Switching to Mirrorless? A Wildlife Photographer's View: Michelle Valberg

Switching to Mirrorless? A Wildlife Photographer's View: Michelle Valberg

Imagine you’re somewhere deep in the Pacific Rain Forest to take pictures of the elusive spirit bear. It’s wet, and it’s cold. On top of that, the light is patchy, the shadows are dark. There’s a bit of movement down river. You lift your camera to your eye to capture the moment. In your imagination, what were you holding? A DSLR and a long lens? In actual fact, for some photographers, more and more often, it’s a mirrorless kit.

Michelle Valberg was a recent guest speaker at Vistek’s ProFusion Expo in Toronto. At ProFusion, Valberg spoke about why she is increasingly leaving her DSLR behind these days in favor of her mirrorless kit. Valberg has the credentials: she is a renowned wildlife photographer, Nikon Ambassador, and photographer in residence for CanGeo. Canada Post also recently used her bear images for our stamps.

Michelle Valberg's Spirit Bear

Given her credentials, Valberg’s opinion should be seriously considered by anyone thinking about mirrorless.

I'd be remiss if I didn't suggest you also check out her not-for-profit of choice, Project North, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of children in Canada’s north through sport and education. Inspiring stuff!

So, why does Valberg now favor mirrorless?

An Electronic Viewfinder is Key

Valberg is emphatic that an electronic viewfinder (EVF) is the best thing to happen to photography since the advent of digital. She explained to me that she would put the EVF first on any list of mirrorless advantages because of live exposure and focus peaking.  

Live Exposure 

First, let’s agree that using the LCD to review your images is a fantastic advantage over older film cameras. Instantaneous feedback offers you the chance to make corrections that would have taken hours or weeks with film. These days, it can be the difference between getting that fleeting moment nailed or letting it slip by. For any photographer who shoots in a situation where the subject is out of their control, it’s an advantage you’d be foolish to pass on. 

Moving back and forward between your viewfinder and the LCD is a recipe for missing out. Wildlife can move so quickly that if you move away from your viewfinder for a moment, you may miss your shot.

Most wildlife photography takes place during the transition hours: from darkness through blue hour and golden hour and back. Light can change quickly. Valberg stressed that being able to see the light change and see how your adjustments are compensating for the changes without lifting your eye from the viewfinder puts you seconds ahead of those taking an eye off their viewfinder to check out their LCD. 

Michelle Valberg's Spirit Bear Water Halo

Similarly, if you’re interested in getting a shot of something moving through shadows or just about to burst from the shadows, think a leopard stalking its prey, the EVF will let you see what your exposure will look like before the big cat takes those final steps. 

Michelle Valberg's Misty Bear

When some moments come and go in less than a second, this could clearly come in handy.

On a related note, an EVF can help out when you quite simply can’t take your eye from the viewfinder. Imagine you’re set up and waiting for a bear, and then, the light changes just as the bear ambles out of the treeline 50 feet away you. There is no way you can move your camera from your eye to check out your LCD. As Valberg explained it, at this point, you’re committed to your camera or you’re not. If you have your camera up, shoot away; if not, don’t even think about moving. Doing so is either going to provoke one of the largest apex predators on earth or scare it away. Sure, you can make an educated case with an optical viewfinder and adjust using your experience, or with an EVF, you can guarantee you’re getting the exposure you want. 

Michelle Valberg's Bear Feeding

Valberg is also a proponent of the creative uses of an EVF. Shooting in black and white is a difficult art to learn. Seeing your images as black and white right in front of your eye as you adjust your exposure is very helpful in achieving the look you want. Using the EVF this way can really help fast-track the learning process for beginners and help experienced pros really dial in their vision.

Focus Peaking

For those of you who have shot wildlife, you’ll know that a really long lens will mean that even shooting at f/5.6 will mean that the animal may move in and out of focus just by breathing. Autofocus is great. But, sometimes it doesn’t pick out the eye, instead maybe focusing on a whisker or horn. Valberg shoots using autofocus and then manually adjusting, relying on focus peaking to make sure she’s focused where she wants to be. As she explained, she is able to use much wider apertures than typical in wildlife photography, even creating amazing portraits at f/2.8 and f/4.

