Alright alright, I suppose that I too will write down a few of my thoughts about the DSLR vs mirrorless debate, since everyone seems to be proclaiming that historians will date the official death of the DSLR to be sometime around the release of the Nikon D6.
For the most part people seem to fall into one of two basic narratives here: One is simply that the DSLR is dead or dying, which I’ve already mentioned. And the other is that while the DSLR may have been de-throned, we shouldn’t forget that it is still a great tool that can create great photography. I wholeheartedly agree with both of these stances, since they’re both just focusing on different aspects of the same reality, but I do think that even the worst detractors are completely missing how uniquely bleak the future is for DSLRs.
I think that the DSLR camera’s sad fate is to become infinitely more irrelevant than any previous example of outdated camera technology. Prices will plunge, manufacturer support will dry up, and nobody will care. The sooner you jump ship, the better.
Because if you look back at previous technological shifts in photography — say from large format to 35mm, from rangefinder to SLR, or from SLR to DSLR — all of those were competitions between camera types that offered either completely different form-factors or a completely different sensor technology. So in each case, the newer type of camera was missing some important quality or capability that the older technology retained, and therefore people continued to use them.
These older technologies are still in use because they found some niche that kept them alive, despite being dethroned; the old technology was sufficiently different from the new technology, that people had a reason to keep it around. Take, for example, the jump from large format to 35mm: that was a process of miniaturization that sacrificed quality and flexibility of technique, for portability and ease of use. So people kept using the large format cameras because they wanted the ultimate in quality and the ability to move the lens around relative to the film plane. Similarly, the jump from rangefinders to SLRs was a move from an extremely simple, minimalist system that requires a lot of skill to operate, but rewards dedicated users with an extremely portable and intuitive camera — to a system that is larger and requires more moving parts, but offers far more capable automation, autofocusing, and metering thanks to the mirror and prism’s ability to divert the image to a dedicated sensor. And finally, the shift from film SLRs to DSLRs was a seismic shift from 20th century technology to 21st century technology — but people still keep their film cameras for the unique look that chemical processes give, and the satisfaction you get from being more hands on with the creation process.
The shift between DSLR and mirrorless, on the other hand, is different from all of these examples because both of these technologies take the exact same pictures, with the exact same sensor technology, using more or less the exact same form factor. These days, the only significant difference between mirrorless cameras and DSLRs is that mirrorless cameras are simply better at taking pictures**. People simple don’t have a single good reason to hold on to their DSLRs. There aren’t any unique features, and there won’t be any nostalgia.
The only two advantages left for DSLRs that I can think of are that A — many professional photographers still have considerable financial investments in DSLR gear, and it is very expensive for those sorts of people to switch to mirrorless, and B — the top of the line DSLRs (the Nikon D6 and the Canon 1DX MKII) are built like absolute tanks in a way that far outstrips current generation mirrorless bodies.
But it is only a matter of time before those pro photographers bite the bullet and switch over to mirrorless technologies en masse, and there is nothing stopping mirrorless camera manufacturers from creating a body that can stand up to the same abuse as the Nikon and Canon flagships. Also, that second advantage is only important for a small, elite cadre of extremely badass nature, documentary, and war photographers. So if you are not one of those, then you probably don’t need a crawl-in-the-mud-proof camera, and you can get by with just taking reasonable care of your reasonably durable mirrorless gear.
So what should you do?
Well, you should start planning your exit. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t get a DSLR under any circumstance — the DSLR’s longer history does mean that it is a lot cheaper to get gear on the used market, and also, the DSLRs that we are seeing today are actually the best DSLRs that have ever been made. You might benefit from the cost savings, and there is certainly nothing wrong with owning a DSLR because they are technological marvels. Mirrorless cameras are definitely better, but you will still be able to easily work around the limitations of DSLRs and take great pictures for some time yet to come.
But never forget that when the trapdoor falls out from under the DSLR industry, it will be a short drop and a sudden stop. Start shifting your gear buying strategy toward mirrorless as soon as you can. Any investment in DSLRs will will be quick to depreciate in value because few will want to buy your used gear, and the hipsters of 2050AD won’t save you by because your decades old DSLR won’t be the right kind of vintage.
**Justifying this particular statement will require a long article (and that will come in due time), but for now let’s summarize by saying that a mirrorless camera’s ability to process real time data from across the full surface of the same sensor that is actually taking the picture is a revolutionary improvement. It is a capability that will continually and radically change the way we take and process pictures because of all of the data that is available to the camera’s brain.