Could Compact Camera Systems Replace DSLRs?

“I’d rather have a DSLR for the money” – I’ve heard these words one too many times when talking about mirrorless cameras with beginner photographers. DSLR cameras have been the staple of image quality for a very long time now, and a sort of natural companion to any professional shooter. Many beginner photographers asking for advice on which DSLR to buy, especially those coming from point-and-shoots, find it very difficult to understand how a camera barely bigger than a compact can be a match to a big, solid-looking DSLR. After-all, wedding photographers, photojournalists, sports, wildlife photographers – basically anyone who is serious about digital photography – all carry DSLRs (with the exception of select few that rely on medium format and other specialized cameras).

Nikon 1 V1 Image Sample (5)

Since DSLRs have been the default choice for so many years, it is hard to realize that quality and speed don’t always have to come with size, bulk and weight. Mirrorless cameras are simply too new to be seen as serious photographic tools. Not to mention they don’t look nearly as intimidating and capable – let’s face it, an important aspect for plenty. And yet, more and more enthusiasts and professionals have been embracing them. Why is that?

Sensor Size and Image Quality Correlation

Image quality heavily depends on physical sensor size, not the size and look of the camera itself. Most point-and-shoot cameras have millions of pixels crammed into a tiny sensor, which limits their use in low-light environments and brings most of the scene into focus. DSLRs, on the other hand, have big sensors, which ultimately means much better low-light performance and ability to isolate subjects (thanks to fast interchangeable lenses that can provide shallow depth of field). Most interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras have the same or slightly smaller sensors as their APS-C DSLR counterparts and are capable of equally good, and sometimes even better results. Today, you don’t choose one over the other based on image quality (unless you want to go full-frame), but on what you are planning to photograph. For specific needs such as sports and wildlife photography, where autofocus speed, subject tracking ability and lack of viewfinder lag are extremely important, DSLR cameras are still the way to go. True, mirrorless cameras have not fully caught up with DSLRs yet, but it is just a matter of time (more on this below).

For all other situations, a mirrorless camera makes much more sense – it’s smaller, lighter, easier to carry, has potentially smaller lenses and because of all these reasons, is much more likely to be with you wherever you go. Once you get past the I-have-a-DSLR-which-is-cool factor, don’t you find these advantages tempting and worthy of consideration?

The Potential

Mirrorless systems have a lot of potential. The reason why DSLRs are so big even in their smallest incarnations is because they have a mirror and an optical viewfinder, as shown below:

SLR Cross Section

In order for the mirror to fit between the sensor and the lens mount, there needs to be a longer flange focal distance (distance between mount and film/sensor plane). Optical viewfinder and long flange focal distance make the camera taller and broader. However, other components are relatively small. Even those powerful image processors don’t take up much space – the same EXPEED 3 processor used on the Nikon D800 is used on the much more compact mirrorless Nikon 1 V1. What this means is that it is possible to make a tough, high-quality, speedy camera with a large sensor and sufficient buffer by throwing away large moving components and replacing them with compact electronics. Potentially, that’s an almost pocket-friendly D4 for you right there. With smaller lenses, too, as demonstrated by older rangefinder cameras. I’m a wedding photographer – it’s my passion as well as main source of income. And I can honestly say I would love such a small camera, as plenty of other professional photographers would, I am sure.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Review (22)

What’s more important is seeing how mirrorless cameras are slowly taking advantage of the theoretical possibilities. To be fair, compact system cameras weren’t always that interesting to working professionals. At first, all of them were targeted at point-and-shoot users wanting to upgrade. Cameras like the original Sony NEX-5 were an alternative to budget DSLRs. They tempted buyers who didn’t want the bulk of an entry-level DSLR, but craved the same image quality. Now, however, we have cameras that target professionals, such as Sony NEX-7, Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Fujifilm X-Pro1. Many of them offer fast burst modes, great video performance, tough build and above all – excellent image quality. Nikon 1 cameras have almost DSLR-worthy AF systems and the OM-D E-M5 is pushing the limits of contrast-based AF. It is clear now that mirrorless holds a huge potential enough to intrigue professional street photographers, journalists, wedding photographers and, with EVFs and AF systems getting better all the time, possibly even sports and wildlife photographers in the future.

The Market

As I’ve already pointed out, mirrorless cameras are getting more serious each year. We’ve seen huge strides in AF performance, EVF designs and image quality. OM-D E-M5 has proven that small 4/3 sensors are indeed a very well thought-out compromise, something that wasn’t entirely obvious with their DSLR lineup. Fujifilm’s sensor technology has finally helped us see that improvements can be made not only with increased number of pixels, ISO and dynamic range performance, but also with innovative approach to the very design of the matrix (something Sigma was eager to do as well with its Foveon sensors). All these improvements made sure that the mirrorless cameras receive deserved attention from those new to photography, as well as from advanced users. They make the small cameras that much more attractive to professional photographers craving for smaller and lighter gear. All that’s missing is a full-frame interchangeable lens mirrorless camera.

