Yes, smartphones have killed the DSLR

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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Have smartphones killed the SLR?

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

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 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


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience 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.

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  • Hardly

    seems like a rather rash statement, yes phone camera's are getting better but they still don't offer anywhere near the fidelity that a fully blooded camera does what's more, there are people who'd like to take photography seriously not look like instagrammer every time they take a photo, until a phone can some how downsize a 250 - 500 -1000 mm lens barrels, phones will have no grounds in the photography department
    Nathan Anderson
    • People that are happy with pics from a camera phone

      are the same people who bought little digital cameras, and before that Instamatic film cameras.

      They aren't the same people that purchased high end SLR film or digital cameras.
      William Farrel
      • I still buy compact digicams!

        smartphones have killed the compact digicam market but it doesn't touch the DSLR, not even close!
        If people actually cared about picture quality they would use a good digicam, but most people don't even know how to frame a shot let alone care about quality shots.
      • Re: People that are happy with iics from a camera phone..

        +1000!! Agree with William. Even though I'm not a prof, I prefer my Nikon, over smartphone any day of the week. And yes Jason, I have over 8 different lenses that I use now and then.

        All this tells me is that I should buy a backup for my DSLR on ebay.

    • I know right!

      I know right...

      My camera is an Olympus E-PM2 and I can shoot 8 FPS, Shoot in RAW, Shoot at ISO 25600 with a very usable 16 MP body, and use Custom White Balance.

      I can also throw many different lenses on it and those lenses can have ultra wide Apertures!

      Anyone who believes the Cellphone has killed the DSLR clearly doesn't respect the image quality of the DSLR and is somebody who believes that everybody who owned a DSLR needed it.

      I won't even use the camera on my smartphone even if it is the best of any phone, because I know the quality isn't there.

      Here's another example, we were at the Aquarium and I got great pics from my can while my Wife got average pics with her note 2 because the light wasn't good enough for the limitations of her phone.
      • I was with you up till ur last comment

        I bet if you were to tweak your wife's Note2 camera settings to closely match that of your Olympus E-PM2, The quality of the shot will be very close. I recently went on a cruise with mom for mothers day and my moms friends daughter has a EOS6D or EOS60D. We were at the table and I was showing them the pics I took from my unlocked Tmobile SGS2. She asked if my pics came from this camera. Told her yes. She asked how did i get such great shots. I replied, I played with the limited settings and filters.

        Long story short, we uploaded pics to both mine and her laptop and compared. Of course her res and quality was way better due to pure higher m-pix but at same frame size on screen, No real difference to an untrained eye was detected. Got home and printing both out on a true photo printer in 4x6, 5x7 were no difference but going 8x10 and larger the pixelization from the sgs2 started showing.

        Point of all of that was to say, true no cell camera will truly ever replace a DSLR but as far as playing with the setting on a cell camera, the quality can come pretty close or well above average.
        Free Webapps
        • No

          The noise level would be inmensely bigger in the smarthphone at the same ISO if she could. The sensor size is not the same so the sensitivity.
    • My camera has Android

      It is not a DSLR it is a compact - but takes really nice pictures when the photo app is not hung or crashing. Can't replace it because the phone does not publish the full specs to other apps.

      Grr. Even though it could be a nice camera, I gave up and am now using the phone for pictures as well.

      PS if you see a pocket camera that says it has Android on it, stay far far away.
      • Samsung Galaxy Camera

        cream of the crop at the moment in compact Android cameras.
        Has built in SIM slot and radio so it's basically a wifi+3G Android tablet with a zoom camera. Quality is mid range compact camera but it's showing the way.
        If only it could make phone calls....
    • that comment...

      ...makes me think you didn't really get Jason's essential point.
    • Hardly 2

      Absolutely agree. A smartphone is pretty useless in most areas where a decent lens is needed and the sensors are so small that what tthey are good at - macro shots and landscapes - are useless on anything other than standard unzoomed settings. I agree smartphones are a useful addition to the photographer's kit bag and helpful for quick shots(where it would take too long to get the DSLR out and setup) or for scoping ideas, but nothing much other than that.
  • OK

    That is like saying smartphones have killed the PC, or the laptop for sure. Definitely the tablet as who wants to carry one of those around.
  • Kinda agree with the author..

