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Is The DSLR A Dying Digital Camera System? – OP-Ed With Matthew Saville

By Matthew Saville on December 6th 2013

mirrorless-versus-dslr-650(Approximate Size Comparison, Canon 6D, Nikon D800, Sony A7R, Olympus OM-D E-M1)

Recently we’ve been seeing a lot of chatter about how mirrorless digital cameras are the wave of the future.  The latest article written by Gizmodo (found here: “The Last Days of the DSLR) has definitely sparked a lot of debate, especially since Sony has just recently announced and delivered the A7 and A7R cameras.  For those of you who have not been paying attention, they are full-frame mirrorless cameras with 24 and 36 megapixel sensors, squarely aimed at both advanced amateurs and even pros alike.

Or for those of you who are Nikon fans, the A7 and A7R are basically a Nikon D610 and Nikon D800, without mirrors or prisms, for a whole lot less cash and in a whole lot smaller package.  Ouch, them’s fightin’ words!

Okay instead of starting a flame war, let’s discuss this subject in a beneficial, informative manner.  Will we have to change our name to”MirrorlessLounge” someday?

Sony-a7r-nikon-d600-nikon-d800(Approximate Size Comparison, Nikon D800, Nikon D600, Sony A7R)

 The Advantages Of A DSLR Camera

  1. A Real Prism
    There is no way around it: a real Prism delivers one thing that an electronic viewfinder never can:  An actual window to the real world.  In a world where both work and leisure find us staring at electronic displays, to be able to see the real world through my viewfinder seems refreshing and, well, REAL.
  2. Superior Phase-Detect Autofocus
    For now at least, phase-detect autofocus is currently the reigning champ for sports photography cameras.  The Nikon and Canon flagships can nail focus on football players, gymnasts, race cars, birds in flight, you name it!
  3. Lens Options
    This may of course not be an advantage for long, however for now there are innumerable lens options for the main SLR mounts, while mirrorless systems are somewhat restricted.
    For example, thus far it has been nearly impossible to achieve fast apertures and ultra wide focal lengths in any mirrorless system while Canon and Nikon have access to plenty of name-brand and third-party lenses that deliver fast apertures such as 24mm f/1.4 and 14mm f/2.8  Yes, they’re making new lenses for mirrorless systems, however thus far the majority of them are catering towards the more casual shooter.  Nikon made a 32mm f/1.2 lens for their mirrorless “1” system, and there are some other killer lenses out there, but not yet nearly as many as I’d like to see.

The Advantages Of Mirrorless Digital Cameras

  1. Smaller Size And Weight
    Mirrors and prisms take up space.  This is not new at all, actually.  Decades ago, a film 35mm rangefinder camera and lenses were tiny compared to a 35mm SLR camera and lenses.  And now, technology is bringing a return of this previously very popular system.
  2. Live Information Readouts
    Using an electronic viewfinder, all kinds of things become possible.  Two things that an optical viewfinder can’t compete with are focus peaking and live histograms.  There are plenty of other things, such as the ability to magnify an area of the image during autofocus so that you can perfectly confirm sharpness before you even click a photo.
    Simply put, there are more technological benefits possible with an EVF, or mirrorless systems in general.
  3. Simplicity and Affordability
    If you have never had a mirror break or a shutter “die”, then you might not be a “hard core” photographer.  Personally, I’ve had to replace shutters and mirrors and other antiquated mechanical parts at least a half-dozen times.  And that’s not me bragging about being hard core, that’s pure annoyance!
    A mirrorless system will, in theory, have fewer mechanical parts to break, and inherently cost less to manufacture.  True, software and electronics can go bad too, however they are often easier to fix or cheaper to replace.

Pro versus Prosumer

For now, in my opinion what I think it comes down to is the fact that many of the high-end pros still need and/or are happy with their current DSLR systems.  It is going to be many years before NFL / Olympic Sports photographers completely dump their Canon 1DX‘s or Nikon D4‘s in favor of a mirrorless camera.  In fact, this may never happen.

[Rewind: What features would you expect from a Canon 5D mk4?]

