Mirrorless Camera Insights from National Geographic Photographer Jay Dickman


Today, everyone is an aspiring photographer due to the ubiquitousness of the cell phone camera. Instead of carting around their large DSLR, the cell phone is becoming the de facto tool of choice, since it’s always with us. What the mirrorless camera system offers is the ability to carry a real camera that provides the photographer with lens choice, exposure options, and a real viewfinder, all in a package that is small enough to encourage the photographer to carry that camera and leave the full-size DSLR at home.

While the cell phone is great for those instant grabs, it has its inherent limitations. Consider the method of shooting photos with a phone: we hold the device at arm’s length to compose and shoot. How can you see the subtlety of a moment when viewing a monitor held a foot away? When you shoot with a real camera, the viewfinder becomes your world, you can see edge-to-edge, top to bottom of the frame. This allows the photographer to frame exactly, to watch for the subtle expression in a face and to watch for the “moment.”  Compared to a cell phone, a real camera enhances the possibility of making a true photograph instead of a snapshot.

In my own work, I need high quality, a fast camera, and a wide selection of fast lenses. I find that I am carrying and using my Olympus OM-D EM-5 more and more. My large DSLR is staying in my office as the OM-D provides the image quality and rapid handling that my work demands. I’ve been watching as the camera industry has moved forward in downsizing digital cameras. As sensor technology has moved forward, the long-standing need for a full-size sensor has loosened considerably.

The quality of the image is great, and noise, once the bane of the smaller-size Four Thirds sensor, has made long strides in improvement. 1600 ISO looks great, 3200 looks very good, and the image quality is stunning. I’m frequently asked what’s the best camera to have. My answer always is, the one that is actually in your hands when you need it. With the smaller size, less bulk, and decreased weight, I am more likely to carry my OM-D all day.

Also, for the real-world, working photographer, the Micro Four Thirds lens choices are growing by leaps and bounds. One of the beauties of the Micro Four Thirds consortium: there are a number of companies who’ve signed on to this group, with several manufacturers building lenses for the Micro Four Thirds bodies. Olympus and Panasonic are the front-runners. Between these two, the photographer can find lens coverage ranging from 7mm all the way out to 300mm. When taking into account the 2X crop factor of the Micro Four Thirds chip, this provides a 35mm equivalence of 14mm to 600mm. Included in this group one will find: Olympus 9-18mm f/4.0, 12mm f/2, 17mm f/1.8, 45mm f/1.8, 75mm f/1.8. In addition, from Panasonic: 7-14mm f/4.0, 20mm f/1.7, 12-35mm f/2.8, 35-100mm f/2.8. Other way-cool lens offerings: Leica 25mm f/1.4, and the Voigtlander Nokton 25mm f/0.95. These lenses I’ve specifically mentioned because these are “pro” lenses, offering high speed and producing beautiful image quality.

My photographic work is primarily international, taking me to all the continents and the Arctic. Traveling extensively is no longer a luxury; it’s a grueling, exhausting process. When I travel  within the US, I know what my carry-on restrictions will be. The camera bag industry has built their cases to adhere to these rules. Regarding international travel, all bets are off. What is allowed as carry-on by one airline will be turned away by another. Those low-cost European carriers will charge you exorbitantly for your carry-on, if it's allowed in the cabin at all. Within Africa, most smaller airlines rigidly enforce a 10-kilo rule for carry-on, and will decide at the gate if your case will go on with you, or be checked (a gentle term that in no way describes the horror your camera case may experience, once out of your hands). So, that 300mm f/2.8 or 500mm f/4 for which you paid huge bucks in the US may be sent below the plane, with those “fragile” stickers possibly incentivizing a further toss of your bag.

As this system matures and as the already growing line of great lenses increases, I know we’ll see more photographers turning to this system. When I show the size and form factor of the OM-D to other photographers, the usual response is “I’m so tired of carrying my large…(fill in the blank)."  What’s coming down the line, I can’t imagine, but it’s great to see equipment being offered that enables the photographer, making it easier to travel, and encouraging that person to carry a camera.           


A Pulitzer-Prize winner and National Geographic photographer, Jay Dickman’s work has appeared in 15 of the high-profile A Day in the Life of… series. His work also has won several awards in the World Press International Competition, including the Golden Eye award, and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Distinguished Service in Journalism, as well as multiple awards in US competitions.

In addition to photographing more than twenty-five assignments for the National Geographic Society, Dickman has taught workshops for Santa Fe Workshops, the Maine Media Workshops, Photography at the Summit, and the American Photo Mentor Series. Learn more about one series of workshops he conducts at www.firstlightworkshop.com.


I bought a mirrorless Nikon 1 V1 camera because I just didn't want a full size DSLR camera (with its weight), but wanted better photos than my old point and shoot could give me. I am pleased with the V1 and enjoying it daily!

Absolutely love my OM-D's!!  Thanks for the great article!

I started using a Fujifilm X-E1 a week ago, and already am very pleased w/ the size of the camera and the quality of the pictures I'm getting. Your images in this article - all I'm assuming with a mirrorless camera - are beautiful and inspire me to get the most I can out of my X-E1. Thanks for writing this post.

** Mary Lee Dereske