Why I'm Moving to Mirrorless Cameras

When I announced my massive Nikon gear sale the other week, several people asked if I was switching to Canon. I'd mentioned that I was moving in a new direction and, somehow, changing brands is perceived as "changing direction."

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When I started shooting in earnest in 2006, I chose Nikon equipment for one simple reason: that's what my friends were shooting. I figured they could help me with the learning curve and we could swap lenses and other gear. That reason was valid and worked to everyone's benefit.

As my skills developed and my interest in off-camera lighting grew, Nikon was the perfect place for me to be. Nikon's Creative Lighting System was more advanced than Canon's efforts at automated off-camera flash. The Nikon system has served my vision well.

In the past few years, I've dabbled with the Micro Four Thirds (often abbreviated MFT or m4/3) cameras. This format is also called “mirrorless” since the designs forego the mirror and prism viewfinder systems of DSLR cameras. The bodies and sensors are also smaller than those used in Nikon or Canon DSLRs. While the Nikon bodies and lenses have been great for my client work, I’ve wanted a camera and lens combo that could go with me everywhere. Something unobtrusive, stealthy, and that doesn't shout PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER when you raise it to your eye.

I started with the Panasonic GF1 in 2010 but didn't keep it long. It wasn't small enough for me and the image quality didn't justify its size. Toward the end of 2011, I bought an Olympus E-P3 and a couple of lenses. I shot a LOT with that camera and it became my goto kit for family pictures or any time I'd leave the house. I even used it as a second camera on some wedding and engagement sessions as well as an event or two.

For me, an eye-level viewfinder is a "must." Most MFT cameras lack a viewfinder, which means you have to compose and shoot with the monitor on the back. Both the GF1 and the E-P3 offered accessory viewfinders that slid into the camera's hot shoe. Of course, that means you can't use the hot shoe for flash or a flash remote trigger. That's a tradeoff that won't work for off-camera lighting and one that limited the usefulness of these cameras for me.

Last year, however, both Olympus and Panasonic introduced MFT bodies aimed at professionals, gear intended to minimize the typical compromises of smaller cameras.

I've been shooting with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 since the beginning of the year and the Panasonic GH3 over the past couple weeks. I'm drawn to the smaller size of the E-M5 as well as the retro styling--it's like a condensed version of my dad's Pentax Spotmatic SPII that I learned on back in the day. But the GH3 may be the more capable image maker for me. More on that in a moment.

Both the E-M5 and the GH3 incorporate electronic viewfinders into the body design and they're good. I prefer the E-M5 finder, personally. I wear glasses and the GH3 finder distorts the view if I don't look straight into it. The hot shoes are open for flash triggers and accessories--good.

So I've been shooting with these smaller cameras off and on for a few years and extensively in the past 15 months. And I've come to the conclusion that I'm ready for something new and that the mirrorless gear is suitable for both my personal and professional use.

Here are my top reasons for switching to a mirrorless system.

Quality - By "quality," I mean both image quality and equipment quality. On the equipment side, the GH3 and E-M5 are both weather-sealed (like my former Nikon D700). Panasonic's new 12-35 and 35-100 f/2.8 zoom lenses (equivalent to 24-70 and 70-200 focal lengths on the D700) are excellent. And several of the prime lenses are outstanding as well. And the images I'm making with these cameras and lenses, frankly, have surprised me. I honestly didn't expect them to be as good as they are. But the files are solid. In other words, there's no reason to think that the MFT gear is inferior to bigger DSLR gear for professional use.

Size - I've worked 12+ hour gigs carrying around two heavy Nikon bodies and a few lenses dangling from my waist in a ThinkTank Photo belt system. At the end of the day, my legs are tired and my feet and hips are sore. No fun. But the MFT equipment is featherweight by comparison. I'd much rather work a wedding or an event with smaller, lighter gear.

Cost - The D700 has been my main camera for three years and I’ve wanted a camera that can record video. To stay in the Nikon family, that meant either a D600 or a D800. The D600, however, felt like taking a step backwards in usability and features while the D800--with its massive 36 megapixel sensor--is retailing at $2,800 just for the body. And, honestly, beyond getting more megapixels and video, the D800 really didn't interest me much.

So what about Micro Four Thirds? Panasonic's GH3, arguably the most featured MFT body, can be had for $1,300. And the really nice 35-100 f/2.8 zoom? $1,400. Compare that to Nikon's new 70-200 f/2.8 zoom at $2,400.

Granted, some of the MFT lenses aren't cheap (I'm looking at you, Olympus 75mm f/1.8). But they are good and, on the whole, less expensive than their DSLR counterparts.

Capability - You can shoot stills on a DSLR and you can shoot video on the newer ones as well. But it's kind of a pain. Want to do both on a Micro Four Thirds camera? Push a button. Easy. The GH3 is better engineered for video than the E-M5 and this is why I'm leaning toward the GH3 as a professional tool. But I still like the charm of the E-M5 and it makes very good photographs. I've made a few videos with the E-M5 (like this one) and I'm just starting to use the GH3 for video projects.

While I've come to these conclusions on my own, I've also watched some really good shooters like Scott Bourne, Jonathan Posner, Giulio Scorio, Paul Gero, Will Crockett, and others move to or incorporate MFT and mirrorless systems. Seeing pros use this gear in their work also legitimizes its acceptance as "ready for prime time." 

Have there been some trade offs? Of course, but everything in life involves tradeoffs. For one, the files have a different look to them compared to the ones that come out of my D700. There's a little more depth of field and a slightly different feel to the images. Not better, not worse, but different. But I'm OK with that and I don't think my clients will care.

I also know the strengths and limitations of the Nikon speedlight system well. At the moment, I haven't committed to a similar system for MFT. So I'll lose automation and camera-position control for the time being. I suspect that the MFT manufacturers, as they continue to woo professional shooters, will develop the lighting equipment in time. For now, I'm back to manual flash control. That will mean working a little more slowly and methodically, but that may make me think more about my lighting. And more thinking is bound to lead to good things.

What does the road ahead look like? I think clients--both consumer and commercial--will want more video as well as stills. For me, that means learning new techniques and gear in video as well as audio, not to mention post-production. But I love to learn and I love helping people tell their stories. Developing a hybrid approach to image making and storytelling (photo, video, and audio) is the future.