How Shooting With a Mirrorless Camera Made Me a Better Photographer

How Shooting With a Mirrorless Camera Made Me a Better Photographer

Gear cannot make you a better photographer. This statement is said over and over and I actually really believe it. But despite believing this statement to be true, I also believe that switching to mirrorless has made me a better photographer.

When I first got into shooting on a mirrorless system it was with the original Fuji X100. While this is now a historic camera for Fuji and has arguably opened the door for all mirrorless cameras, it left a lot to be desired. It was a great camera for its time. It was small, silent, and had great image quality, but it was also slow. For me it was a great carry around an everyday type of camera but nothing I could use on a paid job except for some very rare occasions.

This is an image from one of my first outings with the Fuji X100

Later down the road, Fuji released the Fuji X-Pro2 and again, I bought this camera to be my everyday carry around camera. But this time things were different. Now the camera was fast, had two card slots, and was even more fun to shoot then the X100. So I decided to use it as a second body on a bridal shoot and couldn't put it down. I instantly went out and bought a couple more lenses and then later bought the Fuji X-T2 to compliment my setup.

This bridal shoot is where I fell in love with the Fuji X-Pro2

One of the main reasons why I feel shooting a mirrorless camera has made me a better photographer is because of the EVF. More specifically, the EVF in combination with the overall speed of the camera. We need to get specific here because most cameras these days have some type of live view mode where you get a preview of what your image will look like before you click the shutter. The problem here is that you have to sacrifice speed when using these live view options found on a DSLR in comparison to a mirrorless system.  But with mirrorless, you get the benefit of seeing what your image will look like while shooting, and at the same time, you still have the speed you need to keep up with a constantly changing environment. So now it doesn't matter if you are using the viewfinder or the rear LCD. The camera will perform at its best no matter what and still give you the live image preview as you are shooting.

This is where things really changed for me. During a wedding, I am almost always shooting aperture priority and auto ISO. I know, what a "noob" way to shoot, right? But hear me out. With a minimum shutter speed set to 1/200th of a second, I know I will always have a sharp image. Then with auto ISO set, I know I will always have the cleanest image possible while still maintaining my desired shutter speed (auto ISO will always use the lowest ISO possible in order to maintain the 1/200th shutter speed). From here, I just adjust my exposure compensation to fit what I want. I don’t even have to look at my exposure meter anymore because I don't really care what the camera is telling me. All I really care about is that my image is coming out the way I want and I can instantly see that through the EVF or rear LCD screen now. This setup alone has cleared up so much of my brain space while shooting. I no longer need to think about what ISO to set my camera to for different parts of a room. Now I can walk into a room and just see the light I want to use and let my camera do the grunt work.

Seeing light is also one of the biggest changes I have seen in myself since switching to mirrorless. The way the human eye sees a space and the way a camera sees a space are two completely different things. We can look into a room and see details that are in bright highlight while also seeing the details in the dark shadows. With a camera, you pretty much have to choose one or the other. When shooting with an EVF, it takes away a lot of the guesswork when it comes to fine-tuning your exposures. It has also helped me really dial into some of the intricacies of what light can do. Dappled light is no longer something to avoid but has now become something I look for. Small kisses of light on someone's cheek are easier to pinpoint and dial into. It’s almost like having a special pair of superpower glasses that help me see light in an entirely new way.    

One more key difference between mirrorless and DSLR has to do with autofocus. In the beginning, the DSLR had a huge one up on mirrorless cameras when it came to autofocus. But now, mirrorless has basically completely caught up and, in some circumstances, passed the DSLR. One of the main differences has to do with autofocus coverage. When shooting a DSLR I hated always having to focus and recompose. But this was always a necessary evil because it was pretty unlikely that you would have an AF point exactly where your subject was. But with the newest mirrorless cameras, you get almost 100 percent autofocus coverage. Not only that, but all the AF points are fast and accurate. No more needing to rely on those few and sparse cross-type AF points of a DSLR. This larger coverage also means much more flexible and accurate subject tracking! Which comes in handy when using the new eye-AF that can be found on some new model cameras such as the Sony A7 series, Sony A9, and the new Fuji X-T3.  

