This article is based on my personal way of shooting and may not be compatible to yours. Everyone is different and everyone prefers different types of gear and we all know Mirrorless is the future, but it’s not as mainstream as Bloggers/Vloggers say it is. Eventually the old mirror box cameras will fade away and at that point we will move forward into the new way. I’m basing this article on the camera body layout of a tried and true Nikon D750 which is a very popular camera. Here’s a short editorial version of camera layout/functions that are important to me. Lets start out with the fact I work in all kinds of uncontrolled situations which includes severe weather. My old all manual film cameras didn’t have rubber seals all over the place and they worked fine since there was either no or limited electronics. Today weather sealing is the top criteria for any digital camera I look at. After that, the following applies but in no specific order of importance. Since I’m a film era photographer I grew up toting around a lot of filters with my camera gear. I had to filter for different types of light (tungsten, fluorescent, daylight, mixed, etc). Today, you have White Balance which does the same thing automatically if you want it to. If I was using Velvia 50 and doing a long exposure, I would have to calculate for reciprocity failure and add more exposure time plus use color correction filters to get the picture to come out correctly. It wasn’t unusual for me to be doing 5 minute or 4 hour exposures. It’s important to note that digital cameras/sensors are just the opposite. They are much more sensitive to light even at low ISO settings and require either the metered exposure time or less time. Since this is all built into digital cameras, I look for the ability to be able to dial in white balance, color correction and feel (feel being equal to a specific look relating to a specific film).
Of course I use NEF (RAW), so many of these in camera adjustments are not transferred to the NEF file and they can be done in post processing. The only filters I use now are Neutral Density, Graduated Neutral Density, Haze HD from Tiffen and Circular Polarizer. That’s a lot less than the 60+ filters I had when I was in my 20’s. Dynamic Range – This is a subjective area where everyone knows Nikon has a wider dynamic range over Canon which helps tremendously when recovering whites/highlights or shadows. Color true to life – This can make or break a commercial project, so the camera sensor combined with the post processing software has to record true color if viewed on a monitor or printed out because everything has to match the actual subject. Flash – Back in the film days I didn’t do polaroid tests prior to doing an assignment. I had to be fast and accurate and I didn’t have the luxury of doing flash/lighting tests. I assessed the situation, calculated ambient exposure and flash exposure and went with it. I never had any issues with blown out or under exposed pictures. I did a wedding using my F5 with Fujichrome 400X slide film and pre-wedding formals with Fujicolor pro 160S all lit with SB28 speedlights. My first digital wedding was with the D80 and 4 SB800 speedlights. So yes, flash and the ability to control that is important to me.
Body layout – This could be a long one, but I’ll simplify it. I could never figure out why the multi-controller was low on the body. I would use the first joint on my thumb to move focus points around. It’s nice to see that the new D5 and D500 bodies have added a new controller higher up that is more in-sync with the natural way your hand holds the body. Aperture and shutter control on the Nikon is more natural than with other manufacturer bodies. They are in a natural position for quick access and use. The Function button at the lower front right of the body down from the shutter button serves as my spot meter, since I used large and medium format cameras when I was young and used hand held meters to calculate exposures during the film days. Since Nikon has spot metering linked to each focus point, I can get a specific reading fast on a small portion of my subject or scene. I still had my Sekonic cine/photo meter when I stopped using my F6. The AF-ON and AE-L/AF-L buttons are not on all Nikon bodies but are an important part of my custom settings. I use the AF-ON button as my AF Lock. If the camera doesn’t have an AF-ON button I’ll use the focus mode selector switch to go from AF to Lock by switch to MF (manual focus). I use the AE-L/AF-L button to lock my exposure. Still backwards compatible – Although this is becoming something that isn’t important with many newer photographers, it is nice to be able to use vintage Nikkors. The Df is by far the best film user to digital camera I’ve used that just looks and functions extremely well with vintage Nikkor lenses and equally as good with newer ones.
