Breaking Away from SLR Thinking

Unlike years past, today’s camera bodies are merely tools that can be swapped in and out to serve different creative requirements. It is my ability to see, compose and capture is what is most important, so anything that enables me to concentrate my creative effort toward those three areas will be well suited to my approach.

The film era trained us to invest in camera bodies and ultimately, systems. I can take my 1980’s-era Nikon F3HP off my shelf, pop in a roll of film, select an F-mount lens, and take amazing photos that rival the pinnacle of SLR technology. The photographic camera is not the imaging device; the film is. Film enabled photography to upgrade itself without the need to change a camera body. We, as photographers, literally spent our lives getting to know one camera body or one camera system to exploit the ever-evolving imaging device that was film.

With the choice of body, we settled on a system. Because the experience we gained in using one imaging device (or device family like Nikon, Canon or Leica), changing from that system would likely take considerable thought to the point of being a near tectonic shift. Instead, we invested in lenses of the system manufacturer (or those of third-parties who offered options in appropriate system mounts) and debated whether the 80-200 of a Nikon was better than that of Canon or Sigma or Pentax or Tokina… If a particular lens had a “look” we wanted and it wasn’t available in our system of choice, our only real option was to pick up a body and start collecting for another system. The body and the lens were tightly linked.

Digital photography and the evolution of mirrorless within it has challenged this traditional notion of bodies and systems. To start with, the camera body is now the imaging device, so upgrading the “film stock” on a fundamental level is a more expensive up-front investment as it involves replacing the camera body itself rather than drawing out the investment in purchases of film over time. This can be a bit of a paradigm shift for the system-centric, body-centric photographer. Arguably, sensitivity (ISO) choices are similar between digital and film but beyond that, considerations around emulsions and processing have been replaced by sensor frame size, dynamic range, etc.

There are many more creative factors to consider beyond those of the SLR days when photographers were more concerned about whether or not the autofocus was faster, the shutter speed was quicker, or the handling was better. Again, a Nikon F2 could take a picture that was indistinguishable from that of a Canon EOS-1 as both could use the same sensor (ie. film). The same cannot be said of a Nikon D1 vs a Sony A7s as the “film” (ie. sensor) in each digital camera is very different.

The second challenge comes in the form of systems and associated lenses. The idea of using a Leica rangefinder lens on a Nikon SLR body was simply a dream. Because of the mechanical differences between the two cameras, it was impossible to use rangefinder glass on an SLR. Today, mirrorless cameras allow photographers to use virtually whatever lens they want. In other words, a Contax G rangefinder lens with its T* look, sharpness and bokeh can be used on an Olympus micro 4/3 body with minimal fuss. The once dying world of vintage lenses and forgotten camera systems has been revived to provide photographers with a creative dimension that is far greater than what Photoshop can provide. Photographers can pick and choose whatever glass is most appropriate for the creative vision they are striking to achieve.

The continuation of the body and system approach, which can be seen in the religious wars centered around Canon vs. Nikon vs. Sony vs. everything else, is a reflection traditional SLR thinking and in my opinion, is largely moot. Photography is about capturing a moment, an experience in a still image regardless of the technology or tools used. Therefore, if one steps back from SLR thinking and looks at digital photography from a creative standpoint, one will find that we’ve entered into an age of very creative (and compelling) options that few have had before, especially when one takes into account maturation of mirrorless photography.

Today, mirrorless cameras provide format (sensor) options from tiny (think Nikon 1) to full-frame (Sony A7 series). Each format has its strengths and weaknesses, which is akin to the differences in Ilford, Kodak, and Fuji film stock and ISO ratings back in the day. So choosing which mirrorless camera to use for a particular situation, to me, is like deciding on Velvia over Tri-X, 400 ISO over 3200. The shooting situation and creative intent dictates what kind of body to use. If I need to shoot extreme telephoto, I may choose to use a m4/3 body from Olympus over a full-frame Sony. Likewise, if I want to do street photography and disappear into the background, I may opt to use an APS-C body with a tilting screen or integrated electronic viewfinder.

All if this brings me to lenses. What I like the most about mirrorless is the creative flexibility I have to chose the lenses I want to use for whatever situation and on whatever body. Now it is important to note that I am NOT an autofocus lens person. I may buy into all of the digital technology and workflow automation, but I still enjoy the creative flexibility in composing shots with manual glass.

I collect lenses from different eras, manufacturers and mounts and select the lens/camera combination that best suits my shooting situation. Do I want razor sharp optics with creamy bokeh in a telephoto? Then I’ll use my 90mm Contax G rangefinder lens on my mirrorless body. Shooting sea lions on rocks? Then a Nikon 200mm lens on a m4/3 body will do, thus making it a 400mm telephoto. Walking around downtown at dusk? I may use my Voigtlander Nokton 40mm f1.4 on a Sony NEX-5. Heck, if I want something completely different I may even use a tilt/shift bellows lens I crafted myself! The ability to pick and choose bodies and lenses gives me the freedom to compose and create shots how I want them by applying both the choice of sensor and desired optics.

We don’t have to hold a tight grip on SLR thinking and be limited by our choice of camera body and system of lenses. To truly appreciate what digital photography has become, one should break away from SLR thinking and explore the options before their eyes as the results may be inspiring. I know they have been for me.

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