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.
I've been a full-time professional photographer for over ten years, and semi-pro for about ten years before that. So I've been in the photo business for about twenty years. That's a long time! I started out shooting 35mm slide film, added 4x5 large format to my shooting, switched to 6x7 medium format, then gave up film entirely when Canon introduced the 5D. Now I'm still shooting Canon, but it's the 5D Mark III at 24MP. I haven't shot a frame of film for about ten years. And I'm loving being photography even more than I did when I started. Digital has added so many creative possibilities that weren't even options five or six years ago, let alone with film. Very high ISO shooting? Check! Incredibly high burst rates of 15fps or more? Check! Resolution higher than medium format in a 35mm frame? Check! All great stuff. So what's not to love?
When I meet people and tell them I'm a professional photographer, a common reaction is that I have a dream job. And in many ways I do. I get paid to travel to some amazing places. I've been to Iceland, Alaska, Utah, California, and many other beautiful locations to shoot for my clients.
I get to make my own schedule. I'm my own boss. I decide where I want to travel when I'm shooting for myself, and expense it to my business. I sometimes get to choose locations for my photoshoots for clients. This is all great stuff! But there are downsides that you might not realize until you spend a little time thinking about what goes into running your own business. Here are a few things to consider.
Paid vacation or sick leave? Forget about it. In fact, I rarely have a true vacation where I'm not working. I often travel on my vacations to places I love (don't we all?). But if I'm going to be in an amazing destination, it makes business sense to take photos. So I'm often up early for sunrise and late for sunset. I don't get much sleep or downtime on my 'vacation'. As a small business owner, much of the business of office work falls on me. I am the IT department, the accounting department, the office manager, the creative director, the marketing department, and yes, even the photographer of my business. There are a lot of hats to wear.
Of course none of that was a surprise when I became a photographer, but nobody thinks about that when they say I have their dream job. They imagine me on location in some of the most beautiful places in the world all the time. In reality, I do travel and go to beautiful places quite a bit. But more often than not, you'll find me in the office editing photos or sending out marketing emails, or, well, you get the point.
But just as importantly, the business of photography has changed dramatically, especially in the past five years. There has been a flood of great photography entering the market as amateurs post their images on Flickr, 500px, Photoshelter, or microstock libraries like shuttertock and others. And lots of amateurs are selling their work for little or almost nothing, just for the thrill of getting published. Stock photo rates are so low, sometimes images are sold for pennies. Not surprisingly, the rates paid for photo licensing and contract shooting have dropped as well.
But most surprisingly to me, is how there has been a loss of professionalism, not from photographers, but from clients. It would seem that getting paid for images being used is a straightforward transaction. You use my image, and then pay me, right? Unfortunately not. I have one (former) client that I just fired because they refuse to pay sooner than a year and a half after they print my images. That's not a typo. 18 months. the standard used to be 30-60 days after going to print. And they refuse to budge. So I refuse to work with them anymore.
I'm not trying to burst your bubble about me and your dream job. I wouldn't be doing it if I still didn't completely love being a photographer. But just like any job, there are parts of it you just would rather not have to deal with. Photographers have to work much harder now to make a living. And the days of going out and shooting great photos and sitting back waiting for the checks to roll in are long gone (if they ever really existed!). Professional photography, it's not all sunshine and lollipops!