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Is Your DSLR Obsolete?

What happens if you're still shooting a DSLR while the rest of the world moves to mirrorless? Are you starting to worry that your DSLR may become obsolete?

Let's start by acknowledging that camera makers will always come out with new models. It's what they do. To make a profit, they need some way to continue selling cameras to people who already own one. It's not enough to expand the market by appealing to first-time buyers. They have to entice all of us to upgrade or effectively lose us as customers. If everyone who owned a camera never bought another, Nikon and Canon would be in a world of hurt.

Sometimes, I hear people speculating about planned obsolescence. The theory being that cameras are designed to wear out sooner than need be, forcing us to buy a new one. That seems unlikely, given that such a strategy would result in a bunch of unhappy users. And disaffected customers would be at least tempted to switch brands. No, they have to build reliable products to keep us happy and loyal. Things do wear out, but not on purpose. There are limitations, of course. If it would double the cost or weight to achieve a modest improvement in durability, economic realities will probably win out over engineering excellence. But it's fair to say camera makers are doing the best they can.

That leaves camera makers with innovation as the only viable strategy. They're always working to come up with the next new thing to tempt us into upgrading. They always have been.

It may seem like the pace of innovation has accelerated in recent years, and indeed, this is so. Camera technology had reached a sort of plateau with film, with only modest improvement possible. Change was incremental. But the digital revolution changed everything. Suddenly, we saw camera technology change by leaps and bounds. If you were shooting back around the turn of the century, you probably remember how crazy it was. New models came out every year with twice the resolution of the previous generation. And sensor technology made each of those added pixels somehow better as well, expanding dynamic range, reducing sensitivity to ultraviolet, and just able to create a better image in every respect. It was a heady time, even if it was a strain on the finances to try to keep up.

Lately, digital SLRs have been starting to reach a plateau themselves. Yes, resolution continues to increase, but we're past the stage where each of those pixels was precious. More is always better, but it's not the same as it was with my original Nikon D100 DSLR from the turn of the century. Back then, I had only six megapixels, and everything had to be just right to get a workable image out of them. The forty-five megapixels of my current D850 give me room to crop if need be, and the improved exposure latitude lets me post-process with less fear. Digital SLR's entering the incremental phase of technology.

So now technology is allowing us to take the next leap forward. There once was a time when we focused our lenses by rotating them. We adjusted the aperture by turning a graduated ring at the base of the lens. Both of these became electronically controllable years ago, although both can be manually adjusted still as well in some circumstances. Even before that, the switch from manual to electronically controlled metering changed the way we work. But throughout it all, we've had this mechanical mirror whose motion has to be coordinated perfectly with that of the shutter. It is a bit of an anachronism in the computer-controlled world that cameras now live in when you think about it.

That mirror was necessary, though. It represented a clever kludge to let us see the same view that the taking lens would when the shutter opened without the parallax error inherent in the twin-lens reflex cameras that preceded the SLR. The mirror moves up out of the way and then back down after. How very mechanical. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) makes the mirror unnecessary, replacing the optical path through the pentaprism with a fly-by-wire viewfinder that reads data directly off the camera sensor. We had to wait for camera CPUs to get powerful enough and for LCD panels to get sufficiently capable for this to happen, but we're now on the precipice of another leap forward. Innovation continues to drive camera makers. And us, if we're ready to take that leap.

There's nothing that says we have to, though, any more than anyone was out there forcing people to give up on their film cameras for the promise of digital. For that matter, nothing made me trade in my trusty old Nikon D100 for a newer model. If I still owned it today, it would still take the same quality of images as when I bought it years ago. It hasn't changed; it was my expectations that have.

Although most of us have by now, not everyone switched to digital at the same time. Again, nothing forced anyone. There was a huge debate in the early years about whether digital was ready for prime time. How many pixels did it take to equal the image quality of film, and so on. Today, the debate revolves around the EVF quality and other features that differentiate SLRs from mirrorless. Just because camera makers are pushing doesn't mean everyone needs to jump on board at once. I don't doubt that the precision and reliability improvements brought about by getting rid of the mechanical mirror will win most of us over at some point. Still, nothing says everyone needs to join the early-adopters club. If you shoot with a DLSR, it still does everything it could when you bought it. It hasn't changed. But public expectations are starting to.

So, is your DSLR now obsolete? Well, maybe. But probably not. At least not yet.

Happy shooting, whatever your current choice of camera may be.

Date posted: April 11, 2021


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