Camera War Z Part III - dSLRs are Officially the Living Dead of the Camera World

I just re-read my previous post about dSLRs vs. Mirrorless. The first thing that struck me is that I wrote it a year and a half ago! Where did that time go? But more importantly, I am amazed at how fast things have changed in camera technology since then. At the time, I figured mirrorless cameras would catch or pass SLRs in a few years. But mirrorless cameras have continued to improve at an incredible pace and I can honestly say they have now surpassed SLRs in everything I need in a camera. As a Sony mirrorless shooter, I'll focus on what they have done in the past year and a half.

In April of this year, Sony released it's flagship mirrorless camera, the a9. If you haven't heard about it yet, here's a quick run down. The a9 is a professional grade, full-frame, 24MP, 4k, 20 frames per second(!!!!) mirrorless camera. But what sets the a9 apart from all other mirrorless cameras is its electronic shutter. An electronic shutter is exactly what it sounds like...the image coming off the sensor is captured without the use of the mechanical shutter, so there is no viewfinder blackout (or sound) that you normally experience when using a mechanical shutter. Electronic shutters have been around for years but they've been limited to slow moving or still subjects because of rolling shutter issues. Any significant subject movement during the image capture will cause distortion of the moving part of the image. Sony has effectively solved the rolling shutter problem in electronic shutter, allowing electronic shutter speeds up to 1/30,000th of a second with no perceptible distortion. I can't say enough how big of a deal this is. It's groundbreaking. Continuous shooting is possible at 20fps and there is no viewfinder interruption. Zero. Nada. Zilch. And shooting can be completely silent.

There are so many things about the a9 that Sony improved over previous cameras...better viewfinder, AF selector joystick, better ergonomics, bigger battery, dual card slots, touch screen, improved tactile feel of dials and switches, better menu system, and on and on.  These are all important things that Sony was playing catch up on. But I'm going to focus on what I think makes this a revolutionary camera instead of just an evolutionary one.

For a sports photographer, no viewfinder blackout is a paradigm shift. And I didn't realize how much of a shift until I went back to use my a6300 and a7rii. At first, not having viewfinder blackout seems kind of cool but not that big of a deal. But after using it for a while, it becomes seamless, and a huge advantage for following erratically moving fast subjects like skiers or soccer players. That moment of viewfinder blackout that I grew accustom to was often just long enough and would occur at the wrong time for when a subject changes speed or direction. As a result, there were often shots where the subject was partially out of frame or out of focus as tracking them during the blackout was a process of expecting them to continue on the path or speed that they were before the blackout. With no blackout, tracking them is much easier. So it was subtle at first shooting on the a9 but before I knew it, I was really using the no blackout viewfinder in ways I wasn't aware of. Picking up a traditional mechanical shutter camera felt like picking up an antique. Suddenly, everything else felt like old technology.

There are two additional features of this camera that make it groundbreaking: autofocus and image quality/dynamic range. Mirrorless autofocus has been getting very good, but hadn't managed to be as good as dSLRs for focus tracking a moving subject, until now. That's completely changed with the a9. The AF tracking on the a9 is as good as anything I've used, with the previous bar being set (in my experience) by the 5D Mark III. The a9 is as good or better than the 5DIII. It's hit rate is incredible and the camera acquires focus seemingly instantaneously and effortlessly.

The most unexpected improvement with the a9 was the dynamic range and the quality of the highlights and shadows when edited in post. With previous cameras, when pulling out detail of the shadows, there was a noisy, over-processed look if I pushed it too much, or a harsh fall off of highlights if I tried to bring the highlights back too much. With the a9, I find there is more range to work with highlights and shadows, but also that they transition much smoother, more naturally, and look less processed. As a shooter who is constantly pushing dynamic range and shooting backlit, this is a huge advantage.

The 4k video from the a9 is drop-dead gorgeous. With the a7rii, shooting 4k in full-frame was less than ideal. It looked good, but not as good as in crop mode. The a6300 looks great but has really bad rolling shutter and is a crop sensor. The a9 full-frame 4k video has the quality of the a6300, without serious rolling shutter issues, and with the shallow depth of field of a full-frame sensor. The AF tracking during video is decent but still needs some improvement before it is reliable to use for professional use. It is inconsistent but good under the right conditions.

So that all sounds great, but no camera is perfect, right? Exactly. There is some room for improvement and here are my nitpicks on the a9, in no particular order. First, the AF selector indicator in the viewfinder is a light grey that can be very difficult to see on busy backgrounds or mid-tones that it blends into. It needs to be brighter or have a selectable color option to make it more visible.

As mentioned earlier, the camera can shoot completely silently. But sometimes I want to hear the shutter. When I'm holding the camera high or low and can't see through the viewfinder or monitor, I rely on the electronic shutter sound to know I've taken a shot. It needs to be louder. I've had a number of times I've been shooting outdoors and wind or the sound of a waterfall is louder than the shutter sound so I can't hear it. Also the placement of the speaker for the electronic sound is the lower left side of the camera. Occasionally I'll be holding the camera in a way that my hand covers the speaker and I can't hear the shutter. A better location, like the top of the body would be better to hear the sound.

The a9 now has a physical button for selecting frame rate and autofocus mode. I'm happy about this but the AF mode selector has a lockout that is clunky and awkward to use. I think a lockout is a good idea but it needs to be redesigned to make it easier to use.

The video start/stop button has been moved to a new location near the viewfinder. I like this location much better, however, it is close enough in location and feel to the AF-on button that they are easily confused when using it while looking through the viewfinder. The video start/stop button needs to have a different ergonomic feel to differentiate it from the AF-on button.

Lastly, an issue that mirrorless cameras have yet to solve is sensor dust. All cameras have this problem. But mirrorless cameras are especially prone to getting dust on the sensor for two reasons. First, when you take a lens off, there is no mirror and the mechanical shutter is retracted. So the sensor is exposed directly to dust falling right on it. Secondly, the flange distance from the sensor to the lens mount is much shorter because there is no mirror. It's too easy to get dust on the sensor that is especially problematic in video. One workaround I've heard suggested is that Sony makes it so the mechanical shutter is not-retracted during changing lenses, or at least making it an option in the settings for when changing lenses.

There are two features I would like to see Sony put in their mirrorless cameras. First is a small or medium RAW option that still uses the full-frame sensor. I don't always need (or want) 24MP or 42MP (on my a7rii) but still want the shallow DOF of a full-frame sensor. Second I'd like to have the option to set the frame rates for the low, medium and high frame rate setting.

I read a post that the Nikon CEO said no pros are switching to Sony. He's dead wrong. I switched (from Canon) and know three other pros who have switched as well. Sony is doing what it takes to get pros and consumers to switch by giving features and new designs that give photographers the tools to be more creative. Canon and Nikon are sitting still, watching the revolution from the bleachers.

And did I mention that the a9 shoots as 20 frames per second?!! Insane.