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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Will Murray'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.

Will Murray'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?

Will Murray'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.

Will Murray's picture

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

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.

" 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?

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?

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.


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.

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"?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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