It is common today to find professional photographers eager to embrace new equipment offerings from manufacturers. I recall a time when things were different and professionals were content to stick with gear that was adequate for their current needs.
In my college days, I purchased a Minolta Maxxum 7000 which was one of the first mainstream cameras to implement a useable autofocus system. The professional photographers I knew were skeptical of this new technology and showed no interest in even trying it out. In their minds, the amateurs were the ones who needed the camera to handle the heavy lifting of ensuring the image was in focus.
Years later, I switched to Nikon when the F4 was released and I loved the way this camera looked, felt, and performed. It was the first professional Nikon body to offer autofocus, but the manual focus F3 stayed in production as many pros were not excited by a camera that offered new features since the camera they were using was working out just fine. It should be noted that the F3 stayed in production even after the introduction of the F5.
Even today you will find that there are professional photographers who don’t rush to replace their gear just because some camera or strobe maker promises their new product is so amazing that we all need to immediately discard the previous version. One such person is an event photographer friend of mine who has not changed his gear in 8-10 years. We have had a few brief conversations while we are waiting for an event to start about why I think he should go mirrorless but he hasn’t been persuaded. He books gigs across the country regularly and is well paid for his craft. He sees no reason to switch. I wrote this article with him in mind.
I was initially hesitant to switch because my Nikon D3s and D810 were working fine for all of my projects. It is noteworthy that even though my mirrorless cameras are not considered professional offerings from Nikon and both have since been supplanted by updated versions, these cameras are still superior to my DSLRs in every way. Below are some of the specific reasons I prefer my mirrorless cameras over my DSLRs.
Quiet / Silent Shutter
The single feature that inspired my switch from DSLR to mirrorless was my need for a quieter shutter than the one on my Nikon D3s. I had always felt the D3s shutter was loud, but at the time I purchased the camera, pretty much every camera was loud. Over the years, more photographers switched to mirrorless cameras, which are inherently quieter than their DSLR counterparts. Anytime I was alongside a mirrorless shooter, I was conscious that my shutter was noticeably louder than that person’s camera. Over time as mirrorless cameras became more commonplace, clients were accustomed to cameras not making much noise.
One time I was shooting an album release party for rapper Lil Peep who had died from a drug overdose the previous year. The music had been turned off and young fans were giving intimate testimonials about how the influence of Peep’s music on their life. More than one person spoke of how Peep’s songs helped them deal with suicidal thoughts. It’s the kind of personal moment that I’d prefer to not photograph, but since I had been hired by his record label to document the event, I felt obligated to take photographs while the fans were speaking. I was conscious that my shutter sound could be heard over the sounds of sobbing fans. I pressed the shutter sparingly, but it wasn’t long before someone from the record label walked over to me and said, “We are good on photographs.”
On other occasions when photographing corporate meetings, I would wait until the person talking said something funny and the audience laughed before I would push my shutter button. Since I tend to fire more frames than other photographers I’ve been around, this approach went against my shooting style. Switching to the Nikon Z6 and Z7 with their much quieter shutters, allows me to fire off as many frames as I desire without attracting attention to myself.
Elimination of the Need To Review Photos While Shooting
My goal is to nail exposure as correctly as possible at the time that I am capturing the image. I shoot in manual mode about 90% of the time and anytime the light changes in my scene, I need to visually check that the exposure is correct. Because the viewfinder on my Z6 can be set to preview the actual exposure before I take the photograph, there is no need to review the image after the fact. If the scene looked correct before I pressed the shutter, I can rest assured that the actual photograph looks good as well.
A DSLR shooter's process to ensure exposure is correct is tedious compared to the process used by a mirrorless shooter. The DSLR shooter must raise the camera to her eye, push the button, lower the camera to press the play button, and repeat the process as many times as necessary until the correct exposure can be determined. Even when I am using strobes in the studio, the process of reviewing images is efficient on the Z6 and Z7 (which I use interchangeably). I have auto review turned on and I can review each image after it is captured without removing the camera from my eye.
