Can the DSLR reinvent itself to thrive in a mirrorless world?

DSLR or mirrorless? It’s become an age-old question in photography circles, and a topic that the tech and photography media have talked about endlessly (including Digital Trends, at least as far back as 2012.) But in 2017, we saw an increasingly strong case for mirrorless, thanks in part to Sony releasing two potentially game-changing mirrorless cameras in its full-frame Alpha series, the A9 and A7R III. Sony followed up with the release of another game-changing model in February 2018, the A7 III.

Sony cameras have long been popular, but these latest generation products have directly addressed the lingering problems inherent of mirrorless cameras, namely speed and battery life. Until now, the DSLR still offered some objective advantages for certain photographic niches — sports, weddings, and events — but that may no longer be the case. With the A9’s incredible continuous shooting speed of 20 frames per second and a zero-blackout viewfinder, and the A7 III’s impressive 710-shot battery life, the DSLR is struggling to remain relevant.

All of this has us wondering: Is the DSLR finally reaching its expiration date? Perhaps more importantly: Is there any way it can be saved?

Mirrorless held steady while DSLRs dwindled

Sony’s aggressive push may be what’s turning heads, but the entire industry has been moving away from the DSLR for years. You may like your trusty DSLR just fine, but there’s no arguing that the market has shifted in favor of mirrorless (and, frankly, smartphones).

According to the Camera and Imaging Products Association (CIPA), DSLR cameras continue to outsell mirrorless models, but the gap is shrinking every year. In 2017, total mirrorless shipments were up by nearly 30 percent, while DSLR shipments dropped by 10 percent. The Americas, long a bastion of the DSLR, saw an even more dramatic shift, with mirrorless shipments up 46 percent (DSLRs dropped a tad less than the international total, by 7 percent).

Since CIPA began separately tracking reflex and non-reflex cameras in 2012, the total number of mirrorless cameras shipped had actually decreased through 2016 (following a larger industry trend). However, more mirrorless cameras shipped in 2017 than any previous year, while DSLR shipments have slumped some 50 percent since 2012. In one sense, DSLR’s loss has been mirrorless’s gain. Even as the industry seems to be stabilizing overall — 2017 was the first year total camera shipments had increased since 2010 — mirrorless will likely continue to chip away at DSLR sales.

What’s more, shipments alone don’t tell the full story. Even in the period of decline through 2016, revenue was steadily increasing for mirrorless cameras, suggesting a shift toward higher-end, higher-priced models. The professional photography segment had initially seemed immune to the rising tide of mirrorless, but these numbers show how quickly that proved to be false.

The retail side of things paints a similar picture. “Mirrorless over the last two years has gone from about 20 percent of the overall market to almost 40 percent,” Lev Peker, chief marketing officer at New York-based photo retailer Adorama, told Digital Trends. “This has been due to tremendous innovation by Sony which has benefited the most from this increase and, according to [consumer behavior research group] NPD, became the second largest camera seller last year.”

Peker went on to explain that in the wake of more manufacturers jumping on board, he expects mirrorless cameras to hit 50-percent market share by the end of 2018.

DSLRs lack inherent advantages

In the early days of mirrorless cameras, DSLRs simply did most things better. Mirrorless cameras were more compact, but that was it. Almost always, a DSLR could focus faster, shoot faster, had a much better viewfinder, and more often than not produced superior image quality.

But one by one, those advantages were erased. APS-C and then full-frame sensors came to mirrorless cameras (as did medium-format sensors, eventually, although that’s another story), and Sony now leads the way for image quality. (Technically, it’s a tie).

Panasonic-Lumix-G9
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Electronic viewfinders are now vastly improved (even on smaller Micro Four Thirds cameras, like the Panasonic Lumix G9) with higher resolution and faster refresh rates, and offer the bonuses of being able to preview your exposure, overlay all sorts of information, and continue to function in video mode, which optical viewfinders cannot do. It is certainly arguable that an optical viewfinder can still be an advantage, but it isn’t really an objective one. I love a good optical viewfinder, but even I have to admit that an EVF is generally more useful.

Mirrorless cameras are no longer simply a more compact alternative — they’re a better alternative.

As for autofocus, thanks to the invention of on-chip phase-detection (as well as smarter contrast-detection AF, like Panasonic’s Depth from Defocus tech) mirrorless cameras are no longer outclassed here, either. In fact, because they focus directly on the imaging sensor, mirrorless cameras can potentially offer better focus accuracy, while also implementing image-recognition features like face and eye focus.

It doesn’t help the DSLR that mirrorless camera companies have been more generous with video features, too. Sony’s prowess here is well known, as is Panasonic’s, but even Fujifilm is putting professional video features in a sub-$2,000 camera these days.

And video is really just the tip of the features iceberg. Panasonic has a wealth of powerful 4K and 6K photo modes that allow for in-camera focus stacking or even changing your focus point after the shot. Panasonic and Olympus both have crazy-fast, 60-frames-per-second continuous shooting modes. There’s a ton of tech being pumped into these small cameras.

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Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends
Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

That’s not to say that companies aren’t making impressive DSLRs anymore — the Nikon D850, for one, is astounding. Digital Trends’ Hillary Grigonis praised it in her review, and I’ve had the opportunity to shoot it a couple of times and I absolutely love it. That said, I have to admit that the Sony A7R III is arguably even more astounding, and is the camera I would rationally have to buy if I was deciding between the two, mostly for its superior video functionality.

