There are 8 reasons why I think now is the time to make the move to a mirrorless camera for wildlife photography. I have been shooting with Nikon DSLR’s for many years and I have used no fewer than ten. Nikon bodies on that list include the Nikon D300, D500, D3, D3s, D3x, D4, D4s, D5, D800 and D850 and I have loved using all of them along the way. Making the move from one DSLR to another model is pretty easy given the shooting experience and controls are very familiar from one camera to the next.
Then comes along the first mirrorless cameras and I must say I was intrigued for a number of reasons which I will discuss later in this post. Long story short I passed on the Nikon Z6/Z7 when they first came out as I field trialed one and I did not find that the autofocus was as good as my DSLR’s, namely the D5 and D850. For wildlife photography fast autofocus is a must to capture animals on the move and birds in flight and on that I will not compromise regardless of whatever other benefits the camera may bring to the table.
I did a lot of research before buying the Nikon Z6II mirrorless camera. Initial reports on the autofocus claimed a marked improvement from the first generation Z6 so I made the leap. I’ll be doing a separate post on the autofocus capabilities of the Nikon Z6II but I can say after having tested the camera for a few weeks that the autofocus of the new mirrorless camera’s from Nikon are very close to being on par with that of my DSLR’s.
I have friends shooting with the Canon mirrorless R5 and R6 camera’s and they are reporting the same findings. With autofocus now being equal to that of our DSLR’s or damn close that opens up a discussion on the other reasons why wildlife photographers should now be considering the move to mirrorless as I did.
In the remainder of this post I want to share with you all of the benefits of mirrorless cameras for wildlife photography? These are just my thoughts and the aspects that I took into consideration before I made my purchase. Your requirements and thought process may be different and I respect that. Worth noting, I am not paid or influenced by any camera manufacturer including Nikon. I purchased my mirrorless camera with my own hard earned cash so this is an unbiased review.
WARNING: In addition to the cost of the mirrorless camera itself you are quite likely going to need to invest in a few accessories as well. Below is my total cost to get up and running with the Nikon Z6II Mirrorless system. Note the Nikon 500 Pf 5.6 was not required but it’s a lens I wanted to go along with this light weight mirrorless system. All prices in USD.
- Nikon Z 6II Mirrorless Digital Camera & 24-70mm f/4 Lens & FTZ Adapter Kit – $2646.90
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR Lens – $3596.96
- Wimberley AP-500 Quick Release Replacement Foot for Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF – $59.00
- Nikon MB-N11 Power Battery Pack with Vertical Grip – $396.95
- Nikon EN-EL15c Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Battery – 72.95 x 3 = $218.85
- Hoodman HoodEYE Eyecup for Nikon Z6 and Z7 Models – $19.99
- (Because I hate the stock eye piece on Nikon camera’s)
- Prograde Digital 128GB CFexpress 2.0 Gold Memory Card (2-Pack) – $296.99
- Prograde Digital CFexpress Type B & UHS-II SDXC Dual-Slot USB 3.2 Card Reader – $79.00
What Are The Benefits of Mirrorless cameras for wildlife photography?
- View live exposure in the EVF
- Silent shooting mode while maintaining fast frame rates
- Image stabilization in-camera for shooting in lower light and video
- Additional focus tracking modes like auto-area AF face/eye detection
- Focus peaking to know what’s in focus
- Lightweight compared to DSLR’s
- Smaller in size than DSLR’s
- No need for lens calibrations
If one or more of those items speaks to you then it just might be time for you to also make the move to mirrorless. Let’s explore these 8 benefits in more detail as all of them are especially advantageous for wildlife photographers.
The 8 Benefits of Mirrorless Cameras for Wildlife Photography In Detail
Live Exposure – The Electronic View Finder (EVF)
While some lists bury the top benefit at the bottom, I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’ll begin with the reason that many, many wildlife photographers have been turned on to mirrorless cameras, myself included.
Two words: live exposure
To explain why that’s so beneficial, let me tell you first about a world without live exposure settings.
Exposure The DSLR Way:
When photographing with a DSLR camera, you try to set your shutter speed, ISO, and aperture to the most ideal settings. Then, you grab your camera, peek through the viewfinder, and take a shot based on what you see through your lens.
Sure, the DSLR captures the image you saw through your viewfinder. What it doesn’t necessarily capture is a proper exposure and you have no way to know until you review your image on the back LCD or view your histogram. If you did not get the exposure correct after chimping you make adjustments according to your knowledge of the exposure triangle and try again. If you are not familiar with the exposure triangle this link will take you you my detailed post. If you’re just starting out into wildlife photography or any genre of photography for that matter, it is critical that you understand the relationship between shutter speed, /f-stop and ISO.
Unlike landscape photography, the problem with not capturing a proper exposure the first time around in wildlife photography is odds are pretty good that the opportunity for that image has passed you by. After all, that grizzly bear chasing a salmon straight towards you happened in a matter of seconds so there is no second chance. You might have to scrap what would otherwise be a really awesome photo simply because it was too dark or the highlights are blown out and not recoverable. You might be able to rescue the image in post, but the mirrorless EVF offers you a better way.
