Why I swapped my DSLR for a mirrorless camera for street photography

Why I swapped my DSLR for a mirrorless camera for street photography

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A few weeks ago I made a big decision about my street photography. I decided to buy another camera, and one specifically for street photography. It’s the first time I’ve made a specialised camera purchase, deciding to choose a camera purely for what it can offer me as a ‘pure’ street photography camera. To cut a long story short, I’ve swapped my jack of all trades Canon 6D DSLR for a Fujifilm X-Pro1 mirrorless camera. It wasn’t an easy decision, but read on for my early impressions of the switch I made, as well as a list of reasons why I swapped my DSLR for a mirrorless camera for street photography.

Why I chose a Fujifilm X-Pro1 for Street Photography

Fujifilm X-Pro100001

I knew I wanted a smaller camera for street photography (for the reasons I’ll outline below) so I researched a wide variety of different mirrorless camera offerings. I’d read great things about Fujifilm’s current camera line up from a wide variety of sources, and I really liked the look of their offerings. I was sorely tempted by the size and weight of the Fuji X100S and X100T, but I was put off by the fact they were box fixed lens cameras (although ‘wide’ and ‘tele’ adapters can be added, though these are expensive), and the fact they were relatively expensive. All my years of using a highly versatile DSLR made me wary of ponying up a fair of cash for a camera with only one ‘focal length’ even though I was buying something specifically for street photography!

My deliberations led me to the Fujifilm X-Pro1, a camera I already knew made a great street photography camera. I believe the X-Pro1 is currently the sweet spot in Fujifilm’s camera line-up. Owing to the fact the X-Pro1 is a fair way through its life cycle – which is my way of saying it’s long and tooth and will in all likelihood be replaced next year – there are some great deals to be had on this camera! For the cost of one pro-level third party standard zoom lens for a Canon DSLR (eg Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 VR) I was able to pick up a brand new X-Pro1 with 18mm f/2 (eq. 27mm) and 27mm f/2.8 (eq. 40mm) lenses plus free leather camera case. Given the original RRP of these lovely lenses actually comes to more than I paid for my whole bundle, I feel like I got a great deal! I understand camera choice is a pretty subjective thing and not everyone will agree with the wisdom of my choice, but read on for the major improvements and differences I’ve found when using this camera for street photography compared to my Canon 6D DSLR.

Great Size of Camera for Street Photography

Fujifilm X-Pro100002

My first impression of the Fuji on the streets was how much smaller it was when compared to the Canon. The X-Pro1 may not be the smallest or most compact camera in the world – it’s no Ricoh GR for instance – but for me it packs the perfect blend of portability and power. I simply cannot believe how small the Fuji with the XF18mm feels compared to my favourite combination of Canon 6D and 16-35mm. Admittedly I’m not making the fairest of comparisons by lining up a Full Frame camera with a zoom lens against an APS-C camera with a prime lens, but even my APS-C 20D with a prime lens is a bulky combination when faced with the nimble Fuji. I feel so much more confident wielding this smaller camera in the streets!

Ideal Camera Weight for Street Photography

Fujifilm X-Pro100003

I must admit I never really thought all that much about the weight of a camera. Maybe it’s something to do with the fact I’m British and I’ve never really got my head around our confused mix of imperial and metric weight system – we tend to weigh ourselves in stone, but smaller weights are described in grams and kilos – don’t ask me why! I’d got a bit fed up with carrying my Canon 6D and a full bag of lenses around several times (as well as my laptop!), but I just assumed that was par for the course. It wasn’t until I round tested the COSYSPEED STREETOMATIC that I began to think seriously about the weight of my DSLR. Even with my DSLR in super small and lightweight configuration (50mm f/1.8 attached) it still weighed in at almost a kilo which was quite a weight on one leg. By comparison, had to double check the weight specs of the Fuji when I first looked it up. With the XF18mm attached this camera weighs just 570g! That makes it a veritable featherweight in my book. I’m still getting used to how light the camera feels in my hands, around my neck and in my bag. And that’s before I think about how light the spare lens is in my bag – neither the 18mm or 27mm weigh as much as my smallest Canon lens – the 50mm prime! It’s amazing how much more flexible I feel carrying a lighter camera, I no longer feel like I’m lugging a great behemoth around. In all my research I made before I made the switch, I think the difference in weight was something I totally underestimated, and it was a really pleasant surprise!

Discreet Camera for Street Photography

Fujifilm X-Pro100004

I‘d been told on numerous occasions that a smaller more discreet camera would make street photography a less daunting experience. I had expected this to be the case, but I’m still surprised at just how much it has changed my street photography experience. I don’t feel nearly as apprehensive at raising the camera to my eye with the Fuji as I did with the Canon. I think perhaps because the camera looks so low-key and retro with a little lens makes it look much less threatening to passersby. Maybe it looks less threatening and paparazzo than a ‘professional’ DSLR. I don’t think it’s just my preconceptions either, I’m yet to notice any of the weird looks I used to get when toting the Canon on the street.

