EVIL vs. DSLR: Does size really matter?
This question is becoming more and more common as both the weight restrictions on airlines and the capabilities of more compact mirrorless systems increase.
This article aims to shed some light on this question by using two comparable setups (one mirrorless or EVIL contender, and one DSLR) on the same dive to shoot similar scenes, then analyzing how the mirrorless camera sizes up to its larger bretheren, the DSLR.
In the EVIL corner, courtesy of the guys over at Backscatter, we had a Sony NEX-7 in a Nauticam NA-NEX7 Housing with two Inon D2000 strobes.
In the DSLR corner we had a Canon 7D in an Aquatica housing with two Sea & Sea YS-250 Pro strobes. Both housings featured 45° viewfinders.
To pit these two together we headed up to Tulamben, Bali for two days of diving. The north shore of Bali with its easily acessible mix of macro and wide angle is the perfect test bed, especially with the right guides and the right operator. With the photographer-centric folks at Bali Diving Academy we were able to get all the right subjects for our tests in only 5 dives!
Wide Angle Underwater Photography Comparison: EVIL
For wide angle, we had the NEX equipped with the 16mm f2.8 "pancake" lens with the fisheye converter attached. This was mounted inside Nauticam's 4.33" glass dome. The Canon sported the Tokina 10-17mm f3.5-4.5 fisheye zoom inside an Aquatica acrylic 8" dome port. A quick note, the Inon strobes are slightly cooler and have a narrower beam angle than the YS-250s and the NEX wide-angle images have a larger field of view resulting from trying to make the images as similar as possible by maintaing the same shooting position - more similar compositions would have been possible.
The Pros of Being EVIL - Wide Angle
The ability to review the image in the electronic viewfinder just after shooting is fantastic. Although for the first dive I spent a lot of time pulling my eye from the viewfinder to stare at an empty LCD, once I retrained my brain to stay glued to the viewfinder I found this to be a real bonus. This was especially true when shooting scenes where a quick review is needed and a longer review would have meant losing the setup, such as the schooling jacks below or when working with a model.
The electronic viewfinder makes captruing fast moving scenes a breeze. The dynamic range of the NEX-7 was also comparable to that of the 7D when shooting into the sun.
Full Manual Control
The mirrorless NEX offers full manual control over exposure as well as Aperture and Shutter Priority modes. In the Nauticam housing these are easily accessible via thumb-dials on the right side. ISO is also easily adjusted with the twist of a well-placed dial.
The manual controls of the NEX allowed for easy balancing of foreground and background just like on the DSLR leading to almost identical images.
Maneuverabilty and Ease of Use
The compact package of the housing and strobes made it almost effortless to get into position for a shot and to make fine adjustments without losing your position.
The small size makes it easy to maintain position, especially when shooting from below. .
The optics are suprisingly good. The coverage of the 16mm with the fisheye attachment was impressive and very similar to the 10-17mm, with a similar amount of edge softness. Even with the smaller dome port, the edge softness was not any more noticeable than on the 7D with the mid-size 8" dome.
The edges in each image maintain the same level of sharpness and minimal distortion.
The Bad in EVIL - Wide Angle
Internal flash recycle time
This really cuts down on the effectiveness when shooting fast action scenes where burst mode is used. It happened several times that you would push the shutter only to have the camera do nothing, watching the scene dissolve through the viewfinder as you waited for the internal flash to recycle. This is not a problem only on mirrorless systems, but the Nauticam housing does not feature an electronic bulkhead, whereas most DSLR housings have the option for either.
When balancing subject movement with a model, the need for a fast recycle time is key and the lack of an electronic flash option on the NEX was frustrating - it took much longer to get both the model and anemone fish in the right positions with the NEX.
Although the ability to review the image in the viewfinder is a pro, it is also a con. To use the rear LCD, a switch must be flipped, followed by pressing the review button. When viewing the histogram for example, it is often difficult to see clearly in the viewfinder and must be reviewed on the LCD. This process can make the shoot-review-reshoot process rather time consuming.
When working close to the surface I constantly find myself switching between LCD and viewfinder, a challenge on the NEX.
Conclusions on shooting wide angle with an EVIL
After shooting the camera, I was almost ready to sell the 7Ds and order my NEX-7, for wide angle shooting the NEX is really a top performer overall. The sharpness, dynamic range, and usablility are all top-notch and of similar quality to our DSLR system. The ability to shoot in RAW allows for adequate post-processing as well.
