One Thing I Wish I Had Considered Before Going Mirrorless and Falling Back in Love With the DSLR

One Thing I Wish I Had Considered Before Going Mirrorless and Falling Back in Love With the DSLR

Despite heavily investing in new cameras over the last couple years, it is the still excellent Nikon D850, purchased two years ago, which has suddenly become brand new to me.

Falling in love is easy. Staying in love is hard.

I fell in love with my first Nikon, the D200, about 15 years ago. In turn, it was the tool that allowed me to fall in love with the art form that would eventually not only become my passion but my means to make a living.

Like any romantic partner, I remained staunchly faithful over the years. Sure, I upgraded to the latest model from time to time, but at least I kept it in the Nikon family. The only time I even glanced in the direction of another woman, ahem, camera, was when I bought a pocketable Fuji X100S. But that was just for fun. She didn’t mean anything. In fact, one of my big draws to that camera was that it didn’t have an interchangeable lens, so even if I really enjoyed using it (which I did), I wouldn’t be tempted to invest a great deal of money into glass since, well, there was no glass to invest in.

My Nikons have always returned the favor through durability and hard work. Day in and day out, they go into battle and quite simply, just get the job done. Sure, over the course of our courtship, newer and fancier cameras were emerging onto the market. Brands that previously were an afterthought like Fuji, or Sony, or even Panasonic, had gone from outsiders to major players. Yet, I still never really felt a great urge to stray from my longtime partner in crime.

I upgraded again in 2012 to my first high-megapixel beast, the D800. By then, my custom had become skipping a generation between camera upgrades, so I passed over the D810 models and patiently waited for what would ultimately become the D850, released in 2017.

But somewhat akin to a child coming of age just as the Great Depression hit, my D850 has admittedly not had nearly as smooth of a path into my heart as its predecessors. There are a lot of reasons for this.

For one, I’m not the same photographer I was in 2012. I don’t necessarily photograph the same things or have the same clients. In fact, if still image quality were the only qualifier, I probably would have continued to squeeze at least a couple more years out of my D800, which even seven years later, still produces a great file. But, in those seven years, the market itself has also shifted towards a greater and greater emphasis on motion, and my clients are no exception. The D850 offered 4K versus the 1080 of it’s older sibling, so it seemed logical that it was time to upgrade.

Unfortunately, time would also play a major role in how it ended up taking me so long to really get to start building a relationship with my D850 and be able to see all that it has to offer.

You see, I ordered the D850 in 2017, but didn’t actually receive it until well into 2018. This is nothing new. I had to wait months for my D800 as well, and this initial supply delay seems to be an issue many manufacturers deal with. Except that in the case of the D850, I would be waiting for my camera to arrive in a vastly different market.

Mirrorless cameras, then a rising tide (now a tsunami), were just starting to turn the corner from novelty to professional option. Through my writing position with Fstoppers, I was even able to get my hands on the Sony a7R III for a month to try it out as I was waiting for my Nikon to ship. And while the ergonomics and layout of Sony cameras never really inspired me to want to cancel my backordered Nikon, the image quality and lightweight build were definitely appealing. It even had the same high megapixel count. Ironically, my Sony loaner actually arrived for trial the same week as I finally received my Nikon, meaning that the initial honeymoon period usually granted to most cameras was delayed by the intrusion of another camera that I had committed to using for the next several weeks instead. Imagine having to leave your new spouse during the honeymoon for a date with another suitor. Maybe not the ideal way to start your marital bond. 

Even before the Nikon or the Sony arrived, I had tried to placate my waiting by investing in a low-cost mirrorless camera that I saw as being just for fun. The thinking was that I needed something new to shake things up, and I could spend a bit of money, but not a lot, to have fun with another camera body while I waited for my Nikon. Originally the plan was to upgrade to the latest Fuji X100F camera, but I ended up opting for the X-T2. I had no idea at the time how much upheaval that small purchase would introduce into my brand loyalty over the next two years. Though I bought the camera as a diversion, I quickly found myself trying to make it into the main event. As my father put it during one of my many long raving sessions about how much I was enjoying shooting with it, the Fuji was simply the camera that was made for me.

So, even once I did get my Nikon and had completed my Sony trial period, I still found myself wanting to shoot with the smaller Fuji X-T2 as much as possible. Despite being half the megapixels and a smaller sensor, I found myself trying to find ways to justify using it instead of the new Nikon. It’s not that the new Nikon had done anything wrong. At this point, it had barely gotten out of the box. I just loved using the Fuji that much.