Light Weight

It can often take very serious physical efforts to get to the places where the wildlife is still wild. Valberg is an avid kayaker and often shoots from her kayak. Taking away the mirror box and the related bulk from a camera gives mirrorless cameras the opportunity to be smaller and lighter. 

I’ll tell you, when we hiked the volcanoes in Rwanda to visit the mountain gorillas, we really wished we had had lighter gear. You only get to visit the gorillas for an hour so that they don’t get too stressed. We must have spent the first 10 minutes just catching our breath.

True Silent Mode

Anything with a mirror is going to make noise when you press the shutter. Modern DSLRs can be quite quiet, but they still make noise. Sure, you could put your camera in a blimp if you’re sitting in a hide, but there’s no way you’re hiking around a rainforest with one. 

If you’re trying to be still enough to capture wildlife, the silence of mirrorless is going to provide a bit of an edge over its mirrored counterparts. Most of us grew up with the sound of mirror slap, so it somehow feels comforting. There are even apps to add those sounds to alerts on your phone. But, as Valberg also pointed out, even if you’re just looking to be quiet by yourself in the environment, the snap of a mirror can take you out of that peace.

I loved the sound [of Nikon's mirror slap]. Now, I love the silence, especially with wildlife.

Michelle Valberg's Mute Swans

Still to Video

Finally, Valberg mentioned mirrorless’ ability to switch between still and video without having to move more than a finger, never getting a blacked-out viewfinder as you would with DSLRs. By keeping the camera to your face, you can shoot away and switch between mediums as the subject requires.

Missing Your DSLR?

I asked Valberg what she missed most about her DSLRs. She said that she flat out doesn’t. Valberg explained that if she picks one up now, it feels far too heavy, like a tank when she wants a nimble kayak.

In the end, Valberg explained that she doesn’t pack her DSLRs anymore. 

If I missed it, I would still have one in my camera bag. Sadly, I sold my D5, and I leave my D850 at home. 

Your Thoughts

There is a lot of money invested in DSLRs and their lenses. If they are to go the way of the dodo, will you use this as a chance to stock up, or will you hop on the mirrorless train? What do you think will push you into converting? What do you think you’ll miss most about your DSLR?

All images provide courtesy of Michelle Valberg.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Mark is a Toronto based commercial photographer and world traveller who gave up the glamorous life of big law to take pictures for a living.

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Shaving pounds of one’s kit is a good thing . However , with mirrorless once you start adding heavy glass such as 70-200 2.8 you’re only slightly deceasing the bulk . Don’t get me wrong mirrorless is great, as I have a Z6 . However , for my portrait work I still prefer my D810 despite it not having eye AF . Just depends on preference of the individual . DSLRs will surely be phased out , but they are still great tools.

Agreed. They are great tools.
I’ve been using a Fuji when I don’t want to draw attention to myself with a big DSLR and have learned to love it. However, I’m not ready to leave my DSLR and fast long lenses at home, especially in dirty or wet conditions.

"But, sometimes it doesn’t pick out the eye, instead maybe focusing on a whisker or horn. Valberg shoots using autofocus and then manually adjusting, relying on focus peaking to make sure she’s focused where she wants to be. As she explained, she is able to use much wider apertures than typical in wildlife photography, even creating amazing portraits at f/2.8 and f/4."

This sounds very time consuming and the recipe to miss a moment? Also, nothing that you can't do with a DSLR, so I really don't understand this argument... I shot fox, walrus and bears with a 1DX Mark 2 in full AF mode (no manual focus ever), mostly in crappy dim light conditions, and I must have 90% of sharp images (sharp at the eye I mean). All this at 600mm f/4.

Some of the other arguments I can understand, especially the live metering of the light, but that AF/manual focus thing is irrelevant in my opinion.