    While I am *glad* that I have my two Nikon DSLRs, I don't know that I would be interested today in buying into DSLR's if I were a fresh consumer. Same with the young gen as well, I watch how my kid uses her camera and phone, they do more video than still image, and the stills she has no interest in composition or any of that artist stuff; but she'll take the video and spend hours working on it in Movie Studio.... For myself, its becoming more and more rare that I grab the dslr off the shelf; the smartphone is just so convenient, the handheld digital video/still abilities of the point'n'shoot also overwhelm in casual situations.

    Yes, if I want to grab the tripod, and setup a macro shot of a flower or something, then yeah, the DSLR is just so much better, or maybe a nighttime, long exposure landscape... but really, of the bajillion images on your hard drives; how many required the feature set of your DSLR...
    • Quite a few.

      I do a lot of sports photography and the iPhone just doesn't cut it. Especially indoor.
      • well...

        Then you're in the exception list that Jason addressed very clearly.
        • Well...

          I wouldn't call that "the exception," since that's what DSLRs were made for. DSLRs where made for professional quality shots, to call that "the exception" is ridiculous.
    • Re: how many required the feature set of your DSLR...

      Out of about 80,000 images in my library, a whooping 2,000 are made with a smartphone and some 5,000-6,000 with a compact camera. The rest, with an DSLR using about a dozen different lenses.

      That says enough, at least for me.
  • Very true

    Go to any place where people usually take lots of photos and it's getting harder and harder to find many with DSLR's or even point and shoots. I love my Nikon D90 and J1 and there is no comparing the quality of these versus an iPhone. The quality is just "good" but you are capturing a moment and an always-on, always-on-you smartphone camera makes opportunities that were not there before. I now have 1000's of wonderful, impromptu photos and videos from my iPhone that I wouldn't have gotten had I taken the time to get my "photography gear".

    Someone said elsewhere, what is the best digital camera? The one in your hand when a photo opportunity presents itself.
    • Moose on the loose

      I live in Central Massachusetts where moose are not a common sight. Yet in November of 2011 while driving a dump truck in a gravel pit there they were, a mother moose with her youngster.
      Glad I had my G2 google phone. I was able to get some memorable "snapshots" of the pair including a couple of "up close and personals."
      Now I recently traded in an old Canon S2IS (point and shoot) and a Rebel G film camera via Canon's Customer loyalty program for two modern Canon digitals, an SX40IS and a T2i body.
      Two Canon salespeople told me that Canon sold its last film camera about five years ago. That was the result of the film/digital battle. Many "pros" and "advanced amateurs" fought digital to the death with arguments about quality. Now that digital photography has morphed into its current stage with smartphones able to do quite amazing things, the camera industry will have a struggle to stay relevant. Like Jason, I love taking pictures with my camera, but you cannot deny the power of a camera that you can carry in your pocket. I use mine all the time to take photos of wiring setups, unidentifiable parts, etc. that I can then email to people who can help me solve problems at work. Likewise, the camera phone has frequently doubled as a scanner to be able to send "copies" via email. Try that with a DSLR!
      • Relevancy? Not even an issue.

        @ bunkport With a DSLR you don't need a scanner, just connect it to a computer and copy the pictures over, then send by email - that simple. For most people who value picture quality, that extra step of connecting it to a computer is not going to be an issue. Regarding the mechanical/electrical parts, DSLRs were made for superior picture quality, not overall practicality. What you are doing is taking the DSLRs out of the out of their context that they were made for, in order to say DSLRs are inferior - that argument does not hold up.

        DSLRs are far from having to battle for relevancy.
        When I see models shoots, magazine covers, in-action sports photos, and shots requiring a telephoto lens - THINGS A DSLR WAS MADE FOR - taken with a phone camera (with no blur, pixelation, noise, or blown out hotspots) then I will believe that DSLR may have met it's match.