The mirrorless revolution?

Posted by Justin Franz
on Sunday, March 11, 2018

A St. Charles streetcar in New Orleans. Photo by Justin Franz.
If you’ve gone trackside in the last year, you may have noticed something different about the cameras some railroad photographers are toting around. Smaller mirrorless cameras are slowly gaining popularity among railfans and photographers. In fact, according to LensVid, mirrorless cameras made up 16.4 percent of the camera market in 2017. That may not seem like much, but it’s a considerable increase from 2013, when mirrorless cameras made up just 5 percent of the market (point-and-shoot cameras still make up the biggest piece of the pie, but it’s slipping fast as more people just rely on their smartphones to take photos).

As the name implies, a mirrorless camera does not have a mirror, the key component of a digital single-lens reflex camera. By taking the mirror out, manufactures can make a much smaller camera with an electronic viewfinder. However, that lack of a “live” view and the worry of shutter delay is one of the reasons why some people have said mirrorless cameras simply can’t replace a good-old-fashioned DSRL.

In the last year or so, a number of friends and photographers that I admire have gone mirrorless, touting the advantages of a smaller camera body. I found the idea of a smaller camera appealing - especially for hiking or travel - and so earlier this year, I took the leap and got a mirrorless camera, specifically Canon’s M6. While Fuji and Sony are making some of the most popular mirrorless systems, I decided to stick with a familiar brand.

After buying the M6 in January, I started bringing it almost everywhere; unlike the a DSLR, the mirrorless fits perfectly in my work bag. Always having a camera (that isn’t just my iPhone) nearby has already been paying dividends when going to and from work. But the real test for the camera came earlier this month when my fiancée and I visited New Orleans. Besides enjoying fresh seafood and listening to some jazz, one of my primary objectives was to photograph the historic St. Charles streetcar line. Since my better half was going to be at a work-related conference for two of the days we were in town, I had plenty of time to explore the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world. Because I was still familiarizing myself with the mirrorless camera, I decided to pack a DSLR just in case something went wrong (or if I wanted a telephoto lens; although Canon offers an adaptor so you can use DSLR lenses, I have yet to acquire one).

The DSLR turned out to just be dead weight because I only used it once. In fact, on the second day, I left the lens-filled camera bag at home and just took the mirrorless. The smaller camera proved to be perfect for shooting both the streetcars and the people around them. The mirrorless is considerably less conspicuous than a bulking DSLR, meaning people tended to act a lot more natural around it. Any fears of shutter delay because of an electronic viewfinder were also completely unfounded. In fact, the electronic viewfinder is one of the features I like the most on the camera because I can see in real time what the image will look like and there is no need to take test shots to make sure my exposure is right.

After having the camera for a few weeks, the only weaknesses I’ve discovered, at least with my specific camera, was a shorter battery life (although that’s to be expected when compared to a DSLR with a grip holding two batteries) and it being just a little too light. The second issue may seem contradictory to why I originally wanted to buy a mirrorless, but I’ve found that it’s easier to do pacing and panning shots with a heavier DSLR .

Will I be replacing all my DSLRs with mirrorless cameras in the future? I’m not sure yet but I’m absolutely impressed with what a mirrorless camera can do in a package smaller than a traditional DSLR. I’ll be excitedly watching how mirrorless cameras continue to improve.

What’s your take? Are you satisfied with what a DSLR has to offer or have you looked into getting a mirrorless camera for your railroad photography?

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