Why I abandoned mirrorless cameras and returned to a Nikon DSLR

I really wanted to move to mirrorless cameras. I was keen to explore a lighter, smaller, more compact and cartable photographic experience. But, I needed to retain the same quality, or improve on what I had. It didn’t quite work out as well as I had hoped and so I’m now back with Nikon, well over a grand down in the pocket for the experience, and a whole lot wiser.

What I am going to say will be controversial to some readers, and that’s ok. Please remember that it is my very personal experience that I am relating, and not a statement of fact condemning any manufacture, cameras, or whatever. Please don’t see it as an invite to send me nasty messages or comments. They might even get published so you will only embarrass yourself. Oh, and all the images are Copyright of me so keep your mitts off.

For me, it started with Fujifilm – the X-Pro 1 came out with two free lenses, the 18mm (not really wide enough), and the 27mm (hmmm, ok as a standard). I loved it, and I took some great photos. But I wanted convenience of a zoom, because I spend a lot of time in wet conditions and I have a tendency to drop things…

I also wanted consistent f2.8.

I had a little trouble holding the very flat body when I was used to a more hand friendly shaped grip. My back and shoulders loved the experience and the photos were top quality, but I would have liked a wider wide angle and I would have liked better focussing, oh and longer battery life. And a zoom with f2.8…

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A zoom, any zoom, didn’t feel good on the rangefinder body, at least to me. It made the whole camera holding experience even worse. The X-Pro series is designed for fast primes, it is what they really excel at. But, I am not a street photographer, I’m usually found in fields, up to my arse in mud, frequently in the rain; I live in Scotland. The X-Pro 1, I don’t think, is weather sealed. I didn’t tempt it.

The lens range simply wasn’t there for me, not at that time. I do object to being forced to buy lenses just from Fujifilm. Ok, I have had Nikon bodies with Nikon lenses, but I have also really enjoyed some Tokina lenses and one (and only one) Sigma lens before.

So, anyway, it went away and was replaced by a Nikon D7100, which was all I could afford at the time. But I hadn’t quite got away from really wanting something smaller and lighter, especially at the end of 15mile hike. So that went away to be replaced by the Fujifilm XT-1, which was so much better suited to the zooms than the rangefinder bodies. I still struggled to find a zoom that met my needs, until in the end I got the 16-55mm/f2.8. It is an amazing lens, except that it is actually about the same weight and size as many DSLR lenses, which makes it very front heavy and somewhat unbalanced on the XT-1. I bought a grip, it was better, but now my camera weighed what a DSLR did and took up more space in my bag than my Nikon D7100 did!

It felt like it always wanted to fall forward, even on a tripod, and I had to really make sure it was secure. The lens weighed more than the body and it was huge by comparison. I wasn’t saving much weight, it was awkward to hold, but the results were great and I persevered. I love Fujifilm’s film simulations, nobody does it better, but…

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Ardvreck Castle. XT-1, XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR
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Quirang, Isle of Skye. XT-2, XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR

Then the Fujifilm XT-2 came out, and it offered (allegedly) a number of improvements over the XT-1. These, to me, included a flip out screen that went in two directions so you can use it in portrait as well as in landscape, and a jog-stick thing for moving the focus point. Believe me, it was a bit of a pain moving it on the XT-1. Unbeknown to me, my (bought used) XT-1 developed a row of dead pixels, and so I was delighted to part with whilst still under its used warranty (by three days, phew) and so I got a decent deal. It wasn’t very old, and it hadn’t take that many shots so this worried me, and it sat like the elephant in the room over my decision to stay with Fujifilm. I have used Nikon camera’s for years and never experience a dead pixel issue. Jammed shutters on Canon cameras have blighted all three I have owned but never had an issue with Nikon…(and hopefully that hasn’t just tempted fate).

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Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye. XT-2, XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR

I got my XT-2 brand new. It was like “hens teeth” to get one new, and it would be months or even years before any appeared on the used market. I was concerned by the amount of money I had now invested, and that dead pixel issue reared its head again when I found the XT-2 came with an option for pixel re-mapping in the menu. I wonder why they put that in….? Perhaps there had been complaints.

