The photography world is in a bit of a whirl following the much anticipated announcement of Nikon’s first full-frame mirrorless cameras, their first serious step into this area of the market. If the rumours are true, Canon isn’t far behind. The entrance of the camera heavyweights into this space adds a new level of credibility to mirrorless, and adds a new dimension to the DSLRs vs mirrorless debate. But, leaving brand loyalty and specification lists aside, what actual difference does it make to the making of photographs? What effect does going mirrorless have on the art of photography?
Not up to the job?
You could argue that mirrorless cameras are not up to the job in the way that DSLRs are. You could argue that the autofocus systems are slower and less reliable, particularly if you want to shoot fast-moving subjects or in low light, thereby restricting your choice of subject. You could argue that the electronic viewfinders are not as clear and bright as optical ones and that they have a lag, so that they hinder your ability to compose and time the shutter release. And you could argue that the range of native lenses for mirrorless cameras is generally limited, so that your creative choices of focal length and aperture are restricted.
But you’d largely be relying on arguments that have been around since mirrorless cameras first appeared, when these differences were large and genuinely limiting. The way technology has moved on in the past three or four years, though, means these limitations – if they exist at all – are so slight as to be negligible.
In fact, mirrorless cameras can now pretty much match most DSLRs, and they actually have several benefits when it comes to the art of photography.
Cameras with benefits?
Going back to those electronic viewfinders, the experience of using the latest ones is almost indistinguishable from using an optical one, except they’re better. No, you’re not looking through the lens, but (unless you’re using a slow shutter speed to capture movement) you are looking at exactly what the sensor will record. An actual preview of the final image. So you can be sure of your exposure and your depth of field. You can see the histogram if you like, and check for blown highlights and clipped shadows. You can adjust the white balance and add processing effects, all before you’ve even taken a photograph.
What’s more, the electronic viewfinder allows you to use focus peaking when manually focusing – sharp edges are highlighted, so you can see what is sharp and what isn’t. This allows you to make sure the focus is at the correct spot and to adjust the depth of field so that everything you want in focus is in focus, and everything you don’t want in focus isn’t. Yes, DSLRs have the depth-of-field preview button for this, but this manually closes the aperture to the selected diameter, shutting out the light and making it difficult to see anything at all – there’s no such problem with the electronic viewfinder.
These viewfinder advantages avoid the need for taking test shots and then squinting at the back of the camera to determine whether you’ve got the focus and depth of field right, and the need to scroll through options in playback mode so you can check the histogram. None of this ultimately changes the final image, but it does increase the chances you’ll get it right in less time and that you can use the JPEG straight out of the camera rather than having to fix things in the Raw file.
Let’s also go back to those slow, laggy focusing systems. Because these days, they’re not slow and not laggy. Most, if not all, mirrorless cameras now use on-sensor phase detection autofocus, an evolution of DSLR focusing technology, and allow for focusing that is at least as fast as in DSLRs. What’s more, because the points are on the sensor, they can be distributed across the entire frame. Rather than 60-odd AF points clustered towards the centre, you have several hundred AF points that spread almost to the edges. This makes it easier to focus off centre and compose your shot precisely before focusing rather than focusing and then hurriedly recomposing.
And if shooting speed is important, then mirrorless definitely has the edge. The lack of mirror and the option of an electronic shutter means that frame rates can be very high. Currently, the leader in this respect is the Sony A9, which can shoot a massive 20 frames per second. That beats the fastest DSLR – the Canon EOS 1Dx Mark II – which can manage 14 per second. The kind of speeds that mirrorless cameras can reach mean that if you use burst shooting to photograph moving subjects, you’re even more likely to capture the perfect moment. Since photography is supposedly all about “the decisive moment”, this could be important.
The electronic shutter also means mirrorless cameras can shoot completely silently, which is great if you need to be discreet – I’m thinking wildlife or street photography, for example. Similarly, the smaller bodies of mirrorless cameras means you’re less likely to be noticed, which might increase your chances of capturing that moment before your subject runs off or you’re told to move on. That said, if you stick a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens on the front of it, the size of the body makes little difference.
Does it matter?
So now that mirrorless cameras deliver what they have always promised, the argument that they can benefit the photographer as an artist is pretty strong – at least on paper. In reality, the benefits mentioned are relatively small. Depending on what you photograph, they might not really be advantages at all. And, let’s face it, the real point is that it’s not the camera that’s most important in the art of photography.
The ‘old masters’ of photography – Robert Doisneau, William Klein, Ansel Adams, Henri-Cartier-Bresson and the like – were all using 35mm film in SLRs with no autofocus, no burst shooting, no bells or whistles at all. Yet their photographs are still admired and studied endlessly, held as examples of the standards to strive for. Why? Definitely not because of their choice of camera. Because of their choices of subjects, their compositions, the light, the moments they capture. It’s all to do with the photographer.
By all means, go mirrorless if you want to. Or continue to use your DSLR for decades to come. The differences really don’t matter that much. They’ve all got the same basic creative options – lens, aperture, shutter speed, ISO sensitivity – and what counts most is which of those options you choose, what you point the camera at and how exactly you point it at it. If you get those things right, then when you press the shutter release – whatever camera that may be on – then you have made art.