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Mustard’s Masterclass – Use Of Mirrorless Camera

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A photographer is shooting with a mirrorless camera, taken with Nikon Z8
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Alex Mustard makes a brief departure from photo technique to talk photo gear, because the hot topic in underwater photography is the rise of the full-frame mirrorless camera

Photographs by Alex Mustard

I am getting three or four messages each day from keen photographers about whether now is the time to ditch their DSLRs. There isn’t a simple answer, because the biggest factors in making the switch remain personal.

Right now, the right answer for some is to stick with what you have, for others it is the right time to jump to the new technology, while a third group it is explore other options, like smaller sensor mirrorless.

The aim of the article is to pass on real-world experience so that you can make the right decision for you.

I’d like to kick off with a few truths. First, mirrorless cameras are the future, and we probably will never see any more new DSLR cameras released. Mirrorless is where these companies are putting all their new tech, indeed the designers feel that mirrorless is simply an inevitable evolution of cameras going digital, so they won’t be going back.

In their minds, since you have a sensor that can see what the lens sees, there is really no need for the complexity, weight and expense of the mirror and prism, which make up a DSLR’s optical viewfinder.

That said, the final generation of DSLRs were exceptional cameras, and still are. Upgrading is far from essential, as no camera will make you a better photographer. But there is no doubting that the best tech makes it easier to get certain shots, can help you get new types of shots, and can be a great pleasure to own and shoot.

Camera reviews are supposed to be cold and objective, but I always feel they miss this final point. Deciding on a new camera should always involve both the head and the heart.

For most people, photography is a hobby and if a new camera will make you enjoy your leisure time more, then I say it is the right camera for you to buy.

Seeing in black and white in real time is a revelation, takes with Nikon Z8
Seeing in black and white in real time is a revelation, takes with Nikon Z8

I’d also like to dispel a few myths. First, although full-frame mirrorless camera bodies are slightly smaller than DSLRs (because they don’t have a mirror), you are not really going to save any size and weight in terms of your underwater system.

Lenses, domes, strobes and strobe arms are still the same size – and using size and weight as a reason to upgrade isn’t a watertight argument. Also, quite a few of the headline mirrorless advantages that you will have heard photographers raving about in reviews have limited applications underwater.

Star features, such as astronomic frame rates, pre-capture and smart subject recognition autofocus can only be exploited rarely underwater. Next, if you are coming from the very best DSLR, like the Nikon D850, you are not really going to get much of a jump in image quality with mirrorless.

The high ISO performance is better, but at the lower ISOs we use more regularly underwater there is no image quality advantage.

Two features of mirrorless cameras, the autofocus and the electronic viewfinder, are the areas of the biggest difference to DSLRs. These features offer a stack of advantages and a couple of downsides compared to DSLRs, but combine to provide the most compelling arguments to switch.

The autofocus of the latest mirrorless cameras is definitely better than DSLRs, particularly in its ability to track subjects. Mirrorless camera autofocus works differently to DSLRs. It does not use dedicated autofocus sensors, but instead uses the information being collected on the sensor to focus.

The reason mirrorless cameras are great at tracking a subject is that they use shape, colour, features and detail in the subject to pluck it out from the background and keep it in focus.

This is very valuable for underwater photographers because it is very rare that both we and the subject are completely stationary, since there is always motion in the ocean. It means that we can keep the fish in focus as it swims and we float and time our shot to perfection.

It is also particularly appealing that mirrorless cameras can focus across almost the entire frame, leaving them better placed to keep tracking a subject and freeing up our compositional choices.

All this tech also works when shooting video and just about every mirrorless camera is far better at shooting moving pictures than any DSLR.

Despite differences , much remains the same as DSLR shooting taken with Sony AI
Despite differences , much remains the same as DSLR shooting taken with Sony AI

And the downsides? When the subject is totally out of focus they can sometimes get confused and need our help (pointing the lens at a subject where the camera can see some detail to get going again).

I’d also say that the focus performance falls off more than an DSLR in monochromatic light (such as in strongly blue light on very deep dives, or when using a red light on night dives).

While much of the shooting experience with full-frame mirrorless is identical to a full-frame DSLR – we can use the same lenses, we can use the same settings, it is still underwater photography – the area that is most obviously different is how we view what we are about to shoot.

With a DSLR we use an optical viewfinder, we look through the lens with our own eyes. With a mirrorless camera we use an electronic viewfinder (EVF), which shows us what the sensor sees as it looks through the lens.

The main reason full-frame mirrorless is the hot topic, is that this is the year that EVFs came of age underwater. On older mirrorless cameras the EVF experience was poor and the shooting experience was clearly inferior to DSLRs. As of now, the shooting experience is superior and is only going to get better.

Fish photography is an area of strength, taken with Sony A7RV
Fish photography is an area of strength, taken with Sony A7RV

Before diving into the EVF experience, it is important to stress that while mirrorless cameras have an LCD screen just like a DSLR, the EVF is a much-better-quality device and you should not limit yourself to using the LCD for normal shooting.

In bright conditions the latest EVFs give a view almost indistinguishable from a DSLR, but when things get dark, as they often do underwater, they brighten up the scene so we can see even more details. This is particularly valuable for macro shooting.

The area they struggle most is shooting silhouetted scenes that we plan to fill with flash, as the EVF doesn’t show as much dynamic range as our eyes would see. But with the latest cameras there really isn’t a situation where this greatly impacts on photography and is definitely more than outweighed by all the positives.

For example, a feature that I particularly like switching my camera into black and white mode and seeing the world in monochrome in real time.

Furthermore, if you add an external optical viewfinder to your housing, with a dioptre adjustment for viewing, you have a perfect view of everything the EVF can show you: the scene you are shooting, your images to review, the cameras menus and advanced features like focus peaking.

All pleasingly shaded from the ambient light, all without having to move your eye from the viewfinder or having to hold the camera out at arms-length for your eyes to be able to focus on the screen! It is just a superior experience.

Mirrorless cameras moving the game on, doesn’t suddenly make DSLRs bad, far from it. And given that new cameras also mean investing in new housings, for many the entry fee will kick this decision into the future.

But what is non-negotiable is that fullframe mirrorless is the future of serious underwater photography and if now isn’t the time for you to jump to the future, you will be coming back to this choice again and again over the next few years and the new mirrorless cameras continue to raise the bar.

Photographs by Alex Mustard

This article was originally published in Scuba Diver UK #78

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