Taking the Leap from DSLR to Mirrorless

November 17, 2016   15 Comments »

Making an initial camera brand choice for the serious photographer is difficult because it sets you in a direction that dictates years of gear to come.  In the past your choices were primarily Canon and Nikon.   After you build up that arsenal of initial equipment, you never contemplate making a costly switch to a new brand.  However, in the last few years a new player, mirrorless cameras, have come into the serious photography space and they are making a lot of people consider making a brand switch.

I do a lot of hiking and active travel, and I carry my equipment with me all the time. It can get really heavy and cumbersome at times. Since I knew I had a big 2-week hike in Costa Brava  this spring, I really wanted to use that opportunity to take a little camera diet. I wanted to have lighter equipment to hike with on this rugged trail for 100 miles. This is what drove me to make the switch from DSLR to mirrorless, I wanted a lighter camera solution. Secondarily, I had been using my Canon 60D for 4 years now; the technology was older, and the camera really had some wear and tear on it thanks to all of the use it gets and the extreme environments I take it into.

When you decide to change over camera brands there’s a lot of good – and bad to the process. It wasn’t an easy decision for me to make the switch, I talked to a lot of other photographer friends who had made the switch and all seemed pretty satisfied with it. So I made the leap into full frame mirrorless this year and purchased a Sony A7ii. I went with the lower end model because I don’t do a ton of video which the higher end models (A7Rii o A7Sii) are known for.

What is a Mirrorless Camera

Sony A7ii

Look mom…no mirrors!

Mirrorless cameras are interchangeable lens cameras that don’t have the mirror and sometimes don’t have an optical viewfinder that define a DSLR. Most mirrorless cameras are built around the same sized sensors as DSLRs, offer the same quality images, and have similar lenses available. As time goes by there are fewer and fewer differences between the two. The main ones are that a DSLR has a through-the-lens optical viewfinder, while a mirrorless has an electronic viewfinder. The mirrorless cameras also use their main imaging sensor for focus as opposed to a to separate, dedicated autofocus module that DSLR’s generally use. Mirrorless cameras have come far enough along that I was finally ready to try one.

Taking a Camera Diet

My main reason for making this switch was because I wanted a lighter camera to carry with me on hikes and traveling in general. The A7ii definitely delivers on that. BUT – you have to be careful with this statement, as the weight overall of what you are carrying really depends on the lens you purchase. Originally I wanted to purchase the Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM Lens – as it would replace my favorite Canon lens that is also a 2.8. However when I started to look at the specs of the lens I realized that it was really heavy; weighing in at nearly 2 pounds (1.95 to be exact). When I added that to the camera body weight – it ended up being the same weight total as my Canon body and 17-55 F2.8 lens. So I really wasn’t changing anything in weight!

If weight is a reason for switching, make sure that you check the specs of the lenses you want plus the camera body to make sure you are actually dropping weight from what you have now.

Good lenses are generally heavy – and I’m positive that the Sony GM lens was a great lens – but it would’ve have defeated my purpose as well as been a hit to my budget as it costs $2200.

I decided since weight was my main goal, I would choose a different, lighter, cheaper ‘everyday’ lens. I went with the Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS Lens for $1200. I lost some ability to shoot in low light since this was only an f4, but I was pretty confident that the Sony’s superior ability to shoot in low light with it’s high ISO’s, and image stabilization built into the camera would make up for my lost range in aperture. And I would say that after using the camera and lens combo now for 6 months, that I was right – I didn’t need the 2.8 as the other features made up for it in low light shooting.

In the end, the camera and lenses that I carry overall are lighter and take less space in my bag. And when I’m hiking on the trail, the camera is absolutely lighter and more comfortable.

New Lenses and Compatibility

I think the hardest part about making the switch is that it does mean that you are likely going to have to invest in all new lenses – which means a big hit to the pocketbook. However, in my opinion, the most important thing in your photography arsenal is your lens. I had to go through the agonizing process of replacing lenses – lenses that I loved. And because I’m not rich, I couldn’t just get everything at once, I had to just get the basics and then plan to slowly supplement and replace over the next few years.

The good news is that it is actually possible to use your Canon or Nikon lenses with the Sony, but it requires an adapter. I bought the FotodioX Vizelex ND Throttle Adapter for Canon EF/EF-S Lenses to Sony E-Mount Cameras – at approximately $100. There are more expensive ones, but I found that this one was just fine. You put this adapter on and then put your Canon lens on to the adapter and Presto! I could use my Canon 10-22mm wide angle lens! This meant that I didn’t have to go out and purchase a new wide angle and a new telephoto lens right away. Instead I just invested in a new ‘everyday’ lens, the Sony 24 -70mm f/4 Vario Tessar T and started off with that.

