How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mirrorless (A Photographer’s Journey)

My father gave me my first camera when I was 14 years old. He gave me his old Canon AE-1 35mm SLR — a camera made before I was born!

The Canon AE-1 — my first SLR camera

I remember taking that camera around my backyard, photographing flowers and trees. I also photographed my pet bird and pet dog… I soon learned that SLR photography was hard. Most of my early shots were terrible — exposure was wrong, or focus was off slightly.

Use the microprism, you must. -Yoda

The Canon AE-1 had this really interesting focusing ring in the center of the viewfinder… You had to manually focus the lens, and you could confirm your image was in-focus if you aligned these quirky crystals (called a “microprism”) in the viewfinder ring to remove blur.

Everything was mechanical. Even the exposure indicator was a physical dial that moved up the side of your viewfinder as your frame got brighter. It’s amazing how engineers found ways to communicate complicated information to users through analog means.

The exposure needle. Super old-school.

I quickly learned that mistakes were expensive. Each roll of film only had about 30 exposures, and you really had no idea how good your photos were until you got them back from the 1-Hour Photo. Since I didn’t have a car, I was at the mercy of my mother’s shopping schedule to develop my exposures. It might be a week before I ever saw the photos I took!

So I learned how to take good photos — very, very carefully.

Meanwhile, my father bought our family one of those new digital cameras we’d been hearing about. We got the Olympus Camedia C-1. It was probably the worst digital camera ever made. It drained AA batteries like a beast… But it was still magical compared to film, and I squeezed some good photos out of it.

I still have nightmares about this camera. Let’s not talk about it.
Oh, the things you’ll do… with 64 MB of memory.

I had a whopping 64 MB of memory to shoot with. The Olympus used these things called “SmartMedia” cards. They were like the Floppy Disk, but for cameras.

If I ever find a photo I took on the C-1, I’ll upload it… But I didn’t take many photos before reverting back to my Canon AE-1. The Olympus C-1 simply couldn’t produce high quality photos.

In 2005, I got the most incredible birthday gift ever. My father bought me a Nikon D70s — an SLR camera…. but DIGITAL!

It’s like a film camera… but DIGITAL. Six whole megapixels.

Suddenly the universe opened up. I could take the photos I had been taking on my Canon AE-1 — with strategic depth-of-field, rich color, creative exposure — but without any of the lag time of film! Forget the 1-hour photo guy! I could see my photos right there on my LCD screen. And with a 1 GB Compact Flash card (wow, 1 whole gig!) I could take hundreds of photos! I could email them to my friends, I could put them on Myspace (yeah we had Myspace) — no more scanning photos into the computer!

One WHOLE gigabyte. IN MY CAMERA.

The skills and habits I picked up from my Canon AE-1 days carried over to my use of the Nikon D70s. I continued to carefully frame my shots and shoot photos selectively. My mind was still used to having 30 exposures per film roll.

As a result, a large fraction of my photos were of high quality. When I went on photoshoots, I would shoot 100–200 shots, and about two-thirds of those shots would be good. The other one-third would be rejects, or trial photos I didn’t really care about. I believe the proportion of good photos vs bad photos in your memory card is a demonstration of your prowess as a photographer. A lot of modern photographers just snap photos like crazy and pick out maybe 10% of the shots as “keepers.” Are these people good photographers, or are they just spraying and praying?

The Nikon D70s became an extension of myself. I brought it everywhere and used every opportunity to shoot with it. I won a national Quill and Scroll award for a photo I took for my high school newspaper, and I supplied our yearbook with hundreds of photos.

One of my earliest photos on the Nikon D70s (Photo #42 of my 22,000+ photos)

I photographed for many years. My Nikon D70s has been one of the few constant things in my life — it stayed with me in high school, in college, and beyond.

Experimenting with my first zoom lens on the Nikon D70s. Shot with an 18–200mm VR lens.

My passion for photography waned after college, however. I started to explore other hobbies like martial arts, cooking, and bicycling. And with smartphone cameras becoming better and better, I found fewer reasons to lug around my heavy Nikon D70s. I could just shoot nice pictures on my smartphone.

I’ve taken over 22,000 photos on my D70s. Yet, in the last four years I have taken only 1631 photos with it. That means I took more than 90% of my D70s photos in the first two-thirds of the total time I’ve owned the camera.

Why did I stop shooting? Why did I shelve the skills I had worked tirelessly to refine? Did I get bored of it?

The answer is existential. Whenever I took my DSLR around, I felt like I needed to worry about it. DSLRs are heavy, and you often need to wear them around your neck with a strap. As much as I loved my DSLR, it wasn’t an everyday camera. If I was out with friends, the last thing I wanted to do was worry about my heavy camera. And the D70s had a first-generation CPU in it that struggled with tough lighting conditions, so I had to use Manual Mode quite a lot to set my own aperture and shutter speed.

I started to use my iPhone to capture most of my photos. It was the most convenient camera, ever. You just pointed at something and the multi-core iPhone CPU took care of the rest — perfect color, perfect exposure. When you were done, you could put the phone away and go back to enjoying your day.

I still missed the beautiful effects I could achieve with a DSLR, though. The iPhone is great, but it doesn’t give you creative control over aperture or exposure. And because the lens is tiny, there is a physical limitation to the quality of the image that comes out in the end. You simply cannot beat the image quality found in large DSLR sensors.

So for years, I contented myself with “good enough” photography on my iPhone. My shots were pretty, but they lacked the pop of my DSLR photos. I traded image quality for convenience and enjoyment.

And then in September 2016, I got a Sony RX1 — one of the world’s smallest full-frame, mirrorless digital cameras.

This is how the RX1 (right) compares to a DSLR (left)

A prosumer mirrorless camera like the RX1 provides you with DSLR quality in a point-and-shoot form factor. The camera is not as small as a point-and-shoot, but it’s small enough to be convenient. And the sensor on a full-frame camera is the same size as the 35mm film I shot with as a kid!

I bring my RX1 all over the place. It’s small enough not to tire my neck, and it’s silent (thank you, mirrorless technology!). I can snap photos without disturbing people, and people are less intimidated by a small camera.

One of my first RX1 shots. Note the dynamic range.
A quick snapshot I took of my friend Kathleen during our lunch break. Shot with Sony RX1.

I end up using the RX1 more frequently than my D70s because it’s convenient! I could be walking down the street with my friend and think, “Hey this is a nice setting — I’ll take a portrait shot!” So I turn the RX1 on and snap the photo, all in a few seconds. The modern software on today’s cameras is 100X better than it was 10 years ago — the photos practically take themselves!

I feel like I’m falling in love with photography all over again.

People who are just now getting into photography have it good. A thousand dollars today will buy you a DSLR camera 100X better than my Nikon D70s (which cost my dad $1100 in 2005, by the way). With SD memory cards upwards of 32 GB and practically unlimited cloud storage, you never need to worry about photo storage again!

I’m proud that I learned to shoot on a 35mm film SLR, and that I never updated my D70s since I got it in 2005. My hardware constraints forced me to become a stronger photographer. I can still produce beautiful photos on my D70s that surprise my friends who have newer, fancy 24 megapixel cameras!

Photographed with my Nikon D70s. September 4, 2016.

I showed my father one of the photos I took with the RX1. “You have a good eye for balance and contrast,” he replied after looking at it.

I smiled. And then I realized this was the first compliment my father ever gave me about my photography skills… More than a decade after he gave me my first camera. That made my day. We are a stoic bunch.

Here’s to another decade in photography. What a long way we’ve come :)

That’s me with my Nikon D70s! Photo courtesy of Kristine Hara.