The only option for a truly compact full-frame camera with interchangeable lenses is Leica, and has been so ever since M9 came out back in 2009. They may have their reasons, but Leica is also preposterously expensive as a system and the expense part is what puts it out of reach for most photographers. While good for certain types of photography, digital Leica rangefinders rely on manual focus and don’t work well with longer lenses. There are also no current zoom lenses except for the Tri-Elmar, which has three focal lengths for you to choose from and costs nearly $5K. In other words, Leica is a very specialized tool, the use of which is difficult to understand for many, let alone justify the purchase. But the concept of a compact full frame camera does seem to have caught the attention of other manufacturers, not to mention the potential buyers. We now have professional-targeted APS-C mirrorless cameras, such as NEX-7 and X-Pro1. We have a full-frame compact camera in the shape of Sony RX-1. A full-frame mirrorless will come sooner or later and will be of much interest to a large portion of professional photographers. By then, contrast and hybrid autofocus systems will probably catch up, if not surpass, DSLR speeds.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Review (16)

So… Could a Compact Camera System truly Replace a DSLR?

Yes and No. Nasim already expressed his opinion about the future of cropped-sensor cameras and why he believes that small sensor DSLRs will be replaced by mirrorless cameras pretty soon. The day when capable mirrorless APS-C cameras become cheaper than entry-level DSLRs, I strongly believe most people will start switching to the lighter mirrorless options. We already have budget options such as the Sony NEX-F3 on the market, but they lack viewfinders (adding which is either impossible on low-end models or too expensive) and they lack advanced functionality and customization options found on entry-level DSLRs. But it is clear that the mirrorless market is already competing with the lower-end DSLR market. Take a look at some of the Sony commercials that show photographers that have no idea how to use a DSLR:

These commercials are specifically targeted to market the Sony NEX series cameras. Sony wants people to move away from large DSLRs to much smaller NEX-series cameras. I am sure we will see more manufacturers doing this in the future…

Without a doubt, mirrorless cameras have plenty of advantages over their larger siblings. They are smaller, lighter and potentially come with smaller and lighter lenses. They are also quieter and more discreet, which photojournalists and street shooters are surely going to appreciate. So I just do not see how APS-C DSLRs will be able to compete with mirrorless cameras in the future.

What about full-frame DSLRs? I agree with Nasim’s projection that full-frame is here to stay for a long time. Partly because manufacturers have invested so much into them, partly because they are simply more suitable for certain applications. In five years, I would love to have a non-yet-existing full-frame X-Pro5 hanging around my neck on weddings with a fast prime lens mounted. But I know I’d probably still have a workhorse DSLR with me. It’s that much more secure in my hand thanks to its size and weight – in some situations, it’s actually an advantage. It’s that bit more dependable, having been around for such a long time. Sports and wildlife photographers are also likely to appreciate the bigger cameras for their ergonomics when mounted with large lenses.

However, there is a possibility that full-frame DSLRs become very specialized tools in the future, similar to medium format cameras today. What if Nikon came out with a full-frame mirrorless camera with superb battery life and all the same features (and more) you get from the latest generation DSLRs? Considering the shorter flange distance, this means that Nikon would have to replace all of its full-frame lenses, which obviously sounds like a bad proposition for anyone that owns lenses. But with a small electronic adapter, similar to the Nikon FT-1, you could potentially use all current and old DSLR lenses on such a mirrorless full-frame camera.

Maybe, in time, mirrorless cameras will make us all dump our bulky DSLR systems. Technology is changing fast, so I believe that it is just a matter of time. A mechanical mirror that has to move up and down before and after every exposure is just another potential point of failure, so losing it and thus simplifying the camera is the way of the future. Sony has already gotten rid of the mirror with their translucent SLT cameras, but the mirror is still there and it eats up some of the incoming light. SLT just seems like an intermediary step for now, which I am sure Sony will eventually get rid of in the future.

And for those that want the bulk and the build of a pro DSLR, a full-frame mirrorless camera can be designed to be the same size as current DSLRs. Once the mirror is removed, the light will pass through directly onto the shutter and the sensor. Imagine what benefits that would bring to wildlife and wedding photographers – you no longer have the loud mirror slap that disturbs wildlife and people. The “Quiet” mode would be replaced with a noise-free electronic shutter!

Why Do We Care?

By no means do I want to bash DSLR cameras as photographic tools. Instead, I’d rather celebrate the choice we’ve been given with the new camera systems – lighter and smaller, yet in many cases, just as capable to keep up with our varying demands. I’m a photographer. I’ve been through quite a few weddings and other jobs. My most go-to gear is rather lightweight and easy to lug around. Usually I don’t need more than a camera body, a few backup batteries, a flash for rare occasions when there’s no way around poor light and a couple of fast primes. But the possibility of having even less weight on my shoulders when I work for 14-16 hours straight is, undeniably, very attractive. If a couple of years ago I’d only consider a DSLR as a second body, today I’d put a mirrorless camera in that place with full confidence.

What’s important to realize is that compact system cameras are catching up with established DSLR systems rapidly. They’re not only good enough for some day-to-day photography anymore – they are good enough for clients, even if those clients don’t yet realize it. Give the market two or three more years, and you’ll probably find such a camera in most pro’s bags next to the big stuff. Lenses will come and performance will come. And if you’re on a lookout for your first DSLR camera, you may want to give Sony NEX, Fujifilm X, Olympus, Panasonic and other mirrorless camera brands a closer look. Perhaps DSLR is what will suit you better. Or perhaps you’ll be happier with a smaller, but just as capable camera you can actually take with you anywhere you go? You’ve got choices, which is great news for all of us.

Fuji X100 Sample #7

Comments

  1. 1
    ) MartinG
    April 7, 2013 at 5:35 am

    It seems strange that even though the potential for a truly excellent compact camera which delivers the same quality as a DSLR, there is no camera that delivers ALL of the things we rely on DSLR systems to provide. Other cameras provide some of the features, but not all. There are signs that the industry is aware that they need to explore the boundaries, but so far there is no obvious replacement in sight.

