Two decades ago, DSLRs were introduced to replace film cameras. With only a few megapixels, very short battery life, and an overall low quality, it was only natural that most photographers were very skeptical at first. It took a few generations until digital cameras were fully accepted and analog photography was left to the enthusiasts rather than the professionals.
In recent years, we’ve already seen a sharp turn in the status of DSLRs. Mirrorless cameras and smartphones have become more popular for the average consumer. But even for professional photographers, there are more and more alternatives to old-school DSLRs.
Why should anybody even buy a DSLR in 2018 when there are far better alternatives?
Mirrorless Cameras are the Future
I understand that mirrorless cameras have faced the same problem as DSLRs when they were first introduced. The novel technology wasn’t very well developed at first and suffered from some early disadvantages.
The electronic viewfinder was a revolution, but a very premature one. In theory, the new viewfinder only offered advantages and new features. There are new possibilities of overlays, like grids, histograms, or focus peaking. But electronic viewfinders didn’t hold up to their promises.
They felt laggy, especially when moving the camera very quickly, the resolution wasn’t great, and in these ways, the EVF had clear disadvantages to the classic optical viewfinder.
Fast forward to today, though, the flaws of the EVF have largely been extinguished. There isn’t any visible lag and thanks to the advancement in processors, and the framerate stays stable when moving the camera quickly.
Besides the clear advantages of the EVF, mirrorless cameras also offer other advantages.
Whereas high-end DSLRs only can shoot up to 14 photographs per second (or 16fps with mirror lockup), mirrorless cameras are already able to get as high as 20 images per second in burst mode. Due to the physical limitations of the mirror, DSLRs will never advance as far as mirrorless in this area.
The design of mirrorless cameras also allows them to be more compact and lighter.
It becomes very apparent that mirrorless cameras already beat DSLRs in almost every aspect, and with the heavy investments being poured into mirrorless technology, they will only get further ahead.
Smartphones for the Masses
In the beginning stages of DSLRs, there weren’t really alternatives, only choices of using the “old” analog cameras or new DSLRs. Whether you wanted to make the switch to digital or not was a personal preference, but there weren’t really other alternatives.
Only after digital compact cameras were introduced as a small and cheap alternative to DSLRs did the average consumer not have to buy a DSLR. Yet, the compact camera still required a conscious choice, and buyers were often torn between buying a compact camera or a DSLR.
With the advent of smartphones and their very high-quality cameras, it’s different now. Whereas people that wanted to take a photograph needed an extra device, they can just use the smartphone that is with them anyway and get decent photographs.
These users will probably never understand why a DSLR might be better than their smartphone image.
It never crosses their mind to spend money on a DSLR when the device they have in their pocket already does a good job.
With mirrorless cameras and smartphones becoming a valid alternative, the established manufacturers Canon and Nikon face difficult times in selling their DSLRs. This is not speculation but is instead very visible in the market share data based on CIPA reports.
As you can see, the total number of interchangeable lens cameras sold was almost halved from 2012 to 2017. This is due to the rise of smartphones and also fixed-lens cameras.
How do mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses suffer from this drop in sales?
The line in red shows the clear decline of sold DSLRs from 2012 to 2017. In green, the data shows that mirrorless cameras held steady through that period and recently even saw a rise in sales.
This CIPA data is only based on interchangeable lens cameras. In the DSLR segment, this includes basically every popular camera from Canon and Nikon and in the mirrorless sector, for example, the Sony Alpha 7 or Fuji X-T2.
With the advent of cameras like the Ricoh GR or the Fuji X100F, there is a whole new market of mirrorless fixed lens cameras.
Even though there are still more DSLR sales than mirrorless sales in 2017, with the current trends, DSLRs may lose its lead over mirrorless by 2019.
Canon Investing in Mirrorless Technology
Apart from the raw numbers, it is pretty obvious that Nikon and Canon are now trying very hard to catch up and not lose even more share to mirrorless cameras.
There have been rumors swirling around for a while that Canon might release a full-frame camera in the near future — a very brave step since their current high-end DSLRs dominate the world of photojournalism.
A new camera in that segment could cannibalize their own systems in the future and mark the end of Canon’s successful 5D series of DSLRs.
Instead of trying to turn the trend around and make DSLRs more appealing to the masses again, Canon must instead focus on dominating the more promising mirrorless market.
Why Should You Buy a DSLR Now?
With all the facts laid out, I can not comprehend why photographers that are looking for a new camera would invest in a DSLR. The technology is on a rapid decline, and not only the cameras but also the lens systems. Any newly bought camera in this segment might face a huge loss in value in the coming years. DSLR systems won’t hold any resell value in the future, and by then, investing in mirrorless may come at a higher price for you.
Now you might argue that there are more DSLRs still being sold than mirrorless cameras — for interchangeable lens systems.
First of all, the raw number of sales doesn’t really say much about the quality itself. DSLRs still benefit from all the marketing investment and images of the last decade.
When you talk about cameras with non-“tech-savvy” persons, of course, they know Canon and Nikon, but have they noticed that Fuji, Sony, and Olympus are actually established digital camera manufacturers now, and that mirrorless cameras aren’t anything out-of-the-ordinary anymore?
Changing the perception of image and quality takes a lot of time and by now, DSLRs are still seen as the pinnacle of quality by the broad majority.
Additionally, DSLR cameras are still sold because a lot of photographers already invested in Canon or Nikon gear in the past, so they are tied to their manufacturer if they don’t want to swap all their gear.
DSLRs a Dying Tradition
For me, it is no question that DSLRs will become obsolete in the next years. In the status quo, they are only useful in very specific niches like sports photography or sometimes photojournalism.
Other than that, mirrorless systems are far superior in almost every aspect. It will just take some time until the public perception changes and DSLRs will be gone for good.
And unlike analog photography, it is highly unlikely that DSLRs will have some nostalgic appeal in the future since other digital cameras will still be available and all in all, they will be pretty similar.
As a street photographer, it is already very rare to see a DSLR being used, and it is only a matter of time until eventually, all photographers make the change.
If you are looking for a new camera to buy, save yourself the hassle and look for the right mirrorless camera right away.
About the author: Sebastian Jacobitz is a street photographer from Berlin, Germany, capturing the everyday life in the city. The opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the author. To see more of his work, visit his website, Street Bounty, or give him a follow on Facebook and Instagram.