Then again, live view refresh rates and on-sensor phase-detect + contrast-detect autofocus systems are becoming more and more powerful, so maybe eventually it will happen.  But from what I can tell, the bottom line is that it won’t happen any time soon.

[Rewind: Which flagship Nikon would you like to see next, a D400 or D710?]

Rest assured, certain professions that work a little more slowly than an NFL photographer will be quick to adopt a system like the Sony A7/R system.  Landscapes, Nature, Architecture, Studio, …essentially anything that demands high quality images, extensive camera control, but not necessarily blazing speed.

The more casual shooter, however, will see the benefits of a traditional SLR system quickly begin to fade over the next few years.  We will see more and more lenses, more and more bodies, at lower prices and in more portable, versatile packages.

The Red Flag of Kodak

So, there are actually two questions we’re answering here.  Firstly, we have agreed (at least in my head we have) …that for now, and for a little while longer, the current DSLR standards will remain relatively prevalent, especially the higher you go into certain professional sectors.

However, the other question is: Even if their DSLR flagships continue to be in demand for many years to come, can “the big two” afford to go much further without beginning to compete more directly with cameras like the Sony A7, or the Olympus OM-D E-M1?  You may love your current DSLR setup, and you may not plan on buying new camera gear or switching systems for another year or two, (or three or four!) …however this is not an excuse for Nikon or Canon to sit back and be stubborn about their legacy systems.  If the decline (and eventual bankruptcy) of Kodak is any indication, it is that even if you pioneer a new technology and have many “firsts” under your belt, you are still at great risk of being surpassed by another innovator who leapfrogs your own success and technological advances.

So, what do you think?  Please comment below!

Take care,

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Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Tom

    Cameras evolve and new technology replaces and nudges aside the older systems as they become less desirable to buyers (and less profitable to manufacturers). The overall process, however, is slowed somewhat by the costs of lens systems. I cannot jump ship to Sony or Olympus without big time losses on lenses. My D300 and D800 cost me a bit of cash but the six lenses I mount on them cost at least as much, and the lenses won’t function on the Sony or Olympus, AFAIK. Eventually these lenses will become expensive paperweights and moving to a smaller system will be a more viable option, but probably not for me. I expect to stay with Nikon DSLRs as long as I can hoist the camera and take the shot.

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  2. Michael

    Although I have a great interest in full frame mirrorless cameras one thing that does not excite me at all is making cameras smaller and smaller.

    Let me compare my opinion about this to cell phones and calculators. Both got smaller and smaller and all the media could talk about was getting them smaller and smaller still, until low and behold, they were all wrong and the trend reversed. The most popular cell phones today are much larger than the ones just a year or two ago. Why? We have hands, fingers and human eyes!

    Forme there are a number of cameras that are perfectly fine but I don’t use them, they don’t fit in my hands, the view finders on some are too small, the controls on some are too small to manipulate quickly and many smaller cameras bury features and controls too far into menus making them unintuitive and requiring you to look away from the composition to focus on the camera.

    Sure I love my point and shoot and my HTC One smart phone. But when I’m working there is nothing like the balance of a full frame full sized SLR properly balanced with a heavy 70-200 2.8 L lens. I have a daughter who is also a professional and she preferred to shoot with a Rebel, because it fits her hands, but complains about it’s lack of balance when shooting all day. When she works with me and uses my cameras even though they weigh much more she has commented about how they feel right, are steadier and how the weight and balance and size gives her better results. I agree.

    Sure small has it’s place, but too small does not, and for professional who actually use all those setting, dials and controls getting at them fast and intuitively is very important.

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  3. EdF

    I personally started selling all of my Canon gear the day the A7r was announced. I now have it hand and I’m happy with it in every regard except native lens choices. In time that will change and I can manage around that.

    Part of my biggest reason for switching was due to the size and weight of my DSLR system. As well as the lack of innovation from Canon in the mirrorless market.

    The DSLR will die on time unless there is some major changes in the products (which I don’t see happening anytime soon).

