Mirrorless …The “Future” of Hiking/Nature Photography? A Likely Story.

You’ve been hearing the whispers. Mirrorless is the future, they say.

First of all, who are “they,” and why do they whisper to you about camera technology?

Kidding. Just breaking the ice on this potentially controversial topic.

We sat down to write a post in which we were going to declare “Mirrorless is the future of hiking photography,” but along the way an interesting thing happened.

We started to question our hypothesis. Is Mirrorless this technology that is going to take over photography at some point in the “future?”

Or, is is it more that it’ll simply just be this “other” option that is also nice, and that Mirrorless and DSLR can co-exist, with the photographer making the choice as to what is right for their own needs?

This led to more digging, and additional questions. To looking at more perspectives. But, we’re clear on the subject now and are ready to share with you, the readers, our findings!

Let’s back up for a moment and break down the differences between DSLR and Mirrorless camera technology so that we all know what we’re talking about before we dig deeper.

DSLR, or “Digital Single-Lens Reflex,” is a camera body that uses a mirror to reflect light that enters through the lens up to a prism and into the viewfinder in order to preview a shot. When the shutter button is pressed, the mirror flips up, a shutter opens and the light falls onto the image sensor which captures the final image. This is the same design as the 35mm film cameras from the past. The tried and true camera technology.

The “new” guy on the block is Mirrorless, lack of the above described mirror system in this camera body. In a mirrorless camera, light passes through the lens directly onto the image sensor, which captures a preview of the image to display on the rear screen. Electronics take over the mechanical tasks of the “reflex” function to send light straight through the lense to the sensor which handles auto focus and passes the digital image to the viewfinder or digital screen.

They both sound like they take pictures, don’t they?

Ultimately, we are looking for certain particulars in a camera so that we can create professional quality images. A great sensor and lots of lens options, for instance.

Let’s compare a few “things” that we find important:

Image Sensor Size

Have no fear, you can get a full-frame image sensor on mirrorless or DSLR, and as we’ve discussed in a prior post, full-frame sensors are the way to go for nature and wildlife photography.

Size

DSLR tends to be larger, as their camera bodies must account for the mirror system. Mirrorless were MUCH smaller and lighter and had DSLR on the run, but DSLR camera bodies are, in at least some cases, shrinking of late which is sort of leveling the playing field. The fact of the matter is that mirrorless camera bodies are smaller and lighter, which is desirable for folks like us – hiking photographers who are packing an assortment of gear and trekking into the backcountry in search of photographic subjects, be it wildlife or landscapes. If you can get a camera that does essentially the same job, why not opt lighter?

Queue the perfect segway into our next “thing.”

Lenses

Here is where things get blurry. Because with most mirrorless cameras now, especially the higher end models, there are lense choices. Some third party lenses can be utilized with an adapter, too, allowing for much much more choices (keep in mind picture quality can be jeopardized with this adapter). But, adding larger lenses can add weight, and we find the additional weight can create a clumsy feel with the smaller camera body. Obviously you have many many choices when it comes to lenses with the DSLR. Also large and heavy.

Viewfinder

With a DSLR optical viewfinder, what you see is what you get. Mirrorless uses a screen on the backside of the camera. Some have what is called an electronic viewfinder, which allows you to see more than DSLR’s optical viewfinder. You are able to see the photo as it will be exposed, and are afforded the opportunity to correct things like exposure and white balance prior to snapping the shot.

Pretty cool, no?

Autofocus

DSLR has a dedicated AF, which is faster and more accurate. While this may not matter much when photographing landscapes, it will certainly be paramount when capturing the curious and impossible to anticipate movement of wildlife, or in low-light situations. This is an area where mirrorless has caught up significantly, and going forward could very well be a wash.

Speaking of a wash

Price

For so long DSLR could hang its hat on price. You were able to get much more camera for less simply because they’ve been around longer. This is another category in which mirrorless is catching up. For instance, compare the Sony Alpha A7R III mirrorless at around $3,200 versus Nikon’s D850 which we see hovering around $3,300. Pretty close.

Right now, spec for spec, the lines are becoming more and more blurred with advancement of mirrorless technology.

Which takes us back to our original hypothesis. Is mirrorless the future of hiking photography?

