What Prompts an Upgrade?

We have a long, long history now with interchangeable lens cameras (ILC). That also means that we have a lot of historical data we can plow through to form hypotheses. But before we get to that, let’s look at what the Internet says you upgrade for:

  • More dynamic range
  • More megapixels
  • Video (and eventually, better video)
  • Better focus performance
  • More features

These are all actually all iterative things. We already had excellent dynamic range, we just get more of it (oh boy, another half stop!). We already had megapixels, we just get some more of them. You can actually see the iterative process fully at work in video: we started with the Live View stream of JPEGs back with the D90 (Motion-JPEG). Little by little, one aspect or another of that video stream gets fixed, enhanced, rebuilt, or added to. So now we have very sophisticated compression with high bandwidth usage and lower rolling shutter. All these are iterations.

Focus. Iterated.

Features? Okay, some features are just iterative (changing Interval Timer Shooting into a Time-lapse function, for instance). But others can be and are innovative and game changing. We’ll get to those in a minute, but let’s finish up with iteration first.

When products roll into iteration mode—note we’ve had eight versions of a camera that started with the D70—the upgrade habit of buyers settles into some patterns. There’s always a few customers that are leading edge, who always want and opt for the latest and greatest. But some of those move up to a higher level product, too. So I’m sure we can find a few D7200 users that upgraded to a D7500, but we’ll find more that upgraded to a D500 or FX. 

Most upgraders tend to fall into one of two categories: (1) Last Camera Syndrome: they don’t upgrade at all until their camera actually fails (e.g. dropped, submerged, grows old and dies), and then only if they find that they still need a camera; and (2) Regulators: these folk won’t upgrade every generation but are regulated either by money (the have to save up a long time for an upgrade) or by some perception that the iterations I mentioned above have now delivered enough that’s new and better and beneficial that they’ll feel left behind if they don’t. 

I’ve tended to recommend that camera owners upgrade no more often than every-other-cycle if they’re a #2. And lately we’ve had a few cases where the iteration was so little I’d probably say skip two or more generations if that’s the model you own. 

The average I’ve found for Regulators in my surveys of serious Nikon DSLR owners tends to be close to 2.5 cycles. The D7050 owner is the one updating to a D7500. Wait there’s no D7050! Well, pretend there was one in the half cycle. 

You don’t have to be a math whiz to know that if updaters buy only every other generation or worse, once you lose new-to-ILC owners coming into the system, the volume for that product for the manufacturer will start downward. That’s one reason why you saw the camera companies scrambling for new users back when we were reaching Peak ILC—women, third world countries, the BRIC countries; any population that wasn’t well represented in the ILC world already. That didn’t actually work to keep ILC unit growth moving upward. Oh, it helped the camera companies keep some volume moving, for sure, but it didn’t solve their eventual each-upgrade-does-worse problem. 

I should also point out that early on in the DSLR era, everyone was updating more often than 2.5 cycles. That’s because the dynamic range, megapixel, video, focus, and features iterations were perceived (correctly) to be bigger and more significant. If we were to split the DSLR era in half (1999-2008, 2008-2017) you’d find that big changes happened in the first half with every new product accelerating into what, for us Nikon owners, was the seminal D3/D300/D700 models. In the second half, the changes don’t look quite as dramatic, though I’d have to say that Nikon now has a repeat top trio in the D5/D500/D850. 

Mirrorless owners seem to think that the sky is the limit. Nope. Same thing will be happening to them. When we look back on 18 years of mirrorless—which will happen in 2027 or so—the second half won’t be nearly as fast paced and exciting as the first half. Oh-oh, we’re already at the halfway mark! 

That’s the iterative world, but there’s another world that exists: and that’s when a radical change in design flips the status quo and makes everyone still playing decide they have to move to the “new thing.” We’ve had a few of those moments in ILC history. For sure:

  • Automatic metering
  • Autofocus
  • DSLR
  • Live View/Mirrorless

Each of these “big” changes retriggered buying. Markets that were saturated suddenly reset, because having the new big thing solved a key user problem in a way that was clearly and easily visible.

