The DSLR Sweepstakes Game, early 2020

Here's the thing. You've entered a sweepstakes and the prize is "any current Nikon DSLR, this year or next." Congratulations, you just won! Which camera do you take? (Canon I deal with later in the article after I deal with the Nikon choices.)

We have a couple of variations on how to play the game.

First up, DX only. 

In January 2020 your choices are D3500, D5600, D7500, and D500. The only thing that changed since my last update of this game is the D3400 became a D3500, though it gained virtually nothing other than 100. The D5600 has the only swivel LCD, the D7500 has more features and performance, and the D500 is a mini-D5 in a DX package, but that also means that it lost the built-in flash. 

The current choice for me is easy as long as you stay DSLR: most of you should take the D7500, a few of you that have very high speed requirements should take the D500.  

What's changed things, though, is the appearance of the DX Z50 mirrorless camera. I'm going to say right out that if you were thinking about a D3500 or D5600, you should almost certainly be looking at the Z50 instead and leaving the DSLR realm for good. The Z50 is a far better camera than either of those, it's also smaller, lighter, and still approachable and easy to use. Heck, the Z50 autofocus system alone is better for those that would think of picking a D3500 or D5600. 

This appears to be foreshadowing. Certainly for DX DSLRs, the gig is almost up. The D500 is now the only DX DSLR that clearly distinguishes itself over a mirrorless camera with the same size sensor. D7500 users will find the Z50 very close in features and performance, but with additional benefits a DSLR can't provide. Foreshadowing...

Next, let's try FX.

In January 2020 your primary choices are the D6, D780, and D850. You can also find leftover D5, Df, D610, D750, and even some lingering D810's cluttering dealers' shelves. Add in the two FX mirrorless cameras, and we have 10 options, at least for the moment. This makes for a much tougher choice, because these cameras are all over the place, not only in features and performance, but price. 

You can only pick the D610 or D750 because of price now, so you wouldn't pick them for your sweepstakes win. While image quality doesn't really move forward much with the Z6 or D780, the new cameras are highly preferable, particularly the D780, which throws in pretty much everything Nikon has into a 24mp body. For the moment it's also the priciest option at 24mp, but it's almost a hybrid, with the best features of DSLRs rolled into one side of the camera, and the best features of mirrorless rolled into the Live View and video side of the camera. Since you're not paying for it anyway—remember, you won the sweepstakes—if you've got an F-mount lens collection and looking towards the future, the D780 (and probably similar other models still coming) is how Nikon would like you to transition, and it should be your choice. It's a reasonably compelling argument (though as I write this, I'm still in the preliminary review stages on the D780).

If you want more than the D780, you take the D850. It's being discounted heavily these days, which makes it not that much of a reach beyond the D780 if you had to use your own money. That said, the only real reason you go with it now is that you need the extra pixels or the vertical grip, I think. It's a fine camera, but it's now due for an update if it wants to remain the best all-around camera you can buy.

If you're always shooting at ISO 3200 and above and/or you need very high frame rates for what you shoot (e.g. sports), then you clearly pick the D6 (or pick up an end-of-life D5). Yes, I think I can write that without actually having yet used a D6. If I shouldn't be writing that, then someone in Nikon R&D made a huge goof that will haunt them for years.  

The only reason you'd pick the Df is probably because you like dials. It's not better in image quality than the D780; it's not better in frame rate, nor features, nor build than pretty much anything. It's just an old-school dial UI wrapped around the D4 image sensor in a D610 body. I write that a bit sarcastically, but the only other thing I could come up with to make you take the Df for your winnings is that it's a bit smaller and lighter than most of the others, or you are shooting above ISO 3200 an awful lot and don't care about frame rate or focus system. Most people aren't going to pick that way, I think. Moreover, the Z6 is a more compelling camera than the Df if small/light is what you desire.

Nikon Wrap-Up

Will my answer change in 2021? Hard to say. One would expect Nikon to update the D850 sooner rather than later, and it would be nice to see it gain the mirrorless tech like the D750 did with the D780 update. The mirrorless cameras should evolve more by the end of 2021, too, which makes the DSLR/mirrorless decision more important to get right when you win the sweepstakes (or upgrade ;~). 

