Ever since I got a taste of some of the latest compact cameras from Fuji, Sony, and Nikon, I have been thinking more and more about where we are headed in terms of cameras and lenses. What is the future of digital cameras and where will we be in 5 or even 10 years? This question came up in my conversation with a fellow photographer, so after discussing this topic for a little while, I decided to put some of my thoughts together and come up with what I think the future of digital cameras will be like.
Before Panasonic invented the first “mirrorless” interchangeable lens camera back in 2008, we only had three primary categories in the market: point and shoot cameras with fixed lenses, film or digital SLR cameras with interchangeable lenses, and other specialized cameras – three primary categories separated mostly by price and features. Then came the mirrorless. The first interchangeable lens cameras did not receive as much attention initially, because most people were rather skeptical of the new product breed. With point and shoot cameras varying in size and capabilities, even having SLR-like features with “bridge cameras”, it just felt like we did not need another camera category.
But as the product continued to advance and mature, more and more photographers started to realize and embrace the benefits of a compact system. Less bulk and heft with near-DSLR image quality. In a relatively short period of time, interest in such a system spiked up. The mirrorless market showed tremendous growth and those who were in it were rapidly gaining market share, according to market research from respected research organizations. Seeing this as a potential loss of opportunity, Sony and then eventually Nikon also entered the market with their own mirrorless offerings, and Canon is rumored to release a mirrorless camera system later in 2012. Clearly, the mirrorless market is set for a lot more growth going forward and eventually will surpass the DSLR market share globally in my opinion (it already has in Japan as of 2011).
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The Evolution of Smartphones as Digital Cameras
Simultaneously, we were introduced with high-quality compact cameras in smartphones that also pack photo editing tools and other goodies; but most importantly, they are connected to the Internet. With social media taking over a big chunk of the Internet (with Facebook surpassing Google in traffic), it is very convenient to have a smartphone that can take pictures that one can instantly share with friends and family. Why buy a compact point and shoot camera that makes average pictures, if our phones can do more or less the same? Convenience clearly wins and the compact point-and-shoot market is slowly starting to disappear.
Digital camera sensor technology has significantly improved and advanced during the last 5-7 years. Image quality from a cheap camera today looks better than from the most expensive and advanced cameras with bigger sensors that are now antiquated. This has to do with a combination of factors – not only are we much better at manufacturing high-quality sensors with tiny pixels, but we are also much better at tweaking the output from those sensors. Sensor resolution has also significantly increased. My first Kodak DC-50 digital camera had a 756×504 resolution sensor and it was a beast. Today, my iPhone takes better pictures than that and it is about 20 times smaller in size! Hence, the size of the pixel relative to the size of the sensor will continue to get smaller and smaller, while image quality will continue to get better.
We see an interesting trend today – smartphones are taking over the point and shoot market, while it seems that mirrorless will naturally be taking over the DSLR market as well. With the world being more connected than ever, I strongly believe that it is a matter of time before point and shoot cameras with small sensors completely disappear. Nokia is already using a 41-megapixel camera in their Nokia 808 PureView cell phone, so we will surely be seeing more smartphones in the future that will compete head-to-head with point and shoot cameras. Computing is quickly transitioning to smaller, thinner, and slimmer hardware through tablets, so we already know that the future is with smaller and more capable devices. And if you really want to step into the future, check out Google’s Project Glass.
What about the mirrorless though?
DSLR is Here to Stay
Will DSLRs be soon replaced by mirrorless cameras? I believe that we will see a big shift in camera technology within the next 5 years. I am confident that mirrorless will take a significant share away from the DSLR market. It is a natural progression considering Moore’s Law. Once mirrorless cameras get better in autofocus, EVF, processing power, battery life, shutter lag, and have more in-camera features, most people will be choosing them over DSLRs – for weight and bulk reasons alone. Does it mean that it will be the end of DSLRs? No, I believe DSLRs are here to stay for a very long time. Let me explain.
Ever since the Nikon D800 came out, a lot of photographers have been dubbing it as a “medium format killer”. While the D800 is truly a revolutionary camera as I have pointed out in my Nikon D800 Review, it will never be a medium format camera. And while it will probably hurt the sales of medium format cameras in the short term, it certainly won’t kill the MF market. Not even close. If you have ever shot a medium format camera before, you already know where I am going with this. From simple physics (physical sensor size, diffraction, depth of field, etc) to resolution, image quality, color depth, and dynamic range, a larger sensor will always have an advantage over a smaller sensor. Wouldn’t you agree that if you took the D800 sensor and more than doubled its sensor size, it would make a phenomenal medium format camera? Pretty soon we will see some very high-resolution MF sensors, so again, it is just a matter of time.
