Why the World's Best Photographers Are Sticking With DSLRs

Why the World's Best Photographers Are Sticking With DSLRs

Following the announcement of the winners of the World Press Photo competition last week, Spanish photography website Photolari.com compiled the metadata to examine what the leading photojournalists are using to capture their images. The results are quite interesting and demonstrate that the mighty DSLR is going nowhere. Here's why.

In terms of brands, there are no great surprises when it comes to the most popular choices: Canon leads the way, with Nikon close behind. More surprising is the fact that only one finalist was shooting on Sony — the same as the number working with Leica, and significantly behind Fujifilm. Sony may have produced one of 2018’s most popular full-frame cameras in the shape of the a7 III, but photojournalists seem to prefer to stick with what they know.

In line with this, the overwhelming majority of photojournalists are using DSLRs (71.1%) with only a tiny fraction having switched to mirrorless (4.4%), and it’s interesting to reflect on why this older technology is still the preferred choice of the working professional.

Firstly, many will be working with gear provided by agencies, drawing on a bank of thousands of bodies and lenses that are swapped in and out according to the demands of the job and when something needs a repair. Typically, agencies are heavily invested in certain systems and while mirrorless technology can offer many advantages, swapping out such a huge stock of gear for incremental changes is simply not worthwhile. In addition, not only would this mean replacing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment, switching, say, from Canon to Sony would also mean abandoning long-standing relationships with suppliers and repair services and, as an agency, this involves huge upheaval and a potential threat to the consistency with which images are delivered.

At this stage, mirrorless may bring some great benefits but when it comes to getting a shot with gear that’s reliable and incredibly familiar, it’s definitely a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” For example, switching from EF to RF would mean huge investment and countless adapters, and until there is a more compelling reason to implement a change, things will stay as they are. Evolution certainly comes more slowly when such vast amounts of money are involved.

As I noted in this article discussing Canon’s plans for the next iteration of the EOS 1D X Mark II, reliability and familiarity are essential to press photographers, especially when working in high-pressure circumstances that require a quick turnaround. The 1D X Mark III may prove to be Canon’s last flagship DSLR, but the demand remains, despite every brand ambassador now singing the praises of an electronic viewfinder and a slightly smaller body. Switching to a different camera — even from the same manufacturer — can be an unnecessary hindrance when shooting fast-moving events.

The Sony a9. Amazing autofocus. Enjoy cleaning that sensor, however.

The Sony a9. Amazing autofocus. Enjoy cleaning that sensor, however.

Durability is another concern. The Sony a9 may have demonstrated its resilience in the field but as a photojournalist, would you stick with a system that you know to work or switch to a system that is said to work, given that your livelihood depends on it? Again, professionals are staying with what they trust for getting the job done and however good the weather sealing is on mirrorless cameras, their reputation is not fully established. And despite the gaskets and IP ratings, a missing mirror means an exposed sensor, and having to worry about dust when you’re out in the field is not a pleasant prospect. The odd spot of dust on the occasional shot can easily be dealt with during post-processing, but multiple spots when ingesting hundreds, sometimes thousands of images can be a nightmare.

The heralding of the mirrorless era may seem noisy but it seems that the humble DSLR will be around for a lot longer than many might think. While agencies and their photographers need reliability and familiarity, the single lens reflex is here to stay.

Log in or register to post comments

121 Comments

Daris Fox's picture

What surprised me more in the Mirrorless category is how little Sony is represented. It seems Fuji is on roll with their cameras.

Eric Salas's picture

It’s because despite the advantages of going mirrorless (like the EVF) many people have tons of lenses, triggers, strobes, etc that are all proprietary to a system and changing systems requires a lot of faith/money.

I changed over five years ago and have been nothing but happy for the past three. The first two we didn’t have lenses and adapters sucked. Now we have all the lenses we need and smaller companies like Godox have affordable and reliable options for lighting.

Now is the time to switch if you care about future proofing your kit.

Daris Fox's picture

I think you missed my point, which wasn't to denigrate mirrorless but after all the advertising, x-platform reverse engineering for lenses and money/shills etc for Sony it's still hasn't got much of a showing, yet Fuji has a far stronger showing despite being lesser known/promoted. I know this is a small sample size, yada yada but it's a fascinating insight.

I use both Canon/Fuji (sometimes Mamiya/Hasselblad) myself. Hence why I was curious as to the discrepancy. Mirrorless is part of the future, but dSLRS will be more akin to medium format and even film so it won't go away and for a proportion of the market dSLR just make better sense. For me it's all about using the right tool for the job be it dSLR, cSLR, MF etc.

Eric Salas's picture

I didn’t take it any way at all, just making a statement on it. I don’t care what anyone does as long as their work doesn’t show they should probably just stay quiet lol.

Joseph Nguyen's picture

Just came back from overseas. Sony seems to be well represented in Asia.

Rob Davis's picture

I wonder if the Fuji numbers are due to the X100 being a very good second camera.

David Schloss's picture

Edited, NM.

Hit the nail right on the head mate !!!

One point missing from this consideration:

Ergonomics.

The trusty old Canon EOS 5D series is the most frequently used body on this list, and as a working photographer doing a fair bit of reportage work, I know why I keep using these bodies: The ergonomics are simply very well sorted. I don't mind carrying a few extra grams, as long as the tool fits perfectly in my hand, the grip is awesome and all important adjustments can be done with a few quick flicks of my fingertips while shooting under pressure.

