The Death of the Digital SLR Camera?

With the advent of truly decent cell-phone cameras, digital SLRs are gathering dust around the globe.

iPhone or Nikon? Leave a comment if you think you can tell.
iPhone or Nikon? Leave a comment if you think you can tell.

The Financial Post this weekend features an article forecasting the demise of the digital single lens reflex (dSLR) camera, and with it, the fortunes of the venerable camera giants Canon and Nikon. Sales are heading south, apparently, with a 10-15% decline worldwide; Nikon’s shares are down a whopping 33% this year.

It kind of sucks. If Nikon and Canon suffer, then all photographers suffer to some extent, as these have been two of the great innovators in the field for a long time. It’s sad to see their bottom lines tanking with the rise of the smart phone camera, but I can’t say it’s surprising. The mid-2000s were a golden age for camera vendors; the newly-affordable digital Nikons and Canons made dSLRs available to an whole new demographic of consumers. Suddenly everybody had to have a D90 or a Rebel, and sales skyrocketed, “growing double digits for almost ten years,” according to the article.

Nikon D3000 with the Sigma 50-500mm "Bigma" lens. Sometimes you just need the right tools for the job.
Nikon D7000 with the Sigma 50-500mm “Bigma” lens. Sometimes you just need the right tools for the job.

But let’s face it: these were nothing but fancy point-and-shoots for the vast majority of users, who would be pretty hard pressed to tell you what the initials SLR stood for, much less why it mattered. Eventually, these new users settled out into one of two groups: the small minority who discovered what exciting work could be done with these wondrous new cameras, and the vast majority who got tired of shlepping them around once the cachet of looking like a professional photographer wore off.

Coinciding with this SLR disillusionment was, of course, the rise of the cell phone camera. They were good for nothing in the early days, except perhaps adding an embarrassing new visual dimension to drunk texting. But how they have improved! Why carry anything else, really, when all you need is a basic point-and-shoot in your pocket or purse? Suddenly, there are a lot of dSLRs gathering dust out there.

Anole lizard, US Virgin Islands. Nikon 18-200 zoom. Focussing on small objects within a large frame is something the iPhone still does really, really badly.
Anole lizard, US Virgin Islands. Nikon 18-200 zoom. Focussing on small objects within a large frame is something the iPhone still does really, really badly.

Looking back over the last year or two, I can certainly bear witness to the trend. Particularly since I got my iPhone 5, which has a really decent camera, I find I’m a little less prone to carry my Nikon everywhere. At least to places where I would be shooting basic scenic shots; that is where the smartphone camera really shines, with its semi-wide-angle (33mm equivalent) lens.

I put my own iPhone 5 camera through its paces in April with my trip to New York City. That was my first big self-assignment without my Nikon, and it was really interesting. Not having a big SLR around my neck in the Big Apple was tremendously liberating. For the first time, I didn’t have to think about where I would put my camera while eating at a restaurant, shopping, sitting in the theatre, etc. My camera just slid in my pocket. I was quite pleased with the results, though I could have had some beautiful street portraits if I’d had my trusty 18-200 zoom.

Downtown NYC, shot with my iPhone 5 and edited with Snapseed, Google's excellent photo app.
Downtown NYC, shot with my iPhone 5 and edited with Snapseed, Google’s excellent photo app.

The big advantage of smartphone photography, of course, is the instant connection to social media. That, for me, was my Nikon’s Achilles heel. It’s frustrating knowing you have a great shot locked up in your camera and no way of sharing it; it’s particularly deadly when you’re working on assignment with an editor waiting and the clock ticking away. Shooting the winter canoe races in Quebec City last February was the last straw for me; I could have had some really exciting photographs online in near-real-time if I’d solved the sharing issue.

My cellphone images were crap but shareable; this one was locked up in my SLR. Grrr.
My cellphone images were crap but shareable; this one was locked up in my SLR. Grrr.

Finally this summer I came across the Eye-fi, an SD memory card that has a wifi broadcaster built in. Slide it into your SLR, set up the app on your smartphone, and you can bounce your shots to your phone instantly, even without an external wifi network to log onto. It’s fantastic. On my assignment for Toque and Canoe in June, I was able to shoot on my Nikon, transfer the shots, edit them on my smartphone using Snapseed, and post the shots to my editor in the space of a minute. Talk about the best of both worlds: quality photos, shot through quality lenses on a quality sensor, beamed to the world via smartphone technology. I was the envy of quite a few bloggers, I can tell you.

Nikon D3000 with Eye-fi. Point (fast-focus), shoot (3 frames per second), transfer to smart phone, share, kick ass.
Nikon D7000 with Eye-fi. Point (fast-focus), shoot (3 frames per second), transfer to smart phone, share, kick ass.

Ultimately I can’t see SLR Nikons and Canons ever being fully irrelevant. I’m quite certain they will go back to what they were before 2002 or so: high-end professional photography equipment. And yes, the companies’ bottom lines will suffer, and yes the prices of these cameras will rise again.

That’s the real tragedy for me: the affordability of the Nikon D200 was the catalyst that opened a whole new world of photography for me. The dSLRs are a fantastic value that puts really good photography within reach of students, starving artists, talented Moms on a budget, and so many others. It will be a shame if promising photographers lose access to that calibre of equipment. Mind you, they’ll probably simply do what I did in my early days: save their nickels, buy good used equipment and try to work their magic with it, all the while dreaming of their next big purchase. Artists do as they must, after all.

(Thanks to my bro-in-law Michael for the Financial Post article.)

You don't get shots like this with a smart phone. Hat tip to the lovely people at Travel Manitoba who sent it out to their Twitterverse minutes after I got the shot.
You don’t get shots like this with a smart phone. Hat tip to the lovely people at Travel Manitoba who sent it out to their Twitterverse minutes after I got the shot.

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