Is the DSLR’s Domination Coming to an End?

Sony NEX-5 and Canon 20D

Sony NEX-5 and Canon 20D

I’m starting to see the signs everywhere. About a month and half ago, I went on a photowalk with several friends in downtown Austin. It was a small group of 4 photographers. All amateurs but all very serious about photography. We all own DSLRs but we were not using them. Three of the Four, including myself, brought our DSLRs but only used them for a short time during the entire photowalk. So what did we use? One person shot with the Olympus E-P1, another the Olympus E-PL1. The third person had a Nikon Superzoom and as for myself I used the Sony NEX-5. The Olympus and Sony cameras fit into a new category which some people call EVIL, Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens cameras. I wrote about these cameras several months ago in an article called In Search of an EVIL Camera where I compared the available options. In a larger photowalk last week, there were a mix of DSLRs and EVIL cameras. The guys with the EVIL cameras did not even bother to bring their DSLRs or at least they didn’t seem to be using them.

It’s not only the photographer friends around me. Several photographers from the blogs I follow now seem to be actively using EVIL cameras. The serious, professional photographer Michael Reichmann who runs the popular site called Lumnious Landscape talks about his love for the Panasonic Lumix EVIL cameras. He writes that as he gets older, he has the desire to carry the smaller and lighter cameras. Steve Huff, a Leica aficionado, also talks extensively about his love for smaller cameras such as the Sony NEX, Olympus Digital Pen and Ricoh GXR on his blog at Finally, closer to home, a well-respected commercial photographer in Austin, Kirk Tuck, talks about his love for the Olympus Digital Pen cameras such as the EPL-1 and E-PL2.

I’ll keep the Canon stuff for all the clients who want/need bigger files with more resolution. I’ll also keep those fun lenses, and especially the ones with image stabilization. But when I pack for vacation, street shooting, art projects and general goofing around you can pretty much bet there’s going to be Pen close by. $599. With a lens? Really? Amazing.
Kirk Tuck – Everything I said about the EPL1. It goes for the EPL2 as well

Now I’m not foolish enough to suggest that DSLRs are going away or that they are no longer going to sell in volume. Of course not. the Digital SLRs are wonderful cameras and they will be continue to sell well for a while, however, I believe the writing is on the wall. I believe that these new class of EVIL cameras will continue to increase in popularity and will eventually eclipse DSLR sales. It may not happen in a year or so but I think that the trend will increase and pick up speed as more people find out about these cameras.

Digital SLRs have their place and depending on the photographer, DSLRs will remain their tool of choice for a long time. I know that the professional sports photographers will continue to use their Canon 1D or Nikon D3 cameras. Professional wedding and event photographers will want their Canon 5DMkII and Nikon D700 for their great low light, high ISO ability. However, these professionals are the minority of people who buy DSLRs these days. It’s the amateur photographers and soccer moms that have the entry-level DSLRs that, I believe, will be switching in the future to these new EVIL cameras. I contend that these non-professionals purchased their DSLRs because their point and shoots were slow and had inferior picture quality. They really did not want these big and heavy DSLR cameras but were convinced that they were necessary to overcome the point and shoot’s deficiencies. And there is some truth to this logic. The digital point and shoots, especially in the recent past, were too slow and the photographs were too grainy. They heard that if they use an SLR, all of their photographs will magically get better. What most of these people didn’t realize is to get the most out of a SLR, you really have to know how to use it. I meet these people all the time at my son’s elementary school. They are snapping away on their expensive DSLRs with the mode dial set on the “green” mode. I know two people at the school who, liking my low-light stage photographs, decided to purchase the same lens that I use. It’s a fantastic lens, the Canon 85mm f1.8. At $400 it’s not cheap, but it has awesome capabilities and is considered to be one of the hidden pseudo “L” lenses (L lens are the pro Canon lenses). The thing is, these two individuals use this nice lens on full automatic mode and wonder why their photographs do not improve. In many ways, their photographs were worse with this lens than with a standard zoom — the 85mm does not have image stabilization and does not zoom. For people who want something better than a point and shoot but with its ease of use, they now have the EVIL option. They are realizing that the DSLRs are large, heavy and too complicated and without the proper knowledge they are not taking the kind of pictures they envisioned.

