Should We Just Use ‘DSLR’ to Describe Big Cameras, Mirror or Not?

A sony alpha a9 mirrorless camera without a lens, displayed against a black background with the letters "dslr" in gray.

This week, director Steven Soderbergh took part in an interview where he discussed the making of Presence, in which he revealed it was filmed on a Sony a9 III… which he gleefully referred to as a DSLR.

Update 4/25: After publication, Jordan Drake informed me that Soderbergh has in fact worked as a cinematographer on many of his films, including Presence, and camera operates to some degree on most if not all of his films. So, take that for what you will.

The whole interview is great and I love the fact that feature films can now successfully be shot with smaller, more approachable cameras compared to the exceedingly expensive behemoths from manufacturers like Arri. I wish I could have focused on that aspect more, but I found myself unable to get past the fact that Soderbergh just called the a9 III a DSLR. Not only that, he did it with such confidence.

“We shot this on the newest iteration of the Sony DSLR, which is, as you know, a digital single-lens reflex camera. Its primary mode is as a still camera, but it also shoots really good video. It’s small, and this new version has a sensor that was never used in a DSLR before,” he tells Filmmaker Magazine.

A young woman in a dimly lit room looks anxiously towards a light source, as three blurred figures stand ominously in the background.
Actor Callina Liang in Soderbergh’s new film, ‘Presence.’ | Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

And so here I sit, in a dimly lit room, slouched in front of my computer, dejected, disappointed, and defeated. Part of our job as journalists is to be, at times, educators. We have done our best for years to consistently explain the difference between a mirrorless camera and a DSLR, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. If Soderbergh, who may not be a cinematographer but who does reside in the highest level of filmmaking, can look an interviewer straight in the face and call an a9 III a DSLR, then I give up.

Fine. It’s a DSLR.

There is Precedent For This

If we as photography enthusiasts agreed to call any interchangeable lens camera a DSLR, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. There are several examples of such a thing which even has a name: a pseudo-acronym. While some are pronunciation based, like BBQ or K9, others may have actually stood for something in the past but are no longer tethered to that original definition.

Take, for example, the SAT. In the United States, high school students will take the SAT — which once stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test — in order to obtain a test score that can be used for college admissions. The SAT no longer stands for anything — it just is. ISO, which used to stand for International Standards Organization, actually doesn’t stand for that anymore either; the organization just goes by ISO: the International Organization for Standardization.

Related to a recent project we at PetaPixel undertook, the massive LSST camera has used that same acronym to stand for two different things and the location where it was assembled, SLAC — which used to be the short form of Stanford Linear Accelerator Center — no longer stands for anything either and the short-form is used alone.

There are other examples of organizations or acronyms that once stood for something as a short form and eventually outgrew the connection to the long form. As a result, I say again that it would not be crazy to consider DSLR as just a term for a camera with an interchangeable lens and not “digital single lens reflex.”

It’s been more than a decade since the first mirrorless camera came out and I have seen multiple attempts at making that word easier to say, remember, or just plain catchier. The one that came closest was ILC (interchangeable lens camera) or perhaps MILC (mirrorless interchangeable lens camera) but none of them stuck. I still hear friends, neighbors, and award-winning directors referring to modern mirrorless cameras as DSLRs.

I’m not sure it’s worth trying to teach the word “mirrorless” anymore. Soderbergh’s interview has broken me. Just as Winston “loved big brother” at the end of 1984… I love my Canon R5 DSLR.