The Sony a9 - Is Mirrorless Photography the Future?

May 18, 2017
Gear News and Ideas
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The announcement of the Sony a9 at NAB this year didn’t introduce the world to the wonders of mirrorless photography. Between 2010 and 2016, the gap between mirrorless and DSLR sales shrank to a near 50/50 split trending in favor of mirrorless. The a9 is Sony’s attempt to bring mirrorless into the sports photography world, using its mirrorless design as a selling point rather than an obstacle. With the ability to shoot in 20 fps bursts and an incredibly accurate autofocus system, the a9 can do things that DSLR’s simply cannot.

Is this a (sorry) snapshot of our future? Will we soon be living in a totally mirrorless world?

Jayson Carpenter, Jordan Stead, and Kapil Gandhi are professional photographers and cinematographers with unique and demanding camera requirements. With their needs in mind, we will try to settle the hype on mirrorless photography.

First, What is a Mirrorless Camera?

To get light into the viewfinder, DSLR’s (and SLR’s) use a mirror to bounce light collected from the lens upwards, giving the eye a representation of what the sensor, or film, will receive. When you switch a DSLR to Live View mode (assuming it has that capability), you’re turning it into, essentially, a mirrorless camera. Removing the mirror entirely slims the camera down, reduces the weight, and affords camera manufacturers to improve things like shutter speed and autofocus due to the direct interaction between the lens and the sensor. As technology has improved, companies like Sony, Panasonic, and Olympus have been able to turn mirrorless cameras into true workhorses that compete with their DSLR counterparts, and then some.

Mirrorless Cameras Offer A LOT of Upside

Let’s get one thing out of the way. There is a real, tangible effect that smaller cameras offer to working photographers. Jayson Carpenter, who has been a commercial photographer for the last 20 years and whose work has been displayed in the Smithsonian, shoots on both the Canon 5D Mark III (for print) and the Sony a7S II (for video). To Jayson, smaller cameras offer a real creative upside to photographers.

“It lends itself to more adventure. It’s a smaller system that you can take more places with you… If you have a 4K, small, camera that can do all of these amazing things that’s not going to break your back when you lug it with you. It just opens the door, creatively, to so many more opportunities to actually get out there and use it.”

Kapil Gandhi is the Production Principal at Full Lock Media. He does work for the hospitality industry, which means traveling is a big part of his job, and a smaller camera package has changed the way he can work.

“When we got our Sony a7S II, it kind of blew us away as far as the quality and what we were able to do with this small, small, piece of gear… From a video perspective and a still perspective, because we could get the same kind of quality stuff out of a camera that was like one-eighth the size of the Nikons we use, in terms of weight goes.”

Those benefits, it turns out, have been good for business.

“Personally, I feel that it’s helped our business, that we have that camera… I took a trip to Iceland in December. We got our Sony right before that trip… Having a Sony a7S II and having a DJI Mavic in a backpack, as a one-man band I was able to go out and get incredible stuff. Having a smaller, lighter-weight camera that travels easier, for a company like us that travels on the road it’s a godsend. It’s definitely saved our ass a few times.”

Jordan Stead is currently a photographer/videographer at Amazon Stories, a marketing team that focuses on documenting the interesting stories that exist within Amazon’s massive company network. Most of Jordan’s career has been in photojournalism and, while he’s more skeptical of the real-world upside mirrorless provides, he doesn’t deny the impressive specs.

“There are features Sony has implemented on cameras that Canon and Nikon don’t have. There’s an autofocus technology in the a7r called Eye Autofocus where you can map a certain type of autofocus to a button so, when you’re shooting a portrait, it’s like an AF point inside of an AF point inside of an AF point and it’s so sensitive and direct that it will track someone’s pupil… If you’re shooting a lens at f/1.2 to make a really dreamy looking portrait…”

The a9 has an even more advanced version of the Eye Autofocus technology, bringing an unparalleled precision to autofocus that we haven’t seen before. However, if mirrorless cameras are so great, why aren’t we using them exclusively?

Photo from Dan Watson.

There Isn’t a Pressing Need to Go Mirrorless in 2017

It’s tempting to look at the advancing specs of mirrorless cameras and jump the DSLR ship right away, but DSLR’s aren’t dead. There’s a lot more to a camera than what what makes it to the spec sheet. Jordan Stead learned this during his time working for DP Review.

“There’s a difference between someone who looks at a camera as a piece of electronics, as specs, and someone who looks at a camera as, ‘What’s the best tool for the job?’ Generally, that is divided into people who make a living and have to use cameras on a daily basis… And people who look at it as car aficionados who don’t own cars. They look at the specs, but they don’t know the feel of the car. You can have the most beautifully spec’d car in the world, but if it drives like shit, you won’t spend your money on it... I think the same thing happens with photography equipment.”

For Jordan, mirrorless cameras still have a long way to go before they can be as reliable as their Nikon and Canon DSLR counterparts.

