How to Look at DSLRs Today

With high tech, there's always a set of critical deflection points you need to be aware of. The two most critical ones are:

  • The beginning of the new
  • The end of the old

The D1 in 1999 could be arguably called the beginning of the new for DSLRs. Previous to that, we had multi-party experimentation (Kodak/Canon, Kodak/Nikon, Nikon/Fujifilm) that produced cameras we could probably call DSLRs. But the D1 represented one of the major camera makers producing something new they wanted to go mainstream and was what I would regard as the true beginning of DSLR. Likewise, the Panasonic G1 in 2008 probably is the camera we should regard as the beginning of mirrorless. 

Identifying the "beginning" is always easier (especially in post-mortem) than identifying the end. 

The debate going on in my email Inbox these days seems to center around whether we are at the end of the old with the current DSLRs or not. 

In terms of sales, particularly of the D850, it doesn't seem like we are. This is the tricky part that keeps Canon and Nikon making a number of their DSLR models: there's a reasonable demand for them, again, particularly the Nikon D850. The reason I've been centering most of this discussion on Nikon and avoiding writing about Canon is that if you look closely, Nikon has three DSLRs that are seminal that are still selling:

  • D500 — To this day, still the best APS-C camera you can buy, mirrorless or DSLR.
  • D850 — To this day, still arguably one of the top few all-around cameras you can buy, mirrorless or DSLR.
  • D6 — As good as the Z9 is, the D6 still has plenty going for it, particularly for the sports crowd.

You can't really say the same for Canon, where only the 1DX Mark III might make the cut.

So the question that keeps getting asked is this: are those Nikon DSLRs the last of the breed, or might Nikon attempt to extend the DSLR lifespan by producing a new model (or two)? 

I don't know the answer to that question. Only Nikon knows, and I'm pretty sure they don't know for sure themselves at the moment because they're still in the midst of their yearly management priority-setting meetings at the moment. I'm not sure consensus has been reached on the DSLR status moving forward.

It is clear that Nikon is prioritizing manufacturing of mirrorless cameras that are selling well (e.g. Z6 II, Z7 II, Z9) over DSLRs, as DSLR production slowed to a trickle as the parts shortages started to impact Nikon. The key mirrorless cameras are staying in stock or getting re-stocked faster than the key DSLR ones. Which is why is you see "more on the way" for the D500, D850, and D6 quite often at the big dealers, such as B&H. With the mirrorless cameras, we're tending to see shorter periods where that's the case, and often a body+lens kit is available if the body only is out of stock temporarily.

I do think the Z9 dislodged a number of pros that had been considering themselves "DSLR into the future" owners. I know quite a few that sampled the Z9 only to decide maybe the time had come for them to transition to mirrorless. That's despite some things that the Z9 still needs work on. Personally, I'm one of those folk. The Z9 answers enough of my mirrorless hesitancy to have supplanted my D850. 

My questioning of where we are regarding the "end of the old" lies more than in personal interest, though. As a key supporter of Nikon interchangeable lens products—via my books and Web sites—for almost 25 years, I'm trying to figure out the audience, much like Nikon is. How many of you are going to stay DSLR, how many will move on, how many will come to a split decision?

Thus, I've encouraged an on-going dialog via email, and have some more reader comments to post:

"The [pricing] on the 400mm f2.8 makes the case for final F-mount camera bodies. No reason to think the Z 600mm or even the 800mm PF lenses on roadmap will not be priced similarly. Assume at some point will eventually have Z-mount lenses equal to 120-300mm f/2.8 and 180-400mm f/4 (given the long Nikon history in 500mm f/4 versions, that also is possible) and those will be priced in same range as the DSLR lenses. There will be a reasonable number of people who have the F-mount exotics of all types (even some high end lenses not “exotic”) that simply are not going to spend that kind of money to upgrade to Z versions."

Yes, many of us have discovered the F-mount exotics on the FTZ adapter mounted on a Z9 basically give us a bit more focus precision with sometimes even faster speed than the DSLRs have (particularly with teleconverters involved). On the one hand, I dislike all the mounts you can end up with doing this (lens, teleconverter, FTZ), but I'm enjoying the performance. So do I (or you) really want to give up our F-mount exotics? We pay a big cost penalty for dumping an F-mount one and picking up a (eventual in some cases) Z-mount one. 

