How to Look at DSLRs Today

With high tech, there's always a set of critical deflection points you need to be aware of. The two most critical ones are:

  • The beginning of the new
  • The end of the old

The D1 in 1999 could be arguably called the beginning of the new for DSLRs. Previous to that, we had multi-party experimentation (Kodak/Canon, Kodak/Nikon, Nikon/Fujifilm) that produced cameras we could probably call DSLRs. But the D1 represented one of the major camera makers producing something new they wanted to go mainstream and was what I would regard as the true beginning of DSLR. Likewise, the Panasonic G1 in 2008 probably is the camera we should regard as the beginning of mirrorless. 

Identifying the "beginning" is always easier (especially in post-mortem) than identifying the end. 

The debate going on in my email Inbox these days seems to center around whether we are at the end of the old with the current DSLRs or not. 

In terms of sales, particularly of the D850, it doesn't seem like we are. This is the tricky part that keeps Canon and Nikon making a number of their DSLR models: there's a reasonable demand for them, again, particularly the Nikon D850. The reason I've been centering most of this discussion on Nikon and avoiding writing about Canon is that if you look closely, Nikon has three DSLRs that are seminal that are still selling:

  • D500 — To this day, still the best APS-C camera you can buy, mirrorless or DSLR.
  • D850 — To this day, still arguably one of the top few all-around cameras you can buy, mirrorless or DSLR.
  • D6 — As good as the Z9 is, the D6 still has plenty going for it, particularly for the sports crowd.

You can't really say the same for Canon, where only the 1DX Mark III might make the cut.

So the question that keeps getting asked is this: are those Nikon DSLRs the last of the breed, or might Nikon attempt to extend the DSLR lifespan by producing a new model (or two)? 

I don't know the answer to that question. Only Nikon knows, and I'm pretty sure they don't know for sure themselves at the moment because they're still in the midst of their yearly management priority-setting meetings at the moment. I'm not sure consensus has been reached on the DSLR status moving forward.

It is clear that Nikon is prioritizing manufacturing of mirrorless cameras that are selling well (e.g. Z6 II, Z7 II, Z9) over DSLRs, as DSLR production slowed to a trickle as the parts shortages started to impact Nikon. The key mirrorless cameras are staying in stock or getting re-stocked faster than the key DSLR ones. Which is why is you see "more on the way" for the D500, D850, and D6 quite often at the big dealers, such as B&H. With the mirrorless cameras, we're tending to see shorter periods where that's the case, and often a body+lens kit is available if the body only is out of stock temporarily.

I do think the Z9 dislodged a number of pros that had been considering themselves "DSLR into the future" owners. I know quite a few that sampled the Z9 only to decide maybe the time had come for them to transition to mirrorless. That's despite some things that the Z9 still needs work on. Personally, I'm one of those folk. The Z9 answers enough of my mirrorless hesitancy to have supplanted my D850. 

My questioning of where we are regarding the "end of the old" lies more than in personal interest, though. As a key supporter of Nikon interchangeable lens products—via my books and Web sites—for almost 25 years, I'm trying to figure out the audience, much like Nikon is. How many of you are going to stay DSLR, how many will move on, how many will come to a split decision?

Thus, I've encouraged an on-going dialog via email, and have some more reader comments to post:

"The [pricing] on the 400mm f2.8 makes the case for final F-mount camera bodies. No reason to think the Z 600mm or even the 800mm PF lenses on roadmap will not be priced similarly. Assume at some point will eventually have Z-mount lenses equal to 120-300mm f/2.8 and 180-400mm f/4 (given the long Nikon history in 500mm f/4 versions, that also is possible) and those will be priced in same range as the DSLR lenses. There will be a reasonable number of people who have the F-mount exotics of all types (even some high end lenses not “exotic”) that simply are not going to spend that kind of money to upgrade to Z versions."

Yes, but...as many of us have discovered the F-mount exotics on the FTZ adapter mounted on a Z9 basically give us a bit more focus precision with sometimes even faster speed than the DSLRs have (particularly with teleconverters involved). On the one hand, I dislike all the mounts you can end up with doing this (lens, teleconverter, FTZ), but I'm enjoying the performance. So do I (or you) really want to give up our F-mount exotics? We pay a big cost penalty for dumping an F-mount one and picking up a (eventual in some cases) Z-mount one. 

