Personal Gear Road Map

Mike Johnston over at The Online Photographer recently ran a post about his "personal lens roadmap." That made me think about whether those of you reading this are just responding to whatever marketing message is loudest these days, or whether you're actually following a plan (which you hope your brand(s) of choice will help you fill out). 

What I see is lots of folk who chase incremental gains that are overhyped and who keep wasting dollars doing so.

Let's keep this discussion today centered on DSLRs, since this is, after all, a site that covers them. I'll use Nikon as an example, but Canon users shouldn't have any trouble following along.

There are some "knowns" in the Nikon DSLR world, and some "unknowns." 

First, some knowns:

  • Lenses stay in production for a long, long time. Rarely does Nikon stop producing and selling an F-mount lens unless it is directly replaced by a new version, and even then you tend to see the older version stick around for awhile (e.g., the 24-70mm f/2.8G is still available, even though it was technically replaced by the 24-70mm f/2.8E).
  • Even if we see no more F-mount lenses (which I don't think is true), the lineup is extensive. Arguably, the F-mount lens lineup is pretty darned complete, particularly when you consider third-party options. We can quibble about a particular specification you want or a model that didn't seem to iterate (e.g. the 200mm f/4 Micro-Nikkor), but there's really nothing of significance you can't do optically.
  • The top of the lineup has been incredibly predictable. Basically, the D1 to D2 to D3 to D4 to D5 to D6 sequence happens on four-year intervals, sometimes with minor mid-term enhancements. 
  • The full frame lineup still seems to be iterating. The D750 was replaced by the D780, and it seems likely that Nikon will iterate the D850, which is one of their most successful cameras. If the D750 deserved an update in these "post-DSLR" days, so does the D850. Given the two-year development cycle that Nikon tends to use for that model, it shouldn't be long before we'll see if that's true. The only camera that seems clear won't be iterating is the D610; the mirrorless Z5 is clearly where Nikon wants to steer that user, now. 

And the unknowns:

  • DX is a real question mark. The last iteration was the not-really-an-actual-update D3500. Before that, we got the questionable strip-down iteration of the D7500. The sudden appearance of the Z50 and DX in the mirrorless lineup, coupled with the lukewarm iterations we've seen in DX DSLR for the past 53 months makes for a giant question mark for DX DSLRs.
  • How long the full frame cameras continue to iterate isn't known. Would a D780, D880, D6 cycle be the last big cycle? Given the previous bullet, one could see lengthening and lukewarm cycles in the future as possibly the best case.
  • Whether additional F-mount lenses are coming isn't know. Nikon has trickled out a few F-mount lenses since the Z mirrorless launch. The last three F-mount lens launches are revealing: 120-300mm f/2.8E, 500mm f/5.6E, 180-400mm f/4E. All what I tend to call "exotic" lenses: high performance telephoto lenses that are made in low quantity. Prior to those, Nikon filled a couple of clear gaps: 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E, 28mm f/1.4E, 19mm f/4E PC, and 105mm f/1.4E, plus updated the 70-200mm and 70-300mm offerings. Looking backwards enough years, it seems that one lens that didn't get a highly expected update was the 14-24mm f/2.8G. As I've pointed out before, Nikon really maxes out at about 8 new lenses a year, anything beyond that is a real stretch for their glass and manufacturing capabilities. This year we'll have seven or so Z-mount lenses launch, so that doesn't leave much room for F-mount offerings. Thus, don't expect many if we do see future F-mount lenses.

So let's say that you're a photography enthusiast, invested in Nikon DSLRs, and have some money to advance your system in the future. Do you have a road map for that? Given what I just wrote, is that plan likely to work out as you expect?

If Nikon already makes what you expect to upgrade to or add to your system in the next year or two, I wouldn't worry. Continue as planned. 

If you're thinking longer term, or if you aren't yet seeing the product you were expecting, you may need to alter your personal road map, though. 

In particular, DX DSLR users have to scratch their heads. Nikon's really only given them one future good alternative at the moment: upgrade to full frame, either Z or D. New DX F-mount lenses basically disappeared once the AF-P trio was launched in 2016/2017. As I've already pointed out, the D3500 and D7500 updates are already aging, and they didn't update much. Curiously, Nikon hasn't given you an out to Z DX, as the only camera and lenses for that so far are more at the consumer than the enthusiast side of things. 

FX DSLR users have more product to ponder, and some fairly recent ones, too (the D6 and D780 were both launched in 2020). Still, it seems that while a D600, D610, D700, and maybe even D750 owner might be able to still see their personal road map in Nikon's future, the D850 user is now starting to worry (I don't think they should, but still, we just passed the usual mark at which we'd have expected a D8xx update). 

The lens lineup on the F-mount side has lots of gems, and it isn't going anywhere. Everything in the current lineup that's AF-S or AF-P is highly likely to stay around for a long time. Likewise the PC-E's. 

It used to be that you could count on the third-party lens makers to fill in the gaps for you as Nikon pondered along with their close-to-the-vest development plans. That's turning out to not be so true any more. The last Sigma F-mount intros came in 2018, Tamron did have two in 2019,  leaving Tokina to be the most productive with three in 2019 plus a mirror lens in 2020. 

But who said that your personal road map has to be about gear?

Readers of this site well know that I've been high on skill acquisition and retention first and foremost. Here's the order in which I'd tackle your personal road map:

  1. Skills. This falls all over the spectrum, from camera handling, to specific techniques you might not be using (e.g. focus stacking), to post processing. First, acquire all the skills you need for your choice of photography—landscape shooters need to work on different things than sports shooters, for instance—and then practice and hone them until they become second nature. Map out a set of skills you don't have and put them in your personal road map.
  2. Opportunities. The thing most of us are missing this year is opportunity. That's particularly true for landscape, sports, wildlife, event, and travel photographers. The pandemic has closed off lots of opportunities, and even if you think that there's still an opportunity you might be able to take advantage of—for instance, travel by car to Yellowstone—you probably shouldn't. The spread of the virus is dictated by the spread of people. It saddens me that much of my countrymen and women haven't figured that out yet (or just ignore the moral implications of travel while a pandemic is going on). Still, that shouldn't stop you from identifying opportunities and getting them on your personal road map for when things return to a more normal.
  3. Gear. I find it rare that gear is actually the thing holding someone back, even among professionals. Still, sometimes new or better gear opens up channels you couldn't explore before. Note that some new gear will challenge you on #1 ;~). It's good to know what you do have and what you might be missing in terms of useful gear for the types of photography you like to do. 

So, it's time to put your personal road map down on paper (or pixels, should you be so inclined).  As with any map, it might be wise to plan out some alternate routes, just in case things don't go your way. 

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