Is now the best time to dive into mirrorless?
Many would agree that mirrorless cameras have finally reached a point where they offer professionals a very compelling alternative to DSLRs. Paul Clark chats with four professional to understand just why they love the new breed of cameras so much.
Worth the weight
For almost 60 years, the SLR (single-lens reflex) camera has been one of the mainstays of global camera manufacture. Early 35mm SLR cameras existed in the 1930s, but mainstream production started with the introduction of the Nikon F and Canonflex in 1959. The SLR-type camera became suitable for consumer use once mechanical complexities such as the return movement of the reflex mirror were ironed out.
While the SLR remains a major part of the camera market today, the machinery has not been without change. The switch from film to digital sensors, and with it the addition of a digital ‘D’ to the old ‘SLR’ abbreviation, is arguably the most significant.
Over the last few years it’s been impossible to ignore the rise and prominence of mirrorless cameras. With each new significant advance and improvement, they move further into territories once dominated exclusively by DSLR. ‘Mirrorless’ is a term coined to explain camera bodies that link the sensor to an electronic viewfinder (EVF), without the use of a mirror to direct light into a prism and optical viewfinder. The mirrorless camera is no novelty, and top-end models want for nothing in terms of technology. However, for quite some time they were simply not considered a conventional choice for professional application. That is now changing, and in this feature we set out to find some specific reasons for the change.
A viewfinder with electrons
The main disadvantage of using the early electronic viewfinders (EVF) – essential for an effective mirrorless camera – was the issue of latency. Latency is the time lag between something moving in the scene and the information being transmitted from the sensor to the viewfinder. This was once unsatisfactory compared to looking through an optical viewfinder, in which there is no delay in the passage of light through the lens, mirror and prism to the eye.
The advances in EVF technology now render this electronic time lag insignificant in the latest mirrorless cameras. Leica claims a latency time ‘below the threshold of perception’ for their SL body. For the Fujifilm X-T2, due in September 2016, the manufacturer claims a time lag of 0.005 seconds.
The practical reason to bother with all this is to allow the photographer to use an EVF to see exactly what the sensor does, including any changes made to the camera settings, both before and after the shot. DSLR cameras do of course display information in the viewfinder, but the shot has to be reviewed on the LCD screen at the back of the body.
First though, are mirrorless cameras ‘better’ because they are smaller and lighter?
Size and weight considerations
In theory, the removal of a mirror and glass prism should reduce the weight and dimensions of a camera body. The reduced weight is one of the assumed reasons for photographers moving to mirrorless gear. A cursory glance at specifications sheets suggest that in many cases this is true, and the bodies are lighter. For example, the latest Sony a7R II weighs 582 grams without a battery while the Canon 5D Mark III weighs 860 grams. Compact, fixed-lens mirrorless cameras, like Sony’s RX-series are even lighter, weighing in at under 500 grams including the battery.
New Zealand professional Stefan Haworth globetrotted for three months with a full-frame sensor Sony RX1R, which is equipped with a 35mm f/2 lens. Apart from the camera, Haworth kept gear to a minimum. “I travelled with two t-shirts, a pair of shorts, and no underwear,” says Haworth. Carrying as little as possible was, needless to say, important to a man carrying no underwear. “The RX1R is still my favourite camera,” says Haworth. “The image quality just blows me away. Plus, you aren’t so obvious because people aren’t always coming up to you to ask about your lenses.”
The RX1R suits street and travel photography well, but for tasks such as sport, an interchangeable lens camera is still the best choice. The difference in weight between mirrorless and DSLR kits is less evident once the larger zoom lenses are added. For example, Sony’s 70-200 f/2.8 lens weighs 1340 grams without the tripod mount, while Canon’s equivalent 70-200 is 1490 grams. With the mid-range zooms, the Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM at 886 grams is actually 81 heavier than the Canon equivalent.
Precise weight comparisons are difficult as there are numerous variations in materials and specifications and lens configurations between camera outfits. Suffice to say that when fast lenses are taken into account, the weight difference between mirrorless and SLR systems is less obvious.
Less obvious, but still there, says acclaimed war and documentary photographer Ashley Gilbertson, a member of the VII Photo agency in New York. “I do a lot of documentary work, with no use for telephoto,” Gilbertson says. He initially tried, and loved, the Fujifilm X100, as the compact size and sensor quality made it ideal for the work he was doing. He’s now using the X-Pro2. “I like to use two X-Pro2 bodies, one with a 23mm and one with a 35mm lens,” he says. “My gear’s definitely lighter since moving to mirrorless.”
Four times Western Australian Press Photographer of the Year and Walkley Award runner-up, Tony McDonough agrees. “I do a lot of travelling to shoot industrial sites and other jobs, and my Leica SL kit is easier to get on aircraft as carry on,” he says.
