Can a Better DSLR Exist?

Here’s something I’ve been hearing more and more: DSLRs are dead. There’s nothing Canon or Nikon can do to make a better model that will sell. 

Wrong.

Well, at least wrong about the “make a better model” part. The “will sell” bit depends some on what Canon and Nikon produce in terms of mirrorless cameras. Note that Nikon has placed the Z6/Z7 below the D850/D5, and the Z50 below the D7500/D500. So they’ve clearly left space above the mirrorless models.

I suspect that Nikon thinks that’s significant because they can still persuade some D800, D810, and D850 owners to upgrade (likewise the other DSLR models I noted above). If they can do that, they can keep the mirrorless system rolling towards more lens support before forcing users over to it. 

So what does a “better DSLR” look like?

I’m going to skip over image sensor specifics for the moment, because there’s still plenty that can be done beyond the sensor. The D810 was a much better camera than the D800, despite using the same sensor. The D850 was a much better camera than both the D800 and D810, for things that went beyond the change in sensor. 

So what are the non-sensor choice things that come into play to make a better DSLR?

  • Sensor-based image stabilization (typically referred to as IBIS). Make every lens stabilized. This is actually an important attribute for Nikon to target, as their legacy lens support goes back many, many decades. Stabilize my original NOCT? Yes, please. Note that this has some viewfinder implications, as the composition you’re looking at might be shifted a few pixels from where you think it is. I can think of ways to mitigate that, though I doubt that we’ll see that should IBIS get added to DSLRs. At least not in generation one.
  • Hybrid focus. This one gets really tricky. But if you put phase detect pixels on the image sensor, ala mirrorless, you certainly have better Live View and video focus performance you can promote. But I think it can be pushed further. The really tricky part is integrating pre-shot focus data from the regular DSLR focus system with during-shot focus data collected by the on-sensor data during the viewfinder blackout. Actually, there’s a third data element these days, which is the viewfinder exposure sensor, which collects color information. I can imagine integrating all three of these to take DSLR focus where it’s never been before.
  • Programmability. We’re talking high-end cameras here, so I don’t think that adding some underlying complexity to promote shooting simplicity is out of order. I’ll illustrate this point with a simple example: what if I want to use HDR type techniques with deep focus? Well, I can set my camera to create HDR image sets, or I can set it to perform focus stacking, but not both at the same time. Cameras are computers, so why can’t we “write” a simple program that combines things the camera can already do? (WHILE Focus_Stack, Bracket_Exposure, END) Next, couple some basic programmability with far better configuration saving/loading. We can’t save multiple camera configurations onto a card because we can’t name them. Seems like a silly limitation. I’ll point out one important thing here: camera design engineers aren’t photographers. They don’t know the things that we want or need to combine and program. This is a Product Management task to collect the right information from the right shooters. You have to watch photographers in action to see what they’re really doing, summarize that, analyze how you can help them by making the multiple-action stuff into a single action, and put that function in the camera. Another example: if I’m adding Star ratings to my images while shooting, there’s probably something I want to do with images with 5 stars (like offload them to social media or the client, e.g. IF Star=5, THEN Apply(Hashtag), Share(Instagram), ENDIF). The key thing about a Programmability camera feature is that you have to understand the things the photographer is trying to do to facilitate it.
  • Direct storage. Some think the solution is dual slots or dedicated internal SSD. I don’t. I think the solution most of us would prefer is actually quite simple: connected direct storage. We’ve got USB 3.1 in some cameras now, we’ve got highly portable USB 3.1 SSD drives. Funny thing is, those two things don’t talk. (How many times do I have to re-iterate that the camera makers have yet to make it into the 21st century with communications?) They should talk. I should be able to push all images externally as I shoot (backup!). I should be able to connect a drive and transfer all internal storage immediately. That’s not even a weekend project for a competent engineer, I’d think. Of course, there are gotchas that have to be looked for, particularly power draw and what happens when the cable disconnects accidentally. Still, it’s an engineering problem, and isn’t that what the Japanese DSLR designers are good at? Who in Tokyo do I tell the problem to engineer a solution to? And if you don't want cabled storage, why not internal storage? Just stick 1TB of NAND into the camera and make that the primary storage. Any single card slot then becomes an Overflow/Backup/Copy solution, solving another photographer problem.
  • Detachable screen. Want to end the tilt versus swivel debate? Make the rear LCD detachable, whatever method it uses on camera to change angle. When off-screen, it becomes an automatic Bluetooth/Wi-Fi controller. Yes, you’d get a Live View lag, but this is a new function that means you don’t need to get out your smartphone to do the same thing, and go through all those connection hassles. Since the camera maker controls both the detachable LCD and the camera, you’d think they’d be able to do the Apple-like thing and make it “just work.” 

I could describe a whole host of other smaller changes, additions, and refinements that could be made as well. But I’ll leave those for another day. The above is more than enough to make a DSLR look pretty darned alluring still. 

Now, let’s couple all that with some image sensor specifications. Add all the above features to the DSLR and you get:

  • D6 — 24mp low light tuned full frame sensor with high bandwidth.
  • D900 — 61mp resolution tuned full frame sensor.
  • D550 — 26mp crop sensor with high bandwidth.

Gee, every one of those would look like a real winner when coupled with the added features I outlined above. D3, D3s, and D4 users would certainly see the upside to upgrading. D800 and D810 users and D300 users would, too. Heck, even D5, D500, and D850 users would probably see these as serious upgrades they need to consider. 

That’s how you keep some key DSLR customers buying DSLRs as most of the market transitions towards mirrorless. You can’t just phone in an upgrade and expect it to sell. Frankly, the Japanese camera makers have been behind the customer-desired product curve for quite some time, relying upon “bigger, faster engine” to drive most of their sales. How’d that work out for them?

Just Make a Better Camera

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