Another contributing factor comes with the actual size of the kit. While it’s possible to get huge fast lenses for a mirrorless system, it's also possible to get small and light lenses. These small and light lenses coupled with a small and fast camera make you almost unnoticeable. When someone sees me pull a big DSLR up to my eye, they stop and stare like a deer in headlights. When they see me pull a small mirrorless camera up to my eye, they hardly take notice. This means that I can get closer to those special moments without becoming a distraction. The lighter setup also means I’m a little less worn out after shooting a 12 hour day.  

At the end of the day, I believe that you don't need new and fancy gear to take great images. But I do think that new gear can change the way you shoot and also change the way you see. Which in turn, can make you a better photographer. In my case, mirrorless has done just that. It has helped me be more present in my scene so that I don't have to think about camera settings and at the same time, helped me see light in a new more powerful way.  

Do you think any of your gear has helped you become a better photographer? What was it and what did it change?

Jason Vinson's picture

Jason Vinson is a wedding and portrait photographer for Vinson Images based out of Bentonville, Arkansas. Ranked one of the Top 100 Wedding photographers in the World, he has a passion for educating and sharing his craft.

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This is why I'm excited about mirrorless...

Analog fully-mechanical cameras have made me a better photographer. Because they forgive none of your mistakes and force you to think of what you will get on the emulsion, and not only what you see through the viewfinder. And also because you get only 3 settings to adjust, so you can focus on less parameters. And because every shot costs you, you stop shooting like a dumbass. It feels more minimalistic, more organic, more simple, more relaxing.

The skill that a lot of photographers are lacking is the ability to think and see the picture before taking it, like a musician already hears the sound he wants before making it. I feel like digital is making us spoiled compulsive snappers with no purpose.

Don't get me wrong, analog is not suitable for today's fast world, except in some niche markets, but it still is a very good training for photography philosophy.

The ability to think and SEE is something I'm still struggling with. Well, consistently anyway.

My advice would be to stop shooting for some time, and draw instead (even if you are not good at it). When you draw, you need to decompose the shapes in your mind, select what lines are important and what lines are details. Basically, it trains your brain to analyze. When you have done that training for a while, it becomes intuitive and you do it without even thinking of it. And then, you don't see the same way.

OMG! Me drawing? That will be painful! Perhaps, I'll go to scenes and ruminate over them a lot more than I have been. After I take some shots, put the camera away and just sit there a while and take it all in.

I used to draw before I got into photography and I feel it helped me visualize what I was going to shoot far more than anything else I learned. The camera is nothing more than a tool to help you create that vision.

One thing I learnt from my graphic design days is when you see a design you like (photo in your case) stop and think, why do I like this, why do I have an emotional response to it? The more you can articulate, the mute you bring the innate to the conscious level. Most of us can appreciate art, you he to know why to be able to create it.

On one hand I understand what you’re saying, slow down and think about the shot, but sometimes creativity is based on what you see, not just what you imagine. ie, I see one thing, which leads me to this angle, changing the lighting and opening up a new view of what I was initially thinking.

As for the music analog, I hear a starting point in my head but after that I just follow it along it’s path finding bits and pieces I like along the way. Ask any musician, it’s a lot of experimentation, sometimes you have an idea but most times it’s going down the rabbit hole.

Well, I have been trained as a pianist the classical way before photography, and if I don't "hear" before playing, I play crap. A pianist is like a conductor of 12 musicians (10 fingers, 2 feet), if you don't set your intention straight before, you are knitting with your fingers.

there are two types of artists: those who want to create and those who want to reflect.

to use your music analogy, there are creators who develop new music and there are instrumentalists who just play other people's music. blank sheet music is useless for the latter, but the latter can put their own spin on someone else's creation.

same for photography.

there are those whose mission is to use the camera to CREATE the vision they already imagined and those who want to REFLECT the world around them. any camera will do for the former while a well-defined camera will help the latter, to better help them put their "own spin" on reality.

i suspect you're the former, or at least that's how you want to be perceived. the writer of the story is clearly the latter. but does that make Da Vinci or Michelangelo any less of an artist because they wanted to reflect what nature had already created?

Even if you are a "reflector", you still get to chose the framing and the composition. Even if you play other people's music, you still get to create you sound.

I don't like this kind of straight separation : imagination vs. reality, creation vs. representation. Everyone who produces something is a bit of a creative.

I feel that both analogue and digital are useful tools in learning photography.

