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Why Mirrorless Wins: We’ve Come a Long Way and I’m Not Going Back

In 2018 with some trepidation I bought my first mirrorless camera, a Nikon Z7. It wasn’t because I thought it was better than the DSLR I had been using but because my old muscles were spasming with the weight of the camera I was using and I hoped that a package a pound lighter would help me keep on working.

Then slowly I began to learn what I had bought — a camera with major advances over any camera I had ever owned, film or digital. I hadn’t expected that. Now two years in, I’ve shot enough to see the advantages of mirrorless and I’m ready to share what I’ve learned, so — here we go.

They are lighter — Mirrorless cameras are significantly lighter and sometimes their lenses are lighter too. Don’t kid yourself, lighter is important even if you don’t feel the weight as an imposition. Cameras are inherently unbalanced with their mass extended from your body. We learn to hold them close and use the left hand to provide a second mounting point. But at the end of a long day, your muscles get tired and when they do, less mass means smaller micro tremors — and maybe the desire to shoot a few more frames.

A 14–30mm zoom with corner to corner sharpness and stabilization. The big, close mount really makes a difference

A modern lens mount gave me better lenses — I loved my old Nikon lenses and I planned on using them on the new body with an adapter. It was the progression I had come to expect as I upgraded through the years. But I bought one lens made for the new mount, and shooting with it blew me away. I quickly saw how much better the images were and all my old lenses started looking … old. Yeah, it cost me some money as I sold off old lenses and replaced them with new ones but boy am I happy with the results

Experimental soft focus macro lens on a fifty-year-old bellows — yes it’s taped in place

That new lens mount opened another door too, the ability to use old lenses from any camera, regardless of manufacturer. Getting rid of the mirror mechanism moved the mount a lot closer to the sensor, leaving room for adapters to almost any old lens, so I could have my new glass for that perfect look and my old glass to take me back to another time.

In-body stabilization transformed the old lenses I kept — I didn’t sell all my old lenses, just the modern ones. I love to shoot with really old glass, lenses without coatings, and simple optical designs. I love their flares and their soft contrast, and their bokeh. The first time I mounted an old single element 100mm lens on the new body I was stunned by how different it was to shoot with it. The in-body stabilization turned it from a shaky, use every trick I knew experience into a solid shake-free image. I had been shooting with lenses like this forever but this was a brand new experience.

A 100mm single element Portragon lens from the 80s, only now with stabilization and focus peaking

Seeing in the dark — Modern cameras have an astounding low light capability, much better than our eyes, and as a result, digital cameras have far outstripped our ability to see in the dark. When I was still shooting with my last DSLR I peered into the dark viewfinder, made blind guesses, clicked the shutter, then waited to see the image on the back to know what I had shot. With mirrorless, the viewfinder tells you what the image will look like, not what the scene looks like.

In the optical viewfinder of my DSLR, this picture looked very different

Focus Peaking — Of course, none of my old lenses had focus motors, and here is another place mirrorless really helped me out. The combination of clicking in to see a 100% view and focus peaking on demand has made keeping old lenses in focus a dream. Now, when I’m working close I can just rock back and forth until peaking shows me the focus is where I want it, and bang I’m shooting. No optical viewfinder does that as well, except maybe shooting with an old Panaflex where I could switch in a magnifier to check critical focus.

When I made this with the Z7 I knew exactly what it would look like before shooting

Presets have changed the way I work — Shooting film, I learned previsualization early on. I spent time thinking about how scene brightness would translate into tonal values on paper, remembering which colors would pop in the print. Now, with preset looks, I respond directly to the image in my viewfinder in the same way I respond to movement or emotion. Instead of an intellectual understanding, I have an emotional response to what’s going on. It’s “WOW, I love this … or This sucks, what would be better” right away. DSLRs have presets too but you can’t see them until after you make the shot. Seeing presets in the viewfinder is a game-changer.

A quiet shutter gives me more useable pictures — No mirror slap means no people turning to see what just happened. Even when I’m doing portraits there‘s fewer of those involuntary flinches that people often make when a camera goes off close by. And when I’m shooting at slow shutter speeds no shutter slap means one less source of vibration to mess up the shot.

