DSLRs: Dead, In Transition, or Forever?

For many years now I've been writing that it is inevitable that ILC (interchangeable lens cameras) will transition to mirrorless. Ten years ago ILC was basically 100% DSLR, ten years from now ILC will basically be 100% mirrorless. I may be off by a bit on the future date, though, as transitions are always difficult to predict.

Sony has already made their bet (E/FE). Nikon is making theirs (Z). Canon and Pentax we don't yet know about, though Canon has started their bet at crop sensor (EF-M). 

The reason mirrorless is inevitable actually shows up in some of the interviews Nikon executives have been giving. The automation used for the D5 production in the Sendai factory is quoted as being about 55%, while the automation for the Z7 production in the same factory is given as 76%. There are fewer parts and fewer alignment steps in a mirrorless camera, and once we get global shutters on the sensor, that will be emphasized some more. 

From a cost of production standpoint, mirrorless is a win for the camera companies. It keeps their manufacturing costs down and their needed just in time parts supplies lower. If you don't understand why those trends are important, you're probably President of the United States (sorry, but this is not so much a political statement as it is a statement of fact: our President does not seem to understand how manufacturing has changed in the past several decades and that this change is continuous and inevitable; even steel mills are getting automated; we produce more with fewer employees). 

That said, I'm getting lots of "what about DSLRs?" type questions, and Nikon executives have been making some statements about the same. 

Look at the headline. DSLRs are no longer "forever." They're in transition. It's a pretty great transition, actually. The D850 is arguably a better camera than the Z7 or the Sony A7Rm3. I've been writing that since last August (at least the Sony comparison). Nothing has changed there. If you want the best all around camera you can get, it's the Nikon D850, and that's a DSLR.

I can now easily imagine a future D760 that is better than the Z6: just take the Z6 sensor and EXPEED6 and the D5 generation bits and iterate the D750 with that. Voila. Same as the D850 versus Z7: a better DSLR than mirrorless by a modest margin. 

The operative question is how long this transition will last. I think we'll have our answer by the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Sony will certainly be there with an A9m2. Ikegami-san has already been quoted as saying there will be a Nikon D5-like model in the Z line (see my comments on sansmirror about how the S-line lens road map predicts that). Canon will probably be there, too. 

I think at that point—where the top pro models all have strong mirrorless equivalents—is the point where DSLRs start to no longer be the choice moving forward. Unless, of course, you want to just keep using the lenses you have (e.g. Last Camera Syndrome folk). 

Ikegami-san also said—as have a few Nikon folk privately to me—that Nikon will continue releasing new DSLR products. Those are almost certainly going to be in the higher-end range (e.g. D7500 and up). And that may continue for a period after the Tokyo Olympics.

So to answer the headline's question: DSLRs are not dead. Not at all. They're in their heyday. There is a transition from DSLR to mirrorless going on. For Sony folk it's already happened. For Nikon shooters it's beginning. For Canon users, stay tuned.

It's also clear DSLRs are not forever, just as film SLRs were not forever. However, note that Nikon still sells the F6 film SLR, a very capable camera. Indeed, perhaps the most capable of any film SLR. We're 19 years post D1 and Nikon is still selling a high-end film camera. That's very likely what's going to happen with DSLRs, as well. During the transition period we're going to see continued DSLR iterations. By the "end" of the transition period, Nikon will have likely winnowed things down to one or two well-provisioned DSLRs they'll continue in the lineup.

If I had to make a wild guess:

  • Today through 2020: No real changes to the high-end DSLR formula; they'll iterate about the same as they have. Some low-end DSLRs will soon not iterate and be replaced by mirrorless.
  • 2020 through 2024: High-end DSLR iterations will wind down and mirrorless iterations ramp up.
  • 2024 forward: We might have one or two DSLRs that continue in the lineup.

No promises, and I don't know how accurate my dating is. But I'm pretty convinced that will be the shape of things to come: dual choice for awhile, stronger transition to mirrorless, end game for DSLRs, in that order. 

So my final answer is that DSLRs are likely forever, in transition, and to many, eventually dead. How's that for equivocating? ;~)

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