Are you looking at making that first proper camera purchase? Got a model in mind? Perhaps there’s something in the spec sheet that’s got you puzzled. Then you’ve come to the right place! For here I will explain those camera specs in a bit of detail so you go in equipped for the purchase.
If you’re a budding photographer, I recommend reading my beginners guide that explains some basic concepts.
Cutting Through the Jargon
Knowing your megapixels from your apertures might help your decision. There’s layer upon layer of industry techno babble out there. It’s sploshed on every box and advert like gravy on a roast dinner. Don’t let the sales people sway you with something you won’t use. Here’s a few pointers on the main things to look for:
Camera Specs Explained – Megapixels
Aha! The salesman’s old favourite. The number of megapixels is how many millions of pixels the camera is capable of cramming into a photo. A five megapixel camera will take images with up to 5,000,000 pixels and so on.
How many do you need? I’ll counter that question with one of my own: will you be printing your photos at mammoth sizes? Do you envision ever owning a blue whale sized canvas adorned with your work? No? Then you’ll probably be fine with most good modern cameras. For example, the screen on a big modern 4K television has just shy of 8.3 megapixels. That means you could virtually cut a photo in half from a 16 megapixel camera and still end up with an image at the screens native resolution.
What I’m getting at is, unless you really want to print big and stand really close to those prints, the extra pixels will be wasted. You’ll never see them. The only other valid reason to favour a higher megapixel camera is if you see yourself regularly cropping your images. My expensive semi-pro camera has 24 megapixels and I have never found myself at a loss.
Getting better at composition, closer to your subject or buying a good zoom lens so your subject fills the viewfinder will always be preferable to just piling on extra resolution.
Camera Specs Explained – ISO
A measure of light sensitivity, ISO (actually pronounced “eye-so”) refers to how well your camera will perform in lower light. Setting a camera to a higher ISO means the camera will produce brighter pictures in a dark scene. There’s a trade-off however. Noise, which is manifested as speckles and inaccuracies within the image.
You know when someone takes a picture with their phone in a darkish room? That odd grainy spottiness you see all over everything is the effect of a high ISO level. The higher the ISO setting, the more speckled the image will appear.
Modern more upmarket cameras are better at controlling ISO and using clever trickery to reduce the bad points. Some cameras ship with really high levels of sensitivity though, like ISO 128,000 and the scenarios where that would actually be useful are pretty slim. There are other ways to adjust your cameras performance in low light that we’ll talk about anyway.
Learning to strike a delicate balance between these is the a sign of a good photographer. Don’t buy a camera just because it has a high ISO setting!
Camera Specs Explained – Shutter Speed
How quickly can your camera allow light to fall onto it’s sensor, take an image and be ready to record another? That’s it’s shutter speed. It’s extremely important because the faster the shutter speed, the better able you’ll be to capture objects in motion without any blurring.
Will you be shooting the kids (with a camera!), sports events or pets for example? Then a fast shutter speed will be important. Shutter speed is important for burst modes too, a feature on many cameras. That’s how many images the camera can take in quick succession if you hold the shutter button down. It can really help you capture that special moment.
The other limiting factor in these burst modes is the speed of your memory card and the size of the cache built into the camera. The cache is like a holding area where your camera will store photos before they’re offloaded to the memory card.
The shutter plays another important role in low light photography. A camera that can hold the shutter open for longer will allow more light to fall on the sensor. Hence a more detailed image but with the capacity for motion blur if you don’t get it quite right. Opening the shutter for long exposures is suited to still objects or scenes, paired with a tripod.
More advanced cameras have a ‘lamp’ mode which keeps the shutter open until you manually close it. See what I mean about the delicate balance?
Camera Specs Explained – Sensor Size
Within a camera, the light sensitive sensor turns information into the picture you see. These sensors vary in size, often very small in compact cameras (called four-thirds). In DSLRs and mirrorless system cameras the two most common types are APS-C and Full Frame.
A full frame sensor is larger, but often much more expensive to produce and you’ll see that reflected in the cameras price. However that allows some advantages once again in low light and capture of fine detail.
When using a full frame camera, the focal length of your lens will be true. An APS-C sensor (also known as a crop sensor) amplifies the effect of the focal length by roughly 1.5x on most models. This means a 50mm focal length on full frame becomes 75mm on an APS-C camera.
Camera Specs Explained – Aperture
I’ll include aperture here, as it will be important for cameras with a fixed lens. If you’re buying a DSLR, the aperture spec will be on the lens, not the camera. Aperture refers to the size of the hole that lets light into your camera through the lens. It’s important for two main reasons. Depth of field and the amount of light allowed to reach the sensor.
Don’t get confused by the numbering scheme. Apertures are rated with a number called an f-stop where an aperture of, for example, 2.8 is larger than 16. So at an f-stop of 16 (a small aperture) you’d get a sharp image across a wide area but weaker results in low light. At 2.8 (a large aperture) you’d get good low light results but the background behind your focus point will be slightly blurry.
The focal length of your lens will amplify this effect, with a long setting of say 200mm but with a focus point very close causing a blurrier background. That blur effect is referred to as ‘bokeh’. The image of an acorn below demonstrates this effect very well.
A large depth of field means most of your image will be in focus, desirable for landscapes. A shallow depth of field means that objects lying outside your focus point will appear blurry. That produces great results in portraits for example, where you want the background to look a bit blurry but your subject to be sharp.
Remember the low light balancing act? Aperture is important there too. Large apertures allow more light to reach the sensor, therefore better performance in dim conditions. If you want to shoot regularly in low light, finding a lens that has an f-stop of 2.8 or better at your chosen focal length is a good starting point.
Camera Specs Explained – Focal Length
As with aperture, this spec will be on the lens if buying a DSLR but is included here for completeness sake. In layman’s terms the focal length determines how far your camera or lens will zoom in. As well as having an effect of the background as seen above, the bigger the rating in mm the further it will zoom.
An 18-55mm lens (As bundled with many starter DSLRs) will be fine for most things. If you regularly need to zoom in closer to the action though a 200mm lens or greater will be required. That’s why you see keen wildlife or sports photographers carrying around large bulky lenses.
On many compact cameras you will find focal length specs replaced with a zoom rating, such as 5X optical. Beware digital zoom! All digital zoom will do is make the pixels in the picture bigger and reduce the final picture quality.
Focal Length Continued – Prime vs Zoom
A quick note on prime lenses. Primes are a fixed focal length, which means they cannot zoom. This has benefits of it’s own. There are fewer internal mechanisms within the lens so they are usually smaller and lighter. This also means the f-stop ratings can be larger and the lenses perform very well in low light conditions.
Don’t rule out a good prime just because it doesn’t zoom. We all have a built in zoom anyway – our legs!
If you’re serious about photography you really should be considering a DSLR. You can get a Nikon D3400 with bundled lens for less than £400. If you’d like something with a few more features and can spend a bit more then you can’t go wrong with the Nikon D7200 which I own myself and highly recommend. Both of these are available without a lens (body only) too if you’d prefer to pick your own.
The D7200 is just about the best camera you can buy without paying full frame prices. But Nikon also have a new camera arriving soon, the D7500 that will be the new king of their APS-C line. You can pre-order it here.
Camera Specs Explained – Conclusion
I hope all this has been useful! If you have any questions I’d be happy to answer them in the comments or on my social media pages. If you’d like to see some of my photography, check out my photo blogs with the photography tag. Show me your photos on my socials, I’d love to see them!
Do you see yourself buying a DSLR in future?