There was a time when many photographers raced to get the biggest and meanest looking rig to showcase to the world that they (including me) were serious about their art. We pride ourselves in differentiating from the iPhoneographers, 1-2-3-smile compact camera shooters and the try-hard bridge camera pro-wannabes. Without the bulky weight to train your biceps and the promise of creamy silky smooth BOKEH, there is no meaningful photography…
I progressed in a linear manner like many others, from humble beginnings of the point and shoot to entering into the world of EOS: 550D, 7D and later 5DM3. My trusty Canon cameras travelled with me everywhere and anywhere. If you have spotted me during weekends, I always had a twin-lens size camera bag by my side and an Outdoor Research hat ready for action. Fast forward to 2011 for my holiday in Taiwan, I was armed with my 5DM3 with 24-70mm L lens.
It was after that 2-week trip that I realised that my office life coupled with the ever-so-addictive WoW(World of Warcraft) lifestyle were taking a massive toll on my wrists. You may ask why I mentioned wrists and that’s simply because I alternate mouse usage: left hand at work and right hand at home. My frequent use of the mouse for both gaming and work had a significant impact on my wrist and my ability to grip/hold my camera and lenses. The prolong use of 5DM3 and the juggernaut weight of the 24-70mm f/2.8 L lens was simply too much and I had to rest my right hand for a while after each shooting session. It was at this time that I had heard about the amazing Sony RX100 compact camera that packed an incredible amount of technology wizardry inside a tiny body. I bought it without much thinking (my fastest purchasing decision ever) at the airport when I was travelling to Japan later on that year when the duty-free shop was having a sale. I had a blast with the camera, shooting anything that moves (or not) and the picture quality was very decent.
While I had a great time using the Sony, I realised that I was still bringing my 5DM3 with me whenever I went on trips. I love photographing epic landscapes, the tiny Sony didn’t quite seem to pack enough grunt for me to leave my big camera at home, I was looking for yet another alternative. For a very long time many of my friends have been telling me about their great and super fun mirrorless cameras either in the form of Panasonic GF/GX series, Olympus Pen or Sony NEX systems. I have tried them all but didn’t like any due to odd ergonomic, my obsession with using a viewfinder and limited pro grade lens selection. This all changed when Olympus introduced their new flagship OMD EM-1 with the 12-40mm PRO lens. My requirements for not having to bring my 5DM3 on my travels were: camera/lens build and construction in terms of weather sealing, equivalent useful lens focal length (in 24-70 range) since that was the most common focal length I use based on the metadata stats and good handling/ergonomics. Well, to be fair, I was eyeing both the Olympus EM-1 and the Fujifilm XT-1 but couldn’t decide. They were both amazing on paper and YouTube, but when I was at the camera shop ready to take the plunge, the shop didn’t have stock of the XT-1 so I ended up getting the EM-1 with the 12-40mm PRO kit. In case you are confused about the focal length of the lens, the 12-40mm is 24-80mm equivalent to a full frame camera because the sensor size of the EM-1 is half of a full frame.
Upon getting the EM-1, I had quickly filled in the other focal length required. Namely the 45mm and 75mm. The 12-40mm lens rivals the quality of primes and is weather sealed to boot so that’s the wide to short telephoto fulfilled. 45mm was for portrait and doubles as medium telephoto. The 75mm was just amazingly bekehlicious, which requires no further explanation but if one is required, it looks super sharp at f/1.8. The Olympus OMD EM-1 is amazingly versatile while maintaining the small(ish) profile with almost zero learning curve coming from a DSLR background.
Many more trips later, my requirements have changed as I am picking up more commercial jobs therefore, I required a backup camera to my 5DM3 setup. While the EM-1 served me well and is totally awesome, the main downside is the sensor, which drops dynamic range really significantly at higher ISO and the quality degrades severely against bright light. This hinders my style as I am a lone photographer that employs the photojournalistic approach. I tend to move around and capture stories/emotions rather than posing for the perfect shot. While this may not be an issue for the photographers that does studio work or ones that have assistants to handle lights to maintain <800 ISO, I have limited choices. My new requirements were similar to my EM-1 but with greater DR throughout ISO range. I realised that only two options were available. After much research, I realised that my lightweight requirement had to be wiped off the list since mirrorless does not evaluate to a lighter camera. The main weight comes from the lens, which is directly proportional to the sensor size as well as how bright it is.