The basics of setting up my camera – Here’s my standard method, in short, when I get a new camera. The first thing I do is (and this is obviously after setting the language/time zone). I go right into the menu and start customizing everything to my personal way of shooting. This, of course, is all based on the fact that I used film. The transition to digital means the camera should be able to function like my film cameras did. The biggest problem I find with workshop students is they buy a camera and never change anything. They use all factory defaults and auto mode (that little green camera icon on the top selector) because as one person said, learning how the camera functions is a hassle, but that same person complains about their results too. Read your manual and go over each page with your camera in hand. You’ll find it easier to understand the content and be able to try different settings. Nikon color depth and overall image quality – I get a lot of compliments on how my pictures look and that’s a direct result of customizing the camera and good batch processing. I say batch processing because I shoot like I’m shooting film. I like shooting it right in the camera and use minimal adjustments in my post processing software. I shoot, upload and export. It’s rare that I have to do any major adjustments.
Now lets look beyond the megapixel race and focus on video for a minute. The new camera manufacturer battle is incorporating 4K video and precise AF functions while recording video. Since Nikon prefers to specialize more in making great stills cameras while having to include video, they do not have true silent or precise AF tracking while recording video and that is not an issue for me. I have my own quick set and record method that works pretty well in those un-controlled off the hip clips. *I do a fast AF lock in photo mode, then switch to MF (using the focus mode selector on the body), switch to movie mode and record. I can do this in a few seconds because of how the body is laid out which goes back to the why Nikon is the best choice for me thing. I tested this on Westin and it seems to be ok as long as he isn’t moving towards or away quickly, I get sharp results. 4K video has many people dumping perfectly good cameras to up their resolution for video capture. 4K will fall to the wayside just like HD and 6K, 8K, 16K, 32K are all on the list of future technological advancements, so if your camera works just fine for stills, stick with the Full HD and save yourself some post processing stress and storage space. At this time, most computers and TV’s can not handle 4K video.
The Digital Era
Optical viewfinders and geared lenses don’t require you to power up the camera to compose a shot and are still the best means of a real view of your subject and having knowledge of exposure and watching the meter beats an electronic view. The digital era has really packed in a lot of features beyond film cameras and I actually am able to carry less weight in the field (no film/not as many filters) where I can get the maximum amount of image quality out of the sensor using a traditional SLR type digital camera that has been customized. If I want smaller/lighter then I reach for a DX body and DX lenses. Now of course if I was under contract with Nikon and not allowed to use other brands without being cut from the roster . . . all of this would be seen by many people as just another Nikon Promo by a Nikon user who is biased. The truth is I used digital DSLR cameras from Canon, Leica, Pentax and Sony. I used Mirrorless cameras from Fuji, Nikon, Panasonic and Sony so I have a real world working knowledge of all those systems and how they feel and work. There’s just no camera body out there as fast as a Nikon body in terms of being able to work it quick and I will even go further to say that the Df despite its old school layout is blazing fast to operate if you set it up right. There is so much more to this that the best way to really understand it and get the most out of your Nikon camera is to take a workshop.
The 2 pictures below represents one of the biggest reasons I continue to use Nikon gear. I finished my film days using the F6 which shares the same basic upper right side control layout of all the Nikon digital cameras I’ve used up to this time. The D5 and D500 are the same as well. When I say *the same basic layout*, I mean the position of the power switch, command and sub-command dials, exposure compensation button and upper LCD screen. What makes this so great is that I can use the camera with just my right hand from turning on the power to adjusting any of the critical settings if I’m in manual mode. This is essentially all about speed and function to capture a moment in time in a dynamic situation like the picture below to the right which was the cover photo for the premiere issue of Contemporary Family magazine. I saw the moment unfolding and it was literally less than 3 seconds from the time I saw them and raised my camera to capture that shot. There are several other methods of metering, setting or adjust my apertures and shutter speeds that I use and to explain that is beyond the scope of this short article. For a detailed explanation and to learn how I set up my camera and capture images in a fast dynamic situation, you should take a workshop so you can get personal and hands on training.
