Why Nikon and Canon have given up on DSLRs

The biggest news in the camera industry this month is that Nikon is reportedly halting development of new SLR cameras, marking the end of a 63-year career. From now on, it focuses exclusively on Z-mount mirrorless models like the Z6, Z50 and the recently launched flagship Z9.

This is a seismic shift in the industry as Nikon has a long history with SLR cameras, stretching back to the iconic Nikon F which was released in 1959. But it’s not the only company moving in this direction: Canon has already confirmed that the EOS-1DX Mark III will be its final flagship DSLR, and Sony switched to selling only mirrorless cameras last year.

Until recently, SLRs were considered a better option than mirrorless cameras for action photography, so what happened? Simply put, mirrorless models have improved so dramatically in recent years that they’ve made DSLRs moot.

Many pro photographers stick with their DSLRs, and the main reason is for speed. As we explained in our Upscaled series a few years ago, SLR cameras have dedicated under-mirror autofocus sensors. They are extremely fast, allowing for high burst capture speeds with precise focusing with every shot. Canon’s 1DX III, for example, can shoot at up to 16fps when AF and autoexposure are on.

Many serious shooters also still prefer an optical viewfinder. They want an object view they can trust and believe that a physical view via a prism and mirror is superior to an artificial electronic view. The downside, of course, is that you can’t see the picture when you take it because the mirror is raised to block the display.

The final big thing is battery life and handling: flagship DSLRs have heavy bodies and big grips that make for stable shooting platforms, especially with the massive telephoto lenses used by sports and wildlife photographers. They are also covered with dials and buttons for easier handling. And the optical viewfinder obviously doesn’t drain the battery, allowing DSLRs to take a lot more photos on a charge.

Why Nikon and Canon gave up DSLRs

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That was true even until recently, but the latest mirrorless cameras have allayed most of those concerns. The most notable change was the introduction of stacked sensors. These have much faster readout speeds, allowing for fast continuous shooting and more accurate autofocus. They also produce less rolling shutter in electronic mode, reducing skew in photos and shaking in videos.

Canon’s EOS R3 is a great example of this. It’s slightly slower than the 1DX Mark III DSLR in mechanical shutter mode, but much faster with the electronic shutter and delivers higher resolution. Sony’s A1 is even more impressive, letting you fire off 50-megapixel RAW images at 30fps.

Perhaps the most vivid display of stacked sensor performance is Nikon’s new flagship Z9. The electronic shutter lets you shoot 46MP RAW images at 20fps and doesn’t even have a mechanical shutter. By comparison, Nikon’s flagship D6 DSLR can handle 14 RAW frames per second, but at 21 megapixels they have less than half the resolution.

The viewfinder problem is also largely solved. Not long ago, mirrorless EVFs tended to be sluggish, low-res, and choppy, while sharing a problematic issue with DSLRs — the viewfinder went black when you took the picture. Now all three models above have sharp and fast OLED displays that switch smooth refresh rates from at least 120Hz and up to 240Hz. And all offer blackout-free footage in most conditions. All of this arguably offers professionals a better view than an optical viewfinder.

Why Nikon and Canon gave up DSLRs

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After all, cameras like Nikon’s Z9 and Canon’s R3 are just as bulky as their DSLR counterparts, and they pack control with control. And if you’re looking for a professional camera that isn’t huge, Sony offers small, manageable cameras like the A1 and A9.

However, battery life is still an issue for mirrorless cameras alongside DSLRs. The Nikon D6 can take a whopping 3,580 shots on one charge, while the Z9 is CIPA-certified for just 770 – and that’s a lot for a mirrorless camera. Mirrorless will always be at a disadvantage for now, but the situation is improving.

All in all, with these key improvements in stacked sensors, improved EVFs, and better handling, mirrorless models can now compete with SLRs. However, they are actually superior in almost every other category.

Take the auto focus. Although DSLRs have fast dedicated phase-detection AF sensors, mirrorless models have many more phase-detection pixels right on the main sensor. At Canon, every single pixel is used for AF. This theoretically allows for faster and more accurate autofocus.

Why Nikon and Canon gave up DSLRs

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With their hybrid phase and contrast detection pixels directly on the sensor, modern mirrorless cameras are also gaining AI smarts. Most can perform subject, face, and eye recognition on people, birds, animals, cars, and more. This is particularly useful for action photography to track fast-moving subjects – an area traditionally dominated by SLR cameras. And with the latest processors and stacked sensors, these features are finally good enough to be used in the real world of professional shooting.

As mentioned, some of the best mirrorless cameras are now eliminating the viewfinder blackout that plagues DSLRs. And the stacked sensors also greatly reduce rolling shutter, which can result in shaky, distorted photos. They’re now good enough to enable shots of fast-moving subjects, with the benefit of being quiet if you’re working at a golf tournament, for example.

Perhaps the biggest benefit is video. Photographers in many different fields are asked to do this in addition to taking photos, whether they’re shooting weddings or working for major news and sports agencies.

Why Nikon and Canon gave up DSLRs

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DSLRs like Canon’s 5D helped kickstart the trend towards capturing high-quality video with consumer cameras, and newer models like the 1DX III are good at handling video. On the whole, however, mirrorless models are superior. Nikon’s Z9, Canon R3 and Sony A1 can take on most cinema cameras, making them real double threats. That’s thanks to incredible video autofocus systems, resolutions up to 8K, RAW video capture, top-notch audio capabilities, and more.

Additionally, most mirrorless cameras (unlike DSLRs) have stabilization built into the body, so you don’t have to worry about this feature being present on the lens. Speaking of lenses designed for mirrorless cameras tend to be smaller, lighter and optically better as the back is closer to the sensor.

Then there is the question of price and cost. Mirrorless cameras are less complex than DSLRs and therefore tend to be cheaper. For example, Nikon’s Z9 is $1,000 less than the D6, and the Canon EOS R3 is $500 cheaper than the 1DX Mark III.

After all, with the smartphone-induced decline in the camera market, it doesn’t make much sense for manufacturers to build both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. Now they appear to be focused on one technology for the sake of profitability.

Wrap up

Why Nikon and Canon gave up DSLRs

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Photographers can be sad that DSLRs seem to be at the end of their careers, especially if they’ve just bought one. But don’t panic — while Nikon and Canon appear to have stopped making new DSLRs and lenses, they will continue to make and sell existing models.

The key factor behind this is that mirrorless has not only caught up with reflective mirror technology, it will soon overtake it. For example, Sony recently unveiled new sensors that can collect twice as much light as current stacked sensors, paving the way for fast captures even in low light. And you can expect much faster image processors, better EVFs and smarter AF systems in the near future.

In other words, future mirrorless technology might make you forget that digital cameras ever had mirrors inside. Then we might just see them in their original glory – with a roll of film inside.

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Russell Falcon

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