Thrown into this was a further complication. Motion work had gone from a small thing I wanted to dabble in, to a major part of my business offering. And while the D850 does, in fact, shoot 4K, it is still very much a still camera with video capabilities. The deeper I got into motion work, the more I realized I needed (wanted) a second camera body dedicated to motion. Originally, the plan was to buy a second D850, but my time waiting for the first to arrive had given me ample time to look into the world of seemingly superior options when it came to a cameras designated primarily for video. I ended up getting a Canon EOS C200, which immediately took over all video activities. On top of that, I traded in my X-T2 for an X-T3, which offered great video capabilities as well.  

Suddenly, the main reason I had upgraded to the D850 had been taken out of the equation. And, I had even found another still camera that I enjoyed shooting with as much if not more. At the same time, because the D850 apparently wasn’t already fighting enough of an uphill battle, Nikon itself decided to introduce its own mirrorless systems.  

This happened after I had already bought the other cameras. Impossible to tell what would have happened had they released the Z6 and Z7 a year earlier. Perhaps I never would have even bought the D850 and stayed with the D800 and just added a Z6 for video. Who knows.

But my experience shooting with the Fuji and my growing appreciation of both lightweight bodies and exposure previews had hipped me to the benefits of mirrorless. Logic would dictate that I would consider upgrading to the Nikon Z7. It had the same size sensor as my D850, but was lighter. And since the weight of my D850 had become an issue, after having spent so much time shooting with the smaller Fuji, this was appealing. But the early reviews were not as positive as I would have liked. And, from what I could tell, the D850 I already owned was a superior camera. More importantly, the new Z system would have a new lens mount. Sure, I could use an adapter, but odds are more likely that I would be buying all new native glass. So, one of the main reasons to stay loyal to a camera brand, your existing glass investment, was diminished.

So, I began to give serious thought, for the first time in my professional career, to changing camera brands. And wanting to be forward looking, all the best options seemed to be mirrorless. I still was not a fan of Sony ergonomics (this is before the beefier grip of the a7R IV). And I was clearly in love with Fuji design, which had skipped full frame cameras all together with their newest cameras in favor of medium format.  

As a commercial photographer, I quite often rent medium format systems for assignments. This actually further served to distance me from my new purchase because it coincided with a period where the jobs increasingly demanded renting medium format. So, the balance of shooting with a camera I owned to shooting versus with a camera I rented had shifted considerably. Considering this, the idea of being able to have a medium format camera in my bag, in the design that was made for me, and that I could offset the cost of by renting it to my own productions, made a lot of sense. Sure I’d have to buy more glass. But, going to the Z7 would require more glass as well. Having borrowed a GFX 50S for a couple months to great effect, I decided to take the plunge and go all in on the Fuji GFX 100.

My intention was to shift 100% of my still work to that system and, if it all worked out, sell my Nikon gear and make the full switch. So, why is it that I have found myself gravitating backwards as of late to that Nikon D850 that has so long been overlooked?

The greatest TV show of all time is “The Wire.” Seriously. Look it up. It's a scientific fact. Okay, that was just a joke. Well, not really. But sort of. What’s not a joke is that one of the greatest TV characters ever put on screen is the charismatic outlaw Omar Little, played by Michael K. Williams. A neighborhood gunslinger with no shortage of enemies, Omar added many a quote to the lexicon. But few more famous than the classic: “You come at the King, you best not miss.”

These are the words that ring in my head in 2019 when picking up my Nikon D850. So many new challengers have appeared on the scene. Many of them have decided advantages over my D850. The smaller Fuji cameras are mirrorless, giving an instant reckoning of the scene. This is a great feature to have. And the design of a Fuji X series camera is second to none. But it is a smaller sensor and half the resolution. There’s no way around that. My GFX 100 adds the medium format feel and 102 megapixels to that equation. Side-by-side the image quality from that camera is simply amazing. If photoshoots took place in a bubble, there is no other camera I would rather have 100% of the time.

But, as I am just now realizing after using it for a few months (and should have realized before), there is a significant blackout when you press the shutter. Apparently, this is an issue for many mirrorless cameras, but it’s not something I really noticed before since the majority of the cameras I was used to shooting with, both DSLR full frame and medium format, were not mirrorless.

The X-T3 blackout is minimal, so it’s never been and issue. I think that’s due to the smaller sensor and smaller amount of megapixels needing to be processed with each shot. With the GFX 100, you can shorten the blackout time by shooting in 14 bit instead of 16 bit and using the low burst mode instead of single shot (not high burst mode, which automatically initiates image preview, which makes for an even more disjointed rapid-fire shooting experience). But even at its shortest, the blackout period is still going to be double that of the X-T3 or D850 (not an official number, just an estimate). We are talking a matter of milliseconds, probably.  So this won’t matter at all for the majority of subjects. But, it can make a big difference when trying to capture a fast-paced subject.

