The DSLR is Dead. Long Live the DSLR!

I’ve been looking over my Nikon DSLR equipment to determine what I’d like to replace and what I’ll hang on to as I move into the future. I don’t have the latest/greatest lenses or camera bodies. I’m still happily using my Nikon D810, D750 and D500, all but obsolete digital single lens reflex camera bodies with the D500 still being a manufactured camera, which will probably not be updated by Nikon any time soon, if ever.

I’m still using the Nikon F-mount DSLR as my specific photography platform, and the only other current manufacturer of DSLR’s that I’d be willing to continue investing in would be Canon. But, both Canon and Nikon are transitioning their digital ILC camera lineup to mirrorless. I don’t want a mixed kit of mirrorless and DSLR, so I’m not on board with Mirrorless yet.

Sony has made inroads in the ILC (interchangeable lens camera) camera market with their mirrorless lineup. The other manufacturers are making decent enough gear, but again, Mirrorless is where they currently are or are headed, or they are headed into liquidation like Olympus, it’s my fear that I’m eventually going to be left with a bunch of DSLR equipment that is of little value at some point in time. It’s a changing world.

When looking over the most recent Canon EF lenses and Nikon F lenses, there haven’t been that many released since 2017. The last Canon EF lenses I’m aware of being released are the 85mm f/1.4L, the 400mmL IS III and the 600mm L IS III, and those lenses go back to 2017 and 2018. Nothing new that I’m aware of since. As for Nikon, they had about four F-mount lenses released in 2017 and the last Nikon F-mount lens I’m aware of being released was the AF-S NIKKOR 120-300mm f/2.8E FL ED SR VR.

The Nikon F mount lens lineup is fairly extensive, however, there are still a few holes in that lineup I wish they would fill, but it’s not looking like they will be filling them any time soon. Canon’s lens lineup is very extensive, maybe better than Nikon’s in the grand view, but still, Canon has holes in their EF lens lineup as well.

Sigma announced in March 2020 that they were no longer developing DSLR lenses and were focusing their efforts on Mirrorless offerings. They’ll continue to make DSLR lenses but Mirrorless is where they are now and the foreseeable future.

I suppose that I’d invest in Mirrorless gear if I were just now putting together a photography setup, after all, that’s where the train is moving and no point in buying into something that’s probably not going to be around in a few years. But, I’m not the only guy/gal in this same type of situation. There are plenty of photographers out there still preferring to use the DSLR, 70-75% of them as a calculated guess, but we will all have to make a decision at some point.

I think perhaps that I’m in the “last camera ever phase”, meaning that I’ve put together my kit, I’m happy with it, it works well and I’m through investing in system changes. I’m aware that the longer I stay in the last camera mode the more likely I am to end up with a kit full of outdated and unsupported gear. What I don’t know, is how far down the road that dead end is reached.

By 2018, Mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras were on the table from Sony, Canon, Nikon and the other smaller market manufacturers. Within a couple of years, mirrorless bodies were as much as 50% of the ILC camera market and a lot of photography websites and writers were proclaiming that the DSLR was dead.

I run a Facebook Photography Group called North American – Nature, Wildlife and Landscape Photographers Association. The group has about 1,200 members, most all of whom are skilled photographers in the subject matter. Not all pros mind you, but at least many skilled enthusiasts.

I wanted to get a feel for how many of the photographers in my group were using either DSLR’s, Mirrorless or both as their primary camera body. The results of that poll actually surprised me. Here are the polling results.

DSLR Users = 76% of the photographers

Mirrorless = 13% of the photographers

Both Systems = 11% of the photographers

In a second poll question, I asked the photographers about their future needs for the next three years. Here is the polling results.

Staying with a DSLR = 71%

Staying with Mirrorless = 17%

Switching to Mirrorless = 8%

Adding Mirrorless to the kit = 4%

Switching to DSLR from Mirrorless = 0%

What I garner from this informal & unscientific study is that the DSLR is still, by a large margin, the camera body of choice for most Nature and Wildlife photographers across the US and will most likely continue to be so for the next 3 years. I would also speculate that the DSLR is not dead. It’s still going strong and based on some of the feedback I’ve received, Mirrorless bodies aren’t fitting the needs of most of these photographers. The reasons may surprise you.

