The Death of the DSLR

It’s not the first time that the DSLR has been declared dead, but it may be the first time that a CEO of major camera manufacturer has made it clear that his company cannot compete against smartphone cameras.

It was all over the press last week, Canon CEO Fujio Mitarai the leader of the Japanese camera giant, warned that the digital camera industry would keep declining. He said, “by around 2021, it will have reached its lowest point, having shrunk by almost 50 percent from today.” To survive, Mitarai says Canon, which pioneered autofocus and many other digital innovations enjoyed by professionals and enthusiasts alike will shift to corporate customers in fields like surveillance and medical care.

And today some even worse news.

According to the Camera Imaging Products Association (CIPA), 2018 sales numbers are the worst ever recorded for the digital camera market.

Japanese manufacturers shipped 20% fewer units in 2018 as compared with the same time in 2017. That’s a huge drop, and one that supports Mitarai’s concerns and conclusions. For its part, DSLR cameras dropped 13% in total unit sales while the value of the DSLR market as a whole took a 17% hit.

“People usually shoot with smartphones,” Mitarai said in an interview with Nikkei. “The digital camera market will keep falling for about two years. In our company, cameras have declined at around 10 percent a year in the past few years. Professional and amateurs use about 5 to 6 million units. Finally, the market will hit bottom.”

The Numbers

According to Mitarai and other sources such as LensVid and researchers at Business Insider, the world market for interchangeable lens cameras is at 10 million units, that’s down 81% from 2010. Canon and the other manufacturers expect that to fall to 5 million over the next two years and when you divide that number by the three largest producers of DLSR’s it is easy to see that the number of sales units does not support investment in future innovation and experimentation.

Mitarai pointed out that mirrorless camera sales are on the increase but at the expense of the standard DSLR.  Mirrorless cameras are cannibalizing the standard DSLR sales segment and do not contribute to market growth.

What Happened?

Some of the causes of the rapid shift away from DSLR cameras are obvious, and others are not.

SmartphonesThese devices killed the point and shoot camera market, and since 20017 they have invaded the dslr space due to technology, innovation and improved output quality. Look at some of the major magazine layouts and billboards, and you will find successful work from iPhones and other smartphone cameras. The quality improves each year and often meets the needs of publications, websites, and print.

Mirrorless Technology should be a leap forward, but it’s not – Sony pioneered ,and to their credit, dominates the mirrorless market in quality, innovation, and lens choice. Canon and Nikon came to this party late and simply created a mirrorless version of their dslr. Sony started with a clean slate and no legacy issues and yet according to LensVid, mirrorless manufacturers tend to make a lot of noise about these cameras, yet sales regarding overall market contribution remain stagnant.

The DSLR Camera User is aging out of the market In the camera market the DSLR is for ‘old people,’ and this applies to the mirrorless family as well. Ask any camera retailer, at least the ones who are left, and they will tell you that the folks standing in front of their counters have a lot of gray hair and AARP Cards in their wallet.


Smartphone cameras and their built-in software of filters, frames, and other programs will continue to grow and dominate the photography market. However, as of 2018 Apple and other manufacturers have seen a decline in the growth of new users and upgrade speed from existing users as the smartphone market matures and saturates. Moreover, the price point of a high-end smartphone is about ½ to 1/3 of a DSLR with tons more ap and communication functionality. The algorithms in today’s smartphones allow for mimicking depth of field, instant panoramas, handheld night photography, and of course, the instant display of the photographers work on platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, etc.

However, the smartphone is a computer, albeit a powerful one, but one that provides programmed output. The images created by smartphones are glossy documentary works, and there certainly is a place for these images just as there was for the Kodak Instamatic snapshots from times past. Photographic documentation is the largest part of the image market.

Nonetheless, Personal Expression requires personal visual decisions and while today’s dslr cameras have powerful sensors and advanced controls for focus, numerous lens choices and other features, the photographer, unless shooting in the Auto Mode, determines the outcome. The mental thread work required to conceive of an image, imagine the post-production workflow, and to create a vision beyond documentation is the product of human intervention, not Artificial Intelligence. Thus, the dslr, mirrored or mirrorless, is our best creative option for now.

The Future

Canon and other manufacturers will adapt to a smaller market for creative users, and of course, the price points will rise to support the smaller user base.  Based on trends and manufacturing evolution, it seems safe to predict that not all the major camera manufacturers will still be with us at the end of this decade, and perhaps sooner.

Big photos came from a little camera                                Photo:

The numbers are the numbers and the like all things the photographic market changes constantly. What does not change is our need to express ourselves visually and who knows what new tools, be it a classical camera design or further innovations in smartphone camera technologies will come to pass to satisfy our requirement to create.

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(4) Comments

  1. Neil Reynolds

    Well said Bob – Those of us that wish to utilize the photographic medium as a graphic means of personal expression will continue to enjoy the controls that are available through the use of a real camera and post-production processing.
    Back in the days of film I used to eschew the use of a light meter, Today, through your teaching, I am learning about the latitude of expressive options available in digital processing. Certainly the telephone/cameras have their place just as did Instamatic cameras in grabbing priceless “Kodak moments”. But snap-shots are simply that – snap shots. I’m glad they are readily available, however they are not a reflection of a personal artistic reflection. Automation will not displace personal expression anymore than photography displaced painting.
    I’ve no fear of my sole or creative bent being replaced by a computer…

  2. Cecily Drucker

    A few months ago I made a similar prediction to a friend; when Apple and Samsung figure out how to increase resolution and reduce noise, not only will the DSLR be history, but so will the mirrorless for all but those of us who pursue photography as a form of expression, not just a recorder of “been there, done that.”

    PS: writing comments on a black background is maddeningly annoying…cannot you figure out another way to present this?

  3. lfujiwara

    When it comes to image quality and camera control, the full frame DSLR is still king. Everything looks good when you view your image taken on a smartphone on its 3″ x 6″ screen (every image looks good on a small screen), but download that image to your computer and you will see an image that is soft and not of very high quality. Sure the smartphone has built in apps and filters to improve your images but a good photographer does not need filters to improve an image. Filters are for photographer who try to make a average image look better. Good photographers capture the image with the camera with a good eye and the ability to control a camera to capture the image in camera with a minimal amount of editing. Smartphones are great in the sense that you are always able to have a camera with you to capture images or video in an instant, but great photography starts with a good photographer with a good eye who knows how to use camera controls to capture the image he/she wants with the ability to edit the image to get the image he/she visualized in his/her mind when they took it.
    The problem with the camera manufacturers is their need to come out with a new version of each camera model every few years to try to get you too upgrade to the newest model. I went from the Canon 5D to the 5D Mark III to the 5DSR. I skipped the ones in between. I purchased each one for a particular reason, not just because it was the latest and newest. they had features I needed and wanted.
    Problem today is that anyone who owns a DSLR thinks they are a professional photographer. They just take lots of photos hoping to get a few good ones. If you need to take a 1000 images to get 20 good ones, you are a bad photographers. There are a lot of bad photographer out there claiming to be professionals who are not.

  4. Hadley Johnson

    Bob, I enjoyed your post, especially your section on “Algorithms Versus Personal Expression.” This section made me wonder if there are some tell-tail signs of when an image has been processed with “algorithms” .

Comments are closed.

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