Further to this, bouncing in a zodiac, with water often slashing all over the place, I wouldn't want to be using a mirrorless there. But well, I'm not an ambassador of any brand, so I try to avoid killing my gear, maybe that's the difference :-)

The reason I haven't looked too hard into switching is the overall robustness of the mirrorless cameras. And, since, at this time I shot Canon, they don't have anything close to a weather sealed mirrorless. When we travel to deserts, both cold and hot, our cameras take a beating.

As for the autofocus, which DSLRs have you used focus peaking on? I find that using it on my Fuji can help in bad light and with smaller depths of field.

Your photo of the drinking polar bear is beautiful! Nice work.

Thank you for the compliment! This was such a fleeting moment. Focus peaking would have made me miss this moment.

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE Valberg's photos, they're so inspiring.

I just don't see how you can use focus peaking when bouncing on a zodiac, with a 600mm f/4 lens barely balanced on the monopod or the rubber side of said zodiac, when the slightest movement of the zodiac makes you lose the bear from your field of view all together. That's why I just rely fully on the AF of my Canon 1DX Mark 2.

I don't have any body with peak focus capability but as said above, I don't see how that would work in my usual working situations.

What about Pentax KP or even the K1? Both of which have many of the advantages listed despite being a DSLR.

Pentax has no lenses for wildlife, the da560 is junk and their autofocus is to slow.
The K1 and da*300 F4 produce great images but only with still subjects, the screwdrive af is just to slow for fast moving wildlife.

Not true, the DFA 150-450mm is an excellent wildlife lens matched up with the K-1II and the KP with the fast focusing HD Pentax-DA 55-300mm PLM makes a very lightweight setup. I've gotten great wildlife/BIF photos using both of these setups. So perhaps you should be a bit educated before trashing a brand you obviously have no recent experience with.

I owned the K1 and da560 for years along with a K3 and da300/4 and other Pentax gear, I’m very familiar with it. I now shoot with Canon 5dsr and 1dx2 with the 600/4 IS II and 70-200 2.8 IS II and 1.4 and 2x tc. So I’m educated and experienced with both brands.

The 150-450 is a fine lens, but to short and slow at 5.6 and then with the auto focus of the bodies it can’t compete with offerings from Canon,Nikon and Sony. And the 55-300plm is a kit lens, it can’t compete with the lenses available for wildlife from the others.

Pentax can’t compete with the 800/5.6 600/4 400/2.8 300/2.8 lenses offered from Canon and Nikon for wildlife. Nothing to compete with Canons 200-400/4 with built in 1.4tc. They don’t have a 1.4 or 2x tc for full frame.

They don’t offer bodies to compete with what Canon,Nikon and Sony offer for sports and wildlife, Pentax is not the brand for sports or wildlife.

I know it’s hard for Pentax users to hear, but that’s not the brand to buy into for sports and wildlife. But look on the bright side, they put the dfa85 1.4 on the road map in Feb of 2017 so it should be out in another year or so and they said they are going to make a new apsc flagship that will be worth the wait.

Perhaps not the brand for you, but it does what I need and very happy especially at the price. Disagree with the 150-450 being too short, learn to get closer and the 55-300 PLM's IQ is much than you'd expect for a kit lens, though the price would lead you to believe otherwise. The K-1II AF tracks much better that the K-1 (have both) so there has been improvements since you've been away. Doesn't bother me they take their time putting out new gear, present gear works just fine.

Have a good day.

Well sometimes getting closer is not a option. I shot a grizzly bear on a elk carcass at 1200mm because he was aggressively chasing ravens getting close so I wasn’t getting closer. The shots weren’t the best but I was able to get them, at 450mm I think the bear would get you.
And some people have low expectations so Pentax works for you, wasn’t for me so I moved on. I’m sure your experience with Canons 1dx2 and 600/4 was different that’s why you shoot with Pentax.

The only thing I like about mirrorless is the silent shutter. My 1dx2 and 5dsr have scared away several animals with the noise they make.

When you’re using a 600 F4 the weight of the body really isn’t a issue, actually a heavier body can help balance on a gimbal better.

