How a mirrorless camera changed my photography

My experience with a mirrorless camera, and how it was the best decision I ever made for the future of my photography.

Early last year, I converted from a full-frame Nikon to an awesome little mirrorless camera from Olympus: the OM-D EM-1.  It’s been great, and I am having a lot of fun traveling and shooting with this camera.  It’s an awesome little machine (though I still have plenty to learn about it).  And, I dropped my travel weight considerably, which is never a bad idea.  I love to travel light.  I've always been like that.

(You can read my review of the camera here if you’re curious.)

Interestingly, I have found that many of my habits accumulated over the years (especially those related to capturing brackets for HDR processing) have started to change, and these changes were precipitated by the change of gear.  I never really thought about these habits in the past – I guess that’s what makes them habits, right?  I just did them, sort of like I was on auto-pilot.  I would show up, set up, and start firing.  Done.

But in some ways I was stagnant, and clinging to old ways of thinking.  I was not challenging myself, I was not learning, and I was not growing.  I pretty much did the same thing EVERY SINGLE TIME.

And while I liked the results I was getting (and still do), I think there was a lot MORE I could have been doing, and a lot of creative experimentation that I just never even thought about.  In other words, I believe all these changes are good ones, and in some cases, long overdue. 

Change is good, right?

So, here is what has changed for me over many months of shooting exclusively with the Olympus OM-D EM-1 mirrorless camera…

1) 3 frames per HDR

For years, I shot (and swore by) 7-frame brackets for all my HDRs, with each frame spaced 1 stop apart.  I just found that it worked for me.  Maybe 7 was my lucky number at the time.  However, when it came time to process, I was generally using 4-5 of the frames instead of all 7.  Some of them were just TOO BRIGHT.  What good is a big white mess?  It didn’t help, and was just useless.  Conversely, what good is a big dark mess? I had plenty of those, too.  

But now that I have the Olympus, I have been shooting 3-frame brackets, with them spaced 2 stops apart.  Initially I was concerned that I would not have enough data in 3 frames to get what I wanted, but those fears were quickly put aside after shooting that way for a little while.

I’m getting everything I need in 3 frames, and it’s great.

I also tried the 5-frame and 7-frame options on the Olympus, but really felt like it was just wasted frames.  So I have been shooting only 3 frames each time for almost a year now, and am completely happy with the results.  It’s quicker, easier, and less files to mess with.  In other words, it saves me a little bit of time and effort.

And I realize that digital storage is pretty cheap, but this isn’t about storing too many frames.  This is about simplifying my workflow, and making it quicker and easier to take photos, process photos, and share photos.  Because that’s one of the things I am focused on this year - processing and sharing more photos.  

2) Not addicted to a wide-angle lens anymore

As I wrote here before, I was totally addicted to the wide-angle lens on my Nikon.  And to be fair, it’s a GREAT lens.  But in retrospect, I think I shot with it TOO much.  I rarely took it off, which means there were a lot of shots that I didn’t really do justice to.  In other words, by shooting so much with the wide-angle, I think I missed some other interesting angles on various subjects (and skipped some subjects entirely, because I was too lazy to change lenses).  Sad, but true.  Such is human nature.

Not having the same wide-angle view was one of my biggest fears when I decided to move to the EM-1 (ok, THE biggest fear).  I was honestly SCARED.  It’s sounds ridiculous in retrospect, but that is how deep my addiction to the wide-angle lens ran.  It was in my bones.  

But I decided to embrace the change and see how I could alter my approach to fit with the much smaller and lighter gear that I was moving to.  I see PLENTY of great photos every day on the web, and it’s not like they are all shot with a wide-angle lens.  The photographers that I admire most do not shoot exclusively with a wide-angle lens.  It defies logic to do that.  It’s actually not a very versatile lens, when you think about it.  And the wide-angle lens is best suited to getting a postcard shot, which I think is a bit over-rated.      

So how is it going for me?  So far, so good.  In fact, it’s been great.

My new favorite lens is the Olympus 12-40mm F/2.8 Pro lens, which I reviewed here.  It really is a fabulous piece of glass, and a wonderful all-around lens.  It’s incredibly versatile.  I can go from semi-wide to semi-zoom.  In comparison to what I had with the full frame Nikon, it’s equivalent to a 24-80mm lens.  That’s a huge range and gives me a lot of flexibility.  I’ve been using it almost exclusively since I got it.  I’ve even taken trips with just this one lens.  In other words, I think I have another addiction now.  LOL

Additionally, I have also picked up a couple of different lens - way different, for me.  I bought a prime lens as well as a fisheye.  I NEVER would have done that in the old days, but again I am exploring a lot of creative possibilities in the mirrorless world, and it’s great.

