Where We’re Headed

(commentary)

Having tinkered with my bag contents a lot lately, I’ve come to a conclusion about DSLRs: they’re now only most useful as specialty cameras. No, not an earth-shattering conclusion and one you might have come to yourself, however…

Here’s the thing. Let’s say that a large part of your shooting is in the 24-85mm range. Can you get by without a DSLR for that? Ten years ago I would have said no. Even five years ago I would mostly have said no. Today? Different story. 

Consider these options (in order of ability):

  • Sony RX-100III: 24-70mm (equivalent) f/1.8-2.8 (US$798)
  • Panasonic LX-100: 24-75mm (equivalent) f/1.7-2.8 (US$898)
  • Olympus OM-D E-M10: 28-84mm (equivalent) f/3.5-5.6 (US$699)
  • Sony A6000: 24-100mm (equivalent) f/3.5-5.6 (US$598)


Wait a second, why is the price going down as ability goes up?!?! Oh, probably lens quality, but still, I believe I’m correctly ranking these in terms of final image quality for most common uses of the mid-range. 

I suppose we could add the Fujifilm X-T1 and Sony A7II to the list, but both are starting to push into closer to DSLR realm (in size, price, and weight when all things are considered). 

So let’s stick to the four cameras suggested. One fits in my shirt pocket. The other three fit into my jacket pocket. There’s little “pain” in carrying one of them around all the time. 

Our DSLR alternatives are something ranging from D3300 w/kit lens (but we don’t get to 24mm equivalent) all the way up to a D810 with the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. But in all those cases, we’d be hanging the camera by a neck strap or putting it in a bag of some sort. The convenience/comfort factor goes down, but does the image quality achieved really go up enough to justify that? 

Don’t get me wrong. The Sony RX-100III isn’t going to outperform the D810 with the 24-70mm lens. But the question is: for that focal range, how much performance are you really looking for? And what are you willing to pay for that in terms of convenience, size, and actual dollars?

Okay, so you already have the D810; maybe picking up a small/lighter lens such as the 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 helps. Not really. You’re still carrying the camera by neck strap or in a bag. The former is a literal pain if you do it all day, the latter makes the camera less convenient. 

What I’ve noticed over the last few trips is that I’ve been doing most of my mid-range focal shots with one of those four cameras I named at the top of the article. The DSLR comes out of the bag for: extreme wide angle landscape, sports, and wildlife. That’s about it. In fact, the LX-100 works out to be f/3.5-5.6, the same as that small/light Nikkor I could put on my D810, in terms of light that gets to the sensor. True, I’m only at 12mp and not 36mp, but I rarely need 36mp. 

Over ten years ago on this site I argued for a compact camera using a large sensor with a trifocal lens (only three focal lengths available by switch; not a zoom). Now I know why. I was looking for that convenience factor in the mid-range focal lengths. Technically, a Nikon 1 would suffice if Nikon would only make the necessary lens(es). Indeed, that might even be my preferred choice because of the autofocus performance and the 60 fps silent shooting capability. Right now, unfortunately, a Nikon 1 only works if I wish to limit myself to 50mm (equivalent) f/1.8. Okay, maybe 28mm (equivalent) f/2.8, too (the 85mm equivalent f/1.2 lens is just too big for a “pocket” carry-everywhere camera).

Still, I think this is where we’re headed. Assuming, of course, the camera makers oblige us, which isn’t a given. Most of us will be shooting a smallish-but-capable camera that’s not a DSLR in the mid-range. We’ll pick up our DSLRs when we have needs that aren’t met by that general purpose tool. 

 

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