Is the DSLR dead?

Change of focus for photography: Is the DSLR dead?

Image credit: Getty Images

When it comes to camera tech, future trends have traditionally been dictated by the ‘smarter, faster, lighter’ doctrine. But as the digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) reaches maturity, where will camera designers take us next?

Ask any professional photographer what they want from their camera of the future and you can guarantee that the answer will be a variation on the theme of higher resolution and bigger file sizes. In other words, more pixels on the camera’s sensor. It’s hardly a new request: ever since the Kodak Microelectronics Technology Division developed a 1.3MP charge-coupled device image sensor in 1986 and integrated it with a standard Canon F-1 film camera body, photographers have been clamouring for more from their digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. The equation has always been ‘bigger sensors plus more pixels equals better quality’.

And they got it. Today, at the professional high end of the spectrum, Hasselblad H system cameras (that will set you back tens of thousands of pounds) deliver 400MP file output. Meanwhile in the consumer space, horizon-scanners are already forecasting that Apple’s forthcoming iPhone 14 Pro release will, thanks to a process known as ‘pixel binning’, effectively serve up 48MB from what’s essentially a free on-board camera. If the rumours are true, the iPhone 14 Pro will deliver more pixels than Nikon’s D850 prosumer DSLR, currently retailing at around £2,500. As one analyst stresses, the benefits to the end-user are that “pixel binning is a way for manufacturers to offer loads of megapixels without adversely affecting low-light performance”. But that’s hardly the point. The wider issue is that such devices could cause huge disruption in the market, with Apple sending a strong signal that the days of the trusty DSLR workhorse slung around our necks could be over.

It was the late American futurist Alvin Toffler who said that one of the purposes of technology evolution is to produce gadgets that are smarter, cheaper and lighter. And while we can go into ‘information overload’ (Toffler’s term) about what chip developments will mean for image resolution and pixel count, Moore’s Law means that today’s designers are always going to produce ‘better’ cameras tomorrow. Advances in smartphone camera specs mean that the everyday user will see a narrowing of quality differentiation between photos taken on their hand-held device and the cumbersome DSLR that costs so much more.

Canon R6 Mirrorless

Image credit: Canon

“Is the DSLR dead?” asks Jason Parnell-Brookes on his Fstoppers blog. Perhaps reports of its demise are exaggerated, he says, because Canon has announced that it will continue to manufacture DSLR units while there is a market for them. But the real threat to the DSLR isn’t the smartphone, but ‘mirrorless’ cameras that can compete on image quality (which smartphones struggle to), while being cheaper and lighter (if not that much smarter).

Where mirrorless cameras really score is in the name. By doing away with the clunky mirror component, mirrorless cameras can deliver a faster shooting speed (up to 30 frames per second), while their downsides are negligible. In the past, smaller sensors (APS-C) and sluggish electronic viewfinders hindered the mirrorless takeover. But as a recent TechRadar comparison of the genres points out, more powerful chips now mean that “the roles are somewhat reversed. The latest and greatest technology is now found in mirrorless cameras. If you’re an entry-level user, you might be more likely to go for a cheaper DSLR, given they remain the most affordable way to get a camera with a built-in viewfinder.”

Where we are at the moment, says professional photographer Thomas Kettner, is a developmental phase where “new things happen in smaller steps. There is still development in speed, quality and performance.” But he thinks that this trio of factors – that looks very similar to Toffler’s axiom about the purpose of technology – won’t deliver much in the way of departures from the trajectory. In a decade’s time, “technology-wise it will be not much different to now. Maybe cameras will become smaller, even faster. Maybe there will be no more still-photography: only motion pictures” from which the photographer of tomorrow, “will choose a frame and print a single fraction of a second for a still image”.

But not everyone agrees with Kettner, mostly because the chips inside cameras are only part of the story. And yet, outside of the digital revolution, photography’s progress has more in common with geological time than the white heat of technology.

One fundamental aspect of camera technology that we tend to assume doesn’t change is the lens, despite the obvious advances ushered in by autofocus (introduced in 1978 with the Polaroid SX-70 SONAR OneStep). The clear material has resolutely remained invariably either glass or acrylic, with commentators pointing out that “the majority of today’s lenses are based on the same physical principles, and include the same basic limitations, as the first prototypes invented in the 16th century”, when they were used in telescopes. This comes from a research paper published by Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, detailing a new technology for making “artificial materials known as ‘metasurfaces’, which consist of a multitude of interacting nanoparticles that together can control light”. It may be some way ahead but, the authors speculate, if metasurfaces take off, camera lenses could become “thousands of times thinner and significantly less resource-intensive to manufacture”.

But if lenses aren’t going to change any time soon, there’s plenty of speculation about what could. One such advance could be the demise of the shutter release button. Arguably, this technology died with mechanical cameras because the term refers to the analogue mechanism that was ‘cocked’ by one lever and ‘released’ by another, in order to expose the film. On digital cameras, this is now simply a digital switch, although that too could be a thing of the past, with indications that designers are working on voice-command image capture or even eye-movement actuation.

Kyle Shurman of Lifewire thinks that this technology could be usefully integrated into cameras where “photographers could wink or use a voice command to tell the camera to record an image”, although the advantages in this context are unclear. Stronger potential lies in hands-free image capture on smartphones or smart glasses. This may not be as far-fetched as it sounds, with reports of Sony having patented a contact lens “that comes with an integrated miniature camera module and all its components, such as image sensor, lens, processor, storage and even a wireless module to transfer images to a smartphone or other connected device”.

Something that might make its way on to our cameras sooner is the replacement of the shutter button with a touchpad, currently under development by Canon. While traditional shutter release buttons are limited in function, Canon’s replacement is set to do more than setting focus and snapping photos. PetaPixel’s Michael Zhang says: “The touchpad could have built-in sensors that can detect whether a photographer is performing a press or swipe action and could be used to do different things depending on what you’re currently doing with the camera.”

This opens up a functionality where complex adjustments such as spot metering and exposure compensation can be made without the photographer taking their eye from the viewfinder. As Zhang says, there’s no guarantee that this development “will ever see the light of day. But it’s interesting to know that the brains over at Canon are reimagining every aspect of camera design: even the tried-and-true shutter button.”

Even though the world of camera design is a conservative one, where alterations to the function of one button is regarded as noteworthy, the market is not immune to technology megatrends.

When it comes to connectivity, today’s fragmentary nature of how cameras communicate will eventually mimic the smartphone. There will be no need to tether it to a laptop to download images. Files will transmit over comms networks, allowing people in multiple locations to see what you are shooting in real time. On-board artificial intelligence will move on from focus and exposure settings to choosing your best shots, while immersive photography will mean that there will be a convergence between 360-degree, VR and computational photography. As the innovation wheel goes full circle, one of the earliest of all the Victorian image-making technologies – 3D or stereoscopic photography – will finally find an application as it makes its way into the smartphone’s digital orbit.

As the media technology analyst IBC365 observes, the direction the everyday consumer camera is heading in can be described in five words. When it comes to sensor size, bigger is better. Paradoxically, these sensors will find a home in cameras that are smaller in physical size and price. They will also be faster in terms of their connectivity, while producing higher quality images through the use of smarter controls.

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