Why I switched from a DSLR to a mirrorless camera

Fujifilm X-T1
The fantastic Fujifilm X-T1 sporting a kit lens

I switched to a mirrorless Fujifilm X-T1 camera nearly a year ago after a protracted period of scrutiny and introspection regarding my camera needs. Would I switch back? No. Well, perhaps. OK, yes, if offered the right technology. By which I mean a camera that suits me.

I have been using SLR Nikons since the dawn of civilisation, which occurred in about 1990. I loved my Nikon kit. Actually, I still do. I had defended my investment in a new camera system to my partner, Gilly, on the basis that I would sell all my Nikon gear. I just have not had the courage to do so.

So if my Nikon kit is so great, why switch to Fujifilm at all?

How Canons and Nikons got to be designed like that

The short answer is that Nikon, and for that matter Canon, are designing cameras around the needs of working photographers. Even the entry-level DSLRs emulate the workflow of a working photographer in terms of the layout and functionality. Their design philosophy has trashed all the earlier learned wisdom crafting film cameras in the mistaken belief that a 3 inch screen, touch sensitive or not, hosting a menu five layers deep, is an ergonomically preferrable way for the user to absorb information and operate the camera.

A working photographer is likely to have a camera in their hand for several hours a day, most days of the week .They can set it up for their needs in their sleep. In contrast, I may not use my camera for a week at a time. Unlike a working photographer, who generally has a very specific requirement for his photography, I have a broad remit of types of shot that I may be undertaking. That is the nature of enthusiast and art photography.

I’m almost certainly going to need to spend more time than my jobbing counterpart to decide how to approach a shot and set up my camera. This is because my needs today are probably different to my needs the last time I took the camera out. So I would like to be able to review and adjust the camera setup in readiness. Ideally, that entails physical controls on the outside of the camera that provide the visual cues I need, before I even turn it on.

I resent being made to look like a wannabe photographer with a looks-like-the-grown-ups cut down DSLR. Like any serious, genuinely competent photographer, I understand how to plan a photo shoot. I am absolutely comfortable with overriding the aperture, shutter speed or sensor gain to seek a pre-determined outcome. Fill-in flash holds no mystery for me. I do know what the buttons marked AE-L and AF-L are for, for chrissakes. Give me a camera that reflects the way I work and my pride in that work, rather than being a pretend paparazzi.

In light of this plaintiff outburst, let’s have a quick look at the photographic systems that are currently being offered by Nikon, Canon and Fujifilm and see how they stack up.

Reasons NOT to buy Fujifilm X-mount

Here is an unpaletable truth. If you want the very best image rendition then buy a full-frame camera. That’s a fact. If you love wonderfully nuanced colour right out of the camera, go Nikon. If you love full on bold colour with delicious separation, go Canon. Fujifilm X-series also have wonderful colour. In particular, the jpegs produced are truly spectacular. But when push comes to shove, full-frame raw still has the edge on Fujifilm APS-C raw. However, with the latest X series cameras, there really isn’t very much in it.

The playing field between my old Nikons and Fujifilm is much more level than it seems at first glance

Here’s another awkward fact. Canon and Nikon are neck-and-neck with around 180 full-frame lenses each currently to their name, plus a further 90 lenses each to fit half-frame DX/APS-C cameras. That’s a mighty impressive photo system. In comparison, Fujifilm offer around 25 lenses.

More damning facts: The current crop of Canon EF-mount cameras have a pedigree going back 30 years. Nikon’s F-mount goes back twice as far to 1959. There are theoretically over 400 different lenses available for you to plug onto the front of your Nikon body. By contrast, it makes Fujifilm’s five-year old X-mount range seem a bit puny.

Game over for Fujifilm then. Well, not so fast.

The colour on any decent image can, of course, be modified to taste during post-processing, so the superb Fujifilm X-trans sensor can be readily encouraged to do mostly everything a Canon or Nikon can. Fujifilm have refused to play ball with the Bayer photosensor community in general (aka most every other camera manufacturer) and in particular have run foul of the overly influential DxO organisation as a result. However, doing so means they have removed the need for an anti-aliasing filter and so produce sharper images from the same sized sensor.

Of the 250 or so lenses in the Canon or Nikon range, how many do you think the average photographer is carrying around? One or two? Three perhaps? They may even own a few more lenses catching dust back at base. So some might speculate that the rest of those lenses that Canon or Nikon offer are overkill. On the other hand, Fujifilm’s growing range of lenses already form a broad, coherent photographic system for most occasions. The optics, build quality and ergonomics are at least as good as anything Canon and Nikon are producing. Arguably better.

And although Fujifilm’s X-mount system is the new kid on the block, they have been making optics since the late 1940’s and started building cameras in the thirties. Furthermore, their knowledge of film is unequalled.

