesting question. Can you name the essential camera feature that nobody talks about? Spend a moment thinking about this before continuing.

Okay, so this is a bit of a trick question because the answer isn’t one thing, and it can be different depending on who you talk to or what camera you use. That’s because the answer to the question is “usability”.

Why This is Important

Have you ever tried to use a camera and found it difficult or a struggle? If you have you could well be experiencing a usability problem. When this happens, you find usability problems get in the way of creating photography. They can easily become frustrating and prevent you from producing good work, never mind your best work.

A few years back I bought a Nikon D800 and three lenses. The lenses ranged from ultra-wide-angle (I can’t recall what the focal length was) to 300mm. These same lenses were recommended by many Nikon users but two of them lacked VR. My experience when trying to shoot with these lenses was frustrating to say the least. I probably lost a third of my shots to camera shake and eventually found I needed to use the camera on a tripod all the time but even then, I couldn’t be certain the shot was good. I then found myself shooting multiple frames of the same image and frequently checking them.

I sold the Nikon after four frustrating months. During that time, I managed a few shots that I liked but it marred my experience. This poor user experience was probably amplified by a back injury which produced a lot of pain when I tried to lift the heavy Nikon. Yes, a big Nikon DSLR system feels very heavy when you have an injury.

Nikon D800 Example shot on Froggat Edge

A Good Experience

Let’s now contrast my D800 experience with the other camera I was using at the time. That was an Olympus EM5 with three lenses. The Olympus 8-18, Olympus 12-40 and Panasonic 45-150. This kit easily fit into a small shoulder bag along with a 75mm filter system.

When I was using the EM5, it made photography easy. It was a small camera with superb image stabilisation. I could shoot handheld at slow shutter speeds with confidence. And because the Micro 43 sensor was half the size of the Nikon D800, I could achieve excellent depth of field at f/7.1.

For me, the Olympus EM5 and my three lens system was a brilliant camera and extremely easy to use. It was responsible for many of my best shots, and it almost made photography too easy. I would after return from trips with hundreds and sometimes thousands of images. It was the perfect landscape and travel camera because of its ease of use.

THors Well in Cape Perpetua, US. SHot with an Olympus EM5.

The only downside to the Olympus EM5 was the sensor resolution. At 16Mpixels it didn’t quite have the resolution that I wanted for my landscape work. At the time, the options for enlarging images were not as good as they are now so I eventually switched to the Fuji XT system which I use today.

Lessons to Learn

As you can imagine, I’ve learned a few lessons from these and other experiences and I would like to share a couple.

Don’t Chase Technical Specifications

In the early days of the digital photography, most photographers (myself included) chased technical specifications. This was largely due to the early cameras not having enough resolution. My first digital camera was only 6Mpixels, so when Canon launched a new 10MPixel DSLR upgrading made a lot of sense. After that it was 20Mpixel full frame and then 36Mpixels.

Interestingly, I was often disappointed by the quality of the results with my new upgraded cameras. Yes, there were more pixels, but I didn’t see the detail in the larger prints I made; they were just bigger.

It also took me a while to get used to each new camera system and it would be a while before I managed to capture images that I liked. During this time, I had to learn the new menu system and buttons on the camera. But I also needed to learn the limitations of the camera. What conditions did it perform well in and when were the results poor?

I also had to get the feel of the camera and learn to use its features “automatically”, which all took time. Often, I would find myself becoming frustrated by the camera because I couldn’t find something or a great feature I had in another camera was missing. A good example was the eye focus control in my old Canon EOS3 film camera. You could set the focus point in the camera viewfinder by looking at point in the frame. This was such a brilliant and useful feature that vanished.

Today, the technical specifications of most cameras are sufficient to produce excellent image quality providing you use good lenses. If the image resolution isn’t large enough, you can easily double it using Adobe Super Resolution or Topaz Gigapixel. Perhaps your image has too much noise because your camera ISO performance isn’t the best. If that’s your problem, use DxO DeepPRIME or On1 NoNoise AI or Topaz DeNoise AI. These software solutions are now excellent and much cheaper than buying a new camera.

Don’t chase technical specifications in equipment. Pay for features that make the equipment more usable. If you find you are bumping into limitations like the noise becoming visible at ISO12800, treat the problem with software, not a camera upgrade.

Buy Usability

Whilst I didn’t mention it above, I ended up buying a second Nikon D800 a couple of years after I sold the first. This time I didn’t make the same mistake and purchased lenses which had VR. The result was that I sold this second camera system after around 6 months use.

Sunset shot with a Nikon D800

Whilst this camera and lens combination was far more usable (I loved the 24-120 VR lens) I quickly found other issues. The lack of a tilting screen on the back of the D800 was a big surprise. Not because I didn’t know there wasn’t one but because of how much I missed it. I often found I couldn’t get low enough to see clearly and ended up shooting with the camera at a higher position most of the time. The rear screen was also quite poor and so I would use the optical viewfinder most of the time. Whilst I like an optical viewfinder, I found I was often having difficulty judging exposure problems.

But perhaps the biggest problem with the D800 and three lens system was portability. Carrying that, plus glass filters, plus a full-sized tripod up mountains on all day hikes was a killer. Especially when you also need to carry food and water.

Mountain example taken with a Nikon D800. Not the best camera for the conditions.

Basically, as great a camera as the Nikon D800 was, it wasn’t the best or even the right camera for the job. On paper it was perfect but when I was using it in these conditions, I quickly found myself becoming too tired to shoot well.

Now compare this with my old Olympus EM5. It was only 16Mpixels and many photographers would argue less than ideal for landscape photography. But it was a fraction of the weight of a DSLR and tiny. I could fit the camera, three lenses and filters in a small shoulder bag. That allowed me to carry a regular backpack with food and walking gear and even a tripod. It had a tilting screen, good electronic viewfinder, and the lens quality was excellent.

Mount Etna sumit crater shot with an Olympus EM5

Because the Olympus EM5 was much easier to use in these conditions my photography was better. I was more productive and enjoyed the experience much more. As for image quality, I nailed the shot far more often using the EM5 and my stock library is still accepting shots I took with that camera.

Summary of Essential Camera Features

I hope that having read about my experiences you can see the importance of usability, even though it’s often not discussed. What you may also have noticed is that usability features will differ from person to person and between different types of photography.

What probably isn’t as important today is the technical specification. Once a camera achieves the required technical level that means it’s good enough, having more doesn’t make a difference.

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