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I'm looking at DSLR bodies, and I have only one real feature I'd really like to have -- 1080P video recording.

I'm looking at Nikons here for this example, but only for illustrative purposes -- I'm interested in answers covering other brands too. Nikon makes three cameras with the video feature. They are:

The only difference I can see between them is that the D3100 has a slightly lower res sensor, the D5100 has the strange fold out LCD, and the D7000 has two SD card slots. None of these differences are significant enough to make me spend more money, so I'd probably be going with the cheapest one.

If I spend more money on a camera body, what am I typically getting?

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Somewhat related: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/5883/… –  mattdm Jun 5 '11 at 23:11
    
As somebody with a D3100, I urge you to spend a little more on at least the sensor for the D5100. –  rfusca Jun 6 '11 at 0:22
    
@rfusca: You're saying the extra 2MP is "worth-it" enough for someone who's getting their first DSLR? –  Billy ONeal Jun 6 '11 at 1:05
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No, nothing to do with the 2MP - its the dynamic range and low noise of the sensor. Its a very very "clean" sensor, noisewise. –  rfusca Jun 6 '11 at 1:14
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Additionally, if you're looking at video - the D3100 won't take an external mic. And don't buy these for the continuous focus in video mode - its all marketing (it SUCKS). –  rfusca Jun 6 '11 at 6:29

3 Answers 3

up vote 16 down vote accepted

There are plenty of things that you get by spending more on a camera body. It is up to you to decide which one is important to you:

  • Sensor: The sensor is the most expensive feature. Bigger sensors cost a lot more and give higher image quality. Depending on the model, you may get superior low-light performance, higher-resolution, higher-dynamic range or a combination of these. New higher-resolution sensors cost more than those of the same size as well.
  • Viewfinder: The second most expensive feature on a DSLR is a 100% viewfinder. This lets you see the entire scene before shooting while most cameras show 95% of the scene. This means that unwanted elements may appear in your images after shooting. Count on $300 to $500 extra for this feature alone.
  • Weather-sealing: The third most expensive high-end feature is weather-sealing. This lets you take the camera in the rain, snow and sandstorms provided that you purchase weather-sealed lenses as well. This can become extremely expensive as the cost accumulates per lens.
  • Dual control-dials: Mid to high-end cameras have 2 control-dials as opposed to 1. This makes it more efficient to control and adjust exposure.
  • More buttons: More external buttons means relying on the menu system less. Each time you enter the menu system it slows you down. Advanced cameras are designed to be used efficiently and under pressure and therefore have more buttons to keep more functions at your fingertips.
  • Build: Advanced cameras are expected to be used and abused more. They are built tougher to last longer. You won't see rotating LCD displays on true high-end cameras because it is a serious point of weakness. You will see cameras built with magnesium alloy frames, rubber-coated on more sides and with more wear resistant shutters (between 2 and 6X more shutter-actuations).
  • Continuous Drive: Higher-end camera usually shoot continuously faster and always shoot much longer bursts (over 100 frames for some) compared to lower-end cameras.

There are plenty of minor differences that depend on firmware as well. In other words, differences that manufacturers introduce to differentiate their products while the hardware is capable of more. These include the number of stops for exposure-compensation, number of images in a bracket, metering modes, customization options, white-balance fine-tuning, etc.

I am certain I forgot some but these are all the most important differences.

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pretty much it, though I don't necessarilly agree on your ordering :) Another one is larger size. I personally find most lower end bodies to be too small to hold comfortably, the controls too small to operate. –  jwenting Jun 6 '11 at 3:48
    
@jwenting - It is ordered by cost-difference based on historical MSRP. The relative importance of each item depends on photographic use. Some items may not be important at all for some types of photography (ex: continuous drive speed for architecture). –  Itai Jun 6 '11 at 4:12
    
Please note, the question was actually asking about the video mode of a DSLR, which is not specifically covered in this answer. –  Barry Semple Jun 6 '11 at 5:37
    
actually it is covered, as the video signal quality will depend on the sensor, the ease of use of the camera will influence the composition and everything else you produce, etc. etc. –  jwenting Jun 6 '11 at 6:55
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Well, I took it as someone looking for a video-capable DSLR but wondering what else does one get for the higher price. For video, the external mic is probably the biggest difference but an separate audio recording device is usually even better. –  Itai Jun 6 '11 at 13:45

Between those cameras - the sensor. The D5100 and the D7000 have the newest sensor that is just amazing in its low noise, high DR.

