The Question of Balance

(commentary)

Gizmodo's "Last Days of the DSLR" article is causing a lot of angst to show up in my In Box.  But it's not just that article, it's virtually every article on the Web these days. It seems that we have an Internet Amplification Effect (IAE) going on with a bunch of products at the moment, in particular the supposedly DSLR-killing Sony A7 and A7r. Writers can't wait to gush over them, apparently. Probably because they're different, so they finally have something different they can write about ;~).

I'll have my reviews of the Sony tandem sometime later this month over on sansmirror.com. But the thing that keeps coming back to me as I evaluate a lot of these recent cameras is the question of "balance." Yes, I can point out interesting new features, performance, price, size, etc., but is the balance right? 

The Gizmodo writer, Michael Hession, alludes to this (though apparently most people are reacting to the headline, not his main text): "[the Sony A7 pair] aren't anywhere near perfect cameras, but they are different cameras." That's his emphasis on the word "different", and it speaks to my point in the first paragraph: finally, something different to write about. Let's all pile on with enthusiasm!  

Personally, I don't care how different something is, but rather its suitability to function, its balance of features/performance/price, and how both those things stack up against things that might be competitive. Coincidentally, for example, the DxOMark scores for the A7 appeared the same day as the Gizmodo article: the Nikon D600 has a one-third stop advantage in low light over the Sony A7. Hmm. There goes some of the A out of the IAE that was hanging on the "same sensor, lower price" messages I've been seeing plastered all over the Web lately. 

And that EVF. Yes, it's less laggy, has more resolution, and enables a bunch of things that you'd have to use the rear LCD on a DSLR for (not missing on the DSLR, as Hession claims), the battery life on the A7 is 340 shots CIPA versus 900 on the Nikon D610. Oh, and Sony doesn't supply a separate battery charger. That puts a small double ding in the balance sheet, though you can correct one of them by paying a few dollars more for an optional charger.

Balance. It's really difficult to beat the balance that the DSLRs have achieved, partly because they have a three decade history of development now (SLR and DSLR). That's another thing Hession gets completely wrong in his article. His statement: "it's the big guys, Canon and Nikon, playing catch-up." No, it's not. It's the phalanx of unprofitable camera companies now attempting to use mirrorless designs to catch up to Canon and Nikon DSLRs. 

Balance. Hession claims that there's little reason to own a DSLR now because "We have mirrorless cameras that can match or exceed the DSLR in user experience, image quality, and handling." Not really true at the US$500 to US$800 price point, where most DSLR buying is currently being done.

Funny thing, I don't disagree with the title of the article, which is what most people seem to be reacting to. I've written before that we're going to see moves away from the traditional DSLR designs. It's inevitable because of costs and complexity. The more you can push the complexity into mass produced silicon and away from mechanical components, the more you can drive costs out of a product and simplify manufacturing. Those are things that the camera makers are going to have to do to survive. 

But the DSLR to mirrorless transition—or to something other than mirrorless; no one seems to have enough imagination to guess that there's an alternative, but I'll bet there is—is going to be dictated a lot by when the balance point shifts the advantage from one to the other, and at the price points where most of the buying is. That hasn't happened yet, though we're getting some interesting new products such as the Sony models that show we're getting closer.

For some people, a mirrorless choice might be the right answer: their balance needs are satisfied. That's one reason why I started sansmirror.com a couple of years ago. For other people, the DSLR is still going to tip the scales towards it, and that's what this site is all about. I actually bet on both horses in the race, so I don't really care which one, if any, wins. And as most of you know, I practice what I preach: I'm mirrorless for tasks for which it's appropriate, I'm DSLR for tasks for which it is appropriate. 

My advice to you is to examine the critical things that shift the balance point for you. Don't buy one or the other type of camera just because someone thinks one is dead and the other is arriving, or because one is new and hot and the other is older and assumed stale. Focus, frame rate, image quality, lens options, battery life, card write speed, size, weight, price, and yes features and handling, all have to balance out right for you to choose to purchase and use a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, or even just use your smartphone for photography.  

Oh, and there's one other point that people are missing: many folk already have their last sophisticated camera. They don't need something better until it dies. This actually raises the bar that the new not-DLSR alternatives will have to get past. This, I think is the problem that Canon and Nikon have. Sure, they could have done a camera like the A7 or E-M1 or X-E2, but they probably think that would have been a step backward. That the balance point would be shifted incorrectly. Of course, what they'll do to shift forward in the future is still unknown. They might not get it right, they might just join the mirrorless brigade as it gets to even with DSLRs, or they might see something that pushes them forward that's a bit different. I've seen two patents now that hint that it might be the latter, but who knows? That's one of the joys of life: the future always brings surprises.   

© Thom Hogan 2013 / All Rights Reserved bythom.com  @bythom #bythom