Cascadia Obscura

The stories behind some of my favorite photos and trips...

The Move to Mirrorless


I’m including this random day trip from 2015 in the blog 4+ years later because it marks the first time I started shooting a mirrorless camera and the last time I ever shot a standard SLR camera, which was a pretty big deal in my arc as a photographer. The camera was my Sony a7r I still own to this day, which I nicknamed Heidi. I nicknamed it Heidi because (this is true) it’s previous owner was the musician Seal and Seal at one time was the arm candy of Heidi Klum (or maybe it was the other way around), hence the name. Moving on!

With a 36MP full-frame sensor, the Sony a7r had 50% more pixels and resolution and loads more dynamic range than my Nikon D600 which was a great camera and capable of capturing some killer photos, so I expected this one would be even better and judging by the reviews that were out there, I wouldn’t be disappointed. However, what really made this camera more intriguing for me was that it was a mirrorless camera and it offered a completely different way to shoot.

If you don’t know how SLR cameras work (film, or digital) it goes like this:

  • Light enters lens

  • Light hits mirror, directing it up to a prism

  • Light exits prism and into the eyepiece, showing you what the lens can see

  • When you open the shutter, the mirror flips up so that the light hits the film or sensor right behind where the mirror is located and records the image rather than bouncing off the mirror

  • When the exposure is finished, the mirror flips back down like it was when you pressed the shutter release to take a picture and you once again see what’s coming through the lens.

With a mirrorless camera, it goes like this:

  • Light enters lens

  • Light hits sensor

  • Tiny LCD in the eyepiece displays what the sensor is capturing

And that may not seem radically different, but the key here is “what the lens sees” vs “what the sensor is capturing.” What this means is that since you are looking at what the sensor is capturing rather than just the light that is entering the lens, you see any adjustments to exposure you’ve made in real time while an SLR can only show you what you can see through the lens. Adjust the aperture or shutter speed or area you meter off of and the image will always look the same, but on the mirrorless the image in the LCD you’re looking at reflects all the changes. So, it’s pretty impossible to over/under expose or not know exactly how the image will look when you take a picture as you’re literally seeing exactly what the sensor is going to capture.

It’s very cool technology and I had just bought the camera 3 days earlier so this was the first time I’d be shooting with it. And the best way to see what a camera can do is to shoot black & white as it can showcase the dynamic range of a camera better than anything else as the tonality breaks just 2 colors into infinite shades of gray in between. So, off to Whiskey Dick Mountain I went.

No, really: this place is called Whiskey Dick Mountain. It’s where the the Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility is located, just outside Ellensburg, WA. With bright blue skies and puffy white clouds blowing through and the stiff winds turning the giant blades of the wind turbines, I figured it was a great place to shoot.

The pictures turned out great, the camera was a joy to shoot with and such a novel and unique way to take pictures as you saw the impacts of changing exposure and depth of field with each adjustment and I adjusted constantly, just to experiment and test how changing this or that impacts the image. I truly owe a great deal of my photography knowledge and experience to mirrorless cameras and cannot recommend them highly enough. In some ways, they feel like cheating since you can see the impact of changing settings or metering off different parts of a scene and the risk here is that you never actually learn concepts so much as just how to operate the camera. But at the same time, if you look at this as a fast track to learning photography and exposure and metering then you can accelerate yourself up the learning curve and apply that knowledge elsewhere. My Leica M10 rangefinder for example (also a mirrorless, though one that mates a mirrorless sensor to an old-school rangefinder mechanism), I am incredibly comfortable and capable shooting with that very simple camera where you only adjust shutter speed, aperture and ISO because I learned the impact of those exposure decisions in real time through Heidi, my Sony a7r.

And while I pick up my Leica over Heidi any day (Heidi is my go-to for shooting at night) due to the more “real” feeling of shooting without staring at a tiny LCD, I still look at that a7r and remember what a joy it is to shoot and how blown away I was that first day up on Whiskey Dick Mountain. And if you giggle every time you read that name, join the club…

Bryan MillsComment