Personally, I've decided to sell my 500mm f/4G, but am undecided at the moment about my 400mm f/2.8G. But it's really only cost factors that are coming into play for me, not whether or not Nikon might make another DSLR body.

"Since the introduction of the Z System, I went from four FX DSLRs (all bought used) to a D850, Z6 and Zfc all bought new (and in that order). My intention was to be a dual mount user, i.e. to straddle across F and Z. For some time, I've been contemplating trading in my D850 for a Z7 or Z7ii, because the weight and size reduction is more useful to me than what I consider to be the better ergonomics of the D850. Since the introduction of the Z9 (a camera I can't see myself buying), that feeling of 'maybe I should make the leap to Z' completely has got bigger. But, I actually find it hard to pin down exactly why I feel so hesitant making that leap. For me, there is an appeal related to owning and using the D850 that is hard to put my finger on. I still enjoy using it. I can't see myself ever wanting to upgrade to a D880 or D900, and see any future upgrades to be on the Z side for me. So, I guess I'll be more likely to trade my Z6 for a Z7 or Z7ii in the future than ever departing with the D850....and that means having some of my F mount lenses around...which probably means I won't be adding as many Z lenses as Nikon would like."

I'm seeing more and more Straddlers with similar thoughts to you, typically always centered on a D500 or D850 body on the DSLR side (though not always). From Nikon's point of view, Straddlers are actually their worst problem, as they buy minimal new mirrorless gear and aren't likely to buy a new DSLR, either (as in your case). At least they tend to buy Nikon, I guess. 

Too many Straddlers would slow down the Z System camera sales from where I think Nikon wants them to be. The only way to minimize straddling, though, is to introduce more seminal products such as the Z9, which I don't think is going to happen short term. I see the 2022 Z future more centered on producing a decent Z6 III and Z7 III, and maybe one other camera. If I'm right, we'll still be having this discussion into 2023 ;~(.

"I am a D500 + Z7 user (in that order). I got the Z because I wanted to do video more easily, it is manageable with the D500, if plenty of preparation is done in advance. I did not go full mirrorless because frankly, I like the form factor of cameras like the D500 and D850 a lot better than the Z cameras."  

Another Straddler, but note the reason. This reader is not alone, I noted a half dozen similar points made in the last week about form factor.

So what's that mean? I'm not entirely sure, and I suspect Nikon isn't, either. I don't think it's the smaller size of the Z bodies, but something else. Could it be the Mode Dial and U# positions? Button positions? We know that the lack of a true vertical grip was one of the items in this category with the original Z6 and Z7. But what are the other form factor issues that are putting people off?

Continuing on with the same emailer:

"The Z9 appeared… I preordered, then pulled out to wait for your review! I am mightily tempted, but I am holding back because well, I am only an enthusiast at the end of the day. That, and the fact that I cannot figure out how I could combine the Z9 with my D500 in a complementary way that makes sense."

This echoes my own feelings towards straddling: I can't come up with a DSLR/mirrorless combo that makes a lot of sense. And as the Z-mount lens lineup expands, the straddling position gets harder to figure out. No doubt Nikon has been subtle in trying to make that more difficult for people, as they don't want Straddlers, they want mirrorless adopters! 

"I want to pass along my thoughts regarding my hesitation to switch to mirrorless.  I share some of the same sentiments as many of your readers, but my hesitation to make the switch includes a nuanced point that I haven’t seen expressed. The D850 was (and still is) the one-camera solution with minimal compromise for many of us. I would bet that most D850 owners do not feel as if they made a significant compromise, relative to other DSLRs, in any of the following areas: user interface and features (top notch), resolution (top notch), low-light performance (so close to the D750), and autofocus performance (just slightly below, but comparable to D500 and D5 (never held a D6)). What’s more, with the D850 we have the option of going small relative to the D5/6 by leaving the grip at home, or benefitting from the bump in frame rate and handling for portrait orientation by adding the grip.  Like I said, there was very little in the way of compromise relative to any other DSLR in any way. Perhaps the D850 has spoiled me, but when I make the switch to mirrorless, which involves shelling out a lot of money for a new lens lineup, I expect to be able to continue with a one-camera solution while gaining what I see as the major benefits of mirrorless over DSLR. Those benefits include full sensor coverage of autofocus points, blackout free shooting, and a smaller form factor but with the option of a vertical grip. I do not feel as if any of the current Z cameras fit my definition of a one-camera solution with minimal compromise in a mirrorless world."

