Why I’m Going Mirrorless: Volume I

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Since Sony announced its full frame mirrorless cameras a couple of years ago, I’ve said I’d go mirrorless eventually. My timeline was “a couple of years” which I felt would be a sufficient amount of time for the lens lineup to be rounded out. Now, I’ve gone and done it. This is the first post on this blog containing only photos taken with my new Sony a7R II.

I’ve been shooting with the a7R II for a few weeks now, and have been documenting my thoughts, stream-of-consciousness style (so if this post has a disjointed, Catcher in the Rye vibe, sorry) in a draft blog post for that time. I figured it was time to finally edit some of my ramblings down to something suitable for public consumption, and this is the result. It’s “Volume I” because my thoughts are still a bit fluid as I grow into the camera, and I plan on doing a few posts about my foray in mirrorless.

Also, I didn’t want to spend 6 weeks writing some 20,000 word treatise only to realize this isn’t exactly the audience that cares about full frame DSLRs v. full frame mirrorless. (By the way, if you’re not a regular reader, here’s why there is an in-depth photography post on a Disney blog.) If there’s not interest in this topic here, I might move future installments over to TravelCaffeine.com.

You might be wondering what my motivating factors for going mirrorless. It’s a confluence of factors. The tipping point and major impetus occurred as I hobbled around Walt Disney World a few weeks ago after the Marathon carrying 26 pounds (yes) of camera gear. I thought, “there has to be a better way!” It didn’t help that I watched my friend Cody skip around with his lightweight bag of Sony gear as the image quality of his photos matched or exceeded mine.

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Before that a lot of my excitement was predicated upon hype. I have seen the a7 series win “camera of the year” award after award, and countless working pros and bloggers have dubbed this line of Sony cameras “DSLR killers.” I remember the waves Trey Ratcliff made a couple of years ago when he announced that he was ditching Nikon for Sony. Now, it’s not viewed as nearly (or at all) as big of a deal because that type of sentiment has become more prevalent.

With that said, I still think it’s a pretty bold move, albeit one that requires serious contemplation. This will probably be the most boring “going mirrorless” blog post ever, because I’m not going to speak in superlatives, crown the Sony a7R II the Sultan of Agrabah, or treat it as if it’s a camera above reproach. Through these posts, I want to present some caveats and a more naunced take that presents some of the pros and cons of mirrorless, at least from my perspective.

For starters, mirrorless is not for everyone. Personal preference is a huge part of this equation, and there are various, totally valid reasons that mirrorless won’t be a good fit for some people.

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However, after doing more research into the Sony a7R II, I decided it was time for me. Depending upon your perspective, I’m either decisive or impulsive, so rather than renting the body for a couple of weeks and seeing if it felt like a good fit, I ordered it and started selling off my Nikon gear on our forums and Craigslist.

Once I sold off enough gear to cover the cost of the Sony a7R II, Sony 24-240mm, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, and Opteka 6.5mm Fisheye, I stopped. I think the folks at my nearby Starbucks are relieved of that, because I had commandeered their seating area as “Tom’s Electronics Showroom” on almost a daily basis for a while. Notwithstanding the mirrorless decision, this gear sale was a good thing, as I was probably one more lens away from being featured on “Hoarders: Buried Alive by Cameras.”

I was able to keep enough of my Nikon gear to have an (almost) complete DSLR bag, and also purchase the makings of my initial mirrorless camera bag. I didn’t purchase more lenses for a couple of reasons: 1) I didn’t want to dump even more money into the system until I was sure about it, and; 2) not all of the lenses I want are available yet.

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This brings me to my first and biggest criticism. My constant refrain for the last couple of years before buying in was that I’d do it once the lens lineup matured. Despite all of the accolades, Sony has been glacial when it comes to releasing new lenses, and third party support for its full frame cameras from Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, etc., is non-existent.

I knew this before buying, and while the limited lens lineup is troubling, there are two pieces of gear coming out very soon that made me believe “now is the time” for me to go mirrorless. The first is the Commlite Nikon to Sony adapter. For the first time, Nikon lenses will autofocus, and that’s huge for me on the Sony a7R II. This is why I kept several of my Nikon lenses and am comfortable using both systems (if it comes to that).

