If you've been taking photos for a while, chances are you're already reaching the limits of what your camera can do. Dabbling with different types of photography, or diving into manual settings, sometimes requires a camera a little better than entry-level. What do you get from buying a more powerful, more versatile, maybe slightly more expensive mirrorless camera or DSLR?
Better Specs, More Powerful Sensors
The big difference between a basic camera aimed at amateurs and occasional photographers and an advanced model for enthusiasts is that the high-end variant will always take better photos in a wider range of lighting and environmental conditions.
If you move up from a basic mirrorless camera to a high-end one, for example, you'll find that you'll get an imaging sensor far more capable at shooting clear and detailed pictures in low light, as well as in complex lighting situations like under tungsten street lights. Only high-end cameras have the top-of-the-line full frame imaging sensors that are the best you'll be able to buy in any consumer camera today.
The specifications improvements of advanced cameras aren't restricted to only the digital image sensors, though. In high-end cameras you get superior autofocus systems that can lock focus faster and in lower light, reducing the number of accidentally out-of-focus pictures that you'll capture. Their autofocus systems are also more versatile with a larger number of autofocus points spread around the camera's sensor, so you'll be able to focus more accurately if you're manually selecting focus points for more specific shooting scenarios.
More Features Built-In
Semi-pro and intermediate DSLRs have better movie recording 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. One useful feature that sets advanced mirrorless and SLRs cameras from low-end ones 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.
Increasingly, more and more advanced cameras are including a swathe of software and hardware add-ons like integrated Wi-Fi syncing to smartphones and PCs, in-camera photo processing from RAW and editing. If these features are valuable to you, look for them in your top choices and see if one swings your decision one way or another.
Better Design, More Versatile Controls
The distinction here is that while entry-level cameras are simpler and sometimes easier for a novice to use, they don't offer the same adjustability and versatility that a mid-range or high-end camera can. In the case of mirrorless cameras and DSLRs, moving up to a more advanced camera from a beginner's model can give you dedicated manual shooting controls, like a second contextual dial for independently setting shutter speed or aperture or ISO. If you want to experiment, these can be a godsend.
Dedicated exposure dials and quick-access buttons for important shooting controls like ISO are also more common in advanced cameras, as are customisable function buttons that can be mapped to certain more advanced features that you're only likely to find in advanced cameras, like Wi-Fi photo sharing, live filters, or advanced HDR bracketing. The ability to pick and choose autofocus points quickly with a dedicated button or jog dial also lets you adjust your photo capturing, which will lead to sharper pictures and more pleasing depth of field effects.
Moreso than just control schemes, though, advanced cameras are almost always better built. They often use superior materials like aluminium and magnesium and high-grade polycarbonate, rather than the cheaper plastics used on entry-level models. It's not that a cheap camera won't last, but an advanced model will stand up to more punishment and will still perform to its utmost in demanding conditions. When you're using it every day, the fit and finish and overall feel of your camera is very important.
Better Backwards Compatibility And Redundancy
High-end mirrorless cameras like Sony's a7 range, courtesy of their full frame image sensors, are perfectly suited to mounting older full frame prime lenses designed for high-end film cameras, as well as any existing full frame glass you might have from an old digital camera. More advanced DSLRs from Nikon are the only models in that company's lineup to include internal screw-drive motors to automatically focus Nikon's older DSLR lenses, where you'll be left focusing manually on a cheaper model.
More advanced DSLR cameras sometimes have a second SD card slot, which can be set up to copy every photograph that you save to the main slot for redundancy and to eliminate the chance of you losing photos if a card breaks. You can also usually set dual slots to split between photo and video recording, so you can have a dedicated photo SD card and one for video, which makes it easier to transfer files to your PC for later editing.
Superior Ergonomics For Shooting Comfort
The layout of a more advanced camera is also more reminiscent of an older professional digital SLR, with a larger handgrip, larger body that is more comfortable for an average human hand to hold, and a larger and more prominently placed optical or electronic viewfinder. If you're going to be taking a lot of photos regularly, looking through a small finder or scrunching your hands up over a tiny control scheme can be far more annoying than if you had a larger, more capable camera on hand.
Better materials also play a larger part in taking lots of photos than you'd think — having a soft-touch rubberised or leatherette hand-grip might be the difference between holding onto your camera when you take a wrong step and it clattering to the ground and breaking. The same is true of having a rubberised eyepiece for the viewfinder, or a space for a thumb-grip on the camera's rear panel. These are all small things, but they add up to a significant difference in ergonomics that can pay for itself if you find yourself really getting into photography.