Mirrorless: The Future of Expedition Photography

Selecting expedition kit is a tricky business. First of all, you need equipment that is going to survive the toughest conditions- perhaps the Arctic Tundra, the Yemeni Desert or the Indonesian Jungle, depending on the adventure you’ve got yourself into. You then look at the price and how useful it could be… and then you look at the size and weight. On nearly every expedition, especially self-supported voyages, weight and space are at a heavy premium- every gramme counts. This is even more important on long hikes, or treks up mountains- you don’t want to be carrying any unnecessary weight at all! So why, when it comes to photography and videography, do expedition teams still insist on the big, burly DSLRs of yesteryear? The image quality is the same or is nearly the same, the video quality is better, the weight is basically incomparable…

This article will guide you through the mirrorless world, and help you choose the perfect mirrorless camera for your next expedition adventure.

 

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Taken with my GX7 and humble kit lens in the Sierra Nevada, CA.

 

Sony

Sony has changed the landscape of the mirrorless market with the full-frame ‘A7’ series, offering genuinely brilliant image quality in a compact form. The smaller E-mount series offers a good amount of megapixels with lightning fast autofocus (A6000/A6300/A6500), but it is the full-frame E-mount series that has set the market alight. The A7RII contains a whopping 42 megapixels, offering ridiculous amounts of detail, whilst the A7SII offers light sensitivity performance so good that it can be used in virtual darkness. I remember the earlier A7S being used to great effect to film anti-Boko Haram operations by Vice News a year or so ago (find it here), and it really was quite incredible then, so god knows what you can achieve now! Both top-end bodies feature strong weather sealing, of course.

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Premium, but revolutionary. This is a brilliant camera.

 

The strength of this system is the image quality, offering outstanding images and shooting very, very good video in 4K. The downsides? The cost of the two top-end bodies is high, and the lenses continue to be very expensive. Make no mistake, the Sony Full Frame system is a very pricey game compared to all other mirrorless systems. My main issue with the Sony mirrorless system is the continued lack of lens choice in some regards, with a severe lack of native wildlife lenses, but this will improve in time. The lenses that do exist are superb, however. Martin Holland, a well-known expedition leader and explorer has just switched to this ecosystem, and I can’t wait to see how he gets on. I can’t imagine that he’ll go back!

 

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Somehow the one one the left has more megapixels… Both professional grade cameras, though!

 

When this ecosystem matures a little, it will be an excellent choice for expedition photography and videography, if you can stomach the price. The camera specification has to be seen to be believed, firmly leaving some DSLRs in the past, and if I could afford it, this would be my ecosystem of choice. I’d love the low-light performance in the jungle for example!

Sony A7SII (Low-Light, Video) £2200 

Sony A7RII (Pure Image Quality, Video) £2300 

Micro-Four Thirds

I had the very first M43 camera, the Lumix G1. It was tiny! It had nice image quality but was very much an initial foray into the market- it didn’t have a video function at all! Since then I’ve used both the Lumix G5 and the Gx7 in the jungle, and they are simply brilliant little cameras.  An advantage of the M43 series that I’ve appreciated in the field is the 2x crop factor, which is ideal in an ecological expedition setting. Being able to use my 45-200mm with a 400mm equivalent focal length has been a revelation, and it’s been incredibly valuable in the jungle, capturing images that simply wouldn’t have been possible without adding pounds more of DSLR-weight.

 

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The GH4 and GH3 are so popular amongst video producers that they have their own specific rig designs from a range of companies.

 

The Lumix series are renowned for their video quality, and they’ve been used on feature length films in the past to good effect. The GH4, in particular, is a compelling purchase, whilst the new G80 looks like the perfect lightweight documentary camera. The latest Lumix cameras shoot 4K at a variety of bitrates, yet the remain lightweight and compact. Unlike other mirrorless systems, there is a wide variety of lenses at very good price points- look no further than the Olympus 45mm F1.8 (£150) and the Panasonic 25mm F1.8 (£150) for excellent fast glass at bargain prices. More lenses are being released all the time, which is the advantage of having two companies competing within the same ecosystem, as it keeps the prices competitive and the quality high. I’m waiting for the Panasonic Leica 50-200mm F2.8-4.0 to improve my images, whilst there are plenty of 3rd party manual focus lenses that have been released, many aimed at the indie film market. If you after raw image quality, look out for the Olympus 300mm F4- that’s a stunning lens, but at a price to match.

 

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My friend’s kit after a long day in the field. My GX7 is tiny in comparison.

 

Whilst I’ve focused on Panasonic due to my own experiences with them, there is no denying the pedigree of the Olympus cameras, to the extent that I would recommend them over the Panasonic series if you are focusing on stills. The new EM1 Mark II is an exceptional camera (at an exceptional price point for a M43 camera too, though), whilst the EM5 Mark II and EM10 Mark II offer great image quality at a lower price.

 

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An amazing lens at an unbelievable price. Just get one!