I agree that a heavier body is important, especially, counterintuitively, handheld. Setting up with a gimbal is a bit harder with a lighter body, no doubt. But, a few pounds shed with a lighter body makes a big difference when you're hiking a volcano. ;)

A group of photo clubs in Winnipeg had Michelle as a guest speaker last year. She was terrific...very engaging and just a really lovely lady. We did a workshop with her as well and just had a great time. Her work speaks for itself regardless of the camera. Were I a Nikon shooter, it would be the D850 because it has 2 memory cards. I don't have a lot of requirements for a camera, but that's one that is non negotiable.

Valberg also did a slideshow lecture about wildlife photography in addition to this more technical presentation. Inspiring. Count me as a new fan!

I love that there is this new technology for wildlife photographers. I think it still has a little ways to go before I will change over.

The thing I would love to see is for focus peaking to be tied to touch screen focus. I don't really understand why this isn't already enabled - seems like it would only require software to be written for it, as the mechanical and electronic components are already in place.

I've heard that animal eye focus is being improved rapidly, but there are a still a few problems - like it doesn't always grab the eye when the animal is really small in the frame, or when the animal is far away, or when the eye is in a dark shadow. And I've also seen examples where it didn't focus on the iris itself, but rather on the eye lashes, or somewhere on the face right next to the eye. I'm sure that in the near future the manufacturers will have animal eye focus systems that work in all conditions, and give us the extreme pixel-peeping precision that we demand.

i just received my Z6 but i like some things but i do not like others. light for sure but i would love more buttons and a quick switch in metering mode isnt an issue with a DSLR but isnt just a button in the Z6. now im not sure if i should stick with Nikon or move to sony.

Not sure if finding a quick switch of metering mode is reason enough to make a switch to another brand? I’ve had Sony A7III and A7RIII and I don't recall switching metering modes to be that much faster than that of the Z6. I recommend you play with the cameras first and see how they feel to you. Then decide.

Z6 is good for video so far but i am guessing that the Sony A7iii is beterder. i wont be selling my D850 anytime soon, nor will i trade it in against a sony. maybe its because im used to DSLR's or maybe its something else. one thing i cant get over is kids using the liveview like the mirrorless camera is a phone. stretch arms, click. nanny ortiz does that almost all the time. so does jason lanier.

Very nice photos of animals mostly still. My friends using mirrorless are struggling with animals on the move.

Why is this an either or proposition? The community believing it has to be one or the other is myopic. The dodo bird analogy, though creative, promotes the idea that the DSLR is antiquated. Certainly Sony would want you to believe and promote that idea.

Mirrorless is truly wonderful for some, for others it simply doesn’t work as well as a DSLR that has been built for a specific purpose.

Time will tell of course, but until then, the death of the DSLR has been greatly exaggerated.

No mention of battery life? This seems like it would at least be a factor worth mentioning for the long hours wildlife photographers put in.

Especially if you're trying to reduce the weight of your bag! Right?! Using a DSLR doesn't see me go through a lot of battery as wildlife is a lot of sitting and waiting with only periodic moments of action. But, with a mirrorless, you're EVF is constantly eating into the batteries. I wonder . . . .

I am burning through SD-cards faster than through batteries on my Sony a73. Ive taken over 2000 shots over many hours, continuously focusing the whole time. One spare battery should have you more than covered for a normal day. Haven't tried it in sub zero temperatures, though.

The greatest inhibitor to switching to mirrorless is expense. Nikon's Z6/Z7 are not true professional camera's and not fast enough focus tracking with the FTZ. So for me to switch and get as good if not better AF and features I'd have to go to the Sony A9 II. My main wildlife lens is the Nikon 400mm f2.8 VR and I have both a 1.4x TC and D500 for when I need longer. My two main camera's are D4s bodies and the D500 is my teleconverter replacement and if i need even more length I can add my 1.4x TC to the D500. Now to get two A9 II's, a Sony 400mm f2.8 and 1.4x TC, plus A6500, etc. it would cost at least $25,000! Now my gear is only worth only $11,000-$12,000 used. So where in the hell would I get the rest of the money and why would I switch when my gear works flawlessly and is better made. I know for a fact that my D4s bodies and even D500 are much tougher than the Sony camera's and I'd bet my 400mm f2.8 VR is also tougher or better weather sealed than the Sony 400mm, but thats harder to say.