“I still don’t feel as confident using them. Especially in a more aggressive setting such as working dutifully in the field for a long period of time. In terms of ruggedness, battery life, the jack-of-all-trades nature of a DSLR - a 5D III or IV or 1DX - that’s something you can walk into any situation and they’re always going to be excelling. Whereas something like the a7r II is an amazing camera and the sensor is incredible and it has some really cool features, but you couldn’t pay me to use that camera in more than a portrait session, landscape session, or as a casual walk-around camera. I know that it’s not going to keep up with even something like SLR’s from a couple of generations ago…”

There is something to be said about peace of mind, especially when you’re talking about photography. For photojournalists like Jordan, missing a crucial moment can be very costly in more ways than one, so having faith in your camera to complete the job is essential. DSLR’s from companies like Nikon and Canon have a proven track record to many photographers whose livelihoods depend on them, and that’s worth something. Jordan explains:

“The point is that, when you’re in a situation where the shooting scenario is so demanding that you need to know the ins-and-outs and you need to know it’s limitations, someone’s going to take equipment that’s comfortable over something newfangled any day in my opinion… I would much rather know how to work with and around my equipment than I would just picking out the next best thing and hoping that it does the job.”

However, as that newfangled option becomes tested and refined over time, it will become the standard.


Is The Future Eventually With Mirrorless?

Mirrorless technology is simply outpacing DSLR’s, and it’s hard not to see it becoming the objectively better option. Even Jordan Stead sees the writing on the wall for our mirrorless future.

“Sony’s taken more ground in five years than Canon and Nikon have in 10-plus years… Five years from now or 10 years from now, they’re going to be destroying it completely. If they continue on the path they’re on right now with continuing to improve this exciting new technology… It’s going to be way above and beyond the technology we thought possible.”

Jayson Carpenter, looks at the competition between his 5D and a7S as evidence of mirrorless’ inevitable takeover of the market.

“When you’re looking at a 5D versus an a7S, I think the Sony has a lot of advantages. When you look in the viewfinder, you’re getting exactly what you see. When you’re looking through a reflex mirror, you have to really pay attention to your meters and really know what’s in the frame and how the meter is going to be affected by those things. I think that, as it keeps evolving, we’re going to see technologies like the [a7S] taking over.”

If this is the case, when will we see a dramatic shift, a turning point, in the market? The answer goes back to Jordan’s sentiment. When photographers feel they can do their jobs better overall with mirrorless, they will make the switch. Kapil Gandhi notes:

“The people who are willing to accept mirrorless technology - the fact that you can go out there and take photos faster [with] internal stabilization and the benefits you get out of it - are going to do better, faster.”

For this future to arrive, however, mirrorless cameras must improve.

Where Can Mirrorless be Better?

Ergonomic enough?

While the small size of mirrorless camera bodies has many advantages, the form factor could certainly improve (mostly, but the GH5 body is a step in the right direction). Jayson Carpenter notes:

“I think one disadvantage to [mirrorless] is they’re such small cameras from an ergonomic standpoint of being able to use it. A lot of times, I feel like I have to add things like a cage so it has a better ergonomic feel. The cameras don’t feel good to use, but I think that’s going to change. Even at the size they’re at, they could still be more comfortable to use.”

To Jordan, there needs to be one mirrorless camera that does everything really well, like some of the high-end DSLR’s, instead of many models that do a few things really well.

“I just want gear that’s rugged, reliable, isn’t going to break, has great battery life, and I don’t want to be worrying about rain or extra dongles to make the camera work. I just want something that I can turn on, is bulletproof, and I know my ins-and-outs of it.”

For Kapil and his team, Sony needs to acknowledge some of the more traditional desires photographers have, especially in the area of lens mounts.

“If Sony just acknowledged that these cameras were being used on a serious level and started to either make their own lens adapters or worked with lens adapter companies. You’ve got this softness in focus when you use a lens adapter, it’s not as crisp as actually using a Sony lens. Everyone’s got their own glass. Sony clearly knows that their tiny mirrorless cameras, and a7S’s and a9’s, are being used with other lenses. If they took that seriously and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to make our own mount and it will be perfect, or we’ll work with other companies to make adapters that are better....’ I think that would be a huge step in the right direction.”

What About Canon and Nikon?

While Canon and Nikon both have mirrorless cameras, their flagship professional cameras are all DSLR’s. If the future is in mirrorless, will they be able to adapt? Jayson isn’t so sure.

“I don’t know if they’ll evolve or not. They’re really old companies. Over the years, in the history of my career, you see companies that can’t keep up with the technology and they just go away. Right now, they’re so far behind.”

To Jordan, Canon and Nikon make their money on legacy, dependability, and what they think is good for consumers. He mentions the Sony FS7 versus the Canon C300. In terms of specs and bang for your buck, the Sony wins outright.

“Canon and Nikon don’t change because other people are changing. They make amazing cameras, but almost anything out-specs stuff that they put out for half the cost.”

Whether or not the rise of mirrorless works out for Canon or Nikon, it’s unquestionably good for photographers. The competition to take mirrorless past DSLR’s in the market means exciting new products are on the way for photographers. What you choose to shoot with, after all, is always up to you.

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Brent L Zaffino

I am a filmmaker out of Atlanta, Georgia currently working as a freelance director and videographer for music videos, short films, and corporate videos.

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