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Hommage aux DSLR

Digital SLRs don’t get a lot of love these days. Challenged by mirrorless cameras, smartphones, and occasionally even tablets, DSLRs have almost become the embodiment of old, uncool technology. They, for obvious reasons, are still the undisputed go-to choice for most professional photographers, as mirrorless cameras and point-and-shoots are currently the hottest alternative for enthusiasts, and iPhones have become the perfect fit for the clueless average Joe.
It needs to be noted that this gross generalization on my part only refers to each camera type as the primary device for every group, as many top professional photographers use their iPhones not only for vacation Instagramming, but also for serious work – as evidenced by Time Magazine, which turned to Instagram to cover the Hurricane Sandy crisis in 2012; the New York Times, which used a picture created with an iPhone on their bespoke front page; or even World Press Photo, arguably the most prestigious photojournalism competition on the planet, where a panel of experts gave an award to a picture shot on an iPhone.
This blog post is not a statement of the obvious, that pro photographers should stick to their DSLRs. Neither does it attempt to question the validity of the aforementioned new camera formats for the masses, nor is it a comparative study of those. It is a homage to a system that has been around for decades, in its core hasn’t changed, and while still not there, is nearing perfection.
I have been using the Nikon D300s for nearly five years now. This semi-pro camera has been on the market since mid-2009, and since its introduction was generally warmly received, with DPReview dubbing it “an absolutely excellent product”. And while this is the only camera I ever owned for more than one year, I’ve used at least one model of just about every DSLR category that is out there, from the Nikon D4s to the Canon 700D.
And as the number of cameras I’ve had a chance to try out grew, I that realized every single one of them seemed to be a fantastic product for its price category. Which, in technology, is something unheard of. And it got me thinking why that was. So without a further ado, here’s the result of my thinking. 6 reasons why I love digital SLR cameras.
#1: Reliability
Hands down the most important feature for any sensible person making their living, even partially, as a photographer. Luckily enough, the engineers in Tokyo, where all relevant DSLR manufacturers are based, have got us covered. I know there is a couple of you who have had problems with your cameras, but that does not change the fact that technical faults in DSLRs are nowhere near as common as they are with personal electronics.
This is even more obvious considering most cameras’ fairly long lifespan. Being an Apple user for nearly a decade, you can imagine I am not exactly fed up with the reliability of my digital arsenal. My MacBooks, iPhones and WD MyPassports have all been performing really well, which I’m most thankful for. But every now and then, there is gimmicks to be fixed – no audio during FaceTime calls, a (very rare) Safari crash, or the Mail app constantly asking for a password. These do happen, but most of the time can be fixed with nothing more than a simple update.
But there’s none of that with my D300s. I have set up my camera when I bought it six years ago, and I hardly ever needed to go into the settings menu to carry out troubleshooting, let alone call a repair service center. And that’s extremely important to me. Perhaps I’m just lucky, but I highly doubt it. Being at risk of sounding a bit cliché, technology should serve us, not the other way around. And to me, that has been the case ever since I picked up a DSLR.
#2: Familiarity
While seemingly not as important as reliability, DSLRs’ uniform look is one of the little things that, at the end of the day, does make a difference. There will always be those debates between users of Canon and Nikon where each party explains why the other system is utterly idiotic. But let’s put that aside. We rarely really mean that.
Both the button layout and display UI are pretty much the same. Aperture or shutter speed dial wheels, AF mode selector, a few mode dials, and picture settings buttons. There’s a good chance that if you know how to operate one given DSLR, it wouldn’t take you more than 5 minutes to be totally comfortable with the other brand’s equivalent. And in full honesty, that has saved my butt on several occasions.
Being a freelance photographer working on a wide array of assignments, I have to borrow equipment quite often. Sometimes I get my hands on the camera I have to use literally five minutes before the shoot begins. And if I weren’t familiar with the equipment I am to use, I’d be asking for serious trouble with potentially catastrophic consequences. But that’s not the case with DSLRs.
I’ve been a Nikon guy all my life, and if you asked me right now how to change any specific setting on a Canon DSLR camera, there’s a good chance I’d be able to answer correctly. I am sometimes asked to do jobs with Canon cameras, and I know that that will be absolutely no issue for me. And that makes my life much easier.
After being a photographer for several years, which still is really not much, DSLRs are like an extension of my hand, which lets me think why and how some settings need to be changed, and not how to actually physically do the change at all.
#3: Speed
Quite naturally, it’s a little more difficult to avoid comparisons in this one. I know some of you will argue that point-and-shoots and mirrorless systems are new to the game, that they are making massive leaps every day, that they will eventually get there, but the reality is that DSLRs are already there.
No startup time is offered even by the entry-level DSLR category, shutter lag is more or less immeasurable, AF is crazy-fast and crazy accurate (yes, that’s above a certain price tag), shutter speed of 1/8000 of a second is standard even for enthusiast range of DSLRs. And with burst rate of 11 fps at full quality, resolution and AF accuracy, we have reached a point where technology is in no way a limiting factor regardless of how quick or unpredictable the scene is.
I understand that there are whole genres of photography in which speed plays virtually no role whatsoever, but for a good portion of professional photographers who work outside of a studio, it is absolutely crucial that technology this advanced exists, and is available at relatively affordable prices. And I’d argue that it is currently only available with DSLRs.