Lenses may be one area where Nikon and Canon maintain an edge.

And it’s not just that particular comparison. At nearly every price point, mirrorless cameras are no longer simply a more compact alternative, nor even an equally capable, but different, alternative — they’re a better alternative, full stop. (Okay, DSLRs still have superior battery life in most cases, but many mirrorless cameras have now improved to the point of being as near as makes no difference.)

Lenses may be one area where Nikon and Canon maintain an edge, but only with established users. Mirrorless systems have matured, and manufacturers, from Olympus to Fujifilm to Sony, now provide a wide assortment of great glass for their cameras. What’s more telling is that Sigma — who makes its own mirrorless cameras but is better known for its lenses — also recently announced that it would begin manufacturing nine of its Art-series lenses in native Sony E mount. Previously, Sigma only supported Sony users via an official adapter that allowed them to connect Canon EF versions of Art lenses to Sony cameras.

How to save the DSLR

I’m not altogether worried about the companies still making DSLRs — the companies can adapt. Canon is already dabbling in mirrorless, and starting to take the format seriously. Nikon has strongly hinted that it will enter the mirrorless segment (or more correctly, re-enter, after the 1 Series didn’t exactly make the big time). Pentax is…well, it’s Pentax. Maybe we’ll see yet another new mirrorless format from the company equal in excitement to the Q or the K-01.

But no, these companies will be fine — I’m concerned about the DSLR itself. Technology tends to not outlast its usefulness — see Betamax, HD DVD, CRT displays, Xbox Kinect (okay, that last one was never useful). And the reason I’m concerned is that I very much like shooting DSLRs and I don’t want them to go away, to end up solely as oddities you find at garage sales.
So, what can companies do to keep the DSLR alive? Here are my most humble suggestions.

Hybridize it

The optical viewfinder is what makes a DSLR a DSLR, but as previously stated, this isn’t a huge sell anymore, not with the increased usability of an electronic viewfinder. But what if you could have both?

The Fujifilm X100 series does exactly this (although, it’s not a DSLR). I’m no engineer, but it seems reasonably possible that a similar type of hybrid viewfinder could be incorporated into a DSLR, and this, my friends, would be awesome. No longer would you have to rely on the LCD monitor when in live view or video modes, and you’d still get the battery savings and pure, unadulterated clarity of an optical viewfinder when you wanted it.

In fact, it appears that Canon began looking into this exact thing at least as far back as 2016. Nikon has also filed patents for a similar technology. Last year, the rumor mill was alive with anticipation after a leaked image suggested the Nikon D850 may be the first DSLR to gain a a hybrid viewfinder. The rumor proved to be false, but it does appear that both Canon and Nikon could implement this technology in future DSLRs, and photographers appear to be ready for it.

Leica-fy it

Leica is the Rolls-Royce of the camera world; a maker of modern classics. It sells expensive digital rangefinders to people who miss shooting film, and even more expensive special editions of those rangefinders to people who like having pretty desk ornaments. They also happen to practice damn fine craftsmanship and make some of the best lenses you can get your hands on — if not exactly afford.

DSLRs could shift into a high-end niche.

DSLRs have a storied history in SLRs, their film-era ancestors (Nikon actually still sells one, the $2,670 F6). Canon, Nikon, and, yes, even Pentax could all take a page from Leica’s book, reviving old designs and appealing to classic camera enthusiasts. Nikon kind of tried to do this with the Df, but that camera was much larger, more plasticky, and much more confusing than the film-era SLRs it sought to emulate.

I could be wrong here, but I believe there is a market for a modern take on the classic SLR. It’s not a large market, mind you, but neither is the market for rangefinders, and Leica appears to be doing just fine. DSLRs could shift into a high-end niche, specifically targeting people like me who enjoy the satisfying clunk of a reflexing mirror and the crystal-clear window of an optical viewfinder.

At least bring it up to par

Short of implementing some truly innovative and unique technologies (see hybrid viewfinders above), if DSLRs simply kept pace with mirrorless innovations, that may be enough to slow the bleeding. It is no longer sufficient for Canon and Nikon to have video modes that are just OK, for example. They need to match Sony, and others, spec for spec. At least then, the deciding factors of a purchase would come down to personal preference, and buying into a DSLR system wouldn’t feel like like starting a race with one leg stuck in quicksand.

canon 5D Mark IV

To be clear, I don’t think this alone would be enough to ultimately save the DSLR. This alone wouldn’t make it special, and I think it has to be if it’s going to carry on its legacy to future generations.

Ultimately, maybe it doesn’t matter

I can’t predict the future. It may look like the writing is on the wall as far as the death of the DSLR is concerned, but perhaps the ink isn’t yet dry. I do think the format can be saved, but I’m not sure that it will be — or even that it needs to be. Maybe it is time to move on.

As much I love shooting one, I don’t own a DSLR anymore. Does that make me a hypocrite? Maybe it does. If someone did everything I recommended, made a classically styled, but technologically modern DSLR with a hybrid viewfinder, would I sell all of my mirrorless gear and actually buy it? Or would I just sit here and write an article about how cool it is? I guess I can hope that someone will at least give me the chance to make that decision.