Comments I’ve received from Mirrorless ILC bodies have been varied and not all positive. Some have gone Mirrorless to reduce the weight of their kit. Some like the enhanced frame rate. On the negative side, battery life is well below what a DSLR can provide. Not all owners are happy with the electronic viewfinder and prefer the DSLR viewfinder. Battery life is a big issue. I’ve been able to get over 3,000 shots on a single battery with a noticeable charge still remaining on a Nikon D810. The typical Mirrorless body sucks battery power and are rated around 350 shots per charge. If you carry extra batteries for the Mirrorless in your kit, you will lose that weight advantage in order to have the same number of photographs available without having to stop and recharge batteries. Another constant complaint about Mirrorless is the startup and wakeup times for the mirrorless bodies. DSLR’s power up almost instantly, the Mirrorless bodies can take a few seconds, and some have indicated that this causes missed shots.

Some of the photographers I polled are using both types of bodies, switching when they feel one type better suits their needs than the other. I received many comments that the Mirrorless camera is preferred when hiking or traveling with a smaller and lighter one body kit.

Nikon have recently released the D780, the replacement for the D750 DSLR. This is an interesting update too. It’s a classic 24 Megapixel full frame DSLR built to enthusiast standards that also performs as a Mirrorless camera. The updated focusing system brings full Mirrorless functionality to the photographer in a light DSLR body with top notch image quality. If you own a DSLR and have a good kit of lenses, you don’t have to buy mirrorless lenses or an adapter to continue using your camera. You get dual functionality with this hybrid approach to a interchangeable lens camera. One of the problems with the DSLR now is that the available lenses were not designed to work very well with autofocus in video mode. To address the focusing issues for video, some of the more recent DSLR lenses have been built with stepper motor technology, which is what the Mirrorless lenses have. Even more so, the existing DSLR’s on the market aren’t really very good video cameras, as development in that regard has shifted to the Mirrorless products. Still, there are problems with the Mirrorless where the camera resets the lenses when powered off or going to sleep. A serious issue for night photography or any type of photography that requires the lens to remain fixed to the settings you give it for a period of time. There are also no battery grips being made for them, so extending battery life is more or less a matter of how many batteries you need to stuff in your pocket to shoot for an extended period of time.

The hybrid design of the D780 may very well be a new trend from the manufacturers and could conceivably give the photographer the best of both worlds. Only time will tell if they follow up on this approach. Camera makers will have to improve video capability in the DSLR body to stay current with mirrorless in this regard. They’ll also have to continue to update the lenses to keep up with the ability of the new lenses being made for the Mirrorless market. I think it is the lens issues that will really make a difference moving forward. If DSLR lenses cease to be manufactured, the only way into the future is to buy what is being made and right now the DSLR lens development has all but halted. It’s just a question of how long they’ll keep making the lenses.

So, when you read that the DSLR is dead, don’t take it at face value. Mirrorless image quality and functionality equals the DSLR in most ways, with a minor difference in strong and weak points. The Mirrorless cameras are very good for events, portrait photography and any situation where silent shutter is beneficial. But, when you get out in the field for wildlife or landscape photography, the benefits of using a DSLR become apparent and based on my research, the DSLR is currently and will continue to be used as the primary camera design by most photographers in the nature and wildlife niche for the next few years at the very least.

I think the hybrid design of the Nikon D780 is going to be the next step on the path forward. There’s really no reason for not having future enthusiast and professional grade cameras perform well as either a DSLR or Mirrorless and this is going to be how future DSLR’s are designed to some degree.

The DSLR is dead.

Long live the DSLR!

*** Addendum. I incorrectly stated that battery grips were not available for the mirrorless bodies. This is not the case. Sony, Canon and Nikon are each offering battery grips for their top line mirrorless systems.***