 

The one thing that brings back to the M43 ecosystem after various flirtations with other brands is the lower price point. You can pick up the GX7, a great little camera, for less than £300, whilst if you search carefully you can get a GH3 around a similar price point. The lenses are high quality but cheap, and they are generally the smallest of all the mirrorless system cameras- just check out the new GX85, for example. The downsides? The image quality at times isn’t quite as nice as I’d like, but I’d happily swap that for the great video quality I get instead. Obviously though, you can’t compare the images from a Nikon D810 to these cameras though- they just aren’t comparable.

Panasonic GH4 £1200 (Amazing Video)

Panasonic G80 £700 (Great Image Stabilization, Video, Microphone Jack)

Olympus EM1 Mark II £2300 (The best M4/3 Camera, Stills)

Olympus EM5 Mark II £500 (Stills, High-Resolution Shot Mode)

Fuji

Edited 14/05/2017

After testing out an XT-10 myself for a few months, and falling in love with the build quality, image quality and manual controls on these cameras, I’ve come to the conclusion that Fujifilm absolutely takes the crown for expedition photography. These cameras are tough, even in their non-weather sealed XT-10/20 range, constructed of really solid metal that is far better quality than my past Gx7. The image quality is beautiful, with Fuji’s famous film simulations looking amazing in jpeg, though we all know we should be shooting in RAW. Video quality is seriously improving too, with the XT-20 and XT2 offering some form of 4K and being a really decent option for it too. These cameras are phenomenal, and you seriously won’t regret jumping into the Fuji ecosystem. The autofocus system on the new XT-2 and XT-20 is the best I’ve seen for this kind of photography, and the XT-2 is a really, really tough bit of kit. The Fujinon lenses are beautiful too, and not extortionately priced like their sony counterparts. The only area where Fuji is a little limited at the moment is lens selection- they could desperately do with a new mid-range zoom, something around the 250/300mm mark. The newer sensors are fab, with a 24MP APSC chip, and are pretty good in low-light too. Seriously, these are phenomenal cameras. 

Seriously, try Fuji- I will be for all my future work.

Fuji XT-2 £1200

 

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Highly recommended, just a little bulky for my tastes. Outstanding image quality.

 

 

Canon & Nikon Mirrorless

 

Nikon and Canon have dominated the DSLR market for so long that it is hard to imagine the world without them, and yet it is these two brands that have fallen behind today in the mirrorless market. Either through complacency or disbelief, their mirrorless ranges have seemed like half-hearted attempts in comparison to their masterfully engineered DSLR series, and thus I cannot recommend either in this category. The EOS M5 and the Nikon J5 are the best efforts by each company, but they are still treading water whilst other companies plough onwards. More than anything, the lens choice remains pitiful, with the Canon EOS-M ecosystem offering just 13 lenses in comparison to Micro Four-Thirds 108!

They might be light and have a nice brand name, but just don’t bother for at least another 3 years!

Conclusion

DSLRs offer an ever-decreasing number of advantages over mirrorless camera systems, and in the next 2 years, I expect that the competition between the two systems will be even fiercer. Given the importance of size and weight, and the only marginal benefits of a traditional DSLR, mirrorless cameras are surely a no-brainer for expedition media work. The bigger issue is weaning DSLR-users off their precious big bodies and down into the svelte world of mirrorless, which is perhaps easier said than done. For video work, the value of mirrorless cameras is already well-known, with the wildly successful Panasonic GH3 and GH4 being used on feature films, and video is now the best way to engage a target audience through social media and Youtube. The one downside that I’ve noticed is battery life, which is notably lower in mirrorless cameras than their DSLR counterparts. I’ve solved this by having a small army of 3 Gx7 batteries (fairly cheap too), but only once have I managed to drain an entire battery in a day.

 

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My GX7 at work in Kuala Lumpur.

 

The only other real downside I’ve recognised is that the autofocus on my GX7 and the basic 45-200mm zoom isn’t quite as good as it could be-perfect for record shots but not quite as good as I’d like. With a better camera, photographer and lens, I’m sure this would improve, though. I do occasionally wish I had a D7100, but that would be a 40% increase in weight (and in the jungle, that’s not okay)!

 

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I’m still so pleased with this shot! Hummingbird, Ann Arbor, MI. (GX7)

 

They are smaller and lighter, have equivalent or better image and video quality… It’s clear that the mirrorless camera is the future of expedition photography. There are few tools more versatile than the mirrorless camera, and I am able to take my Gx7 with 2 lenses equivalent to 28-400mm between my neck and my pocket- and in the field, that versatility is invaluable. In Malaysia I took to jamming my GX7 in a dry bag and stuffing it into the bottom of my rucksack, and it took up very little space at all.Try doing that with a D4! Ultimately, I’m certain that the mirrorless camera is the future of expedition photography. You can save weight that you could use for other things (food), save your energy during a long day in the field, and potentially save yourself money too…

UPDATE **JUST GO FUJI. DEFINITELY THE BEST OPTION**

Seriously, it’s a no-brainer!

 

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Green Crested Lizard, Perhentian Islands, Malaysia. G5 with 20mm F1.7 II

 

 

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