What Still is Useful, What to Upgrade

It's amazing to think that we're 18 years into the DSLR era (almost 30 if you were one of the few shooting with the modified film cameras Kodak made in the 90's). What's even more amazing is that every now and then I run into—or find in my gear closet—an old body, so I charge up its batteries and, yep, it still works. 

"Still works" is different than "useful."

As a quick recap, Nikon users went from 2.5mp to 6mp to 10mp to 12mp to 16mp to 24mp to 36mp. Canon did something similar.  We went from cameras that struggled at ISO 400 to cameras that don't struggle until the randomness of photons becomes the issue. We went from a few frames a second to as many as 14. But most importantly for many we went from very simplistic autofocus systems with only a few sensors—some of which struggled in low light—to sophisticated systems that sometimes can outthink a pro (e.g. D5/D500 in 3D mode in some situations). 

What's happening right now though is that all this camera churn has gotten many users to a comfortable place and they have no real willingness to upgrade. I'm going to challenge that in this article. I'm going to call a line and suggest that you upgrade if you're below it. (A few Nikon executives just sat upright in their chairs reading that line and said under their breath: "Oh Thom-san, we might start to like you again if you can help us sell even a few more bodies.")

First off, be advised that I keep a full set of recommendations for every Nikon DSLR user, which you'll find in the Ultimate Camera Update List on this site. Indeed, this article happened because as I went through updating that series of camera-specific sub-articles I found myself changing my recommendations on a number of cameras. Time (and smartphones) has moved the bar forward. Canon users, keep reading, I'll get to you later in this article.

In essence, I'm now drawing a bar at the 12mp Nikon full frame DSLRs and 16mp DX ones. Smartphones have partly changed this, as my iPhone 7 is handier and very capable with lots of pixels, so the older 6mp and 8mp DSLRs now start to collapse in the logic of owning one for basic stills. 

But hindsight also allows us to see things easier. When we got to DX/APS-C and FX/full frame at 16mp with the Sony-derived and Nikon-designed sensors, we arrived at a point where image sensors were no longer really struggling with read noise, PRNU noise, even things like hot pixel noise. We essentially got to a land where the randomness of photons was our biggest fight, while getting those photons focused where we wanted them was the second biggest fight. 

It's not so much that a camera like the 24mp D7200 is perfect, it's that compared to a D80 it just has us fighting the right fights, not struggling along with fights that have long since been decided. 

So here we go. Here are the Nikon DSLRs I think are clearly above the useful line and aren't pressuring you to think about upgrading:

  • DX — D500, D7100, D7200, any 24mp D3xxx or D5xxx
  • FX — Df, D6xx, D700, D750, D8xx, D3 series, D4 series, D5

If you've got one of those bodies, you need not be in a hurry to upgrade. If something compelling comes along, great, pull the trigger. But you shouldn't feel like you're far behind the crowd. 

If you're using a Nikon DSLR not on that list, you're missing out. Missing out in performance, missing out in features, missing out in control, missing out in virtually everything that matters to getting great image data out of a camera.

You'll note that I left out the 12mp DX bodies, including the D300/D300s. This was a tough decision, but it really boils down to this: DX sensors changed pretty significantly for the better after the D90, and the extra resolution is an additional help to keep you well out of the "smartphone can do that" realm. But frankly, the D500 is so much a better camera than the D300s it replaces, there's a night and day thing happening here. Things you struggled with using a D300s just go away with the D500. That doesn't mean there won't be other things you struggle with using a D500, only that you'll climb up the mountain some more and play at a higher level.

I reluctantly included the 12mp FX bodies here. Technically, that old 12mp Nikon sensor still performs at levels that are competitive. If you don't have to crop. If you aren't printing large. The bodies that have that sensor are well made, fully featured, and have very usable autofocus systems, though not really smart and fast ones like we now have. That said, the D4/D4s runs rings around the D3/D3s at low ISO values in terms of dynamic range, so is a better-rounded camera. And the D5 shows us that focus performance still has much more it can give us. So the D3/D3s/D700 are nearing their last legs competitively, and if you own those cameras, your upgrade time is coming soon, I think. 

How about the Canon DSLRs?

I struggle with this a little bit because I haven't used them all, as I have the Nikon DSLRs. I also struggle a bit with this as Canon's sensor transition is still ongoing. The old large process fab versus the  new smaller process fab made a big difference in things like dynamic range performance recently. Basically any of the dual-pixel Canon sensors are made on the smaller process fab and perform better than most of the ones made on the older larger process fab. But on the flip side, Canon was early at updating the sensor technology to CMOS and using some of the tricks that allowed, and earlier at pushing the megapixel count upwards. So it's a tougher call on the Canon side than on the Sony/Nikon sensor side.

With Canon I'd tend to put the cut line at 18mp for APS-C and 16mp for full frame. That takes us all the way back to 2011 in the Rebel line, and back to the 2009 1D Mark IV in the larger frame line (it was APS-H, not full frame). While I'm confident about the large frame dividing line, I'm far less so about the APS-C one. My anecdotal feeling is that some of those earlier 18mp Rebels just don't hold up nearly as well as the later ones. But I just don't have enough experience shooting the entire Canon lineup to tell where I'd really place the bar. Which is one reason why I don't have an Ultimate Upgrade list for Canon yet. 

Why now? Why bring this subject up today? 

Again, I just updated the Nikon DSLR Ultimate Upgrade List. But probably just as important is that with DSLR sales struggling, we're seeing some incredible bargains floating around out there. I pointed out the US$399 D3400 last week (an even better bargain in the two-lens kit). We're also in the midst of a Nikon sale on the D500, D750, and D810. Given Nikon's financials, I think we're in a bargain hunter's dreamland right now for those hold-out upgraders. Nikon needs volume of some of these great cameras to increase to make their numbers and show they aren't losing even more market share, so we're likely to see sales throughout the rest of the year.

But worse there's this: with Nikon's sagging market share I expect them to have to push pricing up in future generations. They're not getting the parts volume discounts they used to. Thus, while the D810 has a MAP price of US$3000 here in the US and was US$3300 when it was introduced, I'll bet the replacement will sneak up a bit in price, say US$3500 or even higher. Thus, the current US$2500 price (which includes other goodies) looks pretty darned good for such a great camera.

Updated to clarify some Canon points and models.

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