Tools of the Trade: Transition Mode

2021 is the year that everyone in the photo industry will sit up and take notice of the mirrorless cameras that have been flooding the market for the last decade. It has taken a decade for the new mirrorless options to finally match the venerable speed-demon pro-caliber DSLRs that we have all been using as professionals. I am sure many would say this happened a few years back but for pros who get to know their gear over years and years of use, a change in the system is a huge deal. With the back-to-back announcements of the Sony A1 and the FUJIFILM GFX 100S, 2021 kicked off with a bang announcing two new high-end cameras that show what is possible with mirrorless technology. With these two camera announcements, I have sold off my entire Nikon DSLR setup including all of my Nikkor F-mount lenses.

Over the last few years, since I purchased my first mirrorless camera, I have straddled the line between DSLRs and the new mirrorless technology. I first purchased the Nikon Z 6 way back in December of 2018, and shortly after that I worked with Fujifilm on the launch of the GFX 100, which became my second mirrorless camera. From the first moment I was able to shoot with the GFX 100, it became my main camera kit. The resolution and capabilities of that camera are simply astounding. At the same time, I have grown to love the Nikon mirrorless system and especially their new lenses. It has been a seamless transition from Nikon DSLRs to the Nikon mirrorless cameras. Lastly, a few years ago I added a FUJIFILM X-Pro 3 to my kit and that APS-C (crop sensor) camera has been a blast to work with when I need a robust, smaller kit. It has even gotten me to start wondering if I even need a 35mm (i.e. full-frame) camera system at all given my main kit are the two 102 MP GFX cameras (the GFX 100 and GFX 100S).

By no means are the venerable DSLRs from the last few years any less capable than they have been. In fact, the Nikon D850 has taken quite a long time to be surpassed by anything in the mirrorless world, and will for years to come be a stalwart camera capable of producing top-notch results. So, why did I sell off my entire Nikon DSLR kit? Part of the reasoning is that I was one of the lucky few who were able to shoot with the new FUJIFILM GFX 100S–and I saw during my time with that camera that it could be just about everything I would ever need, even more so than the original GFX 100. On top of that, when Sony announced the A1, that was the writing on the wall for all us in the photo industry–and especially those of us that photograph sports–that mirrorless technology has matured to the point that it far surpasses DSLR technology. Hence, the very next day, after a few discussions with fellow pros, I put all of my Nikon DSLR kit up for sale–before it depreciated into a worthless pile of expensive camera gear.

Some photographers hold onto their old cameras forever. While that sounds great to have a big shelf with old gear, that is a crap ton of money sitting on a shelf doing nothing. I look at my gear as just tools for the job. Sure, there are some cameras I will never sell, like my GFX 100, which is still my main camera and also because working with Fujifilm for the launch of that camera was a major career milestone. I still have my Nikon F5. It was the last 35mm film SLR I ever owned. And by the time I switched over to digital fully in 2005, it was essentially worthless anyway.

This period right now with the new mirrorless cameras seems eerily similar to the switch from film to digital. For those paying attention, DSLRs have now gone about as far as they can in terms of the technology–any iteration now introduces very small improvements. Mirrorless isn’t winning out because it is just new and different. The new mirrorless cameras (as a whole) have a lot of features that really do set them apart from DSLRs and allow photographers to keep pushing the envelope as far as the types of images they can create with these new cameras. As shown in the image below, created as part of a campaign for MARSOC, the US Marine Special Forces unit, I was able to create this image (and all of the images for the campaign) because I was using the new mirrorless technology (in this case In-Body Image Stabilization and crazy high clean ISO settings) to actually get an image that would have been impossible with a DSLR.

For the image above created with a 24mm lens and my Nikon Z 6, the camera settings were ISO 6400, an aperture of f/1.4 and a shutter speed of 1/10th second. This image was shot handheld as we were running all over the place and a tripod was just not an option. We essentially shot the entire campaign at night lit by tiny LED lights and the moon. This one assignment way back in 2019 really cemented the advantages of mirrorless cameras for me.