(Incidentally the OM PEN-F has that option too)

Anyway, more great pictures followed. Although to me, they weren’t actually as great as the ones from the XT-1. The new camera gave me 24MP but to me, there was something I can’t define that was missing from these images that is there with the lower 16MP images from the XT-1. Maybe it’s colour, dynamic range, I don’t know. Sometimes you just find something you like in a camera and moan when they change it. I had the same thing with the D200, the last of the CCD sensors. I still to this day like the look of a D200 image over a D700 image, and I shot both at the same time.

But back to my story – I now wanted more lenses, and the ones I wanted were all large, heavy, and to be frank they are darned expensive. You still have to stick with Fujifilm or go fully manual with a very excellent Samyang. The other odd thing that kept striking me when I picked it up and used the dials was that the XT-2 didn’t seem quite as well made as the XT-1 and I had concerns bit were going to drop off it. They didn’t but I was worried…

I know there are reports online of dials breaking so maybe my concern wasn’t totally unfounded. I didn’t see these until after I’d parted company with it, so they didn’t influence my decision.

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XT-2, with XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR

If I had the money, and the desire, to go out an buy a mirrorless camera today then I think I would choose the XT-1 over the XT-2. It really does feel better and I actually preferred the results.

I personally think that 16MP is the peak of perfection for a 1.5x crop sensor and that 24MP pushes it too far. But that is me, and every time I post a negative comment or review I get hate mail, but there you go. That’s the internet for you!

To me, with the big lens and with or without a grip, it still felt unbalanced,. You put a heavy, big, lump of fast glass at the front of a body which ways less and has a small hand grip then it is going to.

I really began questioning my missing of the DSLR lens to body balance. I certainly wasn’t saving that much in weight, or size.

To be honest, I have never thought that size is much of an issue. It is more to do with the weight of what you are carrying that determines how pleasant that 10mile hike is going to be. My camera bag remains the same and so I just move padding around to accommodate the size of the items within. I think there is where actually mirrorless manufacturers are going wrong. Having a decent size gives you a secure and comfortable grip in use, and this doesn’t change because hands are, basically, still hands. It isn’t space that’s an issue for me, it is weight.

Also, I am used to carrying my DSLR one handed, it’s just the way that I work. My Fuji’s both really required me to get neck straps because they weren’t comfortable in the hand for very long, and I have real neck issues. My neck issues were one of the reasons I wanted to lighten the load, so I definitely didn’t want my camera back around there again. Without having something to tuck your fingers around it isn’t comfy to single hand hold and wander about with. So it the camera goes around your neck, or in your bag. If it’s in your bag you take less pictures.

I figured that if I was going to go light, then I wanted to be balanced and really light. I wasn’t convinced by the argument that a bigger sensor is better, I think it’s down to the number of pixel balanced with the size of the sensor. A bigger sensor can take more pixels of the same size as a small sensor, if that makes sense. I think, from my personal experience that there is a optimum point. With a compact it’s 10MP, with a 4/3rd it’s probably around 12MP, with 1.5x crops it’s around 16MP, and with full frame 35mm then its around 24MP. That’s my best guess. Yes, if you are printing big enough to notice the difference it will be important, but most of us aren’t.

I also don’t buy the whole thing of needing lots of pixels even when you do print large. I’ve printed to 6ft x 4ft fine art print from a 10MP Nikon D200 native file, converted to jpeg from the raw, and I have printed A3 dps* brochures from a 3MP Nikon/Kodak camera (back in the 1990s) that was a lot worse than 90% of current mobile phones! But, the quality and ability to render colours and tonality is vitally important, more so than how many you have.

I firmly believe that dynamic range is very important, because if you increase that then you already reduce the noise in the shadows and reduce the chance of burned out highlights. You reduce the compromises, and you reduce the need for external filtration. I want cameras to see the range we see, and we are still a long way from that. The human eye is very adaptable, not so much as some birds and animals but way better than a camera.

