It's been fun. Image by Gawker

The Death of the dSlr? All hail the dSlm!

For the last time, happy newyear Gang!

At the eve of the unveiling of Fuji’s latest and greatest attempt at creating a fantastic mirrorless camera, the X-T1 I took time to reflect on something that has bothered me all year long.

If one topic was hot in 2013, it was the so-called death of the dSlr. Dozens of websites pronounced the dSlr dead since the introduction of APS-C sized mirrorless cameras.

I really dont get the hype around this. Is it going to happen? Not likely. Is it really what they mean ? Even less so. Is it important? Even less so.
I think they should restate their statement. A more appropriate statement would be, Death of the mirror-based camera, for the most of the consumers. Long live the mirrorless for the rest.

When people think of the concept of the dSlr they automatically think of clapping mirrors and stuff. An etymological analysis of the term reveals this to be fundamentally incorrect. dSlr stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. As everyone can see, the word mirror is not present in that term. The term reflex is used to describe the working of the reflected image viewable in the pentaprism.

The term dslr originates in the shape that contributed to the fact that the camera we associate with the term is one of the most iconic camera-design of all times. Why? Because it was easy to use, relatively cheap to produce and made photography accesible to the masses. It allowed technological progress like AF, that at that time was only conceivable on such a platform. This is the main reason why out of all the camera designes that were designed, the dslr and the slr before that stuck the longest.

dSlr were the first digital cameras. Why? Because the were the only camera design that allowed the integration of a chip with the exact same workflow of an analog camera. The slr offered the design with the least technological difficulties when it came to implement a chip in stead of a film. The chip would have to react like a portion of film so it had to work like one. The mirror and shutter were already present, so replacing the film with a chip would be less of an issue. The transition from analog to digital would be more seamless than say, converting a twin lens reflex.

So why are they declaring the dslr dead now in stead of say, 2004, when compact cameras first started to appear without mirrors?
Because now, unlike before, the image quality produced by mirrorless cameras is rivalling and surpassing the quality of dslr’s. Something that had never been the case before.

It all has to do with technology. The reason dslr’s are big and bulky is because they need to house a lot of stuff. A sensor, a mirror box, an autofocus system, a lens mounts, a pentaprism and so on. Those things take physical space. They were so big because the only sensors capable of delivering good performance during the dawn of the dslr were larger than any before that. With the advent of full frame dslr’s it even increased. Smaller sensors didn’t have the sufficient technological prowess to produce good, professional images. It was purely technologically bound. Small cameras could never obtain the image quality of dslr’s because the technology did not allow to put all that into a smaller body. Until now.

However, that is not the point. The point is that we’ve come to a point where the technology allows us to remove the mirror. The mirror used to be a quintessential part of the (d)slr. Without it, unlike rangefinders, you wouldn’t be able to see through the lens because previous generation sensors couldn’t perform live view. You would’ve been shooting blanks back then. Used to, because the last 2 years the advances in sensor-technology have been amazing. The first introduction of liveview on dslr cameras was mostly a gimmick. Sure it was cool to be able to see what you were shooting on the larger back LCD and such, but the functionality was quite bad. The first generations wouldn’t autofocus, and if they did it was horribly slow. However, we have come to a point now that autofocus technology in liveview has advanced to a useful addition to the camera. I believe that in the next year or so, the mirror will have become more of a nuisance than an advantage. Incredible but true. This to me is the true evolution to be made.

Think about it. Mirrors are essentially glass, which means they are fragile. They are also a fast moving part, which by design is prone to mechanical failure. Mirrors also induce shutter blackouts. You know, the moment your optical viewfinder goes black when you click the shutterbutton and the mirror flops open. Another often forgotten but very annoying downside is that due to the mechanical nature of the mirror, it induces vibration where it shouldn’t. You aren’t going to notice that vibration if you are shooting at a 1/1000th of a seond, but in the critical hand-holdable spheres, like 1/60th and slower it is going to be a world of difference. I have hand held shots on my APS-C sized mirrorless camera at 1/17th of a second and they are tack-sharp. Something that, due to the inherent design of the dslr as they are built now is impossible.

However, the continued size reduction has some downsides also, and THAT, to me, is the interesting part and an essential one linked to the future of the dslr. Since these dslr’s were big due to the fact that they had to house a lot of components, they had the luxury of being able to be ergonomically designed to be pleasant. Dslr are rough and tough. The have big grips, big buttons, they are solid and that is why they are workhorses. Due to the fact that there is a lot of space, there are a lot of buttons for quick and easy access. This is why pros love them. Imagine shooting in the snow, with gloves and a ski goggles and having to change settings constantly. Your small mirrorless camera with those few buttons will be a pain in the ass to adjust.

The difference between the two usergroups will increase due to these facts. I usually lug a 2 pound lens on a 2 pound body around for my photography. If I found a valid replacement that allowed me to have the same quality for a quarter of that I would jump on it. It won’t be for every photographer, but for me it is perfect.

So do I think the death of the dslr is upon us? Absolutely not. I think the death of the mirror-based dslr is upon most of us. As I’ve said, the mirror has lost its duties and advantages. It brings more negatives than positives in the near feature. However, the dslr will not disappear, it will more so become a speciality camera.

The dSlr is fundamentally different from the mirrorless camera by design and that is a good thing. They both have their places in the world of digital photography. To me, dslr have far, far superior ergonomics than mirrorless cameras, but they are meant to be. They are meant to be full of buttons and functions for quick and easy access without having to dig into rows and colums of unclear menus. They have to be rapidly set up and altered.

Another thing : you cannot forget the huge number of lenses, accessories and such that exist for the dslr. Nikon or Canon are not just going to dump that userbase. It would be an unwise businnes decision first, but an all-around bad decision as well. Neither of them can afford to drop their existing pro-userbase that have invested tens of thousands of dollars into their gear and make them switch to a completely different platform.

In conclusion : I don’t think the dslr is dead. Not at all. It is going to undergo some changes. The mirrors will disappear. But there will always be bodies like the flagship bodies of Nikon and Canon because working professionals require them. They need rough and tough cameras with a lot of buttons for easy access.
I do think however that the over-saturated market of consumer-dslr’s will die out. Nikon recently released the d3300. Yet another iteration of a perfectly fine camera to begin with that only brings minor updates. People buy them because they think the images quality if far, far superior to a mirrorless, small camera. For some time they were right, but things are about to change.

All hail the dSlm !

P.S : The last thing I quickly want to touch on is kind off the same but with cinema. A lot of people are calling out photography’s death now that Blackmagic, RED, ARRI and others are producing 4K cameras that have the same or better resolution as digital cameras.
To me, this is even less of a valid point. A first objection can be made in the practicality. Although these devices are reducing in sizes, they are still incredibly more cumbersome and fragile than dslrs. They require unwieldy battery packs, memory banks, LCD displays and such. A second objection can be made regarding the practicality. Sure you can record at 4k and in the future i guess even 16k but that doesnt make sense for photography. Photography is capture frame by frame. Traditional cinematography is 24/s. This means that holding down the shutter for a second gives you 24 frames. Imagine doing a whole photoshoot with that. How many hours and days would you spend in postproductions looking for the perfect shot? A third objection, and this is really one of the biggest is the price. You can have an excellent digital camera for 1500$. All of these abovementionned systems will cost you with lenses, batteries and such around 15,000-25,000$. That is just ridiculous for amateurs and such.


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