Have smartphones killed the SLR?

Summary:SLR cameras have been the top choice of camera buffs for years. But has the ease, quality and convenience of smartphone cameras taken over?

Jason Perlow

Jason Perlow

Yes

or

No

Michael Krigsman

Michael Krigsman

Best Argument: No

15%
85%

Audience Favored: No (85%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

Mobility rules

As the old photographer's adage goes, the best camera is the one that you always have with you.

Since its invention in the late 1950's, the Single Lens Reflex (SLR) pentaprism camera has been the workhorse of the professional photography industry due to its ability to accurately reproduce the view of the lens through the eyepiece as well as for its changeable lens design.

In the early 1990s the SLR got a digital upgrade from its 35mm roots by replacing the mechanical film system with a digitizer back.

Since then, the DSLR has evolved to become the platform of choice for many pros and prosumers as developments in digital photography have also improved with each successive generation, such as pixel density and sensor size, faster autofocus motors, stabilized lenses and more advanced signal processing chips, as well as the ability to shoot video.

However, the introduction of the smartphone has exposed a huge weakness in the DSLR's armor, and that is convenience and size in a world that has prized mobility over everything else.

It has already decimated the point-and-shoot digital camera market as well as the digital camcorder, and in doing so has forced the DSLR to evolve into the "Mirrorless" professional camera, losing its pentaprism for a pure digital viewfinder in order to reduce the size of the camera body and make it more appealing to prosumers.

While there will always almost certainly be a niche market for professional grade cameras for specific applications and works of significant artistic merit, the DSLR's bread and butter market -- the consumer, the prosumer and photography enthusiast -- no longer needs or even wants to carry these beasts anymore.

They already carry powerful smartphones which are increasingly adopting more advanced camera technology originally pioneered in the DSLR. 

DSLRs are still going strong

The simple answer is, “No, digital cameras of all sorts are going strong.” According to BusinessWeek, sales of DSLRs are rising, even though smartphones have caused point and shoot cameras to decline. Although smartphones are an acceptable substitute for point and shoots, DSLRs are another story altogether.

As photography becomes more popular, the limitations of smartphones become increasingly evident. Sure, smartphones are convenient, because they are always at our side, but these devices are awkward to use, offer poor image quality, and just don’t present the same photographic experience as real cameras.

Mobile phones let us document events and take ugly snapshots of our environment. However, most people want a real camera to create images that will withstand the test of time. This is particularly true when speed is required, like sports (and children) or for snapping photos at night.

When image quality matters, which it usually does, use a real camera and leave the smartphone for making calls.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Time for this week's debate to begin

    Are you ready?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    All set

    Beware, I've done by homework.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Me too

    Let's get started.

    Michael Krigsman

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Important differences

    Let's start by talking about the DSLR. A lot of people probably don't realize that a DSLR may look just like a traditional film camera but there are some important differences between the two. Can you highlight some of the most important ones to help our audience better understand digital photography in general.

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Film

    Obviously a film camera has significant mechanical baggage associated with it to deal with the 35mm cartridge and frame advance, there's a battery life penalty with that and with film you're limited in the number of exposures you can shoot.

    A digital camera, by definition, doesn't use film to capture the exposure at all, it uses a sensor that captures the light that comes through the lens, and it stores those images as digitally compressed files (.JPG) on replaceable memory cards.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Cost and convenience

    DSLRs are very much like traditional cameras, except it captures images on an electronic sensor instead of film. In fact, the basic elements of photography – exposure and composition – are very much the same between traditional and digital photography.

    Despite these basic similarities, however, important differences account for the popularity of digital photography and the rapid decline of film. Lower cost and greater convenience are the primary advantages of digital photography over film. Since digital replaces film entirely, there is no cost for consumables, like the film itself, or for development. Gone are the days where you buy film, load the camera, take the pictures, send them out for development, and then scan them to go on the computer. Today, you snap a photo and it’s instantly available to load on the computer.

    Michael Krigsman

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The technological differences

    While we're talking about the technology, what are the most important technical differences to understand between DSLR, everyday point-and-shoot cameras, and smartphone cameras?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Flexibility

    One thing we have to understand about the DSLR is that it was designed in an age where film was still the prevalent photography technology. As such, unless we are talking about the latest mirrorless camera bodies, it retains significant baggage from the film-based SLR design, and that is the use of a mirror and a pentaprism to reproduce the image coming through the lens into an optical viewfinder.