Expense is certainly an issue. I'm assuming that this is how all those Canon FD folk felt back when the EF mount came out.
Again, I agree, I question the robustness, at least of Canon's current line up - we'll see!

Fully agree with you! I got so lucky as to be able to buy a brand new 600/4 Canon lens with 50% discount (the Mark 2 model, just months after the Mark 3 came out), which I intend to keep for at least 10 years! I don't know what I'll do if I can't get any body to work with it when Canon decides to remove completely the reflex cameras from their line-up... Certainly I won't be able to afford 13K$ for a new lens, and I won't even be able to sell the "old" one I just got.

Can I just add: not having to put on the reading glasses, and then remove them, and put them on again, 1,000 times in an afternoon. Because I can do everything in the EVF, including the menus.

Interesting, never thought of that before. Good point.

Firstly those were amazing photographs. I used both Z7 and D850 for several months. As an amateur I cannot explain the technical aspects but for some reason I still feel my photographs were better with D850. I showed them to my friends and they are not into photography and they agreed with me. Does anyone feel that way?

What is it that you feel is better?

The image quality - the colors seem more natural and DOF. All in all the image looks like I viewed it or the way I wanted it perhaps.

I use my Sony A7R3 with the Sony FE 100-400 for more than a year in nature photography. I used Nikon and Canon before.

I never got photos as sharp and in focus as with this system even in flight. I live in the Yungas (jungles piedmont) with temperatures above 45 degrees celcius and humidity that exceeds 75%

Shooting bursts of 10 photos per second in absolute silence and at 43 mpx is the best of all.

I am very happy about the change, ah, the battery lasts several times. Greetings.

"with temperatures above 45 degrees celsius and humidity that exceeds 75%"
Wow! That's certainly putting it through it's paces! Nice. No issues?

With the A7R3 I had no problem in these extreme conditions. With the Sony A6xxx and they began to fail and in extreme cases I lost a camera.

I live in the Yungas Oranenses (oran, Salta, Argentina) under the tropic of capricorn

Great feedback. Thanks!

As a side note, we were in Salta a few years back. Adored that area. We drove north quite ways and then all the way down to Mendoza. One of our favourite road trips EVER! Fell in love with Cafayate and Cachi. Our wine problem is only second to our camera problem.

Sounds like a sales pitch. If a famous photographer says it then it MUST be good/correct/must use/whatever...

One thing I find most misleading with these famous photographers is that the subject matter is always huge and impossible to miss not matter which system.

I have a request for these famous wildlife photographers. Show wonderful shots of birds in flight! Of course they won't simply because ....

It must be terrific to be so good that you can poo poo an accomplished professional. :rolleyes:

Sorry I did forget to mention that I like Michele's work very much. It takes a lot of effort and time to get the kinds of shots she gets.

Btw, I had not intention to poo poo a photographer, only the premise is that the mirrorless is THE best thing around. It is not!

You have to keep in mind that she's a Nikon Ambassador. They pay for a lot of what she does. It only makes sense that she would put in a pitch for Nikon's latest effort. If it wasn't the Z7 and the D850 was her primary camera, then her camera of choice would have been the D850, which it was prior to the Z7.

I'm in the D850 camp, although I shoot Canon. If I could afford the switch, I would already be shooting with the 850. For me, mirrorless isn't the answer.

Thanks. Me too - at this point in time even as a Canon shooter I really would like to get the D850. Its only issue for me is the buffer. I use 2 systems now, a 3rd would be great.

No sales pitch on my part. I mentioned which company Valberg is an ambassador for, but didn’t point out one specific camera or builder. I’m just trying to share information and Valberg was simply telling her “gear” story.

I’d never just pick a camera based on an endorsement. I’d certainly do my own research, but, a variety of opinions from experts in the field is something I find helpful. You don’t?