Well put, though with the Z9 I think Nikon may have (most of) the answer for you, though at a higher price point than you paid for the D850. 

Couple your thoughts with whether or not a D880-type successor would cause anyone still with a DSLR to buy into it and you have the horns of Nikon's dilemma. I think it could be done, but it would take the A Team to do it right. I suspect the A Team has other priorities at the moment.

"I'll admit that I don't want all that much more out of a D500 successor, with the chief thing being a few more megapixels (it's a persistent itch for me). So I'd pay $2000-2500 for a modestly improved D510. But if Nikon did come out with a really cool D580 instead, I'd be willing to splurge and pay $3000+ for that."

As an aside, Fujifilm is hoping you'll come look at what they have later this year (stacked sensor X-H2). Personally, I've always thought that not enough people gave full credit to just how good a camera the D500 was. I know that Nikon was somewhat disappointed with its sales, but I'd also point out that the huge wait for it from the D300 was part of the problem. When it looks like the thing you want might never appear (the mythical D400), you start looking elsewhere. The good news for Nikon was some of those looking found FX Nikon DSLRs. The bad news for Nikon is that the rest found Fujifilm and Olympus mirrorless cameras. 

One reason why I'm spending some time with this discussion over the course of several weeks is this: if Nikon pulls the same trick—long delay before some new DSLR appears—they're going to end up with the same result: lower sales than expected. My guess is that by the time 2023 is over, everyone with a Nikon DSLR will have made their commitment, whether that be to just ride out what they've got or to turn to something else (which may not be Nikon). Thus, if Nikon isn't already trying to figure out when to start production of a new DSLR they've designed and prototyped, it's probably going to be too late for it to have any meaningful impact financially. 

And then we have the customer that Nikon loves:

"I started with 35mm film when I was about seven years old and got my first SLR when I graduated high school in (I hate to admit it) 1969. So here's my take on changing. At this point, I'm transitioning from DX DSLR (D7200's) to FX mirrorless. I bought the Z6 package with the 24-70 f/4 and the FTZ the year before last when the price dropped. I wanted to get the feel for the Z system to see if I liked it. I loved it. Then last year I added the 14-30 f/4 and I just bought a refurbed Z7. I already owned the 70-300 AF-P and the 80-400 and both of those seem to work well with the FTZ, so I have the focal length range I need.  Along the way, I also snagged the Z50 two-lens kit, also refurbed. I've got that for when I want to minimize size and weight.  

I've been finding the transition to be relatively easy because, as you've pointed out, Nikon has managed to keep the "Nikon-ness" in the interface. The fact that the Z6 and Z7 work identically makes it even easier. Yes, there are new features to learn and a new AF system that I'm working on mastering, but I can do that, maybe because I'm a tech nerd by nature. So for me, Nikon doesn't need to iterate DSLRs because I'm pretty much done with them. To tell you the truth, I never thought I would say that, but here I am.

No doubt you're not alone. Not even close to alone. From the mirrorless site I get plenty of folk who have a story very much like yours, and are now committed to mirrorless.

It's those holding onto DSLRs or straddling that are provoking all this discussion, and judging from how many emails flooded my In Box—biggest volume for any specific topic for almost two years—there's a significant number of these folk out there trying to figure out their camera futures. I'd judge that about half those are going to stay DSLR holdouts (mostly due to age), and the other half will figure out some straddle position they're comfortable with.

Change Begets Change Begets Change

A number of readers had comments about last week's DSLR articles. I thought it worthy to republish some of those with additional commentary.

"I’m a 78 year old retired engineer. I’ve been photographing since junior high school. Been processing my own B&W, and thought I’d gone to heaven when Cibachrome came along. I’ve had five different digital cameras over the years and am currently using a D850. I think it will be my last camera as it has taken a lot of learning to get to my level of proficiency. I’ve still got a long way to go. At my age I don’t think I can go through the learning curve for a new system, still climbing the hill on this one."