When I started, there were "no serious digital cameras". I held off going digital until 8mpx cameras were affordable. In the first few months, I'd learnt as much again as I had in the five years prior. The reason: In a classroom you can record all the settings that you used, in the field you can't. As a result, it's sometimes hard to know what settings were used or why a photo didn't turn out. Moving to digital cemented the theoretical knowledge into the realm of practical knowledge. It was like looking at a vista unobstructed, rather than through dense bush.

For me, the real lesson from shooting film was to take your time, visualise what you're trying to do and consider the play of light and shadow. In that respect, I still shoot like I'm on film, 13 years on.

In short, digital can cement the theory of photography and analogue can help cement the theory of art.

I agree totally and feel the same thing happened with my photography. Back in the day, I was shooting film and wasn't always happy with it, but when I decided to get a Nikon D70, everything that i'd been missing finally clicked in my brain. Few years later I was back to film and fast forward today, it's most of what I shoot. I don't think my passion for film photography would be what it is today if it wasn't for that step into digital.

Deleted User I completely disagree with you. I started as most older people with film. For the simple reason of course that there were no computers and digital photography was 20-25 years in the future. I wrote down all my settings, have my pictures developped and printed and started to figure out what I did right or wrong. This took forever. When I started shooting digital, I speeded up the learning curve steeply since I immediately could see what I did right or wrong.

Mirrorless made it even easier to get the shot. I can see in the EVF how my aperture affect my depth of field and my exposure.

I get exactly what your saying but I believe mirrorless also helps you slow down and thing, it removes tecnical gesswork that can make you to choose safe photos instead of more creative ones, you are seeing what you will get, you can even shoot black and white or filters with the efv and get creative, it makes you explore when you are shooting.

"When shooting a DSLR I hated always having to focus and recompose. But this was always a necessary evil because it was pretty unlikely that you would have an AF point exactly where your subject was."

This alone might be worth switching. If Canon's adapters really work in a way where they're "invisible", I'll definitely consider it. But, I think I'll wait for version 2.0. I wonder if they'll continue making DSLR's.

I don’t see why they wouldn’t, they know what contacts are doing what at what voltage. They don’t have to reverse engineer anything.

Yeah, but, there are usually delays, hiccup, etc. when introducing adapters. But, if all those adapters are doing is providing the spacing that the mirror normally took up, then yeah, nothing but contacts. Shouldn't be an issue.

Can someone explain what an adapter does exactly? Does it introduce more or better focal points? I tried to look it up and kept coming up with something that didn't seem like what you are talking about.

Maybe I missed something but it seems the article should have been titled, "How Shooting With a Mirrorless Camera Made Me a *More Efficient* Photographer" or maybe, "More Effective". They seem like the same thing but really aren't. In fact, I would argue, anything that makes you more efficient, makes you less better but I don't have time right now. :-)

The area where I talk about seeing light better definitely correlates to being a better photographer.

I disagree but that's okay. If we all agreed, there'd be no reason to comment. :-)

So basically you like to point and click ?

I think you missed the point.

I have gone through basically the same journey when I purchased the XPro2. Even to the point of shooting in aperture priority mode (I used to shoot full manual, 100% of the time). It has definitely made me a better photographer!

It didn't, you just got gear happy when you received your new camera. Its a camera that takes digital photos.

Jason, I am relatively new to mirrorless (X-T2 now, switching from Nikon D4, D800e, D500, D750) and I appreciate this article. Hoping you can help with something. I've always shot in manual but I am trying AP today, shooting indoors in different rooms with different lighting.

You said: "With a minimum shutter speed set to 1/200th of a second, I know I will always have a sharp image. Then with auto ISO set, I know I will always have the cleanest image possible while still maintaining my desired shutter speed (auto ISO will always use the lowest ISO possible in order to maintain the 1/200th shutter speed)."

I changed the minimum SS to 1/200 in the Auto ISO menu. However, when I shoot per your instructions, I am still getting variable shutter speeds; i.e. 1/200, 1/152, 1/90 and so on. Why is this? I feel as though I'm missing something.

This is because your auto-iso is set to a maximum ISO level.
For example; you set your auto-iso to a maximum of 1600 ISO and 1/200 shutterspeed minimal.
When shooting in a darker situation and your aperture is set to the minimal (lets say F/2.8), your camera is set to a maximum of ISO 1600, shutterspeed 1/200 and aperture F2.8.

