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From DSLR to Mirrorless Then Back to DSLR

A random hunch leads to a positive reminder about what gear does and does not offer the creative process.

Now, before I begin, I’d like to stress to readers that despite the rather tantalizing title to this essay, I have no desire to try to settle the unnecessarily hyperbolic debate of DSLRs versus mirrorless cameras. I will neither be using the following paragraphs to extol the virtues of either, nor will I be looking to proclaim one superior to its supposed rival. Each has a place. And to each his or her own when it comes to the right tool for your particular task at hand. Last week, the task at hand for me was to do an advertising campaign for a prominent performing arts institution that would focus on the one activity denied to the rhythmless section of the population to which I belong, dance.

Since this essay is somewhat gear-related, here’s a quick background. I have been primarily a Nikonian for nearly two decades of my photography career. A stalwart DSLR guy due to the optical viewfinder, I nonetheless have owned and operated a plethora of mirrorless cameras from multiple brands over the years with various levels of enjoyment. Early this year, after doing a review of the camera for Fstoppers, I purchased a mirrorless Canon EOS R5. And while that camera hasn’t replaced my Nikon D850, I have found its skillset to be vast and valuable enough that it has served as the primary shooter on multiple still and video projects over the last several months. I’ve been using it so much in fact that even my D850 has been allowed to take an extended vacation a time or two while the R5 took the reins.

Going into my dance shoot, I’d used the R5 on several successive projects from short films to documentaries, to fashion shoots, to fitness shoots. It had its hiccups, but generally speaking, was making a name for itself among certain circles, those circles being the other cameras in my bag, as being a dependable workhorse. When the dance assignment came up, I could have used the R5 again, but, quite simply, I felt like using my D850. It’s as simple as that. There was no technological advantage I was seeking. They both hover around the same megapixel count, so there would be no difference to my client. It was only for stills, so I didn’t have to compare video capabilities. Pretty much, I just hadn’t shot with my D850 for a little while and I felt like using it.

These are not the dancers.  That shoot is not yet public, so instead enjoy this portrait from another completely unrelated project.

Now I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. So, that means that I try to look for the silver lining in everything. Even a global pandemic. While there hasn’t been much to smile about with regards to the onset of the virus that will go unnamed and the dramatic impact on photographers everywhere, there has been one thing about the slowdown that has legitimately benefited me as a photographer. With business at a virtual halt in the early days of the pandemic and local stay-at-home orders making larger photo productions impractical for long stretches, I found myself with little to do and even less to shoot. Because I find myself getting physically depressed if I don’t shoot for more than a week or so, I had to figure something out to maintain my sanity. My answer to this quandary was something I really should have been doing all along. Instead of dwelling on the slowdown in business, I would instead invest my suddenly increased free time back into my craft. Specifically, I would dig deep down into the technical aspect of photography and filmmaking.  

I’m not a super technical person. It's not that I don’t understand the nuts and bolts, but rather that I prefer to be guided by the art a bit more than the technical craft. I’ve been doing photography and cinematography for decades now, so luckily, I have reached the point where, more often than not, I am simply operating on instinct with the mathematical equations necessary to execute a photograph happening deep down in my subconscious. But with nothing else to do during quarantine but to practice, I decided to focus on what was going on under the hood. I wanted to reopen some of the instinctual things and see if there were any techniques embedded within them that could use improving. There are several things I’ve been doing for years as a photographer just because I know they work, but this was a time to do a more academic study of exactly why those things work. As a result, I find that I have improved leaps and bounds over the last 18 months and am a way better photographer now than I was at the beginning of the pandemic. That’s not to say that I’m perfect or that I’m now the number one photographer in the world. But judging myself solely against myself, I know that I’ve come a long way.

That same timespan happens to coincide with a period in which mirrorless cameras have gone from being a developing market to being the main focus of every major manufacturer. While I can’t say I was originally thrilled with the idea of mirrorless, it did seem as though I would eventually be forced to go mirrorless at some point, one way or another. So, I might as well get used to the idea and see what options are available. Specifically, in the arena of video, the benefits were immediately apparent. This was all the more apparent to me personally, as my business was transitioning from an 80/20 photography to cinematography split to more of a 50/50 dynamic. From a skills standpoint, I found the benefits to be less dramatic, with the main selling point for the mirrorless cameras being the ability to use eye autofocus. There are more, of course, but in real-world terms, since I shoot human models for a living, this feature has the most potential to make my life easier. Although it must be said that the benefits of that eye autofocus are not shared by all camera models equally, so the utility of the feature depends heavily on what you choose to shoot with. Its amazing ability to track faces and eyes with the touch of a button is the primary reason why the R5 has gotten so much game time in recent months. It’s not like I ever remembered having trouble keeping my subjects in focus with the D850. But the edge-to-edge focus points and one button operation of the R5 do make it a compelling alternative.

