The Number One Question Being Asked...

…is “are DSLRs dead or will we see continued development and sales?” It seems an hour doesn’t pass by without some variation of this question appearing in my email.

I’d say that this question requires a tri-modal answer for the moment, so let me provide that:

  • Consumer, crop-sensor DSLRs are probably dead. The huge drop in DSLR unit volume is mostly in the sub-US$1000 category. While both Canon and Nikon still see some sales in this category, those sales have plummeted faster than any other category of camera and continue to go down. Equivalent cost mirrorless consumer cameras are smaller, lighter, focus better, and in some cases produce better images (not all cases). If you’re waiting for a new Rebel/Kiss model or D3xxx/D5xxx model, or new EF-S or DX lenses, it’s highly unlikely you’ll see them. If you do, it’ll likely be “last of breed.” On top of everything else, the parts supply shortage has forced the camera makers into putting what parts they can get into the cameras they really want to sell. And that isn’t a consumer, crop-sensor DSLR with low margins. I expect a consumer, crop-sensor DSLR sell-off this holiday season as the makers squeeze the last they can out of this segment.
  • Intermediate model DSLRs are dying. Here we have products such as the Canon 90D and Nikon D7500. These models aren’t far above the group I just mentioned, and I suspect that Canikon believe that the disease currently impacting sales of the consumer cameras will soon carry over into this intermediate group, if it hasn’t already. And again, the parts shortage has had the camera makers putting more effort into their favorite on-going products, and these DSLRs don’t tend to be in that list. Still, as long as sales hold up to some reasonable degree—no, I don’t know what that is—I’d think that Canon and Nikon would want to keep these models around for awhile longer because the margins are better than those for the above group. But I’m also not expecting to see any more EF-S or DX lenses, so these models will wither on the vine.
  • Top-end DSLRs are a bit like many of the elderly: assumed to be in bad health, but actually doing just fine. Yes, their years are probably numbered, but that number is not currently up. Canon and Nikon seem to differ a bit here. Canon appears to have given the “we’ve given up on this category” signal and wants you just to buy a mirrorless ILC. I wrote “appears” because I don’t know if that was a real signal or just a few manager’s opinions that got amplified. However, Canon’s on-going full frame DSLR sales were not holding up as well against Nikon’s as the Canon’s crop sensor models were. I suspect that Canon has decided that “if we’re going to tackle one full frame competitor head on, let’s make it Sony in mirrorless, not Nikon in DSLR.” Nikon, meanwhile, has been on an “upgrade to full frame” quest for the last decade, and had excellent success with that. If you think about the models they still have available (Df, D610, D750, D780, D810A, D850, D5, D6), you probably come to the conclusion that Nikon wants to milk this category even as Canon appears to abdicate it. Likewise, in the last three years we received three significant F-mount telephotos (180-400mm f/4, 500mm f/5.6 PF, 120-300mm f/2.8) while >200mm telephoto in the Z System still doesn’t really exist yet. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another F-mount lens or two in the coming years, though the pressure to release Z-mount lenses is considerable within Nikon. I wouldn't be surprised to see another Nikon DSLR, either.

I mention all this because I get a constant stream of questions from people wondering whether or not they should (1) upgrade their older DSLR to a new one, (2) just keep using what they have; or (3) reluctantly give in to mirrorless. (See today's other article.)

For Canon DSLR users, I think the answer probably has now shifted to #3, but only RF mirrorless, not M. I’m just not seeing energy in the DSLR lines from Canon that would indicate #1 is a realistic option. Remember, warranty laws in California basically dictate repairability in the US. Those laws require that a maker has to retain parts for repair for seven years after final production. How many of those Canon DSLRs have seen final production already? We don’t know, as Canon won’t say whether current sales are coming from inventory or new manufacturing. Cameras last a long time, and they’re all highly capable, so you’d really want to know that you can get it repaired for a long time, too.

For Nikon DSLR users, the answer for anyone not currently owning a D500, D850, D5, or D6 would tend to be #1 (for those owning the four mentioned cameras, it’s clearly #2, as those cameras are still all near state of the art). In a few cases not in that select four cameras—the D7500 and D810 come to mind—perhaps #2 is the right answer. But I don’t see any issue with a D800 owner upgrading to a D850 or even a D4 owner upgrading to a D6. That’s a huge change in performance and ability in both cases, and Nikon’s still making those models, so you should be able to get a D6 and D850 repaired for the foreseeable future. 

Of course, none of the above answers questions such as “will Nikon produce a D880?” or “will Nikon produce a D580?” I’m confident that Nikon has explored what new D7xxx, D5xx, D8xx, and even the pro flagship body updates would look like in DSLR trim. I don’t know what their conclusions have been. We’re significantly overdue for a D500 update, slightly overdue for a D850 update. Nikon seems to be in a position of soul searching at the moment (again). at least with DSLRs. They keep giving lip service to the high-end enthusiast and professional as their target customer, which, if they walked the talk would imply future high-end DSLRs, as well as future mirrorless models, because the market is still clearly there for them.

