How Have Mirrorless Cameras Changed the Way You Shoot?

How Have Mirrorless Cameras Changed the Way You Shoot?

As someone who's been a regular Canon EOS R system user for the last few years, it's really dawned on me through teaching students how much things have changed for the better with serious mirrorless cameras.

I used to have to spend a lot of time teaching photojournalism students at the college level the basics of how focus and exposure worked. Often these two major concepts were really big hurdles for beginning photography students to jump over in the pursuit of good photojournalism, and much of a semester would be spent on understanding these fundamentals. This led to less time spent on how to compose photos, understand light and basically tell a story with images.

My "lightbulb moment" for how much easier things have gotten came when I was giving students a lesson in sports photography and explaining the differences between AI-Servo (that's AF-C for you Nikon shooters) and One Shot (AF-S) modes. When it comes to moving subjects, I've usually started by explaining to students the way I've more or less done things since the early 2000s, which is to pick a point of focus, turn on AI-Servo, then hang on to that subject under that autofocus point no matter what. If enough students got there, I'd go into letting the camera acquire the subject and explain advanced modes such as 3D autofocus tracking.

When explaining the same principles with an EOS R, I was surprised to find that the camera's eye and face-tracking technologies were so good, that the old way of doing things, which had served me well for the last two decades, really wasn't the best way, or the easiest way, to learn. Nowadays, I explain and show the old ways, but in reality, the camera's automated systems can do it better. This is not unlike the automotive world, where today's automatic transmissions surpass the once-superior manual transmissions when it comes to gas mileage and speed.

The same is true for auto exposure modes, which themselves have gotten more sophisticated, but also get a boost from the increased dynamic range of modern cameras. For beginners, being able to preview what an image's exposure and color will look like through the viewfinder before shooting has helped much more than using the traditional meter to get there.

All of these enhanced functionalities have made it much easier for my students to get to the heart of storytelling in images. It also got me thinking about my own mirrorless shooting, and what I've been doing differently now that I've been shooting for a couple of years with the R system, first with the EOS R and now the EOS R6.

Continuous Autofocus, Continuously

With a limited spread of autofocus points on traditional phase-detection autofocus systems on DSLRs, I would often switch very frequently between servo and one-shot autofocus modes. For instance, if I was shooting a portrait, there was a possibility I couldn't always keep the near-eye of a subject under a focus point, so one shot would allow me to do a bit of focus-recompose as needed. With the EOS R's eye-detection autofocus, I've been able to keep the camera on AI-Servo mode with eye-detection on and it will follow the eyes basically anywhere across the frame, and ensure that even if I'm using the shallowest depth of field that I'll get focus. It's even easier on the R6 with the thumbstick to cycle through faces and eyes as needed. It was a much-needed control point that Canon added back into its cameras.

My previous experience with eye detection and autofocus was Fujifilm's initial implementation of it, which didn't appear to allow me to choose which eye or face was in focus, limiting its usefulness. By being able to choose faces, I found that I was even able to use this method for focusing during a protest that included dozens of faces in each shot. Eye detection autofocus, across brands, has come a long way and is a game-changer for people stepping up from DSLRs. It's also a lot easier to explain to newcomers.

Swivel Screens

The younger generation seems to love doing everything through a touchscreen. I don't.

The caution I had to give students in the past about most DSLRs was to not use the swivel screen to compose, focus and take photos. Generally, live view systems had inferior autofocus systems compared to phase detection through the viewfinder. With mirrorless cameras, the systems are the same through the now-electronic viewfinder as it is on the back screen. No more having to choose between getting a creative composition with your eye away from the finder or accurate autofocus. You can have both. It's another game changer with autofocus systems in mirrorless cameras that have evolved to where most can compete with even the best DSLRs out there. I can get 12 frames per second with autofocus on the R6; That's better than an EOS 1D Mark IV that I paid $5,000 for a little more than a decade ago, at half the cost. I'm not afraid to use the rear screens anymore, and it makes my advice to sometimes "shoot from the hip" that I used to give students a bit obsolete.

I Still Hate Touch Screens

One of the reasons I had a love-hate relationship with the EOS R was the touchscreen. Being Canon's first serious entry into the mirrorless market, it took some liberties on the traditional Canon controls, and replaced many of them with using the touch screen or the wonky touch bar that never quite worked right for me and has mercifully been killed. I still can't get used to changing settings or setting autofocus this way. My students loved doing both of those things. I guess that makes me old and stubborn? While it's nice that the EOS R6 retains all of that functionality should my students (or other new photographers) want it, I'm thankful for the return of more tactile buttons, joysticks, and dials.