    They also still use electro-mechanical shutters which do wear out over time and need periodic replacement. However, mechanical shutters for the most part are still technically superior to their electronic counterparts, although this gap is closing quickly and it is expected that there will be pro or prosumer digital cameras available in 2014 with purely electronic shutter systems.

    Smartphone and Point-and-Shoots do not have this kind of legacy baggage. They don't have optical viewfinders, they use digital displays to reproduce the image coming through the lens and hitting the sensor. They also, generally speaking, don't use mechanical shutters.

    However, smartphones and point-and-shoots do not have replaceable lenses and also because of their size, they can't have larger or specialized lenses or larger-format sensors, which is critical for light gathering in challenging lighting situations and overall, a larger glass and a bigger/more complex sensor (with higher overall pixel density) yields better quality photos.

    Smartphones also are limited by the amount of optical elements in a lens and by definition have limited optical zoom capability. They also don't tend to have dedicated digital image signal processing like an SLR or even a point-and-shoot does.

    Smartphones also generally lack highly customizable manual settings for aperture or shutter control, and also aperture or shutter priority modes that professional photographers prize for altering depth of field or how movement is captured.

    Additionally, with professional grade digital cameras, you not only have the ability to select the quality of your digital image as it is stored, but to store the full, uncompressed data stream, also known as RAW image data. This allows for tremendous flexibility in post-processing such as adjusting the histograms for exposure correction and many other details that could be lost.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Size and sensors

    All these cameras use an electronic sensor to capture digital images. The primary differences are in the quality of that sensor, the physical camera package, and the electronics the device uses to process the images. Here is a summary:

    DSLR:  Generally large, use interchangeable lenses, and produce high quality images. Usually large and complicated but produce high quality images. DSLRs are for best for professionals and real photography enthusiasts. These cameras tend to be large, heavy, and expensive.

    Point and shoot cameras: Small size, generally less expensive than DSLRs, with broad variations in quality. Point and shoots cover a broad range of the market; you can buy cheap ones that are no better than an old cell phone or expensive cameras that can rival a DSLR in quality.

    Smartphones:  The camera you always have with you. However, the controls can be finicky and image quality not so great. On the other hand, if it’s built into your phone, then there is no additional cost or weight. And, some smartphone cameras offer pretty good image quality!

    Michael Krigsman

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The megapixel myth

    Let's jump in and deal with the megapixel issue, since it's still one of the most misunderstood aspects of photography. Give users a rule of thumb for thinking about megapixels.

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Dot, dot, dot

    Megapixels simply means the number of dots that are contained in a digital exposure stored as a file when your camera takes a picture. 1 MP (megapixel) is one million dots. 8MP is eight million dots and so on. But it should be noted that unless you intend to do print reproduction of your photos, this level of image density really isn't going to do much for you.

    You are not going to be able to view them in native resolution on your HD computer monitor, because the image is going to be to big. What it does do is allow for crisper images when they are re-sized for reproduction on a web site or on a photo sharing service like Flickr or Google+.

    Higher megapixel counts do also come in handy when cropping in image, because as you zoom into a photo, the more information you have the better the quality of the crop.

    While megapixels are important is is not the only consideration when choosing a camera or a smartphone with an integrated camera. You want to look at things like sensor size and also the size, complexity and size of the lens element and also the maximum f-stop for aperture adjustment. The lower the number (f 1.2 versus f 2.8, for example) the better

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    A marketer's delight

    The camera megapixel wars came about because marketers love a simple number that consumers can use to compare cameras. For most people, however, six or eight megapixels are sufficient for virtually all their everyday needs. More megapixels offer two advantages: the ability to zoom and crop a photo while retaining lots of detail, and better prints, especially in sizes larger than 8 x10. If you don’t have those needs, then more megapixels just means larger files to consume space.


    Today, every new camera has enough megapixels, so it’s just not an issue. Instead, look at other measures of quality such as how the camera handles in low light situations and how good is the lens. That’s where better cameras really shine.

