Five years ago, while I was writing for a local photo magazine, I was mostly in charge of the ‘big’ cameras – DSLRs and the like. There was no mirrorless category, with the exception of Leica; compacts meant serious image quality or lens quality compromises, and every serious photographer was typically also on first name terms with their chiropractor. You could still get film with relative ease, and better still, develop it. Not long ago, my desk had three cameras for review/ testing on it (the Olympus E-P5, Leica X Vario and Sigma DP3M – none of them were DSLRs. I now routinely travel without one; in fact, most of the time I do a lot of personal photography with compacts. And pretty much the only time my D800E comes out is when I’ve got a commercial job to shoot.
How things change.
This may or may not come as a shock, but I’m predicting the slow death of the DSLR has already begun; firstly, quality of smaller systems has caught up; technology is mature enough that there are few, if any, compromises involved in using a mirrorless camera. If my OM-D had phase detect AF and a few more pixels, I’d probably be using that exclusively for my professional work – in many ways, it’s more flexible than the D800E, and for 99% of intended end use, there isn’t enough difference in image quality. It’s not just me, either: a lot of my other pro friends are either using the heavy gear (including medium format) solely for work, and anything personal is whatever fits into a pocket.
The last few bastions held by the DSLR form factor are being slowly overrun: like image quality, EVF quality has passed ‘good enough’ and is well into the realm of very good to excellent, especially with the new Olympus VF-4; it’s so good that I prefer it to any of the non-full frame DSLR optical finders, and that’s before we even think about other advantages like MF enlargement, focus peaking, highlight overexposure warnings and data overlays, or the ability to set things without taking your eye from the finder. Oh, and there’s also the ability to shoot from waist level by swivelling the finders. Full frame optical finders frankly appear to be the victim of severe cost cutting, even at the pro end of the market; the D4 is nowhere near as good as my F6, and let’s not even talk about the Hasselblad’s 6×6 prism finder – now THAT’s live view.
What else remains? Ergonomics, I suppose – even that’s being improved to the point that it’s hard to argue that the larger cameras are more comfortable to carry. My one minor complaint with the OM-D is that it’s tough to use with gloves, but a slight redesign of the buttons would solve that. No such problems with the Ricoh GR or Coolpix A. The elephant in the room is legacy lenses: it’s tough for a DSLR owner to give up his glass collection, because a similar depth of offerings simply does not exist in other smaller formats. Even the most mature of the mirrorless formats – Leica M and M4/3 – both lack any sort of perspective correction lenses, other than using a DSLR lens with a tilt or shift adaptor; there are no native solutions despite them being ideally suited to this kind of work because of live view. And this is a complete non-argument for most of the user base anyway, who have no more than perhaps the kit lens and a fast 50, or no lenses due to upgrading from a compact. In fact, it dawned on me today that I haven’t bought a new lens for my DSLR in over a year: for me, this is unprecedented. But I did add several mirrorless lenses this year alone – the Panasonic 14-42 X pancake, the Olympus 75/1.8 and the Leica 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH.
Part of the reason for this is that the matched lens-sensor pairings in the large-sensor compacts are so good, it’s difficult to match them with anything for a DSLR; the optics on the Sigma DP series, Ricoh GR and Coolpix A are at least on the level of the very best DSLR optics, and perhaps even slightly better – simply because the lenses were designed to match the sensors. And the reality is that it’s much easier and more compact to carry two DPs than a DSLR and pair of primes, or as I do, a Ricoh GR, OM-D and two lenses – all of this takes up less volume in a bag than a D800 and one moderately-sized fast prime. Even this assumes that you care enough about image quality to not just use a M4/3 camera and kit or pancake zoom in the first place; as the baseline for sensor and lens quality rises, fewer and fewer people will feel the need to get any more serious. I’m pretty particular about my pixels, and I’m already at the point where I feel I’m getting enough quality for most uses without having to resort to the big guns*. Perhaps Leica was on to something with the X Vario after all.
*But admittedly I do have the Hasselblad and digital back for those situations.
There’s another reason DSLRs are in their twilight, and one slightly more insidious than any of the photographic reasons we’ve discussed above: mirrorless is simply much simpler – and therefore cheaper – to produce, and this of course translates into much better profit margins for manufacturers. Once the camera companies run out of natural evolutionary upgrades – more pixels, more ISO, more fps – all of the things that marketing people can easily hock – we’re going to see forced changes to survive; hopefully with some innovation rolled in. It will be painful, but necessary to move away from legacy lens systems; it’s clear that new lenses designed for digital significantly outperform legacy optics anyway – even Zeiss is redesigning its F and EF mount lenses to deal with increased resolution and corner demands. And these are not small or cheap lenses, either – the forthcoming 55/1.4 is about the same size as a 24-70/2.8! By comparison, even the poorest performers in the M4/3 lineup are pretty excellent by DSLR standards. Full frame mirrorless, anybody?
Put it another way: even the most complex of the mirrorless cameras – the OM-D with it’s 5-axis stabilisation system suspending the sensor – it’s still significantly simpler than the mirror and viewfinder assemblies required for even the cheapest DSLR. I was told by one of the manufacturers that a mirrorless camera has approximately 60-70% fewer parts than a DSLR, and can be produced in significantly less time. Having stripped several Sony NEX-5s for multispectral conversion, I can attest to that: I can strip, remove the UVIR filter pack and reassemble in about fifteen minutes. I tried to do the same to a Nikon D50 once: it took me three hours the second time, partially because of the number of parts, partially because of the testing required during reassembly.
I think perhaps the most interesting consequence out of all of this is that few will notice or mourn the passing of perhaps the most significant era in photography; over time, there will be a decent number of these cameras that survive simply because there were so many produced to begin with; however, unlike mechanical cameras, over time, these may well prove to be unserviceable. Already first-generation D1s are mostly paperweights because of failing batteries or unrepairable IC errors. We’ll see a much more fragmented, niche market – unlike the end of the film era; there are a lot fewer physical/ mechanical constraints with the design of digital cameras. I might not miss my D800E specifically, but whenever I feel like peering through an enormous viewfinder, there’s always the Titan. MT
Cameras mentioned in this post are reviewed and available from the various sources below:
Nikon Coolpix A – review B&H Amazon
Ricoh GR** (Digital V) – review B&H Amazon
Sigma DP1M (B&H, Amazon); DP2M (B&H, Amazon), DP3M (review, B&H, Amazon).
Leica X Vario (Typ 107) – review B&H Amazon.
Olympus OM-D** – review B&H Amazon
Olympus E-P5 – review B&H Amazon
Nikon D800E** – review B&H Amazon
One last seat has opened up for the Prague workshop (2-5 Oct) due to a participant’s conflicting work commitments. Now available at the special price of $1,900 instead of $2,150!For full details and to make a booking, click here. Thanks! MT
Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved