Change Begets Change Begets Change

A number of readers had comments about last week's DSLR articles. I thought it worthy to republish some of those with additional commentary.

"I’m a 78 year old retired engineer. I’ve been photographing since junior high school. Been processing my own B&W, and thought I’d gone to heaven when Cibachrome came along. I’ve had five different digital cameras over the years and am currently using a D850. I think it will be my last camera as it has taken a lot of learning to get to my level of proficiency. I’ve still got a long way to go. At my age I don’t think I can go through the learning curve for a new system, still climbing the hill on this one."

This is part of the problem with DSLRs that often goes unstated: the audience that embraced them is aging, with a large majority now retired. While they often have the disposable income to buy new product, there's a reluctance to do so, particularly if it involves relearning anything. Among this group, most seem to have a D850, which, of course, is still one of the best cameras you can buy today. 

The question Nikon has to be asking themselves is this: would there be any DSLR they could sell this group, and if so, what would that camera look like? Because of their age, my guess is that sensor-VR would be the trigger to an upgrade more than anything else.

"I voted for not transitioning although I know that transition is just a matter of time. I currently have the D850 and am on my second D500 (gave the first one to my son after about 175,000 pictures). I am just a hobbyist, but I really enjoy my time with the cameras. I have been very happy with the pictures that I get but was thinking about getting the D6 for what I hear is better focus, but it your suggestion of a next gen final DSLR comes about I would definitely jump at that. I use Zess Otus lenses on the D850 for landscapes, and am not interested in replacing them with a new mount."

Lenses keep coming up in many of the responses, particularly "I don't want to replace lenses I like." Many of you also seem to not be a fan of adapters (like me). 

"Nikon needs a new, clear message on screw-drive lenses.  Either discontinue all but two of them (the DC-NIKKORs, which have nothing like a manual-focus or AF-S equivalent), or provide a screw-drive FTZ adapter. (Quite frankly, the screw-drive lenses should have been discontinued a decade ago, quickly after the D40 came out, but it's too late for that.)

With a screw-drive FTZ I would be in the "supplement DSLR with mirrorless" group, but instead I'm in the "move to mirrorless" group, with Sony FE instead of Nikon Z.  I'm sure I'm not the only one who has switched systems due to Nikon's refusal to provide an upgrade path to mirrorless for screw-drive lenses."

A whole bunch to parse in this response. Nikon's marketing keeps saying "move to mirrorless, it's seamless" (due to the FTZ adapter), but in so doing leaves out anyone that has certain types of lenses (screw-drive autofocus and AI lenses). By doing so, if someone with Nikon screw-drive lenses does decide to go to mirrorless, Nikon leaves them open to switching to Sony. Why? Because those folk are going to replace a large number of lenses, and Sony FE mount has a wider choice of lenses that is more likely to match up with what they're giving up. Sony FE mount has more affordable choices, too.

Couple this with the Internet myth that Nikon Z autofocus is not as good as Sony FE autofocus, and Nikon's reluctance to embrace their own customer simply makes it more likely that they'll lose the customer.

You are right that Nikon should have fully embraced AF-S earlier and just put screw-drive autofocus to pasture. But so many people protested when the screw-drive disappeared from the consumer DSLRs that Nikon seems to have backed off from where they were originally intending to go. That decision hasn't served them well. 

"It seems like Nikon has two choices to try and keep their existing screw-drive customers: Either maintain a small group of DSLRs to support the users with screw-drive lenses, probably a D780 and one or two other cameras, or provide an upgrade path for screw-drive lens users and provide a single uber-camera for the DSLR holdouts.  Making a screw-drive FTZ is better for Nikon AND its users, but Nikon refuses to make one."

It seems Nikon's choice is the former so far (keep some reasonable DSLRs in the lineup). But that doesn't hold serve for long if the perception is that no new DSLRs are coming and the ones being made will end up discontinued. At least one correspondent is arguing that they believe Nikon is intentionally withholding a screw-drive adapter until the time they stop making DSLRs, which is crazy logic, if true. 

Realistically, cameras have a seven-year life after manufacturing discontinuation due to required parts and service commitments. That sounds like a long time, but I'm betting that a number of "still current" DSLRs aren't actually still being made and have already started their countdown to final repairs. Thus, many DSLRs' repairability end date is likely sooner than 2028. 