Personally, I've decided to sell my 500mm f/4G, but am undecided at the moment about my 400mm f/2.8G. But it's really only cost factors that are coming into play for me, not whether or not Nikon might make another DSLR body.

"Since the introduction of the Z System, I went from four FX DSLRs (all bought used) to a D850, Z6 and Zfc all bought new (and in that order). My intention was to be a dual mount user, i.e. to straddle across F and Z. For some time, I've been contemplating trading in my D850 for a Z7 or Z7ii, because the weight and size reduction is more useful to me than what I consider to be the better ergonomics of the D850. Since the introduction of the Z9 (a camera I can't see myself buying), that feeling of 'maybe I should make the leap to Z' completely has got bigger. But, I actually find it hard to pin down exactly why I feel so hesitant making that leap. For me, there is an appeal related to owning and using the D850 that is hard to put my finger on. I still enjoy using it. I can't see myself ever wanting to upgrade to a D880 or D900, and see any future upgrades to be on the Z side for me. So, I guess I'll be more likely to trade my Z6 for a Z7 or Z7ii in the future than ever departing with the D850....and that means having some of my F mount lenses around...which probably means I won't be adding as many Z lenses as Nikon would like."

I'm seeing more and more Straddlers with similar thoughts to you, typically always centered on a D500 or D850 body on the DSLR side (though not always). From Nikon's point of view, Straddlers are actually their worst problem, as they buy minimal new mirrorless gear and aren't likely to buy a new DSLR, either (as in your case). At least they tend to buy Nikon, I guess. 

Too many Straddlers would slow down the Z System camera sales from where I think Nikon wants them to be. The only way to minimize straddling, though, is to introduce more seminal products such as the Z9, which I don't think is going to happen short term. I see the 2022 Z future more centered on producing a decent Z6 III and Z7 III, and maybe one other camera. If I'm right, we'll still be having this discussion into 2023 ;~(.

"I am a D500 + Z7 user (in that order). I got the Z because I wanted to do video more easily, it is manageable with the D500, if plenty of preparation is done in advance. I did not go full mirrorless because frankly, I like the form factor of cameras like the D500 and D850 a lot better than the Z cameras."  

Another Straddler, but note the reason. This reader is not alone, I noted a half dozen similar points made in the last week about form factor.

So what's that mean? I'm not entirely sure, and I suspect Nikon isn't, either. I don't think it's the smaller size of the Z bodies, but something else. Could it be the Mode Dial and U# positions? Button positions? We know that the lack of a true vertical grip was one of the items in this category with the original Z6 and Z7. But what are the other form factor issues that are putting people off?

Continuing on with the same emailer:

"The Z9 appeared… I preordered, then pulled out to wait for your review! I am mightily tempted, but I am holding back because well, I am only an enthusiast at the end of the day. That, and the fact that I cannot figure out how I could combine the Z9 with my D500 in a complementary way that makes sense."

This echoes my own feelings towards straddling: I can't come up with a DSLR/mirrorless combo that makes a lot of sense. And as the Z-mount lens lineup expands, the straddling position gets harder to figure out. No doubt Nikon has been subtle in trying to make that more difficult for people, as they don't want Straddlers, they want mirrorless adopters! 

"I want to pass along my thoughts regarding my hesitation to switch to mirrorless.  I share some of the same sentiments as many of your readers, but my hesitation to make the switch includes a nuanced point that I haven’t seen expressed. The D850 was (and still is) the one-camera solution with minimal compromise for many of us. I would bet that most D850 owners do not feel as if they made a significant compromise, relative to other DSLRs, in any of the following areas: user interface and features (top notch), resolution (top notch), low-light performance (so close to the D750), and autofocus performance (just slightly below, but comparable to D500 and D5 (never held a D6)). What’s more, with the D850 we have the option of going small relative to the D5/6 by leaving the grip at home, or benefitting from the bump in frame rate and handling for portrait orientation by adding the grip.  Like I said, there was very little in the way of compromise relative to any other DSLR in any way. Perhaps the D850 has spoiled me, but when I make the switch to mirrorless, which involves shelling out a lot of money for a new lens lineup, I expect to be able to continue with a one-camera solution while gaining what I see as the major benefits of mirrorless over DSLR. Those benefits include full sensor coverage of autofocus points, blackout free shooting, and a smaller form factor but with the option of a vertical grip. I do not feel as if any of the current Z cameras fit my definition of a one-camera solution with minimal compromise in a mirrorless world."