Ability to Instantly Switch From Photo to Video Mode
Video is becoming more popular than ever and it is common for clients to expect a photographer to be capable of capturing both formats. Before owning the Z6, my video camera was the BMPCC 4k. The camera was unwieldy and flawed in many ways although it did produce a gorgeous, film-like file. For most of my paid photo jobs, it wasn’t practical for me to bring this camera, its dedicated lenses, and the dozen or so batteries the camera required. Even if I did bring the BMPCC, it wasn’t likely that I had the camera on me while I was walking around taking photographs.
With the Z6, I can flip a switch and change from photo to video mode. This ability to change modes exists on DSLRs but is poorly implemented. If I were using a D3s to take photographs of someone speaking on a podium and my settings were at 250/4 at ISO 2000, I would find it necessary to change my shutter and ISO when I switched to video mode because these settings would not be ideal for a moving image. After filming a clip, these settings would have to be changed again as I switched from video back to stills mode. The Z6 however, stores different settings for video and stills. As I switch between the modes, the image in my viewfinder looks identical in terms of exposure for both modes, but my video might be set to a more logical combination such as 50/4 at ISO 400. This allows me to instantly create stills and videos without having to constantly fiddle with my camera settings.
The IBIS of the Z6 also serves me well for filming videos. For short clips of people talking, I can handhold the camera and produce a shot that looks as if it were filmed on a tripod.
Better Color and Overall Exposure
It has always bothered me when someone says their newer camera has better files. We don’t all want the same things from our files; the term "better" is subjective. Every digital camera I have ever used has produced files that are unique to that camera and I have never sent out files without making some sort of adjustments to the images. When I first began importing Z7 files into Lightroom I realized that I couldn’t find anything that needed to be tweaked. I was making such minor adjustments to shadows or highlights that it hardly mattered. I would not state that the Z7 files are better since the term is so subjective. Straight-out-of-camera files from the Z7 are comparable to processed files from my Nikon DSLRs. Note, I am referring to event photography images that are used for a brief period by the client before that client moves their focus to their next event.
Better Autofocus Performance
Over the years of using Nikon DSLRs, I had become accustomed to focusing bracketing any shots I was shooting wide open. I know these bodies offer a focus calibration feature, but I have never bothered to learn how it works. Whenever I was shooting with my 85mm 1.4G lens wide open, I would fire off a lot of frames and move my body ever so slightly closer or further away from my subject while I was shooting. I would also aim the focus point at different parts of the eye itself in the hopes of acquiring a few images that were tack sharp. This process only took a couple of seconds, but it should not have been necessary.
When I acquired the Z6, the only native lens I had was the 24-70mm F/4 kit lens, so I used the FTZ adaptor to utilize my older lenses on the newer body. The adaptor is larger than I would like it to be and adds noticeable bulk to the system. It doesn't feel right. The performance of the adapter is superb, however, and my older lenses focus more accurately on the Z6 than they ever did on the DSLR bodies. While I would like to replace all of the older lenses with the newer versions, there is at least one lens that I may not replace. A 70-200mm lens is one of the core lenses that many photographers utilize regularly and I can’t imagine not owning this focal length. However, it is a necessary evil for me. I don’t enjoy photographing anything that is far away and my preference is to shoot at 35mm or 85mm. Because I use the 70-200mm focal range so infrequently and the lens I currently own focuses accurately wide open on my Z6, it is unlikely that I will spend the money to replace my old lens with the latest version.
These differences between mirrorless cameras and DSLRs that I have detailed here are not necessarily the most important distinctions between these 2 systems. Rather they are the differences that have had the most impact on my photography and they are the aspects that I think would have the most impact on my friend should he decide to make the switch one day. If you have moved from a DSLR to a mirrorless system, what would you say is the single biggest effect this change has had on your photography?