The DSLR’s death knell has been sounding almost daily for the past couple of years – and now Qualcomm has joined the fray by explaining the specific reasons why it thinks phone cameras will soon do away with the aging camera format.
In an in-depth interview with Android Authority (opens in new tab), Qualcomm’s vice president of product management for cameras, Judd Heape, laid out the reasons why smartphones will soon leave DSLRs to history. And the chipmaker’s slightly biased view is quite appealing, particularly given the recent drop in third-party DSLR lens options.
As you’d expect from one of the world’s biggest chipmakers, Qualcomm’s predictions revolve around image processing. “The processing on the Snapdragon is 10 times better than what you can find on the biggest and worst Nikon and Canon cameras,” said Judd Heape. “And that’s why we’re able to really push the image quality barrier. Because even though we have a small lens and a small image sensor, we’re doing many, many times more processing than what a DSLR is capable of.” , he added.
This is certainly true, and has been for some time. The question for many photographers is how much processing is acceptable on their photos – after all, we are reaching a point where interpolation and AI edits are starting to encompass most of a smartphone photo. And for many traditionalists, even those who happily tweak their snaps in digital post-processing, that’s crossing a line.
But this is a separate discussion of the death of DSLRs. There’s no doubt that DSLRs, which are distinct from mirrorless cameras due to their optical viewfinders, are in a dramatic slump.
Yes, DSLR sales took a small leap in a positive direction earlier this year, with May shipments up 131.8% year-on-year (according to CIPA statistics (opens in new tab)), but this is due to the shortage of components for mirrorless cameras. The bigger picture is that DSLRs are in terminal decline – and this process has been accelerated by both camera makers and smartphones.
trust the process
State-of-the-art mirrorless cameras are not under imminent threat from smartphones. No amount of AI processing can replicate the quality and range of, say, a Canon EOS R5 and a super-telephoto lens. This is also true for DSLRs, but their continued survival (at least on the production line) seems unlikely for a number of reasons, including the main one described by Qualcomm.
Canon and Nikon’s unofficial abandonment of DSLRs – we haven’t seen a new release since early 2020 – has left them in a dark age of processing. This has kept them in touch when it comes to modern features like video subject recognition and AI – and it’s in this area where Qualcomm rightly believes the schism will grow between phones and DSLRs.
“We will have announcements very soon where we will have dedicated hardware to handle different parts of the scene,” Judd Heape told the Android Authority. “Hardware to know what to do for pixels that are skin, hair, fabric, sky, grass and background. Those are the areas – and again they all apply to video – where we really see the need to add hardware,” he added.
This is not an entirely new concept. Current phones and mirrorless cameras can do extensive subject recognition, for example recognizing animals and skies. But, as Qualcomm explains, this will soon move to the next level – and crucially, it will happen in real time.
As Judd Heape explained, “Imagine a future world where you would say ‘I want the image to look like this scene from National Geographic’ and the AI engine would say ‘ok, I’ll adjust the colors and the texture and the white balance and everything to look and feel like this picture you just showed me'”.
It’s an attractive prospect, although it’s definitely not appealing to all photographers.
out in the cold
None of this instantly makes DSLR cameras bad. For a clean, traditional photography experience with minimal processing, the best DSLRs remain some of the best-value photography tools available – especially when you combine them with high-quality glass.
But when it comes to the point-and-shoot experience, the computational photography revolution is still unfolding. Phones will continue to be at the forefront. but mirrorless cameras will increasingly adopt similar tricks for different purposes. For example, Sony’s next-gen flagships will likely contain even more powerful subject recognition, which will be used for autofocus tracking rather than instant photo processing.
With the camera industry absorbing the drop in sales in recent years and DSLRs accounting for just 18% of its profits (compared to 69% for mirrorless cameras, according to recent CIPA data (opens in new tab)), something has to give – and that will likely be the production of DSLRs and their lenses.
As petapixel (opens in new tab) points out, the number of third-party lenses for Nikon and Canon DSLRs has dropped dramatically, with major players Tamron and Sigma behind many of the chops. And while smartphones have certainly played a role in that decline, particularly in the entry space, the DSLR’s demise is as much about the camera industry’s shift to mirrorless technology as it is about AI processing. And this is where standalone cameras do more than fend off the best phone cameras.