So, anyway, I thought I’d switch to Olympus (and if you’ve read my other posts then you know how that turned out…)

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Olympus PEN-F, 9-18mm f4.0-5.6 (in camera jpeg)

I guess in the end part of it was that I really missed the familiarity that comes with years of using Nikon. The menus are familiar, the buttons are (largely) in the same place. I favour Nikon over Canon for two reasons (and here I start another fight) – firstly, in over 25 years, I have only ever had three cameras pack up mid-shoot and they were all Canon’s and all with terminally jammed shutters. Secondly, they move the controls and buttons about and I can’t be doing with relearning a new camera as you’ll also know from my things-i-dont-like-about-the-olympus-pen-f post

Ten minutes with any Nikon and I can use it, in the dark, or at least without looking. I take more photos because I’m not messing about in menus, trying to find things. It feels good in my hand. It feels like an extension of me, and that allows me to get on with the creative art of image making.

I keep more images, because I take more images, and because I am not messing about in menus and not getting the results I think I’m going to get. Or missing the shot because I haven’t found the settings I want.

So, I am going back to big and heavy.

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Nikon D600, Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 nano coated bulbous wotsit

Back to a weighty DSLR. Back to big heavy lenses (not that I went very far away with that bit).

I went to my local used dealer and played around with a Nikon D600. Yes, they have a reputation for dust but to be honest if you pick one up now then they’ve either not had an issue, been back to Nikon for free to have it sorted, or the original owner would have got it replaced by a D610 by Nikon F.O.C. So it’s probably now a bit undeserved, unless you get one from a really lazy owner. It does however make them daft cheap, for what you’re getting.

I played with it for ten minutes and it felt like coming home. It sounds silly but I didn’t need to look at the controls more than once or twice, and, within minutes I had the settings the way I wanted them and saved to custom memory. It was just comfortable…

…welcome home.

And, I now I also have full frame! And with my ideal of 24MP.

I also now have balance! I can use the camera with one hand again, even with the bulbous wotsit (Nikon AF-S 14-24/2.8). The lenses, even the big ones, balance on the camera. I’ve gone a generation back to get the body, and spent the real money on the glass (always the best plan because you’ll change your bodies every few years but good glass lasts, well almost, forever).

My osteopath won’t like it….

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But I do.

And hey, my DSLR with a little 50mm/f1.8 prime even weighs less than my XT-2 with the zoom.

*double page spread, ie. an A3 centrefold in an A4 product

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A castle, a waterfall, and a Fuji XT-2

Let me start with a disclaimer; I am not a Fuji X Photographer, I am not sponsored by Fujifilm in away, and I buy all my own equipment with my own hard earned money.

Now I have that out the way, I will also say that this isn’t a technical review of the Fujifilm XT-2. The web is full of these, I know, I’ve read and/or watched most of them.

 

A castle, a waterfall, and the Fuji XT-2

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Lynn Falls, Aberlour – XT-2

As you can see, I shoot a lot in portrait format. This is because magazines (and of course their lucrative covers) are this shape, so it makes sense. I always shoot a portrait and a landscape version of every image wherever possible for this very reason; a cover in portrait or double page spread in landscape, or something smaller in either format, and I am almost always covered.

This is where the XT-2 has a real advantage – the new screen flips out in portrait mode, which means I have the modern equivalent of a waist level finder (i.e the screen) in both landscape and portrait orientation. This is great, I like this feature very much, although the catch to release the screen in portrait mode is just ridiculously hard to operate once it is rotated on the tripod (at therefore now under the camera) and probably, as least so far, impossible to do with gloves on. Today, gloves were very much needed, it’s February, it’s Scotland, there is SNOW on the hills, and I mean the hills as well as the mountains. It was cold, damp, sometimes wet, blowing a hoolie as they say in these part, and frequently darned right unpleasant.

Another immediate advantage, and great with gloves, is the joystick focus point adjuster. I had my four way buttons set for this on the XT-1, which reduced my access to common settings by reducing my Fn, or function, buttons by three, but it made life easier for many a shot. The joystick means I now have my four way buttons set for useful things I like, not the defaults by the way, and I still have the even more instant directional control of the focus point. I like this very much, very much indeed.

The tripod socket is now where it always should have been, and without having to buy the extra grip, although I miss a little the depth of that extra grip. The new body is more ergonomic than before, although still not DSLR hand friendly, but I will get used to it. I contemplated the battery grip but it added to the size and weight of the camera and they didn’t have any available anyway.