    I think the viewfinder, especially an optical viewfinder is the core feature that will be virtually impossible to replace.

    • 8
      ) Calibrator
      April 7, 2013 at 7:09 am

      I agree that a viewfinder can be irrreplacable and it was certainly one of the reasons I bought a DSLR.

      However, I don’t think that optical viewfinders are the final solution to the problem (-> to see a high quality image of what you want to take a picture of, regardless of the lighting condition).

      In fact I strongly believe that electronic viewfinders will be the natural evolution in “viewfinder tech” as their positive aspects are already very apparent and their negative aspects (higher manufacturing price, slower response, noisy image in dark conditions, image sensor must be active and therefore gets warm which can reduce image quality) will *all* be eliminated with time.

      The progress in silicon (and OLED) tech is a train that simply doesn’t stop – and it’s the major reason 99% of all images are already being taken with a digital camera.
      Manufacturing price is one of the corner stones here but the VF is a crucial element in the tech combination that makes a DSLR (sensor, mirror, shutter, VF, autofocus, exposure metering, processing and storage). A camera company can’t just replace an OVF with an EVF without taking the other elements into consideration and drastically change the whole system.
      See what Sony did? They fixed the mirror to get continuous autofocus when filming (which becomes more and more important for customers). In such a design only an EVF (or a Liveview LCD monitor) makes sense. On the downside Sony paid for the advantages with decreased high-ISO capabilities.

      But Sony also has an even bigger problem with their otherwise very interesing A99: It’s simply not fast enough. If it would handily beat a Nikon D4 or a Canon 1D-X with, say, 20 or more fps then it would be an instant buy with many professionals trying to get lens adapters to make their lens investment work with it.

      We will get there (20+ fps) with time but my guess is that we won’t see a traditional DSLR delivering such frame rates. I believe that the moving mirror tech is at the very edge of its potential and that all big players will switch to fixed mirror (or mirrorless) designs in the future.

      The EVF will come free with it. ;-)

      • 21
        ) Larry
        April 7, 2013 at 1:41 pm

        For what it’s worth, as an observation from my personal experience only: a partial list of cameras I own and use would include a NEX 5, NEX 7, Nikon F6, Nikon D800e, Contax645, Leica M5, and Contax RX.
        I would more or less agree with everything in the article, but would perhaps point out what has been for me the biggest and perhaps only drawback to the mirror less systems I’ve used: a decided lack of clarity, and brightness of the EVFs, as compared to a first rate optical finder on a SLR. Again, for what it is worth, the viewfinder on the Contax RX is significantly better than that on any of the other cameras listed above.
        If one wears glasses this is even more of an issue.
        If one uses nothing but autofocus lenses this is not that much of a problem, but for using high quality manual lenses on mirror less cameras, EVFs are a pain to try to obtain focus with relative to the optical finder on the Contax, no comparison really.
        Having a heads up display in an EVF won’t help produce a good photo when focus is compromised because you are forced by the clarity limitation of the EVF to accept ‘maybe’ focus.
        I’ve tried every current EVF except the one available for the RX1.
        And, yes, the focusing screen on the Contax RX is that much brighter than the one on the F6 and the D800.
        I know I’m not advancing the state of the camera design art here just making some comparisons on camera usability, if focusing matters.
        Also, I did not mention the Leica. I realize I am “supposed to” love the Leica above all other things, but I just don’t. Put it down to lack of breeding, I don’t know. I apologize in advance to certain readers for this lack of good taste.

        • April 7, 2013 at 1:56 pm

          I agree with most of what you say, but I envision a different implementation of the EVF. I expect EVF to be more like Live View through the viewfinder with the ability to zoom in for precise focus. With distant subjects and subjects requiring precise focus, this kind of functionality would be a major enhancement. I find Live View to be much better than optical focus when it is practical to use it.

          This is certainly not a perfect solution when you need an optical viewfinder. But you choose the right tool for the task at hand.

          There have been lots of major technological changes in photography. The innovation does not come for doing the same thing with a different tool – it comes from creating new types of images that previously were not possible.

  2. 2
    ) MJohn
    April 7, 2013 at 5:46 am

    And a complete series of lenses has to be designed for mirrorless cameras.

  3. 3
    ) FrancoisR
    April 7, 2013 at 6:05 am

    Thanks again Romanas, very interesting!!!!
    Mirror mirror… lloll

  4. April 7, 2013 at 6:24 am

    I fully expect to see mirrorless pro and pro-sumer level cameras from Nikon. There are too many advantages to the technology.

    If I want a fast frame rate, I’m willing to give up the mirror for some situations. I used the V1 at the Masters and Tour Championship last year. For golf, the silent operation allows images during the swing that are not possible with a DSLR. The fast frame rate in electronic mode is far superior to the D4 for capturing images of the swing.

    If you look at what is happening in golf magazines, you see ultra high frame rates in almost every issue. Look at the high speed cameras developed for baseball and football.

    I don’t see a limitation of small size with mirrorless. DX or FX mirrorless cameras are certainly possible. It does imply some tradeoffs as larger sensors could slow frame rates or require larger buffers, but with the space for the mirror and prism removed, there are options. And what’s to say you can’t deliver a hybrid viewfinder with both optical and electronic options.

    One of the advantages to an electronic viewfinder is the opportunity for an electronic display. I think of it as a heads up display on a plane. And for low light conditions, the bright electronic display is a big improvement to a dim optical viewfinder.

