How Have Mirrorless Cameras Changed the Way You Shoot?

As someone who’s been a regular Canon EOS R system user for the last few years, it’s really dawned on me through teaching students how much things have changed for the better with serious mirrorless cameras.

I used to have to spend a lot of time teaching photojournalism students at the college level the basics of how focus and exposure worked. Often these two major concepts were really big hurdles for beginning photography students to jump over in the pursuit of good photojournalism, and much of a semester would be spent on understanding these fundamentals. This led to less time spent on how to compose photos, understand light and basically tell a story with images.

My “lightbulb moment” for how much easier things have gotten came when I was giving students a lesson in sports photography and explaining the differences between AI-Servo (that’s AF-C for you Nikon shooters) and One Shot (AF-S) modes. When it comes to moving subjects, I’ve usually started by explaining to students the way I’ve more or less done things since the early 2000s, which is to pick a point of focus, turn on AI-Servo, then hang on to that subject under that autofocus point no matter what. If enough students got there, I’d go into letting the camera acquire the subject and explain advanced modes such as 3D autofocus tracking.

When 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 served me well for the last two decades, really wasn’t the best way, or the easiest way, to learn. Nowadays, I explain and show the old ways, but in reality, the camera’s automated systems can do it better. This is not unlike the automotive world, where today’s automatic transmissions surpass the once-superior manual transmissions when it comes to gas mileage and speed.

The same is true for auto exposure modes, which themselves have gotten more sophisticated, but also get a boost from the increased dynamic range of modern cameras. For beginners, being able to preview what an image’s exposure and color will look like through the viewfinder before shooting has helped much more than using the traditional meter to get there.

All of these enhanced functionalities have made it much easier for my students to get to the heart of storytelling in images. It also got me thinking about my own mirrorless shooting, and what I’ve been doing differently now that I’ve been shooting for a couple of years with the R system, first with the EOS R and now the EOS R6.

Continuous Autofocus, Continuously

With a limited spread of autofocus points on traditional phase-detection autofocus systems on DSLRs, I would often switch very frequently between servo and one-shot autofocus modes. For instance, if I was shooting a portrait, there was a possibility I couldn’t always keep the near-eye of a subject under a focus point, so one shot would allow me to do a bit of focus-recompose as needed. With the EOS R’s eye-detection autofocus, I’ve been able to keep the camera on AI-Servo mode with eye-detection on and it will follow the eyes basically anywhere across the frame, and ensure that even if I’m using the shallowest depth of field that I’ll get focus. It’s even easier on the R6 with the thumbstick to cycle through faces and eyes as needed. It was a much-needed control point that Canon added back into its cameras.

My previous experience with eye detection and autofocus was Fujifilm’s initial implementation of it, which didn’t appear to allow me to choose which eye or face was in focus, limiting its usefulness. By being able to choose faces, I found that I was even able to use this method for focusing during a protest 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 stepping up from DSLRs. It’s also a lot easier to explain to newcomers.

Swivel Screens

The caution I had to give students in the past about most DSLRs was to not use the swivel screen to compose, focus and take photos. Generally, live view systems had inferior autofocus systems compared to phase detection through the viewfinder. With mirrorless cameras, the systems are the same through the now-electronic viewfinder as it is on the back screen. No more having to choose between getting a creative composition with your eye away from the finder or accurate autofocus. You can have both. It’s another game changer with autofocus systems in mirrorless cameras that have evolved to where most can compete with even the best DSLRs out there. I can get 12 frames per second with autofocus on the R6; That’s better than an EOS 1D Mark IV that I paid $5,000 for a little more than a decade ago, at half the cost. I’m not afraid to use the rear screens anymore, and it makes my advice to sometimes “shoot from the hip” that I used to give students a bit obsolete.

I Still Hate Touch Screens

One of the reasons I had a love-hate relationship with the EOS R was the touchscreen. Being Canon’s first serious entry into the mirrorless market, it took some liberties on the traditional Canon controls, and replaced many of them with using the touch screen or the wonky touch bar that never quite worked right for me and has mercifully been killed. I still can’t get used to changing settings or setting autofocus this way. My students loved doing both of those things. I guess that makes me old and stubborn? While it’s nice that the EOS R6 retains all of that functionality should my students (or other new photographers) want it, I’m thankful for the return of more tactile buttons, joysticks, and dials.

What Do You Do Differently?

Have you found yourself changing the way you work as a result of the switch to mirrorless? Are there things you love or hate about it? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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