The Back Story
When I bought my first DSLR back in 2007 I seemingly had two choices of path to follow – Canon or Nikon. All I knew back then was that I wanted an entry-level DSLR capable of photographing wildlife. I ended up buying a Canon 400D because there was a cheap bundle with a Sigma 70-300mm. Being a student, a good deal on the price made it the easy choice.
Skip forward to 2015 and I’ve been photographing with Canon gear ever since. Over that time I’ve updated my lenses and cameras to a point where I had some pretty nice gear.
Despite having built up a collection of good quality lenses, my recent desire to upgrade has made me take a bigger look at my gear as a whole. Since becoming a digital nomad two years ago and switching to life out of a backpack, any gear now has new requirements. I can no longer carry tons of big lenses and heavy camera bodies. Everything I own goes on my back which means I need to carry less (both in size and weight).
For the past year or so I’ve been tempted to switch to mirrorless for various reasons but have held off on making the leap. It always seemed like it didn’t quite fulfil my needs, particularly when it comes to wildlife photography.
Recently, my opinion on that has changed. Earlier today, I traded in all my Canon DSLR gear and switched to a Sony mirrorless system.
In this post I’ll tell you what I picked and why. Once I’ve used the new gear more, I’ll report back with regular updates and we can see if I made the right choice!
Before I dive into what I’ve bought, I think it would be worthwhile explaining my personal requirements in whatever new system I picked. Here are some of the major ones:
- Photographic Style – I’m mostly a nature photographer, so landscapes and wildlife are my primary targets.
- Size/Weight – I live out of a backpack and am constantly on the move. For this reason, I want my gear to be as small and lightweight as possible while still capturing high quality images.
- Improved Noise / High ISO – My Canon 70D, as much as I loved it, had pretty bad noise once you started to increase the ISO. Even at modest values of 400 or so, it was really noticeable. While you can fix some of it in post, I’d rather have a camera that handles noise and higher iso’s better than my 70D.
- Image Stabilisation – I usually carry a tripod with me, but if I can limit how often I need to carry or use one, that would be great.
The Big Switch
Here’s the gear I just swapped from/to…
Out with the old:
- Canon 70D
- Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS USM
- Canon EF 50mm – f/1.4 USM
- Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM
- Canon EF-S 24 mm f/2.8 STM
- And a variety of macro extension tubes and big backpacks to carry that all in.
And in with the new:
How I Chose My New Gear
There are many reasons people choose to switch to a mirrorless system, or indeed, stay with a DSLR. At the end of the day it comes down to personal requirements and preferences. I could just have easily switched to Fuji or another brand. I could even have stayed with Canon and opted for a 5Diii. In all honesty, I was completely torn between various options for the past year and have done countless hours of research into each! From all that research, I’ve realised that there will never be a “perfect” fit for my requirements so at some point it just comes down to pros vs cons and you have to take a leap of faith and follow your gut instinct.
My instinct told me to pick Sony. Here are my reasons for picking their mirrorless system over the myriad of other options.
A lot of these kind of posts come across a bit biased or like sponsored posts, so I want to clarify on that. I didn’t pick Sony out of any kind of brand loyalty, although I would love to be able to fit a PS4 in my backpack…
Sony as a brand got my vote because I feel they are one of the companies that is constantly innovating. I feel like they’re regularly bringing out new gear that makes me go “woah!”. I can’t remember the last time one of the big DSLR manufacturers made me feel that way.
Another important factor for me is the recommendations of friends. Over the last year I’ve met so many wonderful photographers who are willing to share their advice and opinions. When I asked around for feedback on Sony cameras, it was overwhelmingly positive. There was also a lot of love for Fujis so I made sure to check them out too before making my final decision.
In the end, I picked Sony due to purely personal preference.
Why the A7ii?
As a nomadic photographer who’s constantly travelling, my budget is rather limited. I obviously want to buy the best items I can within that budget. The most suitable-to-my-needs Sony body I can currently afford is the A7ii. I was of course tempted by an A7Rii but it’s much more expensive and I’m not sure my poor old MacBook Pro could handle files of that resolution well.
I love the size of the A7ii. It’s a little smaller than my 70D, but still big enough to wield larger lenses if needed. The smaller form factor means I can comfortably reach all the dials and buttons without it feeling big and clunky.
Various tests show the A7ii performs much better than my 70D in terms of ISO and noise which is one of my requirements. It also has in body image stabilisation which means that I can get away with hand-holding for a little longer. This will enable me to worry less about taking my tripod out during the day. I’ll probably still have it with me, but I’m hoping it won’t be quite so essential.
A bonus of the Sony E-Mount mirrorless range is that there are various adapters for other brand lenses meaning I have a huge variety of options available. If I want to have a play with some lovely classic lenses, I can! If I wanted to keep one of my Canon lenses to use with it, I could. I’ll be keeping my lens collection small for now, but it’s lovely to have plenty of options!
If you add all these reasons to mirrorless features like focus peeking and live view, this camera feels like the right one for me.
That Zeiss Wide Angle
My first lens is the “Sony Vario T* FE 16 – 35 mm F4 ZA OSS” which is a Zeiss lens. I am so excited about this lens!
Until a couple of days ago I was erring on the side of a Konica Minolta that my friend Stu recommended. They’re much cheaper and would suit my budget better. However I started doing a little research into the lens by looking for example images on Flickr. I found a great landscape photographer who used to use the Konica Minolta but had recently upgraded to Zeiss. We ended up having a chat about his reasons for upgrading. While the Minolta was apparently a pretty good lens, it sounded as though the image quality of the Zeiss was a better long term investment. He absolutely raved about the Sony lens and couldn’t fault it. Coming from someone who’s used both, that counted for a lot.
