Moving to a Mirrorless Camera System

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Moving to a mirrorless camera system

Many people have given thought to moving to mirrorless camera systems. Some have made the move, while others have not. I’ve procrastinated for quite a while, but now the time is right.

Why move to mirrorless?

There are many reasons for making the move to a mirrorless camera system. Some people might make the move because mirrorless systems are generally lighter than their digital Single Lens Reflex (dSLR) cousins. Others prefer the feel of the mirrorless system and yet others like the ‘what you see is what you get’ benefit of the electronic viewfinder (EVF) over an optical viewfinder (OVF). Then of course there’s the crowd that simply like the way mirrorless cameras look.

The Abbaye aux Hommes in Caen, France. An image made with an Olympus OMD E-M5 and m.Zuiko 12-50mm lens
The Abbaye aux Hommes in Caen, France. An image made with an Olympus OMD E-M5 and m.Zuiko 12-50mm lens

It doesn’t matter what your reasons are for changing systems, at the end of the day what really matters is image quality. Not necessarily having the “best image”, but having the best or most appropriate image quality for your intended use. If you’re going to be shooting for commercial clients and have your images show up on a large roadside billboard, you’re probably going to use something other than one of the smaller mirrorless systems; although having said that, I’ve no doubt a file from some mirrorless cameras could quite easily be used on a billboard without too much trouble.

High end fashion photographers that need to manipulate their images right down to the eyelash level are probably going to love super high resolution files from a medium format camera. If you’re only going to show your images on a web page no larger than a couple of thousand pixels wide, you could get away with using a smartphone camera. There are just as many uses for photographs as there are cameras to make them. You really need to have the right camera for your needs. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or uses.

What system should you choose?

Borough Market is one of the oldest and best food markets in London - Image made with the Olympus OMD E-M5 and m.Zuiko 9-18mm lens
Borough Market is one of the oldest and best food markets in London – Image made with the Olympus OMD E-M5 and m.Zuiko 9-18mm lens

There are almost as many choices in the mirrorless camera segment as there are in the dSLR segment. There’s the Micro Four Thirds system that Sony, Fujifilm and even Nikon and Canon. They’re all excellent systems with their own benefits and advantages… and of course weaknesses. After all, no one camera system is going to be perfect. Well, at least not for everyone. Some people might find one particular system fits their needs completely and is the “perfect” camera system for them; but that same system might be completely wrong for someone else. There is simply no “one size fits all” approach to cameras and photography in general.

To decide what camera system you want, or need, you should investigate several of them and then make your final decision. Don’t rely entirely on what other people say.

By all means, talk to people. Talk to your friends about what camera(s) they have. Ask them what they like about them and what they dislike. Ask if you can borrow their camera to see what it feels like in your hands. Sometimes a camera looks great on paper, but when you physically get it in your hands, it just feels “wrong”. Not that it’s a bad camera, just perhaps not the right size or shape for you. Then of course there’s the aspect of peer help. If you and your friends are using the same system, you can help each other out with technical problems, maybe even loan each other lenses if you’re using an interchangeable lens system. There are good reasons for choosing the same system as your friends.

Before making the final decision to change to a mirrorless system, you should be aware of all the different systems available. Let’s take a look at the basics.

Not everyone needs dSLR cameras like these Paparazzi in London
Not everyone needs dSLR cameras like these Paparazzi in London

Smartphones

There are some fantastic smartphone cameras on the market now. Many people have a smartphone in their pocket or bag all the time. Some of those people make incredible images using the cameras in those smartphones. From iPhones to Androids, the choices are many. The biggest advantage of using your smartphone camera is of course that it’s always with you. If you see something you want to take a photograph of, you simply need to pull the phone out of your pocket or bag and fire up your favourite camera App… there’s not a lot in the way of barriers to making your photograph. The downside?

Well, the lenses are not always the best; the sensor size is tiny which means you have very little control over depth of field; and they’re often not so good in low light. Camera phones are not perfect, but they are competent. I’m starting to use my iPhone camera more and more now, mainly for those “record keeping” type of shots. I still get my “real” cameras out for other shots.