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  4. Mary Hurlbut

    You hit the nail on the head for me, As I’ve been saving for my next camera body (the 5DMkIII)
    I’ve been wondering how soon it be obsolete. I sure hope Canon steps it up, I’d hate for my investment in lens to be useless in the future.

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  5. JaquesPhotography

    As a professional wedding photographer I see NO benefit at all in mirrorless cameras.
    The fact that they are smaller and lighter means nothing to me which i see as the only benefit right now.
    I think it will be many years … 8 plus years before there would be a Pro version of a mirrorless camera where wedding and sport photographers would trade in their D4’s and such for a mirrorless camera!
    Right now mirrorless cameras are for the consumer market.

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  6. Kurtz A

    Interesting read, i wont trade my dslr for mirrorless cameras, your equipment defines your work and style, i also not a big fan of megapixels, im happy with my 5d3s that puts out superior images. If i have to switch, i would switch to films, like the Contax, i love the skin tones and color pallets.

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  7. Gijs

    Why does it always have to be either one? Rangefinders and compact film cameras never replaced the SLR. So why would the digital alternatives of those replace the dSLR? There is plenty of room for both of them.

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  8. Chris

    I read a lot of review about mirror less camera and I now owned the Sony nex7 and OMD 1. I am a professional photographer and love to play with different type and size of cameras, Canon 1DX is my work horse for all paid jobs.
    One disadvantage I found about using the OMD 1 when I tried to shoot in the studio with studio lighting under manual mode is I am not able to see the subject I am shooting through the electronic view finder as clear as compare to SLR, you may try to set the camera to manual mode with speed 1/125 at F11, ISO 100 and you will know I am mean, it is too dim for me if only the modelling lamp is on, may be there is some setting can be done which I never find out, please advise me here if you know. Many thanks.

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  9. Robert lalancette

    I fly planes for a living. I am always on a layover in a strange city in a strange country. I always, 100% of the time have my NEX 6 around my neck when I walk around. Before, I dragged the bulky D90 only occasionally. If the best camera is the one that you have with you, there’s the answer. The size and light weight are perfect for me.
    Unfortunately, though I love the NEX 6, I long for a decent walk around zoom lens, the CZ 16 70 that just came out doesn’t appear to deliver, and costs you your first born. I fear that with Sony jumping in the full frame band wagon will cause us APS-C folks to be marginalized and forgotten. The NEX brand itself is already dead.
    I think only a small fraction of photographers out there really need the full DSLR kit, for the rest, it’ll be a battle ground for the smartphone, P& S and the mirrorless kit. FWIW.

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  10. Craig

    Despite the improvement and perceived advantages of the EVF, I personally prefer an OVF. Personally I find this to be a huge advantage of the SLR. I’m 6’5″ and have hands to match. For me the larger size of the SLR just feels good. Occasionally I’ll pick up one of my old film SLRs, such as my K1000, and I wonder how I could have shot with something so small. I can’t even imagine shooting regularly without the battery grip.

    While I would certainly applaud Canon and Nikon for delving further into the mirrorless category, I feel they would be wrong to abandon the SLR system. There are certain to be enough users as myself that will prefer the bulkier systems, each for their own reasons. I think there is enough market for both/all camera types that the doom and gloom aimed towards SLRs is wholly unnecessary.

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  11. Liam

    I love that these cameras are becoming widely available. I don’t foresee myself buying one, as I personally like the weight and balance of a DSLR. I also like the size. When I originally picked up photography as a hobby with a rebel one of my initial complaints was how small the body was and how it wasn’t a comfortable size for my hand. If I was walking around shooting on a day trip my hand would cramp.

    However this is a camera my wife or mother would love. My father in law the prosumer would also love a mirrorless system, so Canon and Nikon should take notice as there is definitely a market for these high performance cameras. If anything this is the end of the hobbiest/entry DSLRs like the rebel.

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  12. John D.

