I've noticed, when i talk to people who aren't into photography that there's still that standard, that "DSLR cameras are the high end of photography", which certainly was true in the past but is not true anymore. in a strange twist in the history of technology, they have become inferior to a technology that is technically older: Digital Cameras. Here i wanna go into the differences and variants of Contemporary cameras as well as into the reasons for this paradigm shift
So most of you will probably remember SLR cameras. they are vintage analog technology that in it's later stages got some electric and even digital enhancments. SLR means Single Lens Reflex which decribes the fact that you can see the image you are going to take through the exact lense that you will take it through.
As you can See in the image, behind the lense, there is a mirror that reflects the image that comes through the lense up through a mirror and a prism behind the viewfinder into your eye. the second you take a picture, the mirror flips out of the way and the film is esposed to light which makes the picture. the DSLRs work exactly the same, except in place of an analogue film, there's a digital sensor that takes the image. the rest of the tech is mostly identical, even up to the lenses. the last analogue Canon and Nikon cameras for example had the same lens mount as the first digital ones.
At the same time, there were alternatives like Range finder cameras where you only had a framing preview sometimes just by a square hole in the camera body, sometimes through a tiny extra lens as you see in the top right in the following image:
then there were twin lens reflex cameras, that had two identical lenses, one you could see the frame through and one the photo was taken through.
Those died out fairly quickly tho, as interchangable lens systems that got popular would require you to buy 2 lenses each time and what non photographers may not realize is: the lense is (except in case of cheap, low quality lenses) actually more expensive than the actual camera body.
of course DSLR are also "digital cameras" though they historically existed way later than the first digital cameras. that has one simple reason: image quality. the first "serious" digital cameras that weren't just stupid novelty items (or the first smartphone cameras) had resolutions of around 1024x768 pixels (below 1 megapixel) and even lower than that. Meanwhile the physical molecules that make analogue film work would roughly translate to around 19 megapixels in digital photography. that made analogue film way better than digital photography for a long time.
Digital System Cameras
Some also call them "dslm" for digital single lens "mirrorless", which i personally find stupid, cause the first digital cameras were also mirrorless, so that does not help distinguishing them from those cameras. To me, the distinquishing factor is an interchangable lens system via bayonett with digital contact pins, which the first digital cameras and modern "digital cameras" (of which your phone technically is one) do not have. Though digital system cameras are technically mostly identical to the DSLR cameras except they do not have the mirror flipping and prism system (and another difference which i will go into later). instead the sensor is just read out digitally and the picture in the view finder is not "you looking through the lens" but you looking at a tiny digital high resolution screen that is showing you what the sensor sees through the lens.
The Paradigm shift
So why did the older technology suddenly become the modern standard in digital photography? 2 reasons:
- Autofocus capability
- Battery capacity
First off, reading out the sensor and running a screen is battery intensive. first digital cameras wouldn't run for long on a charge, cause the technology was not very energy efficient and the battery technology was not good enough at the time to deliver adequate run times for digital cameras. A DSLR does not need power to show you the image through the viewfinder. it only needs power in the split second that it needs to take the image.
The other distinguishing Factor between DSRL and Digital System Cameras is the focus sensor. in the bottom of DSLR cameras, there is actually a separate sensor with the only purpose of finding focus. it exploits physical properties of light to figure out if the contrasting edges of a particular point are in focus or not and can very efficiently adjust the focus, which digital cameras were not as good at for the longest time.
Sony was the one who single handedly caused the revolution in the digital camera world. At a point, Canon and Nikon basically dominated the camera market with no other significant competition. That lead to them slacking on innovation for years and years to come.
Meanwhile Sony invested heavily in better digital photography. Their mirrorless sony alpha series started out slightly wonky but competitive and quickly silently overtook Canon and Nikon, which the photography world did not even take note of till much later. in 2016, Canon and Nikon were actually 4 or more years behind in development compared to sony. and they barely managed to catch up today in 2021.
Digital computing got to a point where it was as quick or quicker in finding the focus digitally than those old sensors who relied on the physical properties of light, making those completely obsolete, as you could just integrate their function into the main sensor.
Also modern phones are so good, that in the most daily use of amateur photos, you won't even see the difference between a Professional camera and a phone camera due to digital quality reduction in applications like whatsapp, facebook and instagram. that's a large part of the reason, why the camera industry started to die and helped sony get an edge over the established giants.
Strengths and weaknesses
i wanna close this by showing advantages and disadvantages that each has over the other to show how obsolete DSLRs will become soon.
- Low battery Consumption
- heavy and bulky; tough to travel with, hard to hold for longer times, if you're weak
- The image you get is not what you see through the viewfinder, which some older professionals will scoff at, as in analog, you needed "skill", cause you didn't get to see what the image looked like till after it got developed, which may be weeks after you took the picture. It was expensive, so taking a picture was more of a science than just "messing with settings till you get what you want"... However i say that's just an unneccessary inconvenience and that skill can be acquired anyway if you choose to do so.
- Longevity: The mechanics in a DSLR are more prone for wear. they will survive roughly 150.000 pictures on average.
Digital System Cameras Strength:
- Lighter camera body
- Smaller flange distance (distance between the sensor and the point where the lense ends) = Lighter Lenses + nearly infinitely adaptable for vintage lenses.
- What you see is what you get: the Viewfinder shows you exactly what your image is gonna look like with the current settings you have.
- Less camera shake: the mirror physically flipping up in DSLR cameras actually introduces camera shake which can become a problem in certain situations. (it can be circumvented but sill).
- Better Lenses: the small flange distance makes engineering excelent lenses way easier.
- There are less mechanics involved. so Digital System Cameras survive around 300.000 pictures on average.
- Cheaper to produce
- Since they have more computing power than DSLRs, computational photography will amplify their capability in the future as it does now with phones.
Digital System Cameras Weakness:
- High battery consumption which is mostly compensated by new battery technology and more efficient electronics
- their compact size sometimes comes at the cost of good ergonomics.