Lessons from the California Photo Festival and More on Mirrorless Cameras

LightPhotoWkspAnother terrific California Photo Festival ended on Friday. Victoria Schmitt, who owns Light Photographic Workshops, with her husband, Hal, is the guiding hand behind this event. This is one of the best photo festivals I have ever been a part of or even attended on my own. It is not just the caliber of the instructors (and there are some amazing folks here). It is also the atmosphere of learning, support and good-natured people that makes this very special (I give a lot of credit for this to Victoria, as well as the wonderful attendees). I always learn a bit from the event, the participants and unique things that happen. The wonderful photo on their website seen above is by David Wells.

CA Photo Fest 1Juan Pons and I have been doing the photographing critters sessions (three sessions that cover most of a day) for two years now. Dennis Sheridan is the critter man and has this amazing collection of animals he brings in every year: geckos, a true chameleon (which will catch crickets in front of the camera), frogs, a host of amazing insects from walking sticks to a Hercules beetle, tarantulas and more. It is a popular and fun set of sessions.

CA Photo Fest rev1This year we added a station with light from below and above, offering the chance to shoot critters in a "studio" setting like the Meet Your Neighbors folks. That was very cool and something anyone can do for a unique look at close-ups. We were using LED lights provided by Samy's Camera in Santa Barbara for all of the stations with the different critters. This was a terrific option because it allowed us to have continuous light that everyone could work with, plus these lights did not overheat the animals or the room!

I know a lot of people learned from the critter shooting is how much fun it can be to do close-up work with animals that are not the big, charismatic animals with fur! These critters are pretty remarkable. Also, the LED lights required people to shoot with high ISOs. The light was not strong enough to get fast shutter speeds needed for handheld photos otherwise (tripods were possible, but not at all stations because there were too many people; plus shooting handheld for these critters was fun!).

A lot of folks discovered how very good cameras are today with high ISOs. If you have not shot high ISOs because you have been told for so long that they aren't very good, give them a try. I am not talking about the crazy ISOs of many thousands, just the ones from 400-1600. All cameras today really do a nice job with such ISOs, but regardless, getting a sharp, engaging photo is more important than some arbitrary ISO rule.

CA Photo Fest 2It rained on Wednesday. I had a group sunrise shoot. Well before sunrise, we checked and found heavy clouds, cool temps but no rain, so we went anyway. The location we went to overlooked the San Luis Obispo valley and I thought we might get some city glow on the clouds. We did indeed. We got cold and a little wet (the location was exposed, the temperature had dropped and it started to drizzle), but the colors and light from the city gave a fascinating look to the clouds and the hills, even when you did not point the camera at the city (most of it was blocked by hills anyway). The best light was well before sunrise. Shortly after sunrise, the whole scene got gray and ugly.

We had some great sunrises and sunsets on other days.

CA Photo Fest 3 CA Photo Fest 4One thing that really hit home was a very significant change in interest in the mirrorless cameras. I have seen this before in digital, including as digital became established. Photographers first ignored digital, then said it wasn't for them, then got curious, then started to switch, then were passionate digital shooters. It is hard to say if this will happen to mirrorless, but I saw a huge interest in these cameras at the festival. I was always mobbed with questions at every presentation I did as soon as people knew I was shooting a mirrorless camera.

Ray Avecedo from Olympus was there and he and his gear was always several people deep (the new EM-1, by the way, looks to be phenomenal camera). I am not sure all of the mirrorless camera manufacturers understand what is happening now. Some are convinced that you cannot change baby boomers who have Nikon or Canon. From what I saw at the festival, that is definitely not true. I talked with Ray and he says they definitely feel they can make an inroad into the baby boomer market.

It was very obvious that so many people are tired of dragging big cameras and lenses around. More than one person has told me that they do not shoot as much with their big camera because of that and actually prefer just using their iPhone. That is kind of sad, but I think that really shows how a convenient, small camera can benefit photographers. Olympus had some loaner gear and it was always checked out. The people using it had some of the same experiences as shooting with the iPhone. They found it was fun to not be burdened with a big camera!

(By the way, I tried a few of the lenses with my GH3 – Olympus really has some great lenses and one thing that is very nice about the Micro Four Thirds or MFT format is that you have a huge range of lenses to choose from because both Olympus and Panasonic lenses fit both camera bodies. This choice is not about being able to own tons of lenses, but about having the choice to get the most appropriate lens for your needs. I found this was very difficult to do when I was shooting Sony NEX cameras because the selection is much more limited and because there is a very small selection of top-level lenses.)

I actually had some interesting discussions about mirrorless cameras with quite a few people, including some pros who are seriously looking into them now. The size affects both what you carry and cost. My GH3 is every bit a pro camera as the 5D Mark III, for example, plus lenses such as the 12-35mm f/2.8 and 35-100mm f/2.8 are every bit as good as Canon L-series lenses (maybe better in some ways). The lenses and body are also dust and splashproof at least as good as the 5D Mark III (maybe better). But you can buy the GH3 plus those two lenses for about the price of a 5D Mark III body only, and I will guarantee the smaller camera/lens package will change and free the photographer to be more creative (because they are not weighed down by gear) far more than just buying another "latest" Canon or Nikon body. You simply do not pay for the size, the mirror (and all the related stuff), the sensor (bigger sensors come at a big premium for price), and the high markups that Canon and Nikon put on their high end cameras (you probably won't see that in the photo magazines!).