A camera that lets you see what you’ve done lets you play more too — Instant review is a wonderful thing, especially when you are playing with time. DSLRs offer this too, but only on their back screen. And working in bright sunlight the back screen becomes useless for making any kind of critical judgment. For instance, seeing the difference in blur between a third of a second and a quarter second exposure is virtually impossible. Looking through the viewfinder is so much better. With no stray light and the image filling your eye it’s easier to see the details, to respond emotionally, to make better changes.

2011, me with a 65mm chip from a Phantom Hi-speed, the best of of the moment

Tightening the loop — In the world of remote controls, a place where I spent some of my life, we call all these differences tightening the loop. What that means is knowing when something varies from a desired result and more quickly making a change that results in a better outcome. When we shot film the only way to tighten the loop was slop processing, dunking a bit of film into chemicals on-site to see what was on the negative right away. Then Polaroids tightened the loop as did video assist on movie cameras. But the big change came with digital cameras. They made a lot of people better photographers even if they didn’t know exactly why. The complaints from purists were legion, “what are they doing checking the back screen all the time, it’s too late when you’ve already made the picture” … and of course they were right about that … but it was not too late to learn from what they had just done. In fact, it was the best possible time to learn, right now, at the moment when you clearly knew what you had desired and how the picture you had just taken disappointed you.

Summing up — I’m expecting I’ll hear from some of my friends on this story. We spent our lives learning how the human eye and the camera saw differently. We learned how to be analytical when judging a scene, how to stand back and use our understanding to judge what would be transformed by the camera, the stock, and the light. In Hollywood, cinematographers didn’t even look through the camera at the moment of shooting. Instead, they stood next to it using their judgment and knowledge to imagine what the scene would look like the next day in dailies, and they were almost always right. But things are different now. … we have a new generation of cameras that show us exactly what our picture will look like even before we take it. Seeing exactly what the camera is going to render while looking through the viewfinder is enormously powerful to me, a transformative technology. I love it and I won’t be going back.

We’ve come a long way, and I’m not going back

About the author: Andy Romanoff started taking pictures over sixty years ago. He has shot using cameras of every description including box cameras, rangefinders, SLRs, TLRs, view cameras, DSLRs, and movie cameras from Aaton to Panavision. Now he is shooting with a mirrorless camera while he waits for what comes next. Andy writes about photography for L’oeil de la Photographie, Stories I’ve Been meaning to Tell You, and Petapixel. He lists his photo sales here and you can subscribe to his YouTube Channel here.

This story was also published here.

Shooting Portraits Inside a London COVID Hospital

I first came to the hospital back in June, having decided that the stories and experiences of the front line staff shouldn’t be forgotten. We’d all seen inside the Italian hospitals, but when the virus hit the UK, there was nothing coming out of the UK, so I made it my mission to gain access and document the life and death struggles going on behind closed doors.

This project is unique, and through it, we have a chance to see what it was like inside a COVID hospital at the peak of the pandemic and hear from the front line staff in their own words what they were going through. The Kickstarter book will also help these very same people because all of the royalties are being given to the hospital’s charity, and used only to improve the staff’s working lives. It is a chance to give back to the people who have given so much.

I’ve had some scary photo shoots before, the floor of a nuclear power station is pretty up there, as is the time I had to jump on the back of a motorcycle taxi to escape an angry crowd that had me surrounded, but this was different, and I remember walking in for the first time feeling rather scared. I was knowingly going into a coronavirus hot spot, repeatedly and over many days, back when there were no tests to diagnose the virus and no cast-iron guarantees of how to avoid catching it.

My heart was in my mouth when for the first time I went into a ‘Red Room’ — one with a confirmed Coronavirus patient. I was there to photograph the medical staff as they treated him, and I was both excited and worried as I pulled on the PPE gown, mask, visor, and gloves. It struck me as a bit stupid that I could hardly see through the viewfinder, but in a way that probably helped me concentrate on the photography rather than my worries. It would be pointless to put myself and my assistant in danger if I didn’t even get the shot.

The general atmosphere in the hospital was intimidating. People were rushing to and fro, always on the way somewhere, or gliding by pushing beds with silent occupants. And it’s not surprising that many people didn’t want to be photographed.

They’d been, and in fact were, going through so much. They’d tell me stories of incredible suffering and heartache, such as the physiotherapist seconded into ITU who “could still hear all the beeping and the alarms in my ears when I got home, sitting in a dark quiet room,” or the nurse who told me “I still have nightmares at least three times a week and I know I’m not the only one in there.”