Macro Underwater Photography Comparison: EVIL
For the macro portion, we equipped the NEX with the 30mm f3.5 macro lens and the Inon UCL330 wet mate diopter and the 7D with the Canon EF-S 60mm and a MacroMate flip-down magnifier.
The Pros of Being EVIL - Macro
Again, the electronic viewfinder is priceless for macro. A great deal of damage is done to animals due to photographers "chimping" or pushing their housings forward and down to look at the LCD, oftentimes pushing the camera into the subject. With the NEX, your eye never needs to move to review your images, making the ocean a safer place for critters everywhere.
The electronic viewfinder is exceptionally useful for macro as it elimintates "chimping" when shooting extremely close to delicate and potentially harmful subjects like fire urchins.
Threaded Macro Port
The Nauticam's threaded macro port made the use of the screw-on adapters easy and practical, although we never found it necessary to remove the diopter, as the natural magnification of the macro lens was not really large enough.
The NEX does a superb job on medium size subjects such as this Rhinopias even with the Inon diopter attached - the above images are almost indistinguishable in quality.
Depth of field control
The smaller sensor meant more depth of field by default, something that is not always desirable in macro images, yet it was still able to lend a more "SLR-look" to the images than a standard compact camera. With compact cameras, controlling the amount of bokeh in an image is challenging. The ability to use a dedicated macro lens with large apertures was a large bonus.
The NEX allowed much better control over the depth of field in macro images over compact cameras, lending a definite SLR-feel to the images but the magnification and working distance of the NEX was less than ideal.
The Bad in EVIL - Macro
The macro optics were not as strong as on the 7D. Soft edges are common, as the Inon diopter is not truly achromatic. The working distance of the lens also meant that for smaller subjects it became quite difficult to light as opposed to the 7D which maintained a much better working distance for similar subjects.
As is evident from the above images, the lighting on the shrimp in the 7D image is more even, whereas on the NEX version there is noticeably more side light as the working distance was smaller. The magnification of the 7D with the Macro-mate was also greater than the NEX with the Inon at the same distance.
An enlarged view of the red boxed area in the corner of the above image:
Noticeable edge softness and distortion, due to the Inon dipoter, which was necessary to get adequate magnification.
The manual focus abilities of the mirrorless system we used were just not up to SLR-par. Although this is changing - Nauticam's housing for the EOS-M will allow for the use of the same EF-S 60mm lens (with both autofocus and a manual focus gear) we use on our 7D with a mirrorless camera - it is a drawback to other mirrorless systems.
On our 7D we can seamlessly move between manual and auto focus, using the focus gear to tweak our critical focus point as needed without flipping a switch or pushing a button, whereas on the NEX we were essentially at the mercy of the autofocus gremlins. The NEX does feature "focus peaking" which highlights the area that is in focus, but this proved a rather difficult feature to implement properly when comined with the issue below, shutter delay.
There is still shutter delay, a common problem with compact systems, which leads to a loss of critical focus when combined with trying to shoot shallower depth of field images of moving critters.
The shutter delay of the NEX meant shooting this whip coral swaying in the current was more challenging than with the DSLR.
For the serious shooter who demands total control and more reasonable working distances, the SLR is still going to be the setup of choice. If, however, you are more comfortable to crop and deal with soft-edged images, the mirrorless setup can provide SLR-esque depth of field control and resolution.
The race is definitely on...
And the winner is...
The difference between a compact camera and a mirrorless system are massive and given the benefits of decreased size and weight over DSLRs, these little rigs would be a serious upgrade for compact shooters.
With the current systems, professional and serious amateurs may still want to stick with their larger DSLR systems, but not for long. With both Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic and Sony offering mirrorless cameras with large sensors and more new lenses being released, the issues we encountered in our tests may be resolved soon. The micro four-thirds sensor cameras also fall into this category, with an impressive lens selection already available and more on the way. The ease of use and portability mirrorless systems like the NEX are liberating and extremely attractive. The results, in this case the images, speak for themselves.
The author shooting with the tiny NEX-7, you can practically see the smile on my face as I contemplate how much I can sell my DSLR rigs for on eBay...well, maybe not yet.
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