There is technically a blackout period on any camera when the shutter needs to open and close to expose the sensor/film. But with a DSLR, that blackout happens so quickly that I would hardly notice it happening without the loud clacking sound associated with it. And because it is so minimal, my eye is able to maintain a clean view of the scene throughout the subject's movement, allowing me to keep mental focus and prepare for the next critical motion I want to capture.

And, I should make two things absolutely clear. One, I knew going in that this camera wasn’t built for action sports. No medium format cameras are. Fuji didn’t promise me this, so I don’t consider it a failure of engineering. It’s just that for the type of projects I am personally paid to shoot, I often have to walk the line of shooting medium format in ways that it isn’t intended.

Which leads to point number two for those trying to figure out if this is the right camera for them. While the blackout is long for my subjects, it’s not long for most subjects. In fact, it wouldn’t hamper my shooting ability at all were it not for my particular specialty, which just so happens to be shooting activewear and fitness campaigns usually featuring very fast-moving subjects. Even on a campaign that will be a mixture of movement, portraits, and lifestyle, the blackout is only really an issue on the shots requiring fast-paced action. Otherwise, for the remaining 70% of the shoot, there is no issue at all. But for the more dynamic movements, the blackout can be detrimental.

Take for instance the case of a model jumping into the air. Let’s say I want to shoot three frames at various points of the jump that will all take place in under a second. Technically, the burst rate assures that I can shoot those three frames in under a second. But, because the EVF is blacked out for so long between shots, I’m really only going to see one of the moments through my viewfinder. The second and third images would be the result of just spraying and praying that, when the viewfinder image returns, the next moment won’t have already passed. Basically, I’m just shooting blind.

It’s not impossible. In fact, I’ve done it quite a bit, including on my recent 11 Women project. And while it was annoying, I didn’t really realize how much of a difference that blackout made until I was doing an assignment for a regular client in their studio up in Portland and was back shooting with a traditional Canon DSLR with an optical viewfinder.

Gazing out through the optical viewfinder watching the subjects move through space and really being able to see every moment and shoot at the speed of thought was crazily liberating. I’d been shooting like that my whole life, but suddenly, this basic task seemed brand new. It’s like an old friend who you didn’t realize how much you missed them until you accidentally bumped into them one sunny afternoon at the supermarket.  

All of a sudden, the old-fashioned traditional DSLR wasn’t seeming like such a bad idea. My creativity was flowing, freed from the restriction of having to shoot slowly to account for the blackout. I felt more in tune with the moment. I felt I could see each moment more clearly and could more effectively get exactly the one I wanted. Sure, I didn’t see an EVF preview, but I’ve been shooting long enough to know what my final image is going to look like without the sneak peek.

I got back to Los Angeles and immediately picked up my Nikon D850 again. Suddenly, I began to see the old camera in a brand new way. In search of fast-moving subjects, I quickly set up a shoot with a professional dancer, determined to go back to basics. I snatched my Nikon, slapped on a fast 50mm, and walked out the door and ended up creating a series I was really proud of that helped bring me get back in touch with the shooting experience I had subconsciously begun to forget about.

No, the files weren’t in the three-digit megapixel range. But 46 MP is plenty. No, the camera wasn’t mirrorless. But as much as I really do like being able to preview my white balance and exposure in the EVF, I’ve never really had trouble with being unsure how my images will turn out before without one. And being able to look through a piece of glass and see each tiny expression in a models eyes with a minimal level of distraction is surprisingly underrated. Seeing the moment as it is. Trusting my settings. And simply reacting to the moment.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not meant to bash either of my Fujis or mirrorless cameras in general. I still love my mirrorless cameras to an absurd degree. Both my GFX 100 and my X-T3 get significant use on a weekly basis. They are going nowhere. And they both still play significant minutes both in my professional and personal work.

I just shot a fitness series this past weekend, including some lighter movement, with the GFX 100, and while the slower autofocus (especially given it was a night shoot) meant that my hit rate might have been less than with my Nikon, when the camera does hit, boy howdy is that a beautiful file.

But, regardless of its younger mirrorless step-siblings taking a few snaps from my Nikon here and there, I find my D850 is still perhaps the most well-rounded and effective tool on the market (and with a recent price drop on B&H, you’ll get even more value for your money). Like all of the Nikons that have moved through my life over the last couple decades, the thing just works. It does the things that I personally need to do for my clients and my own shooting style. And it does those things very well, if not better than many other cameras.