So it turns out that Fujifilm bring formidable competences to the table. The playing field between my old Nikons and Fujifilm is much more level than it seems at first glance. 

The Flintstone effect

But I have a further reservation that relates specifically to DSLR’s. I have a background in engineering and technology. The very idea that in the 21 century, in this age of AMOLED screens and terrabyte memory cards, that a camera should rely on a mirror that flips up when you take a photo is right out of the stone age. I call this the Flintstone effect.

Flintsones car by Canikon
The Flintstones’ famous stone-age car, exactly as Canon or Nikon might have designed it today

Look at it like this: The first commercially practical digital still-image sensors appeared some time in the mid 1990’s. So let us compare the development of the digital camera to some other concurrent technologies.

The internet has gone from clunky html delivered on a dial-up telephone line to being an instantaneous and unassailable global political, economic and social phenomenon of the very first order.

Mobile phones – from brick with a speaker built into it to multi-media communicator, health monitor, navigation aid and taxi magnet with a half decent camera built into it (why? I’m still not sure, but they’re awfully handy, aren’t they?)

Driverless cars, drones, ‘droids, dwarf planets and dark matter have all gained serious momentum in the last 20 years. Even nuclear fusion is now only twenty years away, I hear.

So what huge strides have Nikon and Canon made with cameras over that period? Well, when you press the shutter button a switch triggers a solenoid that in turn pulls on a lever that in turn lifts a mirror out of the way of the shutter. Yes you read that right: a lever moves a mirror, and they are rather proud of themselves because it does it jolly fast and doesn’t even shake the camera very much. When you think about it like that it sounds like it should be a joke.

For those that disagree with me, let me help take the scales from your eyes: DSLR cameras do not offer fantastic AF, fast image-per-second rate or better flash lighting systems because they have a mirror in them. They offer those things because the companies that spend money developing high-end cameras are wedded to the SLR format for marketing reasons. After all, if you could make simpler cameras that dispense with all that bulky, complicated, cost justifying SLR malarkey, well, then everybody would start making them. Hold on – they are!

the Fijifilm X-T1… is the camera that the Nikon Df wishes it was

There is a real sense that those Nikon and Canon big fish that thought they had it all to themselves have been swamped by the little fish. Even Leica and Hasselblad have started producing cameras that mortals might afford. Heck, even Sigma has joined the party. It is hard to think of a reason why neither Canon or Nikon have substantially addressed the mirrorless camera market *. A cynical person might wonder if it is, perhaps, because they have been in collusion.

Convincing reasons to BUY Fujifilm X-mount

In some sort of recognition of the coming of photographer-friendly mirrorless cameras, Nikon grudgingly brought out the Df. A compact full-framed DSLR camera that is reminiscent of the old FM/FE series film cameras. I considered getting it because I love those old cameras. But it’s horribly over priced and a bit half-baked. In fact, it lead me to the Fijifilm X-T1, which is the camera that the Nikon Df wishes it was.

Nikon Df in black
A Nikon Df looking enjoyably compact and retro. Too little, too late and too expensive

Which brings me back to why I bought a Fujifilm mirrorless camera. I can wax on about the well-considered physical controls and the solid chunkiness of the excellent lenses. Then there’s the regular software updates throughout the life of your Fujifilm camera, so that it just keeps on getting better. Certainly it is smaller than your typical DSLR. Arguably there are DSLR cameras available nowadays that are, if anything, lighter than my Fujifilm X-T1. But they don’t have the immediacy of the physical controls. The smaller DSLRs feel just a bit flimsy. Or more precisely, they feel ordinary.

The Fujifilm X-T1 is a camera that you will want to take out with you for a day, or a journey. If you are travelling, the weight of a camera is critical, so you want it to be light and small.

Even as a working camera, for many purposes, mirrorless cameras are a great choice. Increasingly, professional photographers are daring to go out with them. It’s like turning up at a ball without a tie. Whatever next.

So here is the bottom line. The Fujifilm X-T1 is a serious photography lover’s camera as are the other high end cameras in the series such as the newer X-T2 and the X-Pro2. Techno-geeks should look elsewhere (and by that I mean at a Sony). The X-T1 is a camera that you really want to use. I enjoy using it, and I do so more regularly than I ever did the Nikon. In truth, if Nikon pulled their head out of their fundament and produced a decent mirrorless camera that utilised my existing Nikon gear, they could have me back. But I’m not sure that will happen in time. My commitment to Fujifilm is reaching a tipping point and soon it will be Sayonara Nikon, but for good.

*Following publication, Canon released the mirrorless EOS M5 camera. See the review in Amateur Photographer

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