Modern smartphones are perfectly capable of making good images. This bridal image was made with an iPhone
Modern smartphones are perfectly capable of making good images. This bridal image was made with an iPhone

Pros for smartphone cameras

  • Always with you
  • Easy to use Apps
  • Good image quality (in good light)

Cons for smartphone cameras

  • Can be hard to see the screen in bright sunlight
  • Very small sensor (susceptible to noise in low light)
  • Only basic controls unless you buy third party Apps

Point and shoot cameras

This is a segment of the market that seems to be taking its last breath. I think its a segment that is all but obsolete now due mainly to the improvement and upsurge in smartphone cameras. Those people that tended to buy point & shoots are now just using their phones because the phone is more convenient. They don’t have to carry a separate camera anymore and the images can be posted straight online to Facebook or Instagram without having to download them or transfer them from the camera. The experience is less convenient for the point & shoot camera user and the image quality from the smartphones is pretty much the same, so it seems to be an easy decision to use the smartphone. The demise of the point & shoot is imminent.

Pros for point & shoot cameras

  • Small and light
  • Easy to use
  • Better image quality than a camera phone (although that’s debatable now)

Cons for point & shoot cameras

  • No viewfinder
  • Small sensor – more digital noise at higher ISO’s
  • Limited controls

Bridge Cameras

Bridge cameras are an interesting group. They’re neither point & shoot, nor interchangeable lens. They’re in the mid ground between consumer and prosumer; between beginner and advanced amateur. They often have what could be classed as super-tele lenses, ranging from wide angle to extreme telephoto. Bridge cameras usually have more controls than compact point & shoot cameras. They often have similar controls to Interchangeable Lens and dSLR cameras and can be used for a wide range of photographs from landscapes to portraits. They still have the same size sensors as compact point & shoot cameras though, so have the same image quality issues as the smaller cameras.

Pros for bridge cameras

  • Small size, although larger than a compact camera
  • Easy to use
  • Good controls when compared to a compact camera

Cons for bridge cameras

  • Small sensor size that is susceptible to noise in low light conditions
  • Larger than a compact point & shoot
  • Super-Tele lenses tend to be slow

Compact System Cameras (Mirrorless Cameras)

Compact System Cameras (CSC) have taken off in the market place in leaps and bounds over the last few years. They’re often referred to simply as mirrorless cameras and they include the Micro Four Thirds offerings by both Olympus and Panasonic, as well as “crop” sensor systems from Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Samsung and Sony. Sony also makes full-frame compact system cameras. These cameras have all the advantages of dSLR systems – interchangeable lenses, high quality images, fast autofocus and often high-speed continuous shooting. They also have some extra advantages over a dSLR system. They’re smaller and lighter and their electronic viewfinders offer a true “what you see is what you get” view of the image you’re about to take, before you take it. There’s no second guessing whether your exposure is right, because you can see it in the viewfinder as you’re composing.

A young couple in love on Ile St-Louis - made with the Fujifilm X100S
A young couple in love on Ile St-Louis – made with the Fujifilm X100S

With the exception of Olympus and Panasonic, who pioneered the Micro Four Thirds system, all of the other brands use their own proprietary lens mounts. That means you can use Panasonic micro four thirds lenses on an Olympus micro four thirds camera and vice versa, but with all the other systems you’ll generally need to buy their own dedicated lenses. There are adapters available for some of the compact system cameras that will enable you to use other lenses, such as those from the Canon and Nikon dSLR world; there are also some third party lenses made by companies such as Samyang, Tamron.

Pros for compact system cameras

  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Small and light
  • Very good image quality

Cons for compact system cameras

  • Larger than compact point & shoot cameras
  • Contrast Detect Autofocus can be slow

DSLR Cameras

The Chain Bridge over the River Danube in Budapest - made with a Nikon D800 full-frame dSLR
The Chain Bridge over the River Danube in Budapest – made with a Nikon D800 full-frame dSLR

Digital Single Lens Reflex (dSLR) cameras are considered by many to be the pinnacle of camera systems, although the reality is there are other systems that provide larger images with more detail – such as Medium Format systems. DSLR cameras come in both “crop” and “full-frame” sensor variants. The full-frame systems have a sensor that measures 36mm x 24mm, which is the same size as a 35mm film negative; hence the name “full-frame”.