    Michael Krigsman

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    How to shoot a good photo

    What do you consider the three most important aspects of taking a good photograph, not matter kind of camera you're using?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Composition, focus, lighting

    I would say the composition of the photo is most important, keeping the subject in focus and taking account for the lighting conditions, and that includes when and when not to use flash. I do a lot of food photography so never use flash when I am indoors because it causes an undesirable effect on the photograph and makes the food look unappetizing. In a low-light situation I do my best to position the subject near direct light if possible rather than use flash.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Subject matter, composition, lighting.

    The basics of photography are the same regardless of camera: subject matter, composition, and lighting.

    Whatever camera you use try to find something compelling to photograph, then, arrange the elements in the photo to look interesting, and finally be sure the lighting and exposure are right. The basic elements of photography have not changed since the camera was invented

    Michael Krigsman

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    How to shoot a bad photo

    What are some of the most common mistakes that people make when trying to take good photos with their smartphone camera?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Indoor lighting and shake

    I would say that indoor photography is the most challenging environment for a smartphone since its light capture abilities are inferior to a DSLR, so you are going to get dark and grainy photos unless you use a flash or have sufficient ambient or back lighting. And once you have good ambient light indoors you want to know when to turn that flash off. Flash is not always your friend.

    The other issues that I see is that with any other camera, bad shot composition and also not knowing how to deal with shadows and glare. And of course, not taking the time to focus the shot, not understanding minimum focus distance limitations of the camera, and not taking enough shots to compensate for things like camera shake will produce consistently bad photographs.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Bad lighting and movement

    To take better photos with a smartphone, be sure there is lots of light and that you subject is not moving. Smartphone cameras have relatively small sensors, making them susceptible to “noise” in the image, which make items in the picture look less sharp or clear. Also, when the light drops, the shutter speed can drop, so the whole image comes out blurry.

    Aside from that, the usual rules of photography apply to smartphones – subject matter, composition, and lighting are key.

    Michael Krigsman

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Evaluate DSLRs

    How would you characterize the general strengths and weaknesses of DSLRs?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Lenses, control and accessories

    As I mentioned above, the strengths are the flexibility/quality of interchangeable lenses and manual and semi-automatic control, tons of accessories (like external flashes), generally superior sensor and shutter design and dedicated image processing chips.

    The negatives are the bulkiness, lack of mobility and diminished stealthiness/use in candid or impromptu situations and obviously cost of entry compared to a smartphone. You also don't have the ability to share directly with photo sharing services in the field without special accessories or a laptop in tow, and there is also the time and money investment required to do post-processing of the shots in software packages like Aperture and Photoshop.

    There is also the issue of your investment in things like lenses designed for a specific camera system not being interoperable with another vendor's camera system should you decide for whatever reason to switch manufacturer allegiance, and also the possibility of your lens system being orphaned when your pro camera manufacturer makes major revisions to its body designs and you want to upgrade just your body, as the value of your lenses and other accessories typically far exceed that of the body.

    While this tends to happen infrequently and adapters are made to permit the use of older style lenses on newer camera bodies, it does happen from time to time.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Lenses, shutter speed and low-light performance

    Companies such as Nikon and Canon offer many choices of lenses, fast shutter speeds, amazing ability to take pictures in low light, and so on. Even the best smartphones cannot approach these features.

    Michael Krigsman

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Evaluate smartphone cameras

    How would you characterize the general strengths and weaknesses of smartphones cameras?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Size, ease of use, surprise

    As I mentioned above, mobility, pocketability, ease of use, the ability to use in candid or impromptu situations, as well as seamless integration with online services for photo sharing and social networking as well as the ability to edit and post-process directly on the device without the use of PC-based software.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    You get what you pay for

    As I mentioned above, mobility, pocketability, ease of use, the ability to use in candid or impromptu situations, as well as seamless integration with online services for photo sharing and social networking as well as the ability to edit and post-process directly on the device without the use of PC-based software.

    Michael Krigsman

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Smartphone speed and convenience

    How much of an advantage is being able to edit and upload right away from a smartphone?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Breaking news coverage

    I think it's a significant advantage particularly if you want to be able to share the shot quickly, particularly in a world where instantaneous gratification is becoming more prevalent and where even journalistic outlets are now starting to use smartphones as the camera of choice, such as the Chicago Sun-Times' recent decision to eliminate their photography staff and to equip their reporters with smartphones instead.

