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September 25, 2020

Why DSLRs are Dead Technology | Long Live Mirrorless Cameras!

It’s 2021, and DSLRs are officially dead.

Well, they’ve technically been dead since 2016 when most companies stopped making new ones. In 2021, they’re so dead we don’t need to differentiate between DSLR and Mirrorless technology anymore. It’s all mirrorless now, and DSLRs are never coming back.

Why did DSLR’s die? Let’s find out!

Most Camera Companies Stopped Making New DSLR’s

The prosumer camera market’s major players are Sony, Canon, Panasonic, Fuji, and a few others.

The last DSLR camera (technically DSLT) that Sony sold was the Sony a68 released in 2016. As of this writing in 2021, Sony’s entire lineup is now mirrorless.

And Sony’s not the only player who has completely moved away from DSLR’s. Sure, Canon released the EOS 90D in 2020, but 95% of their camera lineup is mirrorless now. Panasonic, Fuji, Olympus, and Nikon are all in the same boat. Over 90% of each company’s latest camera models are now mirrorless.

Electronic Viewfinder Vs. Optical Viewfinders

DSLR technology was effectively a hack to get the live image into the viewfinder as the user was taking the picture.

DSLR’s place a mirror in front of the sensor. This routs the light up through the viewfinder, allowing you to see what your camera’s sensor would see if the mirror weren’t there. When you snap the photo, the mirror flips up and allows light to hit the sensor, and that’s when the camera records the image.

This is how an optical viewfinder works. It differs from mirrorless cameras in that mirrorless cameras read the image off the sensor electronically in real-time. This allows them to have an electronic viewfinder (flippy screen) so that you can preview your image while recording.

LCD screens sucked in 2004, the year mirrorless cameras were first introduced. Optical viewfinders gave you a much sharper image preview at the time.

But in 2021, as LCD screens have gotten better and cheaper, electrical viewfinders have caught up. In fact, mirrorless’s electrical viewfinders have many advantages right now.

  1. With an optical viewfinder, the mirror flips up when you take a picture, causing the screen to go black and the camera to make noise.
  2. Electronic viewfinders allow you to leverage a flippy screen or an external monitor in some camera models.
  3. Electronic viewfinders will enable you to display a ton of other useful information on your preview image—histograms, ISO, white balance, camera gain, etc.

“Modern” DSLR’s have been coming out with electronic viewfinders in recent years. However, these cameras effectively leverage mirrorless technology, so we don’t need to compare them to mirrorless cameras.

DSLR’s AutoFocus Vs. Mirrorless Autofocus in 2021.

Back in the early 2010s, the best autofocus systems we had were the phase-detect autofocus that DSLR’s were using. It worked faster than what most mirrorless cameras were capable of at the time.

Mirrorless cameras once again caught up. This primarily has to do with computer processor speeds on mobile devices from 2004 to 2021. (Imagine processor speeds in the original 2007 iPhone vs. the latest 2021 iPhone.) This increase in processing speed allowed mirrorless cameras to surpass DSLR’s.

Nowadays, if you look into autofocus, you’re likely to hear words like contrast-detect, eye-detect, animal detect, etc. Camera companies have put vast efforts behind creating the best autofocus algorithms.

This is why you don’t see many new DSLR’s. Even when you do see one like the Canon EOS 90D (released in 2020). You’ll notice that it leverages a ton of mirrorless technology. It’s really more of a DSLR/Mirrorless hybrid than a pure DSLR.

If you want to see how insane autofocus has gotten in recent years, I recommend checking out the sony Sony A7s iii; it’s incredible. It blows autofocus from any DSLR out of the water. Due to this advantage, I don’t expect DSLR’s will ever come back.

DSLR’s Tend To Be Larger, Thicker, and Heavier Than Mirrorless Cameras

DSLR’s need to make room for the mirror and pentaprism that gets the light from the mirror to the viewfinder. In general, mirrorless cameras have less stuff going on, so they tend to be more compact than DSLR’s.

One might think this would be an advantage for mirrorless cameras (and it is). But, some camera makers have used this size and heft to do a better job of weather-sealing their DSLR lineups. Though that will vary by model.