This is part of the problem with DSLRs that often goes unstated: the audience that embraced them is aging, with a large majority now retired. While they often have the disposable income to buy new product, there's a reluctance to do so, particularly if it involves relearning anything. Among this group, most seem to have a D850, which, of course, is still one of the best cameras you can buy today. 

The question Nikon has to be asking themselves is this: would there be any DSLR they could sell this group, and if so, what would that camera look like? Because of their age, my guess is that sensor-VR would be the trigger to an upgrade more than anything else.

"I voted for not transitioning although I know that transition is just a matter of time. I currently have the D850 and am on my second D500 (gave the first one to my son after about 175,000 pictures). I am just a hobbyist, but I really enjoy my time with the cameras. I have been very happy with the pictures that I get but was thinking about getting the D6 for what I hear is better focus, but it your suggestion of a next gen final DSLR comes about I would definitely jump at that. I use Zess Otus lenses on the D850 for landscapes, and am not interested in replacing them with a new mount."

Lenses keep coming up in many of the responses, particularly "I don't want to replace lenses I like." Many of you also seem to not be a fan of adapters (like me). 

"Nikon needs a new, clear message on screw-drive lenses.  Either discontinue all but two of them (the DC-NIKKORs, which have nothing like a manual-focus or AF-S equivalent), or provide a screw-drive FTZ adapter. (Quite frankly, the screw-drive lenses should have been discontinued a decade ago, quickly after the D40 came out, but it's too late for that.)

With a screw-drive FTZ I would be in the "supplement DSLR with mirrorless" group, but instead I'm in the "move to mirrorless" group, with Sony FE instead of Nikon Z.  I'm sure I'm not the only one who has switched systems due to Nikon's refusal to provide an upgrade path to mirrorless for screw-drive lenses."

A whole bunch to parse in this response. Nikon's marketing keeps saying "move to mirrorless, it's seamless" (due to the FTZ adapter), but in so doing leaves out anyone that has certain types of lenses (screw-drive autofocus and AI lenses). By doing so, if someone with Nikon screw-drive lenses does decide to go to mirrorless, Nikon leaves them open to switching to Sony. Why? Because those folk are going to replace a large number of lenses, and Sony FE mount has a wider choice of lenses that is more likely to match up with what they're giving up. Sony FE mount has more affordable choices, too.

Couple this with the Internet myth that Nikon Z autofocus is not as good as Sony FE autofocus, and Nikon's reluctance to embrace their own customer simply makes it more likely that they'll lose the customer.

You are right that Nikon should have fully embraced AF-S earlier and just put screw-drive autofocus to pasture. But so many people protested when the screw-drive disappeared from the consumer DSLRs that Nikon seems to have backed off from where they were originally intending to go. That decision hasn't served them well. 

"It seems like Nikon has two choices to try and keep their existing screw-drive customers: Either maintain a small group of DSLRs to support the users with screw-drive lenses, probably a D780 and one or two other cameras, or provide an upgrade path for screw-drive lens users and provide a single uber-camera for the DSLR holdouts.  Making a screw-drive FTZ is better for Nikon AND its users, but Nikon refuses to make one."

It seems Nikon's choice is the former so far (keep some reasonable DSLRs in the lineup). But that doesn't hold serve for long if the perception is that no new DSLRs are coming and the ones being made will end up discontinued. At least one correspondent is arguing that they believe Nikon is intentionally withholding a screw-drive adapter until the time they stop making DSLRs, which is crazy logic, if true. 

Realistically, cameras have a seven-year life after manufacturing discontinuation due to required parts and service commitments. That sounds like a long time, but I'm betting that a number of "still current" DSLRs aren't actually still being made and have already started their countdown to final repairs. Thus, many DSLRs' repairability end date is likely sooner than 2028. 

"I have a lot of F-mount glass (perhaps too much) and the thought of replacing it all at my stage of life was uncomfortable. That was much of the reason behind my purchase of a D850 earlier this year when they were available for $2500. If I had thought of an FTZ with screw-drive capability, it would not have changed my answer. I have just one lens left in current use that would need it - an old 20mm f2.8 D lens - and frankly I should have replaced it years ago."