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The second piece of gear is from the newest line of ultra wide angle lenses from Voigtländer. I’m a wide angle fiend, and the prospect of a 10mm lens on full frame has me salivating. That lens being manual focus doesn’t bother me in the least, because at a focal length of 10mm, its going to be a “set it and forget it” type of lens that’s always in focus at f/8. I bought the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 as a stop-gap in the interim (and have been blown away by its performance–more on this in a full review later).

The second big reason why I felt like now is the time is upcoming traveling. When going to National Parks, a huge camera bag is no big deal. Navigating through cities in Europe and Asia is a totally different story. I swear that every restaurant in Europe was built in 1746 when people were approximately 67% smaller than they are today. Likewise, Asian cities are built for agile ninja-like navigation.

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With my huge camera bag protruding from my back, I’m more like a clumsy Ninja Turtle than I am actual ninja. Every time I turn on a crowded train, I hit someone with my bag. Every time I try to navigate through a crowded restaurant, I have to carry my camera bag high in the air to avoid knocking into stuff. These are just a couple of examples of seemingly endless inconveniences of urban travel with a bulky camera bag. It is a pain, embarrassing, and a needless hassle.

With trips to France, Japan, China, and elsewhere all planned for 2016, I felt I needed to go mirrorless this year. I don’t want to be the proverbial bull in the china shop wherever I go. Consequently, a smaller more urban-friendly camera bag to go with my new set-up was a must, and I asked for feedback via Twitter on which bag to get. There were a lot of responses and I was debating between a few models, but the folks at Peak Design offered to send me their Everyday Messenger Bag to test out, so that made that decision easier.

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To my surprise, after using the Sony a7R II for a few weeks and seeing more lenses in person, I’m doubtful that a significantly smaller camera bag is an inherent gain in going mirrorless. My camera bag will be smaller, but that’s because of specific lens choices I’m making with the system to ensure that my mirrorless set-up is smaller.

It’s not true that mirrorless is inherently smaller when making direct comparisons between lenses. Such comparisons couldn’t really be done in the past because most Sony full frame mirrorless zoom lenses were f/4 rather than f/2.8. When Sony announced its new f/2.8 zoom lenses, it became clear these would be as large or larger than their Nikon and Canon counterparts. Since most people tend to own more lenses than camera bodies, it stands to reason that the gains in camera body size will be eclipsed by the increases in lens size.

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This ultimately doesn’t present a huge issue for me because I’m able to assemble a camera bag of smaller lenses, but it is an issue overall. One of the main selling points of mirrorless is smaller size, but when it comes to the a7 series, that is illusory. You could assemble a smaller camera bag with a Nikon DSLR if you chose smaller lenses, too.

Another selling point that has started to emerge is that the Sony a7 line brings full frame photography to the masses with cheaper prices. This is absolutely true when considering only the entry level bodies. The Sony a7 can be purchased for $1,000 (far less for a used or refurbished model), making it the cheapest full frame camera on the market.

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This, again, is illusory because you can’t build a system without lenses. Unless you are sticking with the kit lens (in which case, why go full frame?), lens costs quickly escalate and exceed Nikon and Canon DSLRs. Sure, Zeiss glass is without equal and the Sony 24-240mm is the nicest super-zoom I’ve ever used, but the point stands that it’s misleading to talk about price when only the camera body is that cheap. Of course, you can use adapters and older manual focus lenses, but that’s hardly a 1:1 comparison.

All things considered, I would say the Sony a7 series is significantly more expensive than traditional full frame DSLRs. Again, not a huge deal to me. I wasn’t looking for a budget camera. I bought the Sony a7R II as a (hopeful) replacement for my Nikon D810, so I knew I’d be replacing expensive with more expensive.

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Then there’s the electronic viewfinder (EVF). Since I last spent a month with the Olympus mirrorless system a couple of years ago, great strides have been made in EVF technology. There are even some situations where the EVF is even better than an optical viewfinder, but in most scenarios, seeing the actual scene is preferable, for me at least.

I think this comes down largely to personal preference, though. The argument could be made that the EVF is better because you see what the sensor will “see” so your viewfinder image more closely aligns with what you’ll get. Okay, but my problem with this is that I post-process photos to combat this very problem.

