It’s not NOT about the camera
As photographers we’re often told “it’s not about the camera” and, while it’s true to say it’s not all about the camera, let’s face it, photography would be pretty much impossible without one. So here’s my take on cameras – what’s in the bag and why I choose the equipment I use.
What’s in the bag?
Today, I shoot primarily the Nikon mirrorless camera system. Open my camera bag (a thinkTANK Streetwalker) and you’ll find:
Nikon Z6 bodies
Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 wide-angle zoom
Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 Art-series wide-angle zoom
Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8 wide-angle to short telephoto zoom
Nikkor F 70-200mm f/2.8 medium telephoto zoom
Nikkor F 200-500mm f/5.6 long telephoto zoom
Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.8 “standard” prime
Apple MacBook Pro
In addition, I use Sony XQD memory cards, Gobe screw-on filters, a Lee filter system, Gitzo tripod with Manfrotto ball and pan/tilt heads, and a Ewa Marine underwater housing.
My life in cameras
Ever since my dad gave me my first ever camera, at the age of ten, a Nikkormat FT, I’ve always owned a camera. I’ve gone from manual to auto, small format to big and back again, film to digital, and DSLR to mirrorless.
My first foray into medium-format was the very functional Lubitel 2, a Russian TTL camera that cost me £10. Later I spent a bit more on a Pentax but my heart has always belonged to Nikon 35mm cameras.
When I turned professional in 2000, I bought a top-of-the-range Nikon F5 and that was my mainstay camera for 5-years. Since digital, with the rapid improvements in technology, I’ve worked my way through 15 different models from Nikon and Fujifilm, culminating in the Nikon Z-series.
Why I shoot mirrorless
A few years ago, a leading photography magazine asked me what I thought would be the next big change in digital camera technology. I said it would be getting rid of the mirror. Now, I’m not claiming to be clairvoyant but here we are and the mirrorless sector is booming. Most recently, early entrants into the market, such as Sony, Fujifilm and Olympus, have been joined by the big boys from the DSLR world, Nikon and Canon.
DSLR vs. Mirrorless is the new great debate in photography circles and everyone has an opinion. Beyond hyperbole, however, they’re still cameras; they’re just a tool to do a job. And, of course, technology is changing fast and there’s no doubt early weaknesses in mirrorless design have long been erradicated. So the real question isn’t which is better or best but whether mirrorless is right for you? I can’t answer that question directly because it depends on what you like to shoot. What I can tell you are the reasons I shoot with a mirrorless system.
In a DSLR camera the lens has to be pushed away from the film/sensor plane to accommodate the mirror. By taking the mirror away, the lens can sit much closer, which means better light quality, resulting in crisper, sharper images with less distortion. Image quality is my number one concern, especially when I’m shooting super large prints for my gallery, so mirrorless makes sense.
Because the viewfinder is electronic, driven from data gathered by the sensor, what you see in the viewfinder is exactly what the camera is going to record. There’s no more uncertainty about exposure, no more guessing depth-of-field or White Balance. Every change you make to the main camera settings, you instantly see the effect in the viewfinder. What’s more, there’s a live histogram and highlights alert, so you can make adjustments before you take the picture, for greater accuracy.
Have you ever wondered why AF sensors in a DSLR are always positioned around the centre of the viewfinder? The answer is, because of the mirror. And what do you do if the subject you want to focus on sits closer to the edge or corner of the frame? In mirrorless cameras AF is driven by the sensor, which means you get AF points across the whole image space, corner-to-corner, so wherever your subject is in the frame, there’s a convenient AF point.
In a DSLR camera, auto-focus (AF) is managed by a dedicated unit that sits beneath the mirror. In order to work, this unit needs sufficient light and because most of the light entering the lens is passed from the mirror to the viewfinder, the AF unit struggles to work effectively in low light. In a mirrorless camera, the sensor deals with AF, which means all the light entering the lens is available for focussing. When you shoot in the kinds of conditions I do (under dense jungle/forest canopies, at dawn and dusk, etc.) these small advantages make a big difference between getting the shot and the shot that got away.
Photographing wildlife, sometimes the slap of a mirror and the click of a shutter is enough to frighten off skittish animals. No more. Switching from the manual shutter to the electronic one, which is a quick My Menu selection, means I can work in total silence. Better for the subject and better for me. And it’s not just wildlife photographers who can benefit from silent shooting. Anyone who operates in noise-conscious environments will be rewarded.
Size and weight
A reflex mirror has to be accommodated, which means DSLR cameras have to be bigger than is necessary. The mirror, along with the mechanism to drive it, and the pentaprism needed to turn the image the right way up and around, all add weight on top of the already increased body size. All this means the average DSLR is around 30% heavier than a mirrorless camera, with top-level DSLR’s being around twice as heavy. The footprint of mirrorless cameras is also far smaller than equivalent DSLR’s. As a guide, I can fit two mirrorless cameras in the space I need for one DSLR. All this means a lighter, smaller bag, which, when you get to my age, is no small blessing, especially when I’m cutting my way through a tropical jungle or hiking at 4,500m in the Himalayas.
Assertions that mirrorless cameras lack the performance of high-end DSLR’s are generally way off mark. The top shutter speed on some mirrorless cameras is 1/30,000 (yes, 1/30,000 – that’s not a typo), frame rates are pushing 14-15 fps (although I rarely need to shoot above 5-fps), ISO/Noise performance is on a par with any competing camera, and AF tracking is accurate enough to keep pace with a hungry cheetah in hot pursuit of a gazelle. My one gripe is that battery life is generally lower due to the demands of powering the electronic viewfinder. Even so, carrying a couple of spares, I’ve yet to run out in a single day’s shooting.
Nikon D100 – D700
2004 – 2008
2007 / 2012
Fujifilm X-T1 – X-T3
2016 – 2019
2012 / 2014