Calling All ProMini-DSLRs: Is Anyone Out There?

by Reads (621)

Managing Editor Jerry Jackson also contributed to this article

The idea hit me like a flash of lightning. I was hanging out with the Canon reps in NYC checking out the new Canon Rebel SL1. The briefing was almost over and we were getting ready to wrap things up. 

As soon as I laid eyes on the SL1, I was a bit suspicious. For a DSLR the camera is very small and very lightweight. Even with the 18-55mm lens, it felt so light. Throughout the briefing I kept having a nagging feeling that the camera was not quite what I wanted. It was missing something. I couldn’t figure out what it was missing until the 40mm 2.8 STM lens magically found its way onto the SL1. The light bulb went off and I’m pretty sure I heard angels singing in the background.

In my mind I was witnessing the birth of a new type of camera – the ProMini-DSLR. Not your stripped down, entry level version, but one that could meet the demands of discerning professionals across the globe. Professional photographers love having high performance cameras. But lugging around all of that equipment can be heavy and cumbersome. The creation of a smaller sized DSLR with the performance of a professional camera would be the perfect solution. Add a host of new pancake primes and short barrel zooms with wide open apertures and you have a winning combination – a professional level compact DSLR.

The idea of making cameras smaller and more lightweight is nothing new. The concept of shrinking down camera technology is driving the marketplace right now. Just look around; mirrorless cameras are all the rage. Compact, large sensor cameras are hugely popular. Being able to take better technology and fitting it into a smaller package is catapulting Olympus, Sony and Fuji into the forefront of camera design while it seems that Nikon and Canon are holding steady to the bulk of professional users who prefer a DSLR experience.

The traditional mindset within the camera industry says, “Get real! You can’t stuff professional-grade features into a tiny camera body.” But that simply isn’t true anymore. Take a look at cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M5; a camera that is considerably smaller than the recently announced Canon Rebel SL1, yet it’s loaded with professional features. The OM-D has weather sealing, lightning quick and reliable AF with live view (something that Canon still hasn’t mastered), high-speed 9fps burst shooting in RAW, 5-axis in-body Image Stabilization, in-camera wireless flash control with high speed sync capability, and an optional battery grip if you want greater battery life at the expense of a little extra bulk.

Do some Google searches and you’ll find a surprising number of working photographers who have migrated from bulky full frame DSLRs to using the Olympus OM-D E-M5. The number of serious photographers switching to smaller, mirrorless cameras isn’t enough to make a massive dent in Canon or Nikon sales figures … for now. But there was a time when digital camera sales weren’t troubling Kodak or Polaroid either.

Just because you are making money with current technology today doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do the same 10 years from now. Canon and Nikon are “the big two” camera companies that cater to professional photographers, but they cannot afford to ignore new technology and new market trends, particularly when it comes to working professionals. Digital technology and the hard realities of our changing global economy are having a huge impact on all categories of photographers from weekend shutterbugs to full-time professionals. Photographers’ buying habits are changing, and they need camera companies to change with them.

Let’s look at the changing face of photojournalism. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, most news outlets (large and small) sent dedicated photographers and dedicated videographers along with journalists to cover stories. Increasingly that is changing so that a single journalist is now tasked with writing the story, photographing the story, and recording video of the story … and thanks to budget cuts, that one journalist is going to have to fly coach without incurring additional fees for checked luggage.

Sure, there are still major news outlets that are adequately staffed with significant resources, but many working photographers now have to work smart and work small. There is less room in today’s professional environment for bulky gear.

So why not create a ProMini-DSLR? Why not design a camera that is geared toward the professional, offers great specs, yet comes in a much more portable package?

The traditional mindset is that camera companies shouldn’t make smaller, more affordable professional alternatives to the big and expensive cameras in order to discourage pros from “settling” for less expensive gear.  But if you think about this business model, frankly, it’s foolish.  Look at other successful companies that leverage modern technology like Apple: Apple doesn’t care if you buy the cheapest or the most expensive MacBook, iPad or iPhone. They offer a wide range of products designed to work together seamlessly within a single ecosystem and Apple supports all of those products in a way that encourages customers to remain within that ecosystem regardless of which products they own.

If Canon and Nikon are serious about a Mini-DSLR category, then not only do they need to offer Mini-DSLRs with features and specs that professionals value, but they need to offer the related service and support that working photographers have come to expect and even demand.

Take Canon Professional Services (CPS) for example. CPS is an invaluable tool for working photographers because it gives pros discounts on repairs and cleanings, priority shipping, 24/7 support and evaluation equipment loans. In order to qualify for CPS you have to purchase a minimum amount of “pro-grade” gear (the specific amount varies depending on whether you’re a Silver, Gold, or Platinum CPS member); every item you buy adds points to your CPS membership but current small consumer-grade cameras like the Rebel series of DSLRs don’t qualify because they aren’t “professional” cameras. 

Even professionals appreciate small, lightweight gear … but professionals expect pro-grade support. That is something that shouldn’t be overlooked if Canon, Nikon or any other traditional DSLR manufacturer wants to get serious about a full line of Mini-DSLRs.

Small cameras don’t always mean amateur or small budget … and the sooner that major players like Canon and Nikon realize this, the sooner they can start profiting from the working professionals who need or desire smaller and lighter gear.

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