An Epic Year for Camera Technology

This article originally appeared in my Fall 2021 Newsletter. You can download the Fall 2021 Newsletter here. If you would like to subscribe to the Newsletter please send me an email. The newsletter is free and is sent out quarterly.

This year, 2021, will go down as the year mirrorless camera technology truly came of age and replaced digital SLRs. At this point, I suspect DSLRs are still the mainstay of many professional photographers but with the incredible announcements of the Sony A1, the FUJIFILM GFX 100S, the Canon R3 and the Nikon Z 9 pretty much across the board every camera company has a stellar option for those looking to upgrade. Back in February of this year I published a blog post entitled, Tools of the Trade: Transition Mode, where I started off that post with the following:

“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.”

That blog post was purely predicting that all professional photographers would finally start making the move to mirrorless after the launch of the Sony A1 and the FUJIFILM GFX 100s. I knew the Nikon Z 9 was coming (since Nikon told us long in advance it was in the works) but had no idea what it would become. Now that the Z 9 has officially been announced we can see that every top camera manufacturer has a mirrorless option for pretty much any genre of photography, including sports and wildlife photographers. Since selling off my DSLRs, I have been working predominantly with my FUJIFILM GFX cameras (the GFX 100 and GFX 100S) as well as the Nikon Z 6 and the Z 7 II. Earlier this year I was pondering a move to Sony or Canon (in terms of full-frame cameras) if Nikon could not come through with the Z 9 but it appears that Nikon came through with a stellar new camera offering for pro photographers. I do have a Z 9 on order, and I am excited to again have a stellar medium format and 35mm set up to cover fast action and ultra high-end image quality. The GFX system is my main camera system (and has been since the release of the GFX 100) but I still need a smaller 35mm format kit that can deal with crazy fast action as well. Hence, with my move to mirrorless cameras the focus in this article will be on how these cameras have improved overall image quality and what they allow us to capture that we couldn’t create with DSLRs. 

In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS): IBIS has been in mirrorless cameras for a while now. IBIS is stabilization built into the sensor mechanism itself via magnets that hold the sensor in place and stabilize the actual sensor. This amazing technology allows photographers to handhold high-resolution cameras at incredibly slow shutter speeds and still get sharp images—as shown above in an image created for the US Marine Special Forces. I have been able to handhold my mirrorless cameras with this feature at 1/10th second and get reliably sharp images. All of the major high-end mirrorless cameras announced in 2021 have this feature. Going forward, I would be surprised to see any mirrorless camera not having IBIS built in. This is a critical feature in my mind for any mirrorless camera.

Better Image Quality: This is a key part of the reason to go with mirrorless cameras. If the image quality isn’t better than the DSLR cameras of yore then what would be the point? The Nikon D850 was such a stellar camera that it took a while to better it in the mirrorless space. The new mirrorless cameras and lenses allow for sharper images corner-to-corner than their DSLR cousins. The built-in lens profiles that work with Lightroom and Capture One also improve the image quality as well. As noted above, the stabilization (IBIS and lens stabilization) also allow for sharper images over a wider array of shutter speeds. The FUJIFILM GFX medium format cameras notably take image quality to a higher level at much more affordable prices than ever before. As the image below shows, the 102 MP medium format sensors in the FUJIFILM GFX 100 and GFX 100s offer image quality that is a big step up from any 35mm camera at this point.

Higher Quality Mirrorless Lenses: The new lenses designed for these new mirrorless camera systems are a big part of the image quality gains. Shorter flange distances, newly designed optics with modern technology, and the lens profiles that help correct those lenses are all part of the equation. The camera companies are also looking to the future when even higher resolution sensors will be put into cameras and the new lenses will need to keep up with those sensors as well. 

Built-in Lens Profiles: We have mentioned lens profiles a few times already so I thought I would list it here again. Basically, all of the camera manufacturers have created profiles of their lenses and have shared these with Adobe and other software manufacturers so that these can be used to correct minor issues that pop up with every lens. These profiles help to correct things like aberrations, including chromatic aberration, as well as vignetting and other optical issues. The end result is that we get better images due to a combination of the improved optical quality of the lenses and the related lens profiles. 

