Why DSLRs will Ultimately Lose

Olympus PEN-F and Canon 6D

Olympus PEN-F and Canon 6D

Note: Here’s a followup to this post, “Relentless Mirrorless Advances”.

I’ve been an early adopter of mirrorless cameras, ever since I bought my Sony NEX 5, back in 2010. While the NEX started out as my smaller, secondary camera, that changed as I realized its benefits. Nowadays, while I still own a few DSLRs, it’s my mirrorless Olympus cameras that are my primaries. I’ve been bullish on mirrorless for a while, and while it took longer that I anticipated for mirrorless to hit critical mass, most people now admit the tide has definitely shifted.

Nikon’s DSLR sales are in decline. Canon is holding on, but not growing. The interest these days are with Sony, Olympus, Fujifilm and Panasonic — all of the mirrorless players. What’s telling is, at Precision Camera, the biggest camera store in Texas, they’ve moved the mirrorless camera displays up front, relegating the DSLRs to the back of the store. They too know that future is mirrorless.

Why did I know mirrorless will dominate? Several reasons. One, the smaller cameras are easier and lighter to carry. Two, mirrorless is more interactive, with EVFs giving real-time feedback for color, exposure and composition. Three, mirrorless is better for video. Finally, and most importantly, mirrorless improves at the speed of Moore’s Law. This last point needs clarification as it’s the crux of my argument.

What’s Moore’s Law and what does it have to do with mirrorless? Everything. Moore’s Law is why all computers, smartphones, smartwatches and everything else on the internet is getting faster and cheaper at an astonishing rate. The gist of the law says the number transistors on chips double every two years. Which means that the performance of devices using these chips are improving really quickly.

Mirrorless cameras are mostly computers. Other than the mechanical shutter (some even have options for an electronic shutter), everything else is run by chips. Therefore, they increase in capability and performance at Moore’s Law speeds. DSLRs, because of their mechanical mirrors and phase detect focusing, are more dictated by physical constraints. They don’t improve as quickly.

So that slow mirrorless focusing, that people complained about in 2010, speeds up every year. Now they are faster than DSLRs. Their frames per second also increase, now besting DSLRs. Those grainy and laggy EVFs, which people hated, become higher and higher definition with faster refresh. As of 2017, most everything people originally disliked about mirrorless has been fixed and is often superior to DSLRs. And the relentless speed of improvement continues. This means the gap between mirrorless and DSLRs will only continue to increase.

Today, the only advantage DSLRs may still have, is their focus tracking speed for fast action, like sports. And even this is arguable with the latest generation mirrorless cameras such as Olympus’ OM-D E-M1 Mark II. In a few years, tracking speed should probably tip to the mirrorless camp. But the news gets even better for mirrorless, because of Moore’s Law.

The big trend in the computer business is the use of AI (Artificial Intelligence). All of the big tech companies are using it to understand natural language, to analyzing images and to predicting relevance in social media posts, among other things. Smart applications can even turn photographs into “paintings” in your favorite artist’s style. This is all due to AI powered by Moore’s Law.

So imagine this. What if you tell your future camera what kind of images you prefer. You can train it by “Liking” images you took or by giving it examples of your favorite images. Your camera’s processor can then intelligently scan the scene, optimize and make it easier to take the kind of photos you like. In fact, it may even take it for you automatically. Yesterday’s face detection and smile detection is merely a primitive beginning of scene analysis.

So that last bastion of DSLR superiority is sports. But what if I can train my future mirrorless camera for the type of sports scenes I want. First, I can have it memorize the colors of the team’s uniforms and tell it to focus on my preferred team. And what if I can pre-program the best poses for a particular sport. The camera can start shooting 8K images at 60 frames per second and the camera will auto filter the best poses by sport, exposure, color and composition. This is all possible because of AI and Moore’s Law.