Also to a layman, a gigantic camera might give off the impression that you’re a serious photographer in a way a smaller camera does not. Several or more years ago, the photographer at their wedding was likely lugging around a gigantic DSLR. So they associate that look with a professional as they know nothing about cameras.

Mirrorless Has (Better) In-Body Image Stabilization

Mirrorless cameras coming out in 2020 (Sony A7s iii) are doing great things with in-body image stabilization. You can walk around and get a smooth video without leveraging a gimbal (admittedly, there’s usually a small crop).

As far as I know, there isn’t a technical reason IBIS couldn’t be added to a DSLR (although IDK how that would work with the mirror system). I believe the reason for the lack of IBIS in DSLRs is that manufacturers are only including it in their newest cameras, and they’ve stopped making DSLRs.

DSLRs are often stuck with the features of their time. Going forward, any new features camera companies come up with likely won’t make it into a DSLR. For example, even the Canon EOS 90D which is a DSLR that came out in 2020, didn’t have IBIS.

You can likely find a lens with stabilization for your DSLR. But, don’t expect that to be a feature included in your camera.

DSLR’s Make Noise

With a DSLR, when you snap a picture, the mirror moves up so that light can get into the sensor, and the image can be recorded. This mirror movement makes a noticeable sound that’s hard to get rid of without an expensive camera muzzle.

With mirrorless cameras, there are no moving parts. If a sound gets made when you take a picture, it’s done electronically. There’s probably an option to turn off the sound in the settings.

Do DSLR’s Have Any Advantages in 2021 and Beyond?

There are only three potential advantages of DSLR’s over mirrorless cameras that I can think of. And these advantages have dwindled over the years to almost nothing.

The first is battery life. A mirrorless camera is doing a lot more electronically than a DSLR is, so it obviously uses more power. That said, over the years, processors and LED’s have gotten more efficient while batteries continue to get better. This battery advantage has nearly disappeared, although you may still want to get a second battery for your mirrorless camera.

The second is if you’ve previously owned DSLR cameras, then you may have a costly antiquated lens collection. Lenses are insanely expensive. Yes, they make adapters now, but I get how this might give you pause when upgrading.

The third is price. I expect DSLR’s (and their lenses) to become cheaper in the used camera market. Everyone is moving to mirrorless, and there may not be a robust DSLR market going forward. Meaning you might be able to find some decent used cameras out there at a deal of a price.

Can You LiveStream with a DSLR

Thanks to tax laws, most DSLR’s will stop recording after 29 minutes and 59 seconds. If it records for longer than that, it’s considered a video camera and is subject to higher taxes. This makes most models a less than ideal camera for live-streaming. Although you will have to check your individual camera model.

You will also need to check your DSLR for some type of HDMI output (or in future years, maybe USB-C, wifi, or some cable that hasn’t been invented yet.). You will need a video output from your camera to live stream. Most DSLRs won’t have this built-in.

Can a DSLR Shoot 4k

Nothing is stopping a DSLR camera from being able to record video in 4k. That said, most camera manufacturers haven’t produced new DSLR’s since 2016. The 4k capabilities of cameras built before 2016 tended to be extremely limited compared to what exists today. Since most DSLR’s came out before that date, they’re probably not great options for 4k video.

The same goes for any features that have come out around 2021. Can a DSLR shoot video in 10-bit color? Probably not, since that really didn’t start becoming common in cameras until well after 2016. That said, if a new DSLR hits the market, it could potentially have those features.

Can DSLR’s Take Video?

Most DSLR’s to come out since 2015, like the EOS 5d Mark IV, can take video. And newer DSLR’s might have a flippy screen to see yourself live while recording as well. That said, these cameras leverage mirrorless technology and are effectively DSLR / Mirrorless hybrids. An older DSLR isn’t going to have a live video preview on a flippy screen. Nor will older DSLR’s have the latest and greatest features of newer mirrorless cameras made for video.  

Shaun Poore worked as a professional software developer for 15 years before transitioning into content creation and digital product businesses. Shaun's currently focused on providing as many people as possible with actionable advice and tools they can use to succeed online, without the fluff or BS that too often plagues this industry.