The Advantages of Shooting Mirrorless

Conference Program

General Interest

By Joe & Mary Ann McDonald

Sponsored by Olympus

WhenPosted in June
WherePosted in June
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SkillAll levels
CostIncluded in your registration

For many, the advantage of mirrorless cameras is their smaller size and weight. For photographers approaching their twilight years, where lugging a 15-pound telephoto lens is no longer appealing or even possible, mirrorless offers a new lease on your photographic life.

Air travel has always been a source of nerve-wracking anticipation every time one waited to board a plane, as photographers questioned ‘will I be able to bring on my carry-on?’ That anxiety is radically reduced with mirrorless.

Ego and being one of the ‘big boys or girls’ sporting big, impressive glass is, I believe, one of the obstacles photographers must be aware of and must dismiss as silly when considering mirrorless. Touting around a 300mm, that may have an equivalent focal length of 600mm with a full frame D SLR, requires some self-confidence, as photographers not in the know dismiss the smaller lens, and the photographer carrying one, as not being a ‘player.’

For those using and enjoying a mirrorless system, particularly the micro 4/3rds system, that dismissal should only be a cause for pity, as these mirrorless shooters are truly in the vanguard of a new age in photography. Regardless of the camera system, be that a full-frame mirrorless or a micro 4/3rds system, almost all mirrorless cameras are smaller in size and weight than a traditional D SLR. While there is certainly an advantage in this alone, mirrorless cameras provide the most effective exposure method available. Mary and I used to advocate spot-metering and manual mode for determining exposures most accurately, since backgrounds or foregrounds or differences in light within a scene would not affect an exposure taken for the subject. In programmed modes, a dark background surrounding a small middle tone subject could result in an over-exposure on the subject since the dark background could bias the exposure. Photographers often relied on ‘chimping,’ checking their LCD monitors after each shot to compensate for any error. This resulted, too frequently, in losing shots when one could have had their eye to the viewfinder and shooting frames.

Because mirrorless incorporates a live view picture, both in the LCD monitor and the viewfinder, one sees IN REAL TIME what an exposure actually is. There is no guess work, and no need to check an LCD monitor after the shot to confirm an exposure – you have done so when you made the shot. This saves so much time, and results in not missing poses or activities that may not be repeated.

Mary and I still shoot on manual mode so that changes in backgrounds or subject position or other variables do not affect the exposure we set for our subject or for the effect we desired. Mary still shoots on spot-metering (an old habit) while I generally shoot on an evaluative or matrix-like metering pattern, but it really doesn’t matter. What we see in our viewfinder is what we’ll record, so the metering pattern alone makes no difference. This live-view feature through the camera’s viewfinder is especially valuable if you shoot video. With traditional D SLRs, shooting video required using the camera’s LCD monitor for seeing the video image. The viewfinder did not work. In bright light, seeing a camera’s monitor could be quite challenging, requiring photographers to either use accessories, like a Hoodman loupe, to cover the monitor and to act as a de facto viewfinder, or a coat draped over the head and camera to provide shade. Either method created some degree of inconvenience, if not outright comedy. With mirrorless, one can look through the viewfinder and follow the action without the need of any accessory, which makes switching from stills to video to stills again a simple, effortless process.

As mentioned earlier, size and weight are very important factors to consider. This is particularly true with the micro 4/3rds system. As an example, a 300mm f4 lens in the micro 4/3rds system produces an image that is the equivalent of a 600mm lens, but with a size that is less than half, and often less than a third the size and weight of a traditional full frame D SLR.

Besides the obvious convenience one experiences in packing and traveling with smaller, lighter gear, there is another enormous advantage that is not, too often, considered. And that advantage lies in mobility. I’ve often wondered, since switching to the smaller micro 4/3rds system, how many times I might walk back and forth on a long boardwalk as I searched for a Least Bittern or similarly hard-to-find bird if I were carrying my old 800mm lens, heavy D SLR pro camera, and the required heavy tripod head and tripod? From personal experience watching shooters still using that type of gear, I suspect I’m moving and checking far more frequently than I would have in the past simply because I’m not burdened by the weight of that much heavier equipment.

Virtually all camera brands offer image stabilization today, either in-camera or via the lens. Some systems, like Olympus, incorporate both, providing up to 7 stops of stabilization. For those who’ve heard this term but didn’t understand exactly what it means, 7 stops means a shutter speed of 1/15th is, via the stabilization, 1/2000th sec. Hand-holding smaller lenses for landscape images is a simple process, and with fast shutter speeds big telephoto lenses can be hand-held as well. The freedom this provides is priceless.

Keystone correction is another useful feature. Buildings or trees seem to fall backwards when shot with a wide-angle lens, if the subject is relatively close to the photographer. The reason for this is wide-angle distortion – the top of a tree is further from the shooter than is the base – think of a right triangle – and objects further away appear to be falling backwards. With Keystone correction, you can adjust an image prior to the shutter release to correct for this keystone effect.

LiveView Boost enables you to see what you are shooting in dim light, perfect for photographing hummingbirds with flash at the end of the day when the light is poor and the birds are most active. While another feature, Live Composite, makes photographing stars, lightning, cityscapes, lightning bugs, fireworks, and more, possible and easy, incorporating time-lapse photography that only records light that is brighter than the original exposure. One sees the effect as each lightning bolt appears, allowing you to choose when the shot looks just perfect and end an exposure.

Live Composite does take a little experimentation to get proficient with this feature. After the initial exposure is determined and shot, nothing else registers on the sensor unless it is brighter than the original capture. Consider stars. As the earth rotates, the stars seem to move through the sky. At the initial exposure, the area around each star would be black, but as the earth rotates and the star shifts position, the bright area has moved over what was a darker area. Consequently, it registers, and with a long-time exposure you can record a long arc or star trail. While star trails can be done in other ways, in a traditional long exposure, any ambient light that was present in the image would continue to build as additive light, and would eventually be over-exposed. That won’t happen with Live Composite.

The limitation for Live Composite is the shutter speed, usually at ½ second, so Live Composite can’t be used during bright times of the day, say for lightning strikes, unless you use a Neutral Density filter too. By using one, and I’d recommend a variable ND filter that covers 8 or 10 stops of light, you can shoot during the day, allowing you to capture multiple lightning strikes. Once the initial exposure is made, the base exposure is set. A gray, stormy sky stays gray, and only if a lightning bolt occurs will anything change, as Live Composite records the new, brighter light source. Obviously, for day light shooting with a ND filter you’ll need to use a low ISO and a small aperture to obtain a ½ second exposure.

Video, available in many camera systems, will be covered as well, as Joe explains the advantages of shooting large file video clips, and slow-motion, for various subjects. By shooting large files, meaning 4K video, it is possible to capture individual frames that can be saved as TIFs or JPGs. You’d need Photoshop or Lightroom for this (and other programs may do so as well), but the key is the subject must be still. For just video, 4K video works best at shutter speeds of 1/48th sec or 1/60th sec, but if your subject is moving, those shutter speeds won’t work. If you catch a subject during a momentary pause, however, then those shutter speeds will work. I’ve done so often.

The other alternative I love using is High Speed video, at a frame rate of 119 frames per second. Since viewing normally is played back at 30 frames per second (fps), one second of High-Speed Video provides approximately four seconds of screen time. A three second clip gives nearly 12 seconds, and at that slow playback time the muscles of a walking lion, the heavy, dust-stirring steps of a bull elephant, the leap of a salmon into a brown bear’s jaws, all are revealed.

Joe will explain the features he and Mary Ann use most frequently for capturing wildlife and nature, and will illustrate the talk with exciting images that show those features in action.