How Small Cameras Help You Take Better Photos

How Small Cameras Help You Take Better Photos


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Last week we looked at how limiting the number of lenses you use can help your photography. This week I’d like to explore the idea of using a smaller camera.

Before we look at why this is, let me first explain exactly what I mean by a small camera. These are examples that photographers use.

A small digital SLR camera. If you’ve ever used a full-frame digital SLR camera you’ll know that they are big and heavy (and so are most of the lenses). But most manufacturers also make small APS-C digital SLR cameras with smaller lenses to match. The only problem with small SLRs is that most of them have a lower spec than their full-frame cousins.

A full-frame mirrorless camera. These have become popular, but have the disadvantage (just like full-frame digital SLRs) that the lenses tend to be big and heavy, somewhat offsetting the benefits of a smaller camera body.

An APS-C mirrorless camera. These cameras can be small when you use them with lenses designed to match the sensor size. I (like many other Fujifilm users) love my Fujifilm X cameras and prime lenses. The only problem with this is that most manufacturers are focusing on developing full-frame mirrorless cameras.

A Micro Four-thirds mirrorless camera. These are even smaller than APS-C mirrorless cameras and there are some excellent camera bodies and lenses in this category. Worth considering, and hopefully Micro Four-thirds has a good future.

A compact digital camera. These are not as popular as they used to be, thanks to smart phone cameras, and are not as good as interchangeable lens cameras for many types of photography.

A smart phone camera. Ubiquitous, and some photographers love them. But the ergonomics for photo taking aren’t good and many smart phone cameras have just one focal length.

Out of these types of small camera the APS-C mirrorless is my personal favorite. While it doesn’t really matter what type of small camera you have (it’s a personal choice), if you’re a “big camera” user then it’s well worth considering a smaller model when the time to upgrade comes.

You can also take a hybrid approach. If you’re a wildlife or sports photographer, for example, you may have a big camera / big lens combination that you use. In this case you need a high spec camera with great autofocus and a big telephoto lens to match, so there’s not much you can do to get the size of your kit down. But you can buy a different body for other situations where you may appreciate the advantages of a smaller camera.

Better photos with small cameras

I used to own a full-frame Canon camera and switched to Fujifilm when I realized that a smaller camera system would suit me better (this was before Canon came out with its mirrorless camera ranges). These are some of the benefits I noticed after the switch.

You can walk around for longer with a smaller camera without getting tired. This is a big deal, especially if you’re into travel or street photography. Using a small camera with just one or two lenses helps keep the load even lighter.

Strangers are less intimidated by smaller cameras (and lenses). If you’re taking photos in the street it’s easier to be invisible with a smaller camera. If you approach somebody you don’t know and ask if you can take their photo, they are usually more relaxed in front of a smaller camera. It’s also easier to make candid portraits of people. This is especially true of smart phone cameras, which are so common people don’t seem to notice them any more.

Street photo of food vendor taken in Xi'an, China with Fujifilm camera

Small cameras create a different dynamic than a larger camera when shooting portraits. The model seems more relaxed – even experienced models have told me they feel tense and under pressure when the photographer uses a big camera.

Small cameras are great for taking portraits of family. This is something that I only appreciated after the birth of my son. A small camera is with a prime lens is easy to carry around and gives great image quality in low light. Cameras have the advantage over smart phones in that you can choose focal length more carefully, you get better high ISO performance and you can use wide apertures to blur the background. But if you don’t have your camera with you, then a smart phone helps you get photos like the one below.

Photo of young boy

Better photos with mirrorless cameras

Mirrorless cameras are more popular than ever and have several advantages over SLRs as well as size. If you’re an SLR user and wondering whether mirrorless is for you, here are some of the advantages.

Mirrorless cameras focus accurately on still subjects, even at wide apertures. This is because they use contrast detection autofocus rather than phase detection. The camera takes a reading from the camera’s sensor to determine whether the area under the active autofocus (AF) point is sharp. This has another benefit – you never need to calibrate your prime lenses. Anybody who has struggled with a back or front-focusing prime lens when using it at its widest aperture will appreciate this. On a mirrorless camera, it’s something you never have to think about.

For example, I made the portrait below with a Fujinon f56mm lens at f1.2. As you can see, there isn’t much depth of field, but the camera has still focused accurately on the model’s eyes.

Portrait of young woman taken with Fujifilm X-T1 camera

Mirrorless cameras used to lag behind SLRs when it comes to focusing on moving subjects, but they’re getting better all the time. Sony in particular has made amazing advances with mirrorless autofocus performance. If you buy the right model, this is no longer a good reason to avoid mirrorless cameras.

