Analysis: Is the DSLR dead?

The DSLR has carried the professional photography industry since usurping its older brother the SLR in the mid 2000s. With excellent image quality and ergonomics, tank-like build quality, and unparalleled reliability, modern DSLRs are the result of over 100 years of camera evolution.

Or are they actually on the fringes of extinction? Before discussing this, let’s turn back the clock to see how we got to where we are today.

Nikon D1 1999: "The end of the beginning and the beginning of the end (of the film era)".

Nikon D1 1999: "The end of the beginning and the beginning of the end (of the film era)".

DSLRs mounted their first serious challenge to the professional photography throne with the Nikon D1 in 1999 and the Canon EOS 1D 2 years later. After testing the D1, nature photographer Bjørn Rørslett famously stated that the Nikon D1 signalled "The End of The Beginning (of the digital era) - The Beginning of The End (of the film era)".

In the 11 years since the D1, the DSLR experienced rapid technological advancements; but since 2012, the law of diminishing returns has stricken the black beauties. Innovation stagnated, updates became incrimental, allowing a competitor to emerge.

In October 2013, after pushing translucent mirror technology and sort of becoming the black sheep of photography, Sony finally found the recipe, and dropped a bomb on the industry roadmap by introducing their alpha 7 and 7R range of 35mm mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (MILCs).

With competitive pricing, the a7 range had image quality on-par with competing DSLRs, but in dramatically smaller and lighter bodies; and overnight Sony went from being on the fringes, to the upstart leaders of a potential new photography revolution.

The original Sony a7 twins.

The original Sony a7 twins.

But despite Sony’s groundbreaking MILCs, the a7 twins were released during a peek time for DSLRs. Canon’s acclaimed EOS-1DX and 5D Mark III, and Nikon’s landmark D800 models dramatically improved on what came before them, placing the 35mm MILC firmly in the ‘niche’ category.

But these were to be the final peak DSLR years. Between 2013 and 2017, MILCs continued to improve, and high profile professional photographers begun switching to Sony’s new system. Canon, despite a few hits like dual-pixel AF and the EOS-1DX Mark II, was continually outperformed by Nikon, who produced some of the most acclaimed DSLRs ever like the D750, D810 and D850 during this time. Despite Nikon’s achievements, the lack of innovation and competition from Canon placed the questionmarks over the future of the DSLR, and the MILC moved from ‘niche’ to ‘serious alternative’ with acclaimed models like the Sony a7 III, a7R II & III and a9.

And then it happened, in summer 2018 Nikon and Canon finally showed their hands and properly entered the 35mm MILC market for the first time; introducing new bodies, lenses and lens mounts to compete with Sony’s alpha systems. Which brings us to present day: Is the 157 year old SLR design about to be discontinued? Is Old Yeller about to be taken behind the wood shed?

Yes. Let me unpack this…

DSLRs are based on a design that was invented in 1861. Back then the mirror allowed a single lens to be used for composing and metering, hence the ‘single lens reflex’. The pentaprism came along in the late 30’s to replace waist level viewfinders, and the fundamental design has remained unchanged since. But they didn’t, and still don’t, contribute anything else. The mirror actually has to flip out of the way during an exposure, which blacks out the viewfinder, rendering them both useless, and actually a hindrance during the process.

In their place, professional grade MILCs provide a rear LCD screen and a high resolution electronic viewfinder (EVF), which is miniature LCD screen that mimics an optical viewfinder. Both allow TTL composition, metering, focus peaking and the ability to preview the result before the sensor has been exposed. Because a mirror doesn’t have to flip up, MILCs also allow an extremely high FPS rate, can eliminate ‘viewfinder blackout’ during exposure, offer silent shooting, and most importantly, a reduced the flange distance.

However, MILCs will not actually improve the quality of photographic output. They can help you focus but can’t tell you what to focus on, they can aid composition but can’t tell you how to compose.

Canon EOS-1DX Mark II compared with Sony a9. Copyright:

Canon EOS-1DX Mark II compared with Sony a9. Copyright:

For me, a camera is simply a tool involved in the photographic process, and removing obsolete moving parts from that tool is a good thing; especially when it allows camera bodies to become smaller and lighter, while potentially improving image quality and camera usability by reducing the flange distance and using high quality EVFs. Smaller and lighter bodies are something that’s very important to me, because I began to have back spasms after wearing my DSLR around my neck everyday for hours at a time when I worked on cruise ships. I’m no longer on the ships, but when I go for a walk or a hike with my photography gear I often have to take a painkiller for backpain afterwards.

Despite Canon and Nikon entering the 35mm MILC market with new lens mounts, the DSLR is not dead, and I don’t see their production being halted soon. But it will come eventually, because like the internal combustion engine, it feels like DSLRs have reached the peak of what they can do. The EOS-1DX Mark II and D850 almost feel like perfect swansongs to their era. They’re currently competing with 35mm MILCs in their infancy, which are only going to get better with Nikon and Canon now investing in the format.

In the next 5 years, when a pro needs to replace their DSLR, I think the majoity will opt for a MILC instead. Me included.