Exposure The Mirrorless Way
The above scenario is avoidable when shooting with a mirrorless camera. The live exposure settings are built into the electronic viewfinder of your mirrorless camera. This information is provided to you through a camera sensor feed that updates the exposure in real-time. What you see in the viewfinder is what your resulting image will look like. So if you moved from a darker area to a lighter one or vice-versa, you wouldn’t have to guess what your new exposure settings should be as you would see how it changed in the EVF and could make the necessary adjustments without ever taking your eye away from the viewfinder.
You can waste far less time playing with settings and histograms and pay more attention to watching what’s coming through your viewfinder. It’s worth repeating: in wildlife photography, you only get one shot. That rare bird that just passed you might never fly here again, so you always have to be ready. With live exposure through your mirrorless camera, you can be.
The sound of a camera shooting may generate a certain type of nostalgia in you, but you have to admit, it’s a distracting sound. If you’re photographing an event like a wedding, you’re supposed to be seen and not heard. Walking around with a noisy camera could prevent you from getting future gigs.
Wildlife photographers also have to be whisper-quiet. Many of the species that I photograph such as Great Blue Herons are very sensitive to noise. The sound of the shutter on my DSLR is often all it takes to flush them up and on there way. Oh and have you ever tried to shoot video standing beside your shooting companion that’s firing off 12 frames a second with a DSLR. You can kiss your sound track goodbye.
Yes it’s true that DSLR’s like my Nikon D850 have a silent mode but that’s only available in Live view. I don’t know about you but I can’t track a hawk owl in flight using live view, so it really isn’t usable in wildlife photography in my opinion.
Now, as for my Nikon Z6II? That I can get behind. And no, not just because it’s new. Rather, it’s because the Z6II–like many other mirrorless cameras of today–is indeed as quiet as it claims to be in silent mode.
Depending on how you feel like photographing, you have two shooting modes with a mirrorless camera. The first is using the electronic shutter and the second is photographing with the mechanical shutter. The latter option is the more old-school of the two and also the one that makes all the clicking and thunking sounds that make you think of DSLRs.
I’d recommend using electronic shutter mode every time even if you don’t care about making noise. The true, pure, unadulterated silence you get out of a camera setting like this will ensure you can sneak around animals and remain virtually undetected. No more birds flying off, or deer running away, or skittish animals in general. Not to mention your pal who’s shooting video will thank you for not being as annoying as you once were.:))
In my line of work, there’s ibis and then there’s IBIS. One is a bird, the other is in-body stabilization. This is a type of vibration reduction setting along with digital image stabilization and optical image stabilization or OIS.
I won’t get into those other two vibration reduction systems today, only IBIS. Here’s how IBIS works: when your camera naturally moves, a sensor included in the camera will also move. The sensor is controlled by accelerometers that track the camera’s lateral motion. The accelerometers can shift the sensor down, up, right, or left depending on what’s needed according to the motion of the sensor.
Most Nikon mirrorless cameras also include a gyroscope, which is a further means of stabilizing the camera. The gyroscope can pick up on the camera’s rotations and then stabilize the camera through settings like roll, pitch, yaw, vertical, or horizontal adjustments.
These are axes. The roll axis controls forward movement, the pitch controls movement to the right, and the yaw controls movement towards the bottom.
Through IBIS, you can hand-hold your camera and shoot in low light without an issue. You also don’t have to worry about shaky shots and blurry photos.
For wildlife photographers especially, when you’re constantly on the move, you want a camera that can move with you and handle the rigors of the job. Mirrorless cameras can do that quite nicely!
AF Face/Eye Detection
Additional focus tracking modes such as AF Face/Eye detection have significantly improved the way we are now able to track moving subjects and keep the focus locked on the subject throughout the entire sequence of movement. While this is excellent for still images it is revolutionary for video. Even if you don’t primarily shoot video, the video focus tracking capabilities of mirrorless cameras will make you want to start doing so ASAP.
It all comes down to the electronic viewfinder, which is what separates mirrorless cameras from DSLRs. With the electric viewfinder, you’ll notice it’s easier than with DSLR cameras to watch what you’re recording as you’re shooting it.
Many mirrorless cameras feature video data histograms that update in real-time as well as focus peaking, a feature that I’m excited to talk more about in a moment. On top of all that, the viewfinder offers exposure and focus aids that let you adjust your footage as you’re filming it so you can assure the quality of your output.
The autofocus features maintain your shooting accuracy and smoothness, and with IBIS stabilization as described above, you can hand-hold your camera with good technique and not worry about shaky cam. So go ahead, chase that sky and get the full breadth of a bird in flight. The footage will come out clear!
As I said I would, the time has come to discuss focus peaking.
What is focus peaking? Focus peaking is a feature of a mirrorless camera’s electronic viewfinder that finds the high-contrast edges of your shot and then highlights them so you always know what’s in focus.