The human eye has greater dynamic range than even the best camera sensor, which is why most landscape photographers edit their images. If you’re never going to post process your photos, I might see some merit to the argument that the EVF approach is better, but for everyone else (so, 95% of photographers?) the higher dynamic range to the optical viewfinder is better and makes things easier.

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On a personal level, this is actually the single biggest hurdle with the Sony a7R II. I’ve made tweaks to the EVF settings to get results with which I’m more pleased, but the limited dynamic range (especially when shooting into the sun) and motion blur when I move the camera around are still challenges.

Over the course of the last 3 weeks, I’ve found myself getting used to this, and I’ve come around so significantly in this realm that you shouldn’t be surprised if this is inexplicably a “pro” of the camera in future mirrorless installments. I’ve already re-written this section on the EVF 3 times as my take on the EVF has changed. There’s definitely a question of whether it’s the EVF that’s the issue, or my years of familiarity with the optical viewfinder of my Nikon DSLRs.

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Thats’s a good segue into other criticisms I have with the Sony a7R II, which might more accurately be labeled as quibbles. With all of these, I am having a tough time telling whether it’s just a matter of personal familiarity, or if they are true shortcomings.

Battery life falls under “true shortcoming” as it’s definitely worse. I see this cited as a big issue, and honestly, I just don’t see that. The camera comes with two batteries, and more importantly, can be charged via its USB port. This means I can charge it with my KMASHI External Battery Charger that I carry anyway for our phones.

USB charging is a big pro from my perspective, as my external charger is the equivalent of 10+ camera batteries, all for $20 instead of $50/battery. (In other words, don’t buy spare batteries.) So in reality, this is a “secret pro,” like when you go into a job interview and answer “I work too hard” when asked your biggest weakness.

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Since the camera is smaller, all of its control buttons are placed on the right side of the camera. This has made changing settings quickly without looking tough, because it can be challenging to distinguish one button from another without looking. Hopefully, over time my muscle memory will become more fine-tuned and I won’t fumble for the wrong settings.

Other little things feel like they are missing, such as a “lock” button (which I use to mark photos while reviewing them in-camera), customizable buttons that allow any setting to be added to them, a custom menu, and a few other little things that probably only matter to me. As I get more comfortable shooting with it, I’m finding fewer and fewer cons in terms of design.

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A lot of photographers advise newbies to go to a store and see which camera “feels” right in their hands. It’s not necessarily bad advice, but it presupposes that whatever “instincts” we possess for the feel of a camera are right and can’t evolve or change for the better over time. How on earth can someone wholly inexperienced with a type of product be the best judge of how that product should feel?

Hence the above being personal quibbles with the Sony a7R II, and not necessarily indicative of actual shortcomings. Sure, I might be fumbling and stumbling to find my way like an infant learning to walk, but in essence, that’s what I am. As a result, I have a tough time lobbing much serious criticism in these regards, just as an infant’s parents shouldn’t make an irate call to the CEO of Keds if their kid falls down.

That’s about it in terms of what I view as the downsides of going mirrorless. Now for some of the upsides.

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First and foremost, the Sony a7R II demonstrates that mirrorless is in no way inferior to traditional DSLRs from an image quality perspective. The sensor here is every bit as good as that in my Nikon D810 in terms of dynamic range, color depth, and in every other regard that matters.

My goal is to pull as much data out of a single compressed raw file as possible, and I was able to go to +100 on both the shadows and blacks in the above image while also applying sharpening and zero noise reduction, without seeing any noticeable issues.

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When it comes to low light, it trumps the D810, delivering clean images at higher ISOs akin to the D750. Since I don’t have a fast prime yet, I’ve been mostly using the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 on dark rides, pushing it above 12,800 in many cases.

In terms of handling low light, the Sony a7R II’s performance has been far superior to the D810 and about equivalent to the D750. I’ve been surprised with what I’ve been able to capture at f/2.8 and f/3.5.

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I mentioned before that the Sony a7R II is my hopeful replacement for the Nikon D810. To that end, I was also very pleased that it implements features that are frustratingly absent from my Nikon D810. WiFi and tilting screen are chief among the bells and whistles (of which the Sony has many) that are the most welcome additions for me.

