This is not another preview or review of the forthcoming Sony a1, and it’s not a comparison of the Nikon this or the Canon because there’s a wider discussion. Instead of focussing on any specific mirrorless camera I think it’s time to look at the relevance of mirrorless cameras and their role within photography before deciding which model to buy.
Let’s begin by reminding ourselves of one important distinction between photography and the camera and that is that the camera is a tool. Photography is the act, art or craft (whatever you want to label it) of capturing images. The camera is the technology used to create the still image. With this in mind it’s important to note that we shouldn’t get too caught up on the camera used to take a picture. The tool is less important than the idea, message or eventual creation.
The Value of Mirrorless
Mirrorless photography is an important shift in camera technology which should be discussed without getting distracted by the specific cameras. If you’re upgrading from one mirrorless to another then a product review is for you but if you’re switching from an SLR you really should be thinking about the technology change as a whole rather than simply jumping from one camera to another. I use the Sony Alpha mirrorless system but that doesn’t matter, other brands are producing some great products and they’re all adding to the cultural shift in photography.
Photo by Ken Rementer. Taken with Canon EOS R.
Without going too far back through the history or evolution of the camera lets jump back twenty something years to a time when the film camera was king and digital photography was still in its infancy. 1997 was the year that I first picked up a camera. I was at college and photography formed part of my education. I don’t remember what the actual model was but it was probably a pentax camera.
Film and the Analogue Experience
See the model is irrelevant. What is important is that it was a film camera. There’s no doubt about it, photographing with film is a beautiful experience. I think that it’s because you’re so involved with the craft that makes it so special. Loading film into a camera, being very careful not to expose the negative roll to light was a task in itself – something that can’t be matched by inserting a memory card. Then there was the act of taking a picture, you’d look through the viewfinder to frame the shot and you’d read the light either using a lightmeter or your own instincts but you didn’t have the luxury of seeing the picture until you developed the film. Unlike digital photography or mirrorless cameras, you couldn’t look at the image and retake, correcting any mistakes that you’d made.
Photo by Akairom.
And developing your images was an equally unique experience. Standing in a darkroom developing photographs was like opening your presents on Christmas morning. Watching with interest and excitement as the image slowly appeared on the paper was magical.
The Technological Shift
Film photography was difficult but exciting. Fast forward to digital photography and life suddenly became much easier. Being able to immediately review the picture that you’ve taken was incredible. I refused to adopt digital photography for a long time because of a romanticized relationship with film photography. Shooting digital images seemed too easy, it almost seemed unfair. However, I made the shift and as a commercial photographer it was such an important move because it removes the pressure of self doubt and it also allows you to be more expressive and experimental at times because you can take more images.
Photo is author’s own.
When you’re not limited to 36 pictures on a roll of film you can afford to take more shots. You can afford to make more mistakes. There’s an argument that digital made certain types of photography easier but so what, photography shouldn’t be the elitist preserve of those fortunate enough to go to art college. Because of the accessibility and shortening of the skills gap, digital photography changed the photographic landscape. It afforded more people the opportunity to be able to pick up a camera and get some instant gratification.
Of course digital photography and the ease and accessibility of photography then spread, from the professional and hobbyist cameras to mobile phones. Suddenly everybody has a camera with them wherever they go which spilled into social media and we land on planet Instagram, which doesn’t need any explanation other than to say that it has created a wealth of photographers good and bad.
The Potential of Modern Mirrorless Cameras
Today we’ve moved from film cameras to the ease and convenience of digital and beyond. The DSLR replaced the SLR and now mirrorless is set to take over.
Mirrorless cameras are incredible. They make life so easy that anybody could take a good picture with this technology. Taking a picture with a mirrorless camera is like taking a picture with a computer. As long as you can be bothered to read the instruction manual then (superficially), you shouldn’t be able to take a bad photograph.
Digital photography improved on film cameras because you could look at the picture you’d just taken and react. If your picture was out of focus, or under or over exposed you could delete, adjust your settings and retake.
With a mirrorless camera you don’t even need to take the shot to view it. As you change your settings the display adjusts so that you can see a realistic representation of how the picture will look once taken. As you change the ISO, shutter speed or aperture you can see the image change in front of you.
SLRs, the ‘single reflex camera’ relied on mirrors reflecting light through the camera to the viewfinder but mirrorless systems have an obvious difference. They don’t use these mirrors, hence the name, mirrorless. No mirrors means less size and weight, they’re smaller and lighter, which also makes them more practical. For photographers that rely on auto focus the mirrorless cameras are on another planet. The speed and accuracy is immense. There’s so much going for them.
Photo by Jim Nix. Taken with Olympus OM-D E-M1
A couple of years into mainstream use of mirrorless cameras does mean they’re still operating on the outside as many photographers are still hesitant about adopting this new system. It also means that the cost is still higher (in most cases) than a DSLR but I think that anyone making the switch will fall in love with the benefits and be impressed by the ease of this new(ish) technology.
The shift has already begun and it won’t be long before the mirrorless camera is the dominant technology for professional photography. Then it becomes time to start looking at specific model reviews, such as the hotly anticipated Sony a1, which sounds incredible by the way.
Paul Tschornow is owner and photographer for Photoheads, a London-based company specialising in commercial, events, editorial and product photography with a proven track record of successful shoots and satisfied clients.