Over the last two years, I have been agonizing over when to sell off my DSLR kit. On the one hand, the GFX system can’t cover all of the adventure sports I photograph–there are no fisheye or super-telephoto lenses for the GFX system and if I need wicked fast AF that has to nail it every time (as when something will only happen once) then I have in the last few years opted for my Nikon D850 and F-mount lenses. The image below is a prime example of that scenario. For this image, created for Red Bull, the Red Bull Air Force wingsuit sky divers were only going to be jumping once and I needed an 800mm lens to shoot from four miles away. At the time I created this image, I wasn’t even working with Fujifilm cameras–or any other brand. My Nikon D850 did a great job tracking the skydiver and the Nikkor 800mm lens came through beautifully. At the time of this assignment (and even to this day), there are only two camera companies that make 800mm lenses, Canon and Nikon. High-quality, top-end 800mm lenses are not that easy to track down–even in rental houses. I had to have one shipped in from San Francisco because no rental house in Los Angeles had one for Nikon mount cameras. This was a unique gig requiring very unique equipment.

Of course, as with any transition, there is the matter of affording the switch. Luckily Fujifilm has been very, very good to me so that softened the blow considerably. But regardless of the financial part of it, there is the decision factor. With the switch to mirrorless, unlike the switch from film to digital, it isn’t just a matter of switching out the camera bodies. It is a clean start, meaning you will need to switch out all of your lenses at some point–either right away or down the line. That creates some mayhem for the camera companies as many folks are switching systems. There is still some incentive to stick with the camera brand you are already using as both Canon and Nikon have excellent adapters, but if you want to get the most out of any new system sooner or later you will have to work with the new native mirrorless lenses.

I obviously made a move to Fujifilm, specifically for their incredible medium format GFX system–which far surpassed my old Hasselblad H5D 50c WIFi that I had previously. But, I did keep my Nikons, and for the moment will keep my Nikon Z kit. I am still wrestling with the idea of my action camera kit–which could end up being a full-frame kit or an APS-C kit like the new FUJIFILM X-T4. My GFX system can handle about 80% of what I photograph. A smaller 35mm or APS-C kit would be for those more difficult shoots with extremely fast, unpredictable action (as shown above). The GFX can handle a lot more action than most people think it can (as shown below) and honestly, I am so spoiled by the 102 MP resolution and the overall image quality of medium format that the idea of working with anything else seems like a compromise. Someday soon I am sure the GFX system will be so dialed in that I won’t need anything else for any assignment. It is already very, very close to that point with the new GFX 100S.

This year will be very telling as to which camera companies push the technology enough to win over those making the transition from DSLRs. Sony has obviously made their big move already with the A1. Canon has some amazing cameras they announced last year (the R5 and R6). Fujifilm has announced the stellar new GFX 100S, which goes in a different direction than most full-frame (35mm) cameras seem to be going–and that is quite refreshing. I look forward to seeing what other cameras Fujifilm might announce this year in the X-series lineup. Nikon has a lot of ground to make up, but they have already built an incredible set of new mirrorless lenses with the Z system glass–perhaps the best glass for any 35mm mirrorless system. So, in spite of the overblown rumors that Nikon is in trouble, I have faith that they can catch up and come out with a stellar, wicked fast camera to compete with Sony and Canon.

I realize this blog post is a bit of a ramble, but guaranteed this subject is on the mind of many pro photographers who are looking to stay somewhat current with the latest technology. When photographers talk, gear is typically a part of the discussion–especially now in this innovative moment of transition. And at the moment, when a lot of us freelance photographers have little to no work due to Covid, this is a topic that comes up often. With the Associated Press (AP) here in the USA adopting Sony mirrorless cameras for their photographers, that is a major signal that the shift is in full swing. Mirrorless cameras have been good enough for quite some time now for just about any photography genre, save for sports. With the latest fast-action mirrorless cameras from Sony and Canon, even sports photographers are sitting up and taking notice. In my experience, once you get used to the EVF (and that took a while) it is very difficult to go back to DSLRs. As with the transition from film to digital twenty years ago, we are in the thick of a transition from DSLRs to mirrorless cameras and probably soon to cameras with global shutters as well. No matter how you slice it, this is a great time to be a photographer. You can’t really make a bad choice these days. Pretty much all of the cameras on the market are incredibly capable. It just comes down to what you need the camera system to do and what you can afford.

UPDATE — March 10, 2021

As I predicted in this article just a few paragraphs above, Nikon will catch up with Canon and Sony. Today, March 10, 2021, they just announced the development of the Nikon Z9, which will be the mirrorless equivalent of the Nikon D6. I don’t think we will be seeing many more DSLRs announced as Nikon said in their announcement that the Z9 will have better performance and image quality than any prior Nikon camera ever produced. This also signals that 2021, as I said in this blog post, is going to be the year that we get a good sense as to the future of mirrorless cameras. Let’s hope the Z9 can compete with the Sony A1 or even surpasses it in some ways.

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