As a professional landscape photographer, switching to a mirrorless camera system is something I have been contemplating for some time, although I have been hesitant given the weaknesses of early camera models. Bad weather sealing, poor cold-weather performance and general unreliability were some of the factors that made me decide to wait.
But today, it seems as though the industry has finally worked out many of the bugs, to the point where the mirrorless full-frame camera models are just as good, if not better, than your favourite DSLR.
If you ever spent a long, hot day of landscape photography trekking with your DSLR, trifecta of lenses, accessories, and a sturdy tripod strapped onto the side of your camera bag, we would probably agree that the back strain is not particularly enjoyable.
No matter how young and fit you are, there is one undeniable truth about hauling around bulky camera gear all day long. That stuff is heavy.
And although this was the catalyst compelling the switch to mirrorless, there was also a domino effect of positive side benefits that I gained along the way.
Disclaimer: Nikon doesn’t pay me
I should point out that I have no affiliation with Nikon at all, and this is not a review of their gear. I simply like their products as they have always performed well for me. But no matter your choice of camera manufacturer, you may still benefit in the same ways I have if you decide that mirrorless is for you.
I have been shooting Nikon full-frame bodies since 2014, so when I made the switch to the mirrorless Nikon Z7II, it was a natural choice. The Z7II is Nikon’s mirrorless flagship model for image quality, which is critical considering that I make my living selling fine art prints. Additionally, the ergonomics and menus in the old and new cameras are very similar and intuitive.
The weight and the bulk of the Nikon D850, along with my trifecta of F-mount lenses was definitely a driving factor behind my decision to switch to a lighter mirrorless camera system. But the other benefits, like improved optics and sharper images of the Nikon Z7II and it’s Z-mount lenses made the decision an easy one for me.
The Z7II weighs in at just 615 grams, versus the 915 grams of the D850, making it about 1/3 smaller and lighter. As a landscape photographer, some of the other improvements in the Z7II that benefit me and my shooting style include:
- Improved autofocus system with better accuracy, in some instances, allowing autofocus through a 10-stop ND filter.
- Dual image processors and a faster continuous shooting speed at 10FPS, compared to 7FPS with the D850. This is important, for example, when shooting out of an airplane or chopper at high ISOs, so I can stack images later in post-processing to decrease sensor noise.
- A maximum 900-second shutter speed versus only 30 seconds on the D850. This allows long exposures without the hassle of switching to bulb mode.
Of course, there are a few things lacking on the Z7II that I will miss. There are no backlit buttons for shooting at night, which was helpful on the D850. The significant decrease in battery life compared to a DSLR (common in most mirrorless cameras) is also something I will have to get used to.
But if these are the only downsides that affect me and my shooting style, I am OK with that. I always carry multiple batteries and a headlamp with a red light anyway.
You can find a good review of the Nikon Z7II here if you are interested.
And, one more point about the timing of changing systems. As of this writing, the D850 is still the current model. When it eventually gets replaced by the next generation body (a D860?), its value will decrease sharply. So, selling now just makes sense for me.
Sizing up the old and new Nikons
For those of you shooting Nikon, the photos below will be beneficial in giving you an idea of the differences between the DSLR and F-mount lenses, compared to their equivalents in the mirrorless Z7II and Z-mount lenses.
Above, we see the Z7II and Z 24-70mm f2.8 S lens, compared to the D850 and AF-S 24-70mm f2.8G ED lens. The main differences are the extra bulk of the D850 body and the size of the old lens hood. Although the physical size of each lens is similar, the new Z 24-70 is almost 100 grams lighter than its predecessor.
The total weight reduction of these body/lens combos comes in at 395 grams, or 0.87 lbs lighter for the Z system.
Finally, it is worth noting that the new Z 24-70 needs 82mm filters, opposed to the AF-S lens which uses 77mm filters.
Next, we see the Z7II and Z 70-200mm f2.8 S lens, compared to the D850 and AF-S 70-200mm f2.8G ED VR II lens. With this particular combination, it is quickly obvious that there is hardly any difference in the bulk of the two systems.
The main difference is a slight weight reduction, as the Z lens is 70 grams lighter, along with the Z body being 300 grams lighter. Total weight savings of this combination is 370 grams or 0.82 lbs for the Z system.
Both of these lenses use 77mm filters.
Above, we complete the landscape photographer’s trifecta with the new Z 14-24mm f2.8 S lens, compared to the iconic AF-S 14-24mm f2.8G ED lens. Although the old 14-24mm is one of the best wide-angle lenses ever produced, it is also very heavy, tipping the scales at 1000 grams, or 2.2 pounds.
Another drawback of the old design is the fixed hood and bubble-shaped lens, which does not accept screw-on filters.
Instead, a variety of aftermarket filter options are available for the AF-S model. I used the Fotodiox Wonderpana filter holder, which is very well designed. The all-metal construction and gigantic 145mm circular filters work very well, although they are very bulky and take up extra room in your camera bag.
The good news is that Nikon has completely reimagined the new Z 14-24mm f2.8 S lens, and there are major improvements. Nikon solved the filter issue with a unique and clever design with the lens hoods.
There are two hoods and two lens caps included; a smaller one when no filters are being used and a larger hood that is threaded and accepts 112mm circular filters.
Above, we see the Z 14-24mm f2.8 S with the large lens hood attached. I use polarizing filters regularly, so I chose the 112mm NiSi Natural CPL. It screws easily onto the lens hood and will likely stay there permanently. Hudson Henry Photography has a great filter shootout for this lens to help choose the right one for you.
