Are DSLRs Still Relevant?

(commentary)

Seems like every day recently I’ve been pointed to another “I’ve switched to mirrorless…” article somewhere. Meanwhile, DSLR sales are still on the slide while mirrorless sales are basically flat year-to-year:

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With one month worth of numbers left to count, it looks like mirrorless will come in within ±2% of last year’s numbers, while DSLR numbers will be off about 25%. Of course, DSLRs will still outsell mirrorless cameras three to one, and it appears that some of the DSLR shipment decline is reduced Sony and Pentax volume. 

So in at least one respect, DSLRs are still relevant: people are buying them in quantities significantly more than mirrorless. I’d also guess that a lot of those mirrorless buyers are actually DSLR users, too. In other words, we’re seeing a lot of what I call sampling. 

I spent the holidays with just a mirrorless system. Did I miss my DSLR? Yes, I did. But “miss” is situational now. On the one hand I enjoyed a pack as light as I’ve ever taken on an International trip, despite being able to shoot from 14-600mm (equivalent). Size and weight-wise, I didn’t miss the extra bulk of the DSLRs. Not at all. 

But I did miss three things: (1) an excess of pixels; (2) ability to shoot into lower light without fighting noise; and (3) performance of focus on subject motion, particularly with telephoto lenses. 

I’ll use a strained analogy: it’s like driving a compact hatchback versus an SUV. For most tasks, the hatchback works fine and has some nice benefits when it comes to gas consumption and parallel parking, for instance. But if I need to haul some sheetrock or plow through a muddy trail or travel with five or more companions, the SUV is going to allow me to do those things while the compact simply doesn’t work. 

That’s a bit how I feel about DSLRs these days. They’re SUVs, and they’re also jacks of all trades. But we’re paying size and weight penalties when we select them. 

But what would you rather have in your closet, not knowing what photographic tasks you need to perform in the future? Right, the S U…uh, DSLR. 

The question has long been whether or not mirrorless cameras competently perform all the photographic tasks that you need them to. If you specialize, the answer is becoming yes for a lot of people. This is another form of the “good enough” problem. And neither Canon nor Nikon have adequately addressed it. 

Funny thing is, I believe they could have. With DSLRs. The D5500, for example, shed 12% of the weight of its predecessor, and a bit of size, too. Were Nikon to take off the flash and provide an external one, as most of the mirrorless camera makers do, it could be yet lighter and smaller. Of course, that makes it a bit less generalized and functional like an S U…uh, DSLR… than it was, and a little more specialized. Still, it could be done. Coupled with the right set of pancake primes and svelte zooms, a DSLR could almost certainly hold off the DSLR-like mirrorless cameras. 

Of course, everyone thinks that mirrorless has a lower end. You know, the no EVF options with lots of consumer-oriented controls. I’m not convinced that this market exists, and I think that Olympus has finally figured that out, since they can’t seem to sell more than a few hundred thousand of such cameras a year. Moreover, as we get more and more competent compacts such as the Sony RX100 and Panasonic LX-100, that low end mirrorless idea seems to turn into a pricing race to the bottom, best case. 

So the second question that has to be answered is this: will mirrorless performance ever equal DSLR performance? In particular, it is focus performance on moving subjects that’s the biggest stretch. I’m inclined to say yes, it eventually will, as I’m a technology evolutionist: I believe that technology inevitably moves onward and gets better until something else completely disrupts it. 

Of course, DSLR technology can move on, too. What worries me is that the unexpected (by the camera makers) decline of DSLR sales has caused them to think that maybe they shouldn’t be investing more in R&D in this area and look for other answers instead. That’s troubling if true. Moreover, I think the best approach probably would be hybrid, as there are advantages to a true optical live view (DSLR) and there are advantages to an all electronic approach. 

Imagine for a second the following hybrid: it functions just like a DSLR until you press the shutter release for a continuous burst. At that point, the camera goes all electronic and just grabs 60 fps for a second with some on sensor follow focus (based on projected tracking from the off sensor focus prior to the shot). Even if I were flying blind during that second, I could find plenty of uses for such a product. After all, I find uses for the current, limited, 60 fps of the Nikon V3, even though I have to start with a lagged view of reality (via the EVF). 

Now imagine that the mirror flaps at 8 fps but the camera is shooting four images each flap (32 fps). Sure, you’d need a fast enough shutter speed to do that, and the mirror blackout might have to be a bit longer, but could that approach give you the best of both worlds? Possibly. Is anyone pursing hybrid approaches? Not that I can tell.

So let’s get back to my question: are DSLRs still relevant? Yes, they certainly are still the best choices for a subset of photographic uses, and they could be engineered to get around what some now perceive to be drawbacks (e.g. size/weight). 

The real question is whether Canon and Nikon had both the foresight and the nerve to push DSLRs where they could go. We’re coming up on a key indicator of that: the D5 introduction (earliest: August 2015, latest February 2016). 

I’m going to call this question early, as there are really only two possibilities: (a) Nikon was sharper than given credit for and has pushed the D5 into a whole new DSLR design and era; or (b) the common themes (megapixels, basic performance, feature set) just get basic iteration. If it’s (b) we see, then DSLRs are dying dinosaurs. If it’s (a) way that appears, DSLRs will continue onward. 

I’m betting (b) but hoping (a). 


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