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.

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Previous comments
Yin Ze's picture

Jeff, as you can see there is something very wrong with Mr. Salad. He needs help. Pray for him.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Yeah I see that. He's not the first to poke fun at my llama...I don't know why though as it is one of my most licensed llama photos globally. And clearly I didn't use a point and shoot for that image.

Yin Ze's picture

ERIC SALAD definitely has a screw loose. Glad you made bank on that image. Anyone who knows two bits about photography can tell that was not shot with p&s just looking at bokeh.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Thanks and yeah the depth of field and sharpness alone tell us that it wasn't shot with a pointy shooter.

JAKES dewet's picture

Maybe mr Salad has his identity defines in his brand of Camera. "Hi Mr Salad, Please to meet you". Hi Jo, I shoot with a Sony".. How do you know someone is using Sony?? They normally tell you..

Michael Clark's picture

You can always tell a Sony owner, but you can't tell them much.

Deleted Account's picture

What's with the constant expressions of superiority? Your work simply isn't that great.

Eric Salas's picture

Did you read the original comment? Classifying all Sony shooters as hipsters doesn’t warrant a reaction?

If you speak up, expect to be judged. Our community has plenty of narcissistic people by nature but don’t come play if you aren’t prepared for it and don’t have enough balls to post your own work.

Deleted Account's picture

I don't really care about the OP, Eric; you're all over the comments, in multiple posts. Frankly, you just aren't a very nice person; and your work does not justify your arrogance.

Eric Salas's picture

You called David an asshole 4 days ago. Seems you’re quite the hypocrite...at least I’m consistent. Have a great day!

Deleted Account's picture

Because he was being a complete asshole - people like you and him make these forums unpleasant.

That aside, you are still not very nice, and your work is still utterly mediocre.

PS. just so we are abundantly clear, David's interlocutor stated he had a history of psychological illness and had attempted suicide; David then attempted to tell him life was meaningless and that he was worthless. So yeah, he was being an asshole.

Eric Salas's picture

I’m terribly sorry you’ve been triggered twice and feel the need to attack someone with work displayed.

A photographer with no work to display and an opinion on others is not only odd but quite laughable considering we all make art to display. Whether or not you enjoy someone else’s art is subjective, having the nuts to show it in here period is worthy of having a voice.

Upload some and maybe you’ll get some respect.

Deleted Account's picture

I don't need your respect, and I don't much care what you think about me or my work. Your work is still utterly mediocre.

As you say, if you comment, be prepared to be judged. What were you saying about hypocrisy?

Deleted Account's picture

Is 'trailer park' a specialisation of yours?

Eric Salas's picture

- “the process of concentrating on and becoming expert in a particular subject or skill”

Thanks for the compliment. I know we have our differences but that was very gracious of you to say that.

Deleted Account's picture

That the best you have? Your work is still mediocre.

Guy Incognito's picture

I spent the last hour or so going through the archives of the World Press Photo website and at no point did I care what camera the photographer used except in the case of much older photos, which was just more of a curiosity about what was used decades ago.

The fact people are talking more about the ratio of DSLR to Mirrorless use instead of the actual photos created reinforces my view that the online space for photography has been completely co-opted by brands and fanboys.

Quite a shame, I would argue.

David Pavlich's picture

What you say is true, but the size and shape of the 'box' matters to a lot of us. It's the major reason that I've not considered a mirrorless camera....lousy in hand ergonomics. Having said that, had the Canon R had two card slots, I may have traded my 5DIV in for one. Canon and Nikon were wise to stay close to their DSLR body style.

I also like the look of the new Panasonic FF offerings, but have yet to touch one. And then there's the Fuji GFX50S. Nice in hand feel but a bit too much for my photo piggy bank. :-)

Ian Oliver's picture

I'm currently shooting a D800, D5 and D850. I'm happy with these. However, mirrorless & Z offer some benefits that would likely be worthwhile to me in terms of size, weight, and image quality. At this point I'll hold off on any new bodies, lenses or anything else system specific until I really need something new and then decide - likely switching over to Z mirrorless in about 2 or 3 years.

The low numbers of mirrorless are not a judgement on mirrorless or the technology but simply an issue of timing. The technology is good, the Z interface is good, it will take time to switch over.

