Photo Gear: The Switch to Mirrorless

Wow, has it been almost a year since I switched to mirrorless?

In the Beginning

On one hand, my experience with DSLR isn’t that much. After all, I only picked up my first DSLR 5 years prior to it. My first and most favorite DSLR was a Canon 50D. For getting into photography, it really couldn’t have been a better choice. Largely regarded as a pro-am camera with it’s metal body and reasonable abilities. It is a relatively simple camera. But with like almost any DSLR since then, put on a great lens and you can make images that would be right at home on a magazine’s cover. Absolutely.

My beloved Canon 50D and equally beloved Zeiss 50mm f/1.4

My beloved Canon 50D and equally beloved Zeiss 50mm f/1.4

I then bought a Canon 5D MKII. Boy, that was certainly an upgrade! Sharpness, color rendering and general characteristics were definitely an improvement. It was only a year newer than my 50D. However, the 5D MKII was used by plenty of still-only people. Especially in fashion. You can tell when I used my 5D MKII and when I used the 50D: the quality. Though when the time came to move to New York and I wanted some extra money, I sold the 5D MKII.

What! It’s the better camera! On paper, it’s the better camera. However in my hands, I always felt a bit ‘off’ with it. The ergonomics and general clunkiness of the controls always made me too conscious of them. When I’m shooting, I want to think about the subject. Camera is totally secondary. Maybe even third. I love using my Canon 50D. And it shows in the images. I still have it. By chance, I came upon a youtube video by Doug Menuez discussing the same exact thing. You just got to go with what feels right to you.

So why did I get a new camera? Two reasons: ‘the look’ and weight.

As much as I love my Canon 50D and very happy with my images, it’s an 8-year old camera and you can only get so sharp. Color rendering could be highly upgraded. The Canon 5DMK II was much closer to my ideal on an image-characteristic basis but completely not on a usability basis.

Weight was also an issue. I do lots of location shoots and street photography. Even with the Canon 50D, try carrying that around your neck all day. Even worse with New York Fashion Week running from event to event. I work out too! Remember, it’s not just the camera, but all it’s all the accessories as well.

Getting Rid of the Past

For a long time, I thought about getting a Nikon D810. For me, I consider it the ultimate DSLR. Best color rendition, super lenses and as it’s a 3-year old camera, well-priced. It’s still a top-rated camera. Without going Medium Format, which I consider the ultimate, it’s a fantastic camera for everything it does.

Nikon D810 Camera

Nikon D810

Still, there’s cost and weight. I thought I could go mirrorless as an in-between solution before going with the Nikon D810. Mirrorless had come a long way the last time I looked at the system and it would be a major weight saver with street photography. I looked at Panasonic Lumix as I had a Lumix DMC-LX3 that I loved. The first camera where I started messing around with aperture settings. It was a quality camera built like a tank, had great UI and ergonomics. I found out that the Panasonic GX8 had a great sensor and features. Specifically, a Micro Four Thirds (m43) camera. The “43” referring to the aspect ratio and size of the sensor. About half the area size of a Full Frame camera. I also find it interesting that the aspect ratio is the same as Medium Format cameras.

But I don’t care how good the camera is without great lenses available. And the GX8 does! I saw samples from the Panasonic-Leica series and thought the image qualities were super. A bit pricey for what’s called micro-four thirds sensor cameras. But you can buy top quality for still less than DSLR. Not a huge variety of focal lengths available but all the necessities I needed in full frame equivalents: 85mm f/1.2, 24/35mm f/1.4 and a nice 24-60mm f/2.8-f/4 coming out soon. More Panasonic-Leica lenses were coming and I couldn’t be more pleased.

I went to my local camera store in New York and tried out the GX8. I loved it! Built like a tank. Controls were good. Good menu system I also checked out Youtube’er David Thorpe for his testing of micro-four thirds systems. Filled me with lots of confidence about the decision I was making. A real, professional photographer with relevant experience that gave mirrorless a chance. It’s incredibly un-common for people who have used a system for decades to make a switch like he has.

First day with my Panasonic GX8!

First day with my Panasonic GX8!

The camera came with a kit lens: a 12-60mm Panasonic. I didn’t have the money to buy a lens for the camera but thought this would be very sufficient for testing and learning purposes. I was going to Paris for Fashion Week (read about that here) and thought that would be a good test.