Legendary Los Angeles director and photographer, Michael Grecco loves the creative flexibility the Panasonic Lumix GH4 gives him. “I use the GH4 for video. It’s compact and easy to put in a Ronin, or similar rig,” he says.
Compact size is only part of the story. Grecco gets great value out of the technology in his Lumix gear. He likes the feature that when shooting to an external recorder, the file is 10-bit ProRes, offering significant flexibility for colour grading. “You’re able to use Panasonic V-Log (log video recording) format for the colour space. And if the footage is in V-Log, you’ve got this very gradable professional quality video file that can be graded by a colourist,” he says. “A very gradable flat file that you can do anything with is a great advantage.”
Grecco also uses the GH4 for stills when the file size is suitable for his requirements. “I’ve done a lot of cinemagraphs [part motion, part still photograph] with it,” he says. “I did the first broadcast cinemagraph advertising spot with the GH4. The file size was perfect, and also the fact it had time lapse built into it”.
The dollars making sense
If compact size alone does not explain the attraction of mirrorless, cost alone does not account for it either. Any pro camera – whether DSLR or mirrorless – has to have the latest technology, and that’s not cheap. The issue of cost alone does not appear to be why professionals move to mirrorless systems. It’s more about value.
As with weight, there are huge variations caused by the features and specifications of individual cameras. The Sony RX1R II is around $5,500, while a Leica SL costs more than a Nikon D5 or Canon 1D X. At face value, moving to Leica is not a decision based on cost saving.
A number of attractive offerings are grouped together at a more affordable price point of around $1,500 to $2,500. The Panasonic GH4, or Fujifilm X-Pro2, and some of the Sony a7 E-mount cameras can be found in this territory, but it’s easy to spend a lot more than that on a Leica SL or the new mirrorless Hasselblad X1D. With the X1D, you’ll have to bank on spending upwards of $14,000 for the body alone. But just what is going into these cameras for the money?
Quite a lot of technology, as it turns out. “I’ve been shooting Leica for 35 years – news, sports, architecture, industrial, everything,” McDonough says. I was using the M-series, but now it’s the SL.” The SL impressed McDonough on release, and with the familiarity of ownership, he has come to value the features of the system. “The quality is fantastic,” he says. “And it’s all completely weather sealed.”
McDonough is however still shooting sport for Australian Associated Press (AAP) with his DSLR. It’s not because he could not use the SL, but he wants to practice more with all the extra features. “The capabilities are so far ahead of DSLR,” he says. “I can use the menus in the EVF display, and even set it up with a live histogram in the viewfinder. Of course the trick is to remember how I set it up…”
For photographers like Haworth, practical considerations are paramount. Haworth says he did not move to the Sony system until he was sufficiently impressed by the image quality and convinced it would fit as a main workhorse. “I want equipment to get the best images I can without problems,” he says. Now that he’s using Sony, there are lots of practical advantages over his old DSLR kit. He shoots a lot of action sports, like mountain biking, and finds the EVF a great help dealing with that pesky sun. “The EVF does use more power, but it is worth it because you get to see the lens flare as you shoot, and can adjust accordingly.”
There’s also the matter of the battering that pro gear can take in the field, and dust can be a major pain. Haworth believes that not all shooters like to clean sensors in the field, but he will when required, and finds that this is easier with a mirrorless body. “Stuff gets dusty – it’s just a fact of life,” he says. “I do a lot of lens changes and at times I just have to clean the sensor as I go. With a DSLR you’ve got to get the mirror up to clean the sensor, but with mirrorless, take the lens off and there it is, and dust can be removed in a split second.”
Practicality and suitability for the intended purpose is really the issue. Not so much an issue of cost, rather it is cost effectiveness for the job the pro is doing. Is real-time viewing through the EVF worth the money? If it’s available in a very well specified camera, clearly it is.
One other attraction of the mirrorless systems is that they don’t announce ‘professional’ to the authorities or the general public, for now, at least, while many people expect pros to have big cameras. Gilbertson has been covering the refugee crisis in Europe and does a lot of his documentary work in places where he has not been given official access. “I can put a [Fujifilm] X-Pro2 in a hip pouch,” he says. “When I shoot, I could just be a volunteer taking snapshots.”
It’s not just in Europe. Photojournalists or professional photographers are not always welcome, either because of fees charged for professional photography or sensitivity regarding political issues. It suits Gilbertson to look like a tourist or amateur. “I look less professional carrying a mirrorless,” he says. “In fact, the real tourists seem to have the bigger and more expensive cameras.”
Gilbertson also considers a more discreet camera to be helpful when close to anxious subjects. In part, this is because he can check the image without looking at the back of the camera. “I want to know what shots I’ve got in the can,” he says. “But constant looking at the back of the camera is a distraction. Shooting the mirrorless, I can review everything in the viewfinder and keep going without breaking the mood.”
