Thoughts on Going Mirrorless – by C.S. Muncy

C.S. MuncyC.S. Muncy is a New York City-based freelance photojournalist with a client list that includes The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, The New York Daily News and The Village Voice. His work has also appeared in Time Magazine, The Smithsonian Magazine and Wired Japan. In 2012, he was selected for the 25th Eddie Adams Workshop, received the NPPA Short Course Travel Grant and won first prize in the National Geographic/Nikon “Full Story” photo contest. A graduate of the Defense Information School, he enlisted in the United States Air Force in 2002 and is currently a combat correspondent with the 106th Rescue Wing.

Fuji X-Pro1

As mirrorless cameras have proliferated over the last year, a lot of technology and photography writers have begun to ask about the relevancy of the digital SLR. Some, such as Zack Arias have even gone so far as to assert that the DSLR as we know it is dead. Indeed, I know of a few professional photographers who have abandoned their pro bodies and have picked up smaller mirrorless kits for everyday shooting.

Recently I picked up a Fujifilm X-Pro1, one of the higher-end mirrorless cameras that was introduced in late 2012. I’ll admit that I’m somewhat conservative when it comes to adopting new photographic tech; if my gear (or format) works, why change it? As a news shooter, the last thing I want is to be fiddling around in the field with an unfamiliar design, trying to figure out how to change ISO or properly focus when I should be grabbing frames.

Fujifilm X-Pro1

Still, I was curious. I’ve been looking at the X-Pro1 for a while now. The sturdy metal body and physical knobs appealed to me, and the ability to mount both the highly review Fuji lenses and my Leica glass (with an adaptor) seemed like a great bargain. And while it’s not a rangefinder (despite several sites describing it as such) it did have an optical viewfinder. In theory, I liked it. The engineering was simple, the physical layout uncomplicated and the glass had a great reputation.

I’ve hesitated in buying a mirrorless camera for a number of reasons. Boiling it down, it came to the reaction speed of the camera (how long it took to actually focus, compose and fire the shutter after powering on,) battery life, comparative cost and image quality compared to cameras I already owned.

For news work (especially spot news, sports or anything involving shooting in a hurry,) a camera with a fast reaction time is essential. I want to be able to know that I can pick up my camera, compose my image and know my settings are accurate almost as soon the viewfinder reaches my eye. My second concern, battery life, has much to do with the way mirrorless cameras function. With a hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder, the camera is always going to be eating up power. With DSLRs you can compose your image and change your settings without seriously impacting your battery.

Fujifilm X-Pro1

In my opinion, where do these factors leave the X-Pro1 in comparison to my DSLRs? Honestly, it doesn’t compare. Rumors of the death of the DSLR have been greatly overestimated. While the X-Pro1 is a fantastic camera, I found it lacking as a professional tool for news-gathering purposes. The reaction speed, while very fast, still lags behind modern DSLRs like the D600. Based on a days use, the battery life was much shorter than comparable prosumer DSLRs. As to cost, you can easily afford a refurbished D600 for the cost of an X-Pro1 and lens, which features a full frame sensor and better low-light resolution. I’ve seen some great reviews for other model mirrorless cameras, such as the new Sony A7r (which also features a full frame sensor) but I still can’t picture myself making the jump for the same reasons mentioned above.

So why did I pick this camera up? Why spend so much on a camera system I still haven’t completely subscribed to? Because unlike the cameras in my crash kit, this camera doesn’t stand out; it doesn’t scream “PHOTOGRAPHER!” or “JOURNALIST!” People aren’t threatened by it, and it’s not as likely to send security guards into a frenzy. In short, it’s a humble-looking camera that I can use in slower moments to produce quieter images. While the image quality doesn’t measure up to my D600, it’s certainly no slouch. The images are sharp and the color balance is right on target; the depth of field (when used with the 35mm 1.4) is fantastic and the design allows for an almost unlimited number of lenses to be mounted if you have the right adaptor (seriously: look on eBay and you’ll find adaptors for almost any type of lens.)

Fujifilm X-Pro1

So is the DSLR an obsolete design? I believe the answer is a resounding “no.” Is it the design of the future? Will it supplant the single lens reflexes of today? Again, I believe the answer is “no.” Tech writers, in their eagerness to embrace new technology often forget what makes some of the older designs so great. In this case it’s speed, sustainable power and ease of use. With that said, I do believe that current and future mirrorless designs may supplement DSLRs in the same way point and shoots have over the last few years. It’s not likely to kill the DSLR, though as the technology matures (and hopefully becomes less expensive) it may end up killing the point and shoot.

Fujifilm X-Pro1

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