Nikon DSLR Advice for the End of 2021

The onslaught of "should I transition" questions I've been getting is continuing to swell, which means that Nikon's Z System mirrorless marketing is finally starting to catch people's attention, particularly with the just announced Z9. 

I think it appropriate to put a few of my overall thoughts together in one place and give people a more pragmatic idea of where I think we're at as we close out 2021. 

Let's start with something that doesn't get said enough: virtually every recent Nikon DSLR takes excellent photos and has quite a bit of flexibility. These are complex tools, and need some study to extract everything they're capable of, but that applies to mirrorless cameras, too. Thus, right up front I'd ask this: do you want to augment and complete your DSLR knowledge with your current tool, or do you want to do a great deal of starting over? Your answer to that question alone may determine whether you're better off sticking to the DSLR or starting a transition to mirrorless.

Yes, the Nikon Z-mount cameras are a lot like the Nikon F-mount cameras. So you don't go back to zero by shifting from DSLR to mirrorless and sticking with the Nikon brand, but you will still have quite a bit you have to relearn. That's particularly true of the autofocus system, but it also applies a bit to controls, and sneaks in as nuance all over the place. If you like learning new gear, great. If you hate having to learn something new, not so great.

Every Nikon DSLR that's of the current or previous generation isn't going to suddenly be outclassed by mirrorless in terms of image quality. Indeed, with one possible exception, your image quality isn't going to improve moving from a DSLR to the near equivalent mirrorless body. The exception is focus. You'll see that come up a few times in my individual comments, below. But as some have discovered, your image quality may degrade if you don't master mirrorless autofocus, at least as practiced by Nikon. 

Holding Onto the Past
Let's start with one group: DSLR users that are using 10-year old or older cameras. That puts us back at the D3, D3s, D3x, D700, D300, D90, D60, D40 era (and prior). No doubt these cameras can take fine photos. I see the results from them all the time as I browse through my image library: as I mastered these cameras I got great results that can still stand up today, though perhaps not with as many pixels as I'm used to today.

However, current era DSLRs and the new mirrorless cameras are arguably better in many ways. Focus systems improved. Dynamic range improved. Video features drastically improved (or got added in the first place). Features were added that simplified complex tasks (time-lapse, focus stacking, etc.). Frame rates went up. Options and customizations were added. 

So if you're in the holding-onto-the-past DSLR group, it probably is time to update your gear. You have two easy choices and one more difficult one:

  1. Upgrade to the current version of your DSLR. A D90 user should update to a D7500, for instance. 
  2. Upgrade up a model or line. A DX user might upgrade to an FX camera, for instance. 
  3. Transition to mirrorless. 

You do #1 just to stay on the same playing field, but with better gear. You do #2 to upgrade to a higher league, and again with better gear. 

I'm going to go out on a limb here about #3: if you're into all-automatic use and you struggle with getting your DSLR to focus, this is your best choice.

Focus is a tricky aspect of the transition. Those of you who've mastered DSLR focus and have no significant complaints might find the mirrorless systems a step backward (perhaps not with the Nikon Z9, but I've yet to test that yet). You have to pay more attention to focus on a Z6 II or Z7 II than on a D750 or D850, for instance, or else you can find yourself getting more erratic results. Ironically, someone who's always using AF-A and Auto-area AF on a DSLR would have the opposite reaction to the mirrorless cameras: they'll be less erratic. 

One final thought in this category: these 10-year old cameras are starting to become unrepairable. Nikon doesn't stock parts forever (basically seven years after final manufacturing completes). If your older camera breaks or has an issue, you'll be making one of those three choices I outline, or else giving up interchangeable lens cameras completely.

Next, I'm going to skip over a bunch of models and go straight to three current, critical models. Don't worry, I'll get back to those of you in the middle in a moment.

Have a D5 or D6
These are specialty cameras. You almost certainly bought yours because of high frame rates, excellent focus, and unmatched low light performance. The D6 is indeed a top-of-the-heap camera, with one of the most reliable and remarkable focus systems I've encountered. 

The only camera that might tempt these flagship DSLR users to change is the just-announced Nikon Z9, and I think you should probably wait a bit to see how that camera really performs. The change from 20mp to 45mp is a big one, and not without consequences, and the new focus system is hyped but not yet proven in battle, and you're going to have to spend time learning how it works best. If you think you're going to switch from a D6 to a Z9 and use the same F-mount lenses, I double the caution to just wait for a bit.

Moreover, if you're not getting great results out of a D5 or especially the D6, then you haven't maxed out your current camera yet. That should be a warning signal. If you keep upgrading or iterating or switching systems because "something is missing," what's missing is probably your understanding and mastery of your current equipment. 

That said, if the Z9 is everything Nikon is claiming it is, eventually we'll all move from DSLR to mirrorless. Is there an advantage to being one of the first to do that? Perhaps, but I'd need you to articulate what that might be before I'd give you my approval to transition.

Have a D850
This is an all-around camera. Here, the decision is a little different than it would be for a D6 user, and it will depend upon exactly what it is you're using the camera for.

