When Does Mirrorless Supplant DSLR?

It seems a post I made on an Internet forum last week rattled a few cages. Basically I predicted that mirrorless sales would equal DSLR sales in 2020. 

That was a conservative prediction. 

Realistically, if Canon and Nikon introduce new mirrorless systems this year that are competent, the more likely date where mirrorless unit volume will surpass DSLR unit volume is 2019. The straight linear trend looks like this (hashed lines; the solid lines are actual through 2017, linear estimates through 2020).

bythom ilc trendline

Note that 2016 was a problem for mirrorless due to sensor shortages due to the earthquake. 

Implied in this graph is about a 10% drop in DSLR unit volume a year and a 10% gain in mirrorless unit volume (the 2017 gain for mirrorless was 25% [current trailing year numbers], but it was also a recovery year from sensor shortages). 

But a linear trend is not necessarily what we'll see. In fact, it's highly unlikely that sales would progress linearly. As more mirrorless choices become available and it becomes clear that Canon and Nikon are endorsing such models, we're likely to see a higher mirrorless adaptation rate. Change the growth rate in mirrorless and the contraction rate in DSLRs by a factor of one point five to two and you get something like this:

bythom ilc trendline2

Now, of course, I can make a spreadsheet and the resultant graph look like anything I want. What I back in the late 70's dubbed the Visicalc Mentality.

Mirrorless initially looked like it was going to quickly erode DSLR unit volume back in 2012. That proved to be a false positive. Mirrorless was still nascent, Nikon was heavily promoting the Nikon 1 because they couldn't make DSLRs due to the quake and flood (and already discounting the Nikon 1), and there was a lot of sampling going on to see if mirrorless truly was the future of interchangeable lens cameras. Frankly, no, it wasn't yet ready back then. The great sensors weren't there yet, the focus systems weren't equivalent yet (other than perhaps the Nikon 1 with the smallest sensor on the market), and there were plenty of other issues that people quickly responded negatively to, including bad ergonomics and poor battery life. 

Compare that to today. Let's use Canon as an example. You'd be hard pressed to show me how an entry Rebel DSLR is better than an EOS M5. After all, they're using the same sensor. The Rebel is bigger, heavier, bulkier. It doesn't do as well with face recognition autofocus, a big thing for the masses. In other words, most of the things that led samplers in 2012 to say "not ready yet" are no longer applicable. They can get equivalent or better results for their type of shooting out of a smaller, lighter, simpler camera now. A friend of mine says that there's a study that shows statistical significance to European camera sales to European airline carry-on practices. As airlines tightened carry-on weight limits, people in Europe bought smaller and lighter cameras, apparently.

So it's not hard to imagine that the factors are truly lined up this time for mirrorless growth at the expense of DSLR sales. With CP+ coming March 1st in Japan, any Canon/Nikon new entries start to further endorse that thought, as those two companies are the ones that lose the most as DSLR sales go down. 

And clearly DSLR sales are going to go down, regardless of what happens with mirrorless. Why? Because most people don't need something better than a 24mp full frame DSLR so are reluctant to do any more upgrading, and highly competent DSLRs have been produced for some time now. The likelihood that you get a DSLR user to upgrade has lessened with each passing generation. Meanwhile, mirrorless has become more attractive to the new-to-ILC users. 

We're nearing that critical point where the future of ILC is mirrorless. We're not there yet. But we're closing in on it fast. Watch the moves Canon and Nikon make this year and you'll know that this is true. 

text and images © 2018 Thom Hogan
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