And then there's the combo of the above: age making it likely to make a complete shift, but not reliant on screw-drive lenses and thus within Nikon's current target for mirrorless conversion. As you can probably start to see, Nikon's choices are tricky. They can fail to hold onto a customer in multiple ways:

  1. Customer never buys again, enters Last Camera Syndrome (either because of age or reluctance to give up old glass).
  2. Customer switches to mirrorless, but possibly not Nikon. 

I still say that holding onto a customer any way you can is the right approach, particularly since with the market now sized so small, your chance of picking up a new customer to replace them is low. I argue that delaying any adapter with screw-drive focus capability would have been a mistake by Nikon. Both cases I note above would have a better result for Nikon with a screw-drive adapter available.

"For someone who has a major investment in FX F-mount lenses a D900 could make a lot of sense and its design and manufacturing tooling costs could survive the Nikon bean counter mentality similar to the F6 finale.  For a professional this could make economic sense as they could transition to the Z system over time while still benefiting from the latest technology. For someone like myself who still uses a D50 and a couple of kit lenses, I’d rather make the jump to a Z9 (or possibly a Z7 III) since I do not change gear often, especially since I am now a somewhat senior citizen. I do not have a major investment in lenses to consider when I do jump."

This illustrates another problem (and opportunity) for Nikon: while this reader is likely to make the DSLR-to-mirrorless switch, that change is not driven by an accumulated lens set, there isn't an urgent need for change, and they are still not sure where in the lineup they'll end up. Marketing is never "done," you have lots of little bits and pieces you need to work through to pick up all the possible customers. Is a D50 to Z7 III (or higher) switch the right one? How do you market that? ;~)

"1) Nikon has supported the F-mount for decades, less so in lenses recently (G and E variants), but certainly in camera bodies. If one has a collection of quality F-mount lenses (regardless of age) it stands to reason that a digital F-mount camera has continued viability. I own some of Nikon’s classic lenses and made some great images with them.

2) if one is using film and digital imaging methods, the F-mount is quite useful for supporting both formats, again with quality optics. I photograph with both systems.

3) I’ve had a number of mirrorless cameras (Sony DSC R-1, Nikon 1) and now a Z50 and they are great as a convenience daily carry camera. The newer high end Nikon mirrorless camera are even more exceptional and have matching lenses to compliment them. Keep up the development efforts and product launches. That said, I’ve used some F-mount adapters, and while they get the job done they handle like a work around, not a solution. I anticipate using my DSLR and quality F-mount optics for the foreseeable future. I’m an advanced amateur, not a pro."

Ah, film. As I can attest from on-going film book sales, there definitely is a modest sub-set of the market that still enjoys using film SLRs. And if you enjoy that, the DSLR is the better digital companion because of the F-mount lens set applies to both. Not the notion of the FTZ as a "work-around." Not only is the FTZ a work-around solution, but it's also not a complete solution! I've heard from multiple sources that Nikon has a more complete adapter designed. I simply can't understand their reluctance to produce it, if true.

"What is the photography market for dedicated cameras and lenses in 2022? Hobbyist (collector, advanced amateur), parents (family), small businesses (weddings and grads), artists (fine art), pros (sports and journalism), industrial (product, documentation), internet websites (reviews, training)? This is end user stuff, irrespective of the sales/distribution channel or international markets. It seems each segment might have completely different motivations and needs. Camera marketing must be a nightmare…I suspect like the parable of the blind men and the elephant."

Exactly. It used to be that the market was always growing, so the camera makers simply just made something for everyone. Product lines multiplied and makers built up multiple models in each line. Anyone who walked into a camera store (or big box camera section) could be pointed to something appropriate. 

That laissez faire approach to product line management is gone, both because the volume collapsed down to a handful of buyers, but also because photography became fully entangled with social media and now requires a near instant satisfaction to succeed. The camera makers are well behind the times in figuring out who their market actually is these days, and the SLR/DSLR user is starting to become a retired dinosaur that most won't be buying much longer. 