Why don’t you think anyone would share birds in flight photos? I’ve shot a lot of wildlife and I don’t find birds as compelling as many other subjects (specifically other mammals). However, I do have a soft spot for skua Fighting with penguins!!!

Good birds shots are really hard to get to. BIF even harder. But when well done, then they are really compelling. Having said that, nobody in their right mind is going to focus peak for a BIF picture, doesn't matter how advanced the mirrorless becomes, focus peaking is just for static subjects when you have time, no?

Skuas are cool. I've been shooting long-tailed skuas last summer, what a terrific bird! No penguins in my neck of the woods though haha!

I almost completely agree. For some wildlife I will pre-focus. For example, a leopard about to come out of tree line. But, focus peaking really is for static, or at least objects that you want to 'fix' in a place.

Shot SEVERAL years ago with much less 'advanced' equipment (and skills) . . . .

Oh god it doesn't matter the skills or gear: this is a brilliant moment and is well captured! It tells a story and isn't it all what counts at the end of the day? :)

Thanks Rayann. With a bit more experience, I would have switched lenses to something a bit wider instead of relying the strength of the zoom.

We ended up with a pretty amazing video of the entire battle, which I watch every now and then to remind myself never to give up.

As for story, I couldn't agree more!

Apologies. I meant that to show off a mirrorless as the greatest tool, one needs to do what is the hardest part of nature photography and why the mirrorless outperforms the DSLR. Showing off Michele's great work and going on about silent shutters etc is ...?

Selecting a bunch of shots of big animals, which you or I can get provided we are in the same location/settings is not an endorsement for the good that mirrorless brings.

The good is weight. The rest is no different from other cameras. The bad is weather sealing, and the inability of an EVF to correctly track a BIF, I mean from close up and not like a 100m away.

I shoot mirrorless myself - except birds in flight. For everything else mirrorless is great. I carry both systems. But for now if I intend to shoot BIF then the small guy sits in the bag.

With regard to compelling - I have seen tons of people give up on BIF for only one reason - it is very hard. People want instant gratification and they are not going to get it without patience, determination and perseverance.

Who wants to spend days waiting for a bird to turn up, and get it in flight in the best of poses and conditions? Only loosers like me!

Shooting wildlife is fine too. I love seeing the work of the greats. i will shoot it (and with a mirrorless). Heck what can go wrong with a large, relatively slow target to work on?

Challenging a camera system means to be fair to the strengths of both mirrorless and the big heavies. These are both excellent systems but personally a switch to lighter equipment is inevitable. Age, my friend, age!

BTW I have a huge amount of respect and a great appreciation of Michele's work

"Age, my friend, age!" I'm with you on that!!

I do love the patience aspect of shooting wildlife. It has a zen like quality about it.

I, too, would like to see photos of birds in full, fast flight, taken with mirrorless cameras. In situations where the birds are really close to the camera and rapidly changing angle and practically filling the frame, so that the photographer has to pan rapidly to keep them in the viewfinder because they're so close and the angle is changing so rapidly.

I do suspect that mirrorless focusing systems are still a little behind DSLRs in these specific scenarios, and I prefer to wait until mirrorless cameras are better at every kind of wildlife photography before I switch over.

If there are still a couple things that DSLRs are a little bit better at, then thanks, ..... but no thanks.

Sony a9/a9ii is the best camera for BIF, hands down. If you're not willing to make the switch from Nikon/Canon to Sony then mirrorless isn't your best option for fast action.

I'm quite willing to switch brands ... but I can't spend very much at all. Certainly no way I can spend even half of what an A9 costs.

So for me it's not a matter of sticking to a particular brand. It is about sticking to a particular price point.

My body and lens combination can be had for a combined total of $2400 on the used market. If Sony mirrorless gives an option at that price point, that is equal to or better at focusing on birds in full fast flight than my Canon 1D4 and 100-400mm lens, then I will gladly switch.

It's not a brand thing at all. It's not a DSLR vs. mirrorless thing at all. It's what gives me the fastest frame rate and most rapid, accurate focusing at 400mm for $2,300 or less. New or used, I don't care. Just give me the performance.

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