Mirrorless cameras have a quieter firing action. There’s no mirror slap which means the camera doesn’t make as much noise when you take a photo. This is a nice benefit if you’re taking photos in the street. With the ambient noise most people won’t hear the shutter firing. Many mirrorless cameras also have an option to use an electronic shutter which is completely silent.

The electronic viewfinder helps with composition. Optical viewfinders display a three-dimensional view and you have to learn how that translates into two dimensions. Electronic viewfinders show you a two-dimensional view, helping you visualize the final result.

Electronic viewfinders are great for working in black and white. If you like black and white photography you’ll love using an electronic viewfinder. If you activate one of your camera’s monochrome profiles you’ll see the scene in black and white in the viewfinder. This helps you see exactly how the scene looks in black and white and is a great aid to visualization. Just remember to use the Raw format so you have the option to create a color version in Lightroom Classic.

Black and white photo, Granada, Spain

The optional live histogram helps you get the exposure right before you take a photo. It’s quicker than checking the histogram afterwards and you can turn it off if it’s a distraction.

Mirrorless cameras accept many older lenses via mount adapters. They’re ideal for experimenting with older optics that you can buy inexpensively from eBay and similar websites, as well as creative manual focus optics such as those made by LensBaby. You can mount an older lens on any camera with the right adapter, but the advantage that mirrorless cameras have is Focus Peaking – a display in the electronic viewfinder helps you focus accurately on the subject by highlighting the sharp parts of the scene. This is important with portraits as you need to focus on the model’s eyes.

My Fujifilm X-T2 even has a dual screen mode that shows a magnified section of the scene next to the main image to help you focus accurately. The inset shows an enlargement of the area under the active autofocus point to help you see whether you have focused accurately.

Fujifilm X-T1 dual screen display

The only downside of mirrorless cameras is that most of them have smaller batteries that hold less charge. That means you may need to buy some spares and carry them with you, so it’s not a big deal. Plus this is another area where performance has increased and, depending on which model you have, may not be an issue for you.

Final thoughts

I’ve been delighted with my mirrorless cameras since I stopped using SLRs. They help me create better photos by being lighter to carry (great when traveling), less intimidating to strangers and by focusing accurately at wide apertures. These are all good reasons why you too should consider using a smaller camera, whichever type you prefer to use.

What do you think? Do you like using smaller cameras? Are you a fan of Micro-four thirds or APS-C cameras? Let us know in the comments – I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.


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Portrait photography

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

Comments

  1. Andrew, I switched to mirrorless several years ago after being a Canon dslr user for eons. Taking city breaks and finding lugging around my gear all day was becoming exhausting. I switched to a Fujifilm XT-1 with the excellent Fuji 18-55mm 2.8 and I was hooked.
    Since then I have purchased further Fujifilm bodies and their superb prime lenses. As of now I carry a Fuji XT3 ( which can now be purchased at bargain prices ) coupled with Fuji 35mm 1.4 and have never looked back.

    1. Author

      I love Fujifilm primes and the whole system. The older bodies are second-hand bargains, I’ll never buy new again. I’ve saved thousands of pounds already.

  2. Another refugee from back breaking weight! I made the move to Micro 4/3 (Olympus/OM Systems) about five years ago having been a happy Canon full frame/APS-C user since the old Canon FTB. Would have happily stuck with Canon had they joined the party earlier.
    Especially if carrying a two camera setup, the smaller formats are nigh on perfect. I regularly print 66cm wide two page panoramas in photobooks and the quality is awesome. If using the high resolution modes it’s possible to deliver enormous images.
    Seeing the exposure in camera is great and most of the Mirrorless systems seem to offer an abundance of new and useful features such as in camera focus stacking, image composites, etc. The extra ‘oomph’ from tele lenses is much appreciated (2X magnification) and the lighter weight/smaller lenses a pleasure. Noise can be an issue – but Lightroom noise reduction is now much better and Topaz better still.

  3. I am a hobbyist who was looking to upgrade from an entry level Nikon DSLR to a full frame traditional DSLR. Staying with Nikon had a lot of appeal to me given my familiarity with it and some existing lenses. After some reading I decided on the Nikon Z6ii rather than a traditional camera such as the Nikon D850. However, the Nikon Z6ii had been out several years, so I decided to wait for the next (third) generation camera before buying it.

    One day while windsurfing in Oregon’s Columbia Gorge, I noticed someone taking windsurfing pictures using a Sony A6600 with a 200mm zoom lens. He put the kit in my hands and I was very surprised at how compact light and solid it felt. Wow!

    Shortly after this the newer Sony A6700 was released and I bought it with an 18-135 Zoom lens. I have taken several trips this year and that is all I have needed. I might get a longer lens for sports and wildlife, but definitely would not bring it on a trip.

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