Unfortunately, just concentrating on the top-end user base would mean a far leaner Nikon, and perhaps a slip beyond #3 in unit sals (to Fujifilm, the only candidate currently positioned that could really pick up any further Nikon slippage). Nikon’s pride is hurt. They’ve always coveted getting the #1 position back (though strangely they never went full in on getting it), and they believe that they should be in the #2 position (even though their delays in mirrorless lost that to Sony). So I’m pretty sure that we’re going to see Nikon producing consumer mirrorless cameras. Indeed the recent Zfc seems to confirm that. But those consumer cameras won’t be DSLRs because the volume for consumer ILC is now in mirrorless, and the cost to produce a mirrorless camera is lower. 

Thus, Nikon finds themselves in a challenging position: continue their success in full frame DSLR in addition to doing everything they’re doing in mirrorless, or not? After all, margins on the D500 and D850 are excellent, so if those lines continue selling, why wouldn’t they update them?

The problem is the D780. Nikon did update the D750, one of their best selling higher-end cameras. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to attract a lot of updaters. While the D780 did pick up the Z6 Live View and video capabilities (good), it didn’t really have much in the “advancing the DSLR” category (bad), so why wouldn’t you just get a Z6 II? Unfortunately, because the D780 didn’t sell as well as Nikon thought it would, I’ll bet this has them rethinking their DSLR strategy moving forward. Personally, I’d argue that the lack of D780 sales was mostly a marketing problem, not a product problem. 

Because Canon and Nikon aren’t sending out any specific “DSLR future” messages, they’re letting customers imagine answers and get paranoid while doing so. Paranoid is never good in a customer base. The problem for both Canon and Nikon is simple: because they were late to serious mirrorless, the minute that a potential customer—return or new—decides that they need to go mirrorless, the cost of switching out of DSLRs suddenly means that those customers can more easily consider Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony. Fujifilm has a clear and extensive lineup in crop sensor; Sony has a clear and extensive lineup in full frame. So, to compete in mirrorless, Canon and Nikon have to knock one or both those competitors off their pedestal.

The proper message Canon and Nikon should be sending out today is really simple: “We’ve got you covered if you want to stick with serious DSLRs, and we’re ready for you if and when you decide to move to mirrorless.” Then they should do everything they can to deliver on that message. 

At the moment, not only has that message not been delivered, but for whatever reason, everything that needs to be done to deliver on that message is not being done.


Okay, that didn’t really answer the number one question I get, did it? But that’s my point: the only ones that can answer the question are Canon and Nikon, and by not answering it, they’re leaving their considerable customer bases wondering whether to stay a customer or not. I’d love to have management at both companies explain to me how that’s beneficial to them. 

What I suspect is that both Canon and Nikon are fearful of your response to the actual answer they’d give. In other words, we have camera companies who are paranoid, but in so being, they’re driving their customers towards paranoia! 

It really doesn’t matter what the real answer is, as any answer has the potential to drive off a few customers. If Nikon said, for instance, that they’ll continue to iterate DSLRs, someone who’s decided to go mirrorless might suddenly decide Sony is the better answer (more mirrorless gear already, #1 in that market). If Nikon said instead that there won’t be any more DSLRs, the entire F-mount customer base would be forced into a “ride out the end” or “go to mirrorless,” and they might consider themselves abandoned by their original choice and thus pick another maker for full frame. 

Nikon’s problem (and Canon’s) is that they have to help their customers feel comfortable about both their present and future situations. The only way to do that is through clear, consistent, and constant communication. Yes, the danger is that some customers might peel away and buy a competitor’s product. But the ones that do stay on brand will be thankful and loyal because of the clarity that the company provided. 

Particularly in Nikon’s case, I fear that their decision making has completely turned to dollars and cents (or yen and bhat, if you will). As long as their ROE number is 8% they’ll just end up the size they end up, customer be damned. The problem with this approach is that the brand value goes down with customer dissatisfaction, and purely following the dollars and cents approach generates such dissatisfaction. The brand value going down, however, will ultimately determine how many future customers they can get, which impacts that ROE. The circle is not unbroken. It’s all about getting balance right, and neither Canon nor Nikon are doing so at the moment. 

My advice to my readers remains the same as ever. A Canon 5D Mark IV or Nikon D850 are great cameras capable of most anything you’d like to do. Extensive lens sets are available for either, so there’s really not any kind of photography you can’t attempt with them. Will you miss out on something using those cameras instead of tomorrow’s latest and greatest? Perhaps, but not much, at least not in the foreseeable future. As I’ve written for a long time, spending the time to make sure you’re completely utilizing your current gear is the best bang for the buck in improving your photography, not buying new gear. 

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