I think sometimes in the rush for the latest and greatest tech, we can get swept up in what we are adding and can forget about what we are losing. I include myself in this. I got so wrapped up in what I could have that I didn't take a moment to really sit down and dwell on what it was I actually needed. Fast burst rate. Large, clear viewfinder to catch the critical moment. Large megapixel count to provide clients the ability to both crop in multiple ways and still print the images large for in-store displays. In my case, those are the things that I need the most. In your case, those needs will be different. What I should have done is paid less attention to what the market had to offer and more attention to whether I could satisfy those specific needs with the tools already in my closet.

To be sure, the market will continue to introduce newer and fancier models with better spec sheets. Mirrorless cameras will continue to improve, and the blackout issue will eventually fade away. I’ve never shot with a Sony a9, but I hear that has no blackout at all. I also know they have a newer one coming soon, which I’m guessing would have a higher megapixel count than the original a9 and the more ergonomic body of the a7R IV.

But one thing my somewhat circuitous journey with the D850 has taught me is that there is no reason to rush when it comes to gear. Once you’ve been married a long time, it’s natural to have a wandering eye. Maybe even now and then, you wonder if the grass is truly greener on the other side. But, you can save yourself some strife and a great deal of money by taking a step back and appreciating the one you already have. Regardless of the new camera’s selling points, chances are, the old model has a few selling points of its own. And no matter how many challengers come for the throne, she wears the crown for a reason.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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I fell for the Fujifilm thing too but the D850 was still my go-to machine.
Since buying the Z7, the D850 is backup in the bag and a drag to use.
I'm Z7 all the way right now and sometimes a little sad about that actually.

The fujifilm stuff? That's long gone. Except an S3Pro and X100F

Ha, I have a Fuji S5 Pro right here with me. :) Any idea how to AF fine tune this thing?

How do you like the autofocus on the Z7? Is it comparable with the D850?

Most of the time it's like I'm using a D850. Formula 1 racing at Spa was a challenge though, I did miss the D850 then , it wasn't for work though, just fun so only had the Z7 with me. The wake from sleep on the Z takes getting used to too, not a major hassle, I'm pretty sure that'll be improved along the line of firmware updates too.

Why didn't you sell the x100f?

Never was interested in Fuji mirrorless due to their slower, more inconsistent AF. Sony lured me away from Nikon specifically for their more precise AF (no AF fine tuning ever again!!!!), and I never had a problem with ergonomics or menus like the entirety of the internet does. Sounds like you might want to give the A7R IV a test. As you stated, improved ergonomics across the board, plus medium format resolution, AF that keeps up with the D850, fps that beats it, and minimal viewfinder blackout time. There are adapters out there that do work well with certain Nikon lenses, so you might not have to sell off everything in the beginning and start over.

Just needs to be weather sealed and we're there!

I enjoyed this article but found it about disturbing how much you used the romantic/sexual relationship metaphor with various cameras. I don't even wax that poetic about actual romantic relationships I have had, but maybe that is just not my thing.

Yeah, I had a girl like you in the class. Every guy she met was her One. Than things went wrong and she ran to previous one. You know what she ended up being called like...

Thank you for your thoughts and feelings, Malcolm. It seem that your enviable position of a professional with the ability to use the best mid-high end modern gear has some downsides as well. There is never going to be a perfect camera I am afraid.

80% of my photography is now for pleasure the other 20% for work. That ratio didn't exist in the past because the last thing I wanted to do while out was haul my Canon DSLR kit around - I simply took fewer photographs for pleasure. The advent of mirrorless allows me to meet the image quality, performance and ergonomics I demand in a kit that is a pleasure to carry. Perhaps because in my first career I hauled an Agiflite camera around the world, size and weight is my pinnacle ergonomic consideration.

Does the type of camera you use have any affect on the horizons in your images?!

I want the used market for D850 to really drop price but I guess is not happening soon #lol

It'll happen when the Z series comes out with a full frame camera with 2 card slots. I'm sure that's what has held most people back.

I agree about "The Wire" but do you remember what happened to Omar? It wasn't one of the expected rivals who took him came out of nowhere.

In the Yoga video was that all handheld?

I do remember what happened with Omar. Don't even get me started discussing The Wire :-). And yes, it is handheld.