Let me give you a for instance. If you bought a D850 to take landscape photos, the Z7 II might be a better camera for you. Why? The mirrorless cameras are relentlessly more accurate with focus plane than the DSLRs when you spend lots of time setting them for what you're doing. You can see the DOF easier, you can highlight the actual focus plane easily (Focus Peaking), you can get all vibration out of the exposure more directly, and you can even magnify what you're focusing on in the viewfinder. Image quality wise, a Z7 II and D850 are as near identical as can be. 

But even more interestingly, lenses such as the 14-24mm f/2.8 are better in the Z-mount version than the F-mount one. The net result for a serious landscape photographer is that the Z7 II is a better tool. Not by a lot, but sometimes by enough to push you towards transition.

On the other hand, comparing a D850 and Z7 II for action starts moving the other direction. The Z7 II is really limited to a live view at 5.5 fps, versus the D850's 9 fps (with grip and bigger battery). Controlling the focus system for action has more choices that are more easily accessed on a D850 than a Z7 II. 

Then there's flash. I don't regard the Z7 II as a great camera for flash. That's because some things event photographers rely on, such as AF Assist Lamps, are "broken" on the Z7 II. 

Of course, many of you with D850 bodies are suddenly contemplating a Z9. Again, I haven't yet used a Z9 enough to be able to speak to what it can and can't do better than a D850, but even if the Z9 turns out to be a better all-around camera choice, you'd be moving up a level in terms of camera (from the US$3000 price point to the US$5500 one). So I'd have to ask the question: do you really need a camera that's better than the D850? As I write this with my testing, there's only one camera I believe is better than the D850 for all-around use, and that's the Sony A1. The Nikon Z9 will probably get added to that list, but note that both those choices are more expensive than a D850. 

To be complete, I should probably point out that every Nikon Z-mount version of a lens has so far proven to be better than the equivalent F-mount version of that lens. Sometimes not by much (e.g. 70-200mm f/2.8 versions), but sometimes by a long margin (e.g. 50mm f/1.8 versions). However, note that once again you'd be spending significant money to get better results, and you're only going to get those better results if you have excellent mastery of your cameras in the first place.

So D850 users might or might benefit from a transition to mirrorless.

D500 User
I keep repeating this, but it hasn't seemed to fully register: you can't buy a better APS-C (DX) camera than the Nikon D500, DSLR or mirrorless. 

The question that immediately comes up is this: why are you using a crop sensor camera in the first place? I know of two primary answers to that question: (1) you want the implied reach of the crop sensor; or (2) you wanted a D5 but couldn't afford one. 

If your answer is #2, then my advice is simple: nothing really exists yet in the Nikon mirrorless world that would even begin to entice you at the D500 price point. And again, I don't think the competitor's cameras, DSLR or mirrorless, are as good all around as a D500 in the first place. So you keep using your D500!

If your answer was #1, you probably were tempted by the D850 (and now would be with the Z7 II and Z9). That's because when used at a DX crop, those cameras are 19mp, which is close enough to the D500's 20mp, both in size and in image quality, to be virtually indistinguishable.

But this is a bit like the D850 user contemplating a Z9: you'd be moving up a grade in gear if you leave the D500 in order to get the same basic performance. I just don't see the D500 user needing to (or even wanting to) change cameras right now. They've got state of the art for the size/price point they're at.

Everyone in Between
We've got a ton of DSLR-using Nikonians who aren't covered by one of my categories above. All the D3xxx and D5xxx users, for instance. The D7000, D7100, and D7200 users. D600, D610, D750, D800, and D810 users. D4 and D4s owners. 

This is where the advice gets murky. I'll go out on a limb here and try to simplify these into two groups:

  • D7200, D810, D4 — These are awfully good cameras. Yes, better models were or became available, but boy, these are really good cameras to start with. It's sort of the D5/D6 advice again: if you haven't maxed out the capabilities of these cameras, that's where you should be putting your attention, not on new models. The D7200 might be the second best APS-C (DX) camera made so far—it certainly is in the top tier—the D810 is still producing 36mp images that are incredibly good, and the D4 models really only can be criticized these days because of their 16mp image size, which is now behind the times. Still, if you don't need more pixels, 16mp is just fine, and those are really good-looking pixels to start with.
  • Everything else — Yeah, it's probably time to consider what comes next for you. While it might not seem like an apples-to-apples leap, I'd say the D3xxx/D5xxx users, particularly the earlier models, should seriously consider a Z50 or Zfc, if nothing else than for the far better focus system. But even the kit lenses are better in the Z world. D600/D610 users should contemplate a Z5 or Z6. D750 users a Z6 II. D800 users a Z7 or Z7 II. Or...if you want to stick to DSLRs, then it goes like this: lower end DX users should move up to at least a D7500, maybe a D500. Full frame users should move up a model (e.g. D600 to D780, D750 to D850). 

Final Words
Obviously, this is a simplified version. Every photographer has different goals, aspirations, and needs. Moreover, each has a different budget, both monetarily and for learning/practice time. So your mileage will definitely vary from what I write above. Maybe by only a little, maybe by a lot. Only you would know.

As always, if you can enumerate your needs/wants clearly and are having trouble coming up with the answer for you, my email box is always open. I don't always answer quickly, but I try to answer every reasonable question.

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