The trend to smaller devices is real and has happened many times in the past. In photography, people went from large format to medium format to 35mm cameras. As the technology improves, often the devices become smaller. Leica and other range finder cameras ruled the 35mm world until the late 70s and 80s when the SLR ascended to the throne. In an unusual trend, the SLRs which were larger than the range finders, took over the 35mm world. They did so since they were more versatile and professionals as well as serious amateurs flocked to these larger but flexible cameras. Smaller point and shoot film cameras were used by the novice crowed. Within the last 10 years, the film SLR gave rise to the digital SLR while the film point and shoots gave rise to the digital point and shoots. The problem was, while the film point and shoots were pretty responsive and “snappy”, the digital point and shoots were slow. Also, while SLRs typically had better lenses than point and shoots and thus produced superior photos, the quality of photographs taken with film with either type of camera were closer to each other than with digital. The small sensors that are in the digital point and shoots were clearly inferior to the digital SLRs with their larger sensors. Now finally with these new EVIL cameras, the digital technology has finally caught up. These cameras have larger, high quality sensors for superior image quality and they are generally pretty responsive. Some of the cameras like the new Panasonic rival entry-level DSLRs in speed. In some ways, these new EVIL cameras are the modern equivalent of the older range finder cameras. They are similar in size and these modern mirror-less cameras have much of the versatility of SLRs.

If you think about it, digital cameras are just computers with lenses. Like all consumer electronics, computers and digital cameras will continue to get smaller and more powerful. Computers used to be room sized and shrank to the size of desktop towers when they became popular with the consumer crowd. The process of smaller and faster continues where more people prefer laptops to desktops and now the new trend of tablet computing and smart phones further accelerates the shrinking trend. The same thing is happening to cameras. The flipping mirrors of SLRs will eventually vanish and the ultra fast electronics of the future will do what the purely mechanical systems could not do. It is no accident that 3 out of the 4 players in EVIL camera market are large multi-national Consumer Electronics companies — Sony, Panasonic and Samsung. Olympus is the only traditional camera company. Ironically, I believe, the fact that Canon and Nikon so utterly dominate the DSLR market forced Olympus and the Consumer Electronics companies to invent a new category of camera. With the 80% plus DSLR market share that Canon and Nikon have, all the other companies were fighting for the table scrapes. Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony, each in their own way, have created these electronic interchangeable lens cameras to fill a new niche that the big DSLR players have not filled. Given the trends, I believe, Canon and Nikon will eventually be forced to respond with their own EVIL offering.

Finally, there is a class of equipment loving amateurs that will continue to get the nice and expensive DSLRs, even though for some it may just be for bragging rights. (the one with the biggest camera wins, right?) Arguably, some of my friends and I may fall into this category. We will enjoy using our EVIL cameras but will still break out the DSLR when it makes sense. Right now, I use my Sony NEX-5 for day-to-day shooting of my family and street photography. It’s my go to camera when I want to take high quality photographs but do not want to take my bigger DSLR. It was a godsend when I used my Sony all day at Disneyland. 10+ hours carrying my little Sony and I wasn’t a bit tired. I do however have definitive uses for my Canon 7D DSLR. I still do my serious landscape, cityscape and HDR photography with my large camera. I use my Canon for action and sports photography. With the good selection of lenses I have, I also do my serious portraits with my 7D as well as low light stage photography. Also, because I have a large external flash, event photography and party shots still work a lot better with the 7.

As you might suspect, I’m more passionate about photography than the typical person. While I can justify (at least in my head) when to use a DSLR vs an EVIL camera, the average person is going to do just fine just with an EVIL camera. Like the move from the large view cameras to medium format to 35mm, we are on the cusp to transition to this new camera system. One that is only possible now with the advance in electronics and computing.

Size Comparison, Sony NEX-5 and Canon 20D

Size Comparison, Sony NEX-5 and Canon 20D

My Thought Process

I created these two photographs specifically for this post. I wanted images that would compare the sizes of the two cameras. The first image shows the newer EVIL camera, the Sony NEX-5, in focus and in front of the older Canon 20D DSLR. Since the post talks about this newer technology becoming more popular than the old, I wanted the Sony lettering in sharp focus compared to the out of focus Canon. I chose the Canon 20D because it is a medium-sized DSLR. There are smaller consumer models such as the Rebel series but there are also larger prosumer and professional DSLR models. I used the Canon 7D to take the image, which in itself is slightly larger than the 20D. Both cameras are fitted with a similar 18 – 55mm kit lens. You can see the Sony with its lack of mirror assembly is significantly smaller than the Canon. The size difference is particularly clear in the second photograph. While you can not see the differences in-depth, you can plainly see the hight and width of the two cameras are considerably different.

