My Reaction To Trey Ratcliff’s “DSLRs Are A Dying Breed”

If you haven’t read Trey Ratcliff’s post, “DSLRs Are A Dying Breed–3rd Gen Cameras Are The Future”, you should either do so now or skip this post. I’ve had several friends and colleagues ask for my reaction to Trey’s post, since I’m the local photography nerd they know, so I thought I’d write down my thoughts and point people here.

The short version of my response is that Trey isn’t really saying anything surprising or new, as far as I can tell. There’s plenty to take issue with if you get into the details of the post, but the idea that cameras are getting better, smaller and faster than previous models and designs is completely obvious to anyone who’s paid even moderate attention to the field. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, my reaction consists of points that are also not new. (Main points in bold below for the tl;dr crowd.)

New Nikon

Whither DSLRs?

I think that a lot of the internet has gotten wrapped up in the specific statement that DSLRs are dying. First off, this is a classic attention-getter. I mean how many “xxx is dead” posts are we going to react to in this way before we learn? I suppose the answer is, “a lot more”, since they always seem to work people up.

There’s nothing magic about the form factor or technology of DSLRs in particular. Whether you focus on the mirror that reflects the view of the subject through a finder or CMOS/CCD as sensing technology, or any of a hundred other current solutions to capturing images, it’s all up for grabs in the near future. Take not only the current trend of small, mirrorless cameras, but also things on the cutting edge like the Lytro. Cameras as a whole are evolving faster now than they have in the previous few decades combined, and nothing is sacred in the medium term.

DSLRs are the evolution of SLRs from the film days. Film photographers yearned for digital cameras that worked and behaved like what they were used to, and as the incumbent market for high-end cameras, that’s what the manufacturers made. We’ve seen this form factor stretched to, and beyond, its limits in recent years. You only have to look at the crazy rigs people are coming up with to shoot pro-level video with DSLRs to realize this.

Trey’s post and the video embedded therein make the point that the industry has been moving towards solid-state image capture for a long time, and there’s no reason to argue this point. Mechanical shutter wear has long been one differentiator between a consumer- and a pro-level camera. Fewer moving parts means, at a minimum, higher reliability (user serviceability be damned).

So What’s The Fuss?

Well, like I said, the internet loves a good “xxx is dead” post. And Trey did say some things that it’s easy to get stuck on. Characterizing the current crop of mirrorless cameras as “3rd gen” cameras is a good example. There are many ways to characterize “generations” of cameras, and “3rd” doesn’t seem to be a particularly good or descriptive one to me. I don’t have a better one, but I also don’t think one is needed unless you’re looking for an argument. I mean, just look at everyone trying to find a broad yet descriptive way to talk about cameras like the Nikon 1 or Micro Four-Thirds formats: EVIL, ILC, MILC, etc. None are particularly good, but they’re what we have so far.

The other point, perhaps one of the main points of the post, is that Trey isn’t going to invest in DSLRs or related equipment anymore, and goes far enough to suggest that the reader might be smart to stop the same. I think that really depends on who you are, of course. If you’ve got a large investment in expensive, high-quality Nikon or Canon or whatever glass that mounts on an SLR, should you not get a Nikon D4 if your work justifies the cost simply because there’s a new class of camera in town? Of course not.

Trey follows up his post with reactions and this point: “If you (gentle reader) agree that you won’t be using a mechanical mirror-flipping device in the future, then we are in agreement. We may disagree on the rate-of-death – but that is all.” There we are. I agree that technology is moving forward quickly, but disagree, as he suggests anyone might, with the notion that DSLRs will be dead, or even largely dead, in five years, but time will obviously tell.

Cameras today are more like computers, and our consumption of them has changed to more closely resemble how we buy computers. No longer does someone buy a digital camera and really expect to be using it for more than a handful of years, at most. Compare that to classic film cameras, which are in some cases, still highly-sought after 50 years after they were new. One rule I follow when someone asks me about whether they should buy a new computer, whatever model it might be, or wait for the next great thing that’s surely around the corner, is to tell them that they’re better off buying what they need now. It’s just too hard to predict what will or won’t happen, so plan for now. I think cameras have been heading that way for awhile, and barring a photography show like Photokina being around the corner, I give mostly the same advice for people asking my opinion about purchasing one versus waiting. Buy what you need now, and start making images.

Would I suggest someone new to the field invest in a DSLR? I’d have to drill down further. Are they serious about photography? Do they have the budget/stomach for things to change drastically in the next 5-10 years? What kind of shooting are they looking to do. In my opinion, there are plenty of combinations of questions and answers that still lead to a “yes, you should invest in a DSLR-based system” for now.

Nikon 1 V1

As I’m sure anyone who knows me already knows, I shoot with a DSLR, but have been a big fan of compact cameras for some time, having owned several Canon G-series cameras, Micro Four-Thirds cameras, and most recently the Nikon V1. I think that there’s room for both in the bags of any photographer who wants to always have a camera on him, but also wants the best tool for the job.

That’s what this comes down to, as many debates in photography around format or brand do: Cameras are tools. Pick the ones that do the job you need done best. If that’s a DSLR, I think they’ll still be around for quite some time. And even if they aren’t, the image they create is what matters, and as long as your new Nikon D4 is making the images you want, more power to you.