Kid at liquor store=Sony LoL

It looks nice but has a bit of jitteryness which is counter to her smooth moves...have you tried a bit of warp stabilization?

great article! thank you for your insights

I loved my D850. But I love my Z7 just as much, if not more. I find the notion that DSLR blackout (can’t see through the finder when the mirror is up) is superior to mirrorless blackout very odd. For me, the improvement in mechanical noise and vibration, plus seeing what the sensor sees, and that live histogram, is such an advantage. But I guess the real point here is that shooting the Nikon and Canon DSLRs caused you to see and perceive differently. That makes sense. Whether the Phase, Hasselblad, Nikon, or Leica, each delivers a different visual relationship with the subject.

I'e had so many cameras over so many years, too . .. .
But I finally feel as if I've landed. I have a pair of Niks - the D850 for some things, the D500 for others - and I love using both of them.
I do have a couple of mirrorless cams, and use them too - but the stats are there - the vast majority of my photography these days is done with the D850, and the reasons for the D500 are that it's the better of the two for wild life and pet photography (faster AF and more suitable lens combos), so it comes second.
I'm afraid the others don't get as much use, although they're still "nice cameras" - the D850/D500 combo has largely taken over.
And image quality is so insanely good that there's no point in considering a change to something else, like the Z7 for example.

I drank the Fuji juice for a few years (even most recently from the XT3) and made the switch to Sony almost a year ago. I still do think they have the best crop & medium format, but I needed something in between. Early last year Nikon and Canon weren't there and I would have liked to go Nikon. It's good see that they are catching up, but Sony is light years ahead. I'm very pleased with how things have turned out and feel that Sony is really looking to the future with their 2 year release cycle and improvements every generation. You really need to give the A7riv a try or A9ii (when I comes out). Mirrorless is here to stay & get even bigger every year and DSLR's will be used less. Don't forget your smartphone is mirrorless...

Please. Give description of camera and lenses under pictures you used in article

So you switched between many cameras and systems. You could have written it in fewer words I guess.
Every week fstoppers have this kind of articles "ditched dslr and happy" or "ditched dslr but then came back" etc etc...
It's getting so predictive and boring

I guess this article is the equivalent of a 10 min youtube video.

Good read there. I have just of late started to look at mirrorless. Nikon doesn't miss a day without telling me via email that I need the new Z model, and I can get 25% off a new D850 body. Well, you have given me something to look into. I know with a slow shutter speed the blackout bugs me, but expected and it is not the same animal you describe. Thanks for the cogitation information! Cheers!

Great piece! Envy and curiosity are always a photographer’s distraction. I have had my eye on Fuji since my wife got her X100F and I missed my Leica M from the 90s. But my D850 makes me so happy for 90% of my shooting. I think that articles like this help me remain with what I am using.

This is an interesting read. The future perhaps will tell whether 'blackout' issue is ever resolved, but I think your point about optical view-finder will always remain. While not being too technical, it does seem obvious that the electronic view-finder displays the immediate past 'history', and is not live, whatever the manufactures may think. Likely also this 'delay' is equivalent to a 'blink of the eye', which may make the difference to getting the shot.
For the record, I too am a Nikon shooter. I have SLR's, DSLR's and mirrorless bodies, and thousands £££ of lenses for each. My walk around camera is a mirrorless X-Pro2 from the Fuji camp, that remarkably has none of these blackout or image delays while the viewfinder is set to OVF, and yes I still retain view of the histogram too.

It's an interesting idea for an article, but your comparison is with one mirrorless camera - and not the best in class or even a good alternative. The Nikon Z6/Z7 cameras are next level cameras and equal or better than the D850 in virtually every point of evaluation. There is no blackout at all outside of the flicker of the shutter using High Extended. Focus is more accurate than the D850 - with more AF modes that you will actually use. The EVF is fantastic and transforms the way you shoot - similar to the way digital replaced film by providing immediate feedback after the photo. The controls and layout are very easy and intuitive - much like the D850 but better once you learn how to use the camera. And lenses are sharper than their DSLR counterparts in every case.

The conventional wisdom is the AF is not suitable for fast action, but that type of action is much faster than dancers. Small songbirds or random fast focus is hard for any camera, but predictable focus such as leaping dancers, jumping horses, baseball, tennis, or dog agility is easy with the Z6/Z7. Even when you need precise timing - such as just past contact with a golf ball or with perfect leg position for a jumping horse, the slight delay of mirrorless causes the timing to be a fraction different, but still predictable. The two wide AF modes of the Z cameras both have nearest subject priority - as with Group of the D850 and D500. These modes are very reliable in picking up a subject and getting accurate focus.

What a wonderful article. :)

Thank you Alvin

Can’t beat the Fuji bodies as far as fun is concerned, they just beg you to shoot with them.