One of the things that have happened as a result of the pandemic-driven deep dive into craft is that I feel as though my style has developed. I’m still shooting from the same artistic voice, but I feel as though I’m pulling from a deeper well of creativity when it comes to the type of imagery I want to create. Everything from the color palette to lighting choices seems to have evolved. Since several of the shoots I’ve done in the past year or so have doubled as opportunities to review new camera features for Fstoppers, I couldn’t help but to wonder if some of the new artistic developments were a result of the technology. Was I able to achieve certain things now that I wouldn’t have been able to with my D850 because the mirrorless technology was, in effect, making me a better photographer?

That was one of the many questions in the deep background of my mind as I took out my D850 to shoot the campaign last week. Would go back to shooting with my D850 lead to a different result from my recent work in which the R5 was the primary protagonist? Well, at the risk of being anticlimactic, in a word, no.

As I sifted through the shots in Capture One, making my selects, it became increasingly clear that the new skills I had developed as a photographer over the last 18 months were not a result of the camera in my hand, but the work I put in behind the scenes to improve my craft. Sure, there were minute technical differences between images shot with two different camera systems and two different sets of lenses, but zero percent of those differences were things that affected my clients or my creativity. Even the awesome face and eye autofocus benefit were somewhat nullified as I realized that shot after shot from the D850 was tack sharp even with my subjects flying through the air with movement. I do wish that the focus point of my D850 would extend to the edges of the frame. That is a real tangible advantage to shooting with my R5. But, in actual practice, it didn’t have an adverse effect on the result.

I can’t say that the result was a surprise. The D850 is, in my opinion, the best DSLR ever made. And practically speaking, I can’t see any objective reason why I can’t continue to use it as my main camera for the next decade. Unless the new normal for megapixels goes through the roof again, there’s very little the camera isn’t capable of when it comes to still photography. It’s always given me excellent results, and this last campaign was no exception.

So, what’s the point I’m making? That you shouldn’t go mirrorless? Or that you should sell off all your mirrorless gear and return to the DSLR? No. As I said at the top of this article, what camera choice is right for you is an incredibly personal decision and I don’t wish to make a broader declaration on the mirrorless versus DSLR debate. I shoot with both. And, while my R5 sat this one out, there is no reason to think it won’t start the next game. But what going back to the D850 for this shoot did remind me of is that it’s the photographer who makes the image, not the camera. Sure, this is obvious. But in a world saturated with new technology and premature proclamations about what gear you have to own to be considered a complete human being, it’s good to remind yourself that if you want your art to be better, there’s only one way to do it. And that way is not by buying a new camera. It’s by putting in the work to better understand your craft then using that increased technical knowledge to subsidize your creativity. Photography is an art based on technology. But that doesn’t mean that the technology itself is the art. True artistry can only come from you.

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41 Comments

00rob00 Rob00Rob's picture

So Ricoh is right then? But seriously, from my perspective many still shoot with their DSLR for various professional work as well hobbyists interest. Despite what many blogs or YouTube personalities maybe project, DSLR are still in use. Perhaps it's the best time to get into them since on the used market one can find some very capable cameras and have money left over for some fine glass as opposed to putting put for the latest mirrorless which possibly would offer very few practical benefits for the cost

Jan Holler's picture

Thanks.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Put your money in the most flexible lighting "system" you can get and put yourself to work. There are more benefits into a convenient and smooth workflow with lights than buying cheap make do filters and spend your money into a new camera today.

Celso Mollo's picture

I am in the situation where I have a D850, bought the Z6II and sold it back, the Z nikon at this moment are at most comparable to the D850 like the Z7II but it doesn't blow it out of the water, they arew very close so I prefer to keep my iconic D850 for now.

Brent Rivers's picture

It's always interesting to read articles in the dying debate between mirrorless and lens reflex camera systems. They are almost 100% coming from the Nikon Camp as Nikon becomes less relevant in the "big boy" camera discussions given their stodgy arrogant approach to changing market conditions. The harsh realities are sensor focusing systems have improved 50x and the discussion shifted from megapixels and image quality to creativity and keepers. As a 20 year Nikon shooter, i was at first blown away at the functional improvements when switching to Sony, but that quickly turned to anger realizing that Nikon has been milking me for sub par improvements and mediocre performance over long product cycles. I had to unlearn all the compensation techniques I employed in various bodies and always hoping i had a good "copy" of a lens. Even hours and hours of calibrations were mostly fruitless. I actually feel bad for those who cling to Nikon as their market relevance continues to dissipate while Sony and Canon continue to push boundaries with creative tools at the forefront.