And so it became incredibly important that I approach the people, who nearly always didn’t know to expect me, with a great deal of tact and understanding. A portrait is a photograph of a person who has volunteered to share themselves, for better or worse, with the photographer – they’ve made the decision that they’ll let a stranger in, and show them who they actually are. That’s a big ask at any time, let alone when surrounded by “the most intense pain and grief and suffering.”

And so how do you as a photographer, make a connection in such terrible circumstances? It’s easier to say what not to do. That’s because each person is a world unto themselves. The bridge that the photographer has to build between them and their subject has to relate to them, and not the photographer, and so you can’t come at it with a list or a recipe — otherwise, you’re only taking a portrait of yourself.

So this is how it goes: I’m standing there in a corridor or a ward, lights and set up ready, and I’m feeling anxious about interrupting people as they scoot past. There’s a tug of war happening inside me, one part saying run away so I don’t leave myself open to their rejection, and the other half, the half that eventually wins, picks up when someone slightly slows down or slightly orientates themselves in my direction. But why did they do that? Why are they open?

That’s the question I now resolve to answer. It’s time – time for me to step out and try to find a bridge of some description. It’s always the most nerve-wracking moment, and it’s not something that I enjoy. I also never know what I’m going to say or do, which is doubly worrying! I’m often as much of a spectator as anyone else as to what’s going to come out of my mouth, but I’ve taken a decision that this is the way that it should be done, this is the way that it has to be, and so I follow my own lead – I genuinely want to know why they’re different from all the rest.

The present is a dangerous place which is why so many people avoid it at all costs. But to take a portrait, you have to be present with the other person, and place yourself in the precarious position of not knowing what will happen next. These kinds of portraits require that.

And it’s partly that unknowing, that makes me love this phase of the shoot so much. It’s like racing down a steep slope on a rickey go-cart, knowing that you may well wipe out, but you also might fly triumphantly onwards, reaching your unknown destination in glorious technicolor. And in the hospital, that feeling of being on the way to an unknown destination was heightened because I needed to have something much more meaningful than a regular conversation.

I had to ask them about situations and events that were incredibly painful – literally about the life and death of them, their patients and their families, and all that goes into that – and ask them to go back there and tell me about it. It kinda spooks me, thinking about it now, because of the enormity of what I was asking them to do. But I remember feeling that we were both high up, on a level far above that of a regular mundane moment. It was both enlivening and chastening to be elevated so precipitously without a net beneath, only the two of us. It all felt so fast, and so precarious.

And the difficult thing about photography is that you’re doing two mutually exclusive things at the same time. On the one hand, you are present and together with the other person; and on the other, you’re attending to the technical side of things which are constantly trying to strip you clean of the moment: is the exposure right, the location appropriate, does the composition or lighting need changing, how would they react to me doing that … is the lens cap on?

When you get it wrong, the sense of loss is huge. I’m sure every photographer knows the feeling when one of the spinning plates comes down. Sometimes you’ll only realize it hours or even days later. And here in the hospital, I was continually worried that I was in the wrong place, or taking the wrong approach, or going after the wrong thing. The weight of all the people’s experiences sometimes felt so heavy – what if I just wasn’t up to the job of translating these people’s experiences? What if they were telling, for the first time, the most extreme events of their lives to a stranger, and all for nothing?

The project is now a book, and I like to think that people are alive inside it. As you leaf through, it feels to me that you’re almost walking along the corridors or wards with them, or taking the buses home, or greeting their families on their return. I think also that inside it we can learn how to look after our own selves because so many of the people here are figuring out how to care for themselves too.

What has happened at the hospital, let’s not kid ourselves, is trauma en masse. Many of these people, on these pages, have undergone trauma on a scale unknown outside of war. And indeed, there have been more deaths of British hospital staff in 6 months than the British armed forces suffered during 12 years of war in Afghanistan, and 6 years of war in Iraq, combined. Combined.

It’s not normal, what they’ve been through, and I think, I hope, that this book tells their stories. These are their words, and these are their images.

About the author: Slater King is a photographer in London, UK. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Details of the book are on his site. All royalties from the book are being given to the hospital’s charity – ring-fenced so that they can be used to make these people’s working lives easier and more enjoyable. Think a coffee machine in a staff room, or funding to buy paints for a mural to brighten a place up. The book launched Tuesday, November 24th.. Slater won with three of these images at the prestigious British Journal of Photography’s Portrait of Britain Awards 2020 in September 2020.