What Do You Do Differently?

Have you found yourself changing the way you work as a result of the switch to mirrorless? Are there things you love or hate about it? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Log in or register to post comments
John Perhach's picture

For me not really at all minus having a bigger back screen & touch screen. The biggest difference is simply the weight factor and not to much else besides having more megapixels cause I went from a Nikon D810 to a z7i. Pretty much the flip action of the screen isn’t even used besides once in a while as well.

Lorin Duckman's picture

All the above and more. I have been using AWB more. I love the touch screen and the flip screen. Used it yesterday to see over the top of the fence.

Richard Kralicek's picture

Well, the EVF changed my whole way of shooting, due to the fact that now I can instantly check focus in the viewer magnification (I have -10dpt, so I really need that stuff), my special lenses (Trioplan, Primoplan, Lensbabys, TS-E and old manual lenses) demand more attention, as focus peaking doesn't work reliably with those lenses.

The possibility to use other lenses via adapters opened a whole world of lenses to me (which is about to close soon, as all those lenses, as special they are, with all their beloved characters, are just tools to take/make images).

Eye and face detection are really nice now, but pretty useless for me when using my manual only lenses. I still have to take my time, but when on holidays with my family they really enjoy not waiting for me choosing the right focus.

Mike Ditz's picture

I agree Richard, I have the usual 3 lenses we all use, but ML, makes using MF lenses so much easier.
My Canon tilt shifts get more action and my two favorite Nikons (105mm 1.8 and 55mm 1.2) are a joy to use with focus peaking and viewer magnification.

Charles Mercier's picture

Hardly, I recently realized that I've always used a camera as a framing, capture-the-moment/light tool.

It's been digital cameras that have helped my photography the most because of instant and no cost feedback. I stopped doing film photography because it was both expensive and usually had to wait days or weeks to see if a shot was good or not.

winzehnt gates's picture

The main difference is that I almost never chimp to check exposure. The exposure compensation dial has become the most used dial on my camera.

When I started with photography back in the 80s, the first thing you had to learn was how to expose correctly and how to focus, otherwise you had no usable images. Everything else was secondary. (E.g. zone focusing wasn't something exotic. Without autofocus, it was a necessity.)

The wysiwyg EVF and the improved autofocus have enabled beginners in photography to start with composition and communication/storytelling and only come back to learning the technical aspects when they've reached the limits of auto-modes.

PS: The next technical advancement I want, is setting the focus point by eye-tracking in the viewfinder. I just can't get used to using a joystick to move the focus point.

Richard Kralicek's picture

@ joystick: When I didn't have one, I wanted one, now I have it I'm disappointed. I have to use it for my manual only lenses, but for all other lenses I enjoy using the wheels to set the focus point. The joystick isn't responsive enough when hitting it and afterwards its way to responsive on the R6. I'm not sure if they did a great job there with their design. I remember the joystick of the Fuji x100f, which was way better.

Jacques Cornell's picture

When shooting group portraits with flash, I turn on Autoreview so the image I just shot is immediately played back in the EVF. I can then assess whether flashes worked correctly and all subjects' eyes were open, without lowering the camera to chimp at the tiny rear screen. If the shot is good, I dismiss the subjects with a thumbs up. If not, I just keep shooting. This solves the old problem of subjects starting to walk away when I used to lower the camera to review the shot on the rear screen and then having to call them back if the shot wasn't perfect.

This way of working is SO much better, and I can get more shots done in less time, which is key in my event work, especially when there are lots of groups to photograph. I shoot corporate events, but I imagine this would be a HUGE benefit for wedding shooters, too.

Robert Nurse's picture

For me, the move to mirrorless didn't change the way I shoot. It just made things easier. Moving from a 5DMKIII, the pluses were obvious: far more focusing points, no more micro focus adjustments, faster AF and of course Face/Eye detection. The one thing I had to adjust to, however, was having to turn on the camera every time. Even when I just wanted check compositions. Battery life is somewhat diminished. But, the pluses far outweigh the negatives. I wish Canon had offered a 4-axis articulating screen. I don't vlog, so I don't need the screen to flip outwards. However, I'm constantly viewing the screen at waist or ground level. Having that screen out to the side is a recipe for disaster. But, all in all, mirrorless was a good move.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

How could I forget! No more micro adjustments! That’s like the best part. I loved my 5D3 but it’s a night and day difference in usability with modern day cameras.

