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.

Leaving Livebooks

Adventure: Elizabeth Kovar trail running above Yakima Canyon at sunset, Cascade Foothills, Washington

I've had my websites ( and hosted through Livebooks for about five years. When I first signed on with them, they were the web host of choice for professional photographers. But a lot has changed in five years.

Since then, web design has changed both in style and functionality. Livebooks has failed to keep up with current design standards. They offer custom sites at a cost premium. But there are many other hosting and design options available. My new site (which you're reading this on) is hosted through Squarespace.

With its custom 'block design', Squarespace allows for me to build and customize my site by myself. I won't go into details about how it's done, but it's great, simple, and unmatched by other hosts I've looked into. Squarespace ranks very high in Search Engine Optimization also, which is hugely important to photographers.

But what really made me decide to leave Livebooks was all the problems I've had with them in the past couple of years. A number of times in the past year, email was down for more than a day. They have ended phone based support. Any support requests are done through an online form and a response can take over 24 hours. That's not much help in an emergency. And sad to say the support people are clueless. In trying to switch over my web host from them to Squarespace, Livebooks support incorrectly told me they had no control of my hosting, which wasn't the case. I've found the Squarespace support to be responsive, generally well informed, and helpful.

Livebooks' rates are also high compared to their competitors and design options are limited, old, or too expensive to make custom changes. The blog available through Livebooks is very limited, not allowing comments or for readers to subscribe to the blog.

Squarespace isn't perfect. I've found a bug in their design where the image captions cover part of the image when the zoom level is too magnified (they acknowledged it through support). Changing web hosts and designs is a big deal. It takes months of work to redo a site. But Livebooks...old design, expensive, and poor support. What's not to like?

Good Lenses Gone Bad

As a pro photographer, I need to work with the best equipment I can to deliver the best possible images to my clients. I’m a Canon shooter and use all Canon L series lenses. The L series is the professional line of lenses that are the sharpest, most rugged, and weather sealed line of lenses that Canon sells. Even so, I tend to be very gentle with my equipment because I rely on it to work when I need it to. All my equipment looks almost new.

And Canon delivers on all of that quality. Usually. The L lenses are as sharp as anything on the market…except for when they’re not. About once a year, I will have a lens that has a glass element inside that shifts and the lens gets soft (i.e. not sharp) at one or more focal lengths, usually on one side of the frame. I’ve had it happen to at least five lenses.

A quick (but not cheap) repair by Canon usually puts the lens back to factory specifications. But it happens seemingly randomly and I am not able to notice until the images are viewed on my computer. I am in the habit of testing all my lenses before a big shoot to make sure everything checks out.  I also see this happening to other photographers because I have noticed images in print that show this problem. Once you’ see it, it’s obvious. The images here show the sharp and soft areas (shown by the red boxes in the full image at top) at 100% magnification. Notice how the image on the right gets softer as you view from the left to the right side of the image

Printed Portfolio

It may be surprising to learn that even as the internet is the first choice for displaying photo portfolios, printed portfolios are still an important piece to have to share with clients. As you might expect, my online portfolio (aka my websites, and are the first place that clients go to look at my work. And for most clients, that’s enough for them to get an idea of if they like my work and want to hire me. ‘Nuff said.

But in the commercial world, especially on the agency side, things are different. The online portfolio is only the first step in getting in the door. Often, there are also emails with electronic promo pieces, printed promo cards, and repeated phone calls to try and get through the din of all the other photographers. Of course, even with all of that, only the best work gets noticed by creative directors and art directors at agencies. When a good connection is made, an invitation is extended to come in for a meet and greet. You don’t get that invitation unless they like your work enough to potentially hire you to shoot for them.

Once that invitation is extended, the meeting is largely about matching up personalities and getting an idea of how the CD/AD likes the photographer and how they think it would be to work together. Part of this meet and greet is also looking at a printed portfolio.

An online portfolio is good way to introduce your work. Viewing a printed portfolio will give the CD/AD a better idea of the quality of your work. Often images that look good online won’t hold up well to printing. A printed image will show the technical flaws that an online image will hide. Often, the printed portfolio will have better color accuracy, depth, and sharpness than an online image, if printed well.

With that in mind, I recently redid my printed portfolio. I redo my portfolio about once a year to keep it fresh. But beside the value in keeping an updated print portfolio, the process of going through and selecting images helps me clarify and understand my creative process and changes in style since the last portfolio. The creative process is so complex it’s easy for me to miss subtle and not so subtle changes in my images until I sit back and look at them all together.

There are tons of great ways of printing a portfolio, including hand made/bound. I print my portfolios using I’ve used them for years and have been happy with the print quality, color accuracy, and turnaround time. I love the wraparound cover option and the new pearl finish paper is fantastic. It’s inexpensive enough to create specific portfolios for each time I meet with a client and tailor it to what I think they will like best.

Web Education

Searching the web for any information is like trying to drink from a fire hydrant. There is so much information available it’s easy to get sucked in and overwhelmed. Then you can get lost down the rabbit hole trying to sort through trying to filter the good information from the bad.

I’ve spent enough time drinking from that hydrant and know where to go to get good information. The business model for photo based websites has changed. Everyone (including me!) is trying to pull viewers in with free content. There are different ways that this is accomplished, but in the end, there is a lot of good information to be had out there at no cost (and a lot of crap that they charge for). The one rule I had for this list is that everything had to be available for free (at least the first time it is available). Many of these are webinars. The great thing about webinars is if you miss them when they’re live, the hosts will almost always make them available to watch later.

So here’s my list of sites I find useful for learning about photography.

1. Photoshelter – yup, Photoshelter. And I’m not talking about using it for hosting stock images. Photoshelter has some great downloadable pdfs and tutorials on the business side of photography. Sometimes what I read helps me to affirm that I’m doing the right thing to attract clients. Sometimes what I read makes me think I am stumbling blind through the photo business. Either way, it’s good stuff.

2. Creative Live – Creative Live has some fantastic courses/workshops online covering both the creative and business side of being a photographer. They’re free when you watch live. If you want to watch it again later, the courses are usually about $100. They’re usually 2-3 days long, all day, and often over the weekends. I rarely have time to sit through (or sit still) for an entire course. Often I’ll work on my desktop and have it playing on my laptop. As a working professional photographer, I still often learn a lot of new stuff. And other times I get validated in my way of shooting/running a business by hearing it from other pros. There’s a wealth of good information to get learned from Creative Live, if you have the time.

3. Accidental Creative –  Articles and podcasts on maximizing creativity and overcoming creative roadblocks.

4. X-Rite Photo – Yes, the makers of X-Rite monitor profiling equipment have great photo tutorials also. Here’s one on post-processing for landscape photography that I found worthwhile.

5. ASMP – The American Society of Media Photographers. Even if you’re not a member, ASMP will have webinars and tons of great information available.

6. Livebooks – This is my web host. Yup, my web host has tutorials, information, and great blog posts with information to help photographers. Here’s one I’m reading now about social media for photographers.

7. Freelancers Union – Not geared specifically towards photographers, but some very helpful information about making it as a freelancer.

8. Agency Access – Agency Access is an agency that also provides email, direct marketing and consulting services to photographers. But, of course they also have some good ideas about working with clients available through their blog posts, The Lab.

Notice a pattern here? Almost all of these sites are creating content (in this case trying to educational content) to bring potential clients to their site. Once you’re there, they hope you’ll buy something from them. Clever. But there’s a lot to be learned from these sites without spending a dime. Of course, they hope you’ll like what they have and buy some service or product from them.

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.