Mirrorless cameras are built to be compact and they cannot quite compete with DSLRs in terms of sensor size, just like DSLRs cannot compete with MF. We might see a full-frame mirrorless at some point in the future, but that would make it far from being compact. The camera body might be smaller due to the lack of a mirror and pentaprism, but lenses will still have to be big to accommodate a large sensor, making such a system tough to balance and handle. And by the way, I do not put the Leica M9 in the same “mirrorless full-frame” camera category as above, since it is a rangefinder with no autofocus capability and its price point is very high, putting it in a “specialized” category instead.
In addition, we should not forget about the advantages of DSLR cameras for specific situations such as sports and wildlife photography, where high ISO performance and autofocus speed/accuracy are critical. I just don’t see manufacturers making compact 600mm lenses anytime soon that can focus as fast as current professional lenses. I am not saying that it won’t ever happen, but it will take us a long time to get there.
Lastly, DSLR cameras do not have to die. Just like medium format coexists with full-frame, I believe mirrorless will coexist with DSLR. Think of it as a compact car and a 4×4 truck – both have their uses.
Mirrorless as Primary Camera
As I have said above, I believe mirrorless cameras will dominate the digital camera market in the future. Most typical consumers will choose mirrorless for weight, size, and better in-camera technology factors, while others will continue to shoot with DSLR and Medium Format cameras or shoot with both. In a way, it is already happening. Many pros have either settled on a compact everyday mirrorless camera or are in an active search for one. I am personally still shopping for a good system to fit my needs. Why do we want mirrorless cameras? Because too much is happening in our everyday lives and carrying a large, heavy, and expensive camera in a backpack all day long, which causes back, neck, and other injuries is not turning out to be a very pleasant experience. I find myself often leaving my DSLR at home for this very reason.
So why not have a lightweight mirrorless camera that I can take with me everywhere? It would become my primary photography tool, while I would still rely on my DSLR camera for serious, commercial, and demanding work.
With the Internet affecting our everyday lives, the integration of everything around us will become a necessary evil. In the next five or more years, I expect many digital cameras, whether mirrorless or DSLR to have the ability to share photographs over wireless networks. Nikon’s recently announced D3200 can share photos with another device via a wireless adapter, so I suspect these kinds of connectivity options will soon become standard among manufacturers.
What do you think about the future of digital cameras? Do you agree with me, or do you have another perspective on the subject?
I certainly hope that there is a future for Compact Point-And-Shoot Cameras
Nowadays I prefer a compact mirrorless APS camera as the A6500. Side EV, tilt screen, integrated flash, IBIS, touch-screen, fast and versatil PDAF, good stills and very good 4K video, but I´d like more compact and less expensive APS lenses. I tried the Lumix MFT GX-9 but its slow and hunting AF with action subjects and lower still and video quality disappointed me.
Some years ago I predicted a way for the APS mirrorless cameras in the mid-low zone, and the FF DSLR for pro users staying his expensive lenses, but SONY fitted with shoehorn the A7, and then Nikon and Canon…
Take your heads out of the sand guys; DSLRs are in the agonies of a slow death; they are becoming technological dinosaurs. Kodak was slow to accept change – gone, gone, gone.
You want medium format? Try Fuji (rumoured to be upgrading their present 50mg sensor to a 100 mgs), or Hasselblad’s medium format mirrorless.
We are in the technological age!
I think the last business I would want to own is a retail camera shop selling DSLR, medium format, full frame or ANY type of camera beause I believe phones will have it all in the not too distant future. They are compact, fast, and easy to use for the quickie non trained or wanting to learn “photographer”. We are living in a quickie/instant world and all of us old fogies from the last century had better adapt to it or miss the train .
Panasonic did not invent the mirrorless camera.
Great article Nasim,I am a mirrorless user but this article is an nice insight of the various format. I have one question though, you said “We might see a full-frame mirrorless at some point in the future”…
But isn’t Sony A7RII is a full frame mirrorless Camera?
Ah – i see this is an old article ? i got confused by the last updated date.
