Camera ‘Feature Clutter’: How to Avoid the Confusion

As camera manufacturers add more and more features, things can get confusing and overwhelming. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

As camera manufacturers add more and more features, things can get confusing and overwhelming. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

I received a phone call over the weekend from an old friend who is an amateur photographer, as well as a faithful reader of  The Discerning Photographer. He was trying to puzzle his way through a technical camera question.

‘John’ had been out shooting his daughter’s track meets with his Nikon D7000 and a 70-200 mm lens and having a decent bit of success. But he was stumped by one of the nuances of the autofocus system.

John had been using back-button autofocus with his setup, something I have advocated for on this site for a long time. That part was going ok. But choosing his focus point had gotten complicated.

John asked me how I pick my autofocus point—which ‘wheel’ or ‘dial’ I used—while still performing my back-button autofocusing. Huh? Now I was confused. Finally, after about 5 minutes of conversation back and forth, I realized that John thought he should be performing this focus-point selection at the same time he was doing the actual autofocusing on the track meet! You’d need an extra thumb or finger to do this, and probably an extra brain as well!

I explained to John that I almost always use a single-point for focus, and that usually it’s the center point. Sometimes with track, when I know I’ll be shooting vertically, I’ll put that point up about halfway to the top of the vertical frame—where I think the face of the runner will be—for the focus. But I ‘set it and forget it,’ as the expression goes. Then I can concentrate on trying to actually capture a great photograph.

This immediately made sense to John, who seemed relieved to finally have such a simple answer.

What John was suffering from is a common problem in our modern times of techno-whizbang cameras and their accompanying markerting campaigns. I call it ‘feature clutter.’

This happens with lots of the technology we all buy these days, but camera equipment makers are some of the worst about this. An engineer figures out how to add a neat new feature to a camera—whether it’s needed or not—so it gets added. “39-point autofocus with hyperglide technology founded upon our patented reality-based 3 gigabit sensor.”  The feature might be a true breakthrough.  Or, equally possible, it might be just another feature, ladled on top of the already-overwhelming number of features, that the poor purchaser of this machine is expected to figure out. Whether the feature is fluff or foundation is never explained, since to do so would diminish the selling point of the feature. The user is left with nothing but confusion, when all he or she wanted was to shoot better photographs.

Engineers continue to add more and more features to the basic DSLR--because they can. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

Engineers continue to add more and more features to the basic DSLR--because they can. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

Autofocus points are a great example of this. Single point autofocus. Nine point, 39 point…it never stops.  While the cameras can be set up in all of these modes, I don’t know any professional photographer that works this way. Like ‘Program’ mode, letting your camera have too much decision-making control over your results might just work, until the day, and the photograph, that it doesn’t work. Something that you want to achieve in the photograph—your truly unique vision at that moment—runs counter to the ‘accepted wisdom’ that the feature performs. You mash down the shutter and you get something besides your intended result. The moment is lost forever, all because you let the camera do the thinking for you.

So how to determine what’s truly important and what’s simply more ‘feature clutter’? I recommend starting with the basics: the things you need to understand to shoot good exposures, time after time.


1.Develop a thorough understanding of ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture: what they are, how they function, how to control them.

2.Learn to make good lens choices for each shooting situation you encounter regularly.

3.Shoot lots and lots of photographs.

4. Repeat Step 3.

Everything else is extra.

Over time, this will all make sense. Once you’re out doing the shooting, seeing what works and what doesn’t, what’s important will become obvious. You’ll figure out what you need to thoroughly understand, and what you won’t EVER need to understand.  (I absolutely promise you, your DSLR contains features you will never, ever need to comprehend.)

Kick that ‘feature clutter’ to the curb, and good luck!

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Or subscribe to our Facebook page or our Twitter feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: Equipment

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

3 Comments on "Camera ‘Feature Clutter’: How to Avoid the Confusion"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Greg says:

    I’ve never tried the back button autofocus before. In fact, I have the back button set to lock exposure right now. I’ll have to give it a try. I’m a little worried that it may be a bit too awkward for me since I have smaller hands, and the back button isn’t an easy reach. I will give it a try for a while, though, because I see the benefit of locking focus separate from the shutter.

  2. BayouBill says:

    LOL! This guy sounds familiar…

  3. Started to read this post a few days ago, but only now finished it (very slow reader ;-). Oho! This expression came to my mind after finishing the post: Keep it stupid simple.
    Recently on a popular german photographic magazine called a post appeared “advertising” manual focus. This was done simply by the fact that the lens did not provide any autofocus feature. At the images were brilliant from my point of view. Much more control about the image! Fantastic insight. Too much technique only creates confusion.

Post a Comment