I have tried Sony and Fujifilmm, and the EOS R as well, but have yet to find a camera that offers ergonomics on par with my Canon 5D IV. When you need to get everything right, won't get another try and have to work fast, nothing beats a reliable, proven tool that is shaped to fit your hand.

Michael Kormos's picture

Well said. Mirrorless’ small body is especially apparent with longer lenses such as 70-200, etc. where it significantly throws off the balance of the hand. Our studio specializes in family photography so active subjects are the norm. I have yet to encounter a situation that my D5 couldn’t handle with ease, or had me say “I wish I had mirrorless”. I know the system has its advantages, but the tools I’ve used for over 15 years have never let me down, so there is honestly very little reason for me to gamble with a relatively new system.

Jon Kellett's picture

I wouldn't call Panasonic's FF mirroless small: https://camerasize.com/compare/#682,814

It's heavier than a Canon 5D MKIV and very close to being the same size... To be fair though, the D5 does dwarf the S1 :-)

As a former Canon user and now a more or less a Sony user I don;t think there is much of difference in what a DSLR Vs MirrorLess can do. IBut for me there is a difference in what I do with my Sony stuff compared to my Canon because of the features that Sony had 4 years ago that Canon didn't offer at the time (IBIS, large sensor with amazing DR, crazy hi ISO quality to name a few)

My muscle memory from 20+ years of Canon use took a while (like a month) to get over. Holding an A7R2 or a 5Dmk2 with a 70-200 lens to me is pretty much the same...maybe my lens holding hand is adjusted about half inch forward or back, not a deal breaker.

Michael Jin's picture

The new Panasonic full frames seem to have pretty good ergonomics. I imagine that's something that will develop with time as more professional bodies are released by each manufacturer and they get resulting feedback.

The Panasonic full frame looks promising. Small full frame bodies sure have their place and is probably perfect for many users, but for my kind of work, shrinking the camera down a bit simply isn't relevant.

To me, the Fujifilm approach seems more interesting – as APS-C sensors can get away with significantly smaller lenses, which makes a lot of sense if the ´compact concept´ of mirrorless is what you are going for. Full frame cameras will always demand bigger lenses, if large apertures is your thing.

Speaking of it: A friend recently brought his old Canon FD 85/1.2 from the 80s to work. We all remembered that lens as HUGE. Looking at it beside today's 85/1.2 and 85/1.4s made it seem super tiny, and we all wondered – in light of the huge aperture value: THAT mini lens really covered a full frame image circle?

Russell Hunter's picture

Well said Geir. I keep coming back to the DSLR for two reasons. Ergonomics and durability. Yes the 5D and 1D are certainly heavy but they feel just right in the hands.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Yes sir. Besides the reasons in this article, a major point for me is the ergonomics. Been doing this for almost 50 years...of course lots of film...but using dslr's like Nikon and Leica, the equiment feels much more well-balanced in my hands then the Fuji X-T1, although I really like this too. Image quality of the Hasselblad 500CM and Fuji GX680 have been extremely hard to beat. But, yeah....ergonomics is a definite mainpoint.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Exactly. My 6D feels waaayy better in my hands than my brother's Sony does. And I don't even have huge hands so I feel bad for people with giant hands.

Ted Mercede's picture

Couldn't agree with you more. I had the Sony AR7 on order (based on specs) when they were first being released, and THEN held a similar model in hand and quickly cancelled the order. I bought the Canon 5DSR instead and I swear the camera just won't fall out of your hand unless you pry it out. I can' t imagine shooting the Sony all day with a 70-200mm lens, ergonomics would be horrible.

Agreed. The ergonomics of Canon are great, as is the consistency. I shoot with a 7D2 and a 5DS and they are essentially identical in their layout and controls. And I've been using the same battery chargers and battery format since my ancient 40D in 2007.

Michael Clark's picture

The 40D (and the 50D as well as the 5D "classic") used the BP-511 battery. The first camera to use the LP-E6 battery was the 5D Mark II in 2008. The first x0D to use the LP-E6 was the 60D in 2010.

Thanks for the clarification. I just pulled out my old 40D and you're right. I have no idea where my charger is so that's going to be an interesting challenge if I ever use it for anything again. So for me, I've had the same battery for five cameras -- 7D1, 2X 7D2, 5DS, 6D. I love this about Canon.

EL PIC's picture

Once you are established with camera/lens brand and type it is not likely you change soon unless you are a Gear Head who Believes in Weasel Word Advertising.

Titus Apfot's picture

I know many who changed from Canon to Nikon or other way around. They get good deals to changes.

End of the day its more about reliability

Also don't forget batterylife, for a pro changing a battery on a wrong moment and u lost a good shot!

Eric Salas's picture

No pro should ever be in that predicament and if they are, it’s their fault and shouldn’t be calling themselves a pro.

Michael Jin's picture

Missing mirror does not mean an exposed sensor. A good example would be the Canon MILC where the shutter closes to protect the sensor during a lens change.

Keith Meinhold's picture

Too early. How many years did we hear that digital would never replace chemical (film) cameras. Today we are debating pros using DSLRs without even mentioning SLR film cameras.

One reason pros are probably sticking to DSLR is cause a speck of moisture on Sony A9 can cause corrosion on the hotshoe multi-interface pins and ruin the camera.

Eric Salas's picture

Been shooting my gear around the world in all conditions and this has never happened to me.

Well aren't you special? Even Sony ambassador Brian Smith states on his blog that this happens and that it is a documented issue.

More comments