Jon Kellett's picture

As an ex-Canon user I felt massively disappointed by them for years. That was hammered home when I went to Panasonic and then to Sony.

Canon - I'm not coming back. Once bitten...

Jan Holler's picture

I do not believe you: "and always hoping i had a good "copy" of a lens". I am a Nikon shooter since 1983. I own (owned) about 2-3 dozens of Nikon lenses, ranging from low to high end. I never ever had a bad copy. The same for camera bodies. My 8 year old D800E and D4 never ever failed, even the first Nikon, a FA, I bought 1986 still works. So, what is your statement? You really had to "unlearn" compensation techniques? Please elaborate the expression "compensation technique". You don't mean composition technique, do you?

David Jenkins's picture

I too have never had a "Bad" copy of a Nikon lens, in contrast to Sony lenses which some can have tons of variation. Of course, I'm sure there are Nikon lenses out there that are "Bad" but I'd think they are not so common. I have more commonly run into Nikon DSLR lenses that were so far out of AF alignment I couldn't fully fine tune them without sending them in, maybe that is what the poster is referring to.

Jan Holler's picture

David, when I bought my D800E I had strange problems with some lenses right from the start. Some were pin sharp, with others I could hardly fine tune. My dealer sent the camera to Nikon and they adjusted the autofocus (this is where the MLCs have a big advantage). The result: all my lenses were sharp. A few years later, the AF sensor of my D4 was slightly out of alignment. I fixed that myself (removed the base plate, two screws to adjust), it was surprisingly easy.
That being said: If you have AF problems with some lenses and not with others, it's not necessarily these lenses.

John Kelsey's picture

Absolutely..B. Rivers is a tad confused.....

Phillip Jones's picture

The never-ending DSLR vs mirrorless debate does not need to be difficult. For pro work, I use one of each and take advantage of the virtues of both technologies. The “switching” from one breed to the other has never made sense to me. Each has gaps the other fills, so why must one switch? Just embrace both.

johan saarela's picture

For a Mainly portrait shooter The benefits to go from my 5d to a r6 or r5 is so small its not worth it. Would i want one of i got one absolutley and i Will change it in a couple of years . Sideboard it Will be fun to see what pro sportsphotographers Will think of the r3 against 1dx3. There we have Big advantage with the Corn to corner af and the tracking . Good article just shows buy the right tool for the job even if its a dslr lol

Bruce Hargrave's picture

As the article's author reinforces, mirrorless cameras have focusing across the whole sensor - something the D850 lacks.

Many of those moving to mirrorless financed the move (at least in part) by selling their DSLR gear but, like the author, I kept my D850 as I moved to Sony. I'm thinking it might become highly collectible in the future! But it will also focus in very low light, so I will take it with me later this month when I go to try and photograph pine martens in Scotland.

As Brent Rivers says, I'm not relishing the task of calibrating my Nikon lenses to the body again and Brent also makes an excellent point about 'bad copy' lenses. My mirrorless lenses are so much better than some of the nikkors I have spent a fortune on over the years!

Lawrence Huber's picture

Sounds like you were unable to learn the capabilities of the R5 and fell back to something you knew how to use.
The D850 is OK for a very old camera and you obviously do not do action work or any video or you would have dumped the D850 instantly for a camera that actually can focus while in live view or doing video or accurately capture the eye of the subject whether an animal, bird or human better than any other camera on the market can do.
So for pedestrian photos of studio stills etc. any old DSLR including the D850 will work. But for those needing to shoot moving subjects and or video the mirrorless R5 stomps the D850 back to the stone age.

Celso Mollo's picture

Let me see your work please.

Jay Jay's picture

Someone's ability to take photos has absolutely no bearing on what camera they are using. That's a highly irrelevant comment, if that's what you're trying to get at.

Jan Holler's picture

No action work possible with the D850? You never used it, didn't you? I'll shoot "action work", dance performances with the even older D800E without any issues.
You must be very young if you describe a D850 as a "very old camera".

Lawrence Huber's picture

If you look at the D850 compared to all the current cameras it is really very dated. Action is definitely not it's forte and in the realm of video it can barely focus let alone focus track. Even cameras at half the price do much better with FPS and focus tracking. So yes it is ancient in comparison.
You must be very old and still clinging to the archaic F mount praying it makes a comeback it seems.

Jan Holler's picture

Which aspect? The sensor? No! The body? No! The AF? Not (stills, not video). Please remember that the main purpose of this camera is photography, not video, and that is what this article is about. I don't care about the mount. I don't even care about the brand. It is a coincidence that I am a Nikon photographer. It could easily be Canon or Olympus. My first camera was a Nikon F3. My friend's camera was a Canon A-1, he's still with Canon.
Yes, I am old(er). That happens if the years pass. But please show us some of your photos. Then maybe we can see how much better pictures from new cameras are, since you are "a nationally know architect and photographer" (quoted from your profile) this could tell us something.