What were those user problems?

  • Couldn’t get exposure right and consistent (good automatic metering fixed that)
  • Couldn’t get focus right and consistent (good autofocus fixed that)
  • Couldn’t evaluate the above two things in the field (chimping on the DSLRs fixed that)
  • Couldn’t evaluate the top two things as they were shooting (EVF and Live View fixed that)

I still say that the next “big” change is when the camera companies get around to allowing users to instantly put their images and videos where they want them, much like the smartphones can already do. What cameras have done to this point is solve “capture” user problems. Cameras have done very little to solve “save and share” user problems. 

All that said, it’s at each of these big innovative resets that we see new big influxes of buying. That’s because the user advantage is perceived to be so big that everyone that’s still shooting decides that they need to upgrade. 

While a lot of folk think that mirrorless is the next big innovation to trigger buying, it’s not really. It's now nine years old, after all. Moreover, it might not have been a big enough change to trigger a truly big reset. I’ve seen quite a large number of folk leak/sample into mirrorless and come back to the DSLR. Indeed, I wonder if just doing something simple like putting real-time histograms in the DSLR viewfinder overlay would negate some of the mirrorless “conversions.” 

Mirrorless is doing one other thing, though, that can't be ignored: if you’re using one of the focus modes that do contrast detection (typically AF S), then face detection and eye detection focus can be more accurate for many users than they’ve been getting from their DSLRs. Note that focus was the second innovation that changed buying habits for ILC users. A truly perfect focus system would surely re-trigger some buying for the same reasons the original autofocus deliveries did, but the mirrorless worshippers will be very surprised to learn that the D5 generation Nikon DSLRs also do face recognition, and pretty well. “Truly perfect focus” is not necessarily something that would be solely the province of mirrorless. 

The myth of mirrorless is that it somehow creates smaller, lighter systems. Not exactly. For the most part, it's only wide angle to normal lenses that can be made smaller and lighter, and when all is said and done, DSLRs can get smaller and lighter than they are (witness the Canon SL DSLRs). Moreover, smaller/lighter is not an innovation, it’s an iteration. 

The Japanese camera companies have been busy micromanaging everything. Sony I’m sure deliberately started the A7 series off with as-small-as-we-can-make f/4 lenses in order to convince folk that what they offered was really a smaller/lighter option to a full frame DSLR. Yeah, that advantage didn’t last long. But it drove some initial sampling/leaking, and the myth still lingers on the Internet in ways that those not paying attention can get hooked into it. 

Let’s not get lost in the weeds. The truth is this: ILC volume continues to move downward. That’s despite population increases, more markets opening up to cameras, and all the excellent iteration that is going on. What we’re all waiting for is “a big change.” Something innovative that makes our current cameras feel clumsy and completely out of date. 

Curiously, at the NAB show earlier this month I saw LTE connectivity all over the place. Video camera users have all sorts of options to get their footage out to the media companies (networks, local stations, etc.). Of course, that doesn’t come without cost. It isn’t the hardware upgrade cost that stops me from upgrading my 4K video camera to have an LTE out option, it’s the data plan cost. Even with aggressive compression, you still spew a lot of data for video. 

I did a little calculation, though: I could probably justify the cost of a data plan for still photography sports work, and especially so if I had a fast way of picking selects and in-camera crops and not sending the D5 firehose intact. Yet that product really doesn’t exist in the ILC world, certainly not as conveniently as in the video world. Nikon wants me to run Ethernet to something. Not exactly what I can do at many venues here in the US (yes, I know that many European stadiums have Ethernet connections for some of the still camera positions, but I’m not in Europe, and I don’t want to be fixed to a cable point, if possible). 

I’m sure other innovations addressing real user problems exist that could reset the ILC market. But until someone pioneers that to the world, I think we’re now in an iterative-only cycle, and one that’s slowing down and getting smaller in the iterations we get. In other words, I’m not predicting ILC sales to increase any time soon.

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