Amazing Viewfinder for Street Photography

Fujifilm X-Pro100005

Aside from using a Canon SnappyQT compact camera and disposable cameras very early on in my photographic ‘life’ I’ve done the bulk of my camera learning on SLRs – be it my dad’s Olympus OM-2N (which still has the best SLR viewfinder I’ve ever experienced) or my Canon 20D and 6D. So the rangefinder style OVF on the Fuji X-Pro1 has proved to be an entirely new photographic experience for me. It’s amazing the difference that a viewfinder that sees more of the scene than the lens makes. I now feel like I’m looking at the street with my own eyes and the camera is just a small part of that. Contrast this to the ‘DSLR effect’ where I felt like I was looking down a tunnel or barrel and laser focusing on my target (and the 6D has a very nice viewfinder I might add). I think a wider viewfinder that sees more than the lens makes you feel more like a person watching the world go by than the ‘sniper-like’ DSLR. It’s hard to explain exactly how it is, but it’s certainly a big and welcome change, and I’m beginning to see why people talk so rhapsodically about rangefinder style viewfinders.

Portable Small Lenses for Street Photography

Fujifilm X-Pro100006

I’ve mentioned already the marked difference in the lens sizes for this mirrorless Fuji compared to my Canon DSLR. While I appreciate that mirrorless camera lenses aren’t always small and light, I’ve been really impressed with how tiny and light the two Fuji lenses I have are. I think the combination of the smaller sensor and lack of a mirror (meaning a closer mounting or ‘flange distance’) has meant these lenses can be incredibly small and lightweight. It’s totally transformed my outlook and approach to photography – no longer do sharp, fast lenses have to be heavy and big!

Great Handling for Street Photography

Fujifilm X-Pro100007

So far I’ve been really impressed with how my mirrorless Fuji has handled the process of image making, especially when lined up against my powerhouse DSLR. I can’t deny I have had to make a trade-off – which I fully expected beforehand, and which I’ll go into in depth later – but I’m still incredibly impressed by how this Fuji stacks up compared to the 6D. It’s a markedly different photography experience than I experienced with the Canon – the Fuji’s dials and lens aperture ring (on the 18mm at least) make the camera feel much more geared towards ‘slower’ manual shooting than the all-powerful Canon. In fact, I haven’t felt inclined to use the Fuji in an auto mode at all – I don’t even like the auto-ISO that much!

The autofocus system on the X-Pro1 has been much maligned, but in my experience so far I’ve found it a fairly good challenger to the 6D (a camera which itself is often criticised for the autofocus system). At night I’d say the centre focus point on the Canon is more powerful (this camera clearly ate all its carrots) but there isn’t a huge difference, and if you turn the X-Pro’s AF illuminator on it becomes a faster focuser in low light than the Canon (though obviously you lose your street stealthiness). In daylight I’d be hard pressed to highlight any huge differences in the autofocus systems. Perhaps the Canon is a hair faster, but the X-Pro certainly isn’t bad. I’m also comparing the AF performance between both cameras with my 16-35L mounted on the Canon, if I use my elderly 50mm prime on the Canon then autofocus speed and accuracy declines noticeably.

Quality wise there aren’t massive differences between the files produced by the Fuji and the Canon – but there are caveats. As I’ll talk about later, ISO performance is significantly different with both cameras. I’d say the 6D produces ‘sharper’ files than the X-Pro, but the Fuji files have better dynamic range with less highlight clipping (to the point where you can actually ‘save’ an overexposed RAW quite easily), and also a lovely ‘filmic’ look.

Downsides to Swapping a DSLR for a Mirrorless Camera for Street Photography

I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been compromises to bear in making my switch. In the interests of objectivity, I’d like to list them here.

ISO Performance

The Fujifilm X-Pro1 performs well at ISO 6400, and the files it produces are great quality. However there are still not quite a match for the Canon 6D at this speed. I’ve been a little frustrated that the maximum ISO I can shoot the Fuji at is 6400 as I shoot RAW. Using the Canon has meant I’ve got used to being able to crank my ISO up to incredible levels in situations where flash isn’t too practical (or I’ve forgotten to bring one). This is simply not possible with the Fuji. It’s not a deal breaker for me, especially as I’m trying to develop my style of off-camera flash street photography, but it is a frustration. If I was working a photojournalistic type job where I wasn’t sure I could control my light or needed to be super fast and flexible, I’d still grab the Canon over the Fuji

Slow Handling

I know I’ve said the handling of the X-Pro is great for the streets, and I stand by that. However I do have a small gripe with the controls for setting the ISO. I wish Fuji had opted to display the ISO speed on a dial on the top of the camera so it could be set and adjusted on the go. I see no good reason why they could not do this and it would make operation significantly easier. As it is, you have to change ISO by pressing the FN button, looking through the viewfinder and spinning or dial, or through the Q Menu on LCD display. Obviously you don’t have to change the ISO with the same regularity as shutter speed and aperture, but it’s still a little annoyance in an otherwise near perfect operation. By contrast, the custom settings of the Canon and the top LCD mean I can check and change my ISO in a flash without raising the camera to my eye.