Well, PFW was a bit of a dud for me. But for my first time in Paris, it presented great opportunities for travel photography. The sharpness of this the lens was much beyond anything I ever experienced in any DSLR. Colors were great. The only problem though is with the purple fringing known as chromatic aberration. For professional work, I would never use it. The CA is that bad. For vacation work, it can work for the enthusiast.

Paris

Paris

The Lens

What really made this camera shine was when I finally purchased a proper, pro-level lens: The Panasonic Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2.

There was no real choice when choosing this particular lens. On the DSLR front, I’m a huge Zeiss lens fan. I love everything about the image quality and characteristics of that lens brand. For at least these two things, there is nothing else that comes close to this than the Panasonic Leica lenses. Maybe not as much contrast as the Zeiss, but just enough to please me. The contrast may actually be a sensor characteristic though that comes more through the lens. The sharpness is absolutely fantastic! According to DXO, it’s the second sharpest lens availability for m43 cameras. I have some images from when I was at a Phase One, a Medium Format camera manufacturer, demo and it’s approaching that kind of sharpness and detail. There is also no other portrait lens that comes close to the Nocticron. It’s also big and built like a tank. It’s a keeper.

An amazing combo: The Panasonic GX8 with Panasonic Leica Nocticron

An amazing combo: The Panasonic GX8 with Panasonic Leica Nocticron

There are two things that put people off with this lens: price and size/weight. With price, it’s only a little less expensive than it’s full frame brothers. I’m not sure why that is. The Zeiss Milvus 85mm is only about $300 more. The Nocticron is certainly much more expensive than the average m43 lens. But as I mentioned earlier, it’s a pro level lens in my opinion and it’s an investment. I will be making money with this lens.

The second thing is the size and weight. Yes, it’s big and heavy for a m43 lens. However compared to a full frame lens, it’s still considerably smaller and lighter. I have had my GX8 and Nocticron strapped around my neck all day with my camera bag and I barely feel it. There’s no way I could say the same with even my relatively small Canon 50D.

The Test

But as they say, the test is in the pudding. I did some street photography just to get comfortable with the camera-lens combination. The first thing I noticed was how much more difficult it was to obtain perfect focus. Because this combination is so sharp, you notice a soft image quite easily. But when you do, you are rewarded with an image that practically pops off the screen or page.

My first real shoot with the GX8 and Nocticron. One word: Love

My first real shoot with the GX8 and Nocticron. One word: Love

Starting Over

It’s been an enormous learning curve. It feels like going from Microsoft Windows 3.1 to Windows 8. Yes, I used Windows 3.1 and earlier! A span of about 10 years. Which actually, is pretty close to the difference in camera age. My biggest issue is making sure I’m using the camera as efficiently as possible. Even manually focusing is a challenge because of the sharpness. Now, I just position a focus point in the area that is most important to have sharp and let the camera take care of focus. Now my workflow is as fast as ever and in perfect focus! Having the camera for almost a year now, I still have much to learn. On my latest photo shoot, I tried wireless tethering. It was fantastic and relatively simple to setup. Huge benefit in multiple aspects.

What’s Needed for My Panasonic GX8

Overall, I’m extremely happy with my decision. Everything about the camera system is solid. On a technology level, the only thing that nags me, just a little, is image-noise levels. I haven’t seen a m43 system that goes below ISO 200. Which is largely okay for me. The little noise that appears can easily be fixed in post processing.

Another and bigger issue is the lack of dual memory card slots. Let’s get this out of the way: memory cards fail. But almost without fail, everyone who complains about this issue usually uses ancient cards and/or treats them harshly. I was especially shocked when I learned that one of the few Youtube photographers that I respect was complaining about this issue and he is using UHS-I level SD memory cards! If you don’t, it’s on the older side of technology and he photographs a lot. God only knows how many times the card has been used over the years. I also know that he throws his batteries into his camera bag, rolling around. Which also surprises me as he seems so meticulous about things.

So yes, he’s a good example of the type of person that complains about card failure. No surprise. Though, technology is technology and it can fail. Having dual memory card slots in your camera is extremely cheap insurance. Even pro-level digital cameras from the beginning had dual-memory card slots. I hope the upgrade to the GX8 has this feature. This and the availability of a battery grip for more comfortable handling in portrait orientation.

