The End of an (DSLR) Era?

Canon 1DX Mark II - Nikon D5 - Sony A9 (with battery grip) - Sony A9
Canon 1DX Mark II - Nikon D5 - Sony A9 (with battery grip) - Sony A9

Is it time to put the traditional mirrored DSLRs out to pasture? The DSLRS have been the workhorse for generations of photographers: they work, work incredibly well and can be trusted to perform in all kinds of challenging environments.

Why do we ask? Because we have all just witnessed what a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (in all its technology maturity) can really accomplish. We are talking, of course, of the Sony A9, the flagship of Sony’s mirrorless line-up. It’s still very early and most reviewers have only had time to spend a couple of hours (or even just a few minutes) with the camera but are already throwing out superlatives: powerhouse, irresistible, incredible, no-nonsense professional, masterpiece of technology, impressive specifications. Some are even venturing the opinion that we may well be seeing the best interchangeable lens camera (mirrorless or DSLR) ever. The very fact that many serious reviewers are even talking about pro photographers considering how much it would cost them to switch from their traditional mirrored DSLRs and lenses to the Sony A9 mirrorless camera and lenses is an indication that this is something that is inevitable down the road.

When the Sony A7s came out (the A7, 7R, 7S in their various generations), a couple of courageous pro photographers dared to switch from their big, heavy and cumbersone DSLRs and gears to the much lighter and compact mirrorless. The Internet forum boards exploded with name calling, expletives and denunciations of treason, buyouts and other terms not fit for publication.

But, now, with the Sony A9, the forum boards are eerily quiet. That’s not because “there is nothing to see here, move along.” In fact, we are all “deer caught in the headlight” staring, mouth open, jaw to the floor, scratching nervously at an invisible tick, left eye twitching uncontrollably — yes, I exaggerate, but just a bit. No one expected the A9 to be such a performing camera: no incremental improvements here, but ze big boss.

The enormity of the accomplishments of the Sony A9 is obvious to all, but no one dares say it loud. Not yet. Oh, we will, just give us time to compose our face again, adjust our tie, and pick our jaw off the ground. We need to tread carefully here because we may be witnessing (finally) the end of an era, a great one. The DSLR has served us well, but has it just been surpassed? There seems to be a new cowboy in town and, like the comic book Lucky Luke, he shoots faster than his shadow.

People have been predicting the demise of the DSLR since Panasonic and Olympus joined forces to put out the first mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. It made sense that the mirror had become redundant because, with Live View, we now could see exactly what we would be capturing on the sensor. Not just the light that came through the lens, got reflected in a mirror onto a prism and then out the optical viewfinder. No, we could now see the light that came through the lens and exposed the sensor. We could adjust exposure, apply white balance, filters and other modifications in-camera and see exactly on a high resolution electronic viewfinder or display screen what the sensor is seeing and recording.

For a while it was just Panasonic and Olympus scaling the DSLR fortress, adopting new technologies into their mirrorless cameras, perfecting the electronic viewfinders, improving the noise characteristics, speeding up the autofocus, introducing new lenses. People compared their mirrorless to DSLRs and laughed, pointing to noise, shutter lags, focus lags, lack of quality lenses and accessories, etc., not really understanding that every new system suffers birth pangs, improves a little here, a lot there, as technology permits.

Then Sony jumped into the fray with the A7s and the race started in earnest. For once, the DSLRs really had to run to keep pace, though they could still run faster and so stayed smug and, like the fabled Aesop hare who was over-confident of its ability, decided they could take a nap now and then for the tortoise seemed still a long way off and had a long distance to catch up. We all know how that story ended.

The big question we are all now asking is: will Canon and Nikon stir from their slumber, ask who dares to disturb it and deal with the upstarts? Or, like the hare, will they wake up too late as they see the tortoise(s) go thru the finish line? The Sony A9 is a gauntlet thrown down in defiance; in times past, it called for a duel to the death, for the old reigning gorilla to put the younger challenger in its place, to show who is really in charge.

Though there have been rumors and whisperings that both Canon and Nikon may be secretly working on mirrorless cameras that will prove they are still the unsurpassed kings of the hill — these unfortunately remain as unsubstantiated rumors. Oh, both companies have shown that they have within their midst forward-looking engineers and managers who have kept mirrorless alive in their respective companies — but they have so far been allowed to work with one hand tied behind their backs and none of their slim offerings were designed for professional photography work. To avoid the fate of Kodak who resisted just a bit too long the digital era and kept banking on their film business, these engineers need to be unshackled and be put in charge of the imaging departments. The top execs may also need to voluntarily step aside, but still under their overall direction (for they have lots of experience), allow a younger generation (who have no emotional attachment to the traditional mirrored DSLRs but can rethink how cameras should work) to take charge.

It’s not too late to wake up. That blur passing them is the Sony A9, but as reviewers will tell you, it is not yet a perfect pro camera. It has most of the parts to be so, but they are not put together just quite right, and some important parts are still missing. Perhaps if Sony listen more closely to the Minolta engineers still within its midst (are any still there?), they would know just how to build a pro camera right — something that Canon and Nikon engineers have shown in their pro DSLRs that they know how to do extremely well. So, will the Sony A9 be the wake-up call that Canon and Nikon need — or will they simply press the snooze button once more. There’s still time to wake up and make this an epic mirrorless race.