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

corporation supply chain connection and warehouse supplies keep DSLR alive. the corporate eco-system is reason old tech is still used. ok

Daniel Medley's picture

Why the World's Best PRESS Photographers Are Sticking With DSLRs

There, I fixed that headline for you.

P Davis's picture

Perhaps folks would like to see where the dust settles. Remember Betamax vs VHS? I need to find a car that has an 8 track player for my tunes.... :-)

John Titley's picture

If 70% of photojournalists use dslr and 5% use mirrorless... what do the other 25% use?

Michael Clark's picture

Smartphones and MF. The actual stat is 70% of submitted photos were taken with a DSLR. 5% of submitted photos were taken with a mirrorless.

Dan Donovan's picture

I have been shooting commercial work and sports for over 30 years and recently switched from Nikon to Sony. I will never go back to DSLRs. Mirrorless has too many advantages. The tracking ability alone of the Sony a9 with the updated firmware is mind-blowing. And so are focus points that cover the entire viewfinder and silent shooting. For my photography, Sony mirrorless cameras are fantastic.

As far as the article goes, the title is misleading. These are cameras used by photojournalists. There are many other types of photography...as well as many other great photographers. The title of the article should have been "Why the World's Best Photojournalists Are Sticking With DSLRs". Unfortunately, more click bait. It's getting really old.

Richard Cashin's picture

Doug Mills is a photojournalist who has switched. I may be in the process of switching to Sony from Nikon. A colleague who is a pro sports photographer says the A9 offers advantages he just wanted - the AF tracking, silent shutter, etc. He has invested in Sony but that does not mean he will sell off all his Canon gear. I will test the A9 and then decide ( may wait to see if there is a second version rumored to be announced later this year). I do hope Sony bring out a 300mm 2.8. I don’t have a problem using both Nikon and Sony and will continue to use the D5 and D500.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

For most of these big agencies, the camera is just one very small part of a rather complicated system.
As long as the existing tech gets the job properly done, why switch to another system which will bring lots of expenses and very little gain.
Besides most photographers working for big agencies don't get to choose their gear.

Mind you, the world and needs of the big agencies is entirely different from the world of the average photographer, if there is such a thing as the average photographer.

ysengrain wolf's picture

"World's Best Photographers" What does it mean ?

vik .'s picture

Maybe is because all have Ugly sharp corners and straight lines like a box?

David Schloss's picture

NM, edited.

Richard Cashin's picture

Doug Mills of the New York Times seems to like his Sony A9. I don’t really care who uses what. I have been a Nikon (and Fuji medium format) user but may well look at the A9 for some work. I am not particularly loyal to any brand if I see any benefit to a piece of gear I will consider it and don’t mind using two systems.

Sam Kanter's picture

Of course many pros have invested in systems around DSLRs and don’t want to change as they are used to them. Understandable, but in five years they will be relics. MILCs are just superior.

JAKES dewet's picture

Was shooting a sport event last weekend with my Nikon D4 and old 200-400 f4. Minding my own business, Next walks up a guy with his new Sony a9 with 100-400. Hi, I see you still lagging the old dinosaurs around the sideline.., 20 minutes later we have some rain, Sony runs for cover, pulls of his best Polo windbreaker to cover the Sony. I pull the hoody of my rain jacket over my head and the dinosaur keeps on pumping frames. The most spectacular shots of players tackling each other with mud and rain flying all over the place. Monday morning my pictures are all over the local newspaper, the Sony guy is on his way to the Camera shop to have it repaired. Long live the DSLR and for that matter the 8 yr old lens as well. Next week, we shoot mountain bike events in the mountains, hope it rains so the mud and rain can add some drama.

Nick Rains's picture

Leica holds about 1% of the global market so 1/38 (2.6%) is not bad! Interesting it was a Q. Not a big enough sample but a quite predictable result, except for Sony.

Paolo Bugnone's picture

Because they've already spent gizillion dollars in bodies and lenses that apparently work fine since they are considered "world best photographers"?

ML aren't there mainly for those who want to switch but for those who starts from nothing or want to upgrade from lower tier of gear. I'm currently using a Nikon APS-C which could be considered old (a D90) but considering the current market status I'd never invest in a Nikon DSLR, especially since many Nikon optics (in particular those that could interest me) are worse than Canon, Sony and the new Z mount equivalents.
On the other end, if I were using a top kit already I wouldn't feel the need for switching it.

Christian Lainesse's picture

Photojournalists are the world's best photographers?

Michelle Maani's picture

So, the reason is availability and familiarity, not necessarily that they are better.

Darius Vaitkus's picture

It's so easy to switch to the newest technology.. Don't listen anybody if you like and need amazing features that Sony provides, like Eye AF, focus peaking, great iso, evf. Switching means that you need to change your camera body. You are not loosing, you are switching. Like buying new car. STROBES - Keep all your strobes and speedlites, just change transmitter. LENSES - most people are chasing for 'newest' models and selling old ones. This is life. Invest in few lenses you are working with most and start selling old. Start living new life.

Brooks Bollman's picture

As a photographer who works calmly and deliberately composing each image I prefer a DSLR with a real optical viewfinder. There is more soul in the optical image than the EVF or Live View monitor, making every photo session much more enjoyable for me. The weight savings is negligible when you also carry 3-4 fast glass lenses, and the ergonomics of the slightly larger body fits better.

Daniel Venter's picture

It's called being romantic about their gear that's all :-) There's a lot of fear in change and a normal human response. They will change over to new tech eventually it's like the initial resistance to social media now it's where everything happens

Timothy Gasper's picture

Surprise....Surprise....Surprise. I have film, dslr's and mirrorless, but most of the professional work sent in is from dslr or film.

Quazi Sanjeed's picture

The major reasons for sticking to DSLRs can be summed up in two logics:

01. DSLRs are capable of doing everything a photographer needs to do.

02. An unnecessary luxurious switch is beyond anyone's contemplation during this COVID period.

Quazi Sanjeed's picture

It's natural and obvious.

The plain truth is; Sony needed to survive. They attempted to establish a foothold in the DSLR market for long but, wasn’t successful. It’s ruled by Canon and Nikon. However, Sony cooked up a potent strategy to sing a new song. And new song is such a tool that it makes the entire new generation dance to it along with some seasoned veterans as well.

Enter the mirrorless hype, a system that’s not at all new.

The new song successfully created such a huge noise that it dragged the dominant brands also into it. However, old-times have checked and found there’s hardly any revolutionary change in the MILCs. It is nowhere near the differences between Film SLRs and DSLRs.

Therefore, the decision was fairly easy. Just retain the existing arsenal of DSLR bodies and lenses and continue to work with those. No need whatsoever to replace those with unnecessary gears and suffer an unwanted financial damage.