Well, you say, DSLRs can do that too, right? Not quite. Remember that legacy mirror that’s used to bounce the image to your optical view finder? That mirror gets in the way of the on board computer analyzing the scene. The DSLR is basically blind until you press the shutter. With mirrorless, the camera can constantly scan and analyze the incoming image data. Basically, the future mirrorless camera will be smarter and faster than most photographers via their AI. All you need to do is point the camera in the general direction.

DSLR users may say, if I use LiveView, wouldn’t that work the same? Perhaps, but at that point, you’re really not using the mirror are you? You have a legacy SLR design, with the baggage of a mirror, that gets in the way. Why not just get rid of the mirror?

I’m sure this future picture-taking technology will scare the traditional photographer. It’ll be like the car enthusiasts complaining about self driving cars, when those get perfected. But the good news is, you don’t need to use this photo technology, if you don’t want to. You can opt to use your traditional DSLR and do it the hard way. That’s basically what traditional Leica users are doing with their old-fashioned range finder cameras. Heck, you can continue to shoot film too. But I contend that for pro and amateur sports photographers, the future AI enabled mirrorless will run circles around the dumb DSLR. And for everything else, mirrorless is already superior.

The DSLR’s days are numbered. Long Live the DSLR.


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22 thoughts on “Why DSLRs will Ultimately Lose

      1. Hi Tae. Good question, but I’m not sure. I actually bought the 25 f1.4 a long time ago, before the Olympus came out with their f1.8 and f1.2 versions. I know the 25mm f1.8 is a really good lens, and not too expensive. I’m not sure it it’s worth spending the extra bucks for a 2/3 stop difference.

  1. There are a few other issues, like the degree of distortion in wide angle lenses … and sometimes, in other long telephoto lenses. But overall, you are obviously right. I don’t think I could go back to one of those weighty cameras.

    I favored smaller cameras even before mirrorless was invented. It’s why I wound up owning Olympus in the first place, many years ago. As full-size cameras went, they were always smaller than most, as was my Leica. I’m small anyway. Short, little hands, so I like small cars, small cameras. Small tools in general.

    Humans may be growing bigger, but I’m not 😀

    1. The small size is certainly what first attracted me to the mirrorless cameras. Then I found that I enjoyed them a lot more.

      I’m not sure if the lens distortions are any better or worse on mirrorless vs. DSLRs. It all depends on the lens, I think. However, I know that the optical distortions are automatically corrected in JPEG with the Olympus and even in RAWs, there are pre-defined hints for distortion correction.

      I heard that, with mirrorless lenses, they can be made sharper because the distance between the sensor and lens is a lot smaller. Something about, it’s more optically complicated in SLR lenses, to have the spacing between the sensor and lens to accommodate the mirror.

      Also, regardless of the lenses, mirrorless focuses more accurately since the it looks at focus on the sensor. The DSLRs phase detection system can get out of calibration, which could through off the focus accuracy.

      1. I’m totally hooked on my Olympus cameras. Distortion or not. I have not found an ideal way to deal with the distortion — and just for a notice, the Olympus 25mm f1.8 is signficantly less distorted than the Leica 35mm f1.4. I think it’s because of the difference between the manufacturers: the Oly was made for the Oly body. The Leica may only be 3/4 of a stop faster, but it collects light with shocking efficiency. It works best in lower light levels. In bright light, it doesn’t give you the same high quality color you get from the Oly lens. It took me a while to figure it out, but i’m simply passing it along. Very close shooting produces pretty radical distortion, Middle distance, much less and if you are doing landscape or distance, very little distortion.

        Olympus lenses seem to produce much better, richer, truer color.

  2. I just love your AI analysis. This is exactly what the mfgs need to reposition their cameras to match and surpass phone cameras. It the KISS concept. Photography will always be better with continued innovation. If people don’t like it they can go back to film and dark rooms but we all know where the future is going. We used to joke that someday cameras would tell you that the photo your were about to take was going to suck. In the not to distant future I think the camera will say “Would you like me to suggest another option, or just do it for you?” Hopefully then we won’t have selfies with telephone poles growing out of people’s heads.

