One of the things you’ll hear hardened DSLR users mention when the subject of mirrorless cameras comes up in conversation is how “bigger is better” when it comes to cameras and that small sensors can’t compete with bigger sensors, ergo mirrorless cameras are not worth using because they (mostly) have smaller sensors.
There are all sorts of scientific justifications for this line of reason, but they all point to the same competitive parameter: image quality, but more importantly image quality in extreme situations, such as high ISO use or dynamic range in high contrast scenes. There’s never any mention of the disadvantages of using a bigger camera and lenses in normal photographic situations.
If we look at some other important factors involved in the making of photographs and weigh them up against the ostensibly scientific advantage in image quality between big and small sensors, a different picture begins to emerge. Because in reality unless I am being particularly pedantic about things like dynamic range and high ISO capabilities (and have some esoteric means of measuring these things) I’m probably not going to be able to tell what type of camera sensor has taken whatever photo I might be looking at. Especially on the web, which is where the vast majority of digital photographs end up being seen these days.
So, what other factors are there that we should be looking at before we make a decision on what camera is best for our needs? Here are a few of the areas I decided were far more important to me than larger sensor size, depth of field and it’s claimed advantages for what I do with a camera.
Regular readers of my articles will know how I feel about this. After years and years of carrying heavy camera bags around, last year my right shoulder finally said, “Enough” and I had to put all my physical activities on hold while I went for chiropractic treatment over a period of a month to cure some chronic shoulder pain I was having.
Basically what happened is that my right shoulder’s muscles were so over-taxed in comparison to the rest of my body that I had become entirely reliant on the supporting muscle groups, located all around my core and back, to deal with the loads I was carrying. This put everything out of kilter with my upper body muscular system. My muscle fascia had developed in such an abnormal way that it impeded my movement - which explained why doing some types of physical exercise was almost impossible for me. I was literally fighting my own muscles whenever I tried to do any overhead lifting. Not to mention that I couldn’t sleep on my right side without waking up in pain throughout the night. Not a cool place to be and I could lay the blame squarely at the feet of my DSLR’s and their big heavy lenses and big heavy bags that I'd been lugging around since Y2K.
My chiropractor spent about 12 hours literally breaking apart my muscle fascia, all the way from my abdomen right up to my neck (and even parts of my face!) allowing them to move more freely and alleviate the tension I was experiencing in my right shoulder. This was an excruciating course of treatment but along with a period of rest it helped my shoulder to recover from the years of abuse I had subjected it to. The treatment cured my shoulder issues, but in order to prevent it from recurring I had to cure my other problem, namely carrying around too much weight in camera gear.
The problem with photographers, especially those who are somewhat new to the craft, is that we want to take everything with us whenever we go shooting in case we encounter that once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity. We buy these massive backpacks and shoulder bags, load them up with all sorts of lenses, bodies and whatever else we might have some obscure justification for bringing with us.
I remember the first year I covered the A1GP motor sport series here in my hometown, I had this 20L camera backpack of mine literally filled to bursting point with just about every piece of photographic equipment I owned at the time. Which was a lot. It was ridiculous what I was carrying around in the hottest part of our already disgustingly humid Durban summer. All in the name of being prepared for any photo opportunity.
Granted, I did get some great shots at those events, but man, that camera bag sucked.
Don't even think about lying something down on the track around racing cars.
Or in the pitlane
We are very fortunate right now to be living in a time where we can get incredibly good image quality out of very small cameras, like the micro four thirds and Fujifilm mirrorless systems. It is difficult for the die hard DSLR user to wrap their heads around just how good this image quality is. Sometimes all it takes is a little demo, maybe an hour or two for them to realise that these new cameras aren’t the same as the junky bridge cameras they’ve often been likened to and then their prejudice abates. I see this revelation happening regularly all over the place as photographers come to realise that they aren’t giving up much at all image quality wise when they use this kind camera. Maybe a stop or two at high ISO (depending on the camera), or maybe if you run a loupe over an image at 100% you might find something where you say “Ah, but look, the bokeh isn’t the same and there's less detail in the shadows!”. So what? Is your photography so important that to sacrifice some barely evident image quality justifies carrying around all that extra weight? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. I know that for some people the pleasure of photography is in the small detail, but for me the pleasure is in the final image viewed as a whole, not under a loupe. I don't miss a thing about those FX sized DSLR's I used to own. Not a thing.
Having a smaller kit, like the top end mirrorless stuff out now, means that you can actually take a lot of gear with you and not kill yourself doing it. Micro four thirds gear is tiny in comparison to DSLR lenses and unless you’re that pedantic pixel inspector I mentioned earlier there is no discernible loss of quality to be concerned about. The images I see my contemporaries producing with Fujifilm cameras are also eye-popping. I have seen some incredible images made in all areas of photography with small sensor cameras. Nobody will ever be able to convince me that I need a medium format camera or a DSLR with 100 billion pixels to take a decent photograph ever again. I’m as free from that BS as my muscles are free from the years of abuse I subjected them to. And you know what? I’m more prepared now for that once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity than I ever was before because I can take more stuff with me without over-taxing my body. That advantage by far outweighs whatever the DSLR advantages are.
When you’re working photographically in confined spaces, like theatres or in shooting pits at sports events, having personal space to lay down a backpack to change lenses or simply free yourself of the burden is quite important. As I mentioned in the previous point, when I was shooting the A1GP I often found myself in places where I couldn’t just lay down my bag and whip out a specialist lens. Put something on the ground in the pitlane or on the grid of a racetrack and you’re likely to get ejected from the track faster than you can say “I was just looking for my fisheye lens”. Those track marshals were born without the humour gene, trust me on this one.
