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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Things I don’t like about the Olympus Pen-F

If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll see that I reviewed the Olympus Pen-F a little while ago. Since then I have used this camera on a trip to the Isle of Skye, which I have also documented, and which sadly resulted in my having some serious second thoughts about my relationship with this beautiful little camera.

I love it’s size, I love it’s weight. It makes really excellent 8×10 prints (I haven’t printed bigger yet). But, for me, personally, as a landscape photographer, there are some real issues that have come to light.

Firstly, the Olympus menu system; I shoot raw and jpeg because I like to have the option of reverting to the raw file later if needed, but I also like the convenience of having a jpeg which meets my requirements as a finished image. My problem with this on the Olympus is controlling the jpeg in camera. I got spoiled with the Fujifilm system where you selected a film replication and knew exactly what you were getting. You didn’t need to tweak the colours, it was simple and effective. Now, I know this is down to me not having got the settings right as yet, but trying to delve into menus and options in the middle of a field in gale force winds is just not happening. Trying to see a tiny little adjustment colour wheel on a highly reflective screen, with even smaller nodes and really sensitive operation of the knobs and dials, whilst standing on top of cliff, in sunlight, is nigh on impossible. Trying to make valid adjustments with gloves on, totally impossible.

I know this is me, and that there is nothing wrong with the camera. But, I don’t want to take a degree in computer nerd to operate my camera.

In the end I decided I had had enough of messing about with the jpegs and set the whole camera to shoot raw only and fully manual. I’d deal with the processing after. The trouble is, that isn’t what I bought the PEN-F for, and it’s a waste of its extensive talents.

They say familiarity breeds contempt but with equipment that isn’t true. I have used Nikon cameras for over 30 years, right from film and through the first digital cameras which were Kodak/Nikon hybrids. Nikon, unlike a lot of manufacturers, keep pretty much everything in the same places from one body to the next. The menus have the same titles, and the same order. Sure they add new things but it’s logical. Sure, sometimes buttons moved or can be programmed, but its logical and it takes only a few minutes to find where the stuff has gone to or what’s new. I can operate a Nikon in the dark, like an extension of my own being. It is familiar to the point that I can pick up any body and lens combination and make it work without thinking about it.

This means that I am concentrating on my composition, on actually taking the photo, and not operating the camera.

Anyway, as I said, I switched the camera to raw and manual which kind of turned it into a Fuji…which leads me to the second thing:

I like to use filters to get shots right in-camera, first time. This includes graduated neutral density filters. Now, I’m not a complete numpty and I did leave the 100mm filter system at home (and there is no way to get rings to attach it to the tiny filter sizes of the Olympus lenses anyway). I took a Cokin P sized system with me, with three hard grads, two soft grads, a polariser that didn’t fit the holder (which is another story…), and stepping rings to take the 52mm filter size from the 9-18mm lens down to the 3something-mm of the standard lens. The soft grads were unusable as the graduation change covered more than the actual diameter of the biggest lens, so you couldn’t get the effect at all, just a graduation across the whole scene or a very weak transition of grad over around half of it. This was pretty useless, really. It was also a right bastard to line anything up because the viewfinder is small and the screen is hard to see in bright light. Why can’t they make screen matt?

So, I, and I do mean me, can’t get to grips very quickly with the jpeg options in the field, because I find that they’re too fiddly and too annoying. And, I can’t use filters. And, I’m shooting mainly landscapes.

When I get home, in spite of the issues and how much the Olympus annoyed me in use, I did enjoy the result and was impressed, to a point.

Point three – 4:3 ratio images are odd, to me. They are not quite square and not quite rectangular enough. I ended up turning most of my images into squares. I found that cropping the image to create a more landscape shaped landscape meant a very small file size ensued or, because I had composed the shot with the full size of the sensor in view, I was cropping out bits I actually wanted. Printing onto normal paper sizes also meant cropping off part of the images, which changed the image composition in ways I didn’t appreciate. It was sort of like shooting 6×6 film knowing you’re going to crop to a rectangle so you leave a portion of the frame as unimportant to the composition as you know you’ll loose it. The thing is, with a small sensor like the micro 4/3rds, you don’t have a lot of room for aggressive cropping.

Fourth and final point – the lenses are have are impressively sharp, and they are tiny, which has advantages when hiking, no denying that. Chromatic aberration is well controlled although distortion with the 9-18mm isn’t in raw and there is now automatic adjustments available with a Lightroom profile. This means manually fixing each image, which is fine. It’s not a big job and you do expect that with any ultra wide, especially if its a zoom.

I know the Pro lenses are better, but they don’t suit the PEN-F build. Putting a standard zoom on the front of it makes it front heavy. This doesn’t bother some people, but it does bother me. I had the same issue with the Fujifilm system; the pro fast lenses are the same size pretty much as DSLR lenses but the body is half the size. I found the XT2 with the 16-55/2.8 uncomfortable in use, and weirdly balanced on a tripod, requiring a heftier tripod that I would have liked. This was why I moved to Olympus. To get a balance between the lenses and the body. Perhaps I should have gone for a more traditional SLR shaped body rather than the PEN-F? Who knows.

So, what is the conclusion, my conclusion to this exercise?

Well, I still have the PEN-F kit at the moment because I do appreciate the light weight flexibility. I also think that for travel, where weight or bulk is an issue they can’t be beaten. I also think that for street photography or walking around in areas where you might need to move quickly or surreptitiously they’re wonderful. I never shot street photography until I got the PEN-F because I felt too self conscious. I have depression, and anxiety issues around groups of people, as readers will know.

But….I did just go and buy a used Nikon full frame (FX) D600 body, and two used lenses. It took me around five minutes to set up the whole camera from a factory reset to the way I like my camera setup. I did it whilst having my sandwich, one handed. I then went out and shot roughly 30 images on the way home, in bad light. I loved the reassuring noises it made, even if they were damned loud to start with compared to the Mirrorless cameras I am used to now.

I was reticent about the weight although, the XT2 with its 16-55/2.8 only weighed around a mars bar less, ok two mars bars. I would carry that weight back in extra batteries because the Mirrorless XT2 would get 350shots a charge compared to 900+ with the Nikon DSLR.

I shot in low light, bright light, with and without a tripod, with and without filters, and I rarely looked at the controls. I shot everything in raw, in 14-bit, and then I sat at my computer and admired the detail in the trees and leaves that I simply don’t see in the Olympus images. Yes, I was pixel peeping, because I wanted to do a detailed examination of the files. Then I printed one image out and it fitted to the paper without loosing more than a few millimetres. The whole image, 3:2 ratio.

It has more tonality, it has more detail. Even just printing on an A4 sheet.

Where does this leave the PEN-F? To be honest the jury is out. If someone makes me a good offer then it will go because I need the money back. I will take the Nikon out for a few days and see how I feel about carrying the weight and bulk again. If I decide that actually, with a few manual primes the set up will be just as light and efficient, or near enough, then there is a very good chance I will switch back to a DSLR system completely. I don’t know yet. I’d like to keep both, but that’s not really an option.