    There's also the issue of citizen news reporting which is becoming much more important nowadays as news outlets use more and more photos and video from people who witness events and capture the moment as it happens

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Exercise in frustration

    Editing on a smart phone is always an exercise in frustration because the screen is so small. Of course, if you are posting an image to Twitter, then the ability to upload is great. On the other hand, if you take serious photos of your family then the ability to upload immediately is less important. Anyway, it’s a moot point because many DSLR’s now have built-in WiFi and more are coming.

    Michael Krigsman

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    When to choose DSLRs over smartphones

    Name some of the specialized use cases where DSLRs are still needed and smartphone cameras aren't going to cut it.

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Professional photography

    Studio photography absolutely requires a professional-grade camera, as does professional sports or outdoor venue photography (rock concerts, nature etc), just because of the telephoto, light and shutter and print (or electronic print) reproduction issues dealing with these situations alone. Also forensic photography. I'd also say other specialized forms of photography such as macro, but even smartphones are getting much better at macro now.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Important events

    DSLRs rule where you need speed, quality, or want to photograph in low light. Don’t even think of using a smartphone to photograph sports, concerts, weddings, graduations or anything else that really matters!

    Michael Krigsman

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The printing process

    Let's talk about printing photos versus just using them for digital purposes. What do people need to know about taking photos with either a DSLR or smartphone camera before they try to print them? DSLRs obviously have an advantage here. Should people even attempt to print smartphone photos?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Cost matters

    There are some considerations for how photos should be cropped and what the aspect ratio needs to be to fit in standard photo frames but I think the main takeaway here is having a high-quality photo printer if you really want to make a habit out of printing your photos.

    However, the printer, the paper and the ink supplies can be very expensive. If there are particular shots that are memorable that you want printed and don't want to invest in a photo printer there are a number of good online services that can print photos for you via mail order using professional printing equipment.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Size matters

    You can print smartphone photos at small sizes, say 4”x5”. The pictures may be fuzzy or noisy, but you can do it. The larger your print, the more it will benefit from a quality source photo. Used properly, a DSLR can create clean results with very large print sizes; smartphones just can’t do that.

    Generally speaking, use a DSLR for printing and keep your smartphone for the web.

    Michael Krigsman

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    One or both?

    Last question: A sizable percentage of professional and prosumer photographers now use their camera phone as their everyday point-and-shoot while using their DSLR for serious work. When does it make sense to have both?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Both, for now

    Photojournalists absolutely carry both because they want the shot of opportunity with the smartphone when it occurs, and then they want to be able to document the aftermath in greater quality and detail with the dSLR. I think you certainly have much more artistic flexibility with DSLRs and the newer mirrorless bodies than you do a smartphone.

    I own both, although I am using my DSLR for food photography less and less because I don't drag my big camera bag with me everywhere I go and I find that in restaurant situations people get very uneasy if you drag an SLR with a huge 50mm f 1.4 prime lens in, whereas it is now a common sight for people to be taking pictures of their dinner with their smartphone particularly with the rise of services like Instagram and Google+ and Facebook.

    I certainly always have a smartphone when I am travelling and unless I am working on a specific project that requires print reproduction-level detail or important artistic merit, the dSLR stays at home.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Get serious

    Smartphone cameras are just fine for taking snapshots where the quality doesn’t matter. Walking  around the neighborhood, taking pictures of dogs and trees, are perfect for a smartphone. However, it’s hard to name even a single professional photographer who uses a smartphone for serious work. Wait, there is one guy who turned his interest in smartphones into a professional project. Maybe smartphones are okay for him, but everyone else should use a DSLR for the serious work.

    Michael Krigsman

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks for joining!

    You'll agree that our debaters did a great job today -- and there's more to come. Closing statements will be posted on Wednesday and you'll see my choice for the winner on Thursday. Please vote, read the comments and add one yourself.

    Posted by Jason Hiner

Closing Statements

DSLRs are now niche products

Jason Perlow

We obviously have a very passionate group of hardcore photography enthusiasts in the crowd that have made it known that under no uncertain terms, that they'll only let go of their DSLR when it is pried out of their cold, dead hands. While I took the unpopular side of this argument, you can also include me in this crowd of DSLR adherents as well.

 
However, in a debate, one of us has to take an opposing or unpopular viewpoint. In the context of this debate, thinking about the evolution of the photography equipment industry (as a former employee and continuing loyal customer of Canon) I examined it from the perspective of industry maturation, the DSLR's relevancy in current market conditions, current customer use cases and whether or not Smartphones have been and still are a disruptive influence on that market.
 