Lighting Systems

The bigger issue that’s been a little slower in coming is great lighting systems. That’s been changing recently. While you can use lighting systems in their basic firing mode, you lose High Speed Sync(HSS) which is hugely effective on location shoots. You also lose TTL which is great for action and events.

The first manufacturer to fully support a m43 camera system is Profoto with their B1X Air. Specifically, Olympus. Panasonic support should happen soon as the protocols should be largely identical. Recently, Godox which is rebadged as Flashpoint now just released a m43-specific trigger and firmware update that now specifically supports both Panasonic and Olympus systems! I haven’t tried Godox/Flashpoint. But their ecosystem is HUGE. It’s approaching Profoto and other major-player lighting system offerings. Native support, remote control, HSS, TTL, a huge variety of lighting systems. Godox/Flashpoint has it all. I hope other manufacturers come along soon.

Profoto B1X Air. Image by Profoto

Profoto B1X Air. Image by Profoto

For now, I’ve been using Paul C. Buff (PCB) Einstein E640 strobes for studio work. Except for the manual control of system, it’s more than good enough for my needs. For fashion work, the standard 1/200 or 1/250 flash sync speed available is more than sufficient for fashion work. If you have a fast flash duration in your strobe, even 1/60 works extremely well. I wish PCB would upgrade their systems to support m43 systems. It’s a quality manufacturer for sure that I’ve used for years.

Paul C Buff E640 Einstein. Image Paul C. Buff

Paul C Buff E640 Einstein. Image Paul C. Buff

But unless your a full-time professional making real money, who can afford a full Profoto system? For me at least, this involves 4 strobes. For the B1X, that’s about $10k including all the accessories you would need. And this doesn’t even consider speedlites and smaller lights. Here comes Godox.

Flashpoint Evolv 200. Image by Adorama

Flashpoint Evolv 200. Image by Adorama

Godox which is rebadged with different distributors especially by Adorama under the name Flashpoint. I’d been eyeing them for a long time. They have some great lights but one that initially caught my eye was the AD360. Basically, a high-powered, bare-bulb speedlite. An excellent option. But there is so much more. Real innovators. They just recently came out with support for m43 systems. Now, I can get the system I want for a much less expensive cost. My initial system will involve 4 Evolv each of which puts out 200w/s Basically, 3 regular speedlites rolled into one. Considering that 1 speedlite has been powerful enough for 98% of my on-location photo shoots, the Evolv should be more than enough. Four of these systems including accessories will cost less than $1500. Supports all remote functionality, TTL and HSS. I can’t wait!

What Does the Future Hold?

I suppose one of the issues that floats in the back in my mind is longevity. Where does the m43 system goes from here? More megapixels? Better ISO performance? The Olympus had a huge low-light performance gain from their top-end EM-1 from MKI to MKII. Panasonic’s GH4 to GH5 while had a nice improvement in some area, it wasn’t nearly as impressive. Though in Panasonic’s defense, they concentrate on video features. Which are superior to Olympus’s. So it really depends on what you want to do with the camera.

While I love my GX8, the only real reason I would buy a GH5 would be largely for the second memory card slot and on a much smaller level, battery grip to shoot in portrait mode comfortably. If my GX8 had these features, I doubt I would have any thoughts of upgrading. The Panasonic GX9 should be coming out in a few months and then we’ll see. The biggest thing to improve in my opinion would be noise levels. Support ISO 100 and I would be extremely happy. Do this and you have a guaranteed GX9 buyer. Or, make it a GX9 Pro model camera….

In the big big picture, who knows where m43 systems will be 5 – 10 years from now. There is a great opportunity for smaller players to become larger players by creating products for the system. It’s happening. I would like to see lens manufacturers remove their proprietary lens stabilization systems and leave it for the camera. How about making lighting protocols even more identical? At the end of the day, the m43 technologies will keep getting better and better. Sometimes they’ll be small. Sometimes bigger.

When I started out, I thought I would get a m43 system for my street photography, purchase a full-frame camera for my professional work and someday, a Medium Format camera when I’m rich and famous! Now, I’m completely skipping the Full Frame route completely. M43 is that good.

About the author

Ricardo Gomez is a Fashion Photographer based in New York City.

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