Wither DSLR?

The overall DSLR sales volume continues to drop rapidly. 2020's volume was 53% that of 2019's. In other words, DSLR volume fell to half its former volume in just one year.

The average selling price over the last few years has changed a bit, with the likely reason being that the remaining distribution is steadily shifting away from lower-cost consumer models. But the average selling price is not shifting rapidly, as it is in mirrorless, suggesting that the weakness in DSLRs is an overall weakness, not just a consumer DSLR weakness. 

Credible rumors in mid-2020 had Canon introducing a new round of consumer DSLR models (though not as many) and Nikon introducing a D850 replacement at the end of the 2020 or early in 2021. Neither have happened yet. 

The question now is "will those new cameras still happen?"

I'd be surprised if Canon came out with another consumer DSLR, but if they do, I'm pretty sure it would be the last round. I would be surprised if Nikon didn't come out with the D850 replacement, but it, too, might be the last of the new DSLRs from the Duopoly (Pentax seems to have just decided to ride out the last vestiges of the DSLR market with incredibly slow iteration of their present cameras). 

Personally, I'm still of the opinion that it would be unwise to abandon the prosumer/pro DSLR market. Canon should probably iterate the 5D to Mark V status, and Nikon should iterate both the D500 and the D850 along the lines they did with the D780. Those shouldn't be "hard-to-do" updates, they should be no-brainers; just basically some junior level engineering iteration using existing technologies and parts. Manufacturing doesn't have to change much, either.

The D850, for example, has probably sold at an average clip of just over 100k units a year. So what if the demand is half now, that's still 50k units this year that should be quite profitable, plus maybe another 50k units lifetime. It would also make Nikon the only player to keep the high-end DSLR in play.

The D500 is a little more troublesome, having sold a lower average of less than 50k units a year. Still, even another 30-50k units lifetime is probably worth capturing, particularly since the D500 is a unique camera with high esteem among a very niche group of users, and D500 sales drive telephoto lens sales, as well.

Note: Both the D850 (with the D800 and D810) and the D500 (with the D300) have potential to pick up folk still using those older cameras who want an upgrade, and the base volume of those users is considerable. Thus, targeting the marketing to those groups with the right new iterated bodies should work to get the volumes I'm talking about here. I'm an advocate of "give the buyer a choice." So you can market both a Z7 II and a D880 to a D800/D810 user. What you want to make sure you do is pick that user back up and not have them shuffle off to a competitor.

Thing is, in both those potential Nikon updates, you're talking about significant parts reuse and longer parts lifetimes. For example, I'd expect both of those DSLR updates to use image sensors used in the current mirrorless models, and current EXPEED6, among other parts.

But that latter chip may be part of the problem. I understand that Nikon may be dealing with a shortage of EXPEED chips at the moment, and Nikon already can't keep their latest mirrorless models in stock everywhere. So with the supply chain not providing every part that Nikon might want, they have to prioritize where to put the parts they can get. And that's not good news for DSLRs.

Meanwhile, on the customer side I get a regular and high volume of "I'm sticking with DSLR" emails. There's absolutely a market—and yes, mostly of older, near-retired or retired folk—for the right new DSLRs that bring new features, performance, and keep a high model line fresh. Technically, for some purposes (e.g. birds in flight) the D500 and D850 still have "better" focus performance than the mirrorless cameras at the same price points, too.

Consumer DSLRs? Not so much, as the demand isn't there any more (Elvis has left the building and is using an iPhone). Moreover, if I'm reading the data correctly, that's true for consumer mirrorless, too, though not by as strong a drop: while <US$1000 mirrorless still sells in reasonable volume, it's not where the profit is. The most profitable buying action seems to start at about the XT-4/D500 level and continues up through the R5/Z7/A7/D850 level. (The A1, R1, and Z9 are/would be lowish volume halo products. Profitable and desirable, but not where the bulk of the camera market profit lives.)

So, I'm still advocating for a D880 and D580 (and Canon 5D Mark V, though I doubt there's any chance of that). But the longer the wait for those new models becomes, the less likely that they'll come at all.

Finally, there's this: the global economy was artificially depressed by the pandemic. Cameras, in particular, were doubly impacted, as not only was there somewhat less disposable income being spent, but the places you'd go to take a photograph were restricted. Thus, demand for cameras was artificially depressed, as well. 

I wrote this back in early 2020, and I believe it is still true today: once the pandemic has clearly eased and life becomes a little more normal again, demand for both travel and cameras are going to increase fast and dramatically. You'd rather be introducing new product just ahead of that surge, not after it. That's particularly true of any new DSLRs: if the camera market recovers before new DSLRs appear, then the buying will have accelerated towards mirrorless.

So, given that I think the D850 update is the most likely candidate to turn out to be a real, new product, I'd say this to Nikon: such an iteration needs to appear soon, probably no later than May/June if Nikon wants to optimize the sales of it. 


It's rare that companies making transitions get the transition right. Besides too early or too late, there's too fast or too slow and a host of other factors that can all reduce the ROI during the transition period. One thing that most get wrong—and Canon and Nikon are both doing this—is to go silent on the older product. This artificially pushes people to (1) not transition with you at all, (2) to look at competitors when they do transition, or (3) to question whether they need to transition at all. 

The correct approach has been and continues to be: "if you want to stick with what you've got, we've got your back, though we won't continue making every option moving forward. If you want to transition to the new we've got you covered there, too. We appreciate you as a customer and we'll serve you no matter what your decision." 

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