    Yes there are limitations, but I’ve currently got something like nine camera bodies – and only two are mirrorless. I would quite willingly choose a mirrorless D400 or successor to a D4.

  5. 5
    ) Faz
    April 7, 2013 at 6:26 am

    I would love to see the mirror less cameras match up the quality of a full frame camera. I have used the D800 with 70-200 2.8 and trust me that combination is awesome but the bulky weight id hard to handle. So if I get the same results that I get with D800 then why not ;-)

  6. 6
    ) Andy Schmitt
    April 7, 2013 at 7:04 am

    This is probably the first article that didn’t look like it had been sponsored by a camera company. Well Done, you’ve made me think about it, especially since Canon came out with one.
    As others have mentioned, a view finder is essential to a serious camera for almost any situation. The only times I’ve not need one are my occasional forays into street work or in a situation where I wanted an impossible view point, where a rotating view screen was a godsend.
    Thanks again… :)

  7. April 7, 2013 at 7:07 am

    I was in Nebraska shooting the sandhill crane migration two weeks ago (awesome, by the way). I had a bunch of equipment to support my D700 ( tripod, capture clip, lenses, filters, backpack for it all, etc) and a little bitty Nikon 1 V1 with a 10-30 lens. Obviously the D700 did all of the heavy lifting, but my point is that I am working the mirrorless into my work. As I build my lens inventory for it, I think my work will go the way Roman is talking about…increased usage of the mirrorless, less for the heavy DSLR. But for now, my hands are much more comfortable around my fairly huge D700 with the extra grip than around the tiny, toy-like Nikon 1.

  8. 9
    ) Peter
    April 7, 2013 at 7:44 am

    Good article. Lots of food for thought.

    One superficial thing about large cameras is the impression they give some people. While at a meeting I had my D700 on the table next to me. One person looked at it and said: “Wow! That’s a big camera; you must be a professional.”

    If I were a professional (making money on my photography) I would think twice about using a small camera which puts me in the same category as the millions clicking away with pocket-sized cameras and phones (and, by the way, often think they can take pictures as good as a pro can).

    • 13
      ) Calibrator
      April 7, 2013 at 9:43 am

      Interestingly, this doesn’t apply to cell phones…
      ;-)

  9. 10
    ) HomoSapiensWannaBe
    April 7, 2013 at 8:26 am

    We should be careful what we wish for…

    Cameras are getting more capable, easier to use, smaller, lighter, better image quality, and so on. This is happening quickly. Maybe not fast enough for our desires and wishes, but it is happening. If manufacturers did not need to amortize and protect their existing investments, we would get new, innovative products even faster. So it goes, year after year.

    At the same time, photography has become ubiquitous, almost boring to many, leading to a jaded attitude about it. Maybe not among us enthusiasts, but certainly among the general public that I interact with. It has become too EASY to do.

    (A similar thing has happened with music and digital technology.)

    The ability to see and create great photographs remains a somewhat rare skill, in spite of how technically easy it has become. Even us wimpy weekend warriors can get good, sometimes great, landscape photos approaching what once took athletically vigorous, dedicated and disciplined photographers hauling large format cameras with pack mules. Even so, they (we) still complain about how heavy those darn DSLRs are, and obsess over why this or that feature can’t be made easier! Automation surely makes us lazy, no?

    Everybody has one or more cameras, starting with their very capable smartphone. I use a D600 and S100. My son and daughter use smartphones. I have processed two sets of vacation photos in LR from my son’s iPhone5. The results aren’t as good as either of my cameras can produce, but they look surprisingly good on a 24″ 16:9 LCD. Most important, my son is satisfied with the results and considers a dedicated camera too much bother, even considering the increased image quality and other potential gains.

    The sheer quantity of images taken is growing exponentially. However, based on sharing my own photos, talking to others, surfing various websites, and so forth — I think the PERCEIVED impact and impressiveness is going down, even though the actual image quality far exceeds what most photographers used to get using film and much less sophisticated camera systems.

    It seems that unless an image is especially novel, outstanding and unique in some way, people just yawn, say “That’s nice,” and immediately forget about it. We are a saturated culture, drowning in digital media with an infinite quantity of information seeking our attention.

    I belong to two camera clubs in a major US city via Meetup (.com). There are several other clubs in the area. Between these two clubs, there are hundreds of members, each regularly stalking and taking photos. IMO, most of what I’ve seen is boring and of the literal point and shoot variety, even though most use capable DSLRs. They literally see something, think “That’s cool,” and snap a photo (hundreds of them actually). So, even though tens of thousands of photos are taken by members of just these two clubs a week, only a small portion are shared after photo shoots, and just a handful of these get much attention based on member comments below the photos. It is astounding, perhaps sad, how many are using Photoshop and other post-processing tools to “enhance” their otherwise plain images to try to make them unique. Is it art… or Instagram?

    There is a paradox here. We want the perfect camera system — fill in the blank about what features it has — but will we then be able to use it to create images that people care about given their overwhelming exposure to media. When it is too easy, does anybody really care?

    Perhaps instead, we should all take up drawing, painting or some other hands on art form?
    Wouldn’t that be a more truly personal artistic expression?

    At least our photography would be better for it compared to lusting for the perfect camera system.

    That said, when can I buy a full-frame, lightweight, small, mirrorless system? (; >)

    • April 7, 2013 at 11:18 am

      Wise, very wise comment. Thank you for posting it.

