The Last DSLR Holiday?

We're in the major buying season for cameras now. Some advanced discounting is already starting the jockeying among brands, but in the next few weeks we'll start seeing the real pricing that will be in effect through the end of the year, perhaps peppered by some short-term sweeter deals as we just had with the D850. 

It happened a year earlier than I predicted a few years ago—the pandemic didn't help—but DSLR production and sales are now dipping below mirrorless. Moreover, DSLR volumes are running at ~45% of the previous year while mirrorless volumes are running around the two-thirds mark. When you look at the CIPA production numbers, you see that mirrorless is running at 53% of ILC manufacturing, so this disparity is going to widen.

And this holiday season is when we're going to see the first blast of last DSLR sales, particularly at the crop sensor end, where Canon's and Nikon's volume has considerably withered. If you want a Rebel/Kiss or a DX DSLR, wait for the sales and you should get a real bargain.

I say that because even the lowest cost crop sensor DSLRs are considerably good cameras. Sure, they might not have some feature or top-end performance aspect to them, but had you handed any one of the Canon/Nikon crop sensor cameras currently made 2019 to me back in 2009 I'd have been really happy.  To put that into context, in 2009 we had 10/12mp cameras (even full frame from Nikon), and most were using image sensors that didn't have all of the tech goodies we have today. The 2019 D3500 is night and day better at image quality than the 2009 D5000. Heck, I'd even say that it's better than the 2009 D300S in terms of pixel quality and integrity. 

So while the lower-end crop sensor DSLRs are really good at photography, apparently they're not wanted much any more. No one seems to want a basic, competent, mildly featured camera. I suspect we're nearing last call for the D3500 and D5600. And next year I'd expect to say the same for the D7500 and D500. The Canon side has more carcasses littering the EF-S lineup. It's difficult to believe that most won't be swept away soon.

I'm okay with that. At this point for a basic, small camera with excellent image quality capability, the mirrorless choices are fine, and they're only getting better. 

Canon and Nikon, of course, aren't fine with that. Both companies put huge investments in crop sensor DSLR, sold a boatload of product, and got everything tuned so that they could make reasonable profit on high volume. Then the rug was pulled out from under them. I doubt that either company is making money off its lower crop sensor DSLR lineup any more. The only questions left are how many more are they committed to making and how low will they push the price to unload them?

So I expect to see a lot of crop sensor bodies on sale come Thanksgiving. Probably as kits, because neither Canon nor Nikon want to be left with a bunch of unsold lenses, either. I wouldn't be surprised to see crop sensor lens sales, as well, with something like "buy another EF-S/DX lens at the same time and get an extra US$# back." 

But what of the higher-end DSLR lines? 

It's a little more of the same, but not quite the same. The best selling Nikon FX camera this year is the...wait for it...D750. The D780 and D850 sell in smaller, but reasonable numbers, and the D6 sells basically as many as Nikon has deigned to manufacture, which isn't many for some reason.

While I'm sure Nikon isn't excited about their top DSLR sales numbers, I don't think they're panicking about them, either. We'll almost certainly see everything but the D6 go on sale for the holidays, but I'm not expecting huge blowout sales.

With a caveat. You can already see this in the high-end DX line: there's a lot of activity in the refurbished realm (e.g. refurbished D7500, and even D7200). Indeed, I'd say that looking at just how much refurbished gear comes onto the market this holiday season and at what price will tell us a lot about the state of DSLRs. 

Both Canon and Nikon really need to be cleaning house of the DSLR products that won't sell well enough in 2021-2022 to consider keeping them around. For instance, we just saw a flash sale of 1DX Mark II cameras at a price we've never seen before on top end DSLRs. So perhaps it's worth looking at what both companies are likely to be doing with DSLRs in the future:

  • Canon — They've moved on to RF (with a side of M). I don't really expect any new DSLR releases from Canon, though supposedly there's YAK (yet another Kiss) in the pipeline. The R5 and R6 combo tells us that Canon is no longer doing anything to protect high-end DSLR sales. So a 5D Mark V seems out of the question, though it probably shouldn't be.
  • Nikon — Nikon is being more cautious. Yes, the Z migration has begun and Nikon will continue to aggressively feed it. But I also believe that Nikon sees at least the FX DSLR lineup as continuing in viability for awhile. It's what I see in my surveys, too. The D780, D850, D6 type users aren't convinced they should be moving to mirrorless, and Nikon just iterated two of those products with very nice updates. I expect the D850 will get its iteration in 2021. Deeper out, say 2023 or 2024, we may see Nikon stop the FX DSLR love, but for now, I think they're still in the relationship.

The amazing thing is this: even today, with all the mirrorless hoopla and churn, the Nikon D850 DSLR is arguably one of the best all-around cameras you can own, if not the best. Meanwhile, the D6 is still the most uncanny focusing and handling camera I've seen with really active subjects, so serious Nikon sports/wildlife shooters aren't much tempted by mirrorless yet.

But let me close with another context: Last Camera Syndrome. Quite a few of you reading this aren't going to be buying new cameras every year or two. You're looking for that "last camera" that will last you four to eight years and give you a lot of pleasure (and great photos!) in that time frame. 

I'd tend to say avoid the crop sensor DSLRs if that's you, not so much because of the camera, but it seems clear that Canon has moved away from EF-S and Nikon has moved away from DX lens production. They almost have to in order to have enough capacity for their mirrorless initiatives. I noted earlier this month that Nikon Japan now has listed a number of DX lenses as "discontinued" even though NikonUSA is still selling them. That's the tip of the iceberg, I think. 

So, my first word of advice: if you think a Canon 90D or a Nikon D7500 camera might be your last camera—both are excellent cameras—you also need to be aggressive about picking up the crop-sensor lenses you'll use with them before those choices go away. Which I believe they will sooner rather than later. 

In the full frame cameras, there are only a handful of new DSLRs left that fit the Last Camera Syndrome buyer: Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 1DX Mark III, Nikon D780, Nikon D850, and Nikon D6. I say that because if you're spending that much for a last camera, you really want it to be at the top of today's game. That kind of rules out the 6D Mark II and the lingering-on-the-market D750 and Df. Not that I'd fault you for picking up any full frame DSLR still left selling new, as they're all very good cameras that take fine photos, but I wouldn't pick up those last three this holiday unless the price was really, really right.

I'll have a lot more to say about what to buy and what bargains are out there as we get into the actual discounting in November. But for now I wanted to start you thinking down the path of what, if anything, you'd consider purchasing.

One final thought. If the camera makers want to sell DSLRs at ridiculously low prices, maybe it's time more of us picked one up to have converted to UVIR or IR by LifePixel or MaxMax. We're getting to the point where you can buy a "new" camera that explores the non-visible range for well less than US$1000. 

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