However, it wasn’t all puppies and rainbows with this adapter solution. It’s great that I could use an existing lens, however the time it takes to set auto focus when using the adapter is significant; it just takes much longer, but it does eventually focus. It’s not a problem when I use the adapter with my wide angle as I’m normally taking landscape shots with it and there’s no real rush. However, when I used it with my Canon 70-300mm lens, which I frequently us for wildlife photography, the slow focus time caused me to miss shots. Since I had trips planned to Churchill to photograph polar bears, Alaska and Maine for bears and moose, and Antarctica for penguins, whales, and seals – I knew that this adapter solution wasn’t going to work. So I invested in a Sony FE 70-300mm F4.5-5.6 G OSS Lens to take advantage of that fast Sony auto focus for wildlife photography. Another $1100 investment. Ouch, but necessary. It’s a great lens and just this week I was out using it to capture the super moon in South Dakota!

Sony mirrorless

Super Moon over South Dakota with my 70-300mm lens cropped in at about 50%.

Sony mirrorless

Catching the quick wildlife action in Churchill as polar bears spar

Overall, the two Sony lenses I bought are excellent. The Zeiss lens (24-70mm F4) is so sharp; much sharper than my old Canon lenses! Seeing tack sharp pictures is a delight and it was a good move to Sony just for that alone.

Other Things to Consider

Battery life is an area I knew was going to be worse than my old DSLR, but I was willing to deal with it. A mirrorless camera has to constantly power the sensor and display which eats up battery life, not to mention that most also have wifi connectivity to transfer photos wirelessly. However, I pretty quickly learned to train myself to shut off the camera after taking a few pictures. I never let it stay in the ‘On’ mode and have just gotten really quick at training my brain to pick up the camera and turn it on all in one quick swoop! I also don’t use the Wifi function to transfer images. Call me old school, but it just isn’t that big of deal to me at this point. I have my process of how I do workflow and it doesn’t require wireless immediate transfer. Maybe it’s like flying first class, if I were to start to use the wifi function, I’d likely realize what I’ve been missing all of these years and then have to have it – which is exactly why I fly economy! Finally, the best way to combat fast battery drain is to just buy a lot of extras! I have 5 that I carry with me now (my old camera I had 3) because I often go to remote places with no place to recharge.

The auto focus is much better than my old DSLR – it’s fast and has many more options when it comes to focus choices including a continuous autofocus and many more options for focal points that I didn’t have before. There’s also an HDR function when shooting in .jpg, however I honestly haven’t used it much as I normally edit the images in Lightroom myself anyway. The burst is super fast, and great for wildlife or sports. And of course from what I can tell the video is great – but I haven’t used it a ton. Actually I’ve probably barely scratched the surface yet on all of the new bells and whistles that I have with the Sony, but over time I will start to use more of them.

An issue I ran into recently that I hadn’t heard anyone talk about is that I find that I get a lot more dust on my sensor than I ever did with my DSLR. This can mean a lot of work in post processing which I hate. Within my first trip I had dust that I couldn’t get off with a rocketblower or anything so I had to go in and pay to have it cleaned. Since there is no mirror on the camera – when you change lenses it seems that it’s more susceptible to getting little dust particles on it (and yes, before you lecture me, I have the camera turned off when I change lenses and I’m not changing lenses in the wind unless it’s an emergency!). The added expense of cleanings was a bit disappointing.

Some of my favorite images from my time using the Sony A7ii

Before You Decide to Invest in Sony, Consider This

And the one last thing I will say about making the switch to Sony, I’ve been really disappointed in their customer service and ability to stand behind the quality of their product. Within 4 months of paying a hefty price for this new Sony mirrorless full frame camera, I had an issue. The rubber protective layer on the body came loose and started completely pulling away from the camera body. I was left with a camera that was barely used and it was literally falling apart on the outside.

What made it worse was the area where is came apart was between the card slot and the battery slot – a frequently used area. I had to tape the rubber section back on and tape over the card slot and battery so that the problem wouldn’t get any worse. So I had a new camera with tape on it already! I contacted Sony about getting it fixed under warranty and took it to Photo Tech in NYC as they are one of the only places that does warranty service for Sony in the US. However, since the defect did not affect my ability to take a photo, according to their warranty, it was not covered.

You can imagine that I was more than a little upset. I contacted and talked to Sony customer representatives tirelessly; I tried to be nice, I yelled, I tried to reason with them about the need for good customer service, I tried to convince them to do the ‘right’ thing, I even shed a few tears of anger. But they absolutely wouldn’t budge and kept saying that it didn’t affect my ability to take a picture and I would have to pay for any repair.

So I forked out another $140 to have my camera body repaired after only 4 months of use due to a quality defect. If I hadn’t repaired it, then the whole rubber section would have pulled off eventually and the camera wouldn’t have been protected against weather and dust. The whole incident and my disappointment in Sony to stand behind their product after just a short amount of use, was enough for me to tell anyone to think twice about making this switch. My Canon stood up to years of travel, extreme weather/environments, and excessive use and I can’t say the same about Sony. I felt their customer service on this issue was completely out of line. Any company that can’t stand behind the quality of their product when it’s practically new is a company I don’t want to do business with.

So as you can tell, I’ve had some good and bad with the switch from DSLR to the mirrorless, and hopefully this will help you as you make the big decision on making the leap!

 

Opening photo by Pete Heck

Follow my Travels.


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