Beginner Vs More Advanced DSLR Features: Specs That Matter

You've had your DSLR for a while now and your photos have never looked better. But as your skills progress, you need a camera that can grow with you. Here are some of the features in intermediate and advanced cameras that will take your shots to the next level.

We’ve already talked about upgrades and accessories you can buy. Here we look at when it makes sense to step up to a better camera.


Bigger Bodies, Better Controls

More advanced DSLRs like the Canon EOS 70D, Nikon’s D7100 and Sony’s SLT-A77 are generally slightly larger than their entry-level counterparts, and this is a good thing.

Being bigger means they’re easier to hold, with larger hand-grips and more contouring for your fingers to brace against. Heavier construction makes advanced cameras more solid, more resistant to dust and water, and more durable over time.


Usability

If you buy an intermediate or advanced DSLR camera, there’s another big difference that you rarely hear about. These cameras have larger, brighter, clearer viewfinders that more accurately depict the photo you’re about to capture. You have to see the difference to appreciate it. Look for something with frame coverage as close to 100 per cent as possible. Advanced cameras also have intelligent viewfinders that show more information and let you adjust settings on the go.

If you like adjusting your camera’s settings while you’re taking photos, changing to a more advanced DSLR gives you a big advantage -- as part of a wider range of more useful controls, you’ll get a second control dial, usually on the top or rear of the camera, easy to access with your thumb or forefinger. This second control dial means you can change two settings -- like shutter speed and aperture -- simultaneously, giving you more control over how your photos are exposed and captured.

Better Imaging Sensors And Autofocus

More advanced digital SLRs use either APS-C or full frame imaging sensors, where entry-level models are restricted to APS-C only. If you buy a more advanced camera, you’re guaranteed a higher quality imaging sensor, which means better pictures -- higher resolution for more fine image detail, higher dynamic range for more highlight and shadow detail, and far more powerful image processing engines with a higher ISO range that do a better job of making low-light photos look cleaner and clearer.

Not only do intermediate and advanced DSLRs have better imaging sensors, but they’re paired with better autofocus modules as well. Where an entry-level DSLR like the Canon EOS 700D has 9 autofocus points and the Nikon D3200 has 11, an advanced DSLR like the Canon EOS 70D has 19 and the Nikon D7100 has 51. The type of these autofocus points is also important -- cross-type points are far superior to normal ones, and advanced cameras just have more. For example, all the 70D’s 19 autofocus points are cross-type, while the D7100 only has 15. Having more autofocus points means the camera can focus faster, and in a wider range of scenes and lighting environments.

More Features Built-In

Beyond the big differences, there are a myriad of little features that add up to make investing in a more advanced camera a smart choice if you enjoy taking photos.

Changing from an entry-level DSLR means more versatile controls, but just as important is the versatility of your camera’s screen. Better screens can pop out from the DSLR’s body and tilt, swivel and rotate so you can compose a photo from waist level, or from above your head, without guessing what you’re pointing at.

Semi-pro and intermediate DSLRs also have better movie capabilities than entry-level cameras -- they’re able to make more adjustments on the fly, giving you movies that look better and more professional. Advanced cameras’ better autofocus means you can record movies with smooth, seamless focusing where cheaper cameras stutter and stop.

More advanced cameras are able to capture burst-mode images at a higher frame rate -- more photos per second -- because they have more internal memory, better processing engines, and more robust shutter mechanisms. A higher frame rate is invaluable for shooting fast action like sports.

Some advanced DSLRs now have in-built Wi-Fi, or accept plug-in Wi-Fi modules, so you can wirelessly link your camera to your smartphone to share photos, print straight to a compatible printer, or control your DSLR’s settings and shoot the camera remotely.

One useful feature that sets advanced DSLR cameras apart is more versatility in shooting RAW image files. RAW files have a lot more data than JPEG -- they’re not compressed as much, with more colour information and a huge increase in dynamic range. Intermediate DSLRs like the Canon EOS 70D are able to process these RAW files in the camera, letting you adjust any of a huge range of settings to turn a good shot into a great one -- without sitting at the computer for hours.

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Comments

    Here's a big one (for Nikon only)
    Higher end bodies have a legacy autofocus screw drive, in addition to AF-S (silent wave motor) autofocus.
    This allows them to autofocus using older lenses, that don't have AF-S autofocus built into them. These older lenses are usually cheaper than their equivalent AF-S model by up to several hundred dollars retail. Even better deals can be found second hand.

    Older lenses have very similar optical performance to the new ones, and a couple actually outperform their newer equivalents. Yes, the AF is slower and noisier, but it's not really that bad with smaller primes.

    You could easily make up the difference between a semi-pro camera and a older lens, than a budget camera with a brand new model lens.
    Take f/2.8 telephoto zooms. The AF-S 70-200mm 2.8 VR is 2479 RRP (Australian retailer), it's older cousin is the AF 80-200mm 2.8, which sells for 1319 at the same retailer. Sure, it doesn't have as fast an autofocus, and no Vibration reduction, but there's an entire camera in the price difference. This lens is Manual focus only on budget Nikon bodies.

      It's worth noting that if the model name of the lens doesn't contain AF (or AF-D) then it is a manual focus lens.

      I kind of agree with you and not. You can't compare a stabilised lens to non-stabilised lens. They are similar in spec but not really comparable in function. You picked an expensive lens that would probably only be used by pros, semi-pros or hardcore (rich?) enthusiasts who wouldn't be in the market for an entry level body any way.