Mike Ditz's picture

" the overwhelming majority of photojournalists are using DSLRs (71.1%) with only a tiny fraction having switched to mirrorless (4.4%)"

What are the other 25% using?

Jeff McCollough's picture

Medium format?

Mike Ditz's picture

More likely iPhones :) I can't tell you the last time I saw someone using a MF camera in the wild. Film or Digital...

Jeff McCollough's picture

I thought Elia used MF?

Guido Mueller's picture

Indeed. Anyhow. If in the year before it were 96% DSLR and a year later only 71% I would start to get nervous. Imagine Kodak saying, wow 71% is great!

Ziggy Stardust's picture

My D500 is more prone to picking up sensor dust than either of the two mirrorless I use.

Rod Kestel's picture

A curiously ambiguous phrase, 'the mighty DSLR is going nowhere', but we know what you meant.


Stas Aleksandersson's picture

Who gives a shit about who’s using what? Why is it so important to divide everyone by camera system or brand? I’m sure everyone is happy with their choice, if not they switch.

Gion-Andri Derungs's picture

Fully agree. It's nothing else than a "dick-measuring contest" for some people...

Michael Clark's picture

Those who make money based on the number of clicks their headlines can entice you to hit.

Cagomoc Reed's picture


Ed Sanford's picture

Finally some hard data to backup a point I have been making. Anecdotally, I saw no evidence that serious photojournalists were moving to mirrorless in large numbers, and this article discusses the detail. There does seem to be several barriers that prevent heavily equipped working pros from changing. I believe mirrorless is a prosumer play at this point. Will it eventually supplant DSLRs? Probably over time. For my point, it is a serious cost consideration because at a minimum, to replicate my system, I would have to purchase two bodies plus replace all the lenses. That is a financial head scratcher.

Keith Meinhold's picture

You conceivably adapt your existing lenses, though frankly I wonder what is really gained by going that route. Not surprised by your personal observation matching the article.

Ed Sanford's picture

If Canon takes the 5DSR (my current heart throb) to a mirrorless edition, I may purchase it with a mirrorless kit lens. Then buy an adaptor to accommodate my other L-glass. That would keep compatibility and 2 bodies and preserve my investment. Still a tough call. Last June I was in Iceland with a group. We were photographing on Diamond beach. One photographer set his tripod with his brand new A7R III near the surf. A big wave pulled the tripod and the lightweight Sony into the water. Bam! No camera no backup. My heavy 5DSR on my RRS BH55 stood steady in the same surf. If it had been pulled in, I would have pulled out my old 5D MK II and kept shooting.... you gotta think things through.

Guido Mueller's picture

Interesting read and good arguments.

Yet, another thought: is the World Photo Contest really representative for "the best Photographers" or rather a very niche selection of agency or newspaper employed press photographers? Read the qualification criteria (https://www.worldpressphoto.org/programs/contests/photo-contest/entry-ru...).
Are "press photos" really the benchmark for "best photos"?

Pieter Batenburg's picture

To be honest, I don't give a damn what professionals are using. To each its own, and in most cases this has nothing to do with the quality of the product. People buy what is familair and what they are used to.
As long as it gets the job done, it is okay.
If you use your camera to get very large prints, your demands may be entirely different to a photographer that shoots for a newspaper.

Rod Kestel's picture

The newspaper has never even asked what camera I use

Kirk Darling's picture

It's too early. Hell, the flapping mirror cameras themselves took a quarter of a century to find acceptance by professional photojournalists. But eventually, that silly flapping mirror will go away.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

I am old enough to remember when we switched to digital. Most pros decided that this was just a fluke and that they would never switch to digital because it didn't cut the mustard. And before that the same kind of people told that single lens reflex was inferior to what was before it.
It doesn't matter what it is about or what kind of technology it is, there will always be people who embrace change and people who hate any kind of change. The last category is unlucky because everything changes.

wade marks's picture

Not all new technology is the same in terms of impact. Some changes, like film to digital, are revolutionary. Some, like DSLR to mirrorless, is more evolutionary. It will be a slower transition and even then some DSLR market may remain.

