If DSLR Development Stops, Where Do We End Up?

With all the talk of Nikon ending DSLR development—sourced from a bad article that has gone viral by repetition from all the news scraping photography sites—it's probably a good time to talk about what if what that article suggests is correct, that Nikon has end-of-lifed their DSLR development. The tricky part for Nikon to navigate in the next few years is the DSLR to mirrorless transition (less so for Canon, who simply pursues market share). Why? Because Nikon made so many terrific DSLRs and up through this year had more DSLR than mirrorless volume. DSLRs that are still reliable and useful today. 

Thus, it seems relevant to go through the current lineup and comment on each model. Note that we're in year 14 of mirrorless (4 for Nikon), and year 24 of DSLR (technically about 30 for Nikon if you count the pre-D1 products).

  • D6 — Arguably the best focusing DSLR ever made. And, within the bounds of its AF sensor array, still as good as any current mirrorless camera, unless you want something automated more than just human face/eye recognition. 3D tracking is stellar. Group AF is dead-on reliable and predictable (and fast). Low light performance is great due to the really large phase detect sensors. Customization is also really good, allowing you to refine autofocus performance and take full control of it. Note that the D6 is clearly better than the D5 at these things, and the D5 was no slouch. An under appreciated gem of camera, and a robust, complete, and thoroughly modern one at that. Disclaimer: the D6 has continued on in my gear closet, despite the Z9.
  • D850 — Without a doubt the best all-around DSLR ever made, and still among the top four all-around cameras currently available (probably #3). Need a jack-of-all-trades camera? The D850 is the DSLR that did that the best, and has been doing it for five years. Looking back, you could almost say that it was ahead of its time ;~).
  • D780 — Probably the toughest of the Nikon DSLR lineup to assess, as it not only followed the excellent and long-lived D750, but it lives in the most hotly contested region of enthusiast/prosumer cameras. I wish Nikon had updated the autofocus system as well as the other things they stuck into the camera, though. That's sort of the D780's Achilles heel, as the older 51-point system just feels a bit "tired" in what is otherwise Nikon's most modern DSLR. It didn't help that the price creeped up, either.
  • D500 — As I've written recently, six years after launch the D500 is still arguably in the top three crop-sensor cameras you can buy today (and the other two only launched within the last couple of months). Versatile, robust, fast, reliable, and never had a DSLR competitor that came close (sorry 7D II, I liked you, but I'll never love you). The real shame here is that Nikon could have done a mid-term firmware update to make this camera even more capable and competitive, and extended its shelf life. Indeed, Nikon could have done that with the earlier D300, but instead we got a mediocre D300S replacement. In other words, Nikon repeated a mistake here, one that's cost them a lot of users who get antsy for "something better." I'm here to tell you, though, there wasn't anything better in APS-C until last month, and the D500 still holds its own.
  • D7500 — Another under appreciated camera, this time mostly because Nikon cut a lot of corners in creating it, taking back things that were on its predecessor. Those terrible design decisions saved Nikon a few pennies, but spread a great deal of negativity about the camera that was undeserved (most people won't miss those things, but it was an incredibly bad visibility move on Nikon's part). The D7500 was Nikon's "value" DX camera, with a great deal of prosumer performance at a more consumer price. Anyone still using a D70, D80, D90, D7000, or D7100 that is waiting for a "better" update to happen should rethink their procrastination and snap up a D7500 before it goes away. It's a far better camera than what they have, and it has the right stuff they rely upon.
  • D5600 — Ironically a very good selling camera (along with its predecessors) despite being what I'd call a mediocre choice. Nikon triggered a lot of folk to "buy up" from the D3xxx model by suckering them into a couple of seemingly useful additions (e.g. swivel LCD) for "a few dollars more." However, the only reason I'd buy a D5600 over the D3500 is the focus sensor, and then only if you're not a focus-and-reframe sort of person. 
  • D3500 — Arguably the best entry-DSLR made. And by entry I mean lowest priced in the lineup. Image quality that is at the top of what APS-C (DX) could do until we started seeing the 26mp and 33mp sensors (in more expensive models). Solid foundation of control and simplicity. 

When I look at where Nikon's primary DSLR competitor, Canon, has ended up, Nikon wins in at least five of their seven models. And at least four of those Nikon DSLRs still have more life to live, at least if people keep buying them. 

Moreover, because so many people are selling their DSLRs to finance their mirrorless transition, all except the D6 and D780 are available in abundant supply on the used market. If you evaluate used products carefully, you can find a low-mileage D850 at what has to be considered a bargain price, considering that it's still near the top of the best all-around camera parade.

I expect Nikon will start end-of-lifing these DSLR models in this order: D5600, D3500, D500, and D7500. I expect the D850 and D6 to be more like the F6, which stuck around for a long time. However, it was easier for the F6 to stick around longer, because it didn't rely on two critical chips (EXPEED, and an image sensor). Once the EXPEED6 stock has dwindled and an image sensor is no longer produced, Nikon will only be able to make small numbers of D850's and D6's until they run out of parts. 

Has Nikon continued any DSLR development? I'll cautiously answer this as "yes, but not in a slated-for-production" role. Nikon prototypes lots of cameras that never make it to market. They'll take a current body and use it as a mule to test the latest-and-greatest chips and other technology, but that doesn't always develop into a process that triggers a full-on development cycle that gets released to a manufacturing decision. I've heard, for instance, that Nikon R&D has tinkered with what a D7 and D880/900 might be, for instance. But tinkering is not necessarily developing. As with automobile concept vehicles, only a few of the concept cameras actually get pursued to production. 

To a large degree, what Nikon does next in DSLRs depends a lot upon whether people keep buying them. Given Nikon's other statements, I believe the consumer DX DSLR models are headed to the discontinuation list for sure, while the higher end FX models probably will stick around for a number of years before Nikon has to make the continue/discontinue decision on them.

That said, Nikon R&D's attention appears to be entirely focused on mirrorless now. If Nikon continues to roll out Z models that appeal to former and future DSLR users, such as the Z9, this will hasten the demise of the FX DSLRs. 

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

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