If mirrorless camera bodies and lenses are in fact lighter and smaller, and spec for spec the technology of mirrorless catches up in all of the important categories discussed above, and the story is that we’re talking about different cameras types capable of doing the same thing, perhaps the Mirrorless, smaller and lighter models are the best choice for hiking photography. As we all know, size and weight are important when we’re packing up all our necessary gear, heading out into the backcountry to find our photographic subjects, be it landscape or wildlife. Small and light are not bad features when packing for travel, either.

Maybe the story is different for different photographic situations, and each photographer can make his/her own decisions.

Likely, Mirrorless will be the answer for our particular photographic situation and needs as hiking nature photographers. Especially as the technology continues to advance.

For now, though, its a likely story, aint it?

Feel free to leave your thoughts, opinions and/or experiences in the comments section below. We’d love to hear what you have to say on this issue.

Kenton Krueger

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks as well as in the Grand Staircase Escalante in southern Utah. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, newspaper photographer and writer. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.

5 replies
  1. Don Robertson
    Don Robertson says:

    Well, perhaps one more factor. I’ll call it the fun factor. Mirrorless and DSLR are essentially equally capable of giving a great result, and both have cropped and full-frame choices. Perhaps in the end though we just find mirrorless sometimes a bit more fun! Can be smaller and less imposing. Full time live-view is pretty handy (less getting down on your knees or ability to get above a crowd. Most mirrorless now-days are highly stabilized. Wifi standard. And “no chimping” is possible.

    This only indicates mirrorless _can be_ a good choice for many. In the end, its still about making the opportunity and putting in the effort to get those great shots, having the eye for it, or just basic skill we all strive for.

    Time to get out again and find those great shots!

    Reply
  2. Sue
    Sue says:

    Thanks for the analysis. I’ve been considering mirrorless for travel. My DSLR is heavy to carry around.
    I’m hoping the prices will continue to drop for the new technology, that is one factor that has kept me from taking the leap.

    Reply
  3. Pat Dooley
    Pat Dooley says:

    The Sony A9 shows the future of mirrorless camera. It can shoot 20fps RAW with AF/AE on each shot without EVF blackout. The full frame sensor has 693 AF phase detection points spread over the whole sensor so it tracks moving objects as well or better than any DSLR. The electronic shutter eliminates noise and vibration.

    A traditional DSLR has a mechanical system for raising and lowering the mirror on each shot. This places an upper limit on the frame rate which seems to be 12fps.

    Reply
  4. Tom Gibson
    Tom Gibson says:

    Well….I “just” sold my Canon 5D4 and Canon lens which I really like and I cried a bit….not really. I now have a Fuji XT2 which I like and it just a FUN camera to use and light(er) weight. Good lens selection for all “my” needs. I can print 16×24 and probably 20×30. For night images I thought I would need a FF as the cropped sensor would produce too much noise. Not the case at all. I have the same pixel count that I did with my 5D3 and more than with the Canon 40D which I printed a 40×60 canvas picture of Yosemite valley’s tunnel entrance which hangs in a someone’s home.

    To back up I loaded my pack for a specific backpack trip in the sierras this past summer and then weighed the pack with the camera gear, food, stove, etc for 7 days….60 lbs. It was then I realized that it was going to be a car camping trip and not a backpack trip. Could I carry it? Yes but I had no desire to at all….The Fuji is here is stay.

    I know of many professional photographers who have left the heavy DSLR behind for the lighter Fuji….not just nature photographers, but wedding, event, studio and you name it. Yes mirrorless have one big disadvantage…battery life but not as bad a folfs make it out to be. I have 5 extra batteries, two lens, and a lighter weight tripod for hiking and backpacking. I use the camera for sporting events and the continuous AF is fast as is the tracking…..

    I am more than satisfied as I am not capturing elephants nor will I go to Africa where I might? need longer and much heavier lens. The Fuji 100-400 lens is very good quality and would do just fine capturing an elephant or cheetah and is not as heavy as a 600mm lens.

    I would love to hear others thoughts…..

    Reply
    • Bob Panick
      Bob Panick says:

      I switched from Nikon to Olympus, I’m now on my second generation of the E-M1. I gave up two stops of low light compared to a comparable FF camera, and its 1/3 the weight, and 1/3 the cost, and considerably more sophisticated than anyone’s DSLR. Are there trade offs yes, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back.

      My system of two bodies, a fish eye, zooms covering ultra wide to telephoto and a 300mm (600 FFE) weigh in at about 8 pounds, and it all fits in an f-stop Large slope pod. The image stabilization is so good I often don’t need a tripod, saving even more weight.

      Reply

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