When it comes to hobbyist and pro cameras, their are two types on the market today. DSLR and mirrorless.
DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. In the film days before digital we called them SLRs without the D for digital.
The term comes from the mirror inside the camera that flips up when you take a picture. Back in the days of film cameras there was only one way to see the image you were going to take, exactly as it would be taken. Light coming through the lens would hit a mirror that was slanted at a 45 degree angle. It would bounce off the mirror and into a pentaprism and then out into the users eye through the viewfinder. When you clicked the shutter button the mirror would flip up (blacking out the viewfinder) and the shutter in front of the film would slide open allowing the light to pass straight through the lens and hit the film directly. The process would repeat for every photo. Below is a diagram of an SLR.
When digital started to replace film, the cameras remained generally the same. The film was replaced by a digital sensor and a small screen was added to the back of the camera for the user to view the photos they had taken. However the mirror and pentaprism was still in place. As these cameras have gotten more advanced, larger screens have been added to the back and a feature known as LiveView was introduced. LiveView flips up the mirror and locks it in place, allowing the light to pass through to the sensor the whole time. A live view of what the sensor is seeing is displayed on the screen, but the viewfinder itself is unusable this whole time.
All modern DSLR’s still work this way with the exception of one Sony model which I won’t get into here.
About 5 years ago Panasonic and Olympus introduced the format known as Micro Four Thirds. The concept of this format was to build large sensor interchangable lens cameras without mirrors in them. To do this, they replaced the mirror and pentaprism with an electronic viewfinder (EVF). The benefit is no mirror that needs to flip up and down, reducing the wear and tear on the camera. The cameras can be built smaller because the space and distances needed for the mirror and pentaprism can be eliminated. It also means that the evf can display all the time, even when the screen on the back of the camera is displaying. It’s not blacked out like it is on a DSLR.
Since the introduction of Micro Four Thirds, Fuji, Samsumg, Canon and Nikon have all introduced mirrorless camera systems of their own, while still building DSLR cameras as well. Most all of these companies have focused on smaller size as a selling factor for their mirrorless cameras.
One would think that moving forward into the future, mirrorless would be the obvious choice for digital cameras. Afterall, mirrors are really just a holdover from a time when film cameras (a mechanical technology) actually needed mirrors. With digital sensors and displays, mirrors almost start to appear a silly choice for inclusion on a camera. But the data is showing us that the market prefers DSLRs.
Vitaliy Kiselev (the man who hacks Panasonic and now Nikon cameras) has taken the data from worldwide shipments of cameras through the past several months and noticed a trend. Mirrorless camera sales are on the decline while DSLR camera sales are on the rise again. It’s anyones guess as to why.
My guess has to do with perception in the market, the way the cameras have been structured and other factors involved.
Most people today have replaced their old point-and-shoot pocket sized cameras of yesteryear with the camera built into their smartphone. Smartphone cameras keep getting better and the photos are easier to share since you can upload them stright from phone to internet. Add in apps that do filtering like Instagram and the fact that you always have your smartphone with you, suddenly you become hardpressed for a reason to put a dedicated camera in your pocket or purse when you go out somewhere. There just isn’t a point anymore.
So when people go out to buy a “good” camera. They are typically looking for something bigger with the perception that bigger cameras shoot better photos. As most mirrorless cameras tend to look like slighly bigger point-and-shoot cameras, most people pass those by and head straight for a Canon or Nikon DSLR.
So I don’t actually believe that people are buying DSLR’s because they want a relfex mirror, they simply want a bigger camera. They also want something that is well known like a Canon or a Nikon. It also doesn’t help that slightly bigger (more traditional looking) mirrorless cameras like the Panasonic GH3 or the Olympus E-M5 aren’t sold in stores like Best Buy, Walmart or Target. Both of these camera are on the $1000+ end of the spectrum which pretty much rules them out for sale at Walmart and Target.
I think the mirrorless manufacturers have found themselves between a rock and hard place. On one hand the benefit of mirrorless is the ability to build smaller cameras, so they do. But on the other hand, people are buying bigger cameras because of their perception that bigger is better. That leaves them in a niche that is hard to market. If they build them as bigger cameras that pretty much defeats their purpose of existing. But if they don’t, they will continue to be outsold by DSLRs. Unless perceptions change.
But that’s not being completely honest either. The real threat is two companies. Nikon and Canon. Both of which have 50+ years of legacy in the market as being market leaders. Not to mention 30+ years of lenses in their camera systems which includes a healthy used market for older glass. That alone makes it a tough sell for mirrorless systems from Sony, Fuji, Samsumg, Panasonic and Olympus. All of which are relatively new as of the last five years. Even the Nikon and Canon mirrorless systems struggle against their bigger DSLR brothers.
Personally I shoot with Panasonic GH2, mirrorless Micro Four Thirds camera. Not because I want a smaller camera. I have big American male hands. I actually perfer the look and feel of something like a Nikon D7100. A mid range model. But the reason I shoot with a GH2 is because up until recently they’ve been the best cameras for video work with some of the higest quality video footage. Not to mention they price was right. I bought my camera body used for under $500. But now with newer Nikons like the D5200 and D7100, the video quality and capability is there and it looks great. Not to mention the hacked Canon cameras with their raw video capability. So things are changing and I may very well soon find myself back to using a DSLR. Which puts me in line with market trends I guess. ;)