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

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...

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.

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.

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.

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!

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?

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


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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

James 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.

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?

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.

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