    I’ve been shooting with a 3 year old Olympus E-pl2 side by side with other DSLR shooters and they are all amazed by the quality I can produce with this camera. Good lenses help and post processing too, but the camera really takes a beating and I know how to use it. I do videos and time-lapses with it and action/sports, landscape, portraits and prints up to 24X18 with no problem. But I got an email flyer from Olympus of there new P&S camera (Stylus 1) and I think this is a game changer for photography. All manual/raw abilities with a fixed 24-300mm constant 2.8f zoom lens. And all the features it has for $700. I really do not know how they do it and I need a new, upgrade camera. This may be it if for nothing else but a carry around all the time system. I do not see the P&S dying out, but pushing into the advance category for the consumer-pro. Something to think about. Check out the spec’s…

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  13. Ken

    But who is the actual target market of mirrorless?
    If you think it’s the prosumer that values small size based on your list of benefits, I’d argue that the EM-1 is it because you not only need a smaller body, but smaller lenses…and the EM-1 is close enough to APS-C performance.
    I don’t see pros who are used to full size DSLRs and big heavy fast lenses being that excited over the A7 or Canon’s equivalent. The reason is the lenses. Put up the smallest primes/zooms next to the bodies and you’ll see what I mean. All these comparisons just show the bodies and say the Sony is smaller…it’s not just the body that counts…

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  14. Sébastien D’Amour

    I have a Fuji Xe-1 for when I travel but for my work I will always need the AF speed of a DSLR and a proper viewfinder. I would not imagine shooting a wedding or event with a mirror less camera. I played with the Sony A7 and I feel like my eyes would become terribly tired of looking at a screen. I also need to weight of the body to properly counterbalance the weight of the lenses even if I shoot with fixed focal length lenses. I love the concept and the idea but I personally need an optical viewfinder and the counterbalance. Weight and size are not factors that influence my decision.

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  15. Henry Osho

    What I think Canon and Nikon needs to do is to start expanding their playing field by making Medium Format. SLR unfortunately are getting squished by lower end point-and-shoot and digital camera. By making play in the Medium Format, they can have healthy profit margin and survive.

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  16. Zando

    I’ve been eyeing several mirrorless system to replace my bulky dslr setup, even with the compromise of quality, but couldn’t find myself to buy because they’re really not as cheap as one might think (specially Sony). Besides, basic consumer nowadays opt for easy access and upload over image quality. Hence, smartphones is taking over most of the affordable point-and-shoot cameras. That leaves dslr and mirrorless users to professional and serious amateurs, which, for one, aren’t that many and no client in the industry will ever hire a photographer with just a mirrorless setup (for now). Yes, the dslr buyers are dwindling and no, the mirrorless system will not replace the same amount of dslr buyers during its peak. Not really an exact comparison, but tablets hasn’t replaced laptops/desktops as working companion for most people.

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  17. fotosiamo

    To me, Sony has a chance to take a strong foothold in the professional mirrorless segment if they can be successful in the following areas:

    1. Very strong marketing (media, grass roots, and professional endorsements)
    2. A lot more professional lenses from Sony, Zeiss, Sigma, and Tamron
    3. Professional support (rental house availability and professional services in at least LA/NY)
    4. Tethering capability in Capture One/Lightroom
    5. Better video capability (No more AVCHD, RAW video or ProRes)

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  18. Andrew Kyle

    My personal opinion is that sales for DSLRs will drop by over 50% within the next 5 years.
    The arrival of Sony’s A7(r) is a MAJOR step towards the adoption of the mirrorless types as it gives more credibility to mirrorless cameras.
    Before the A7(r), mirrorless cameras were seen as entry level devices. Now they are or soon will be seen as equals to DSLRs.
    Let’s not forget that NFL sports photographers do not account for 90% of Canon or Nikon’s clientele. They represent a percentage, yes, but a minor percentage of camera buyers. The majority of buyers are not professionals. They’re semi-pro or enthusiasts at most and if they move to another company (Sony, Olympus, etc.) then some big changes will happen.
    DSLRs will continue to exist until sales for DSLRs drop low enough that they don’t justify the costs for research and development of newer models.
    I personally prefer the small size and light weight of a mirrorless than my friends’ DLSRs. But that’s just personal taste. However I consider myself as a mass market type buyer so if I prefer mirrorless, I’m sure a lot of other do as well.

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