A lot of talk has been going on lately about the future of digital SLR cameras and as a professional photography instructor/blogger, I suppose every now and then I'm expected to write about the looming death of some photo technology. Well, today is not that day, but this topic does provide us with the opportunity to discuss exciting advances with digital photography and provide some insight as to the direction we're heading.
The buzz phrase in the digital camera industry right now is "3rd Gen cameras," also known as "four-thirds" or "micro four-thirds" cameras, "EVIL cameras", and a short list of other such names. With advances in technology, some camera manufacturers are starting to push out cameras that produce high quality images utilizing a smaller sensor and no mirror such as the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Micro-Four-Thirds digital camera, seen here. So what does this mean for the future of digital photography? Are these new "3rd gen" cameras ready to take over? Not by a long shot, but let's take a look at how I've come to that conclusion:
There's no denying that at some point in time, all digital cameras will lose the antiquated mirror, a technology that has been in use for for over 60 years since the advent of the Zeiss Ikon VEB Contax S back in 1949. The mirror in DSLR's is a mechanical component of the camera that must flap open and closed with each frame, creating a mechanical bottleneck that directly affects the maximum frames-per-second the camera is capable of. But losing the mirror won't happen overnight, in fact, it will likely be a gradual transition over the next decade.
The camera industry is a multi-billion dollar industry with photographers using billions of dollars worth of digital SLR gear, some of which is very expensive, especially when it comes to lenses. With high quality lenses ranging in price from $500 for a simple prime lens, to more than $14,000 for a top-of-the-line 800mm super telephoto, it's practically impossible from a financial standpoint for photographers to just switch overnight.
Let's take a look at some current issues I see with 3rd Gen cameras that will undoubtedly be resolved over time:
3RD GEN TECHNOLOGY IS STILL IN ITS INFANCY
So should you sell your DSLR and lenses and pick up a new 3rd Gen camera? No, and the reason is simple: These new 3rd Gen cameras are just that, new, and that means the technology is just starting to come to market, accessories are sparse, and there is a lack of lenses for these cameras compared with what is available for DSLR's. The 3rd Gen cameras of today will not be of the same caliber as the ones available in 5 or 10 years. The same was true when digital SLR's hit the market a couple decades ago. It takes a few years to get the ball rolling, test the waters, and see what works and what doesn't.
It is unlikely 3rd Gen cameras will be compatible with the lenses of today because of the way today's lenses operate. Of course firmware may be developed to allow the camera to capture the old lens' image, flip it like the pentaprism does now, and display it correctly, but most likely, new lens technology will be used to compliment the new cameras. The new 3rd Gen lenses will be smaller, lighter, faster, and quieter than today's lenses which will be a welcomed change for those of us stuck lugging around 15 lbs. worth of lenses through the woods or on a safari.
SMALL SENSOR SIZE = POOR IMAGE QUALITY
Another current drawback that will improve over the next decade is image quality due to sensor size. Right now, the sensor size of choice for most pros is "full-frame," which means the sensor is the same size as a 35mm negative. Both Canon and Nikon's flagship cameras feature a full-frame sensor along with a slightly smaller APS-C sensor used in their sports/wildlife tailored cameras. The 3rd Gen cameras use an even smaller sensor, about 75% smaller than the full-frame sensors. The use of these tiny sensors allows the cameras to be made smaller and more compact, and allows them to be fast by devoting processing power to onboard systems like the digital viewfinder, auto image processing, autofocus, etc. What you end up with is poor image quality at high ISO or in low light conditions--a deal breaker for any professional photographer or advanced amateur.
DSLR's ARE HERE TO STAY... FOR NOW
So for now, digital SLR's are still the way to go if you're looking to achieve pro results from your gear. I anticipate these cameras will continue to be sold for at least another decade or longer and as better and better 3rd Gen cameras start hitting the shelves, they will slowly begin to phase out. The bottom line is, digital SLR technology is HOT right now and each new product launch yields even more impressive specifications. We're just starting to hit the plateau with digital SLR's so you can still feel confident in purchasing a nice DSLR and some lenses without having to worry about obsoleteness for a while.
UPDATE, JANUARY 22, 2013:
Today, Olympus announced five more companies would be joining the Micro Four Thirds family. These companies are as far as we know, unaffiliated with the consumer camera industry and a few of them are very new companies. JK Imaging, Ltd., the company which purchased the Kodak brand, just formed last year in 2012. Below is a full list of the companies with brief biographies provided by Olympus:
Blackmagic Design Pty. Ltd.:
An Australian company established in 1984 that manufactures high quality electronic equipment for broadcast and video production.
Blackmagic Design Pty. Ltd. Website : http://www.blackmagicdesign.com/
JK Imaging Ltd.:
An American company established in 2012, and the recently announced brand licensee for "KODAK" branded cameras, pico projectors and other digital imaging products.
JK Imaging Ltd. Website : http://www.kodakcamera.jkiltd.com
A Japanese company established in 1968 that provides manufacturing, sales and service of professional film and video equipment and photo- instrumentation.
PHOTRON LIMITED. Website : http://www.photron.com/
A German company established in 2001 that develops, manufactures and distributes professional machine vision components and systems.
SVS-VISTEK GmbH Website : http://www.svs-vistek.com/
A Japanese company established in 1998 that provides video equipment and the solutions which link communication and image processing as well as sensing technology.
ViewPLUS Inc. Website : http://www.viewplus.co.jp/english.html