    • 23
      ) MartinG
      April 7, 2013 at 3:37 pm

      While agree that there are many more people taking images, that in itself is not something that devalues great photographs. Each time we take an image I like to think that we reflect and learn from it. My study of paintings and drawings is limited but I do know that many people paint, not everyone who paints produces a great art work. That does not mean that we unable to recognise original ideas and execution when we see it.

      Photography will continue to grow in popularity as more capable equipment is more and more affordable. Perhaps we need more articles about the photographic vision. There are surprisingly few books and websites devoted to composition compared to the number of publications and web-sites about equipment.

      • 29
        ) Michael N.
        April 8, 2013 at 7:48 pm

        I agree with both MartinG and Homosapien…luckily I don’t subject the world to my paintings and drawings, yet people feel the need to post squillions of photos for us all to wade through!!
        Why is that?? It doesn’t devalue great photos (in fact your enjoyment and sense of relief is probably increased) but it does make it much harder to find them.

        Perfection in a camera system is not possible is it? Is perfection duplicating exactly what we see as humans through our own eyes? maybe, but why then do we crave for stupidly high iso so I can take photos of things i cannot even see it is so dark (and I’ll have that without digital noise thankyou!)

        I think that photography is split three ways now: Social, artistic and reportage. I think social photographers want cameras with bells and whistles that do all the cool stuff for them, reportage desire (even need) the bells and whistles as it makes their job so much easier and “us” artists are happy with whatever as long the image we created reflects our intentions. This is why there is so much argument over new camera features and what people want to see in them. the question is where is the money to be made???

  10. 11
    ) James
    April 7, 2013 at 8:43 am

    I’m still happy with my D600 and am looking to add a third lens to my system.

    Though, I keep track of these smaller cameras to see how the overall performance is stacking up. As others have already commented, the compact systems seem to be great in some areas and limited in others.

    Still, the prospect of going on vacation with a compact camera and a 10-100 lens on it is enticing.

    Good article.

  11. 12
    ) Heiki
    April 7, 2013 at 9:24 am

    mirrorless systems with good lens is anyway too big to fit pocket
    is it really matter if system is 10cmx7cmx5 or 13 cmx10cmx7cm

    i prefer anyday full frame dslr than iphone sized camera with nex 7 sized lens(18-55mm) (what a joke to be victim of marketing)

  12. 14
    ) vincent
    April 7, 2013 at 9:55 am

    [quote]
    The day when capable mirrorless APS-C cameras become cheaper than entry-level DSLRs, I strongly believe most people will start switching to the lighter mirrorless options.
    [/unquote]

    I’m guessing that the big camera companies already have the technology and manufacturing abilities to produce that capable mirrorless APS-C that is cheaper than their entry-level dSLRs. However, who is going to pull the trigger on the golden goose? Neither Nikon nor Canon wants to take that risk.
    Olympus might have to take the risk to adopt and support Panasonic Micro 4/3, since they were not a big player. Even then, it took many years for both to finally come up with fast lenses – both prime and zoom. IIRC, most of their fast lenses was only released in 2012 onward.
    The same with Sony, who had to risk producing their Nex series.

    And during film days, we also had relatively smaller and thinner SLRs. But film was simpler, there wasn’t too many buttons on the camera. Again, most probably Nikon & Canon can produce a smaller dSLRs, though it can’t be called compact. The recent Canon 100D is already here. But will people and reviewers be satisfied? Will they complain of the small buttons, lack of direct access to functions? Touch screen may be the answer to that. A Nikon dSLR in FM body/size would be nice.

    • 25
      ) MartinG
      April 7, 2013 at 5:25 pm

      I believe DSLR sales are a small percentage of camera sales overall. If any camera company really had the technology to make affordable lighter cameras, I have no doubt they would do so. Any company that is able to produce a high quality photographic shooting experience in a more compact system would be aware that the potential demand for such a system is very high. There is a lot of potential to make good money with such a system. I suspect that he absence of such a system is not the result of vested interest or a conspiracy. It is much more likely to be about technical obstacles and physics. We have seen quite a few attempts at developing new systems, so far none has really managed to combine all the benefits of the DSLR. I think the DSLR will continue to dominate the interest of most of the ‘enthusiast’ market. There are many reasons for this. In my own case, my areas of interest make me much more interested in the future of the DSLR than other technologies.

      I moved from a crop sensor D90 to a full frame D800 last year. I am interested in bird photography and this is a field where only a DSLR will do,especially when dealing with BIF (bird in flight).

  13. 15
    ) wfp
    April 7, 2013 at 10:44 am

    Been using the Fuji X series cameras along side my pro gear. Small, light, some annoying niggles due to missing featurs, like snappy autofocus, especially at the tele end which is an area they have neglected. The other biggy is bokeh. A 35mm f1.4 on a crop frame camera gives you a very different (though usually pleasing) look from a similar lens mounted on a full frame camera. Maybe if they can start making f0.95 or fo.8 lenses for them we may seem the dreamy colour wash we get from todays super fast portrait lenses. It may be possible, after all I am sure there were nay sayers who loved their F2 medium format lenses and thought f1.4 -f1.0 lenses on small format (35mm) was impossible,

  14. 16
    ) George Su
    April 7, 2013 at 10:58 am

    Image quality relies on a lot of factors, e.g., sensor size, sensor quantum efficiency, type of A/D conversion, and lens quality. However, a general optical problem limits the Mirrorless. Mirrorless shortens the distance between the sensor and the lens, i.e., it has shorter focal length than DSLR’s. The lens curvature of Mirrorless must be increased to compensate this condition. This will make the lens to generate more prominent optical aberration. Therefore, in order to maintain the quality of the lens, the diameter of the lens should be decreased, the aperture might be smaller, or the sensor size might be decreased. These compromised designs might retain some quality of the lens, but the light caught by the sensor decreases prominently. Hence, before a good solution for the optical aberration is found, the high-end DSLR still has its leading market.

