Moving from Mirrorless (or: why I'm going against the tide)

April 22, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

In the last few years camera technology has undergone a significant period of development. For a long time digital SLR cameras were exactly that; essentially the same construction as film SLRs but with a digital sensor in place of the film carrier.

Olympus, Panasonic, Fuji and more recently Sony have challenged the core design, doing away with the flappy mirror at the heart of the camera and replacing the optical viewfinder with a full time live view screen. Coupled with improvements in sensor technology it has allowed for much smaller and lighter systems which are still capable of producing high quality results. Consequently many serious photographers are ditching their SLR setups in favour of these new mirrorless systems.

I’m going the other way. I’ve used a mirrorless Olympus OM-D E-M5 for the last couple of years but I’ve recently swapped to a Nikon D750. I love my Olympus but I needed to scratch that full frame itch.

Handstand counterbalanceHandstand counterbalance

There were a number of reasons for thinking a change of system would be a good idea:

  • The small sensor in the Olympus means softening due to diffraction is highly noticeable at relatively wide apertures. Combined with a base ISO of 200 it’s a particular irritation in the studio. Studio lights don’t always go that dim and increasing the shutter speed makes no difference with flash. Consequently I’m often pfaffing around with neutral density filters.
  • The E-M5 doesn’t shoot tethered (i.e. directly to a laptop). EyeFi cards would appear to offer a workaround but my experience of them has been poor.
  • Hugely greater dynamic range and bit depth should mean more room to manipulate images before degradation sets in.
  • More pixels offer greater cropping options or the ability to print larger sizes.
  • Regardless of the number of pixels, images from a full frame sensor will be sharper - all other things being equal.
  • An autofocus system which can actually track moving subjects would be very welcome.
  • The minimum depth of field on a small sensor camera will always be limited. To get truly blurry backgrounds you need a bigger sensor or some rather exotic lenses.
  • Dual memory card slots – for instant backup – would be a bonus.
  • Better support for 3rd party lighting accessories would be very welcome. For instance, there are no good wireless HSS or TTL triggers for the Olympus & Panasonic micro 4/3 system.
  • More buttons on the body so it takes fewer presses to change settings, e.g. focus point or ISO.

There are a few features of mirrorless cameras I really like:

  • I’m a big fan of electronic viewfinders. They’re not to everyone’s taste but I like the instant live view & histogram.
  • The in-body image stabilisation is amazing, allowing me to handhold ridiculously low shutter speeds.
  • The bulb mode which updates as long exposure images are captured is a really neat trick.
  • High grade lenses tend to be cheaper than their DSLR equivalents. Still expensive but not quite so ridiculous.
  • Focus peaking – though not available on the EM-5 – which shows exactly which areas of an image are in focus in the viewfinder has the potential to be very useful, especially with manual focus lenses or when using the ‘focus & recompose’ technique.

There were a few other items on the wish list for a new camera:

  • Base ISO of 100 or better
  • Max shutter speed of 1/8000 or better
  • Choice of 1st or 2nd curtain sync flash
  • Back button focusing
  • The ability to shoot at 5 frames per second or better

Having decided to change system the next question was whether to go for a APS-C (crop) sensor or a full-frame (35mm) equivalent. This was a no brainer – if I was going to change I didn’t want to find myself wanting to do it all again in a year or so. Full frame it was.

At first sight it appeared that the Sony A7 series would fit the bill nicely. In case you’re not familiar, they’re mirrorless full frame cameras.  Not the A7RII – I have no need for 42 mega pixel images nor the desire to store them or upgrade my computer so I can process them. The A7II looked to be an ideal candidate, though, with all the features I liked about my Olympus and all the benefits of a professional full frame system.

I didn’t give Canon much thought – they haven’t updated the 5D MkIII in ages and their other recent cameras have been low light or high pixel count specialist jobs.

The only other serious candidate was the Nikon D750.

I really wanted to love the Sony A7II but I just couldn’t. It had too many problems:

  • It’s deeply uncomfortable to hold, especially in one hand, without an expensive grip. I spend a lot of time clutching a camera in one hand while chatting to my subjects in the studio.
  • Tethering seems a bit half baked & unreliable, especially wirelessly – though there are people who make it work.
  • The range of lenses is limited – though getting better. Good lenses are very expensive and there are few of the high quality bargains which have evolved for the older systems. 
  • It took too many button presses to change focus points or ISO. This isn’t so much a consequence of being smaller and having fewer buttons as the fact that the UI is slightly odd.
  • The A7II is  sluggish. It’s slow to start and the EVF goes black for an awfully long time between shots.
  • I didn’t like the EVF all that much; it seemed very flickery compared to the Olympus models.
  • Battery life is woeful.
  • Support for exotic flash setups is better than Oly but still limited.
  • A curious hotshoe design seems to cause reliability problems for a good number of people.
  • Focus tracking is still way behind what the Nikon can do.
  • The automatic sensor cleaning system doesn’t work as well as Olympus’s and the mirrorless design makes it more of an issue.
  • The body may be small but lenses aren’t really any smaller than Nikon FF jobbies.
  • Sony’s history makes me nervous that they’ll do something completely different again in the future. Is this format a long term one?
  • Sony’s customer service reputation is terrible.

If I really wanted the amazing sensor from the A7RII then I could probably live with all of these issues but I just don’t need that many megapixels.

After using the D750 for a few weeks I’m getting on well with it. 

  • I still miss the EVF and stabilisation – though some lenses have their own vibration reduction features.
  • I’ve had a few issues with my old flash triggers not working reliably but upgrading those seems to have solved my problems. 
  • I’m not yet totally familiar with the user interface and I’m not yet getting the best out of the focusing system. 
  • It’s also taking me a while to get used to the super-shallow depth of field and learn not to abuse it.
  • It took me a while to get tethering working reliably – Nikon’s own software is very expensive. I highly recommend SmartShooter.
  • The maximum shutter speed is 1/4000, not 1/8000.
  • I usually prefer the 4:3 aspect ratio of the Olympus to the 3:2 of the Nikon

Otherwise there’s no looking back. I don’t even notice the increased size or weight. I’ll hang on to the Olympus for everyday out-and-about photography but for everything else the Nikon fits the bill nicely.

 


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