Because the only thing to adjust in this situation is your shutterspeed (because the aperture can't get lower and the ISO is maxed out at 1600), the camera decides to lower the shutterspeed (even lower than 1/200) because the camera doesn't want to deliver underexposed shots.
In this case the only thing possible, is to take a lower shutterspeed (decided by the camera in this case) or have a higher ISO decided by you in your menu settings ;)

The solution in this case: upgrade/higher your auto-iso or take a slower shutterspeed!

Oh oh oh oh oh! I got it; knew that! Where is my mind! Thanks for explaining, clarifying.I also adjusted the exposure compensation and had good luck with that as well.
Thanks again.

Or add light...

Kat, I don't understand how you can shoot interiors/indoors without flash? How you balance an exposure? ISO is decreasing dinamic range and color depth, how that photos looks like? Is it your payed job? Or you mean shooting concerts by indoors?

I generally don’t use flash at all. When I do use flash, I rarely get an image I want to keep. I’m new to mirrorless so I’m still discovering what works and doesn’t work for me. If I’m shooting an indoor concert, I also try to not use flash; very distracting to the artist and those around me. Again, I am learning. There’s a lot to learn yet.

Yes, it is also sometimes a paid job. If I pay attention to my ISO, WB, DOF and speed, I generally walk away with a few keepers.

Hey if you're better with a fuji, can you imagine with a canon one?

I'm actually Sony now :)

Love that first pic with the X=T00 :)

Thanks a lot Brandon!

Thank you Jason, great article! What I don't get: you say you set aperture prio mode (on the camera?) and then a min shutter speed of 200? Would that not rather be manual mode with 200 shutter speed and you are only changing the aperture while auto ISO takes care of the correct exposure? Or does my confusion come from the fact that on Olympus EM1 I cannot set a min SS for auto ISO?

It can also go over 1/200 if the light is there.
If you set manual 1/200, the ISO is down to 100 and you select a wide aperture it might overexpose because the shutter speed cannot go faster than 1/200.

A mirrorless camera saved my life.

A mirrorless camera made me a better parent.... oh yah and a better drone consumer.

for me , combination of mirrorless and analog film cameras make me a better photographer
film cameras make me slow down, started with 35mm then medium format
mirrorless camera is basically a built in live lightmeter, after shooting film you have more understanding about highlights and shadows .

This is exactly how I felt when I started shooting with the x100 and fuji xt1. Since upgrading to newest x100t and xt2 i find the preview to be much less accurate than on the older cameras. Maybe i'm doing something wrong but i've tried everything in the menus. I've gone back to shooting with my nikon d750 and i have to say I really notice and improvement in dynamic range that makes it hard go back to the fujis. The nikon seems to have a much broader tonality in the highlights and the shadows. this doesn't matter for all kinds of images though and i am still able to get beautiful results with the fujis especially for how light and compact the kit is. Also i find that medium shutter speeds are much sharper on the mirrorless because of the lack of mirror slap. So both have their pros and cons and it's really hard to choose just one imho.

There used to be a time when photographers drew on their many years of experience to see the light and instinctively select the correct exposure settings. They knew their craft inside out and handling the camera was no different to driving a car or breathing; they did it without consciously thinking about what they were doing. This left them free of any unnecessary distractions so they could give all their attention to the subject they were capturing.

Gear doesn't make you a better photographer, it changes nothing. Though, occasionally, it will force you to change your perspective, or make it easy to access your vision.

"it will force you to change your perspective, or make it easy to access your vision" which in turn makes you a better photographer.

Having visited your web site, I know you're a Christian. God doesn't make our lives easy because that would get in the way of making us better. Just a thought.

It's not about making photography easy, it's about removing obstacles so you can spend more of your mental capacity focusing on the elements that truly make a good photograph. Light, moment, and composition are all I care about when making a photo. When you walk through a museum, you don't care about the settings an artist used to capture an image. You don't care about the brush a painter uses or the stove that a cook uses. But the artist using the tools does care if those tools make his job more or less difficult. If gear had nothing to do with it, professionals would never upgrade their gear. Give a beginner a pro camera and a professional will still outshoot them with beginner gear. But give a pro beginners gear and put him against a pro with pro gear and you have a different story.

"...make it easy to access your vision..." and then you go on to describe making photography easier.

No, it doesn't. That doesn't necessarily make you a better photographer.

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