Mirrorless Photography, Learning to Fly

Although I grew up shooting film with manual SLRs, I have grown to trust the imaging device to do its job and capture what I see. As such, my move to mirrorless from Nikon SLRs and DSLRs years ago was never an issue as it better enabled me to “see” my subject. These many years later, I now see mirrorless as a natural simplification of my creative process. Mirrorless provides me with the ability to see like no rangefinder or SLR-based body (film or digital) had ever done before.

Consider the array of DSLRs, SLRs and optical rangefinders and how they work. If you really think about it, what you see through their optical viewfinders are approximations of what will be recorded. In these cases, you will not truly get a sense for what you’ve captured until the image is displayed on the camera’s screen or the film developed. Factor in issues such parallax and offset on rangefinders and not necessarily 100% of the frame through a DSLR viewfinder, and you have a fairly disconnected creative process largely based on approximation. This approximation can lead to surprises in in what one captures — it isn’t the same as what one sees. This is where mirrorless sets itself apart from its 35mm photographic past.

I suspect my comfort with a mirrorless approach to photography stems from growing up in the video-dominated era of the 1980s and later, learning how to trust monitors and displays for broadcast video production. I started with a firm base of framing shots on film by following — as I learned years later — a fairly Cartier-Bresson technique of capturing the critical moment within the entire frame. Because a darkroom was a luxury back then, I learned to frame everything in-camera as cropping wasn’t an option and since most of my SLRs didn’t have 100 percent viewfinders and I wear glasses, I never really “saw” my full shot before capturing it. There was about 10-15 percent around the edges that would often surprise me when the film came back from processing. Eventually, I learned to zoom in or out (depending on the situation) to “overscan” my shots and capture something I wanted in the areas I couldn’t see.

So it should come as no surprise that shifting to broadcast video seemed natural. Shooting for NTSC involved recording the essential area — the middle 80 percent or so that would most certainly be viewed on a TV — and taking into creative account the image outside of that region to ensure what was recorded is what you wanted to share. Because televisions overscanned (wrote more information to the screen than what would be observed by the viewer) to make up for differences signal transmission, one had to worry about the edges and with broadcast gear, what I saw on a viewfinder (albeit in black and white to ensure what was recorded had adequate contrast) or on a calibrated underscanning field monitor would be what I’d record to tape. I learned to trust calibrated displays, vector scopes and waveform monitors a decade before DSLRs and their histograms. And because I couldn’t reframe my video shots in post, I had to get the shot right every time and doing so required a connection my equipment to do its job so I could do mine. I trusted my eyes to see, but I trusted my instruments to help me get it right. Marrying my crop-less, full-frame approach to SLR photography with broadcast videography fit perfectly.

Now it is true that as one spends time working with a camera body, he/she learns the nuances of the device and compensates for different situations. As I mentioned above, when I shot on film I had to compensate for the limitations of my viewfinder. I spent years with my SLRs – Minolta SRT-201, Nikon N2000, FE2, and F3HP – and they became extensions of me. And when I jumped to DSLRs and used a Nikon D1, D200 and Kodak DCS-14n, I didn’t need to alter my creative guesstimation process. I “wired” myself to think around the limitations of the bodies and generally captured what I wanted 95 percent of the time (that doesn’t mean 95 of the shots were keepers, though — I’m not THAT good). However, what bothered me was that five percent. I still wasn’t exactly sure of what I captured, and even with DSLRs I found myself shooting and reviewing my shots because what I saw didn’t really reflect what the camera did. With an all optical path with a separate imaging system — albeit film or a DSLRs sensor — what you see, is ultimately what you might get.

Electronic viewfinders and live-view screens have the ability to present the image, exposure and processing techniques at the point of capture rather than surprising you afterwards. For example, I can choose to shoot black and white and unlike with film and DSLRs, I can set up my mirrorless camera to show everything in monochrome. Now to some of you, that may seem like throwing away critical color information that I could use to come up with a better image, but didn’t we do that with film? Didn’t we drop Tri-X or FP4 into our camera bodies and intentionally shoot monochrome? The ability to set up my camera to show me my “film” makes photography that much more interesting and creative, and provides me with a way to see that I never really had before. Additionally, I can choose to shoot black and white and then change to color when the situation warrants it. I can think creatively not only about what I see, but how I see it at the critical moment. Because of something as simple as this, mirrorless is about as close to WYSIWYG photography as one can get today.

Mirrorless eliminates a key element of mystery within photography for what you see on a digital screen is what will be recorded, which — contrary to much digital ink spilled on the subject — has never been the case for film and not in a direct sense with DSLRs. Now one can argue that the smaller screen will not reveal all of the detail, colors could be off, etc., but the fact remains that what I see through a digital viewfinder or live-view display represents what will be recorded in the worst case, which has never been true of film and to a lesser extent DSLRs.

My journey to mirrorless has been a process that I equate to learning how to fly. In a sense, shooting on film with an SLR taught me how to fly; working in video taught me how to fly on instruments; shifting to mirrorless awoke my aviation instincts; and the sum of everything has made me a better pilot, er, photographer.