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.

Camera War Z Part 2

sony a7rii with canon 16-35 f4L and metabones V adapter

About a year and a half ago I wrote a blog post predicting that mirrorless cameras were well on the way to making dSLRs the living dead of the camera world (original post here). It's time to take another look at what I wrote in that post and where I think the camera world is and where I am regarding the state of mirrorless. But before I dig in to nerdy gear head stuff, I should acknowledge that a camera is just a tool that enables photographers to execute their vision. Even the best camera is worthless in the hands of a photographer with no vision or creativity. Every camera I discuss below will enable a creative photographer to shoot incredible photos. 

When I wrote my original post, I had just returned my Samsung NX1 because of EVF live view design issues, but still believed that mirrorless cameras would overcome that issue and begin to dominate the camera market. Has that panned out? Let's take a look, shall we?

First, here's where I am with my camera lineup. I still have all of my canon camera and lens gear (Canon 5d mark iii and 7d mark ii). But I've since added a Sony a7rii and am impatiently waiting to receive a Sony a6300, both mirrorless cameras that I can use my Canon lenses with a Metabones adapter (with pretty good autofocus!). That is a game changer. Being able to use my Canon lenses on the Sony mirrorless cameras allows me to slowly transition from canon to Sony instead of making a big leap into the relatively unknown with a new camera system. It's not perfect but so far i really love the Sony a7rii. At 42mp the image quality is astounding. I'm seeing details in my images that I've never seen before even with my 5d mark iii. While the focus tracking with my adapted Canon lenses is not nearly as good as using them on the Canon cameras, it is acceptable for about 80% of what I shoot being almost better than the Canons with single shot autofocus. I'll even shoot some fairly fast sports like the running shot above with the a7rii. On a side note, continuous autofocus on the a7rii with the adapted Canon lenses is abysmal, which is the 20% I am unable to use it for. But I was aware of that shortcoming before I purchased the a7rii. I'm stoked to try out the a6300 for a number of reasons, but mainly because it is the first mirrorless camera that has a true live view during burst shooting. In other words, unlike all other mirrorless cameras so far, the a6300 will show the live view through the viewfinder in between shots, instead of a series of images that were just shot. This is another game changer for mirrorless and another bad omen for dSLRs. For most photographers, this is unimportant. For sports photographers, this is essential.

Sunrise over Fremont peak, titcomb basin, wind river range, wyoming

So what about the current state of mirrorless among camera manufacturers? I'm glad you asked. Sony has been leading the charge on mirrorless and is really dominating the market (among pros and serious amateurs) with mirrorless. With a combination of sensor design, high quality EVFs, features and reasonable cost (compared to the big two, Nikon and Canon), they are crushing it. Sadly Samsung dropped out of the high end market entirely and stopped making the NX1. Panasonic has a workhorse with the existing GH4 and likely to soon be announced GH5. Olympus is making some nice cameras but I don't see other pros really shooting with them. The big two have done almost nothing with mirrorless. They are both simply ignoring the mirrorless market, which confounds many of my professional photographer peers. From my perspective, it almost seems as though Canon and Nikon are ideologically against mirrorless. Instead they keep updating their dSLR lineups with impressive cameras like the Canon 1Dx mark II, Nikon D5 and D500, and the rumored Canon 5D mark iv. All of these cameras are great cameras and have impressive features that I look for in a camera but...

...but they are still SLRs. They are (now) unnecessarily big and heavy and lack an electronic viewfinder. And as I get older, heavy is bad. Heck even when I was young and stupid, I knew heavy was bad. But are there advantages to dSLRs that I'm not talking about? Sure but they are falling by the way side with each generation of mirrorless cameras. First was autofocus. The big two argued that you'd never get good autofocus with mirrorless. Well that's not true anymore. In fact I find my a7rii with my adapted Canon lenses can single shot focus better than my Canon lenses on the Canon bodies. How is this possible? With an SLR, the autofocus module is not on the sensor but a separate module within the mirror box. This creates room for error because it is approximating where the focus should be. And most of the time this works very well. But lenses can get out of alignment of where they are supposed to be so this error can change over time. I have a Canon 70-200 2.8L lens that is very sharp when focused accurately, but even with autofocus micro-adjustment, I can't get either of my Canon cameras to focus it well. But on my a7rii, it's spot on almost every time. Mirrorless cameras focus right on the sensor, so there is no built in focus measurement error.

Okay so what about the advantages of an optical viewfinder? Sharper and more responsive than an electronic viewfinder, right? Nope, not anymore. The EVFs on the a7rii and a6300 are outstanding. And the a6300 viewfinder has a refresh rate of 120fps. That's really fast! I didn't need any time to adjust to the EVF on the a7rii because it feels so much like an optical viewfinder. How about ergonomics? Who wants a tiny camera body with all those tiny buttons? That's a reasonable question but after using my a7rii and getting used to it, I find the SLRs unnecessarily big. In fact they feel huge and the buttons all seem far apart. The smaller a7rii now feels more natural in my hand. The a7rii does need a lot of improvement in layout of controls and functioning, but that's not necessarily a function of size but more about poor design.

So the justifications for an SLR keep falling away, and there are too many other advantages and features on a mirrorless to go into here. But after a year and a half, I am even more sure that mirrorless is the (very near) future of cameras for serious photographers. No doubt dSLRs will always be around, but they will become a niche product.

On a side note, one of the criticisms of Sony has been the lack of professional grade lenses. I'd agree with that criticism but it is beginning to change. A few months ago they announced the G Master series of lenses that is just about as good as anything from the big two. This is a good start and it will take years for Sony to flesh out its array of lenses. But with the 24-70 2.8 and 70-200 2.8 lenses, they have taken two very big steps to be taken seriously by pros. I have yet to try these lenses and can't wait to shoot with both of them.