They Shoot Cameras, Don't They?
With all the excitement about mirrorless and other recent rumors, it can be easy to assume that the DSLR format should be retired and set out to pasture. But questions of camera obsolescence and progress aren't quite that simple.
First off, there have always been photographers worried about obsolescence. Notably of course, the shift from film to digital cameras was rife with talk about how everyone suddenly needed to buy new cameras. Depending on who you asked, the end of film appeared more like the end of life as we knew it. All the rules had changed and all that. Even though what truly mattered for finding and recording great images never changed at all.
Yet the passing of film is just the most notable example I can point to in the history of photography. It's not in any way a singular event nor even an uncommon one. Every new release of either camera or lens holds within it the seeds of concern for those owning the prior year's model. All that is required is for some new feature or improvement to be seen as worthwhile to make everything else less desirable. If you believed the hype, the advent of vibration reduction lenses made traditional lenses suddenly obsolete. Years before, the release of a new slide emulsion by Kodak or Fuji held the power to ruin whatever everyone had been shooting. Surely, it wasn't your fault. You just needed better tools, or at least people often assume.
Lately, between reports of smartphone cameras eating into the sales of all forms of standalone cameras and predictions about the impact of mirrorless, there's been a lot of doomsaying in the media. And just coming into view now are rumors of the upcoming Nikon D760 and D6 (and whatever Canon, Sony and all those other companies are up to as well of course), I'm hearing from folks who are unsure what to do. Not only are things changing as they have been, the pace of change is clearly accelerating.
Some people upgrade every time the opportunity presents itself. If you're shooting professionally and can deduct the expenses or simply have a budget that allows for it, this may be a reasonable option. Other times though, it may be more prudent to skip a generation or even more if you're still happy with what you've got. You can go broke trying to keep up with the latest in everything. Rarely is there a prize at the end for doing so.
After shooting with a camera, you begin to learn its quirks and limitations. It can become like a trusted old friend. Within some reasonable and perhaps obvious boundaries, it can be more important to pay attention to how well you're able to use your camera as opposed to merely how good of a camera you own.
And it's not that the old one actually changed. The camera you're using right now still does whatever impressed you most about it when you first bought it. And it will do so still once a replacement model for it hits the market. It's a curious phenomenon. What obsoletes something isn't the thing itself changing but rather our expectations for what that thing should be. Or what it might be, if only. Ah, that's the ticket.
Some forces in the market can drive significant change while others are more incremental. Some simply represent new choices where previously no alternatives existed. Don't worry. The last great extinction at the end of the film era is unlikely to be repeated with mirrorless. The advent of digital represented a major paradigm shift in workflow while the introduction of mirrorless is, for now at least, a more modest change that allows for smaller, lighter cameras with newfangled viewfinders. It's main claim to notoriety so far has been the associated introduction of a larger lens mount. Eliminating the mirror does open up potential for the future, but it could take a few more generations of camera releases to know for sure just how things will play out.
There are times when it can be a good idea to wait and see what happens before taking the plunge. Take this from a guy who still owns an APS film camera bought for a vacation close to 25 years ago. It's worth so little now I keep it as a reminder how dumb I was to buy it. For those unfamiliar, APS was a smaller-sized film format that was being championed as the future way back when. But precisely because so many of you are unfamiliar, the only important thing about APS that matters now is that it failed in the marketplace. It's rather unlikely that Nikon's Z-mount and similar new mounts will suffer the same fate, but there's also no reason you need to buy one just yet either if you don't want to. Your current camera is not now suddenly obsolete.
Eventually, every camera will give out. Batteries get drained and can be recharged, but over time, something will fail, and your camera or lens just stop working reliably if at all. When you do buy a new camera, either out of necessity or simply desire, buy a good one. If you do, you should be able to use it for years to come.
The marathon of new camera models goes on and on, but it's up to you what you do about it. Regardless, never forget that it's the photographer who takes the picture, not the camera.