Why I Can't Use a Mirrorless Camera Professionally

Why I Can't Use a Mirrorless Camera Professionally

Here's the truth. Until recently, I thought professionals using mirrorless cameras were a joke. I grew up in the days of film. Got my hands dirty in the darkroom. Had a Canon A1 and F1 in my camera collection, plus learned on others like a Pentax 35mm as well. Feeling the weight of the camera in my hands and hearing the sound of the mirror slap was part of the joy of photography for me. Pun entirely intended. 

There is something about the sound of that shutter click that so many photographers love. Not only do we love the sound of the shutter, but we can often identify it with a certain brand of camera. To take that away from me in a mirrorless camera is taking away a part of the fun for me.

I do have a Sony a7S in my possession, though I use it for recording my AdoramaTV series much more than I use it for photos. I like the small format of the Sony camera, particularly because I travel so often and it is perfect for stowing in my carry-on. The first time I tried to take pictures with it though, I was not in my element. To be honest, the pictures were awful. I really think learning to shoot with a mirrorless camera system has a different learning curve than shooting with a DSLR. So much so that there are classes specifically dedicated to learning portraiture with a mirrorless camera.

Let's break it down and talk about some of the big things that are important when discussing mirrorless vs mirrored camera systems.

Perception

The mirrorless cameras, in my opinion, have always left something lacking. Yes, they're convenient in size, but because they're so small, consumers and therefore my clients, don't see them as professional. At least not as seemingly professional as a nice, hefty, meaty DSLR like my Canon 1DX. The bigger the better in their eyes. Not that our clients should be dictating what kind of cameras we use because obviously they don't know enough about them to do so, but their perception of them is important. It reflects on us and gives them an opinion about our work potentially before they even see it.

The way a client views a photographer shooting with a mirrorless camera, as opposed to one using a (D)SLR, is not to be taken lightly. For me, branding is a huge part of why I’m successful in my business, and much of that has to do with my perceived value. I charge a premium for my clients to hire me to come shoot their luxury weddings. In some level, if I show up with a little, mirrorless camera, I feel like I'm not meeting their expectations. Having a less-than-professional looking camera is the last thing I want, especially when side-by-side with guests who so often bring their own (D)SLRs. It's going to make me appear less credible as a photographer and potentially cause my client confidence to drop. When photographing these events, I feel that my equipment and I should in a way match the grandeur of the event.

Perspective

Fellow Fstoppers guest writer, Miguel Quiles, is a colleague of mine who primarily uses the Sony A7RII for his portrait work. Miguel is a phenomenal photographer and shoots a mirrorless camera system both for his studio portraits and recording video for his AdoramaTV series. He is teaching an upcoming course on CreativeLive on mirrorless camera systems that I’ll likely check out so I can become more familiar with it even if I don't use it in my own photography business.

In regards to the client perspective, Miguel once photographed me in his studio using his Sony A7RII. While he was doing an amazing job and certainly knows what he's doing with posing and lighting and getting expression, I couldn't help but be on the other side of that itty bitty camera thinking, "Oh my gosh, how cute." "Oh my gosh, how cute," is the last thing I want my clients to feel on the other side of my camera. The final image was nothing short of amazing of course.

Photo by Miguel Quiles

I want my clients to feel like movie stars and 110% confident in me in my ability; and that includes how they feel and what they think when see me from their side of the lens. Regardless of what the truth actually is about the quality of the camera or the quality of the photos coming out of it due to the photographer’s talent and expertise, how a client feels plays a huge role in their experience and ultimate opinion of you and your photography.

More and more, I photograph weddings with the videographer standing next to me using an iPhone as their main camera. Granted it has some attachments and accessories on it, but there’s a part of me that dies inside watching a professional use their phone to capture a wedding. An iPhone is obviously not comparable to a Sony A7RII, but the exaggerated comparison of how the client perceives both as opposed to a DSLR can be argued.