I like the locking dials. I wish the compensation dial also locked, but it is noticeably stiffer than the XT-1 and much, much, stiffer than the XPro-1, which was always moving around with the slightest touch and causing many problems if it went un-noticed, which it did, when using filters and a tripod and being lazy and thinking exposure was ‘sorted’.

I like the four metering patterns instead of original three. I actually use all the patterns, and even today used all four during shooting. The zone metering, or whatever Fuji are calling it, seems to be quite accurate for most circumstances. I still like Average for the landscapes and spot for working out the grad filters required to balance the sky to the land.

I also like the fact I can use a traditional cable release, and I have ordered one from Amazon (which should arrive by the weekend). Today I used the self timer, as I have previously with the XT-1, whilst using longer exposures or on a tripod, or both. With any exposure over 1/30 section I don’t like to touch the camera if I can help it. Why use a tripod and then let your body interfere with the stability?…makes no sense to me.

What don’t I like? Well, actually, there is one big niggle – what the hell have Fuji done with the bloody menu’s?!?

Things I use often, like Format, now require press, scroll, press, press (instead of just press, press). Some menu’s have new titles which mean nothing, or certainly seem a great way of hiding what you’re looking for. Sure, there are more options, and many more menu’s, or least it seems, but you can’t find anything. I spent several frustrating minutes setting up each of my common functions or preferences last night. And I am still trawling through menu after obscure menu to do simple adjustments in the field today. Thank heavens for the MY Menu, obviously someone at Fuji thought the same thing as me! But…why can’t I put second tier menu items in it? I want to put Format in it, but no, first tier only and not all of them are available either.

There are things I want routinely that are hidden in the ‘Save Data Set-up’, like Switch Slot (Sequential). Why can’t I have something simple like Save Image, and then just Slots, and Slot 1, Slot 2, order? Nikon do this much better.

And why did it default to use Slot2 first? Where did that idea come from? Again, please look at Nikon menus. Btw, I think having two SD card slots is a great idea of course. I can have sequential running, and back up. I don’t shoot JPEG and RAW, just RAW, but if you really wanted to, you could have a card for each. You would need to make the RAW card a lot bigger naturally.

I actually needed the manual to decipher one third of the options; Save Org Image for example.And why is Format for the SD cards under User Setting? It used to be under the spanner symbol, at the bottom, easy to find.

And used to be second layer, now it’s hidden away under three layers of menu. It may not be annoying when you only need to do one card, but trust me, sit and do 10 of them and it will drive you nuts.

some reason working on Fuji files this afternoon crashed my LR three times over.

But what is also worrying me, aside from awkwardness of use at the moment compared to the XT-1, is that I am now doing a bit more work in Lightroom than I ever did with Fuji products before. Ok, I have to get used to the new camera, but the RAW files do seem to need more tweaking for the same results. It could be that LR has yet to catch up with the new files of course. That would make sense since the compressed RAW files don’t have a preview at the moment, and so I am reluctant to use them. LR also crashed three times this afternoon, the first time I had tried processing the new RAW files. At least it can actually open them though. I remember a few occasions when a camera would come out and it would be three months before you could open the RAW files from it in anything other than the manufacturers, usually awful, preparatory software.

Of course, all of these things I will get used to. Even an upgrade needs to be considered as a new camera. The XT-1 and the XT-2 look similar, and the dials and physical controls might be the same, but as soon as you look at the EVF or the screen you know its a difference beast.

A plus and a minus for those of us to whom age is not being kind in the eyesight department; the diopter adjustment works perfectly (wish it was lockable) and the eyecup is an improvement for spectacle wearers, but the text and symbols on the display appear smaller (same size, more dots per inch?). Anyway, its a pain. I was already having to take off my glasses to use the XT-1, but now I really do need to consider varifocals!

And there is something really weird about the noise…it looks like little worms. I had a look at the sky (base ISO 200) and at 4:1 enlargement, there are what look like little worms. Weird. I will keep and eye on the worms and put up an screen grab if I spot them again…

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Auchindoun Castle (handheld) XT-2

I also need to change the sharpening from my previous settings (which I used for all images) and will need to create a new preset. I now need a 1.5 radius instead of 1.0, and change the gain to 30% instead of 50%. I did expect this to change, due to the increased resolution of the new sensor. Talking of which, can I see more detail? Actually well yes, a little bit. A very little bit, but then I have  retina screen 27″iMac to see it on. I have not compared the prints, and as I don’t have the XT-1 anymore I cannot shoot the two side-by-side for a direct comparison. But this is all very scientific and at the end of the day there are more important (to me) considerations. The main one for me is the ability to crop a landscape into a portrait if I wasn’t able to shoot both that the same time. I always shoot the landscape first, in case the light changes dramatically or for the worse, as this then will give me some portrait option, although not idea.

