Yes, smartphones have killed the DSLR

Summary: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 no longer needs or even wants to carry these beasts anymore.

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, thanks to its ability to accurately reproduce the view of the lens through the eyepiece as well as for its changeable lens design.

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 13.05.54

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

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Since then, the digital-SLR (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.

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 around anymore.

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

We obviously have a very passionate group of hardcore photography enthusiasts who 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 in the Great Debate , 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 discussion, 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 also 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 and 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 S4 will do far more than an adequate job at a substantially lower price point. And consumers with stressed wallets have now wholly realized this.

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.

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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 which is what smartphones currently use.) And there will also be smartphones with mechanical shutters as well.

Additional negatives are the bulkiness, lack of mobility and diminished stealthiness in candid or impromptu situations and obviously cost of entry compared to a smartphone. You also often don't have the ability to share directly with photo sharing services in the field without special accessories and laptop or 4G tethered smartphone in tow. And, there are also the time and money investments required to do post-processing of the shots in software packages like Aperture and Photoshop.

There is also the issue of your substantial 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. There is 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.

Lens adapters are typically made to handle this situation, such as the EF adapter that was released for Canon's mirrorless EOS-M body that I just purchased, but sometimes lens design changes between generations are significant enough that you can't re-use your old kit.

Indeed smartphones become outdated every few years, but by that point, an upgrade on a device is far less of a painful experience than having a major lens investment stuck to an older camera platform. With film this was much less of an issue as mechanical camera bodies were "classics" particularly if you were using fully manual systems.

With digital technology, old lenses are a boat anchor if you cannot re-use them on new bodies.

There are other advantages to smartphones besides price, frequent and inexpensive upgrades and mobility.

Smartphones are ideal 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.

Despite the insistence of our resident photography pro Michael Krigsman 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 these photos have been requested by restaurants and food publications and other media outlets around the world for re-use.

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I own both a DLSR (a Canon 50D) and two smartphones. That being said 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.

I also find that in restaurant situations people get very uneasy if you drag a DSLR 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, Google+, and Facebook.

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.

We can talk endlessly about how much better the sensors and lenses and manual settings the DSLRs have, but that the end of the day, a DSLR is overkill for most kinds of photography enthusiasts now engage in, as well as where those photos are displayed.

Print reproduction quality is just not a priority for anyone but true pros anymore, and few people are actually getting their photos printed when services like Flickr, Instagram, Google+ and Facebook are getting the balance of photography traffic.

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 was announced on Thursday — 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 line-ups 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.

Topics: Smartphones, Consumerization, Mobility

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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