Because of this growing interest in mirrorless cameras, I am going to start a blog just about mirrorless cameras and nature photography, hopefully this week. That way I use this blog in a more general nature photography way. I will let you know what happens.

About Rob

I am proud of the work I have done as a photographer, author, naturalist and nature photographer, editor and videographer. I love the natural world, and that can be a native bee in my native plants garden as much as a visit to a national park. I am a husband of a beautiful and smart wife, a father to my outstanding son and daughter, and one who lived in Minnesota most of my life, but now loves the variety and very long growing season of Southern California. I have written and photographed a lot of books and magazine articles but what is most important to me about them is knowing that I have helped people become better photographers and gain a better connection to nature. I work to help people connect with photography and nature through speaking and as a workshop leader, too. All of this has gained me a Fellow award with the North American Nature Photography Association. Many people knew me as the long-time editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine and I am still connected with them as a contributing editor. A short list of some of the books I have done: Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography, The Power of Black-and-White in Nature Photography and Reports from the Field (an iBook). My website is at www.robsheppardphoto.com; my blogs are at www.natureandphotography.com and www.mirrorlessnature.com.
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18 Responses to Lessons from the California Photo Festival and More on Mirrorless Cameras

  1. Ken Johnson says:

    Thank you for your Festival participation, Rob. You clearly had a great deal to contribute. Your engaging personality and infectious love for the craft certainly added to the success of the event.

    And after lugging around mega pounds of gear for a week, you also really got me thinking about the mirrorless option!


  2. Rob...I was super-excited to hear you are going to start a blog about mirrorless cameras and nature photography. There really isn't much serious information out there regarding these cameras. I always read the micro-four thirds forum at DPreview, but the content vacillates between brand in-fighting sprinkled with some helpful posts. I think your blog idea is cutting edge. Looking forward to seeing this project unfold. Karen

  3. Carolyn Morgan says:

    Thanks for this helpful report - I look forward to the new blog.

  4. Greg Anderson says:

    Thanks much, Rob. Shortly after it was introduced, I bought a Canon SL1, and coupled it with the Sigma 18-250. Over the summer I used this combo in Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Glacier national parks. I have to say I really like this small/light weight package over my two large APS-C DSLRs. It's just so much easier to carry and use that it really adds to the "fun" of photography. And now your blog has got me to thinking about moving to Mirco Four-Thirds instead of to full frame.

  5. Utila Matzke says:

    I´m looking forward to reading your block about mirrorless cameras. I´m very interested in them My SLR is becoming just too heavy for me

  6. Rich says:

    Rob - I look forward to your blog on the very dynamic world of mirrorless photography. I hope you will elaborate on your comments on the quality of the Panasonic premium lenses. I find that even the kit lenses for the Panasonic line to be very good optically. I'm finding that my EOS5 mkiii leaves the house less and less. The GH3 or my GX1 are my carry around boxes. Sometime in your blog I hope you talk about the electronic shutter versus the mechanical shutter in the GH3 (and others). It would seem that the manufacturers would like to just simplify the design and production costs by just incorporating the electronic shutter.

    With respect to workshops. I have never attended one but my primary worry is that I would come away having taken the leaders photos and not mine. They might be terrific photos but if they are not my specific vision I'm kinda not interested.


    • Rob Sheppard says:

      Thanks for the note, Rich. I am finding that more and more photographers are feeling the way you do, but often that means shooting with their iPhone! That is a bit sad, to me, not because iPhones can't take reasonable photos, but because there is much more to photography than an iPhone.

  7. Hi, Rob -

    This was my first CPF and I enjoyed it very much; in particular, it was a pleasure to meet you and attend a couple of your sessions. Your Snapshots to Great Shots was excellent, although somewhat poignant - my plans had included a visit to the Bristlecone Pine Forest after the Festival, but I did not. Still, your photos were more than worth seeing.
    And, the Critters were fun! Thanks for your tips & guidance.

    Also - I've been a fan of the MFT, and especially the Sony NEX for some time. Exciting times!

    Larry Millican
    Van Buren, Arkansas

  8. Ken Jacques says:

    Love your site, thank you.
    I have been making the transition from DSLR to Mirror less this year. I currently have The Fuji's Xpro 1 & Xe1 Everything is amazing so far except the 55-200 lens on the Xpro 1. Any ideas, comments, or... To make this experience better. The lens on the X Pro 1 is workable but not seeing the whole zoom in the view finder making it a challenge to use zoomed out past 100. Love to hear some feedback.
    Thanks in advance.

  9. Winston Shaw says:


    I had to chuckle when I read your comments concerning high ISO's. As someone who has his roots planted in the days when high ISO referred to anything above ASA 50 I was indeed extremely hesitent to utilize high ISO's when I made the switch to digital 4 years ago. Recently, however, I began working on a multi year project photographing wildlife here along the Coast of Maine and I am spending a great deal of time shooting in low light levels. A few months back I made the leap and began shooting at ISO's of 1100 and 1600 and I have been simply amazed by the results!!!!! To my mind the shight increase in noise is more than offset by the increased sharpeness made possible by faster shutter speeds and smaller apertures and I can't figure out why the books and magazines haven't pointed this out to others. My guess is a lot of folks are going to be saying thanks to you...

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