    • 19
      ) William K.
      April 7, 2013 at 12:48 pm

      I agree with you. I see a lot of the majority of photography done with mirrorless in the future for people just taking candid snapshots to record the moments of there lives. But for the light gathering capabilities of a full sized cameras and their larger lenses and having larger sensors will always beat a camera with a smaller sensor that has the lens placed closer to it. Just Basic physics. And the more technology increases for smaller cameras, the same technology can be used in larger formats. Just comes down to how portable we want to be and what we are okay with carrying along with us for taking photos.

      • 35
        ) George Su
        April 8, 2013 at 10:42 pm

        Thank you for your comment. In the following link, we can see the camera companies are working for this topic!

      • 36
        ) George Su
        April 8, 2013 at 10:43 pm
      • 43
        ) deadlock
        September 8, 2013 at 2:39 am

        WRONG. DSLR lenses must be of retrofocus design, which implies additional elements and therefore distortions and aberrations. I’d be more concerned with the sheer bulk of glass on such camera. Mirrorless systems don’t use retrofocus (they don’t need to) and smaller lenses can be manufatured to higher quality standards.

        • 44
          ) Martin G
          September 8, 2013 at 3:07 am

          Deadlock: Is there a way you could phrase this a bit more politely and expand on what you mean? I am interested in your reasoning, if you care to explain.
          “Higher” is a relative term. Do you mean “higher than they are doing now”? As in the development of smaller constant aperture lenses with good edge to edge sharpness, very low chromatic aberration and nice bokeh – in a range of lengths. Are you suggesting that this something that manufacturers are NOT doing now? (I’d agree) (I wish they would – show me the lightweight 400mm equivalent 2.8 which weighs half and costs half or less than the Nikon or Canon ones on offer.)
          OR do you mean that smaller is always better?

          • 45
            ) deadlock
            September 8, 2013 at 11:29 am

            There are many elements in any lens, so there’s no single curvature as such – comparing front element curvature is sort-of misleading. Let me elaborate on one thing in particular, and that is retrofocus design – basically, there would be no place for mirror if DSLR lenses were truly, say, 30mm. There must be additional elements that first spread and then converge rays to allow for additional space. These elements alone make the DSLR lens more complex and bend the light around more than mere difference in front element curvatures would suggest. Mirrorless lenses (Micro Four Thirds for sure) are designed as telecentric, which basically means that light hits the sensor plane more or less perpendicularly. Of course, it is possible to achieve good quality even with non-telecentric design (sometimes it actually helps), but at the expense of size (and price, since bigger is technologically more demanding). Sorry if my original message came across as impolite, all I’m saying is that the reality is more complex and I personally consider mirrorless designs “cleaner”. I am the last person to deny the advantages of having a large sensor (all other things being equivalent) but since DSLRs must carry this “mirror legacy”, the argument about differences in optical performance becomes just academic.

            • 46
              ) Martin G
              September 9, 2013 at 6:26 am

              Thanks for the reply. I used to shoot with a D90. Once I got to the point where I needed great pin sharp lenses, I had to turn to full-frame lenses. I liked my old 7-300 – it was reasonably priced and quite sharp to 200mm. But even that was full frame not a DX lens.

              I understand what you are saying well enough. I confess I am no fan of electronic viewfinders but that does not mean I wouldn’t trade my current set up in an instant if we suddenly found that there was a system with great performance (see above) was light weight , fast enough at focussing for birds in flight and well priced. My scepticism about whether DSLRs will be replaced soon is not based on any technical disbelief. It is market disbelief. Some smart manufacturer has to turn the enthusiast market on its head and become the designer of a system we all see as the new standard, not just a ‘possible make do variation.’

              I agree that reality is always more complex. One day we may be shooting with lenses made of new types of glass that are pin sharp half the size and 25% of the price of the ones we use now, connected to small bodied cameras with much much better sensors and no need for mirrors that go thwap! I get that. I am just not holding my breath expecting it next week.

              I have no idea of the time frame, in the meantime bodies with mirrors and a full frame sensors are pretty impressive. I also think that it is absolutely fine for all of us to have our own personal preferences about the what we believe technical excellence is.

              For my money the only camera I want to hold when framing a female wedge-tailed eagle with a 2.5metre wingspan about 5 metres away in outback Australia, for example is a D800 with a F4 300mm or the Canon close equivalent.

  15. 18
    ) Richard
    April 7, 2013 at 11:30 am

    I’ve been discussing the possible end of the dSLR for a while now and my feeling is that in my case Nikon will present a mirrorless replacement to a dSLR in not the too distant future. I would applaud such a camera especially for wildlife. My V1 has shown me what can be achieved coupled to an AF-S lens via the FT-1 and the results are very promising. Harness this technology inside a dSLR body and I for one will be extremely interested. The end of a flapping mirror and a silent fast mirrorless system is eagerly awaited.