Lastly, Nikon scored a big home run here when it comes to weight reduction. The new Z lens is a featherlight 650 grams or 1.4 pounds. The total weight savings of this body/lens combination is 650 grams or 1.43 pounds for the Z system. That is huge.
Less weight, less tripod
One of the additional side benefits of switching to a mirrorless camera system is that with the weight reduction, you won’t need a giant tripod to keep things stable.
My preferred stabilization equipment is mostly from Really Right Stuff, simply because they make great products with quality. If you take care of your tripod, you may never need to replace it. Again, I have no affiliation with RRS at all. I mention them here because I like their gear.
My main tripod is a Really Right Stuff Versa TVC-34L with a levelling base. Once I add the RRS BH-55 ball head on top, this beast comes in at a hefty 6.5 pounds. It is rock solid though, and perfect for heavier setups.
I sometimes use a multi-row panoramic rig which is quite heavy, so I need all the stability I can get. I have no plans on parting with this spectacular tripod and will keep it with me especially when I am trekking shorter distances or using my panoramic rig.
But for long backcountry treks or photo trips to other countries, saving weight is a big deal. That is why I have added the new Really Right Stuff Ascend 14-PF adventure tripod to my kit.
The new Ascend is available in a few different configurations, but with ‘light and compact’ as my main priority, I chose the model with the shorter legs. This tripod also comes with an optional integrated ball head, but it has some finicky knobs that could be tough to adjust in cold weather with gloves on. Because I live in Canada and do lots of winter photography, that could potentially be an issue.
Therefore, I chose the ‘PF’ platform model and bought an RRS BH-30 ball head to mate with it instead.
*PRO TIP* Dollar-wise, it works out almost identical to getting the integrated ball head version anyway, and the BH-30 has bigger knobs with more than enough weight capacity. Win-win.
The new Ascend also has plenty of height with the sturdy center column, so even at six foot one, it is no problem for me. I prefer to keep my camera at chest level anyway, using Live View to compose my images with the tilting LCD screen.
Total weight savings using the new Ascend/BH-30 combo versus the TVC-34L/BH-55 combo is a whopping 2.7 pounds. My back will thank me later.
A side note for accessories
The accessories listed below will not save much weight, but they are essential for making your life easier in the field. I thought it may be useful to include them here, as they can be purchased at the same time as a camera upgrade.
First is an L-plate for the camera body, which of course allows you to quickly switch your camera from landscape to portrait orientation on the tripod. I have the BZ7-L Ultralight L-Plate from Really Right Stuff, which is one piece and light as a feather.
Next, a replacement foot for the 70-200mm lens is a no-brainer. It has the dovetail shape built in, which attaches directly to the tripod head. So instead of an additional lens plate attached to the stock lens foot, which adds weight, this is a much simpler solution.
Finally, my Z7II came with an FTZ mount adapter for free, which allows you to use any F-mount lens on your new Z-mount camera body. If you have any F-mount lenses that you wish to keep, you can still use them.
And if your F-mount lens already has VR vibration reduction, even better. It will combine with the Z7II in-camera image stabilization for the added benefit of roll axis, for a total of 3-axis VR.
Additional benefits of Z-Mount
Besides the weight savings which were an important factor in switching to a mirrorless camera system, there were side benefits that made the choice much easier. In a nutshell, Nikon has made a better camera in the Z7II that makes it superior in many ways to the D850; at least, in the way that I use it for my shooting style.
In addition to the aforementioned improvements, the Z7II also has in-camera 5 axis image stabilization, which will help for sharper images when shooting handheld in tight spaces where a tripod won’t fit.
And finally, there is the optical quality. The inner diameter of the Z-mount flange on the front of the body is the largest of any full-frame camera on the market, at 55mm. The mounting flange is also much closer to the sensor because the camera is mirrorless.
Without getting too scientific here, these two factors allow more light to hit the sensor, improving low light performance, image quality, and edge-to-edge sharpness while decreasing aberration. The Z-mount design simply allows Nikon to produce better lenses that outperform their F-mount equivalents.
What’s not to love?
Drum roll, please
The switch to a mirrorless camera system has benefitted my photography in a number of ways, the most important being weight savings and better image quality. Although the switch to a lighter tripod accounted for much of the bulk, it is still important because anything we need to carry around just adds weight.
The total weight of the D850 and three F-mount lenses comes in at 9.36 pounds, while the new Z7II and three Z-mount lenses weigh 7.56 pounds, for a savings of 1.8 pounds. So, the weight of the mirrorless system will feel similar to taking one lens out of your bag.
The big RRS Versa TVC-34L tripod and BH-55 ball head weigh in at 6.51 pounds, compared to the much lighter RRS Ascend and BH-30 combo, which is only 3.81 pounds. The total saving on the tripod switch is 2.7 pounds.
Adding them up, I am now hitting the trails with a pack that is 4.5 pounds lighter while getting better performance from a camera than ever before. And that, my friends, is a big win for me.
About the Author
Dean McLeod is a Canadian landscape and nature photographer, raised in the prairies of Saskatchewan where he learned to love the natural world at a young age. Dean’s work as a fine art landscape and nature photographer has allowed him to keep that joy throughout his life. You can find out more about Dean and see his work on his website. This article was also published here and shared with permission.