The announcement of Nikon’s D6 stirred a big debate all over the Internet. The comparison between DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras have been beaten to pulp already. In this article, I don’t intend to predict the distant future. Rather, this article focuses on how things are right now and how they are likely to be for the next couple of years.
Threats to the DSLR Market
At one corner of the photography market, smartphones have already taken a big chunk of the sales pie from entry level DSLRs. Nasim has a detailed article on it.
On another end, a number of video shooters have already moved to the Mirrorless market for the seamless AF, electronic viewfinder, and (often) more advanced video features in the first place.
Landscape and portrait photographers are moving a bit more slowly toward mirrorless, but it’s certainly happening. The advent of high-quality lightweight lenses (great for landscapes) and seamless Eye-AF on many mirrorless cameras (great for portraits) are two of the driving forces. Not to mention the ability to adapt lenses, with features like in-viewfinder focus peaking and magnification that breathe life into older, manual focus glass.
When all seems to be lost for the DSLR market, who is going to stay with the “old reliable” cameras the longest?
The Sports/Action/Wildlife Photographer
The answer lies with photographers who shoot fast action, especially sports and wildlife shooters. In this market, I believe DSLRs will not just retain their current customers, but add new members to their ecosystem, at least for the next 3-5 years. In fact, this is the very reason behind the whole debate since the D6 announcement.
As of now, I shoot wildlife with a Nikon D750 coupled with the Nikkor 200-500 f/5.6 lens. Knowing the limitations of the 200-500 with AF speed, I am not even thinking of mounting it on top of an FTZ adapter. There is not going to be any change in AF accuracy, but I know that there certainly will be a further lag, as well as potentially worse tracking capabilities. I would be the last person to slow down a lens that is already fairly slow for birds in flight and other unpredictable action.
That’s not even talking about the mechanical side of things. I have a friend who uses a Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 lens extensively with a 2x teleconverter. He certainly would not mount his 300mm f/2.8 on a 2x teleconverter which in turn is mounted on top of the FTZ adapter. That’s a lot of points of failure, even on top of the slower autofocus concerns I just mentioned.
Why Action Photographers Will Stick to DSLRs – at Least for a While
Even if mirrorless cameras provided significant improvements for action photography – which I am not convinced they do at the moment – sports and wildlife photographers would still be likely to stick with DSLRs for a while.
Why is that? Simple. They own the most expensive of lenses, and they’re heavily invested in the DSLR ecosystem already. Think of the Sony A9, the best full-frame mirrorless camera on the market today for sports photographers. Sony has been in the mirrorless market more than most others, for about 5 years. How many wildlife lenses do Sony have today? two zooms (100-400 & 200-600) and two primes (400mm f/2.8 and 600mm f/4). That’s hardly bad, but the options for Nikon and Canon DSLR shooters are simply far more extensive.
Looking at the future roadmaps and rumored lenses for Nikon and Canon mirrorless, we don’t see a particularly different trend. For now, the cameras with the greatest native lineup of telephoto lenses are DSLRs.
Personally, I’m a Nikon shooter. Until the day comes when native Z-Mount telephoto lenses equal or possibly exceed the F-Mount counterparts, I’m not going to switch. I think many others are in the same boat, and that alone is enough to forestall the death of DSLRs. As of today, if I am a sports/wildlife photographer, I would prefer to buy a D850 rather than a Z7 every time.
There are other benefits beside lenses, too. For sports/wildlife shooters, autofocus speed and tracking capabilities matter more than the actual sharpness of the lens. Mirrorless cameras are improving in this regard, but they haven’t caught up yet to DSLRs at a given price.
On top of that, with sports/wildlife photographers, the smaller and lighter camera bodies of a mirrorless system are arguably a disadvantage. A lot of wildlife photographers invest in a battery grip to counter-balance the weight of their front-heavy lenses. There’s no doubt that a D5 or a D850 with a battery grip feels more balanced with a 600mm prime compared to something like the Z7.
The Nikon D4, D5 and the Canon 1DX bodies are also built like tanks. The reason being, a camera body in the hands of a pro sports photographer often have to endure a lot of abuse, and the same is true for many wildlife photographers. Can today’s mirrorless systems (not just the cameras, but the lenses as well) take so much abuse? In my view, that remains an open question.
There are some more minor benefits, too. Wildlife photographers have to dismount their lenses frequently in the field, whether to add/remove a teleconverter or simply swap lenses. In dusty environments, it’s nice to have the DSLR’s mirror to shield the sensor, at least at a certain level. That’s not the case with mirrorless (though the Canon EOS R, with its auto-closing shutter curtain, shows that camera manufacturers at least acknowledge this is a potential issue).
Last but not the least, AF performance. I am certain Nikon’s Z-system and Canon’s R & RP systems are going to take at least a few more years to get where Sony’s A7RIV or A9 are today. But as of today the AF on the D5 and 1DX are among the best available on the market, and certainly Nikon and Canon’s best. This is one reason why I’m sure there will still be a lot of people buying the D6; it will almost certainly have better AF performance than the D5, let alone the Z cameras that have been released so far. And sure, the D6 is at is the highest end of the pro market, but it’s also true that its autofocus capabilities are more likely to trickle down to Nikon’s DSLRs more than its mirrorless cameras over time.
The Ecosystem Problem
There’s a reason why Nikon has kept the F mount around for 60 years at this point. Most professional Nikon photographers have an army of F-Mount lenses. Unless and until someone convinces them that a new ecosystem is much better, they’re not going to part with their existing setup. I am not saying people will stick to DSLRs till eternity, but most of us will need some serious thought and time before taking the jump.
And even when the time comes that mirrorless cameras have an equal arsenal of supertelephotos, I still don’t think DSLRs will be completely dead. Photographers won’t just throw away their F-Mount lenses or let them collect dust. They are going to sell them, and as days go on, they will be selling them for a lot cheaper. This will make enthusiasts go for such lenses, and a lot of them would possibly buy new DSLR bodies to complement them. Even as the mirrorless ecosystem grows, it does not mean the DSLR ecosystem has to shrink proportionally.
Will DSLRs Face the Same Fate as Film?
During the film era, the cost involved in simply seeing a proof of your photographs was quite high. Digital – and all that came with it – represented a huge leap. Exponential rather than linear.
The gap between DSLR and Mirrorless is not that significant, at least as of today. As popular as the “DSLRs are going the way of film” comment may be, it’s just not a fair comparison. Sure, mirrorless is taking over, but it will take considerably longer for DSLRs to go obsolete – and for 99% of pro photographers to make the switch – than it did with film.
This article was never intended to be a DSLR Vs Mirrorless comparison, since we already have an extensive and in-depth article like that on Photography Life already. Instead, the scope of this article is to give an idea of how things stand at this point in time – and to suggest that the answer to the title question “Is the DSLR Market Dead Already” is not just no, but that it may even be growing in certain areas of photography, like sports and wildlife.
What are your thoughts on this? Please use the comments section below if you want to share your views.