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.

Disruptive Technology

I’ve had this concept stuck in my head lately. It’s one of those concepts that sounds a bit strange at first but once you understand it, you see it all around you. Disruptive Technology is meant to describe any new technology that changes (or disrupts) the established business practice or human behavior. Now that you know what it means, you’ll see it everywhere. Personal Computers. Cell phones. The Internet. Smartphones. Facebook. Hybrid and electric cars. Some of these are more mature in their state of development but all have or will change the way we do things. Cell phones are well on their way to replacing land lines entirely. How many people do you know that no longer have a land line? Smartphones have become an almost essential part of a modern life. I recently left my smartphone at home by accident and felt like I was missing my right arm. Hybrid and electric cars are slowly becoming mainstream and will most likely (hopefully!) replace oil in moving us around. Facebook has changed the way we interact and stay in touch with friends and family (or do business).

Okay, so you get it. Disruptive tech is all around us. But this is a photo blog. What does this have to do with photography? Everything. Digital cameras may be the ultimate disruptive technology. Everybody takes photos. We all used to use film to take photos. How many people are using film these days? Almost nobody. Maybe a handful of niche photographers and some reluctant holdouts. All the pro photographers I know are using digital. I haven’t shot a frame of film for s years. Digital is so compelling that it has completely changed the way professional and amateur photographers work. Okay, so what. What’s so disruptive about that? Tons. For starters, Kodak has gone bankrupt. Think about that. Kodak was THE establishment in the photo world. Not anymore. That business model is gone.

That’s one obvious change. Here are some not so obvious changes. Journalism has been upended by the average Joe with their camera phone. Everyone has a phone with a camera now. Tons of events were missed in the past because nobody used to carry a camera with them all the time, including me. How many times have people documented something that would have been missed in the past with a big social impact?

But digital has also made the photo learning curve much steeper. In other words, the instant feedback of digital allows budding photographers to learn from their mistakes much quicker. That instant feedback on your photos (to a degree, not completely) is an incredible learning tool. I’ve always said that photography uses both the left and right side of our brains…technical and creative. In the past, the technical part of photography has scared a lot of creative people away. Now the technology has made learning and shooting easier. People who can master the technical side still have an advantage but the bar is much lower than with film.

This has had all sorts of unintended consequences. There are now more people trying to be professional photographers. And more amateurs shooting with dSLRs trying to sell their photos, or give them away just to say they can get published. Photo rates have dropped, especially for stock photos. Enter iStockphoto, the bane of professional stock photographers. iStockphoto has driven stock rates so low, many photographers who used to make a living off of selling stock have quit the business and moved on to careers that actually pay. Some photographers are in the strange situation where they are selling photos for well below the cost of making them, subsidizing the end user. I’ve seen Rights Managed photo sales through Corbis and Getty that are in the $1 range. You can bet it costs a lot more than $1 to take an image. And then there is the time involved in getting images edited and posted for sale. How much does that cost? Too much to sell for $1.

But having more people shooting and selling has had a big net increase in the creativity of current photography compared to a few years ago. I can say personally that having new photographers nipping at my heels has kept me sharp and helped me push myself creatively. Luckily, I’ve never counted much on stock photography for income.

Another change that digital photography has made is in tonal range. Pro shooters in the past would mostly shoot slides (or transparencies as we called them). Transparencies had a tonal range of about 5 stops from dark to light. This was a limiting factor in shooting, both in how and what could be photographed. The current batch of digital cameras has a tonal range of 8 or more stops of tonal range. This is a huge increase and has opened up a lot of creative options.

In the past, any photographer who knew anything would avoid shooting higher than about 400 ISO (or ASA) film (journalists being the exception here). Film at high ISOs became so grainy as to be worthless. The best cameras now have ISOs up to 100,000, with very usable results up to 12,800. Again, this gives photographers the ability to shoot things that were just not doable with film ‘technology’. Living in the Northwest, I find myself shooting fast sports in dark rainforests a lot in the past few years. I couldn’t have done this five or six years ago because the high ISOs necessary were too noisy. Great high ISO performance is a big reason there are so many photogs out there shooting those amazing star images, another creative option that wasn’t available 6 or 7 years ago.

Probably the newest change in digital photography is the high quality HD video coming from dSLRs. Canon introduced Full HD video in the 5D Mark II for photojournalists. It’s had the unintended consequence of creating an entire new way of shooting video, and it’s been a wildfire of budding and very creative videographers ever since. All new industries are popping up to support video from dSLRs. I know videographers who are changing formats because their clients are demanding the beautiful shallow depth of field look from dSLR video. Photographers (including me) are now wading into or and becoming big players in the video market (see Vincent Laforet).

I’m a parent and have learned that with kids, the only thing that stays constant is change. We are lucky to be living in a time of constant technological change. But as creators, we need to adopt and adapt technology or be left behind.