Are DSLR’s going the way of the Dodo?

Trey Ratcliff of “Stuck in Customs” fame made a pretty bold statement today:  The DSLR is as dead as the dodo and he’s not going to invest in any more DSLR bodies or lenses.  Considering who Trey is and what he does and that we are said to be only a couple of days away from a big new announcement from Nikon (probably a D800 and maybe a D4), that is a pretty big statement.  For the record, I have tremendous respect for Trey – he is a terrific photographer, I appreciate his craft with HDR, he is clearly an extremely intelligent guy and appears to be a really nice person as well, so I’m not throwing stones.

Anyway, Trey is asserting that in as few as two years that mirrorless cameras will displace DSLRs and make them as obsolete as a horse and buggy.  I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with Trey, so I thought I’d lay out my thoughts.  Let’s start with the disagreements:

  • You shouldn’t buy a new DSLR body: I’m only sort of disagreeing here, and to be fair Trey isn’t saying you shouldn’t buy a new body, he’s saying he won’t buy another one.  Trey is a leader in our little world, though, and a throng of people will follow him just like they do on a photowalk.  Reading the comments on the article, some of those followers are genuinely wondering what they should do.  There isn’t really a wrong answer.  I think many people are tempted by the latest body well before they get all the juice out of the tool already in their hands.  I also have friends with well-worn D300’s who will upgrade to the next pro-DX camera (presumably the D400) as soon as it comes out as much because it is time to replace the beater as anything. Generally speaking, body investment seem to follow the lenses, not the other way around.  The kind of sea-change Trey envisions will necessitate that a lot of people will have to invest in a whole new set of “3rd Gen” cameras (his term for mirrorless, which I actually like a lot), and I just don’t see that happening for the bulk of the market.  Photographers buying their first serious interchangeable-lens system will consider it (and probably buy it) and high end photographers who aren’t limited by budget will do it if the quality is there.  That leaves out the big, fat middle of the market place where all the volume is – and volume is what makes the market.  I’m not trying to talk anyone into buying a new body, but I’m also not *quite* ready to declare it a bad investment, either.
  • You shouldn’t buy DSLR lenses:  One of the key things that makes a Nikon 1 attractive to me is the FT1, an adapter that would let me use my current Nikon lenses on this new class of camera.  If this adapter allows you to get high quality photographs using the existing lenses, why not own them now and get the benefit?  Lenses generally hold their value a lot better than bodies, and if the compatibility story is good on mirrorless/3rd Gen I think the impact on lenses will be minimal.  Add to it that the crop factor gives some of these lenses a really fun “reach” – the 2.7x crop factor offers a 200mm lens an effective 540mm field of view!  As a zoom guy, that sounds awfully fun!  (Have a look at the fun photo Andy from Nikonandye put up on FMForums – a Nikon 1 with an effective 6,480mm!)
  • Small size is a good thing:  Trey seems to say that lugging a big camera around and looking like a pro is a bad thing.  I know Steve Huff would agree.  I’m not saying I love a big camera or huge, heavy lenses, either.  But I don’t like how many of the smaller cameras fit in my hands, and I think some weight is a good thing when trying to steady a camera.  In fact, maybe my technique is just whack, but I think I’d have an easier time getting steady hand-held with my front-heavy 80-200 mounted on my D90 vs. the same lens on a D3s.  The heavier the load at the back from the body, the harder it is to get steady (at least it seems that way for me).  So I’m not completely sold on the super-small form factor of the Nikon 1 series, but I do think mirrorless will offer much greater freedom for camera designers to create cameras that are more natural to hold.  They might wind up looking a lot different…
  • Mirrorless will replace DSLR’s in two years:  When I’m not out being an Enthusiast Photographer, I work in the technology industry, and have watched a lot of technology fade into oblivion.  Here’s the problem:  it never fades as fast as anyone thinks.  There is so much investment on the side of the industry and their customers that it takes forever to finally kill anything.  Look how long the floppy disk lasted! For that matter, look at the computer you’re using to read this blog – does it have a CD or DVD drive in it?  When was the last time you used it?  I’ve seen lots of people say that optical is dead and is going away in the face of huge USB drives and streaming content.  But just ask the CEO of Netflix what his opinion is today verses when he made the Qwikster announcement…  Optical drives are going to die, but it is going to take a few more years.  Heck, two years ago there were experts predicting it would be gone already.  The super thin, light, more expensive PC’s have started to go without them, and it will trickle down through the industry.  But not for a while.  I’ll say two years.  🙂

On top of all that, the industry has a franchise to protect.  The whole stratification of DSLR families between consumer, prosumer and pro cameras (and lots of shades of grey…) and the lenses, etc. that support a huge revenue stream and represent a massive investment from the Nikon’s and Canon’s of the world won’t change that quickly – they can’t afford it.  So my opinion is you’ll see it push from the bottom and the top and trickle.  The companies will milk their cash cow DSLR revenues while figuring out how to still make pro mirrorless platforms that produce the revenue and profits they are used to from those segments – and that won’t be easy as you get to the prosumer and pro platforms.  Who is going to pay D3X money for a mirrorless?

I’d like to introduce Trey to Andy E., who writes the Nikonandeye blog.  Andy has a massive array of Nikon lenses and I believe he owns every Nikon DSLR ever made. He’s an interesting cat.  He’s written up his experience with the Nikon 1 system on his blog, and participated in some interesting threads on Fredmiranda, including using the FT1 (his photo of the Nikon 1200mm with the tc301 and the V1 for an effective 6480mm is pretty humorous).  Some of his recent discussions have compared the Nikon 1’s to his D3X, which is Trey’s baby, so I’d bet the two of them in the same room would be fascinating, and to get them out shooting together would be a lot of fun.

At the end of the day, I don’t think Trey is wrong.  I agree that there are lots of advantages mirrorless offers – smaller bodies and lenses, sharper images, more design flexibility, less moving parts which hopefully means reliability among other benefits.  It is definitely the heir-apparent technology, indeed the “3rd Generation”.  But much like it took a while for the early automobiles to figure out how to be a mass market product (not to mention a good one…) and fully displace the horse and buggy, I’m not willing to declare the DSLR dead quite yet.  He’s a leader, and he’ll adopt early.  It will just take a while for 3rd Gen to kill the DSLR.

When it is gone, I doubt we’ll mourn it any more than we do the floppy disk or the wooden carriages of yore.

What do you think?  Does the rise of mirrorless make you think twice about buying any more DSLR equipment?  Do you crave a small camera with high quality or do you like a camera that “fills your hands”?