How Have Mirrorless Cameras Changed the Way You Shoot?

As a regular user of the Canon EOS R system over the past few years, I really understood teaching students how much things have changed for the better with serious mirrorless cameras.

I used to spend a lot of time teaching college photojournalism students the basics of how focus and exposure works. Often, these two major concepts were very big hurdles for beginning photography students to jump through in the pursuit of good photojournalism, and much of a semester was spent understanding these fundamentals. This allowed less time to be spent composing photos, understanding light and telling a story with images.

My “lightbulb moment” to see how much easier things got came when I was giving students a lesson in sports photography and explaining the differences between AI-Servo modes (that’s AF-C for you Nikon) and One Shot (AF-S) shooters. When it comes to moving subjects, I usually start by explaining to students how I’ve been doing things more or less since the early 2000s, i.e. choosing a point of focus, turning on AI -Servo, then lock onto that subject under that autofocus point no matter what. If enough students can do this, I’ll let the camera acquire the subject and explain advanced modes like 3D autofocus tracking.

Explaining the same principles with an EOS R, I was surprised to find that the camera’s eye and face tracking technologies were so good that the old way of doing things, which had me fine served over the past two decades, really wasn’t the best way, or the easiest way, to learn. Today I explain and show the old ways, but in reality, automated camera systems can do it better. It’s not unlike the automotive world, where today’s automatic transmissions surpass the once superior manual transmissions in terms of gas mileage and speed.

The same goes for auto exposure modes, which themselves have become more sophisticated, but which also benefit from the increased dynamic range of modern cameras. For beginners, being able to preview an image’s exposure and color in the viewfinder before shooting helped a lot more than using the traditional meter to get there.

All of these enhanced features made it easier for my students to get to the heart of picture storytelling. It also got me thinking about my own mirrorless shooting and what I do differently now that I’ve been shooting with the R system for a few years, first with the EOS R and now with the EOS R6.

Continuous, continuous autofocus

With a limited AF point spread on traditional phase-detection AF systems on DSLRs, I often switched between servo and single-shot AF modes very frequently. For example, if I was taking a portrait, I might not always be able to keep my eye close to a subject under one point of focus, so a shot would allow me to get a little bit of focus – redial as needed. With the EOS R’s Eye-Detection AF, I was able to keep the camera in AI-Servo mode with Eye-Detection enabled and it will track my eyes virtually anywhere in the frame, and will ensure that even if I’m using the shallowest depth of field I’m going to focus on. It’s even easier on the R6 with the controller to cycle through faces and eyes as needed. It was a much-needed checkpoint that Canon added to its cameras.

My previous experience with eye detection and autofocus was Fujifilm’s initial implementation, which didn’t seem to let me choose which eye or face was in focus, limiting its usefulness. By being able to choose faces, I discovered that I was even able to use this method to bring focus to a manifestation that included dozens of faces in each shot. Eye-detection autofocus, across brands, has come a long way and is a game-changer for people ditching DSLRs. It’s also much easier to explain to newcomers.

Pivoting screens

The caveat I had to give students in the past about most DSLRs was to not use the swivel screen to compose, focus, and shoot. In general, live view systems had inferior autofocus systems than phase detection through the viewfinder. With the mirrorless cameras, the systems are the same via the now electronic viewfinder as on the rear screen. No more choosing between achieving creative composition with your eye away from the viewfinder or precise autofocus. You can have both. It’s another game changer with autofocus systems in mirrorless cameras that have evolved until most can rival even the best DSLRs. I can get 12fps with autofocus on the R6; It’s better than an EOS 1D Mark IV that I paid $5,000 for just over ten years ago, at half price. I’m no longer afraid to use the rear screens, and that makes my advice to sometimes “shoot from the hip” that I used to give to students a bit obsolete.

I still hate touch screens

The touchscreen is one of the reasons I had a love-hate relationship with the EOS R. Being Canon’s first serious entry into the mirrorless market, it took some liberties with the traditional Canon controls and replaced many of them with using the touchscreen or the wonky touchbar which never really worked for me and was thankfully killed. I still can’t get used to changing the settings or adjusting the autofocus this way. My students loved doing both of these things. I guess that makes me old and stubborn? While it’s nice that the EOS R6 retains all of these features if my students (or other new photographers) want them, I’m grateful for the return of more touch buttons, joysticks and dials.

What are you doing differently?

Have you changed the way you work following the switch to mirrorless? Are there things you like or dislike? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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