Many mirrorless cameras let you choose the color for the highlight, giving you options such as yellow, white, green, blue, or red. These colors are hard to miss so you can clearly tell when part of your image is in focus versus the parts that aren’t.
To provide focus peaking, the electronic viewfinder of your mirrorless camera uses its sensor to process your image exposure and depth. You can then tinker with the areas that need focusing or leave them as is if you want an intentionally out-of-focus effect.
How many times have you thought you’ve taken the perfect wildlife shot only to realize that parts of the image were blurry? With focus peaking, you can quickly gauge what’s in focus and what isn’t before you make the shot. This is one of the most invaluable features of a mirrorless camera for certain, especially for wildlife photographers.
Another perk of mirrorless cameras is that they’re quite lightweight. DSLR cameras might weigh upwards of 2 pounds whereas a mirrorless camera weighs about 1.5 pounds. Is that a huge weight difference? No, but it’s distinct enough.
There are plenty of benefits to be enjoyed by carrying a lighter camera around. You can hand-hold the camera with freedom and flexibility without worrying about your hands getting tired. The camera is very portable and doesn’t weigh down your gear bag either.
Now, would you believe that some photographers say the weight of a mirrorless camera is a hindrance? According to them, if you’re using a big telephoto lens or an otherwise long lens, the weight distribution might be better with a DSLR.
Still, you can always redistribute the photo equipment weight load so it’s more suitable to your mirrorless camera, so this isn’t such a big issue.
Small in Size
Oh, and did I mention that mirrorless cameras are smaller than DSLRs too? That means even less hand fatigue and much easier carrying. Some mirrorless cameras are small enough that they fit in your pocket!
You always want your camera close to your person when photographing wildlife, as you never know when you’ll need to grab the camera and shoot with it. If you can stash your mirrorless camera in your pocket, then it’s never too far away when you most want it.
No Need For Camera Lens Calibrations
With my DSLR’s I have every camera body to lens combination that I use professionally calibrated. I’m not going to get into a lot of detail on this subject but just know that there is a good possibility that your camera is either front focusing or back focusing to one degree or another. If that is the case it means you are not rendering pin sharp images.
Mmirrorless cameras like my Nikon Z6II use the imaging sensor to autofocus. This means even if your lens is just slightly “off” in some way, the sensor is doing both the focusing and the imaging, so there’s no calibrating or microadjusting or fine-tuning needed.
I will say this is a hot topic of discussion right now. Some mirrorless cameras such as the Sony A7 series and some Olympus models allow for Micro adjustments. This is in order to combat element displacement errors. I read a post that suggested the Nikon Z7 is different, it uses the same auto focus system that that is found in the Nikon DSLR’s, which is Phase Detect AF Pixels.
Bearing this report comes from a lens calibration company they claim they we were able to calibrate a customers Nikon’s 300mm F4 PF and Z7 with an AF Micro adjustment result of +3. Even though the calculated AF fine tune value was not very high, at 300mm on a full frame sensor that will make a considerable difference, especially wide open.
To close off on this debate, I will be paying close attention to the sharpness of my images and if I notice soft results I will be consulting with my professional calibrator to run a calibration to see if alignment is an issue.
The advantages of mirrorless cameras are many for wildlife photographers. The electronic viewfinder is the main standout allowing for in viewfinder live exposure. But silent shooting, IBIS allowing us to hand hold at crazy low shutter speeds, face/eye detect focus tracking, and focus peaking are all welcome additions to our wildlife shooting experience.
As if all that wasn’t enough, mirrorless cameras are lighter in weight than DSLRs and they’re smaller too. You can stash your camera in your pocket and hand-hold it all day with less fatigue.
Your days of adjusting your camera lens may also be behind you. A mirrorless camera’s image sensor and focus unit share the same components so they can’t become misaligned. Oh, and when a mirrorless camera says it’s quiet, it means it. In electronic mode, you won’t hear a peep. No more scaring off the birds and animals during your photo shoots!
For all these reasons, I really can’t recommend enough a mirrorless camera for wildlife photography. You don’t necessarily need a Nikon Z6II like I have; any high-end mirrorless camera will do. If you’re reluctant to take the plunge and buy a mirrorless camera outright, then see if a fellow photography buddy will let you borrow one for a weekend. You might not want to give it back!
I’m not saying mirrorless cameras are perfect, not at all. I have no doubt that Autofocus will continue to improve but it’s pretty damn good now. There is a lag on start up that is not present with my DSLR so you need to be pressing on the shutter button on your way up to your face so that the camera is ready to fire once you’re looking through the view finder. Overall compared to my DSLR camera though, I feel a mirrorless camera is a better choice for my wildlife photography. Please note, I make that statement in relation to the latest generation of mirrorless camera’s not the first generation.
Now I will tell you that while making the move from one DSLR to another within the same brand was no big deal that is not the case moving from a DSLR to a mirrorless camera. Making the switch to a mirrorless camera is a whole other can of worms and I can tell you from experience it is a quantum mind shift that requires time to get used to. but that’s a post for another day.
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