Obviously, this reduces the image at least by half, and when you have more pixels that half isn’t half as bad.

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Craigellachie Bridge, XT-2, final shot of the day, ACROS film simulation in Lightroom

For some reason, images saved for the web in Landscape are far better than images saved for the web in portrait format, even thought the settings are the same, and resizing is done for longest edge. To see what I mean, look at the rendition of the ‘last XT-1’ shoot image, and compare that with the Linn Falls shot. Both same lens, both same tripod.

And to compare like for like, both XT-2, look at the Craigellachie bridge image compared with the Linn Falls image.

So, conclusions from todays shoot: I would say is that the higher resolution sensor is more demanding. It is more demanding of the photographers technique, and of the lenses naturally, but it is also very demanding of the filters. The only difference between the last shot and the first shot shown here was the bridge had no filter use. The hand held shot was in extremely windy conditions, and freezing cold, so I am happy to take the wrap for user error. But I really think that my, somewhat well used, filters may have to be replaced, again. The resolution is definitely effected by putting my filters in front of the premium glass. Damn…

I would add to this that the XT-2 is a joy to handle, if you’re old school, and grew up with film cameras and still work using fully manual operations. It is quiet, the focus is much more reliable, quicker, and requires a small focus point, although perhaps not as small as I would have hoped. Precision is key, but this difference is really going to apply to shallow depth of field or portrait work more than landscapes. With landscapes we are often shooting at f16 so there is a lot more latitude in where you place the focus point in the scene than if you need to get the eyes spot on with an f1.8 portrait, for example.

I often use the depth scale for landscape work, although I am a bit confused by the two calculations offered by Fuji in the XT-2. I want a simply metres distant, show me nearest point and furthest point. Now there are two settings, and they don’t make much sense at least to me. This is something I will only be able to work out if I have access to a lens with a scale on it and manual focus really. Sadly at the moment, I don’t. Zooms don’t often have scales, because they would change and that creates a headache for the designer and added expense in manufacture. For now, its play around with it, bracket, review, and continue to evaluate.

I also admit that I have work to do on my handheld techniques, but this won’t do me any harm, and I have spend so much time using my tripod since I got the Gitzo that I can’t actually remember the last time I was working hand-held. Practice makes perfect as they say, and practice has to be kept up. Mind you, it was spectacularly windy and that’s my excuse (and I’m sticking to it).

One last thing: ACROS is really nice, it reminds me of Ilford’s slow B&W film, FP4? Maybe, can’t quite remember. Of course, that might not be what Fujifilm wanted to hear, but then it could equally have inspired the settings for all I know. It’s just a shame I can’t use it retrospectively on the XT-1 images…the standard Monochrome from Fuji is bland by comparison and I get fed up with concocting my own combinations.

So, there we have it. Rather longer blog entry than anticipated, but hopefully of use to someone. If you like it, or even just find it slightly useful, then please share it.

 

A little bit of history…

Well, I fell in love with photography using fully manual 35mm film cameras (Olympus mainly, then more latterly Nikon). I then fell in love with medium format (Hasselblad 500C’s), and in particular the advantages to image quality of the larger film size coupled with the waist level finder.

When the world began its love affair with digital, I was an ‘early adopter’ as it came with my job. A conspiracy between Kodak and Nikon, produced a beast of a battery attached to a 35mm camera knock off body, with a teeny tiny sensor, and around 3MP (and all for the same price as the house I was living in at the time). I kid you not.

Being an ‘early adopter’ of the digital sphere does mean I know what you can do with very, very little. I was producing brochures with technology that would now be dwarfed by a very cheap and nasty PAYG phone! If I can make 6×4 prints from 3MP then to me, the pixel race was over around 10MP, or the mid noughties.