Haworth also believes that a mirrorless system is a real advantage when it comes to blending in. Specifically, the silent shutter can make all the difference for getting shots discreetly. “The dead silent shutter in the RX1R series means you can shoot without being noticed, even more when shooting from the hip,” he says.
The whole nine yards
Traditional DSLR systems have an almost limitless range of pro quality lenses, flashes and other accessories to choose from. The range of dedicated lenses and accoutrements available to mirrorless users while smaller, is growing.
Haworth changed from a DSLR system to the Sony mirrorless and acknowledges that early on there were not that many lens choices. “However,” he says, “what was available was sharp, in fact sharper than my old kit.” As more and more photographers embrace mirrorless, their hunger for an ever-broader range of lenses, from ultra-fast wide-angle to super-telephotos, continues to grow, and many manufacturers are rising to the challenge.
The often overlooked items such as batteries and memory cards also require some thought when assembling a mirrorless – or any other – system. “The batteries are smaller, so I carry more,” says Haworth. The cameras still need power no matter what size they are. “I carry more SD cards for the huge files,” he says.
Another compromise is flash technology. Without the PocketWizard’s ‘High Speed Sync’ and remote power control compatible with Sony, Haworth hasn’t used flash for action sports for some time. However, he’s looking to replace his current system with the new Elinchrom trigger which is Sony compatible, and the battery powered, portable Elinchrom ELB 400 to meet his outdoor flash needs. Recently, Sony announced a new radio-controlled lighting system for the alpha range which includes a wireless radio commander and receiver, while Fujifilm shooters now have the option to add the recently released EF-X500 hot-shoe mount flash.
McDonough is happy with the range of kit available to go with the SL. “The full spectrum of M-series prime lenses can be used on the SL,” he says. “As for the SL system 24-90mm and the 90-280mm, the 24-90mm is the best zoom I’ve ever used.” There are other options, through the use of adapters. Novoflex recently released an adapter for the SL to allow the use of Canon EF-lenses. There is also the option of using Leica adapters to fit Leica S and M lenses.
As for flash, McDonough already had a Leica unit for his M-series, so he’s using that on the SL. Is the Leica flash any good? “It was good enough to cover the federal election [in July 2016],” says McDonough.
The latest gear
One thing’s for sure – the mirrorless market is not standing still. Hasselblad’s entry with a medium format mirrorless offering had plenty talking. The camera shares a name with a 1950s-era Bell experimental rocket plane, and at $14,000 – for the body only – seems to cost almost as much. Still, the beautifully machined aluminium body is light at 725 grams houses a 50-megapixel CMOS sensor.
In terms of price, the Leica SL sits below the Hasselblad, where the body will set you back just under $11,000. Packed with impressive technology, the very capable SL is not going to be the right choice for everybody. For those whose budgets don’t extend quite that far, the Fujifilm’s X-T2, is likely to be a rather enticing option. Like the X-Pro2, the new X-T2 body is made from magnesium alloy. The X-T1 replacement will feature a 2.36-million-dot high-resolution EVF and 24-megapixel APS-C sensor.
It’s still the photographer that counts
The mirrorless, or any other piece of equipment, is just a tool for the photographer. “The camera is absolutely secondary to how the photographer behaves – how we interact with people,” says Gilbertson. “That said, if I was stuck with a medium format in my hand instead of a mirrorless, I’m still going to connect with my subject, and shoot.”
The quality has got to be there too, to make a photographer choose mirrorless. Size, weight, and cost; none of these things matter if the images aren’t awesome. And McDonough is very satisfied with that he’s using. “The files out of the SL are magnificent. The colour is beautiful. The camera is an amazing achievement,” he says.
None of this suggests that the current crop of professional DSLRs are not technological wonders in their own right, from the Nikon D5 to the Canon 1D X Mark II. The DSLR camera in all the various incarnations remains popular for many good reasons. There is no doubt that the best features of the pro-grade mirrorless systems will give DSLR designers more food for thought. The winners? Us, the photographers.
“This was the very first Cinemagraph used as a broadcast TV Spot for the Turner Networks show, Billy on the Street. The show’s energetic host, Billy, interviews people on street and he then gives them a dollar. The images was captured in two parts, all with a Panasonic GH4 locked off on a tripod. The first part of the session was shooting the actors with a Chimera Softbox high and above them on a C-stand until we got the right expression we wanted. Then the actors and light was removed and the time-lapse function of the camera was used to shoot 12 seconds of final background time-lapse over 12 minutes, one frame every 2 seconds.
“I then ran the sky as one exposure sequences, the ground as another and the skyscrapers as another. The motion background was masked together for the perfect exposure of each section and the actors were retouched and laid on top all in after effects. The final Pizza Hut logos were all done by an after effects artist for the final version.”