But notice that my answer did start to change this time around: before we didn't have mirrorless to consider in our answer. Now we do.

Now Let's Do Canon EF-S

Canon crop-sensor DSLR users aren't going to like what I'm about to write. After long consideration, there's only one current crop-sensor DSLR they should be picking for their sweepstakes win, if any: the EOS 90D. Even then, I'm not 100% convinced, though at least the sensor is finally getting up to the Sony Exmor level. I'm not even going to list all the other Canon crop-sensor choices, as they just shouldn't be getting a winner's attention ;~).

I was considering adding the SL3 to the potential cameras you'd pick for your winnings, but the only reason to take it is to take a small DSLR. Indeed, about the smallest DSLR you can find. The coupling of the older dual pixel 24mp sensor with the old style OVF focus system means that a lot of people just use their SL's without the optical finder (e.g. via the Rear LCD with dual pixel focus). But if you're going to do that, you have a whole horde of 24mp dual pixels options in the EOS M mirrorless line that are probably the better choice. Too bad the sweepstakes specify that you take a DSLR.

Everything else in the Canon crop sensor DSLR lineup just feels old to me. Old school design. Old sensor. Old feature sets. Old performance attributes. Old video specs. I'm 68 years old, so if something is feeling old and tired to me, just how would it feel to the first-time ILC purchaser/winner? Which is exactly the target of the crop-sensor cameras. 

Nope, I can't say that you should be using your free sweepstakes money on anything other than a 90D if you skew Canon crop sensor DSLR in your views. 

Is Canon Full Frame Better?

Right now the current choices are 6D m2, 5D m4, 5Dr/s, and 1DX m3, though you can find older versions of some of those cameras still available, too. The 5D's date back to 2015 and 2016, which in dog years—uh, excuse me, tech-moves-on-awfully-quickly years—makes them quite old. They're getting difficult to justify, particularly since Canon didn't match Sony sensor tech levels during that period. The 6D and the 1DX both get newer sensor tech that feels more current, though the 6D m2 still feels like an older camera because it's basically a DSLR stripper model with no new ideas, features, or performance. 

So pick the 1DX m3 for your sweepstakes win, and hire a sherpa to carry it for you. 

Canon Wrap Up

Canon's problem is that their early full frame mirrorless thrust had people scratching their heads (a US$1000 RP, an engineering experiment R), while their DSLRs were clearly aging. I have to say, that the 90D and the 1DX m3 are the only two recent Canon DSLRs that feel current to me. This lack of a broad, solid lineup of trendy DSLR cameras plays right into Sony's "we're the technology leader" game and runs right off the field into the old stinky locker room.

Sure, the high pros will gobble up the 1DX m3. Its improved autofocus performance alone will guarantee that. But I'm guessing that most of the rest of the Canon faithful are wondering what happened to the early digital camera technology leader. Did the product managers take a long nap? Did they suffer a sudden Pachinko addiction and have been in recovery for awhile? Have all the good decision makers retired and the new ones still aren't up to speed?

I don't know, but it's been a little painful to watch Canon pull a Nikon and run the car right into the wall at the end of the straightaway. 


Now it might seem silly to play this game, but it does have a function. One of the questions I get asked every day is "should I buy an X or wait?" Okay, play the sweepstakes game, where your money isn't on the line. What's your answer for January 2020? Now how likely is it that the rest of 2020 and 2021 will change your answer? In the DSLR world, only the D500, D780, D850, D6, 90D, and 1DX m3 users have a high probability of picking an existing DSLR camera for their sweepstake winnings. Even some of those might hesitate or ask if they can trade for a mirrorless option.

If you go back and read previous versions of this article dating back to 2013, you'll see that the answer this year changed considerably. We are nearing the end of the time where a DSLR would be the answer for most. 

Stay tuned for The ILC Sweepstakes Game, 2021.

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