"I have a lot of F-mount glass (perhaps too much) and the thought of replacing it all at my stage of life was uncomfortable. That was much of the reason behind my purchase of a D850 earlier this year when they were available for $2500. If I had thought of an FTZ with screw-drive capability, it would not have changed my answer. I have just one lens left in current use that would need it - an old 20mm f2.8 D lens - and frankly I should have replaced it years ago."

And then there's the combo of the above: age making it likely to make a complete shift, but not reliant on screw-drive lenses and thus within Nikon's current target for mirrorless conversion. As you can probably start to see, Nikon's choices are tricky. They can fail to hold onto a customer in multiple ways:

  1. Customer never buys again, enters Last Camera Syndrome (either because of age or reluctance to give up old glass).
  2. Customer switches to mirrorless, but possibly not Nikon. 

I still say that holding onto a customer any way you can is the right approach, particularly since with the market now sized so small, your chance of picking up a new customer to replace them is low. I argue that delaying any adapter with screw-drive focus capability would have been a mistake by Nikon. Both cases I note above would have a better result for Nikon with a screw-drive adapter available.

"For someone who has a major investment in FX F-mount lenses a D900 could make a lot of sense and its design and manufacturing tooling costs could survive the Nikon bean counter mentality similar to the F6 finale.  For a professional this could make economic sense as they could transition to the Z system over time while still benefiting from the latest technology. For someone like myself who still uses a D50 and a couple of kit lenses, I’d rather make the jump to a Z9 (or possibly a Z7 III) since I do not change gear often, especially since I am now a somewhat senior citizen. I do not have a major investment in lenses to consider when I do jump."

This illustrates another problem (and opportunity) for Nikon: while this reader is likely to make the DSLR-to-mirrorless switch, that change is not driven by an accumulated lens set, there isn't an urgent need for change, and they are still not sure where in the lineup they'll end up. Marketing is never "done," you have lots of little bits and pieces you need to work through to pick up all the possible customers. Is a D50 to Z7 III (or higher) switch the right one? How do you market that? ;~)

"1) Nikon has supported the F-mount for decades, less so in lenses recently (G and E variants), but certainly in camera bodies. If one has a collection of quality F-mount lenses (regardless of age) it stands to reason that a digital F-mount camera has continued viability. I own some of Nikon’s classic lenses and made some great images with them.

2) if one is using film and digital imaging methods, the F-mount is quite useful for supporting both formats, again with quality optics. I photograph with both systems.

3) I’ve had a number of mirrorless cameras (Sony DSC R-1, Nikon 1) and now a Z50 and they are great as a convenience daily carry camera. The newer high end Nikon mirrorless camera are even more exceptional and have matching lenses to compliment them. Keep up the development efforts and product launches. That said, I’ve used some F-mount adapters, and while they get the job done they handle like a work around, not a solution. I anticipate using my DSLR and quality F-mount optics for the foreseeable future. I’m an advanced amateur, not a pro."

Ah, film. As I can attest from on-going film book sales, there definitely is a modest sub-set of the market that still enjoys using film SLRs. And if you enjoy that, the DSLR is the better digital companion because of the F-mount lens set applies to both. Not the notion of the FTZ as a "work-around." Not only is the FTZ a work-around solution, but it's also not a complete solution! I've heard from multiple sources that Nikon has a more complete adapter designed. I simply can't understand their reluctance to produce it, if true.

"What is the photography market for dedicated cameras and lenses in 2022? Hobbyist (collector, advanced amateur), parents (family), small businesses (weddings and grads), artists (fine art), pros (sports and journalism), industrial (product, documentation), internet websites (reviews, training)? This is end user stuff, irrespective of the sales/distribution channel or international markets. It seems each segment might have completely different motivations and needs. Camera marketing must be a nightmare…I suspect like the parable of the blind men and the elephant."

Exactly. It used to be that the market was always growing, so the camera makers simply just made something for everyone. Product lines multiplied and makers built up multiple models in each line. Anyone who walked into a camera store (or big box camera section) could be pointed to something appropriate. 

That laissez faire approach to product line management is gone, both because the volume collapsed down to a handful of buyers, but also because photography became fully entangled with social media and now requires a near instant satisfaction to succeed. The camera makers are well behind the times in figuring out who their market actually is these days, and the SLR/DSLR user is starting to become a retired dinosaur that most won't be buying much longer. 

