Before buying my first SLR (Nikon D40) I read through a lot of websites, reviews and message boards and often found myself lost in all the specs that were compared. People would go on and on that the D40 didn't have an internal autofocus motor for older (non AF-S) lenses, that it didn't have a depth-of-field preview or no top LCD info screen etc. All that might be true, but the hard part is figuring out what features are important for you.
For climbing photography, here's what I think about some camera features that are often talked about:
- Frames per second: One of the things I thought were way cool, until I found out that I seldomly burn away with 5 fps (except maybe when shooting snowboarders or surfers). The reason is simple: no matter how many shots you take, usually the only thing you look for is catching the subject in the one crucial moment. Shooting climbers, for example, this would be the moment where the climber dynos towards a hold and is just a half second away from reaching the hold. With 3, 5 or 10 fps this might work, of course. One of the shots might be the one shot. But there's a good chance that the moment happened right between #7 and #8...
- On the other hand, if you start working on your skills as a shooter and practice hitting your shutter-release at just the right moment, the number of winner shots will drastically increase. This doesn't depend on your camera, you can do this just as well with a $250 D40 as with a D3 or 1D MK III.
- Option to trigger external flash with pop-up flash: One of the features I value the most in my D90... moving the flash away from the subject-lens axis immediately improves the quality of light for your shots. Play around with it for a while and you will find out that the possibilties are endless (even without spending a fortune on equipment)!
- Resolution: The D40's 6 MP would probably be enough for me, but I do love the 12MP of my D90. Usually, resolution is extremely overrated, but a step up from 6 to 12 is noticeable and gives you a little more flexibility for cropping. Let's be honest, I don't always get my framing absolutely perfect (especially when things are moving fast) and a little cropping never hurt anybody. Beware with point-and-shoot cameras, though, the smaller sensor size together with ridiculous MP counts (10, 12 and up) makes for worse image quality. Sticking with lower resolution / last year's cameras might save you money and get you better image quality! I'm not an expert on this stuff, if you think about buying a camera and need some sound advice, visit Ken Rockwell's site and have a look around. His style might not suit everyone, but I can only suggest to check for yourself! His articles might well have been the biggest influence on my choices of camera equipment and so far, I'm very happy with what I got.
- Camera controls / Ergonomics: Ergonomics and software design are often overlooked but extremely important! One example: I always zoom in via the image preview (or is it review?! Well the in-camera thingy to look at the images you took) to check sharpness. With my old D40, when trying to scroll a zoomed-in image, it always took a second of depressing the scroll button to switch from a really slow scrolling to a faster one. The D90 on the other hand is much much faster. This might not seem like a big deal, but after a couple of thousand shots you notice stuff like this. I'm not kidding, I'd be willing to pay $100 alone for the faster scrolling! So, try out different cameras and see what camera works best for you.
- Custom Menu Function (D90): A great option that I would miss greatly if I ever were to switch to another camera body. You can set the D90 to open a customizable menu via a button lying under your right middle finger. In this menu you can put all the things you're changing a thousand times a day during a shoot. It takes me no more than five seconds to switch Auto ISO on or off, change the ISO manually, set the pop-up flash into commander mode, dial in manual flash settings or switch between automatic and manual AF-focus point selection. You get used to this feature in about 10 minutes and will never want to live without it again! Write me in the comments if you'd like a detailed explanation of this.
- Internal auto-focus motor: (Nikon D40/D60/D5000 specific); Nikon's least expensive cameras don't offer autofocus with older (non AF-S) lenses. At the time I bought my D40, I didn't care much about it as I didn't have older lenses anyway and didn't think that I might want to get one someday. But since Nikon offers some fantastic non AF-S lenses, most importantly the fabulous 50mm f 1.8 ($120!!!), this is a feature I consider extremely important. If you're absolutely sure you won't ever want to buy one of these lenses, no problem, but if you're not sure, think about getting a camera that offers this feature! It might save you money long term.
- Sensor cleaning thingy: Another all time favourite on some camera tech discussions. I do have some minor dust problems now and then. (Do you think I wash my hands when switching from bouldering myself to taking photos?! Of course there's chalk on my hands and everywhere) So far, I'm not really impressed with the feature... I have it "clean" the sensor everytime I switch the camera off but I don't see any difference. The little spots I have now and then are taken care of by my trusty little dust-blower. No real problems so far. One of the features I wouldn't miss. (Never did on my D40)
- Live-view: Leave me alone with live-view! I bought a DSLR to get away from this stupid looking posture of holding your camera away from your face, squinting to be able to see anything and waiting a year and a half to achieve focus. Sure, if you're doing macro shots of bugs on the ground, live view might come in handy. I only use live-view for the D90's movie mode.
- Movie recording feature: The D90 was the first to offer this and I don't think there'll ever be a new dSLR being announced without it. I wouldn't buy a dSLR especially for shooting movies, but it is a nice feature to have. And judging from some clips done with the D90 or Canon 5d MKII, the results can be really great! Have a look at Chase Jarvis' website for some examples!
- 3, 11, 51 AF-Areas: Another feature that is found on the more expensive models is the increasing number of AF-Areas. (The spots in your viewfinder where the camera is checking focus) I went up from 3 points (D40) to 11 points (D90). For climbing shots, I use the center focus area 95% of the time. Focus, recompose and shoot - easy. I always feel a little uncertain when using the auto selection, as I'm never sure if the camera will agree with my idea of what is supposed to be in focus. I only use the Auto AF-Sensor selection when shooting blind, holding the camera over my head for example. For shooting surfers I love the 11 AF points, though! Things are moving so fast there and the distance of your subject is varying so wildly that I don't stand a chance to focus, recompose and shoot. In these case I simply put my camera on auto AF-selection and fire away. If I was shooting stuff like that all the time, I'd love to have the 51 points of the D300 or D700/D3.
These are the features that I thought about when choosing my gear. Let me know if you'd like my opinion on other features I might have forgot to mention! Feedback / different opinions are always welcome!
See you then!