DSLRs are losing their luster

We’re in a fast changing digital landscape; innovation has worked into almost every device I use regularly and with cloud syncing my content is accessible from anywhere. So why do higher end cameras, most notably digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) ones, feel absent from the picture? Big manufacturers like Canon and Nikon push out better sensors and higher end lenses year after year, but the core design remains unchanged. Contrast that progress with the rapid evolution in smaller, camera-equipped devices like the iPhone and Canon S95, both in terms of technology advances and mainstream adoption. If the trend continues the DSLR will be relegated to a niche device for professionals only.

The problem starts with perception: compared to hot new consumer tech like the Kinect and iPhone, DSLRs, at least to a mainstream audience, are run of the mill if not behind the curve. First and foremost, in a golden age of lightweight, powerful technology, DSLRs remain heavy and bulky. They also have a higher learning curve than most other tech devices: even using its simplest operation, the most basic DSLR offers a bewildering array of dial settings, zoom levels and menu adjustments.

DSLRs also have an intimidating range of purchasing decisions to choose from: body and lenses to memory cards and other accessories. Furthermore, a perceived lack of product differention makes the buying process more difficult. Indeed, at every price level there are at least two major brands that offer nearly identical camera kits. Even within the lineup of a single large camera manufacturer like Nikon the options are confusing.

DSLRs also lack cloud integration. This is especially disappointing as services from Apple, Google, Dropbox and other companies grow in popularity. Even a simple wireless sync from a DSLR to any other device is effectively impossible out of the box; I’ve been relying on roughly the same manual USB-based card reader import method since 2002.

This lack of DSLR innovation on the consumer front is unfortunate given how powerful they are in comparison to phones and other lower end devices. For instance, the low-light capabilities of DSLRs are light years ahead of any phone or point-and-shoot camera; it’s something mainstream consumers can really benefit from when shooting indoors or at night. Also, as a user’s skills improve with a DSLR, the creative potential and flexibility is far greater than any point-and-shoot or phone. DSLR photographers can play with depth of field, bokeh, zoom settings and multiple lenses to open up nearly limitless possibilities.

Bottom line, there’s still a market out there for DSLRs. For manufacturers want to reverse their downward trend, I’d recommend several areas of focus:

  • Portability. While the complexity of a DSLR justifies a larger size, more can be done to cut down its weight; shaving a pound or two off a DSLR kit would make it more usable. Innovation can come in the form of lighter plastics for camera bodies or less glass in lenses. I would also want a dust-free, simplified method for adding and removing lenses to enhance the device’s portability on the go.

  • Syncing. Add out of the box Wi-Fi sync capabilities with every DSLR. Incorporate iCloud and Dropbox integration. I’d go so far as to form partnerships with telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon so users can upload their images to the cloud via 3G.

  • Buying process. Look to Apple; have a streamlined set of options that make it very clear to average consumers where the low and high end markets lie. I’d suggest simplifying the process by pushing just one lower end DSLR model – already quite powerful for most consumers – with different, progressively more powerful lens bundles.

  • User interface. Take cues from the popular, simplistic one button interface found on mobile phones. In particular, I’d make the dials, aperture settings and “scene” modes (e.g. portrait, night, sports) of a consumer-level DSLR disabled by default yet easily turned on for more experienced users. Add sharing functionality (e.g. email, Twitter, Facebook) in the camera body itself. I’d add simple post processing filters akin to Hipstamatic or Instagram as well; given their popularity on mobile phones, it’s bound to be a popular feature set.