The cell phone, these days, are my primary go-to for picture taking…even when it come to garden photography at our local park. Why? Well it’s the only thing in my pocket at the time and for that range, it is perfect. I use a Windows phone with the Carl Zeiss optics and it is magnificent. I have an SLR (OMD EM5), but I chose this because of it’s compact features as well. If I’m going to an event and intend to take full blown quality photos, I will take the DSLR, but the I would say the smart phone has taken away significant shares in the camera market on it’s own. Especially, with the somewhat underground add-on lens scene for iPhones and Androids.
I’ve been expecting a mirrorless digital ’35mm’ for almost ten years. I absolutely agree about the sensor size. I cringe when I look at anything but snapshots shot with my iPad or someone’s phone.
SLRS were ‘obsolete’ for their entire history. The lag time caused by the mirror, made the “Decisive Moment” nearly impossible, the light loss of the mirror/penta-prism further interfered with shooting, and the added weight of the mirror, larger lenses, prism…. well, I put up with it, but I haven’t replaced my D2X because there’s no longer any reason to put up with dead optical technology.
Three points. Shutter lag, Rangefinders are fast and lens size.
1. Shutter Lag. The Nikon DX and the 2DX were the first SLRs with almost no shutter lag, almost as good as the old rangefinders, like Liecas, or the Cannonet 35mms I’d buy for $80 in the 70s. Losing that mirror solves a lot of problems. When I shot the DX I noticed I could capture fleeting facial expressions that I never could with all the film SLRs I’d used for years. I was angry with myself that I hadn’t been using a Leica for all those years.
2. As an assistant in the late 70s; my photographer boss, had the NIkon SLR and I had the Cannonet rangefinder-I could frame, focus and shoot faster every time. A ‘3rd Gen’ camera would have live view for the precision framing of an SLR, and an offset viewfinder for most uses framing. (Live view is still too dim for daylight. Nothing is faster than looking. A viewfinder can show you the rough cropping angles of the particular lens. I can swing a blank box as well as anybody, framing without looking through a frame can not be effectively learned, not with multiple focal lengths. You still need something to look through.)
2. Losing the huge penta-prism accomplishes several things, Cuts down on weight, size and the need for complex Retro-focus lens designs on anything shorter than 50mm (a 20mm f2 lens for 35mm film is actually tiny and in expensive, unless you need to swing a huge mirror behind it. Then it has to become bigger, optically tricky, so it can focus at 50mm.
I’m still waiting for the ‘3rd Gen’ camera that will do what I want. As someone who shot 35mm, 6×7, 4×5 and 8×10 for 30+ years, bigger sensors are needed. Maybe not 4×5, but 6×7 would be nice. A photo shot through a scratched uncoated lens, with a chip in it, on an 8×10 will still have a better texture, feel and quality than the best small sensor digital. I can’t bring myself to buy another DSLR. Thanks for your blog.
I don’t think DSLR is here to stay. It became obsolete the day Sony A7 was announced. The only “true” way of composing your image is looking through the sensor. Similarly, on-sensor PDAF is philosophically the “right” way to do it. Of course there’s some inertia with many people being heavily invested in Canikon glass, therefore it will take some time until this breed “dies out” (not meant to be rude). Canikon systems are tried and tested and reliable and there’s no incentive for invested people to abandon them. But this will gradually change in favor of full-frame mirrorless cameras. P&S are doomed because of smartphones and current “crop” mirrorless might occupy a certain well-developed niche as a lightweight alternative pro or enthusiast system. What I’m trying to say is – mirrorless will rule one way or the other but we don’t know for certain which sensor size will become the norm.
Great responses but I would disagree with the comments that the camera phones will be better than point & shoot digital cameras. In its current configuration there is no way to get even a 4x optical zoom in a phone. Think of a camera phone as a Kodak Instamatic on steroids. And then buya real camera.
Samsung is engaged in using one of the cleverest marketing ploys around to sell the coming Samsung Galaxy camera. They are using the darling five-year old girl artist, Aelita.
Samsung combines the world-wide recognition of the artist with the camera as another way to create art, with in-camera processing, then instant connectivity.
For the Samsung Galaxy Camera
Published on Sep 25, 2012 by samsungimaging
A little artist, Aelita
Little artist, Aelita Andre and the Samsung Galaxy camera prove that brilliance comes in small packages. Five-year-old Aelita’s colorful paintings have been exhibited around the world since she was two. Now she wants to try photography. Watch out for our next video to see how she’s come to fall in love with taking pictures.