    Richard

  16. April 7, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Since the topic is replacing one system with another, I thought I would ask the following:

    What about the newer camcorders replacing DSLRs? Just the other day I saw that some of the new models of camcorders are capable of taking pictures that are fairly large (Sony and Panasonic have models that will take 8.9 MP stills, and Panasonic has a model that can take 10.0 MP shots [all JPGs I think, no RAW option available that I saw]). I have no idea what future models will offer, but a 10.0 MP picture taken with an optical (not digital) range of 800 to 1,000 MM is going to be a lot larger than the same picture (after cropping) taken with a D800 + 400mm lens. Remember, in DX mode a D800 is a little over 15MP, and a 400mm lens is a net 600mm AoV in DX mode.

    Not planning on going that way myself, just asking the question.

    WEJ

    • 30
      ) Michael N.
      April 8, 2013 at 7:57 pm

      I saw an image from a 4K video camera it looked stunning and the video is amazing 4000 lines resolution!! Might be a while before a hq consumer version is available though :)

      • April 8, 2013 at 9:03 pm

        Do you happen to know which camera it was?

  17. April 7, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    “So I just do not see how APS-C DSLRs will be able to compete with mirrorless cameras in the future.”
    I’m in my 60’s and a lot of serious, old-school amateurs like myself are getting towards their 60’s also. I would love to carry a back pack full of full frame gear but it is simply too heavy and has to be “checked” on smaller jets. Instead, I carry 3 cropped frame bodies with a 8-16, 17-70 OS macro, and 70-400. I don’t miss very many photo opportunities. It’s under 22 lbs and fits in a back pack designed for CRJ. All 3 bodies have 16MP sensors and I feel the quality that the equipment produces is excellent. Unfortunately, I believe that you are correct in that high end APS-C cameras may not make it.

    • 28
      ) Peter
      April 8, 2013 at 8:17 am

      For some unknown reason, reading your comments prompted this question: How many camera bags have you accumulated over the years?

      I have 6. I look at them and say to myself: “Why the hell did you buy all these?”

      I’m 72.

  18. 26
    ) gregorylent
    April 8, 2013 at 2:55 am

    cellphones, 1990, vs cellphones, now .. only with cameras it will take only ten years, no more bricks by 2020

  19. April 8, 2013 at 7:40 am

    I’m sure we’ll have quality 100% view electronic viewfinders soon enough on mirrorless cameras with accurate focus. Sensors are getting better all the time so surely mirrorless will take over at some point..

  20. 32
    ) Patrick O'Connor
    April 8, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    Just out of curiosity, have any of you shown up for a professional shoot (wedding, portrait, etc.) with a mirrorless camera and, if so, what was the reaction of the client? I’ve read comments from a lot of pros, on various blogs, stating that they’ll bring battery grips, 1.4 lenses, etc.. even when not needed because clients expect it and will degrade their opinion of the photographer who doesn’t bring them.
    Also, as several people mentioned above, digital cameras (including dSLRs) are becoming ubiquitous. What was once a sure sign of a professional photographer has become meaningless, in and of itself. Of course there’s still a big difference between a guy with deep pockets and a working professional or advanced enthusiast but it won’t matter if you don’t get the job. Just like MP3s vs. CDs, people have become so desensitized to photography that they often can’t tell the difference between a good photo and a great one! Their criteria for judging the photographer is how expensive his gear looks. I wouldn’t be surprised if, showing up with a medium or large format camera, you wouldn’t need to show anyone your portfolio…
    Lastly, Ansel Adams famously said, ‘Use the biggest camera you can carry.’ It wasn’t just to get the advantages of large film, it was also to force yourself to slow down and take your time. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to weddings, sports, or photojournalism but you get the idea…
    I don’t have any guns so you’ll have to pry my dSLR from my cold, dead fingers!

    • 33
      ) Patrick O'Connor
      April 8, 2013 at 9:06 pm

      Dang! I tried to add a “smiley face” to the end of the last sentence but it didn’t work. Maybe if I had a bigger mouse and keyboard…

    • 38
      ) b
      April 10, 2013 at 10:10 pm

      I thought it was funny when I was shooting at a bowl game (football) and some of the other photographers with huge full-frames and lenses were looking at me like I was crazy…some of them even asked about my camera and what I thought about it….I was shooting with my Panny FZ-150…lol….I shoot for a blog — My camera was enough.

      Also what I thought was funny was when I went to the CES convention in Vegas and I saw many a news crew toting around iPads with audio/video accessories attached as well as their iPhones on mini tripods..

  21. 34
    ) John McElroy
    April 8, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    Excellent article Romanas. I’m just an enthusiast and my system comprises of a Nikon D70 with an assortment of 3 lenses, one prime and two zooms. I was excited about the possibility of a full frame D600 but not so thrilled about some of the specs. Although a APS-C frame the D7100 was intriguing but again seems to fall short of what I’m looking for. I’m now set on trading in everything I have to go to the Olympus OMD EM5 mirrorless system and in the future looking for exactly what your article foretells, a mirrorless full frame offering from whoever has the most viable option.
    This site has become my go-to site for up to date information and reviews. Nasim, yourself and all the contributors do a great job!

  22. April 9, 2013 at 5:48 am

    I think for many people, especially casual shooters, the future is probably larger and more capable sensors in their phones with in-built editing software, so they can snap wherever they are and transmit to social networks instantly. For many of them, the idea of using a dedicated tool to take photos and then waiting until they can process it on their computer is akin to the relative inconvenience of using film and waiting for the developed film to be returned before sharing it. Having more instantaneous technology in a smaller package is inevitable. You only have to look at the progression of cellular phones from their initial incarnation 40 years ago to the smart phones we have today. Now they are putting wireless features in cameras with more filters to use and edit the image directly in-camera.
    I think it is only a matter of time before the lines are blurred between (at least) entry-level cameras and phone cameras. Heck, I use my phone all the time when I can’t be bothered to lug the D600 around. I use a DSLR for wildlife and low light mainly, but it’s only time before our phones have better ISO and AF performance, and perhaps even small interchangeable lenses!
    My 2 cents.