I don't see any camera maker "ahead of the game" when it comes to understanding what the young will want in imaging systems (other than their phones). Nikon's naive sense—shared by all the other camera makers—is that it will be mirrorless, not DSLR in the future, but that's not solving the actual user problem. The camera makers need more users, so how do they attract them? A mirrorless camera is no less complex and not really different to a new-to-market user than a DSLR, so "mirrorless" is not the answer by itself.

"I have a D850 and a Z7, used for different purposes (the latter primarily for travel).  I would consider upgrading to a revised  D850 (D880, or whatever), since I have a nice collection of F-mount lenses, but I’m already sometimes using a Z — so there isn’t actually a choice in the survey that accurately reflects my position. I suspect some other enthusiasts like me also have more than one body straddling both systems."

Yet another thing to consider: will people continue to straddle? I know I did for some time, but I'm mostly through straddling now that the Z9 and more appropriate lenses to my needs are starting to appear. The operative question that no one seems to be able to answer is this: why are so many D850 users reluctant to move on? This reader mentions F-mount lenses, but I'm not sure that's the real reason we have so many Nikon DSLR-clingers still. Optical viewfinder comes up, as do some other things, but this is actually a very important thing to understand: if there's something tangible in a D850 that has the Clingers clinging, an iteration of that camera could very well be successful. But if you don't really know what's keeping these users in DSLR, how can you design something that will keep them buying a new model?

"D880 and no Z8: I would upgrade my D850 to a D880 (presuming the upgrade ticks my boxes).

Z8 and no D880: I would go to the Z8.

Z8 and a D880: that would be a tough decision. I would likely wait for both of your reviews and go from there."

I think you just directly expressed Nikon marketing's dilemma. There will be a Z8 (and a Z7 III). But maybe not soon. Nor would there likely be a D880 soon. So we end up with your third choice as something Nikon has to consider, and it's not just a tough choice for you to decide which way you'd go, it's a tougher choice for Nikon to decide whether to enable your tough choice! 

Which brings me to this: it's more likely Nikon won't put you in that dilemma (more on my updated thoughts at the end of this article, which is another way out for Nikon). They'll simply give you your second option, as it most aligns with where Nikon wants to go.

"I've just voted in your poll because I do use a D850 and if I buy a new full frame camera it will be mirrorless. However I would upgrade my D500 to a better DSLR APS-C if it was made. A Z90 (Z9 features in a smaller lighter APS-C body) would be my preferred option."

Oh dear, another complication, and a completely different potential "straddle." I'll just say this: the only company that's going to make another APS-C DSLR is Pentax, and even that's not certain. The reason has to do with costs. To keep APS-C from essentially selling for as much as a full frame camera, you need to remove costs, even if you're making a high-end APS-C camera. The Z9 is US$5500. You can't really be pricing a D580 at US$3000+. But that's where it would likely end up if you tried to do much of an update as a DSLR. 

A Z90 with a stacked image sensor removes the mirror box, separate autofocus sensors, the shutter, the prism, and completely simplifies the manufacturing, alignment, and repair issues. So the question becomes how much does the stacked image sensor add to the cost, and is that significantly less than all the costs you just took out? A Z90 probably would have to slot in the US$2000-2500 space to fully succeed because of the image sensor and EXPEED7 costs. A D580 in that space wouldn't be much more than the current D500.

"Just to say I disagree slightly with your conclusion regarding Nikon's DSLR future. They should make TWO seminal DSLRs.  One high res and one lower, both with IBIS.  That would be in keeping with pretty much all manufacturers' options at the moment, whether DSLR/mirrorless or not."

This email came in after I had already changed my mind about my Change Begets Change article conclusion. After discussing things with several friends, my new conclusion about future Nikon DSLRs is this: Nikon should make a D6h and D6x as their final DSLR offerings. Yes, it would be great if they added sensor-VR as part of these models, but a totally cleaned up D6 coupled with a twin with the 45mp image sensor is probably the correct final answer. 

First, these are mostly hand-built cameras with lower volumes, which doesn't really disrupt anything else Nikon is trying to do, and thus is more suitable for a last DSLR statement. Second, both would be seminal, state-of-the-art DSLRs that could clearly be seen as best of breed (and thus deserving of on-going support).

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