Poor Battery Life

There’s no way around it, compared to my Canon 6D, the battery life of this Fuji X-Pro1 mirrorless camera is pretty bad. With the Canon I never had to worry about battery life or performance, with the Fuji it’s something I have to be very wary of. I haven’t used the Fuji truly ‘in anger’ yet – by which I mean a street hunt lasting 8 hours, or an intense photo session of around 300-500 shots – but I’d definitely get through 1.5 or 2 batteries in this case based on my current use. This wasn’t even a consideration with the Canon, which had a battery that would just keep going and going. I guess that’s the tradeoff you make for extra portability and an operation that is so entirely reliant on battery power. Even using the OVF the Fuji chews power because of the digital display overlay, whereas the Canon’s mirror and simple LCD readout are very power parsimonious.

Durability

I rhapsodised earlier about the amazing lightness of the X-Pro compared to the 6D, and that weight had to have a major trade off. Fuji make no claims about the weather sealing performance on the X-Pro1, and I am under no illusions that this is a significantly less durable camera than the 6D which Canon claims to be ‘dust and drip proof’. I’ve used my Canon in some fairly tough conditions and very extensively for the last few years and it has performed admirably. It’s certainly not waterproof, but it is one tough camera. The Fujifilm certainly isn’t badly built (it feels beautiful) and I’m sure it could stand up to lot of rough and tumble on the streets. But I’m aware I need to be very careful with I expose it to. I’ve watched an X-Pro1 get hit by a glass of spilt beer (the horror) and the beer end up inside the lens mount! I’d be very surprised to see this happen to the Canon (though I shan’t be putting my money where my mouth is!).

Autofocus (Macro Mode)

My last tiny gripe with the X-Pro1 versus my 6D concerns the macro mode. Owing to the parallax effect when using the OVF, the camera will not focus closer than a certain distance (which varies depending on the lens, but in my experience with the XF18mm is around 40cm). To get the camera to focus closer, you are forced to switch to Macro mode, activating the EVF. I understand why the camera does this (the parallax is so great at closer distances that the OVF becomes ineffective at framing) but it would be great if the camera just focused anyway, flashed a warning symbol and fired a frame. Sure the shot may be badly composed, but at least it would be in focus, and the parallax would be something you could learn to work around. The Canon shows no such problems – if it can focus it will fire, no matter what the distance, and what you see through the viewfinder is what you get in the shot. Admittedly not many street photos are shot from 40cm away, but sometimes you do want that option (in-your-face portrait for instance) and it’s never nice to be fighting your gear.

Fujifilm X-Pro100008

Conclusion – I’m Glad I Switched to a Mirrorless Camera for Street Photography

It’s important to remember photography (and particularly good photographs) aren’t dictated by the gear you use. My Canon 6D was absolutely not a barrier to me making good street photographs. My own skill and talents (or lack of) and confidence is what serves as the barrier. I have made, and will continue to make street photos that I love using the Canon 6D. However I must confess that shooting with a Fuji X-Pro1 has completely invigorated my street photography. It hasn’t yet improved it, that’s up to me to practice and improve myself, but I feel more confident more of the time using a smaller, lighter more discreet camera on the streets. I feel less like people are going to round on me as a paparazzo and more like they’ll look at me as an innocuous tourist or even an eccentric with a film camera. They say you shouldn’t judge by appearances, but we all do, and based on my experiences thus far I feel much less conspicuous as a Fuji X-Pro1 street photographer than as a Canon 6D street photographer. There are compromises, but at the moment I’m happy to work around them. I’ll keep you posted on my progress!

4 COMMENTS

  1. i have both the Fuji XE 1 and a 5d mkll. Your review is great. However when I put the inexpensive pancake 40 on my canon….the camera is not a whole lot bigger andi get that quick autofocus. Still-I do love my Fuji

    • Thanks for the kind words Acey! Yes I did consider the 40mm pancake for my 6D, but I really wanted to give a rangefinder style camera a try too. I absolutely love the X-Pro1 for street, and the Canon is a heavy rig even with the pancake lens. The high ISO of the Canon still destroys the Fuji though! I love them both.

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