But it’s not just motor sport events where keeping things on your person is important. I present photo safaris here in Africa and over the years I have found myself in very cramped quarters on game drives, both as a passenger and as a driver. On our Ultimate Big 5 Safari I usually sit in the passenger seat next to the ranger driving the Land Rover and that’s a pretty cramped location! When I was shooting DSLR’s on those trips I had room for my main camera and lens and maybe one other thing. Putting my big 20L backpack in the footwell was simply not possible, so every game drive meant I had to rationalise what I was taking with me, especially if I didn’t want to wear a photographer’s vest (which I hate, incidentally). For our guests it isn’t so much of an issue, especially if they are alone in the suite as that gives them a full row of 3 seats in the Land Rover. However, it’s still less than ideal to be having a big camera bag with you because the bag still has to go somewhere and you still have to hold onto it when we’re going off-road, which can get a tad bumpy. The less you have to hold onto during game drives the easier your life on safari becomes.
Having smaller gear in smaller spaces just makes a lot of sense.
Have you ever been out in public with a DSLR and perhaps a large pro lens? Notice how people notice you immediately as soon as you bring your camera out of the bag? What’s he shooting? What’s going on? Am I missing something? Am I going to be on TV? A big pro cam/lens is an instant mood changer for people in public spaces. Most people don't bat an eyelid when you point a mirrorless camera at them. As photographers we don’t often realise just how ignorant the general public is when it comes to camera equipment. The badges, lenses and form factor of a camera don’t mean anything to them. Most people don’t even know the difference between a TV camera and a DSLR. I can’t recall how often I was asked by kids (and adults) when I was photographing Super 14 rugby matches if I could put them on the big screen. There was always this quizzical look on their faces when I told them I was only shooting stills. They were like, “Why are you carrying all that stuff only to make still photos?” They just see a big camera and immediately think that there is something important going on that they may or may not need to be a part of.
I’m a very self-conscious person. I hate being the centre of attention and carrying around a DSLR always made me feel like there were eyes on me. When I have had to do photographic coverage of events where I am asked to take candid photos of people doing stuff, as soon as I raised my eye to the DSLR viewfinder they noticed me (if they didn’t already see me coming first). Body language changed perceptibly and I had to deal with somebody who either didn’t want their photo taken or hadn’t quite registered what I was up to yet and therefore had this “deer in the headlights” look in their faces. The resulting images were almost always far from ideal. With the smaller cameras I am using now this issue has been pretty much negated.
Something else that used to happen a lot but happens less often now is that I don’t get the enthusiastic wannabe pro photographers coming up to me during an event and bending my ear about what lens I’m using or giving me advice on how to set up my camera. Yeah, that always happens at events. There’s always a guy…
Real Image Quality vs Pixel Quality
We can post 100% crops all day and all night to prove a point about science or whatever, but at the end of the day I don’t know of any non-photographers who look at photos with loupes. They absorb them in their totality and whatever they see will hopefully elicit a reaction in them, maybe to buy a product, or smile at a newborn grandchild, or perhaps recall the day they were married. Those are the people I make photographs for. They either like the image or they don't. Not one client has ever turned around and said to me that my images are too noisy or they haven't got enough tonality or dynamic range. Not one. Granted, I'm not a commercial photographer shooting ad campaigns, but then I'm willing to bet my offspring that neither are 99% of the people who are making a federal case about sensor size being the holy grail of photography.
Whatever the reason for taking the photo is in the first place, as a photographer you need to think less about the pixels and more about the picture. Why make it harder than it already is by over-burdening yourself with equipment that doesn’t really make that much of a difference to the reaction you’re looking to get in the first place?
The advances that have been made in mirrorless IQ in the past two years alone, coupled with the growing voices in the greater blogosphere about these advances (the likes of Zack Arias, Steve Huff and David duChemin spring to mind) should be sending giant shockwaves through the boardrooms of all the major camera companies of the world. Yet they continue to pump out DSLR after DSLR with more and more pixels onboard and hardly anything different from the model that preceded it. I honestly don’t know who’s buying them all. I’m not suggesting with this article that DSLR’s are not good photographic tools or that it’s foolish to use them. What I’m suggesting is that the advantages in image quality a DSLR may once have given us have been erased by the convenience of much smaller equipment that bites hard on the heels of that DSLR’s one-time advantage. I mean really hard. Enough to fell a runner kind of hard.
I will never be a DSLR customer again. I’ve not only seen the light, I’ve felt it and it’s that lightness that has cemented my future in the mirrorless world. It's this philosophy that is driving me to develop this website into the best place for those interested to know more about these new cameras and how they can be used in all aspects of photography. I'm quite proud of the fact that over the past three safaris I have hosted, three of my guests have added Olympus OM-D cameras to their system, or replaced their DSLR's entirely, not through any urging on my part, but simply because they got hands on with my E-M5 and could see how it works. If anybody here is joining (or wants to join) our two adventures this year I will be only too happy to get you hands on with both my OM-D cameras and the lenses I have.
Join Our Forum
If you have a story to tell about how you've added or converted to mirrorless, please post about in on our forum. As you've no doubt gathered by now I'm an Olympus m43 user and am happy to answer any question you might have about the system if you're thinking about getting into it. There are many Fuji X-trans users present here also who are happy to impart their knowledge of that system. And as we grow I am sure other mirrorless systems will take off and their users will help the movement grow. It's an exciting time to be a photographer.