Again, I am not going to deny that some mirrorless cameras are catching up, to say the least. They do offer frame rate nearly twice the speed of pro-level DSLRs, or ISO objectively superior to $7,000 DSLRs, but the overall speed’s usability and versatility is still, I believe, only effectively harnessed with DSLRs.
#3: Durability
Although DSLRs are just computers with a hole in the front and a mirror and sensor inside, they are not typical fragile computers that require careful handling and in the case that there is even a minor accident, they give up. They take serious beatings day in and day out, without ever complaining. They really are tough little suckers.
I have had shoots in heavy rain or sub-zero temperatures, and my D300s, technically still only an enthusiast-level camera, never had any issues. And perhaps even more importantly, DSRLs are pretty impact resistant. It happens to the best of us, and it catches us when we are the least prepared: the dreaded full camera drop. It only happened to me once, but that’s all it takes. Luckily enough, my D300s survived with no damage whatsoever.
So take this, Nikon, as a massive thank you. I could have been a couple hundred (or maybe thousand) dollars lighter, and you saved me. I don’t know how you build your cameras (and lenses), but you do a great job. And I promise that it won’t ever happen again.
#3: Lens Compatibility
Lenses may first appear to be kind of a pain in the keister. Building up a lens portfolio is an expense comparable with putting a child through college, the long-end can get extremely bulky to a point when it’s almost impossible to carry or transport, and on top of that, they are the most fragile part of the whole DSLR ecosystem. But there is a very good reason for all of this, as they are incredibly complicated pieces of equipment. They give a unique perspective, they bring you closer, they either show the whole scene, or just the tiniest detail of almost microscopic proportions. In other words, they are no pain in the ass – they are your best friend.
Virtually anything is possible to photograph today, and that’s mostly thanks to the vast selection of lenses we have. Nikon’s standard lens mount has remained largely unchanged for more than half a century, which means that professionals needing a very specialized lens or enthusiasts purchasing obscure lenses at photo flea markets can use tons and tons of lenses totally hassle free, with no additional investment that may affect optical quality of the multi thousand body-lens combo. Hence the famous F-mount and its backwards compatibility is often, and for a good reason, a deciding factor for people deciding which DSLR brand to take up.
It is very likely that the folks at Nikon realize this, which is why chances of an end to this continuity are next to nonexistent. Professional photographers need to be 100% adaptable to circumstances while also being totally dependable. That sometimes means using a kit that contains a combination of one’s own equipment, as well as borrowed stuff. And things such as the F-mount make the pressure a little more bearable. No compatibility checks, no adapters for every decade of lens manufacturing. It just works.
Non-DSLR systems, on the other hand, are more prone to change, as they are widely considered to be technology products, as opposed to imaging or optical ones. Not being an expert in this area, I don’t know whether sticking to the F-mount religiously is a limiting factor, and we could have had more advanced cameras if Nikon sacrificed the backwards compatibility. But I hope they don’t. Lenses are an investment, and they should last. And the fact is that with changes in lens mount technology occurring every 10 years, they simply wouldn’t.
#6: Accessories Selection
And last but not least, the almost incomprehensible size of accessories selection means that there is literally nothing you cannot do with a DSLR. I strongly believe that in the past few years, technology has completely ‘disappeared’, and whatever a photographer can imagine, he or she can do it. Vision is the most important thing in photography, there is little debate about that. But execution of that vision is a technical matter.
Sometimes to tell a story with pictures effectively, it is vital that the camera mounted to a drone is absolutely stable, the kick-light is not 5200k but 5400k, or that the tripod head underneath a camera rotates exactly 5 degrees every two seconds. If you try to think of similar, and very particular, requirements, I guarantee you that more often than not, there is a ready-to-go solution on the market.
A good showcase of what is possible in today’s photojournalism is sports photography, and especially coverage of the Olympics. High profile agency photographers often operate up to five cameras hooked up through PocketWizards, have custom-made rigs for pictures from previously unseen angles, and operate infrastructure able to publish peak action images within seconds. This is simply not possible with other systems.
Technology is often beyond frustrating, and it is exactly the sheer vastness of available accessories that prevents it to stand in our way. In other words, you can do just about anything, and if you can’t, there’s an adapter for it. But unlike consumer electronics, photography accessories are very often not proprietary, and work with all major camera systems. Just take a typical scene from a studio lighting stall at any photography trade show in the world: a makeshift studio with a model, and dozens of eager enthusiasts firing two shots every second. Each.
There is a good chance that the (let’s say Elinchrom) lights are triggered by PocketWizards, which are sitting on top of Canon, Nikon and Sony cameras. What that means is products from five, maybe more, brands have to work together. And they do, often with no setting up whatsoever. Now imagine trying to hook up five consumer electronics products of different brands. Good luck with that.
Conclusion
I believe in giving credit where credit is due. And that is exactly the case here. Well done, Nikon (and others). Digital SLRs of all brands are, in a way, the pinnacle of consumer technology. My D300s is one of the most amazing pieces of gear I’ve ever owned. One day, hopefully not anytime soon (but it is a when, not an if), the day will come when my camera gives up. But I’m beyond certain my next Nikon DSLR will be at least just as good as my current one. So here is my wish, Nikon: Please, prove me right.