When DSLR prices became within mortal reach, and we had 1.5x APS-C sensors, I opted for the Sony Alpha. Due to the lack of choice for lenses, this was soon to be replaced by the Nikon D80, then the D200 (the last CCD sensor and CMOS colours etc. are nowhere near as good), then full frame with the Nikon D700. Some domestic issues meant I was forced to sell up and so when I finally got back on my feet, I troubled myself with a Canon (cheaper good glass) for a while, a very brief while, because it failed me mid shoot just days out of warranty. Funnily enough, my only foray with a film Canon ended the same way, on holiday, in Keswick, in the early ’90s.

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Quick blast of the Canon – great lens, ok camera, unreliable shutter, uneconomical to fix…

I then tried the fairly new Fuji X-Pro1. I loved it, the lenses were fantastic. The camera…was not so much. But my affair with Fuji had started, mainly as the colours were fabulous (and reminiscent of the films I loved of old). The glass quality was there and the range increasing, slowly. At the time, I wasn’t so keen on the Rangefinder approach, and the lack of long lenses as I was going through a wildlife phase. But I can’t deny the quality of the images if I put the effort in.

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Fuji X-Pro 1 in Glen Coe (yes it was cold)
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Shot with the D3200 – not the kit lens of course

At the time, Fuji wasn’t offering much else. So, with reluctance, but due mainly to need for the work I was doing, I moved back to Nikon. A D3200, was swiftly followed by a D7100. At this point my age caught up with me, and I became very tired (and sore) of lugging around good, but silly heavy, decent Nikon glass. You may have guessed that I have always placed an emphasis on good glass over even half good bodies. The glass is the bit between you and the image you want. A cheap lens on an expensive body will so every fault, a good lens on a cheaper body (within reason) will surprise you.

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Nikon D7100

I was getting on with the D7100. Sure it wasn’t full frame, but it had enough control and enough resolution and resolving power to do the job. I printed 3ft x 2ft prints of the D200, so I really don’t get the whole MP battle so much. To me, it is the dynamic range I am paying attention to, and the ease of capturing what I want to capture. Sadly, clients seem obsessed by those blasted pixie counts and don’t seem to realise by the time I have turned the high resolution TIFF into an email’able JPEG, the whole question is no longer remotely relevant!

Anyway, by this point, dear Fuji had just come out with the XT-2, and that made a plethora of used XT-1’s within affordable reach. I had coveted the XT-1 when I traded in the XPro-1 (for some nice binoculars at the time).

I went to the Fuji open day at Ffordes, one of those few occasions when they open at the weekend!

(Yes guys, that is a huge brick-through-the-window sized hint. I bet if you opened just Saturday mornings, you’d sell loads of gear to people resident from Aberdeen to Inverness and beyond, who really don’t want to be stuck with Argos and Jessops as their only non-mailorder options.)

Anyway, whilst men with deodorant related issue drooled over the XT-2 almost as much as they did over the model, I tried and then bought an XT-1, and some really nice prime glass (glass over bodies as always).

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From the Fuji XT-2 open day (shot on my XT-1)

Then a few months later I nearly dropped two prime lenses in a swamp-like loch and decided to get a zoom instead. I went the whole hog and got the 16-55/2.8 monster.

So, there you have it. A brief history of my digital SLR and mirrorless cameras and bringing us up to the image below. Shot two weeks ago, and sold several times over on stock and print sites online since.

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The XT-1’s last shoot (and I loved it)

If I was happy with the XT-1 then why change it? Well, the focus of the XT-1 is not reliable, or very quick. There are cumbersome operational issues the XT-2 looks likely to fix (position of tripod socket so you can change the battery without taking it off the tripod or taking off the tripod quick release plate, access to the focus points, the portrait tilt screen, just to name three).

Logically, when funds permitted (and greatly encouraged by finding out my Fuji XT-1 had 10 dead pixels in a row across the middle of the sensor, and also finding out, at the same time, that it was almost out of warranty) and the move to the XT-2 was a “no-brainer” as they say.

So on Tuesday, I picked one up. Which is actually quite difficult, as most suppliers have long back orders with Fuji (one way to retain the initial momentum and keep the price high…). Today, I took it out for a test run.