[Note: Click on the images for a larger version]

Image Details

The photographs were taken in JPEG with the Canon 7D with the 35mm F2 lens. Both photographs were post processed using Aperture 3. I increased the sharpness and brightness and added a vignette for effect.

Image 1: f4, 1/40 sec, -2/3 exposure compensation, ISO 800 at 35mm
Image 2: f4.5, 1/40 sec, -2/3 exposure compensation, ISO 800 at 35mm

Other Sony NEX-5 blog posts

Here are some other posts I made about the Sony NEX-5.

Street Photography with the Sony NEX-5
Sony NEX-5 High ISO Performance
The Perfect Small Camera Bag for the Sony NEX-5
Sony NEX-5: A New Angle on Photography
In Search of an EVIL Camera

23 thoughts on “Is the DSLR’s Domination Coming to an End?

  1. I love the smaller cameras. I have too now, the Oly E-p1 and the Panasonic GH2. I like both for their light weight and compact size and for other reasons… One for video and the other for it’s in-body stabilizer. But mostly I like the light, small systems. I was contemplating getting a new full-size SLR but now I’m less convinced that waiting for a Pro-style mirror less camera is not the way to go. I think the smaller, mirror less bodies and their lenses will gradually catch up to the big, heavy SLRs…. The sooner, the better. Oh… And no more aching backs from lugging around a ton of gear.

    nice article, Andy.

    1. Bill, a future pro EVIL will be interesting. There are some rumors that Nikon is working on one. The next couple of years are going to be interesting. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Andy, I usually carry my dslr around with me, but occasionally just have my iphone camera and have enjoyed playing with that too. You can get surprisingly good results with a bit of practice. The ultimate in portability and you can directly email family and friends or post directly to a website….di

  3. It’s difficult to shrink a zoom lens for a large sensor;

    you only get the compactness with prime lens, which kind of limits the use cases;

    I think EVIL looks funny (or evil), with a tiny body attached to a big lens;

    1. Kevin, you are absolutely correct. However, the body size does make a big difference and the zoom is slightly smaller on the Sony than the Canon. All in all, it does save a decent amount of weight and bulk.

      Thanks for your visit and comment.

    1. I taken a few HDRs with the Sony. I probably need to do a blog post about it. The Sony also has a in-camera HDR mode which works decently. It does have 3 image auto-bracket but unfortunately it the exposure range can only be set up to 3/4 of a stop so I can’t really use it for HDR.

  4. Stumbled on your site when I was searching for NEX-5 blogsites. I own the NEX-5 as well. Considering it as my “entry level” camera. I decided to buy it instead of an entry level DSLR mainly because of the size and the “IL” part in the EVIL. I’m very much pleased with the picture quality and overall performance. I’m actually searching for nice prime lenses to try out.

    1. Hi Jon, glad you were able to visit and leave a comment. A nice prime lens (beyond the 16.. f2.8) will nice to have. I would love a f1.4 or f1.8 in the 28mm, 30mm or 35mm range. Sony is planning more lenses in the future. Keeping my fingers crossed. In the mean time, it’s possible to use third party lenses with adaptors, though it would be manual focus.

  5. My PEN PL1 does have a bracket option. I’m not a big HDR-er, but the camera is more than able to produce the images.

    1. Marilyn thanks for you visit and comment. The E-PL1 has a maximum 1 stop EV at 3 brackets. I really wish it can do 2 EV between brackets which tend to work better for HDRs. I think the EP3 still does 1 stop between brackets but can be set to do 7 shots in a bracket so this may workout for HDRs.

  6. The future seems to go two ways, or even three: Small compact cameras (EVIL, or not) capable of very good video, with decent lenses, simple DSLRs that can use older lenses, and high-end cameras (high performance DSLRs, medium format, & specialist cameras, like Leica, Pentax 645D, Hasselblad, and a number of others). One that seem to excite just now is the NEX-5N that with its huge EVF (expensive extra item) seems to thrill the video crowd, giving far better performance than its bigger brother NEX-7.

    And I totally agree that EVFs should be in the end of the cameras (top left end for right-eye shooters, and top right end for left-eyers), not in the middle, as touch screens and noses doesn’t mix very well!

    1. Tord, thank you for you visit and comment. These are exciting times from a photo equipment point of view. So much is changing right now. I will be interesting to see how this all evolves.

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