  23. April 14, 2013 at 1:31 am

    i totally agree that mirrorless is already usable by professionals and will only get better. a huge advantage of a mirrorless system is that since the flange distance is so short, almost all lenses can be used with an adapter, including vintage high quality lenses from “dead” systems like canon FD. with all kinds of electronic assistance in the viewfinder, manual focus is realistic for stills, and perfect for video obviously. having a mirror in the camera is no longer the mark of a pro system. great article.

    • 40
      ) Z. Dammer
      June 1, 2013 at 9:41 am

      @VanWeddings Photography:

      I have a collection of vintages Canon lenses from the ‘dead’ pre-EOS system, FD, including 2 primes I really loved back in the eighties and nineties: the 50mm F1.4 and the 300mm F4.0. For me, the ability to use these lenses on a digital system was an important reason why I chose a mirrorless camera, a Panasonic Lumix G2. As it turns out, I sometimes use the 50mm for its shallow depth-of-field, but I stopped using the 300mm: it’s just too bulky and heavy to carry around.

      This brings me to the major advantage of a mirrorless system: a full set of equipment fits into a normal camera bag: 2 G2 bodies, a 14-140mm zoom, a 7-14mm zoom (this lens alone was worth switching to micro four thirds!), a 100-300mm zoom, a 17mm prime, the Canon FD 50mm F1.4, a flash unit, a travel tripod with ball head, extra batteries, a remote and the usual small stuff. Total weight: just a tad over 6kg…

      I often carry just one camera with the standard zoom, or with the wide angle zoom. And last week I bought a brand new GF3 body (for only 79 euro…) that, with the 17mm, now is my EDC (‘every day carry’) camera.

      This purchase made me think what camera Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the most influential photographers to date, would have chosen when he had the choice of camera’s that is available today. In 1931, Cartier-Bresson was an early adopter of the then tiny 35mm format, in an era where photojournalists still relied on 4×5 inch camera’s and the 6x6cm Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera was only a few years on the market.
      I assume it would be a small camera body (black, with EVF) from a mirrorless system, combined with a couple of fast pancake lenses. Maybe he would decide to wait a few months for the Panasonic GX1 successor, which will be announced in August ;-).


      PS: What surprised me when I started using both Canon primes, is that they were not as razor sharp as I thought they’d be. To make things worse, in the corners chromatic aberration is visible with both lenses, even when they’re stopped down to F8 or F11. The native Lumix (zoom) lenses don’t have that problem. A reason for that may be that they are corrected in-camera during processing. Anyway, ‘state of the art’ in the seventies and eighties clearly is not a match for what can be achieved in designing optical systems nowadays. Despite not being perfect, the 50mm certainly does have a ‘character’ that I like.

  24. 41
    ) Kevin Kwilinski
    August 29, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    Traded in my Nikon 7000 DSLR on an Olympus OMD EM-5… I have no regrets. The portability improvement means I am taking my camera with me more and taking more pictures… with a pancake lens makes a much better street camera. A huge positive is that on a recent safari in Africa I had an effective 600mm zoom in an incredibly small and very useful package. The image quality was outstanding.

  25. August 29, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    I am a very experienced serious amateur photographer. I have used all sorts of camera formats from 35mm to 4×5 and digital format. My current equipment includes a Nikon D700 with lenses up to 40 years old, a Fuji X PRO 1 and Fuji X100. I like the Fujis due to weight. The D700 with a 24-120 VR lens is tiring after a day of traveling. The Fujis are light and in the X Pro 1, the lens range is equal to what I have in the Nikons. But the telling part are the results. Last year I entered a number juried photo shows. I was accepted to 5 of them and of the 5, 3 were photos were taken with the Fuji X100. I would say that was impressive.

    • October 12, 2013 at 4:07 am

      I am converting from Nikon D700 to Fuji X-Pro1 right now :)

  26. 48
    ) Scott Terry
    January 16, 2014 at 9:29 pm

    Considering how much the average computer’s shrunk in the past 40 years, and more and more people ditching their laptops and desktops for netbooks and tablets, I suspect that in say… 20 years, today’s dSLR will be thought of in the same way that film and vinyls are thought of today, and will have been replaced by smartphones(and maybe in 30-40 years, wearable tech).

    Because while Single Lens Reflex cameras can be great conversation starters and have the potential to make better pictures, that potential can be ruined if the perfect moment comes along and someone doesn’t have that extra 10 pounds of gear, and even today, those front “selfie” cameras on modern cell-phones allow for more opportunities than the “professional” cameras(not to mention the portability factor!).

  27. 49
    ) deadlock
    April 5, 2014 at 4:56 pm

    I’m afraid the question whether compact system cameras can replace DSLRs is similar to whether state-of-the-art typewriter can replace an older one. Let’s face the reality – the way people “consume” images also dictates the way images are produced. It happened to music industry too. You don’t need a dedicated camera to impress your friends on Facebook – most of them will be looking at your photo on their phones anyway. The quality alone isn’t the most important thing anymore. Convenience and connectivity is. It’s sad in a way but just like I’ve said, something similar happened with music. You don’t see that many people with high-end audiophile setups. Instead, you see people on the street with crappy headphones and their phone. They don’t care that much about quality nor it is their ambition.

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