The DSLR is fading away. Now what?

The camera that symbolizes the mainstream of serious digital photography now looks increasingly like yesterday's tool.

Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and The PHM HealthFront™. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
Expertise Automotive technology, smart home, digital health. Credentials
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Brian Cooley
2 min read

The single lens reflex camera has been the iconic mainstay of "serious" photography since the 1960s, and its digital version, the DSLR, has served that role during the 21st century. But a 50-year run at the top seems to be peaking as cameras with mirrors and pentaprisms are being pushed aside by mirrorless cameras. Now what?

"You get a lot more computer brains" in a mirrorless camera, says Stephen Shankland, senior reporter at CNET and longtime avid photographer. "You have all the light information going to the image sensor all the time, and one of the big things you can do is a lot better autofocus." DSLRs usually only send the lens' image to the sensor when you press the shutter button, narrowing the amount of time the sensor has to adapt to and capture the image. It's a derivation of film camera design that mirrorless cameras can ostensibly run circles around. 


It's a handful, but the DSLR has become the go-to camera for those who want the best photos, in spite of its cost, weight and complexity. Now the mirrorless camera arrives to knock the DSLR off its mantle with more phone-like features and less bulk.


Sony recently ceased making DSLRs in favor of mirrorless cameras, but DSLR giants Canon and Nikon have yet to cut and run, instead placing new priority on mirrorless cameras like the Canon R5 and R6 or the Nikon Z Series while their legacy DSLRs soldier on. Mirrorless cameras are typically more compact than famously clunky DSLRs, but often require new lenses or an adapter if you want to keep your DSLR lenses, somewhat defeating any size and weight improvement.

Sony DSLR cutaway

Sony's last DSLR cameras were quietly discontinued in May. The company has shifted entirely to cameras that eliminate the mirror central to the DSLR design, as seen in the center of the above cutaway.


To be sure, the bottom hasn't yet fallen out of the market for interchangeable lens cameras, a category that includes both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, according to data from Japans' Camera and Imaging Products Association. Thank video for much of that buoyancy, as DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are the go-to choice for a couple of generations of video producers. Still, the DSLR exit has begun, one that Shankland predicts will be a long one since the technology still offers a compelling combination of image quality, lens choice and the inertia of a large installed base that has invested a lot of money in gear.

"I don't think you need to run out and grab the last DSLR on the shelf," says Shankland. "Canon and Nikon are moving gradually through this transition."

Shankland had many more insights into the camera market based on his coverage at CNET. Hear them all in the video.


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