The evolution of photographic technology is running at a pace that is hard to keep up with. I have been a happy film shooter most of my life. Nevertheless I switched to digital rather early in the game. For one I was intrigued by the instant availability of my images but also it was rather tricky getting proper transparency film in Ireland.
My digital journey started with a Sigma SD9 but soon after I switched to the Canon EOS 5D and I have been a happy Canon user ever since. About 2 years ago however a nagging feeling I had been nurturing for a while took over. While other companies almost desperately introduced new technology, pushing out new cameras at an alarming rate, Canon seemed to be happy introducing new cameras every once in a while with only very minor upgrades while still charging premium prices. In addition I was getting older and lugging EOS 1 series cameras up the mountain had stopped being fun.
For me the so called mirrorless system cameras started to look really interesting. For a year or so I tried out various models from Panasonic (GH4), Olympus (OMD EM-1), Fuji (XT-1) and Sony (7R, 7II, 6000 and 7R II)… and also had a short love affair with the Nikon D810. In the end I settled for the Sony 7R II which for my needs is as close to the perfect camera as there has ever been.
When it comes to mirrorless systems there are a number of negative points that always come up. It is however never completely good or bad, the truth often can be found somewhere in the middle.
Probably the most critizised point is battery life: The batteries of mirrorless cameras don’t last very long. While I could shoot for several days with my EOS cameras on charge I consider myself lucky to get a whole day of shooting out of the Sony 7R II without having to re-charge. However it’s only logical: The batteries in mirrorless cameras are smaller and you are constantly shooting in live-view which consumes a lot of energy. The only way around is carrying a number of spare batteries. Because of their size it is not a big inconvenience, at least not for me.
Autofocus is another area where mirrorless systems apparently lack: In the case of the Sony 7R II I have to say AF is fine for my needs but for my work I rarely rely on fast AF. Having said that I do the occasional wildlife shoot and here the Sony would loose out big time. The AF works good enough for static and slow moving subjects but tracking dolphins or flying birds just doesn’t work. With the recent launch of the A9 Sony seems to have closed that gap and if you believe the reviews the A9 is as good a sports or wildlife camera as it gets.
But then again there isn’t only Sony. Fuji and Olympus seem to go after sports and wildlife shooters and I had the chance to try Fuji’s XT-2 for a few weeks. The AF of the XT-2 is every bit as good, if not better, as the one I had on my EOS 5D III. In combination with Fuji’s 100-400mm lens (which is a 150-600mm in full frame terms) this should make most wildlife photographers happy. The Olympus OMD EM-1II which I have been using as a back-up for the past month also has a very fast and reliable AF (and some other really interesting features like double exposures, keystone compensation and a high-res function that makes 50MP files with the 20MP sensor).
I settled for the Sony 7R II which for my needs is as close to the perfect camera as there has ever been.
Mirrorless cameras lack the complex mirror system of DSLRs, especially the pentaprism and its housing that adds bulk. On DSLRs whilst composing the mirror is down and the pentaprism directs the light/image to the eyepiece of the Optical Viewfinder (OVF). Once you press the shutter on a DSLR the mirror rises along with the shutter and light is absorbed on the sensor. On the mirrorless camera, with no mirror, the shutter rises and light is absorbed by the sensor.
The Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)
The Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) is also often the topic of discussion: The EVF is what makes a mirrorless camera mirrorless. The viewfinder image is taken directly from the sensor so there is no need for a bulky and heavy pentaprism. Personally I had a hard time adjusting to a ‘TV image’ in my viewfinder. There is a certain disconnect to reality but with the latest EVFs it is hard to see the difference to an OVF (Optical Viewfinder). Only when light levels drop and the EVF gets noisy and jumpy I sometimes miss my OVF. The big advantage of the EVF however is that all kinds of information and aids can be used with it: From the usual f-stop, ISO, etc. display to really helpful things like focus peaking, zebra (overexposure warning) and exposure simulation.
The latter are features I wouldn’t like to miss. Especially the focus peaking is very helpful when working with MF lenses and you have to react fast. With a DSLR I always had to use live view, zoom in and move around the image to set and check focus which took up valuable time. Focus peaking reduces this time to seconds and although it isn’t always 100% reliable it is most helpful.
Finally the built quality of those small cameras is rather questionable. All high end mirrorless cameras claim to be weather sealed or at least weather resistant. While this is certainly true I would still feel uncomfortable giving my Sony 7R II the same abuse my EOS 5D III had to go through. It might just be their size and weight that makes mirrorless cameras appear less robust and some reports indeed claim that they can take the same abuse as their DSLR counterparts. So far my 7R II has survived a number of downpours, a decent amount of sea spray and a few bumps but I have to admit I am far more careful. Time will tell I guess. I should probably also mention that other mirrorless systems, especially the Olympus OMD EM-1 series, are way better built than the Sonys. The OMD EM-1II for example is splash proof (which means it easily survives torrential downpours) and freeze proof.
A selection of Carsten’s books. Carsten is completing two fotoVUE guidebook to the West of Ireland and the Wild Atlantic Way titled, Photographing Ireland’s South West and Photographing Ireland’s North West.
Size and Weight
The biggest plus of mirrorless systems if you believe the press is their size and weight. Smaller and lighter they are allegedly. If you take only the body this is certainly true (even if you count in the additional spare batteries). If you add lenses however the saving in size and weight becomes less obvious. This becomes especially evident with Sony’s full frame cameras. To cover a full frame sensor you need a certain amount of glass no matter if there is a DSLR or mirrorless camera attached to it. With smaller sensor sizes you obviously save more in size and weight but you also have to deal with the shortcomings of a smaller sensor. While the OMD EM-1II is a formidable camera it can’t hold up to the 7RII when you look at image quality alone. The Sony files are much cleaner and show more detail than the OMD EM-1II files even when you use its high res files for comparison.
The weight factor also isn’t always an advantage. In windy conditions I often wish for a heavier camera. The lightweight Sony shakes way easier than my EOS 5D III did and at certain exposure times this shows in the images.
For me the biggest advantage of mirrorless cameras is the ability to attach pretty much every lens ever made. For years my main landscape lenses have been the Canon 24mm and 17mm TS-E lenses and and I would have had a hard time parting with those. With an adapter they work perfectly on the Sony.
After a year shooting with Sony I couldn’t be happier overall. Despite some shortcomings I wouldn’t go back to a DSLR. For landscapes the 7R II is, for me at least, as good as it gets. High resolution, very good dynamic range (I haven’t used a graduated filter in months…) and a number of very useful features, less weight and I can still use my favourite lenses.
For more about the Sony A7R II visit www.sony.co.uk