Photo by Miguel Quiles

Would I love my camera to be lighter on a wedding day after carrying around with a heavy lens on it for eight, ten, or twelve hours? Absolutely! But, I can't get past my biased view of the mirrorless cameras enough to validate the drop in weight and transportability. For me, there's always going to be a fine line between what I do for ease of use and what I do because I know it's better for me professionally.

Do I think photographers like Miguel Quiles that shoot with mirrorless cameras produce work that’s any less professional than others like Moshe Zusman who uses and teaches with DSLRs? No, absolutely not. They're both professionals producing beautiful imagery. It’s a personal business decision for me; I don't think I'm ever going to be able to use a mirrorless system for professional use.

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While a appreciate where you are coming from, it reminds me of a media symposium run by a top media professional in the early 1990's at the Jacob Javitz Center in NYC. She asserted that: "digital is great, but it will never take the place of film, as it cannot compare in terms of image quality." While that was true then, I asserted that Moore's law of digital doubling price performance every 18 months or so would pass film by. She and most of the audience balked at my assertion at that time.

I assume that, 18 months after you wrote this article, you hopefully now have accepted that mirrorless and its evolutionary offshoots are the future of camera tech for most professional photography areas of specialty-- at least for anyone who wants to compete and create most effectively. Further, all camera phones (many of which are now better than my early $10K+ pro DSLR's from 10 years ago in most ways), are all mirrorless by design and definition. Similarly, all Hasselblad/DJI systems are mirrorless.

There is nothing wrong with DSLR (I own a 5DSR, a Nikon D4 and 5300 and a P1 DSLR-- as well as several film DSLR's that I use from time to time). However, it is a shame to hear you aren't able to embrace the best option, regardless of its size, sound or related "gravitas". If you really need this to sell yourself to customers and others like that, you can always use a 105mm f/1.2, a 200mm 1.8L II, a 300mm f/2.8 or a 500mm or 600mm f/4. People generally are impressed more by lens size rather than camera size anyway-- at least from what I see whenever I take out the big guns. However, I use those lenses to get the shots I want period; and I'm as equally likely to use something like a relatively "diminutive" Nocticron 42.5 f/1.2, a Voigtlander f/0.95 Nokton or an 85mm f/1.2 on a smaller mirrorless.

It is critical to note that mirrorless is, at its core, based around the progressive elimination of all mechanical camera components, and their replacement with digital alternatives (i.e. shutter, focusing subsystems, etc).

If you still haven't gotten around your size issue, it is only a matter of time when the remaining hold-outs accept that DSLR's will effectively be the now substantially superseded film equivalent of camera technology in terms of serving you and your customers in the best possible way for many types of shot. So, while you may want to still create with a DSLR or a film camera, as far as mirrorless being considered the top pro choice by many is no longer in question.
Phase One, Hasselblad/DJI, SONY, Panasonic all dominate their respective markets leveraging mirrorless now-- as do many others in their submarkets.

So, I hope you stop worrying so much about using mirrorless in professional environments and instead just leverage whatever technology works best for your you and your customers.

On that note, I just got an A7III for evaluation for some of my photographers, and they all have asked to dump their prior DSLR or mirrorless cameras in favor of the new A7 III (glad I didn't offer them all A9's!-- just kidding...)

Hopefully your views on serving clients and your understanding related to mirrorless cameras and their unique value propositions have both evolved.

Regardless, if you still wish to impress clients with the size of your gear (can't believe I just wrote that), then you should use large fast lens instead; since that is what most customers would judge by. Whenever I have a large lens (e.g. 200mm F/1.8 L2, 105mm F/1.2, 500mm F/2.8 etc, they say "what a big camera" not what a big lens. Also, a smaller camera makes the lens look even bigger-- sort of like shaving your beard makes your nose look even larger (can't believe I wrote that either...). The fact you can tell them it was worth the $10K-$25K may impress them even more-- if that is in fact your objective.

Personally, I hope you get over this, since I can tell you that none of the top photogs I know follow your approach of choosing a camera based on its size and feeling it will impress.