If you’ve been shooting for a while, and you’re thinking of buying a new camera, you might find that an entry-level or intermediate-grade digital SLR might be a little inadequate for your needs. What do you get from buying a more powerful, more versatile, maybe slightly more expensive mirrorless camera or DSLR?
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Better Imaging Sensors With More Megapixels, More Low-Light Sensitivity
Buying a semi-professional digital camera might seem like an unnecessary extra expense over the amount you’re already paying for an entry-level or intermediate digital SLR and its accompanying lenses, but when you compare the specifications of an entry-level and a semi-pro or pro-grade camera, the difference will quickly become clear. More expensive, higher-end cameras have larger, newer and more advanced imaging sensors that not only have more megapixels — which means more detail when you zoom in on your captures, and the ability to print at larger sizes, but also better sensitivity in a range of lighting conditions.
Importantly, more advanced cameras almost always have a larger native and expanded ISO range that they can operate across. ISO is like a digital volume control for your camera’s sensor — it ramps up or down the gain and sensitivity of the individual pixels and circuitry, capturing more light or less light at the same shutter speed and aperture opening. When you have a larger range to work with, you can capture correctly-exposed images in more difficult lighting, whether it’s bright or dark. That, in turn, means you’ll be able to raise shutter speeds or tighten apertures, both of which typically mean more detail in your photos.
Semi-professional and professional cameras, too, also have more powerful internal imaging processors that, because of their extra oomph, are also able to better control the amount of luminance (light) and chrominance (colour) noise in any capture that you make. Where a lesser and cheaper camera’s imaging sensor may struggle to capture clean and relatively detailed images at higher ISO settings, a semi-pro camera will have better control of these detail-destroying issues and a professional camera will be even more versatile again. And that’s before you even think about the extra megapixels and larger sensors of full-frame digital SLRs.
Better Controls And Ergonomics, Tougher Bodies And Better Lens Compatibility
When you buy a more expensive, higher-end camera — especially one with a top of the line full-frame image sensor — you’ll gain the ability to use older full-frame compatible prime and zoom lenses to their fullest, as well as any newer glass that is designed for a professional-level camera. More advanced DSLRs from Nikon, too, 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. Having the ability to shoot with more lenses means you can make smarter investments and not have to buy twice.
More expensive cameras are always made out of tougher materials — we’re talking metal bodies with stronger, sturdier rubberised plastic coatings, rather than all-plastic entry-level models — and that means you can take them to more places and use them in a more rugged fashion without worrying about them breaking. The semi-professional level is when you start to see waterproof and heavily water-resistant models start to appear in camera-makers’ line-ups, meaning you can take your camera and compatible lens out in the rain without fear of your expensive investment suddenly and completely dying and taking all your photos with it.
More advanced, semi-pro and professional digital SLRs and mirrorless bodies sometimes also have a second SD card slot, which can usually be set up for redundancy — saving your photos or video to two SD cards simultaneously, to add a second point of failure in case one card dies — or for overflow, giving you an extra storage boost — even pairing up to 128GB super-fast SD cards, giving you access to a massive amount of storage without needing to offload files to a PC or portable hard drive for long-term storage. You can even split different SD slots between photo and video if you’re filming both.
Better Features Built In, Faster Autofocus And Better Photo/Video Capture
When you buy a semi-professional digital SLR, one of the most important differences it will have is a much improved autofocus array. A camera’s autofocus sensor is a relatively small, extremely specialised piece of silicon that detects differences in phase and contrast in lighting, and then talks to your camera’s lens to drive its motor and resolve those differences to bring the lens into focus on any particular object. More powerful autofocus sensors work faster and have more sensor sites, better focusing at different points around the frame. When you buy a properly pro-grade body, the difference will be even greater.
More features like integrated RAW to JPEG photo conversion — with the ability to edit and adjust highlights, shadows, saturation, vignetting inside your camera and create an optimised JPEG to share — and built-in Wi-Fi, as well as a greater number of input/output ports on semi-pro and pro camera bodies are another advantage you’ll find when spending a bit more. If you plan on doing a bit of home video recording with your digital SLR, you might want a camera that has a microphone input jack to attach a larger shotgun mic to the camera’s hot-shoe, or a port to attach a wired release for tripod capture.
At the end of the day, it comes down to what you want to do with your photos. You can’t escape the fact that with better imaging sensors, larger internal memory buffers and support for faster SD cards, a semi-pro or professional digital SLR, you’ll be able to capture more detailed photos (in RAW) and more of them (in larger bursts). Video, too, will be better with higher quality (above 1080p) and higher frame rates (above 50fps) and better compression formats. You’ll have to find a camera that suits your needs and to make the compromises that are right for you, but there’s definitely value in paying a bit more upfront and getting a better camera.
Questions, comments, tips? You can find me on Twitter at @csimps0n.