Well put, though with the Z9 I think Nikon may have (most of) the answer for you, though at a higher price point than you paid for the D850. 

Couple your thoughts with whether or not a D880-type successor would cause anyone still with a DSLR to buy into it and you have the horns of Nikon's dilemma. I think it could be done, but it would take the A Team to do it right. I suspect the A Team has other priorities at the moment.

"I'll admit that I don't want all that much more out of a D500 successor, with the chief thing being a few more megapixels (it's a persistent itch for me). So I'd pay $2000-2500 for a modestly improved D510. But if Nikon did come out with a really cool D580 instead, I'd be willing to splurge and pay $3000+ for that."

As an aside, Fujifilm is hoping you'll come look at what they have later this year (stacked sensor X-H2). Personally, I've always thought that not enough people gave full credit to just how good a camera the D500 was. I know that Nikon was somewhat disappointed with its sales, but I'd also point out that the huge wait for it from the D300 was part of the problem. When it looks like the thing you want might never appear (the mythical D400), you start looking elsewhere. The good news for Nikon was some of those looking found FX Nikon DSLRs. The bad news for Nikon is that the rest found Fujifilm and Olympus mirrorless cameras. 

One reason why I'm spending some time with this discussion over the course of several weeks is this: if Nikon pulls the same trick—long delay before some new DSLR appears—they're going to end up with the same result: lower sales than expected. My guess is that by the time 2023 is over, everyone with a Nikon DSLR will have made their commitment, whether that be to just ride out what they've got or to turn to something else (which may not be Nikon). Thus, if Nikon isn't already trying to figure out when to start production of a new DSLR they've designed and prototyped, it's probably going to be too late for it to have any meaningful impact financially. 

And then we have the customer that Nikon loves:

"I started with 35mm film when I was about seven years old and got my first SLR when I graduated high school in (I hate to admit it) 1969. So here's my take on changing. At this point, I'm transitioning from DX DSLR (D7200's) to FX mirrorless. I bought the Z6 package with the 24-70 f/4 and the FTZ the year before last when the price dropped. I wanted to get the feel for the Z system to see if I liked it. I loved it. Then last year I added the 14-30 f/4 and I just bought a refurbed Z7. I already owned the 70-300 AF-P and the 80-400 and both of those seem to work well with the FTZ, so I have the focal length range I need.  Along the way, I also snagged the Z50 two-lens kit, also refurbed. I've got that for when I want to minimize size and weight.  

I've been finding the transition to be relatively easy because, as you've pointed out, Nikon has managed to keep the "Nikon-ness" in the interface. The fact that the Z6 and Z7 work identically makes it even easier. Yes, there are new features to learn and a new AF system that I'm working on mastering, but I can do that, maybe because I'm a tech nerd by nature. So for me, Nikon doesn't need to iterate DSLRs because I'm pretty much done with them. To tell you the truth, I never thought I would say that, but here I am.

No doubt you're not alone. Not even close to alone. From the mirrorless site I get plenty of folk who have a story very much like yours, and are now committed to mirrorless.

It's those holding onto DSLRs or straddling that are provoking all this discussion, and judging from how many emails flooded my In Box—biggest volume for any specific topic for almost two years—there's a significant number of these folk out there trying to figure out their camera futures. I'd judge that about half those are going to stay DSLR holdouts (mostly due to age), and the other half will figure out some straddle position they're comfortable with.

Looking for gear-specific information? Check out our other Web sites:
mirrorless: sansmirror.com | general: bythom.com| Z System: zsystemuser.com | film SLR: filmbodies.com


dslrbodies: all text and original images © 2022 Thom Hogan
portions Copyright 1999-2021 Thom Hogan—All Rights Reserved
Follow us on Twitter@bythom, hashtags #bythom, #dslrbodies