Years before he died in a plane crash, Galen Rowell spoke at a camera club in Santa Rosa, CA. He shared a valuable bit of information during his talk, and afterward I thanked him for solving my biggest challenge in photography: proper exposure.
This was a moment in the 1990s before computational photography and mirrorless cameras. We had a lot riding on every press of the shutter button. 36 exposures on a roll of film — each one cost money to process and print. And I was tired of wasting my allowance.
Too many of my pictures were excessively dark or light. They perplexed me. I wanted perfect exposures every time. Seemed so basic. Why was it hard?
That night, Galen said, “You have to see the world the way the camera views it, not your eyes.”
The thinking being that cameras react differently to light than our optical nervous system. Our eyes are magical. They can see shadows and highlights at the same time. Camera meters are calibrated for neutral gray. And we often have to choose between capturing darks or lights. Knowing these limitations gives you more control.
My photography changed immediately. Armed with that knowledge, I could turn my attention to what compelled me in the first place — making pictures that had feeling.
Galen Rowell never had the chance to hold a mirrorless camera. He passed away in 2002. But in a matter of seconds he would have understood their appeal. The eye of a mirrorless camera, an electronic viewfinder, doesn’t show you the real world that’s before you. Instead, it displays how the camera interprets the scene.
Think about it for a moment. It’s a real time preview of the photograph you’re about to take, before you take it. And, by extension, the electronic viewfinder solves the exposure problem.
I’ve programmed the rotating collar around the shutter button on my Olympus PEN-F to manage this task for me. If the scene appears too dark, I can instantly make it brighter. And what I see with the camera is how the photo will be exposed. No wonder we like these things.
Many say mirrorless cameras will replace DSLRs that use optical viewfinders. It’s the difference between looking through a window and watching TV. There’s no electronic interpretation with DSLRs. It’s just glass.
And yet, I love the way the world looks through a finely crafted single lens reflex. I have a Contax ST with a handful of Zeiss lenses. Viewing a scene with that camera is like sitting in a darkened room watching a sunrise through the window. I feel connected to the morning.
The problem is the guts of a DSLR see things a bit differently. So even though I feel connected with the scene before me, I have to translate it for the camera. And there’s the rub.
When witnessing the world through an optical viewfinder, there’s one degree of separation between what is composed and what is captured.
Even the most skilled photographer isn’t completely sure how the picture will turnout with a DSLR. That one degree of separation is just enough to cast a shadow of doubt.
When it comes to exposure, mirrorless cameras build confidence. They are predictable. You look at the resulting image and think to yourself, “That’s the way I thought it would be.”
That’s tough competition, but I hope DSLRs survive. As much as I love watching a good movie on TV, I also enjoy leisurely walks. I like it when it’s just me and the planet. The optical viewfinder is more like a good pair of glasses.
So, the question is: Do you prefer to compose viewing the actual scene, or an electronic rendering of it?
For most people, it’s the latter. And that’s the true appeal of mirrorless cameras.