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. 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 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, 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?