    1. Thank you, Jerry.

      The world is changing, and it’s not all bad. But embracing change is scary, to some extent, for everyone.

      The more the world changes, the better a store like yours, can guide and suggest the solutions that makes sense for the customer.

      Precision Camera is an antidote for a complex world.

  3. Thanks for the interesting analysis.

    Another thing mirrorless cameras do pretty badly is price.
    There’s just nothing at the moment in the mirrorless world that rivals entry-level DSLRs like the D5500. If there were, I’d be happy to switch.

    1. Hi Thomas F. Thanks for your visit. Indeed, there a very well priced DSLRs on the market. I think this is mostly due to market positioning. I would assume, with a mirror assembly and with more moving parts, DSLRs are more expensive to build. However, the manufacturers are pricing the mirrorless at a premium for a couple reasons, I think.

      1. The compact size commands a premium. The best example is Sony’s RX100 V compact camera, which runs a steep $998, for a small 1″ sensor.

      2. Many of the mirrorless companies are positioning their cameras to the premium enthusiasts’ market, with better build quality, made typically out of metal and some with retro styling. The entry level DSLRs are mostly plastic.

      On the other hand, EVFs are expensive, certainly more than a simple optical finder. With Moore’s Law, EVF prices will continue to fall. There were inexpensive mirrorless cameras, in the past, but most of the companies have moved away from the entry level market and into the enthusiast segment.

  4. Mirrorless will take market share, but battery life needs to be solved before DSLR’s really get knocked off.

    My Sony A7II’s batteries are dogsh*t in the cold. I have to carry 5 for a long day of shooting in cold weather because the batteries need to be constantly rotated.

    Meanwhile, my 10+ year old Canon 5D’s original battery just goes and goes and goes without a problem.

    1. Hi Mike, I agree that battery life is the biggest challenge for mirrorless. With the frequently on LCD/EVF and the image processing, it takes more power for the computer to do its thing. In the future, if they implement the AI features that I talked about, the increased processing power required will make this worse.

      On the other hand, as chips become smaller and transistors get packed together, the efficiency goes up. The Sony A7 series has a shorter battery life than other mirrorless cameras, but they also have relatively small batteries too. I’ve found my latest Olympus cameras do pretty good (certainly not at DSLR levels) with battery life.

      While mirrorless battery life may never match DSLRs, the battery life will be good enough for most people. For some though, they may continue using DSLRs if battery life is critical. But I contend that this will be an outlier. That the benefits of mirrorless will outweigh the power efficiency of DSLRs.

    2. Hi Mike,
      I carry a lot of batteries too, for my Fuji system – but then I remember the days when I shot a lot of 35mm and 120 film. I’ve come to appreciate that changing batteries is a whole lot more convenient, faster, and happens less often, than changing film every 36 exposures (or 15 in a Mamiya 645!). Then, I don’t mind so much.

  5. Sorry guy, but electronic finders in low light wreck my night vision. Composing in starlight is much easier for me with a good optical finder like my Canon or Nikon SLR bodies. Have tried Sony, Olympus and Fuji mirrorless with the electronic finders and they just don’t cut it for night work.
    A lot of positives for mirrorless but not perfect yet.
    Still use the old faithful 8×10 for a lot of work. Nothing quite like having fine control from the beginning and a ground glass big enough to see everything. Contact prints are just fine.

    1. Hi Zelph, thanks for you visit and comment. I can’t speak to all the mirrorless companies but I can set my EVFs to not auto-gain (brighten up) with the Olympus. And while EVFs may not work for you, they work for many others.

      Looks like you are a traditionalist and there’s nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s all about using the tools you like to create the photos you want. That said, it seems like you have specialized needs and using a 8 x 10 is certainly, at this point, very specialize equipment.

      DSLRs are not going away, like Rangefinders. However, in the future, they will not longer be the dominant camera system. The needs of most enthusiasts will be met by mirrorless.

    1. Yes, true. Dedicated cameras will be for professionals, specialists and enthusiasts but I think there will always be a need for them. Though the market for them will be a lot smaller.

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