Nikon and Canon will be Marginalized in the next five years, so say the tea leaves

How much longer will they last?

Almost two years ago I wrote an article that said DSLRs are a dying breed, and many people thought I was crazy. Let’s be honest. Many still do.

Three months ago I permanently shelved my Nikon DSLR system and switched to the 6x-smaller Sony NEX system. See Hello Sony. Goodbye Nikon. (many sample photos there too!)

Even though this data is anecdotal, I can also be very objective and tell you that the camera doesn’t matter (with certain exceptions). For example, if you’re doing hardcore animal or bird photography, then you’ll probably want to keep around those specialized DSLR systems. But that is the whole point of this piece – that use cases for giant camera bodies and glass will become increasingly marginalized to the point where Nikon and Canon are on the edge rather than the hump of the bell curve.

I have a very good friend that is high-placed in the industry — I won’t repeat his name — but he had the lovely prescient quote: “Nikon and Canon will become like Lionel trains – for collectors.”

The Camera doesn’t matter

So, I see you’re sitting there saying, “Trey, the camera doesn’t matter!” Yes, I’m here to tell you the camera doesn’t matter — I agree! And, assuming you’ll be buying more camera equipment in the next five years, then why, pray tell, do you think that you’ll continue buying giant DSLRs? You’ll have ever-increasing superior choices that enable you to a) buy a much smaller camera that has superior performance and b) spend a fraction of the same amount.

And you can look at me and a few other pros that have made the switch. I don’t compromise on quality. Sony didn’t pay me to switch or sponsor me or anything. They even offered to send me unlimited cameras and lenses and I told them no. So that’s not what drove my decision – I simply want the best. When I travel around to awesome locations, I only want to use the best because I may never get back there again. My Sony cameras are a mere fraction of the size and a mere fraction of the cost. Look, you can easily spend $4,000+ on a big DSLR system, but my little NEX was only about $1,000. I can also buy all the lenses I need for a song too.

Furthermore, who knows what Sony will announce next? It’s just 2013… this is the most exciting time ever in the history of camera technology.

Look at the scary numbers

Okay, so let’s say you don’t like my anecdotal extrapolations. Let’s look at some of the actual numbers. Nikon makes 78% its profit from Camera sales. Yearly sales of DSLRs have dropped 10.9% percent (according to IDC’s Christopher Chute research director of worldwide digital imaging). Canon’s in the same boat, but at least they make printers and have other businesses to fall back on. But their DSLR line is in the same boat as Nikon. And to think, the DSLR market used to be one that was growing by double digits for the last ten years.

Even scarier, the rate of market decline is accelerating each quarter.

Nikon shares are down 33% on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Interesting that people outside of the camera industry see this trend better than those of us in it.

Shooting with the NEX system in Tokyo

So, while I’m here in Japan, the executive teams at Nikon and Canon are continuing to bury their heads in the sand. I have wondered why Sony seems to be so much more on the ball and making such interesting cameras and systems. I think it is because they have a younger management team. Also, I notice they are much more engaged with social media. I know this Sony guy here in New Zealand named Tim Barlow that totally gets social media and how it is tied into product development, marketing, and the photography community as a whole. I never really got that feeling from Nikon or Canon.

Don’t feel threatened

I notice that when I write these “Death knell of the DSLR” articles that people come out with pitchforks. Hey man, I’m not telling you that you have to get rid of your camera — I’m here with good news! Since you’ll undoubtedly be buying more equipment for the next X years (you will concede this, yes), you’ll be able to upgrade in every possible way that matters: smaller size, more flexibility, better software, lower cost. Every single trend line points to this.

The current DSLR system you have will serve you very well. In fact, you can of course make the argument that you’ll never need anything else for the rest of your life! But com’on… let’s be honest… most people that are into digital photography also enjoy buying new stuff every few years. Just keep an open mind…

I know I’m pretty much alone in these thoughts. I go set up my tripod in a popular spot and I’m surrounded by 20 other dudes with DSLRs. They look at me at my little camera and scoff. Whenever people give me those wonderfully condescending looks, I take solace in the lucid truth of their own insecurity. Furthermore, for years, photographers have been brainwashed and told that the only way to take a professional photo is to use a DSLR. That’s rubbish. And I’ll Hemingway fight anyone that wants to fight about it.

So many options with smaller, mirrorless cameras!

There is an amazing community around these mirrorless cameras now – and we are all so excited it is crazy. Have you seen all the vim and vigor around the micro-four thirds cameras like the Olympus OMD and the Panasonic Lumix? Those are also awesome cameras and they can do some things no DSLR could dream of. They even have one feature that I wish my Sony had! I was with my friend Gage here in New Zealand when he came over for a week’s photo adventure, and he showed me this feature that blew my mind! We were shooting some fire dancers, and he opened up the shutter and showed me the photo developing on the sensor as time moved forward. I saw the light trails building section by section! He can just stop it whenever he wants. And this is just one of a thousand different cool things this new technology brings.

Soon, DSLRS will go the way of the Blackberry.

There is so much disruption in this space. Another reason for the decline in DSLRs is the rise in mobile phone cameras. Androids and iPhones now come with some amazing little sensors and great software. Many people who once opted for a DSLR are now happy with their mobile phone cameras. I think that these mirrorless systems are still vastly superior to mobile phone cameras, but this delta may decrease over time as well.

