The Need for DSLR Clarity

Both Canon and Nikon have made a number of comments lately about their continued "commitment" to DSLRs. Let's first point out why they're doing that.

For the trailing year (Dec 2017 to November 2018), here are the CIPA numbers:

  • 3.99m mirrorless (37%)
  • 6.8m DSLR (58.6%)

The trend line is clear. That percentage number for the same period over the past few years has gone 19.1%, 23.7%, 25.6%, 26.7%, 34.9%, and now 37%. Projected out, DSLRs and mirrorless hit parity in unit volume in 2021 or 2022. 

So that means that no matter how good the Canon R and the Nikon Z cameras are, the DSLRs will still be fully alive in the 2020's. Indeed, the trend line wouldn't predict that mirrorless gets to DSLRs' current dominate position until at least 2023. Worse still, the current projections seem to indicate that overall ILC volume is only going to be about 9.5m units a year at that point (it's currently 10.8m units, and it was 18.7m in 2012).

Canon and Nikon own virtually all of the DSLR market (well over 90%), so by my count they have 21m more DSLRs they want to sell in the next five years. Cancel that, need to sell.

The problem is that the buying public has no idea what those will be or if they're really coming. We've got a number of DSLRs that are past expected update points (the 7D and D750 are just two examples). The problem I'm now seeing in my In Box is this: people are already discounting whether certain—I hesitate to say all, but it's getting closer and closer to that—models will ever get a significant update. 

As one recent email to me noted, Nikon promised a firmware update for the D5, D500, and D850 that would allow the outer focus sensors to work with the 180-400mm lens with the TC in place (that was in their original press release for the lens, in case Nikon thinks we've forgotten). Hasn't happened. So what's happening is people are starting to feel that the "committed to DSLR" comments coming out of Canon and Nikon are lip service, not reality. 

The problem is, Canon and Nikon are internally confused about just how much they should continue to do in DSLRs in the coming years, and so remain completely quiet other than their blanket statement. Unfortunately, that becomes a self-fulfilling fail if it continues. 

Canon and Nikon actually need a public Road Map for their DSLR future. 

I'll provide one for Nikon:

  • We will simplify the consumer DSLR line (D3500, D5600, D7500, D610) by reducing the number of models over time. Stated another way: we'll iterate fewer consumer DSLR models in the future, but we'll continue to iterate some.
  • We will continue to iterate all the prosumer and pro cameras (D5, D500, D750, D850) with regular updates.
  • We will add some much asked for DX lenses, such as a wide angle prime and a rework of the 12-24mm f/4.
  • We will continue to produce needed or missing FX lenses, such as a long macro, plus additional FL and PF lenses.
  • We will keep all the current AF-S and AF-P F-mount lenses in production, except where we replace a lens with a new version. 

There, was that so hard? No timing specificity, not even much product specificity, but rather a statement of direction, which is what a Road Map basically is. Canon could do something similar, of course, but it turns out they seem more reluctant at Road Maps than even Nikon (Nikon has a public Z lens road map, for example, but Canon doesn't have a public RF lens road map).

The danger of not putting out some details on the DSLR future is that this generates a bit of a stampede to mirrorless by the remaining camera customers. Because Canon and Nikon are playing from behind in mirrorless, they'll lose some of those customers to Sony (and maybe Fujifilm) when the photography herd speeds up their transition to the mirrorless world.

Now to you skeptics about DSLR's future: can a DSLR compete in a mirrorless world? Sure it can. It's going to be interesting to see just how unfettered Canon and Nikon are in doing so, though. 

Consider the D750 update. You could take the Z6 sensor and drop it into that update as is. Suddenly Live View focuses faster, video focus is better, video itself is better. Basically everything that's good about the Z6 in the EVF would be good on the D760 on the Rear LCD (Live View). But the D760 could also get the D5-generation AF sensor and improve through the viewfinder, too. Just those two changes alone would make for a pretty strong update to the D750, but there's plenty more Nikon could do to make it stronger.

The problem, of course, is that the engineers and product managers are debating themselves. A D760 that's too strong could undercut the Z6, they think. Frankly, they shouldn't care. A sale is a sale is a sale. Let the customer decide. 

And that's the bottom line here. By being mostly silent about the future of DSLR, Canon and Nikon are letting the customer decide; and they're deciding on mirrorless because they have no idea how long the DSLR engine keeps running.

I'm betting that a future Harvard Business School case study takes on the DSLR/mirrorless transition and the conclusion students will take from it is that Canon and Nikon performed sub-optimally in that transition. That's because they'll likely have used only price to prop up DSLR sales through the transition, not capability, let alone clarity of customer messaging.

So: bring on the DSLR Road Maps Canon and Nikon. I did it in five simple bullet points that commit you to little you aren't already committed to. I'm betting that the response I get to this article is twofold: (1) the usual deniers and haters who say the DSLR is just doomed, forget it; and (2) the DSLR owners who say "Yes, that's what I need, a road map."

Thing is, if Canon and Nikon are confident about their current and future mirrorless offerings, there's little risk to giving a basic guideline on how they're approaching the long-term future of DSLRs. Maybe even zero risk. The real risk is that they don't do it and lose potential sales. 

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