3) Using filters for the first time

I never bought any filters when I used the Nikon (other than a UV filter to protect the 28-300mm zoom that I had; there wasn’t one for the 14-24 wide-angle).  It just wasn’t something that I even thought about, partly because I was shooting so much wide-angle HDR stuff, I guess.  There are some ND grad filters available for the 14-24mm Nikon wide-angle lens, but they are large and pricey, and at the time I didn’t want to add to my travel weight, or my expense.  Things were heavy enough.  

But now that I am using smaller and lighter lenses (one key benefit of micro four-thirds mirrorless cameras), I have picked up a couple of them and so far I am really enjoying shooting with them.  In particular, I have the ProMaster Variable ND filter that I use on the 12-40mm F/2.8 lens.  It’s been great for shooting waterfalls and allowing me to get that silky smooth water movement that everyone loves to look at, including me.

Added bonus: the filter is not very expensive, and it’s pretty small (owing to the lens not being big either).  In other words, it barely adds to my travel weight, but gives me some creative flexibility when I need it.  Total win.

4) Single frame more often

I still love shooting brackets and creating HDR photos, and I doubt that will change anytime soon.  Some scenes just really need it, in my opinion.  However, more often these days I am finding myself taking just one of those shots to process, and leaving the other two alone.  It’s a combination of the image quality, the power inherent in today’s software for post-processing, and of course some changes in my personal tastes.  This ends up saving me time in post-processing, which means I can process more photos more quickly than before.

This is not to say you can’t get good single frame shots from my old Nikon D700, because of course you can.  But that model was originally released in July 2008, so compared to cameras that are produced today, it just doesn’t quite measure up.  Technology advances at a pretty rapid pace.

5) Changing my aperture (among other things)

In addition to my wide-angle addiction with the old Nikon, my other addiction was f/13.  I shot EVERYTHING at that aperture, or at least it seemed that way to me.

Broad daylight?  f/13

Sunset or blue hour?  f/13 + tripod

After dark city shots? f/13 + tripod

Inside a church? f/13 + tripod

Everything else? f/13 

I just found that with the Nikon D700 and the wide-angle lens, shooting at f/13 really worked for me.  It was my go-to setting for HDR.  It was the sweet spot where everything was in focus, and I used it all the time.  (This is not to say that other f/stops on the Nikon gear weren’t in focus – but this is just the one that I found I liked best.)

But another thing I started to experiment with after getting the EM-1 was varying my aperture while out shooting.  At first, I had to try all sorts of things in order to see what I liked best, and to see if there was a sweet spot with this camera.  

You know what I found?  I am getting just as good results at much lower f/stops as anything I did before.  I have shot from f/22 all the way down to f/2.8 and so far everything is looking great.   I have shot pretty wide open (f.5.6 for example) and still get everything in focus.  It’s really opened up my eyes (no pun intended) about NOT having to shoot at such a tight aperture as f/13 any more (some of this has to do with the micro four-thirds sensor).

I've also shot more and more handheld these days.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with a tripod - in fact, I recommend one - but sometimes I just want to be quick, light and supremely mobile.  Handheld wins in that regard.  I shot nearly everything handheld when I was in Paris back in November, and it worked incredibly well.

This gives me additional flexibility to shoot across the spectrum when out in the field.  In some ways, it’s liberating.  I was nearly married to f/13 on a tripod with my Nikon, and sometimes those exposures were REALLY long (in which case you obviously need a tripod).  Now, I feel like I will get great results no matter what I shoot at, which is great.  It also can save me a lot of time as these lower f/stops will fire a lot more quickly (allowing the handheld option) – and yet, still get everything in focus.  Like I said, it's liberating!

So things have changed for me quite a bit over the last 8 months or so, and I am sure they will continue to change.  That's a given for all of us in these creative pursuits.  We change, and thus our output changes as well.  But I am happy to say that I feel more creative than ever, and more willing to break with the old habits and try new things than ever before - and I think that is in large part due to converting to a mirrorless camera.

Well that’s it – 5 ways that shooting with the Olympus mirrorless camera is changing my style, my shooting habits, and thus, my photography.  This creative journey is one that is about continual change, and it’s quite fun to be out exploring, learning, and growing in the process.  Here’s to more change ahead!  I’m ready to embrace it!