In all of these regards, the Sony a7R II basically is a “best of both worlds” camera with the strengths of both the D810 and D750. This alone makes it a serious winner for me, but then there are additional icing on the cake features…

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In-body stabilization is another *huge* thing for me, and the 5-axis stabilization that Sony offers meant I was able to shoot handheld down to 1/8 of a second. In some cases, I pushed it to a half-second (albeit with a much lower keeper rate). I shoot in a lot of situations where tripods are impractical or flat out not allowed, so being able to use a slower shutter speed is significant. Being able to shoot handheld at these speeds will be great for cathedral interiors and at Tokyo Disneyland.

In the past, autofocus was said to be a weak point of the Sony mirrorless cameras, but I have not noticed this in the least. In my uses thus far, autofocus has not been an issue, and the phase detection autofocus system has performed excellently. Again, without a fast prime, I haven’t been able to put the camera through its paces in challenging scenarios (like Paint the Night or Peter Pan’s Flight), but I don’t feel I’m going out on a limb saying it’s better than the D810’s autofocus. The real question will be whether it can rival the excellent autofocus of the D750.

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Focus peaking is another thing I’m really loving, especially when shooting low light landscapes. I could see this feature making manual focus lenses significantly easier to use, although my strong preference is still just for autofocus lenses. In the Disney photography realm, this could also be a game-changer for dark ride photography.

I’ve played with the 4K video a bit, and it’s definitely a notable feature if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m curious about video, but can’t say that has really pushed me one way or the other in terms of the camera.

Not exactly a thorough review, but this isn’t meant to be a review of the camera–it’s my observations thus far in my process of going mirrorless, and as this post creeps over 3,000 words, I think it’s time to wrap things up…

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So, that’s where I stand as of right now, with one foot in the world of Sony mirrorless, and one in that of Nikon DSLRs. That’s sort of an odd predicament, because The Ten Photography Commandments dictates, “Thou shalt be firmly entrenched on Team Mirrorless or Team DSLR and hate the other.” I think it’s fair to say that mirrorless is the most divisive change in photography since HDR exploded in popularity several years ago. If I’ve learned anything as a photographer, it’s that everything is supposed to be love-hate with absolutely no middle ground. Oops.

I just don’t see that here. I think mirrorless and DSLRs each have advantages, both deserving a seat at the photography “table.” With each day I’m becoming more fond of the mirrorless system, and less bothered by its perceived shortcomings. I have absolutely no regrets about buying the Sony a7R II, and am glad I rolled the dice on it.

For those of you considering your own switch to mirrorless, this article probably wasn’t incredibly persuasive one way or the other. Hopefully you can evaluate some of the pros and cons I’ve identified thus far and apply them to yourself to determine whether mirrorless might be suitable for you.

Those of you jumping into higher-end photography for the first time are probably the ones who this helps more, as you enter without bias and familiarity to a certain system. If I were getting started in photography right now, I would go totally mirrorless. It would be easier to get used to the system’s quirks, and I think there is a higher ceiling and more room for future growth and evolution in the mirrorless system. While I don’t think mirrorless will ever render traditional DSLRs obsolete, I do think mirrorless has the much more exciting future.

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Want to learn more about photography to take great photos in the Disney theme parks and beyond? The best place to start is Tom’s Ultimate Disney Parks Photography Guide, which covers a variety of topics from links to tutorials, tips, and tricks to recommendations for point & shoots, DSLRs, lenses, and more!

If you do want to purchase new photography equipment, we recommend the following trusted & authorized retailers. Buying from these retailers helps support this blog, and doesn’t cost you a thing:
Amazon
B&H Photo
Adorama

For other photography equipment recommendations or photography tips in general check out a few of my top photography blog posts:

Best Books for Improving Your Photography
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Choosing the Best Travel Tripod
Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel

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Your Thoughts

Have you used a mirrorless camera system? Considering going mirrorless? Thoughts on the pros and cons? Additional concerns or things you’d like to know about going mirrorless? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments!


46 Responses to “Why I’m Going Mirrorless: Volume I”
  1. D. Smith September 4, 2016
  2. Chris August 4, 2016
  3. Richard Krawec July 8, 2016
  4. Melissa June 9, 2016
  5. Chad Holland May 23, 2016
    • Tom Bricker May 23, 2016
  6. Lindsey March 4, 2016
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  9. Chris February 24, 2016
  10. Greg February 22, 2016
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  12. Scott February 19, 2016
  13. David February 13, 2016
  14. Angela February 11, 2016
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