Design Versus Production

Here's one thing that's still confusing DSLR aficionados: are DSLRs still being designed?

I'd love to say that there's a definitive answer to that question, but unfortunately history tells us that some tinkering in the R&D labs does tend to occur after a transition has occurred. But it's rare that any of that makes it to market.

Effectively, both Canon and Nikon have now shut down designing new DSLRs. In the case of Nikon that doesn't absolutely mean that there wasn't one designed before that shutdown that might some day appear. Still, I think it likely to believe the following:

  • Canon — No new DSLR will appear. Canon seems to have clearly started their full-on mirrorless RF press.
  • Nikon — Highly likely that no new DSLR will appear, but I can't rule out that one or two of the models (D850, D6) might get a mild update to extend their life (e.g. D850s, D6s). 
  • Pentax — The sole player that might still have a DSLR design to launch, as they've chosen not to play in mirrorless.

One of the things driving Canon and Nikon now (and affecting Pentax) is that image sensor technology is now totally driven by mirrorless designs. Consider, for example, the stacked BSI sensor in the Z9: this sensor was designed to remove the mechanical shutter and provide a blackout-less data stream for the viewfinder. A DSLR doesn't really benefit from either of these traits, as you still have the mechanical mirror flip that limits frame rate and focus performance, and thus you still have viewfinder blackout. Dropping the Z9 image sensor into a D6-type DSLR body just makes the DSLR more expensive, with little benefit (Live View would get a benefit). 

As the image sensors move on with technologies that primarily benefit mirrorless, that limits the design choices that make sense for DSLRs. And the declining DSLR unit volume then also puts another constraint into place: you don't have enough volume to justify the R&D for a new DSLR-focused image sensor. The "box" that is DSLR design has gotten smaller, and at some point it's simply not financially prudent to be in that box.

So: new DSLR design is basically over at Canon and Nikon. Expecting any new DSLR from them puts you in the category of Relentless Optimist.

That, however, doesn't mean that DSLRs won't continue to get produced. It's less clear what is happening at Canon—I suspect that all the DSLR production lines there are in the process of transitioning to mirrorless, but can't confirm that—but at Nikon it seems pretty clear at the moment: D7500, D780, D850, and D6 cameras are still being produced "normally." D3500 and D5600 models still seem to come out of the Thailand factory, but in rapidly declining numbers. My suspicion is that much of the Nikon DSLR production has now moved to a flexible "on demand" and more hand built section of the factory (the mirrorless side is highly automated with robotic assembly, which is possible due to the simplified nature of their designs). 

So: DSLR production continues, certainly at Nikon, and apparently still happening at lower volume at Canon, as well. I count six Nikon DSLRs still regularly getting shipped to dealers, and eight Canon ones. I'll bet that number changes downward after this holiday season.

Thus the question is this: now that DSLR designing has stopped, when will production stop? Nikon used to say in official documents that they'd still be making DSLRs in 2024, and I believe that's still likely true. But will they be producing the D7500, D780, D850, and D6 bodies? That seems far less likely. The D3500 and D5600 will be the next Nikon DSLRs to cease production, I believe, with the D7500 to follow (probably at the point where a Z70 or Z90 is introduced). If Nikon is still making DSLRs at the end of 2024, I'll bet that will be the D850 and/or D6. Why? Because those are two remarkably capable cameras, even compared to the best mirrorless options today. Those favoring DSLRs will continue buying such excellent cameras.

On the Canon side, it seems likely that we'll start seeing discontinuances in 2023. How many and how fast are tough to predict, but the recent R7 and R10, coupled with the R100 rumors, seem to suggest that the Rebel/Kiss transition now completely underway.

At the moment, the holiday deals on DSLRs are mostly minimal, with the D850 at US$2500 being the only thing I'd point to as a great deal. The D850 is to this day one of the best all-around cameras you can purchase, and at that price, the least expensive of those top models. It'll remain a useful camera for years, maybe a decade more. 

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