Knowing the compromises, there were just 3 choices, the Canon 6D, Nikon D750 and Sony A7 series. Logically the best option was the 6D in terms of learning curve, affordability and lenses reusability but the 6D was still heavy and had lesser sensor quality than the other two options so I was hesitant. Therefore, I was intensely eyeing the two other options. I must admit that I was really conflicted between the two. The Sony A7 series I picked was the A7M2, I really disliked the ergonomics and button placements of the original A7. The A7s is mostly for videographers and not suitable for my landscape photos due to the measly 12MP sensor (though triumphs at low light). A7R is mostly a camera that mounts on a tripod and A7RM2 is just too darn expensive so I was basically left with the A7M2 option. On the other hand Nikon D750 beats Sony A7M2 on paper on almost all accounts except being slightly thicker/ heavier and without IBIS. I went in the shop with 99% conviction that I would walk out with a D750 but much to my dismay, I somehow, totally hated the feel of the D750 grip. I know it may sound crazy but I couldn’t get a good feel no matter how much I tried. Since I realised I would not be walking out of the shop with the D750, I decided to try out the A7M2. While interacting with the camera, I found it felt “okay-good” in my hands. I was really torn but realised that I must at least feel good about the camera (physically) as I will hold it for a long time during my photo shoots. Therefore out came the credit card and the A7M2 left the store with me.
Now that I have been shooting with the A7M2 for a few weeks, the biggest problem I have with the Sony A7 series is the limited lens selection, while there is the option to adapt lenses, I have to admit that I hate manual focusing. Even though on the net everyone says there are amazing camera aids for manual focusing (focus peaking, magnifying etc) but I think it’s overly glorified. It really depends on your subject matter, preferred focal length and aperture. I like photographing my subjects lively and in motion (non-posed) with a big aperture to blur out the background and focal length greater than 85mm. I had tried both with my Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L IS and 70-200mm f/4 L IS lenses and the focus hit rate was simply way too low. I know this may not be a fair test as I should have gotten the ‘real’ manual lenses but just the thought about the slowness in changing settings to work with manual lenses puts me off too much. That said, I was having better results with auto focus after the A7M2 2.0 firmware update but the focus hunt was too significant for me to rely on it for professional work.
I was relatively discouraged with the adapted lens approach in the first two weeks and have gone with the native lens approach. The Sony FE 28mm f/2 is the best example of how mirrorless cameras could take over the world, however, unfortunately it is the only one lens that seems to stand out so far in terms of size, optical quality and price. There is no portrait range lens currently available that I am happy to pay for, therefore I had to make do with the 55mm f/1.8. After a few sessions with it and getting over how overpriced it was, I have concluded it was worth every penny. I had considered getting the Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 lens but it is so massive and heavy it simply doesn’t make any sense to get. Although this might depend on how much longer I hold onto my 5DM3 setup. The current Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 OSS lens is a huge disappointment, not that I mind the f/4 aperture but the optics in many areas are similar or worse than the Sony FE 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS kit lens but at double the price. I got into the Sony mirrorless full frame system mainly for the sensor quality therefore there is no point in investing in poor quality glass. I am currently making do with just two lenses on the A7M2 until Sony FE lens lineup refreshes the 24-70mm lens and possibly introducing other mid-long telephoto options. As much as I would like the Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 lens, this lens is and has been on backorder soon after launch. The last time I checked (various stores), February 2016 is the most likely arrival for new shipment… so in summary, my Canon EOS 5DM3 only comes out of the cabinet when a job is required, Olympus OMD EM-1 is for every day shoots and Sony A7M2 when I face epic landscapes, low light situations and environmental portraits. I have no doubt that my setup will change again when new requirement calls for it but as far as I can tell, there are a lot of compromises between each system and what works for me doesn’t necessary work for you but luckily there are plenty of options to mix-and-match these days due to pricing competitiveness. One thing that I am somehow still struggling to get used to after immersing myself into the mirrorless camera world is that… the battery, sucks… literally.
We can over-think all we want and read all the blogs plastered all over internet but to me, the camera has to feel good to use and satisfy the main purpose that you want to achieve whether it is to help you make money, get more gigs or capture all the happy moments life throws at you. The decision cannot be relied upon reading blogs or listening to sales person, since realistically, we all demand too much and want to pay too little for ‘the best’ so just live with the compromises you are willing to make and keep taking photos, change camera bodies/ lenses/ systems when the time calls and wallet allows. Looking back, I don’t think I would have done anything different even though it’s easy to pinpoint some unnecessary purchases along the way due to unrealistic expectations. Many of my purchases were emotional purchases but later sold as part of the lessons learnt along the way.
Most importantly, stop justifying every purchasing decision to everyone to make yourself sound like the expert, since each camera systems nowadays are all super awesome and far exceeds the skills of most users.