Going Mirrorless

As a photographer I’ve been shooting for decades now and  I’ve used all sorts of equipment over the years to capture images. For the past ten years or so that’s involved digital cameras that can sometimes be pretty big and heavy.

As I’ve been getting older I’ve been thinking a lot about lightening my load and being less obvious (nothing screams “photographer” like a gigantic DSLR with a f2.8 zoom lens attached). As long as I’m not giving up much performance I’m perfectly willing to forego my gigantic rig in favor of something much easier on my shoulder – whenever I’m not on an assignment, that is. I’m still going to have my big gear for the important stuff but this article will talk a bit about my adventures with Mirrorless Cameras.

My Reason for Trying Mirrorless Cameras

This is my main camera. It’s a Sony A900 with a battery grip and a 28mm f2.8 lens attached. For more than half a decade it’s been my workhorse camera and it’s captured tens of thousands of images. As much as I’ve always loved this guy it isn’t really ideal for travel, photowalks, and any time I have a multi-mile hike to get to a scenic landscape. It’s just too darn big and heavy. So recently I’ve been looking in to new ways to capture images without all the size and weight.

I’ve tried lots of point and shoot cameras and clip on lens adaptors for my phone (I love my Ollo Clip) but those options have usually left me wanting more control (or didn’t produce the results I was hoping for). Don’t get me wrong – todays point and shoot cameras create some pretty amazing images from impossibly small packages (and offer features I don’t have in most of my big DSLR’s).

Not one to give up completely on point and shoot cameras I picked up a small one to see if I liked todays cameras better than point and shoot cameras I’ve owned in the past. My newest point and shoot camera, a Sony DSC-W350, is actually a really great camera.

Some of the headline features include:

18.2 megapixel images

20x Optical zoom lens with optical stabilization

10 frame-per-second bursts

HD movie recording

built in Wifi

With this incredibly small camera and I was able to create images like this on my last vacation:

And here’s a shot of an Andean Bear cub I took at the National Zoo using the little Sony point and shoot:

For landscape and travel photography this camera rocks (especially when placed on a tripod). With 20x zoom it might seem like a good camera for wildlife shooting but the way you use a camera like this (holding the camera out in front of you instead of pressed against your eye) means it’s difficult to keep the camera steady. When zoomed all the way out to 20x a little shake can become a blurry picture no matter how good your in-camera stabilization is.

While the images may not compare to what I’m used to getting out of my big DSLR they are really much better than I expected from such a small camera. I also discovered a lot about how I shoot when I’m using a small camera.

While I love the familiarity of looking through an optical viewfinder I’m always aware of the weight of the system and how much space it can take up. A point and shoot camera, on the other hand, encourages a completely different style of shooting that is more about fun than work. And the small size of a point and shoot camera means it’s always handy. This little camera is smaller than my wallet!

Unfortunately a point and shoot camera does have it’s limitations. Unless you’re spending DSLR money on your point and shoot camera (a Sony DSC-RX100III can set you back $800.00) you’re going to be giving up some killer features. On my DCS-W350 camera I missed having PASM capabilities and I also missed being able to capture files in a RAW format. More than once I found myself really wanting to take control of the aperture.

The good news is that the “intelligent” auto modes of the camera are really pretty good. The more I got used to what it was doing the better my pictures started looking. As much fun as it was to shoot with the small W350 I knew it was only a first step in my transition away from the big bulky cameras I’ve been using for decades.

Going Mirrorless

As I looked for a new solution to getting great pictures without the size or weight of my DSLR I decided to look into some of the mirrorless interchangeable lens systems that have become so popular.

A few really good friends of mine have been shooting the new Fuji XT-1 and they’ve reported back some extremely positive results. On a recent trip to Disney World a close friend of mine gave me his XT-1 to use for a few days and I absolutely loved everything about it.

The controls are intuitive and the quality of the 16MP pictures it captures were absolutely stellar. About the only gripes I had were the number of shots I could get out of a single battery and the pitiful bracketing options. Other than those two items the Fuji was an impressive camera that had me capturing great images in no time at all.

Overall I really liked shooting the Fuji XT-1. I love the quality of the images and the resolution lets you fit a ton of shots on a SD memory card. The number of dials and buttons was plentiful so making a quick change is easy to accomplish.

I also love the flip out LCD display (something my big DSLR’s haven’t had) which, when in live view mode, lets me frame shots on a low tripod or up overhead easily. As someone that never used live view (except when I used a point and shoot or smart phone) I instantly saw the potential for getting better landscape shots.