The key is recognizing the difference between a totally disruptive technology and a more incremental one. Mirrorless, for all of its hype, is still an incremental change to the traditional body/lens system. It is the smartphone that is truly disruptive.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

Not really. The first digital cameras were rather bad. They were big and slow and not fit for pro use.
. A company I used to work with owned a Mavic which stored its pictures on a floppy disk. It was a revolution but the resolution of the pictures was extremely low.
The first digital camera was on sale around 1990. It would take at least another 15 years before digital cameras would become a common sight and would be commonly adapted by pros.
Nowadays film cameras are just a niche market.
But it took far longer to reach this point than many people realise.

Phillip Ferreira's picture

DSLR will stick around for way longer than the most think, and will have amore prominent presence than medium format and film. It's not just the professionals; the amateur that it's not chasing the latest technology and have a couple enses. The mirrorless system has indeed sine advantages, but it's not the price, lens size, ergonomics, to name just a few....will it be the future? Nope, it's just the present . The future will be something better, which does not mean that will make photographers better either. Chase the light, not the rechonoly.....Sony will sunk in time...not so soon, but it will...

Greg Vaughn's picture

A better title for this article would be "Why The World's Top Photojournalists Are Sticking With DSLRs". It completely ignores all other genres of photography.

Jeff Wisener's picture

I have both. I go with what tool works best for thr job. The majority of my photogrspgy and videography is of surfing. I own a Canon 7D, Canon M50, and Sony A6300.

Here is my take:

1. Canon ergonomics and menu sytem is light years ahead of Sony. I would much rather have a Canon in my hand than Sony. It matters, a lot.

2. Canon's video specs, even the new Canon R are pathetically behind. My 3 year old Sony A6300 that is 1/3 the price of the R has better 4K specs, 120 fps on 1080p. Canon, you got to be kidding me. The newly released R is yur current n
Mirrorless flagship and it is inferior i. Video specs to a 3 year old Sony that cost 1/3 the price. Add to it, the A6300 shoots over twice as many still photos per second as tge R.

3. The dual pixal autofocus is superior to Sonys.

4. The swival LCD touch screen on Canon is superior to Sonys LCD (no touch screen, no swival).

Sadly, Sony is superior spec wise but appears to have nerds designing their gear and have never used a camera.

Canon is 3-5 years behind spec wise.

There is no excuse for either brand. Both have major short comings.

I use my Sony to shoot in the water. It is small, shoots 11 fps, autofocus good enough.

On land, prefer my 7D.

Tz Six's picture

For what it's worth, the amazingly great White House photographer for the NYT Doug Mills did a long interview on CSpan talking about how he switched to Sony cameras for his work and hasn't looked back.... It's a great interview that you should check out.

Peter Kelly's picture

This is an article that should be written in a few years time, when a reasonable conclusion can be reached, otherwise it is deeply flawed on limited data.

It strikes me as being similar to the logic of saying that the trees swaying causes the wind, because on windy days the trees are swaying wildly!

Yin Ze's picture

Was spring cleaning and found two camera sound blimps in a box for the times I had to shoot televised political debates or events where noisy cameras were not allowed. Since switching to mirrorless I have had to shoot in many situations where noise is prohibited. Now that my cameras are silent I realize how disruptive the sound of the shutter is because I do not hear it anymore and it hurts my ears when shooting next to dslr shooters.

Andre Goulet's picture

I just can't wait for everyone to switch away from DSLR's so I can get a plethora of lenses for cheap! Hurry up people, adopt new tech.

Andre Goulet's picture

A curiosity for me would be how many full-time, 3+ year working pros use most or any of the features found only on the new mirrorless cameras. Granted, some genres of photography lend themselves to this more than others, but once you know a mostly manual camera well, do these features make much difference to the average seasoned pro? I used to shoot weddings on a Hassleblad 500C and missed less shots than I do with my autofocus cameras of today. Didn't shoot thousands of photos of anything either though. Even a wedding was, maybe, 160 shots. Still, the client got their shots and were happy. I'm not a luddite... I get that advances are beneficial, especially in areas such as low light photography, but I also feel that feature-itis is more for marketing than for real world shooting by pros in most cases. Am I wrong?

mister improvement's picture

Surprised that the concept of lag through the viewfinder wasn't addressed. An optical viewfinder updates at the speed of light hehehe

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