“The fact is that relatively few photographers ever master their medium. Instead they allow the medium to master them and go on an endless squirrel cage chase from new lens to new paper to new developer to new gadget, never staying with one piece of equipment long enough to learn its full capacities, becoming lost in a maze of technical information that is of little or no use since they don’t know what to do with it.”
– Edward Weston
There is a lot of hand wringing going on in the camera industry right now. Overall sales are down 40%, promising new camera technologies such as mirrorless can't seem to gain traction, and cell phone cameras continue to devour the compact camera market. Every company except Canon seems to be scrambling, offering new form factors at a blistering pace (retro, mirrorless, compact full frame, “budget” medium format, etc.), while a majority of consumers continue to purchase low- to mid-level DSLRs from the big two (Canon and Nikon). In fact, even with the proliferation of new camera types, DSLRs are the only segment to show any growth at all over the past few years.
So what's going on here? My take is that what we’re seeing in the camera industry is the same thing we’re seeing in the larger tech industry. After a rapid, and arguably, unsustainable period of innovation spurred by the transition to digital, we've reached a point of sufficiency in cameras. In other words, most of the cameras that people already own are far more than good enough for everything they want to do with those cameras. We've reached a point where the costs of upgrading every year or two are hard to justify for anyone other than collectors and wealthy camera enthusiasts.
For example, take my Canon 5D Mk II camera body. Introduced in 2008, it’s a dinosaur on the technological time scale, but it's a lovely camera that produces beautiful, high-res digital files that are still well beyond sufficient for the type of work I do (which is not undemanding). I could upgrade to a 5D Mk III, or perhaps one of the newer generation 36 MP full frame cameras such as the Nikon D800 or Sony a7R, but what would I gain? Resolution certainly, but arguably it would be lost at the sizes I print (no larger than 20"). I'd also gain faster and more accurate auto-focus, which would only matter if I was shooting fast moving subjects, which I'm not. The disadvantages include much larger raw files (putting greater demands on my computer and storage/backup systems), and of course, the significant financial hit I’d take in the currently flat camera resale market.
The one upgrade that might (just might) make sense is a switch from my current DSLR system to one of the so-called “mirrorless” systems. A few of these smaller cameras are just now finally reaching a point of semi-pro to pro-level performance. Their diminutive size would certainly be an advantage on long hikes. The nagging question though, is whether a 16 MP sensor that is approximately 25% the size of a full frame sensor will provide the image quality required for the type of work I do. If I only posted my images to the web, a switch to these smaller cameras would be a no brainer. But for gallery prints (which naturally put greater demands on a camera), I'm not yet convinced.
So for now, I'll do what it seems a lot of people are doing. I'll use my phone camera for causal snap shots, and I'll continue using my more-than-good-enough big camera until it either wears out, or a company produces a camera system sufficiently advanced to motivate a switch.