The DSLR is dying a slow death, it is sustained only by a consumer stockpile of expensive lenses and heavy marketing. The two Japanese giants of professional camera making, Canon and Nikon, held on to their legacy systems for a long time, however recently they have released modern, mirrorless systems. At the moment the distinctive ‘cli-clunk’ of the mirror flipping echoes through professional shoots — but are they still really the best tool for the job?
It is common to see someone with a ton of expensive cameras and lenses around their neck pull out their smartphone to take a photo. It is so useful to be able to instantly share a photo, it is frustrating that it can not be done with the super quality, bokeh enriched, images from a large sensor camera. Smartphone staples such as geotagging, touch to focus and gyroscope panorama making are great features that are forcing point-and-shoot cameras to gather dust in drawers. Not all of these are ‘pro’ features, and are not needed by the serious photographer, although if you were designing a camera system from the ground up you would certainly include some of them.
Despite amazing leaps in engineering, there is not one lens that can do it all. Custom focal lengths, aperture sizes and special features such as tilt shift or fish eye mean that interchangeable lenses are an essential feature of a pro camera. A large sensor provides low noise images, allows a wider view, and perhaps most importantly, allows a shallow depth of field. Responsive auto focus, no lag on capture, total manual control, intuitive buttons, rugged construction and a clear viewfinder are all hallmarks of a first-class camera. Until recently, these features have only been found in the DSLR.
The term ‘mirrorless’ camera, like ‘horseless carriage’, implies something is lacking, when in fact they are a whole new class that offer many advantages. Most have all the quality and features of a DSLR without having to accommodate the space needed for the mirror to pop up and bend light around corners. They have an electronic view finder (EVF) that adjusts for exposure, white balance and depth of field. The original purpose of the mirror/prism mechanism of the SLR was to give a true representation of how the photo was going to look. The EVF achieves this goal.
While stills may be the mother tongue, video is fast becoming the second language for photographers. While DSLR video has caused a revolution in the film industry it is a peculiar addition that seems an afterthought. The mirror needs to be locked in the ‘up’ position while the LCD on the back of the camera displays the video. Traditional lenses are made with super short focussing rings that, while ideal for quick auto focus with stills, are unsuitable for smooth focus pulls needed by videographers. The new camera systems with their EVFs and lenses (some have motorised zooms such as in video cameras) have redefined what a camera is used for.
Photographers embraced the SLR in the 1930s. It replaced the large and restrictive 5x4 system. Many derided it as a low-quality upstart, but in the hands of these early adopters, images became spontaneous and dynamic. Today, the DSLR, with its quirky moving parts, seems to be from a bygone era of vinyl record players and wind-up toys. Professionals are clinging to them, which was understandable when Canon and Nikon were determined not to cannibalise their legacy systems. Camera manufactures unburdened by the weight of history, such as Sony and Fuji, are leading the way. For those on the cutting edge or a photographer starting out, it is time to abandon a sinking ship.