Daniel L Miller's picture

I have a Love/Hate relationship with EVFs. But on the positive side I haven't had to press a Depth-Of-Field preview button for quite a few years.

Hector Belfort's picture

I was talking to a wedding photographer recently about why she wasn’t using the viewfinder and only the back screen. She said it was easier to compose and see the scene and move focus. She said about half her colleagues use their mirrorless cameras that way. I found interesting, a younger generation doing it differently.

Jacques Cornell's picture


Christian Fiore's picture

I'm 50/50 on that, and I'm definitely not younger generation. I use the camera at arm's length on the dance floor, holding it up high, and for quick grab shots throughout the day, that I'd otherwise waste time bringing the camera to my eye and aiming. Some things just happen way too fast, so it's very helpful to be able to react instantly. It's also great to be able get angles that would never be possible if you had to have the camera up to your eye to shoot. I've put the camera through fences, around peoples' heads/shoulders, etc. in order to get shots that would otherwise be blocked at eye level.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

First of all, I need glasses to see sharp and I don't use glasses to take pictures because I set the right dioptry on the camera. So after each shot, glasses on and look at screen. Glasses off, take new shot . Glasses on, look at screen.
That is the most important reason why I switched over to EVF early on. The first EVF's weren't good for fast action, but 99% of my pictures are of nature and stationary objects so that was never a problem.
Nowadays, the best feature is touch to focus when I'm shooting low level or on a tripod. I have really bad knees and the being able to use a tiltable screen for taking pictures at low level is great.
Besides, I have never had trouble switching to new tech. According to people that know me well, I seem to have the kind of disorder that makes you in love with all new tech.

Greg Edwards's picture

Although I may be a mere part-time enthusiast with a lowly EOS M5, this camera introduced a couple of features that I find useful.
Touch and drag focussing. Rather than using a joystick or buttons, I can touch and drag the focus point using the rear screen even whilst using the EVF to compose.
DOF preview - instantly see what the DOF will be like before pressing the shutter.

Christian Fiore's picture

Mirrorless AF reliability is what freed me to go pro. Was never happy with the randomness of DSLR AF, with the D750 and D7100 being my last DSLRs, which achieved only around a 75% hit rate. That meant I had to chimp important shots, with the potential loss of getting that shot if there wasn't enough time to do it again. That's a deal breaker, for me and many of my clients (event work). Plus, more time chimping = less time shooting. With mirrorless, my hit rate is near perfect. I never have to chimp.
And when I miss a shot, it's almost always because I did something wrong, and I can even recognize that in the viewfinder as the shot is taken.

How is this improvement possible? DSLR AF fine tuning. Having the AF sensor and imaging sensor as 2 parts requires alignment for every single lens you use. It also extends to each individual aperture, focal length, and focal distance, but not many lenses/cameras offer that level of tuning depth. Even after all that, AF still may not be perfect, and the process is ridiculously tedious and time consuming (I've tuned a lifetime of lenses already). As a last ditch effort, I sent my 70-200/2.8 and D750 into Nikon for them to tune both together, and the results were still sub par. That was the end of me and DSLRs.

But with mirrorless, this isn't an issue at all, having the AF and imaging sensors being the exact same part. No alignment necessary, because it's impossible for them to become misaligned (sans snapping the sensor in half). Having faith in my gear freed me up to be able to shoot what I wanted, how I wanted, with confidence that I'd be able to consistently and reliably get important shots without drama. Been shooting professionally for 5 years now, and it's all thanks to mirrorless. And with other enhanced features only possible in mirrorless (exposure preview, silent shutter, full AF performance through the LCD, higher frame rates, through the viewfinder video, etc.), there's no way I'd ever go back to DSLR.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

You know, over the years I think that the AF fine-tune thing is largely dependent on the copy of the camera that you have. My D750 was perfect from day one and never needed any adjustments with any lenses. My 5D Mark III, on the other hand, constantly needed adjustments. It drove me so crazy that when the time came to have to part with either my 5D3 or my 6D, I kept the 6D because I never had to microadjust - it just worked.

I'm glad these days are soon going to be behind us.