Andrew goodson's picture

My recently aquired ancient D3s takes perfectly sharp action photos of fast moving aircraft taking off even with a clunky 150 to 600 zoom attached . I even get a workout in the process!

charles hoffman's picture

simplifying the operations of a camera by using an electronic viewfinder to obviate the need for a moveable mirror is as logical and direct as any engineering solution in modern design

fewer moving parts is always a good idea; it's a real winner when it eliminates noise, vibration and the need for complex machinery that is replaced by electronics.

the direct path of a mirrorless camera combines the mechanical simplicity of the rangefinder camera (think leica M3) with the direct view of the slr --- without the blackout of a nikon f

Ronald Mayes's picture

I agree....Mirrorless technology will have it's place. I particularly liked how you framed it. "Photography is an art based on technology. But that doesn’t mean that the technology itself is the art. True artistry can only come from you.". I'll remember that!

Mike G's picture

I have the whole 5D lineup that I've taken some wonderful photos with over the years including the old 5D Mk1. But, I've been using a borrowed R5 lately and it has some great features that are extremely valuable to me. For instance, doing Unit Photography, the R5 silent electronic shutter lets me throw away the sound blimp. That alone is reason enough to move to mirrorless. I've found the face/eye tracking also very handy doing concert music photography in lower light also. Otherwise, in most other shooting situations (for me at least) my 5D Mk IV is a perfectly capable rig. There is a learning curve on the R5 with the new features even going 5D to R5 so in the authors case, It's prolly even more going from Nikon to Canon so I could see where he's far more comfortable shooting with his old Nikon at times. In the end, it just depends if you'll take advantage of the new mirrorless features or not.

ian Maitland's picture

it’s the photographer who makes the image, not the camera.

Spot on.

Tracy Webb's picture

Go out and buy a Canon 90D and things will get better : )

Timothy Gasper's picture

Thank you for the article Chris. Each has their usefulness and place in the photography world. Personally, I have DSLR's in one hand, mirrorless in the other and film cameras around my neck. All bases covered. Truth be told, I shoot professionally with film mostly. Medium format, but the others have been used as well. Keep on writing Chris

frank nazario's picture

mirrorless ergonomics are terrible if you ask me... compared to a DSLR... weight has always been a controversial point... mirrorless today are so dense that when you compare the weight to their counterpart its almost a mute point. regarding options of video... well im a still photographer so all that side of the fence is mute to me. Practice enough with tracking a subject and back focusing and also the tracking feature will be. mute. regarding the eye focus... come on really???That is something you can't live without>>>???? so you see the way I see mirrorless is companies jumped to it to create a simpler product to manufacture and an excuse to push EXACTLY the same optic glass in a new format with the marketing that many have fallen into that its sharper etc etc.
I am not changing formats at the end of their evolution DSLR became absolute master instruments for the master photographer with a very very wide variety of glass to pick and choose to your style liking and needs.

Mirrorless will never have my money. I will prefer hunting glass and bodies in pawn shops and web before getting a mirrorless that will end up being a disappointment ... again this is my view from the photography side I don't care about video features that the camera would have ... for that I have my iPhone 12 promax :)

Douglas Goodhill's picture

First you should be commended for writing a stand alone article without a video attached. I bought into the Olympus system when the Pens first came out. I always used their EVFs, and was fairly satisfied with using the cameras, but less than satisfied with the results. A move to Fuji was a little better. I have a Nikon F2 with period lenses, and was unaware that I could buy a DSLR body that was compatible. I picked up a D610, and now use a D810 and love them. The 810 does a beautiful job copying 120 and 4x5 negatives, but the real difference is seeing an image on ground glass. Far superior to the electronic viewfinder image.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

There should be a difference in wide primes as everything shorter than 50mm on a SLR is a retrofocus design, while the thinner (mirrorless or RF) bodies allow more interesting designs. I assume the manufacturers are not exploiting this and are selling the same old stuff in new mounts.

Andrew goodson's picture

Simply put I can't afford to change from DSLR to mirrorless . Since I purchased my first DSLR , a Nikon D70 in 2004 I've always purched cameras from this brand and now use a 2010 built D3s which I purchased for a song compared to when new . I shoot mainly aircraft , ships and trains using a Nikon 18-300 zoom and a Tamron 150 - 600 zoom . i have several other Nikons as back up . I'm not professional though I have been published . Share on Flickr amongst like photographers and hope that with the next 15 to 20 years they will be enough to see out my days .

Technology in computers and lack of support in the future will probably be what kills of the use of my DSLR equipment