My conclusion is that the health of the DSLR and dedicated prosumer camera market is analogous to the "Post-PC" situation that the computer industry is experiencing. We are now, like it or not, in the "Post-DSLR" age of Digital Photography.
 
While the DSLR or similar interchangeable lens/body systems will always be the camera of choice for true professionals, it really is no longer needed for the balance of its original target market, which includes everyone looking to buy a camera. The same could be said of the powerful desktop PC workstation and "homebrews" where tablets and ultrabooks are eating away the balance of PC market share.
 
Yes, many amateur photographers used to buy SLRs. But how many of them really bought a full complement of lenses, external flash accessories, etcetera, or even used these to their full capabilities? 
 
I think we can all agree that not many did and many still do not, where a smartphone like an iPhone 5, a Lumia 920 or a Samsung Galaxy will do far more than an adequate job at a substantially lower price point. And consumers with stressed wallets have now wholly realized this.
 
Despite our resident pro photographer's insistence that smartphones produce inferior photos, I will stand by the smartphone and its qualitative merits because I take thousands of food photographs a year with them for my blog OffTheBroiler.com, many of which have been requested by restaurants and food publications and other media outlets around the world for re-use. 
 
No matter how good or how inferior a camera you have, a skilled photographer will use whatever is at his or her disposal and still make the best of it. And smartphones have so many advantages that I am willing to compromise print reproductive quality for very nice web images, which is what most people use their cameras for today.
 
That being said, I have no doubt that companies like Canon and Nikon will continue to produce true professional-level SLRs. That much is a given.
 
But as cameras in smartphones continue to advance in terms of picture quality and incorporate superior sensors, shutters and lenses (Like those in the new 41MP Nokia Lumia 1020 that is being released shortly) as well as the manual and semi-manual controls that entry and mid-level DSLRs have today, these companies will have to cannibalize their entry and mid-level DSLR lineups because there will no longer be a healthy market for them. 
 
And while it pains me to say it, if you're not Canon or Nikon, or even Sony, then you probably want to get out of the camera business entirely.
 
If we redefine "Kill the DSLR" as total disruption of its market and forced consolidation of products and manufacturers by more than good enough smartphone cameras, and reducing its use to a niche product for professional and semi-pros for the foreseeable future -- much as mobile devices have "Killed" the need for high-performance PCs -- then we have to agree that the DSLR is also on the endangered species list.

Do we want small and ugly photos?

Michael Krigsman

My ZDNet colleague, Jason Perlow, is a wise and respected member of the community. For that reason, I feel awkward because words cannot express how deeply misguided and wrong are Jason’s opinions on the smartphone vs. DSLR issue.

Yes, smartphones are everywhere – in our pocket all the time – ready and willing to take our photos. But, do we really want photos that are small, ugly, filled with noise because the sensor just sucks? No, friends, we do not!

For people who care about life, family, and capturing true moments in the world, photographs do matter. DSLRs are the best way to capture important memories and situations. These stalwart cameras are reliable, offer the best quality, the greatest amount of control, and are easy to use.

Friends, please vote NO to send a clear and decisive message to the corporations, and anyone else, who would keep us down. We want great cameras and that means DSLRs rule!

DLSR has little to fear

Jason Hiner

It's fitting that this edition of the Great Debate is wrapping up on the day that Nokia announced what is arguably the most capable camera we've ever seen in a smartphone ( the Lumia 1020 ). I'll admit that this debate is a tough one, because a lot of it depends on how we define "kill." Are DSLRs going away any time soon? Certainly not. Is smartphone photography going to soon turn DSLRs into highly-specialized gear that only the most avid professionals and photography enthusiasts will use? That's the question.
 
As Michael pointed out, DSLR sales are actually still rising, despite the fact that the majority of consumers are now using smartphones in place of point-and-shoot cameras. However, I do think Michael underestimates the quality of photos that can be taken with smartphones, and Perlow is right that they have gotten good enough to keep the DSLR in the bag for more and more things. Nevertheless, it's also possible that the easy availability of cameras in smartphones is going to make even more people fall in love with photography, and once they feel the limitations of their smartphones then many of them will still graduate to DSLRs. So, while the smartphone camera could threaten to kill off the DSLR a decade from now, for the moment the DSLR still has little to fear.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

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