After that, the D7000 has an in body focus motor (can use older lenses) and a 100% viewfinder. The D7000 is also at least partially weather sealed. There are numerous other differences, but those are a few key ones.

If you're doing video, the LCD screen on the D5100 and D7000 is also MUCH higher res.

More generally, you're talking about a difference between consumer and prosumer cameras.

Consumer camera are going to have limited features, smaller viewfinders, not weather sealed, and most of the functions will be accessed through the menu system.

On prosumer cameras - they'll start to 'pull out the stops' with cutting edge technology (like new sensors) that they're looking at putting on the next generation of professional level cameras, the viewfinder may be 100%, it may be somewhat weather sealed, and there will be more funtions available through buttons and dials that can be accessed by touch rather than by visual navigation.

See this answer for more details.

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+1 because this does cover those three cameras -- but I'm looking more generally too -- e.g. features that set more expensive bodies apart from less expensive bodies. –  Billy ONeal Jun 5 '11 at 23:13
    
@BillyOneal - added some more general info. –  rfusca Jun 5 '11 at 23:21

Features to check for ...

  • the ability to plug in an external microphone as well as if the microphone has stereo capabilities.

  • the ability to use auto-focus while recording, this can make a huge difference to the results.

  • what frames per second is the camera capable of while in 1080P video recording mode?

  • can you use image stabilization while in movie mode?

  • what CODEC is the video stored in as some are not widely used and some can be low quality in comparison to others? Try to ensure it is a standard, widely used CODEC so if passing the video on it can be easily viewed (although this can be changed in post with the right software).

  • depending how professional you want the results, larger sensors (physical size) provide a shallower depth of field with the same lens in comparison to smaller sensors. This allows for greater subject isolation.

  • an LCD screen that swivels can be a great advantage when trying to get unusual angles, without laying on the ground or standing on stepladders.

  • real-time output can be useful if setup in a studio type environment.

  • last thing is the ability to write to the memory card fast enough to keep up with the frames per second and quality, make sure your memory card is fast enough to keep up with the output of the camera.

All of these are manufacturer independent and items I would be looking at if I were to buy a DSLR specifically for the video capability.

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Good points for the most part. I object to the autofocus one except for the Sony SLT cameras. Using contrast-detect during video recording is very disturbing because the lens has to move back-and-forth to determine focus. Profesional movies are all done using manual focus. See the first 5s of this video to see what a D7000 focusing looks like: youtube.com/watch?v=GrvX-10M0_Q –  Itai Jun 5 '11 at 23:47
    
Well known issue with wide angle and some other lenses but can be overcome by using single point focusing and keeping the focus point on a single subject. For beginners the auto-focus is useful, but yes if not used right can be a pain. –  Barry Semple Jun 5 '11 at 23:50
    
I don't think the autofocus problem is limited to wide angle lenses. Have a source for that? –  Evan Krall Jun 6 '11 at 7:26
    
@Evan - I didn't say it was limited to, merely that it was known on wide angle and some others. Looking at other forums and my own experience I have found the fact that there are more articles available in a wide angle frame along with those article will usually look physically smaller in the viewfinder equate to the auto-focus slipping off of the main subject and hunting for a new one. I am no de-facto expert on this subject but am commenting from my own experience in the field and online. –  Barry Semple Jun 6 '11 at 23:13
    
That's certainly plausible, but at the same time a smaller camera movement will equate to more on-screen movement of the subject for long lenses. I think the real issue is a combination of the fact that DSLRs can't do phase detection AF during video, that the autofocus motors are still quite audible, and that most SLR lenses change magnification when focusing. –  Evan Krall Jun 7 '11 at 2:51

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