The D750 like many other bodies only has an AE-L/AF-L button as seen in the picture below to the right. Higher priced Nikon bodies have this button plus an AF-ON button to the right of the AE-L/AF-L button like on the Df shown as an inset in that picture.
On the D750, I use the AE-L/AF-L button to lock my metered exposure only. This is usually when I’m in spot metering. On the Df, I use it the same way and use the AF-On button to lock the AF in certain situations. Both these buttons get customized for different situations. An example is using the AF-On button for AF-On and the AF mode selector on the front lower left of the body to switch into manual focus which stops the AF. Some lenses have an AF lock button on them which I will use as well.
So by now you might be thinking that I’m just not willing to make changes in my system or the way I capture images. This isn’t true and everyone who has used a camera system daily for more than 5 years will find they have to change the way they were doing things if that “new” system is laid out differently and has a different focusing system.
Here are my personal thoughts on Mirrorless camera systems. As with everything, there’s a lot of fluff going around about Mirrorless and how it’s so much better than the old way. I’m not going to get into those arguments or details. My biggest 2 negatives are battery life and the cost of those smaller batteries equaling or exceeding the cost of larger DSLR batteries and overheating issues in many situations especially on hot sunny days. The new Panasonic GH5 and Sony a9 have larger batteries so extended life is starting to be taken seriously, but also required making the bodies bigger. So much for smaller bodies. Mirrorless cameras run pretty hot and that’s documented in the manuals as well as electronic viewfinders possibly causing adverse health effects for some users. I personally have had more than one brand of Mirrorless cameras overhead while doing casual photo’s of my friends children riding their bikes on a sunny day. The only way to cool them down enough to continue to use them was to put the camera in the refrigerator for 5 minutes. To most people none of this means anything, I’m just stating that these things are never addressed in reviews or discussed in an honest manner. The save weight go Mirroless argument simply isn’t true when you add up all the weight for each system. The bigger the sensor the more need there is for better heat syncing and you need space to dissipate the heat from the larger sensor being live 100% of the time. Even DSLR’s will overheat and shut down while recording video, but I never had a DSLR shut down while doing stills.
What I like about Mirrorless cameras is that the sensor is real close to the front of the body and easy to clean, if and when, any dust adheres to it, which from my experience is far less than any of the DSLR’s I’ve used. Size, and this only applies to small profile cameras, not the Sony a7, a9 series or Fuji XPRO and XT series. I find the Nikon V or J series, Panasonic GX8 and Sony A6xxx series cameras and certain lenses to be small and light which is more than welcomed on backpacking trips or casual travel, but the smaller the camera is, the harder it is to dissipate heat build up from the sensor being live 100% of the time. Mirrorless cameras can and do capture images just as good as a DSLR, so there’s no issues there. Just like DSLR’s some cameras are weather sealed and some are not. A digital camera is an electronic device and are more likely to fail in extreme weather and wet conditions.
In the last few years my personal go to Mirrorless camera was a 2010 era Nikon 1 V1 which takes the same EN-EL15/a battery as many of my DSLR cameras. That 1V stopped working with under 10,000 shots on it and I would bet that was caused by “heat”. Anyone who uses Magic Lantern software in their Canon camera has the menu option of seeing the internal operating temperature of the camera. I rented Mirrorless cameras from the brands listed above to get a feel for how they work in a commercial and personal environment. I’m not a DXOMark follower or follow the camera comparison reviews, but just do a Google search on Sony A6500 vs Nikon D7200 (which is more then capable for commercial work) and you’ll see that the Sony is right there when it comes to image quality and comes in a much smaller package. We all know Nikon/Sony are comparable in image quality, since Nikon is known to use Sony sensors in many of their cameras. The choice is ultimately yours, but renting is a far better option than buying when you are thinking about going Mirrorless within the brand you use or taking the plunge to switch brands.
Here’s some of the pictures I’ve captured using Mirrorless cameras.