This article is bound to stir up a little controversy. Still, I believe there is some clarity to be had on the issue of Professional Photographers and the Eye Auto Focus technology craze found in the current generation of mirrorless cameras. I intend to do an audio podcast on this topic (perhaps in the next few days if time permits), but I felt it was also worth taking the time to put my thoughts down in writing. The truth about who eye autofocus is really for and why many professionals are somewhat ambivalent about it might surprise a few people.
The catalyst for this topic was a post that appeared in my social media feed by a person unknown to me a few days ago. The post showed a current photograph from a recent sporting event in the USA of two dozen professional sports photographers on the sidelines of what looked like a football match. The caption underneath read: “Look at this, not a single photographer is shooting a mirrorless camera. Obviously, they don’t need eye autofocus!” Close examination of the photograph showed that all the photographers were shooting DSLR cameras (they were all shooting Canon 1DX cameras). There was not a mirrorless camera amongst them. Canon has always dominated the sporting sidelines, so there is little to read into that no one was shooting Nikon. Nikon makes DSLR cameras fully equal to Canon, and those who know me know that I place no weight on one being better than the other. One is Coke and the other Pepsi – pick your poison.
The answer to why pro photographers are not shooting mirrorless in this photograph is complicated and bears close examination. Before we dive into the reasons for this, I want to go on the record that I am not anti-mirrorless, and nor am I pro DSLR. What I am is pro the right tool for the job, which is very different from being for or against either technology. If my post upsets you in any way, please come back and reread this paragraph and understand that I approach photography the same way I would approach driving a car; that is, I want to use the right tool for the job. That means if I am packing for a family vacation, I want to use my SUV to carry as much luggage as I can. If I drive to the coffee shop on Saturday morning before heading out for a spirited drive in the hills, I want to use my sports car. The right tool for the job is the difference between the job being enjoyable and otherwise being a chore.
The first issue to address is that of equipment cost. It is essential to be clear that the cost of a camera plays no considerable role in a professional photographer’s choice of equipment. Professional photographers (and I have been a full-time professional photographer with no other source of income for well over a decade) regard the cost of cameras as nothing more than the price of admission to the business. We get to tax deduct our purchase as a tool of our trade and depreciate the asset accordingly. As such, the cost of camera equipment doesn’t figure to any significant degree into our buying decisions. We are far more likely to purchase a camera because it meets our needs than because of where it sits in the marketplace financially. The harsh reality is, professional photographers who quibble over the price of camera equipment are likely not really in full-time business.
Cameras are the tools of our trade, and like any trade, we need the best available tool for the job we are doing. By way of comparison, professional carpenters don’t buy cheap electric saws because they want to save a few dollars. They buy professional models that are designed to last many years. Sure, other models have more features, bells, and whistles, but what is essential to the carpenter is that the saw cuts straight and reliably for as long as possible. The same thing applies to professional photographers. We want a reliable workhorse camera that provides the features we need and have little need for anything else. Incidentally, it is no coincidence that Pro cameras, in the majority, shoot 20-24 megapixels (Nikon D6 and Canon EOS 1DX MK3). Put simply, as working professionals, this is all we need in the majority of instances. Anything more is primarily a storage and transfer headache. I have made prints two meters wide from 20-megapixel files that hang in some of the most expensive and exclusive homes in Europe and the USA. Not once have I had a client say, ‘I wish it had more mega pixels’.
This brings me to the critical point of features we need as professionals. In particular, professional sports and wildlife photographers are skilled at capturing sharp images with a narrow depth of field with telephoto lenses. It is what we do for a living daily. We know how to place the autofocus point on the eye of the moving subject and how to move the AF points around the frame on the fly to get the best possible results. Quite honestly, we do it without even thinking – it is muscle memory. We are skilled at doing so because we do this all the time for our bread and butter. We also know precisely how to set up our cameras autofocus for the best possible results. We grew and honed these skills over many years of shooting for a living. Some of us apprenticed to older, more experienced working professionals, and some of us studied photography as our degree or diploma. We have done our ten thousand hours plus, and therefore we can reliably get the subject sharp where we want it when we want it with a narrow depth of field. In other words, eye autofocus in a mirrorless camera doesn’t offer us any real benefit over our innate skills. Sure, it might mean a slightly better hit rate, but ultimately, we can focus where we want it, when we want it, without this technology. We have been doing so since the early film days.
