Why I shoot mirrorless

“I believe a camera is a tool that should enable the creative process, not be a distraction from it. That’s the reason I choose the mirrorless system.”


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. 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 the “job”. What I can tell you is, and this is in no particular order, these are the reasons I shoot with a mirrorless system.


Image quality

To accommodate a mirror, in a DSLR camera the lens is pushed further forward, increasing the distance between the rear lens element and the sensor plane. Without a mirror, lenses on a mirrorless camera sit much closer to the sensor plane, which means better light quality, which results in sharper images with less distortion. Image quality is my number one concern, especially when I’m shooting images for my gallery.

WYSIWYG

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 exposures, no more guessing at depth-of-field or White Balance. Every change you make to the main camera settings, you instantly see the affect in the viewfinder. What’s more, there’s a live histogram and highlights alert, so you can make adjustments before you take the picture. All this means fewer errors and increased productivity (hit rate).

 

Autofocus

Have you ever wondered why AF sensors in a DSLR are always positioned around the centre of the viewfinder? What if your main subject sits closer to the edge of frame? The answer is, because of the mirror. Getting rid of the mirror means AF is driven by the sensor, which means there are AF points covering the entire area of the sensor. No more, frame, re-frame, focus, lock, re-frame malarkey. You just point, focus and shoot, which saves time and means I’m less likely to miss the shot.

 

Low light

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 both 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.

 

Silent shooting

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.

 

Performance

Assertions that mirrorless cameras lack the performance of high-end DSLR’s are generally way off mark. The top shutter speed on my Fujifilm cameras is 1/30,000 (yes, 1/30,000 – that’s not a typo), the maximum frame rate is pushing 14-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 sprinting cheetah. My one gripe is that battery life is generally lower due to the demands of powering the electronic viewfinder. But since the camera houses three batteries, I’ve never run out in a day’s shooting.

 


Sample images

Camera: Fujifilm X-T2
Lens: Fujinon 50-140mm f/2.8 @ 70mm
Aperture: f/4
Shutter speed: 1/1250
ISO 1600

 


Camera: Fujifilm X-T2
Lens: Fujinon 100-400mm f/4.5-56 @ 280mm
Aperture: f/11
Shutter speed: 1/120
ISO 400