DSLR cameras are used by many professional photographers for assignments ranging from weddings and portraits to motorsport and many things in between. It is probably the most popular camera system currently in existence. These systems are extremely versatile and have excellent image quality. They come with a price though – both monetary and physically. DSLRs are generally bigger, heavier and more expensive than all of the previously mentioned systems.

Pros for Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras

  • Excellent quality images
  • Extremely versatile
  • Very fast Phase Detect autofocus system

Cons for Digital Single Lens Reflex Cameras

  • Large and bulky compared to compact cameras
  • Some models are very expensive
  • Slow Contrast Detect autofocus system when using Liveview Mode

Choose your system wisely

Notre Dame from the banks of the Seine - made with a Fujifilm X100S
Notre Dame from the banks of the Seine – made with a Fujifilm X100S

There you have it… a basic overview of the main camera systems available. Knowing what the different systems are and what some of their advantages and disadvantages are will help you make the right choice. I’m of the firm belief there really isn’t a bad camera made today. Any camera you buy that was made within the last couple of years is going to produce outstanding images. Some of the systems are certainly better suited to particular circumstances than others. There’s no doubt that some people will prefer one system over another, while their friend may prefer something completely different; even though their requirements may be similar.

Take stock of what you “need” versus what you “want” and then make an informed decision about the system that best suits you. In reality it often comes down to your “wants” instead of your needs, but so long as you understand that and are happy with the decision, it really doesn’t matter.

What did I choose?

So, what did I choose and why?

Fujifilm X-T1

I’ve been using Nikon dSLR cameras and lenses for many years. Before that I used their film bodies too, although I’ve owned many different manufacturer’s cameras in my lifetime. Right now though, those particular bodies and lenses no longer fit my shooting style and needs. I travel a lot, so I’m looking to have a smaller and lighter system that I can pack into a carry-on bag on any airline I might travel on. As well as my Nikon gear I also own a Fujifilm X100S and an Olympus OMD E-M5 micro four thirds camera with a few lenses. I enjoy shooting with all these cameras, although I find myself using the Nikon gear less and less. In fact, I’ve gone almost twelve months now without using the Nikons; I find myself mostly using the Fujifilm X100S, except when I have specific jobs that require an assortment of lenses, then I’ll break out the Olympus.

I’ve analysed my shooting style and looked at the camera stats inside of Adobe Lightroom and discovered that except for those paid jobs that require the Olympus, I nearly always use the X100S. I think the images produced by Fujifilm cameras are outstanding. They sometimes require a little extra love in Lightroom to bring out their best, but they’re easy to process and their jpeg files are excellent anyway. I’ve been shooting RAW+jpg lately and often find myself perfectly happy with the out of camera jpegs, which means I can spend less time processing and more time shooting.

With the recent opportunity to borrow a Fujifilm X-T1 together with a selection of lenses, my choice has become easy. Coming from the old film days I really enjoyed having all the controls I needed for changing the exposure at my fingertips. I’m one of those people that likes the retro style and feel of the Fuji cameras. I like having the ISO, shutter speed and aperture dials within easy reach, together with an exposure compensation dial. I found using the X-T1 a pleasure, so that’s what I’m buying. Of course, that might not be the case for you. There’s nothing better than holding a camera in your hands to see if it “fits”. You need to find a camera that feels comfortable, one that’s going to make you want to go out and use it. For me, that’s the Fujifilm X-T1.

Conclusion

There are many things to consider when choosing whether or not to switch to a mirrorless camera system. There’s the obvious financial considerations – can you afford to do it or not – but there’s also the aesthetics and image quality considerations too. Weigh up what you need and choose the system that is right for you. Don’t worry about what other people are buying or what the latest “hot camera” is. If your current camera(s) are doing everything you want or need, there may not be a reason to change. Just make sure if you do, you make your decision armed with the right knowledge. Above all, have fun making pictures!

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