The death knell for digital SLR cameras is spurring an innovation race between Nikon, Canon and Panasonic
Inside the tech revolution shaking up the camera industry
The world's top camera makers, under growing pressure from the shift to smartphone photography, have embarked on a technological revolution that could spell the end of the SLR, the workhorse of photojournalists since the Vietnam war.
Single-lens reflex cameras, which let the photographer see through the lens by means of a mirror and a prism that bounce light up into the viewfinder, are gradually being overtaken by so-called "mirrorless" cameras which have digital viewfinders that are smaller, lighter, quieter and faster.
The upheaval is evident at this year's Photokina trade fair in Cologne, the world's biggest imaging show which started last week, with Nikon, Canon and Panasonic unveiling their first high-end mirrorless cameras and each proclaiming the dawn of a new era in camera making.
“This is the beginning of the end for the digital SLR as the main choice of camera,“ said Nigel Atherton, editor of leading British photography magazine Amateur Photographer.
SLRs survived the digital revolution 15 years ago, when electronic sensors sounded the death knell of film. But the popularity of mirrorless technology, invented by Panasonic 10 years ago and improved to the level where digital viewfinders are now virtually as fast and clear as the conventional optical ones in SLRs, caught Canon and Nikon napping.
Both held off on developing mirrorless cameras until now because they didn't want to cannibalise their own mighty digital SLR ranges.
That left the field to Sony which has overtaken Nikon in the professional “full frame“ camera market, a feat that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Full frame refers to sensors equivalent in size to 35mm film, the biggest level before cameras enter the more specialised and bulky medium format.
Even Leica, the staunchly traditional German maker of luxury cameras, stole a march on Nikon and Canon by unveiling a full frame mirrorless camera before they did.
“Nikon and Canon can make the comeback now but they couldn’t have left it any later. A lot of people have already jumped ship to Sony,” said Mr Atherton. “I think a lot of people were still hanging on to Canon and Nikon because they have so much money invested in their lenses and didn’t want to switch systems.”
In the weeks leading up to Photokina, Canon launched the EOS R mirrorless model and Nikon unveiled the Z6 and Z7 complete with new lenses, making sure that their huge existing lens ranges remain compatible with the new cameras via adapters.
For Nikon at least, the rollout could prove a life-saver, said Mr. Atherton. “I think Nikon’s entire future rests on the Z series because if it’s not well received, it could be curtains. The good news is that the new Nikon is extremely good, we’ve given it a glowing review, I think they’ve managed to come in in the nick of time with something really outstanding.“
At Photokina, the chief executives of the world’s top camera firms, all of them Japanese, waxed lyrical about the advantages of mirrorless cameras. In addition to reduced size and weight, their digital viewfinders give a more exact rendition of what the photo will look like than the optical viewfinders of SLRs. The mirrorless cameras also permit new advances in lens design thanks to the reduced distance between the lens and the sensor, and they tend to offer better video performance and even more precise autofocus.
“This is the beginning of a new era of mirrorless which should be free from the old legacy and must be better than SLRs,” Toshi Lida, head of imaging products at Fujifilm, said from a news conference. His counterpart at Nikon, Nobuyoshi Gokyu, presenting the Z7, said: “The quest for better photography will never end.”
In truth, the revolution has left many professional photographers and enthusiasts nonplussed because camera technology had already advanced to levels at which improvements are barely visible to the human eye.
The speed, the low light capability and the lens performance of the flagship DSLRs on the market today are hard to beat and despite the hype surrounding mirrorless, many pros are likely to hold on to them because they are tried and tested.
It was telling that executives at Canon and Nikon, traditional leaders in the professional market, stressed that mirrorless cameras would complement rather than replace their SLR lineups, at least for the foreseeable future.
Manufacturers have been forging into mirrorless technology to combat sharp declines in camera sales in recent years as people opt for the convenience and ever-presence of increasingly capable smartphone cameras. The number of pictures taken worldwide has doubled since 2013 to 1200 billion a year, or 160 per person, which is mainly due to smartphones.
Illustrating the advance of smartphones, Chinese phone maker Huawei will make a debut at Photokina, joining 811 other exhibitors to show off its P20 Pro phone that has three Leica camera modules, provides image stabilization in low light and uses artificial intelligence to recognize subjects like human faces, cats, plants and blue skies, adjusting the exposure and saturation accordingly. It even blurs the background on portraits.
“Smartphones continue to raise the bar in terms of imaging software features and the digital camera manufacturers continue to play catch-up,“ Arun Gill, senior market analyst at Futuresource Consulting, told The National. “The convenience with which an image or video can be captured, edited and shared through social media apps is an area that the camera manufacturers have struggled to keep up with.”
But they are making progress. Artificial intelligence innovations on show at Photokina include a Canon flashgun that swivels automatically for the best lighting and camera shutters that only fire when all the people in the photo have their eyes open.
Futuresource expects smartphone sales to grow 20 per cent to 2.141 billion units from 2018 through 2022 while total digital camera sales are expected to fall 15 percent to 18.46 million.
Compact cameras with fixed lenses have been particularly hard hit by smartphones while mirrorless cameras are bucking the trend, with sales up 21 per cent in 2017 to 4.2 million. It is little wonder that camera makers are embracing a technology that is growing in popularity, and that they are pushing into higher-end products they can charge more for.
“The level of industry confidence in the mirrorless segment and pace of innovation continues to grow whereas the industry consensus is that the opportunity for further digital SLR innovation has become somewhat limited,” said Mr Gill.
The surge in smartphones has triggered a generational gap in photographing habits, with the selfie generation tending to take snaps to share quickly with friends. “Many don’t seem to care what happens to the photos after that, when they change phones for example,” said one Canon executive. It’s different with older people and photo enthusiasts who attach greater value to the images.
Some analysts are wondering whether smartphone cameras will get so good that they will roll up the professional market one day. It’s already happening to some extent, with journalists being told to take photos of news events on their smartphones.
“But there will always be people who love the process of photography, they will always want proper cameras because they enjoy holding the lens and the sound of the shutter,” said Mr Atherton. “For the proper photographers and the proper journalists and visually creative people, cameras will always find a place but I don‘t know how big that market will be in 10 years’ time.”
In the meantime, despite all the technological advances, the truth still holds that it’s the person behind the camera who determines how good an image will be. That 1,000-word photo can be taken on a Box Brownie.
“I don’t care about all this new stuff,” said one veteran professional photographer at Photokina. “All that matters is being in the right place at the right time and having an eye for a photo.”