Nikon and Canon have released mirrorless systems but they have been generally considered quite weak. I don’t know if this is because of a generally bad design ethic and lack of innovation, or if they were worried about creating a mirrorless system that could cannibalize their sacred cash cow. I worry it is the latter.

More on the switch away from DSLRs

I sat down with Frederick Van Johnson from This Week in Photography to go through all the various reasons and dispel misconceptions. He asked a ton of different questions and we got into the meat of it all. “‘To take an interesting photo, some may choose to carry around a lot of metal and glass and mirrors and silicon. I choose to carry around less metal and glass and silicon. Oh, and no mirrors.’ – Me, quoting myself.” – Trey Ratcliff

Small cameras on a client job?

Heck yeah! In fact, regular readers know that I don’t do client work — I’ve been a professional photographer for a long time, but I’ve always said no to client work. There is nothing wrong with it of course, but I instead prefer to take whatever creative photos I want, own all the rights, then license them out later. Clients will hire you based on the quality of your portfolio, not the size of your camera. Or, at least, they should (and increasingly will).

However, I have made ONE exception! Air New Zealand came to me with an incredible situation. So I said yes! This is my new home-country and I think it’s gonna be an awesome shoot. In a few days, I’m headed up there with my little Sony NEX cameras. I’m sure the crew and the 20+ people on the ground there will be aghast! I love it. I’m just gonna own it and blast in there with all my chakras pointing forwards.

I’ll have a film crew also coming to record a behind-the-scenes of this whole shoot, so you can see what it’s like. I’ll get that up here on the blog ASAP, but I think the whole thing will be a lot of fun and hopefully continue to dispel all the irrational fears people have about smaller cameras. You can look for that new video here on my YouTube channel too (subscribe for free).

Sony NEX-7 Review

If you want to find out more about this camera I’m using, see the full-on Sony NEX-7 Review here on the site. Enjoy!

Daily Photo – The Lower Antelope Canyon

This was my first time into the famous slot canyons — I’ve always wanted to go! Look, here’s the honest truth. You just can’t take a bad shot in there. That’s nice, really – lay up after lay up… so then I guess you can goof around and try to do something interesting and unique and have fun with it… that is what I did here at f/11 exposure and playing with multiple shafts of light streaming in from above.

(and yes, of course I used the Sony NEX!) :)

The Lower Antelope Canyon

The Lower Antelope Canyon

Photo Information

  • Date Taken
  • CameraNEX-7
  • Camera MakeSony
  • Exposure Time1/10
  • Aperture11
  • ISO100
  • Focal Length10.0 mm
  • FlashOff, Did not fire
  • Exposure ProgramAperture-priority AE
  • Exposure Bias

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  • dgatwood

    I think the main reason for declines in DSLR sales has little to do with smartphones or mirrorless cameras and everything to do with market saturation. With the exception of DPAF in the 70D, IMO, Canon hasn’t changed their crop bodies very much recently. Sure, they release a new model every year, but the feature set is similar, the sensors have been sitting at 18 megapixels since 2010, and they still haven’t introduced any of the consumer features like GPS and Wi-Fi into any of their Rebel bodies. Heck, they haven’t put GPS into *any* crop bodies yet.

    Basically, I can’t think of any good reason why an average T2i or T3i owner would upgrade his or her camera to a T5i. As long as that is the case, I would expect the market to continue to slow. Give us a 24MP DPAF sensor, built-in Wi-Fi and GPS, auto-AFMA, and a significantly improved user interface, and you might well see people start to upgrade again.

    You may well be right that mirrorless will cut into the bottom end of the DSLR market—particularly among the class of users who never upgrade from the kit lens that comes with the camera. However, the advantages of mirrorless for everybody else are IMO somewhat overblown.

    First, the size advantage of the camera becomes a disadvantage when you get a long enough lens on it, and IIRC, the lens size advantage is mostly at shorter focal lengths, so you don’t really save that much size or weight unless you mainly shoot with wide-angle lenses. Landscape photographers, rejoice. For everybody else? Meh.

    Second, when you factor in the extra batteries (EVFs use a lot more power than passive OVFs), you lose a lot of the size and weight advantage.

    Third, although DSLRs are complex, the complexity is well understood and quite polished. The DSLR design provides a reasonable tradeoff between battery life and viewfinder features, IMO, and even if we get to the point where the mirror can’t move fast enough for high-speed continuous shooting, you could always just leave the mirror up and use a hybrid EVF/OVF when shooting in that mode. That would provide the best of both worlds—the better battery life of an OVF most of the time, without the limitations when you really need an EVF.

    I suspect that 200 years from now, all cameras will be mirrorless. There are decided advantages to using the sensor for focusing, and there are also things you can do with an EVF that aren’t possible with an OVF. Clearly that’s the direction things are headed eventually. With that said, it would not surprise me to see mirrorless cameras with normal DSLR flange distance to avoid some of the optical defects inherent in current mirrorless cameras. And I’d expect many of those mirrorless bodies to be about the same size as current DSLR bodies.

    I couldn’t begin to guess when the pendulum will swing fully in that direction, though. It might be twenty years or it might be a hundred. I’m pretty sure it won’t be five.

    Just my $0.02.

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