Also, from a purely aesthetic point of view, the lens is an absolute joy to use and it is very beautiful!
The Tricky Native Telephoto
I need a telephoto lens of some sort for wildlife photography. While I would like a longer range, I’ve compromised zoom for the smaller form factor and native E-Mount of the Sony 70-200mm. This will no doubt surprise people, especially given I’ve come from a crop sensor 100-400. I’m used to a LOT of range.
Whenever I said I was thinking of switching to mirrorless, people would say “but it’s no good for wildlife!”. I’d then go and read reviews and articles about it and they’d say the same. So you may be wondering why on earth someone who loves wildlife photography would make this switch.
Well, part of me loves an underdog. I get this really strong urge to disprove statements like “it can’t be used for” or “it’s no good for”. The way I see it is: it might not be the fastest lens for tracking a moving cheetah, but most of my wildlife shots are of animals stood still. Or sat. Or sleeping! They’re rarely running around, so for the kind of animals I tend to photograph, tracking speed isn’t that important. I currently just need something capable of zooming in on a relatively stationary target. Of course if I were going on safari any time soon, this requirement would change.
There aren’t many native E-Mount telephoto options available at the moment. Options include the 70-200 f4 and the 24-240 super zoom. There are, however, a vast number of options for A-Mount or other brands which you can use with an adapter. It’s worth noting that you will need a good adapter for the autofocus to not be heavily affected. I was very tempted by an A-Mount Sigma telephoto but decided against it based on the size and weight.
I’ve opted for a native E-Mount 70-200 because when I tested it, the focus seemed *fast enough* for my needs. The only downside is that I’m going from a 100-400 on a crop sensor (equivalent to a 160-640) which I know I’m going to miss.
For now, I’m going to give this lens a try and see how it works out. This is definitely my biggest gamble of the switch. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a 70-200 f2.8 which I could then comfortably pop a 2x extender on. If you’re listening Sony, can we please have one of those asap? I’m also considering picking up an a6000 or something similar as my backup camera which can also provide a crop-factor boost to the telephoto if needed.
Initial Upsides of My New Setup
Most of the upsides are covered in my justification for switching to Sony above. However, one that I want to go into in more detail is the size and weight difference. While the A7ii itself isn’t much smaller than the 70D, it is lighter, and the lenses I’ve picked make a huge difference. Now, I know I could have got smaller/lighter lenses with Canon or other brands too, but people talk about this a lot with mirrorless so I figure it’s worth diving into the stats.
After 2 years travelling with my Canon setup, I decided it was far too heavy and bulky. Excluding bags, batteries, filters etc, they weighed in at almost 3kg:
- Canon 70D: 755g
- Canon 100-400mm: 1380g
- Canon 50mm: 290g
- Canon 10-22mm: 385g
- Canon 24mm: 125g
- TOTAL: 2935g
Conversely, my new gear weighs in at just over a kilo less:
- Sony A7ii: 556g
- Sony 16-35mm: 518g
- Sony 70-200mm: 840g
- TOTAL: 1914g
When shooting wide-angle, the equipment weight balances out, but the telephoto is a massive difference. That saving of 1kg in weight is a huge win for me (and my back). Sure I’ve got less glass to pick from, and I don’t have that 200-400mm range covered, but I’ll gladly compromise telephoto range for that weight saving.
It’s also worth noting that the Sony telephoto is smaller in both length and diameter than the Canon. That, combined with fewer lenses means my space requirements going forward will be much smaller.
Of course, this is all based on the optimism of having shiny new gear and my need to travel light. If I had a permanent base, I’d most likely opt for a selection of larger super telephoto lenses for wildlife photography. Unfortunately, they’re so big and heavy, they’re just not practical to carry everywhere. Again, it all comes down to compromise – figuring out the camera gear that suits your needs and lifestyle.
I’ll report back on the other upsides to this setup as/when I’ve given it a thorough test.
Possible Downsides Of My New Setup
While I’m super excited about my new setup, I know there are some downsides. There are things I’m going to miss from my Canon, and things I’ve needed to compromise on.
Here are the things i’m expecting will take me a while to get used to:
Battery life – I already know the battery life compared to my 70D is terrible! I’m going to need a LOT of spare batteries, or find ways to optimise battery consumption on the Sony. I’m hoping someone out there has written a cheatsheet of things to do to help improve battery life. On the plus side – at least it’ll force me to be more considered in my shots and not just spam fill my card because I can.
That zoom – I know I’ll miss the 100-400mm on a crop sensor (equiv. 160-640mm). I’ll probably miss the quality of the glass and the speed of the shot too. That said, I am more than happy to be proved wrong about the latter. I’d love to disprove the theory that you can’t use Sony mirrorless cameras for wildlife photography!
General usage – The whole switch over is going to slow me down because I have to learn a whole new system! The user manual for this camera is as thick as my Skyrim strategy guide! I wonder if it has quests…[feel free to insert a joke about arrows and knees here].
Miscellaneous items – Having just bought myself a new ND filter, I’m now going to have to buy a whole new set of filters since these lenses are 72mm and my old filters are 77mm. Oops! Luckily, both my new lenses are the same diameter, so they can at least share filters.
This is going to be a super interesting few weeks as I get used to my new gear. It’s taken me a long time to pick up the courage to switch and I do think that this is a good time for me to do so.
As I use my gear more, I’m planning to post regular updates on teething troubles, things I like, things I miss from my Canon etc, with the aim to help anyone else making the switch.
Oh, and to make this more fun, I’m going to set myself a challenge. Let’s see if we can disprove the whole “can’t photograph wildlife” stereotype. I’ve seen a couple of people get some cracking wildlife and sports shots with these cameras so it would be great to break that stereotype! That seems like a fun challenge to end the year on!