      The opposite argument would be, the entry level bodies are really the place to start. If you think this will be a serious/long term hobby, be careful to buy lenses that will upgrade to full-frame (just in case). You're best off learning on your entry level so you know if your next upgrade will be something like a mid-level crop or full-frame sensor body or perhaps a pro-body. If you were going to take things further, you'd probably want to upgrade an 80-200 to the 70-200 IS meaning the initial purchase was a half-step as was the purchase of a mid-level camera body.

      If you already have the older lenses, it's a no-brainer to go for a body that can make use of them.

      On topic (sort of) - specs that matter - apart from the bodies, you should really understand when you are purchasing lenses and accessories which will be compatible with future upgrades, perhaps on a full-frame camera and which are half-steps that'll require upgrade.

        I picked a fairly serious lens because it highlights my point about the price difference.
        Even if you pick up a few primes, you could easily make back the difference between a entry level and mid-spec body.

        And I would argue that the lenses I compared are very similar in function. Mid range telephotos are extremely versatile, and the large aperture makes them useful in lower light situations where a high shutter speed is required. They are also brilliant for portraits, as they have good background blur. $1300 is also much more in the range of serious amateurs, whereas 2400 is getting into rich man/pro territory. Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilisation (depending on which brand you prefer) is not the defining feature of a lens. Sure, it's nice to have, but it only really gives you maybe one or two extra stops of slower shutter speed, and doesn't work on things moving in the frame.

        I'm not saying everyone should go out and buy one straight away, but it's definitely something you might want in the future. They are on a completely different level to 70-300 f/5.6 type lenses.

        For the sake of a few hundred now, there's the potential to be spending way more on lenses in the future.

        Really, the question that has to be asked when considering buying a camera is whether or not you see yourself becoming a bit more serious about it. The whole older lens thing is something which anybody looking in the segment at Nikon cameras should be aware of when making their decision.

          yeah i hear you. fair enough.

          not taking away from what you say but I guess it's worth noting that companies like tamron, tokina and sigma make some decent budget lenses too. the canon 2.8 IS 70-200 is about $2600 (or so). The recently released tamron equivalent (with IS) is about $1300 .. it is right up there with the canons L lens (even sharper in some circumstances) all with a 5 year warranty FWIW .

          I just moved to Byron Bay. Can't wait to start shooting up here.

    i know this will sound snobbish, however the best cameras are ones that have shutter speed dials and aperture rings around the lenses. M mode, P mode all that other rubbish doesn't make learning to shoot easier, it doesn't really help your understanding of photography, and often just builds in complexity where none is actually needed. Most modern Cameras can do the job of taking a photo fine, it is the method one goes through in taking the photo that matters. If I have a DSLR and stick it on P mode, then why the hell do I even bother with the money? Learning to frame your shot, meter the light and isolating your subject is what makes you a better photographer, and if your camera doesn't encourage you to think about these things, then you probably wont improve.

    Unfortunately most digital cameras did away with manual controls, or buried them, made them hard to access, confusing etc. Older film cameras used them, and were fantastic for it, but when things went digital, we decided to add as many buttons as possible. The old saying telling you to learn on a film camera has merit, but it is also extremely impractical these days. It is a sad day when to shoot photos I have to be looking at menus and screens, why can't we be able to glance at the dial to see what our settings are? Or look through the viewfinder to meter our shots?

      I'm fairly sure NO top end dslrs require (or accept) the use of aperture rings.
      Nikon's legacy lenses require the aperture be locked at f22 and be controlled in camera and canon did away with apeture controlled lenses with the EF mount
      the only higher end cameras i can think of that do are the Xe1/xpro1 and the leica M8-M9.

    I 100% agree with this article, but it also should be mentioned to people on a budget:

    ALWAYS spend more on a good lens than a good body. You can have a 5DmkIII, but you're using a kit lens, it's still going to look crap. If you've got the 550D and a $1200 piece of glass, your image has the potential to look pretty damn good.

    Bodies lose their value straight away, lenses hold theirs. Glass is still glass and lenses from 1948 are still useful.

      Being pedantic here, but if you get a 5DMkIII, its kit lenses are L Glass...

      But I know exactly what you are getting at!

      If your budget allows for it, get a low end to mid-level DSLR and spend the big bucks on some good glass.

      I spent months shooting with L Glass on my 650D before I went and got the 5DMkIII, purely because my main limitation in my photos was my camera body.

      Start on a small body with big lenses, and when you can, rent glass and bodies for shoots before buying, if you aren't making thousands a day shooting, why spend thousands to use something a couple of times?

      Agreed. Unless you buy (like i made the mistake of doing) lenses that are aps-c only. I have a 5d3 now too and had to replace a lot of my lenses when I upgraded for not knowing better.

      I agree this is true; too a point.. Recently i tested an EOS-m with TSE 17mm/4 lens ($200 body with $2.5k lens).. It's true that I got decent shots out of it; but they were nothing in comparision to the shots I get with this lens on my 5d2 (or 3) body.

      Knowledge & skill will only take you so far; eventually you'll reach a point where you have to start investing in gear.

    if you shoot canon, then magic lantern firmware is a great way to get a stack of extra features; that don't even come as standard on canon's high end offerings.

    Great article. and I agree with the comments about "it's all in the lense" "spend money on the lense"

    I am still currently learning with my 600D and the 2 kit lenses it came with, plus a 50mm prime.

    When I get better, and want to spend more money, I'll look at lenses over bodies, I'm happy with the 600D body and its features.

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