One more thing I really love is the Fuji’s ability to wirelessly transfer images directly from the camera to a phone for quickly editing and sharing shots. What a great feature! Here’s a quick shot from the vacation when my good buddy, Jay, let me use his Fuji XT-1 for a few days:

The picture quality of the Fuji is second to none! It has amazing detail, complete lack of noise and deep colors – out of the camera – that I’m just not used to seeing from my Sony gear. The XT-1 captures absolutely amazing images!

There is no doubt in my mind that the Fuji is a camera made for photographers. The build quality is superb with a very solid feel. While good build quality is important the downside is that the camera was a bit heavier than I expected it to be (but still far lighter than a DSLR).

For around $1,700.00 you can get a Fuji XT-1 with a surprisingly good 18-55mm kit lens. There’s a nice selection of top quality lenses and accessories available so it’s one heck of a nice system that I can’t recommend enough. That may sound like a lot of money but you definitely get what you pay for with this system. For the solid build quality, excellent lenses, superb ergonomics and top notch picture quality it could be argued that it’s a bargain at the price.

the Sony ILC system

As much as I loved the Fuji I decided I’d see what Sony had to offer in a mirrorless system. Since I’ve been shooting Sony Cameras for a long time I thought they deserved a look. I liked the idea of having my existing lenses work with an adaptor and we’re now many generations in to their system. What used to called “NEX cameras” is now part of the Sony “Alpha” line. Something as minor as a name change announced to the world that these small cameras are to be taken seriously. The sensors are super high resolution and the features are second to none. And the prices are surprisingly low!

The newest addition to my camera collection is the entry level Sony mirrorless camera: the Sony a5000.

There are two cameras above this one (at the time I bought my a5000) that have higher resolution – along with some serious steps up in features – but one look at the specifications of this camera and you could easily see why I chose to start with this model. Here’s a quick look at the headline features:

20.1MP sensor (for an image resolution of 5,456 pixels by 3,632 pixels

14 bit RAW capture

up to 3.5 frames per second shooting

ISO sensitivity up to 16,000

25 focus points (contrast detection)

HD video recording with AVCHD recording (up to 1920×1080 60fps at 2Mbps)

a tilting 3” TFT LCD with 460,800 dots

Built in Wifi and NFC

a kit lens (with power zoom) that covers 16mm to 50mm

And best of all the camera with kit lens weighs in at well under a pound!

So far there isn’t a great selection of lenses for the system but they do have the basics covered with some good wide angle choices available down to 10mm.

My reasons for getting into a smaller camera system are many but I was mainly looking for a camera that could give me good landscape images and be a new traveling companion. Secondary uses for me would be product shooting and video production. So far my experience with the a5000 has been beyond my expectations delivering great images without being a burden to my back.

For my landscape shooting the a5000 is a decent performer with plenty of resolution. At the 16mm end of the kit lens there’s plenty of coverage but, with the APS-C sensor, I often find myself wanting more. There’s no doubt I’ll be adding a wider angle lens to my bag soon…

For photo walks the small a5000 doesn’t attract the kind of attention a full sized DSLR does. I still find myself being asked to take pictures for tourists around DC but that’s more likely because I use a tripod than because my camera is so impressive.

Manual focus assist options are a very welcome addition. Getting exactly what you want in focus is quick and easy with these cameras and it’s great for landscape shooting. I’ve been using a 50mm f1.8 lens for my product work and the focus assist has given me some seriously great results. Here’s a recent shot captured with my a5000 at the National Arboretum:

Is this the perfect camera? Unfortunately it’s anything but perfect. While I love a lot about the camera (especially the small size and light weight) the image quality is not as good as I hoped. My disappointment probably comes from the less than stellar lenses and the impossibly small distance from the lens to the sensor (which causes all kinds of lens distortion). It’s cool to capture 14 bit RAW images but every shot I take needs lens correction right off the bat (and this can often rob a shot of detail and sharpness). The bottom line – either I’m shooting jpeg images, with lens correction done by the camera, or I  can expect every shot to require post-processing. As someone that enjoys working in Lightroom and Photoshop it’s not a big deal to me – but I can see it being a show stopper for most of the camera’s target buyers.

Keep an eye out for a full review of both my Sony DSC-W350 (point and shoot) and my a5000 (mirrorless camera) along with some quick reviews of accessories I’ve added to my system.

If you’re interested in any of the cameras I’ve talked about in this article you can find them here:

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