The reason I bought a mirrorless camera
It all started last October 2014 or a week before a flight that would drag me away from home for the next 3 months. Street photography – and one wedding – in Japan, Hong Kong, Philippines and Dubai to the program. I would be walking every days between 5 to 10 kms, board several trains, flights and visit over 15 different locations in Japan only. Keeping my camera bag as light as possible was essential and after trying to trim down my equipment for the tenth time, I felt like I was doing it all wrong. The idea of carrying every day 4kgs of gears on my back with a dslr, 3 lenses, a flash and accessories slowly started to sounds like a bad idea.
Few days before my departure and with the objective of transitioning to a smaller setup, I decided to pull the trigger for a small mirrorless camera with fixed lens that caught my attention back in January 2013: the Fujifilm x100s. At less than 500g on the scale, it weight twice less than one lens such as the Canon 24-70mm F/2.8 alone. The equation was easy to solve and I left my dslr at home.
Image comparison with a dslr
When I first held the x100s, it felt light, small and like nothing else I used to work with in the past. I quickly ran a simple image comparison with my Canon 6D and was quite impressed with the result. I happened to prefer the Fuji image better but objectively, both images were looking good enough for any kind of professional work and I won’t argue with pixel peepers which camera is better here. That being said, I still didn’t know the mirrorless system well enough to compare it to a dslr on a day-to-day use. After using this camera daily for the past 3 months, I feel like I can fairly compare both systems and their performances.
Performances on the paper
If the digital mirrorless systems were pretty disappointing at first, they are now up to par with dslrs – and keep improving every years – in term of direct performances: low light capabilities, electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lenses, growing variety of focal length, build quality, affordability, silent shutter, full frame equivalent, in camera image stabilisation, better connectivity, etc.
The primary technical complaint I heard about mirrorless is the battery life situation which is honestly not really justifiable. These batteries are so small and take up to 350 shots. The battery of a dslr can take up to 900 shots yes, but when I hear photographers telling me they can’t shoot mirrorless because they shoot up to 2000 photos on a wedding and would need 6 batteries – I personally need 2 spare batteries – to cover the day I can’t help but smile. Not only theses batteries are twice the size and weight of the dslr ones but if you take 2000 pictures on a wedding day you need to reconsider the way you shoot.
Also, The contrast detection auto focus system of mirrorless cameras used to be slow compared to the system phase detection of dslr’s but new mirrorless incorporate both detection systems for a better autofocus so it isn’t really a current/future issue for this system.
Concretely, using one system over another will not help you get better pictures. I’ve seen mobile photographers get better shots than supposedly pro photographers using the best gears money could buy. With the level of technology we all have access to, in 2015, taking better pictures come down to the human factor or more precisely, the one holding the camera.
The major relevant change in shooting with a mirrorless system is the silent shutter and the decrease in weight and size of the equipment. All of it possible thanks to the mirrorless system: no mirrors, no pentaprism, and a smaller sized sensor resulting in a shorter flange distance. And if size matters and making a visual statement remains a priority, then yes, dslrs are still a large winner but bigger is not better anymore.
Real world situation
Practically, I like to fly under the radar when shooting and let people, their emotions and behaviours unfold by itself without interrupting. I have always hated the intimidating “Klak” of my dslr that screamed “I took a photo of you but please don’t mind me”. And that is precisely where a mirrorless system helped me get better photos. It is quiet, small and changed the way people perceived me as a photographer. I went from the paparazzi guy to “another tourist”. It allowed me to get more intimate with my subjects and be able to capture candid shots of people in their environment from closer.
Whether it be for weddings where the silent shutter – no mirror to slap up and down – allow me to shoot without interfering with the moment or in the street where no one really pays attention to a tourist with a small camera around the neck. Eventually, people give me the look here and there or shy away, but they are definitely not behaving the same when aimed at, with a bigger camera. Shooting with a small camera helped me get shots I would have never obtain with a bigger camera setup, thus dslrs. That, plus the evident weight loss benefits of a mirrorless system are the reason I now prefer shooting with a mirrorless camera.
One special moment in Tokyo really had me appreciate using a small camera. My wife – who is a photographer too – and I were chasing geishas/maikos at dust in Asakusa. There was already other photographers present on this particular street with large dslrs hooked up to long white lenses. They were trying to capture some geishas from afar but were quickly spotted by the ladies who seemed accustomed to this little game, running from one tea house to another while hiding their faces.
I decided to walk the street in the hope of crossing a geisha, instead of waiting at a corner, and was pretty surprised when 3 maikos started to head right towards me. I assume the little x100s didn’t draw their attention as “professional” equipment and even when I directly aimed at them for 5 good seconds before releasing the shutter at the desired moment, they never tried to hide or run away from me. I’am convinced I wouldn’t have had the chance to capture this photo among many others during this 3 months trip if it would have been for a bigger camera setup.
It’s really not about comparing the capabilities of one system over another at the level of performances both system offer, but about the experience and opportunities one system can favor over another. I personally enjoy the discretion factor of the mirrorless system as it allow me to remain as unobtrusive as my work requires me to be and created new opportunities to my photographic approach. However I question the future of the dslr system for its cost and evolution. When I see the 50mm f1.4 from canon is 22 years old and the new 5DS is priced at 3600 euros, I wonder who, in a near future, will invest in dslr technologies when something similar or may be better is available for half the cost.
Dslrs are still a privileged system for enthusiast or professional photographers who require the confidence and impression a big camera can grant them. Mentalities might change in the future. As far as I’m concerned, the result is far more important than the visual statement my equipment can state. I ignore being judged by a guest at a wedding using a bigger camera than mine or being taken for an amateur in the streets, and my back is already thanking me for carrying twice less weight than I used to.
I’m not yet sure what camera will I be replacing my 6d with, but it is going to be a mirrorless. I’m currently hesitating between the Sony a7 II as the full frame factor is important to me but the X series from Fuji is fun to shoot with and I just loved using the x100s so much that I might pursue with Fuji and their x-t1.
Pictures taken with a mirrorless camera on my latest trip