Faster and More Accurate Autofocus: The autofocus on most high-end DSLRs was already pretty fast, but the top-end mirrorless cameras have been able to use faster processors to calculate autofocus incredibly accurately at up to 120 times per second or faster in some cases. The new mirrorless cameras, because there is no mirror, can also use machine learning to track the eyes of your subject, or the subject itself with incredible accuracy far beyond the AF systems built into DSLRs. And all of the AF calculations are done on the sensor itself, which insures accurate autofocus in a way never before possible. Gone are the days of fine-tuning the autofocus of DSLRs to make sure they focus accurately with your lenses. Because the AF is done on the sensor the manufacturing variations between lenses is irrelevant—at least in terms of the autofocus. This new AF technology, along with IBIS and better image quality, are the big three reasons to move to mirrorless. 

Decoupling the AF point from the Composition: One of the big advances in the new AF technology is that there are AF points from corner-to-corner across the viewfinder. Because of this, we are now finally free to compose the image as we want without any AF restrictions. This is a huge benefit. Additionally, with eye tracking and the new subject tracking algorithms, in many instances we barely even have to think about the AF at all since many mirrorless cameras have exceptional AF accuracy even in challenging light. 

Truly Silent Operation: With modern mirrorless cameras we now have full and truly silent operation, save for the noise made by the autofocus moving lens elements back and forth. This is achieved using the electronic shutter option available in most mirrorless cameras. The Nikon Z 9 is the first pro-caliber mirrorless camera that does away with the shutter mechanism altogether. In fact it is a silent camera by default and you can turn on the sound to simulate a camera with a shutter. While a silent camera may not seem like a big deal, in many situations it will allow photographers to capture images without disturbing the subject such as in wildlife photography and photojournalism. Imagine a press briefing without all the annoying shutter mechanisms clacking away from the still photographers. Imagine a tennis match where the players don’t have to hear all of those cameras firing away as they try to line up their next shot? Silent cameras will quickly become the defacto standard and I would not be surprised to see them required at major events where sound is an issue (tennis, golf, press events and so on).

Live Histogram and WYSIWYG: Mirrorless cameras from a decade ago included the live histogram in the viewfinder and pretty much all of the current mirrorless cameras allow for the histogram to be visible in the EVF or on the rear LCD. While this isn’t new, it is incredibly valuable and makes capturing well exposed images much, much easier than it was with DSLRs. Of course, beyond the live histogram, the what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) EVF viewfinders also help massively when it comes to dialing in your exposure. These features not only help to get accurate exposures but they also help to dial in a creative effect using exposure settings. In some scenarios underexposing or overexposing the image helps to create the mood you want to convey better than the most accurate exposure and being able to see that instantly in the EVF is a huge help for translating your intent into the final image.  

Faster Frame Rates: Once the mirror was removed from the camera, and faster processors were introduced, the ability to speed up the frame rates in mirrorless cameras jumped drastically. The Sony A1, released earlier this year, notably pushed that envelope to a shocking 30 fps at 50 MP. Of course, for most of us, even sports photographers like myself, 20 fps, much less 30 fps, creates a digital workflow nightmare. It is great to have these options, but realistically, I can make do with 12 to 14 fps and occasionally will bump up to that 20 fps when absolutely needed. Regardless, the new crop of super fast cameras open up new options we have never seen before in any cameras thus far. 

While each of these points on their own may have a small (or large) impact on how you use a camera to create images, put together they change the photographic experience substantially—especially for anyone coming from the world of DSLRs. Note that I am not trying to sell anyone a mirrorless camera. I am just laying out my experiences and the advantages I see in working with the latest technology—and my reasoning for selling off my DSLRs. 

I will admit getting used to an EVF takes a little while, but with time it becomes very difficult to go back to a DSLR. This was the experience I had when I purchased the Nikon Z 6 way back in 2018 and then had to use my Nikon D850 for faster action oriented assignments. To be clear, the Nikon D850 was and still is a phenomenal camera. Even so, all of the advantages discussed here, and the speed with which mirrorless cameras can get you to the final image, makes the transition to mirrorless more than worth it for pro photographers. 

We are at a point now where I am not sure how the top-end cameras can be made any better. My current setup is unbelievable in terms of speed (the forthcoming Z 9) and image quality (GFX system). I am sure manufacturers will come out with ever higher megapixel cameras to tempt us in the future but for the moment, the technology is astounding. If you have been on the fence about making the move to mirrorless, now is the time. There is going to be a glut of gear on the used market so don’t wait until all of your DLSR gear is worthless to sell it off. Kudos to all the manufacturers for taking it to the next level!

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