I don't see any camera maker "ahead of the game" when it comes to understanding what the young will want in imaging systems (other than their phones). Nikon's naive sense—shared by all the other camera makers—is that it will be mirrorless, not DSLR in the future, but that's not solving the actual user problem. The camera makers need more users, so how do they attract them? A mirrorless camera is no less complex and not really different to a new-to-market user than a DSLR, so "mirrorless" is not the answer by itself.

"I have a D850 and a Z7, used for different purposes (the latter primarily for travel).  I would consider upgrading to a revised  D850 (D880, or whatever), since I have a nice collection of F-mount lenses, but I’m already sometimes using a Z — so there isn’t actually a choice in the survey that accurately reflects my position. I suspect some other enthusiasts like me also have more than one body straddling both systems."

Yet another thing to consider: will people continue to straddle? I know I did for some time, but I'm mostly through straddling now that the Z9 and more appropriate lenses to my needs are starting to appear. The operative question that no one seems to be able to answer is this: why are so many D850 users reluctant to move on? This reader mentions F-mount lenses, but I'm not sure that's the real reason we have so many Nikon DSLR-clingers still. Optical viewfinder comes up, as do some other things, but this is actually a very important thing to understand: if there's something tangible in a D850 that has the Clingers clinging, an iteration of that camera could very well be successful. But if you don't really know what's keeping these users in DSLR, how can you design something that will keep them buying a new model?

"D880 and no Z8: I would upgrade my D850 to a D880 (presuming the upgrade ticks my boxes).

Z8 and no D880: I would go to the Z8.

Z8 and a D880: that would be a tough decision. I would likely wait for both of your reviews and go from there."

I think you just directly expressed Nikon marketing's dilemma. There will be a Z8 (and a Z7 III). But maybe not soon. Nor would there likely be a D880 soon. So we end up with your third choice as something Nikon has to consider, and it's not just a tough choice for you to decide which way you'd go, it's a tougher choice for Nikon to decide whether to enable your tough choice! 

Which brings me to this: it's more likely Nikon won't put you in that dilemma (more on my updated thoughts at the end of this article, which is another way out for Nikon). They'll simply give you your second option, as it most aligns with where Nikon wants to go.

"I've just voted in your poll because I do use a D850 and if I buy a new full frame camera it will be mirrorless. However I would upgrade my D500 to a better DSLR APS-C if it was made. A Z90 (Z9 features in a smaller lighter APS-C body) would be my preferred option."

Oh dear, another complication, and a completely different potential "straddle." I'll just say this: the only company that's going to make another APS-C DSLR is Pentax, and even that's not certain. The reason has to do with costs. To keep APS-C from essentially selling for as much as a full frame camera, you need to remove costs, even if you're making a high-end APS-C camera. The Z9 is US$5500. You can't really be pricing a D580 at US$3000+. But that's where it would likely end up if you tried to do much of an update as a DSLR. 

A Z90 with a stacked image sensor removes the mirror box, separate autofocus sensors, the shutter, the prism, and completely simplifies the manufacturing, alignment, and repair issues. So the question becomes how much does the stacked image sensor add to the cost, and is that significantly less than all the costs you just took out? A Z90 probably would have to slot in the US$2000-2500 space to fully succeed because of the image sensor and EXPEED7 costs. A D580 in that space wouldn't be much more than the current D500.

"Just to say I disagree slightly with your conclusion regarding Nikon's DSLR future. They should make TWO seminal DSLRs.  One high res and one lower, both with IBIS.  That would be in keeping with pretty much all manufacturers' options at the moment, whether DSLR/mirrorless or not."

This email came in after I had already changed my mind about my Change Begets Change article conclusion. After discussing things with several friends, my new conclusion about future Nikon DSLRs is this: Nikon should make a D6h and D6x as their final DSLR offerings. Yes, it would be great if they added sensor-VR as part of these models, but a totally cleaned up D6 coupled with a twin with the 45mp image sensor is probably the correct final answer. 

First, these are mostly hand-built cameras with lower volumes, which doesn't really disrupt anything else Nikon is trying to do, and thus is more suitable for a last DSLR statement. Second, both would be seminal, state-of-the-art DSLRs that could clearly be seen as best of breed (and thus deserving of on-going support).

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