What eye autofocus technology does is take the skill set of a professional photographer, automate it, and make it available to everyone else to take advantage of. And that is a fantastic capability. It means a nonprofessional can pick up a mirrorless camera with eye autofocus and take advantage of the technology to achieve far greater hit rates of in-focus images than they would probably otherwise have been able to achieve. I have witnessed this firsthand myself on workshops with many clients shooting the latest breed of mirrorless cameras. They are capturing images that are sharp that they were not capturing prior. Questions such as ‘please help me get sharper images, and ‘how do you get the eye sharp all the time’ have quite simply dried up! The camera technology now allows someone who doesn’t shoot for a living to capture sharp images like a working professional, which is a fantastic thing. It means amateur photographers can instead direct their attention to better composition, and this is where I am seeing most questions now gravitate. Instead of ‘help me get sharper images,’ the evening review sessions are now ‘which composition is better and why.’ Quite honestly, this is a joy and a pleasure as a working professional. I would much rather spend my time discussing the intricacies of composition than explaining why someone’s photographs are not as sharp as my own.
Years ago, I recognized that non-working professional photographers are innately handicapped by the fact that they do not use their cameras daily. It isn’t their fault; it is simply a fact of life that they are busy with their day job most of the time and are not using their camera for hours at a time every day. Therefore, they lack the muscle memory to free themselves up from the camera controls and usually spend the majority of their time being a technician in the field instead of an artist. In other words, they are fumbling with equipment settings instead of focusing their attention solely on the subject and allowing their brain to operate the camera on autopilot. Eye autofocus solves a large part of this problem for the non-working pro in that it frees up the photographer from having to worry about tracking the subject. The working pro was already intrinsically capable of this task, without thinking about what they were doing. This technology (although a nice safety net) doesn’t offer us any real advantage in the field. The same applies to the capability to see a live histogram in the viewfinder in many ways. Working pros already know how to get the exposure right before we press the shutter. Most working pro’s can read the light and get within half a stop of an accurate reading without a light meter. As I look outside now, I can see from the heavy overcast conditions that I will be ISO800 F5.6 at around 250th of a second. It isn’t arrogance on our part – it is simply experience. Just as the professional carpenter will cut a one-meter length of timbre far more accurately than I ever will without a tape measure, I am far more likely to nail focus on the eye and read the light more accurately than someone who does not do so for a living. Hence, a live histogram in the viewfinder is perhaps nice to have but far from mandatory for the working pro.
Coming back to the original photograph posted on social media of working professional photographers on the sidelines of the football match it is important to clarify that not all working professionals are still shooting DSLR cameras. Some active professionals long ago abandoned the DSLR and embraced mirrorless technology. Their reasons will differ and likely include everything from ‘it was time to turn over the equipment to ‘I wanted something lighter’ to ‘that is what the brand provided me as an ambassador’. Wedding photographers, for example, have on the whole embraced mirrorless technology far more than professional sports and wildlife photographers to date.
Working professional sports and wildlife photographers such as myself of course recognize that mirrorless cameras are the future of photography. However, we are also aware that currently, they do not offer us any significant advantage over our Pro DSLR’s. In fact, in some ways, they are a step backward, specifically in my genre of photography, where I am often operating in extreme cold (-30 Celsius and below). But that is a topic for a different post.
As we progress forward, more and more working professionals will transition to mirrorless (myself included). We will transition not because we need to but because we frankly have little choice in the matter. The Canon EOS 1DXMK3 and Nikon D6 professional bodies are without doubt the last professional DSLR cameras we will see from these two manufacturers. With Nikon dropping the new professional Z9 mirrorless camera and Canon releasing its professional R3 (with a top end R1 still to come), more and more working professionals will move to mirrorless. That is just the progression of technology at work. We will ultimately embrace mirrorless technology as working professionals, and we will take advantage of its benefits, including eye autofocus. Not because we need them, but simply because they are there.