Where Are the DSLRs Going?

You'll see a lot of analysis of the CIPA statistics focused on just the dynamic of decreased camera sales plus the shift from DSLR to mirrorless. Sometimes you'll see a slightly more analytic approach that notes that the average value associated with continued DSLR sales is now lower than that associated with mirrorless (implying that the Z6/Z7 type of mirrorless camera is taking over from the D780/D850 type of DSLR camera).

What you don't often see is a discussion that goes a little deeper. Consider this: through the first five months of 2021 there's been 1m DSLRs shipped versus 1.3m mirrorless. And to the point I made in the previous paragraph, that was 32b yen worth of DSLRs versus 79.3b yen worth of mirrorless.

But still, that's 1m DSLRs. Where did they go?

CIPA gives us information on that, too, though most analysis doesn't drop into that:

  • China — 124k DSLR, 272k mirrorless
  • Japan — 38k DSLR, 113k mirrorless
  • Rest of Asia — 160k DSLR, 188k mirrorless
  • Americas — 288k DSLR, 362k mirrorless
  • Europe — 426k DSLR, 324k mirrorless
  • Other — 18k DSLR, 47k mirrorless

The DSLRs are going to Europe. Almost half of them!

For a long time, DSLRs had great strength in the Americas and Europe. It appears that DSLRs lost that strength in the US in the last couple of years, but for some reason Europe remains the last region where DSLR shipments outrun mirrorless now. Prior to this recent change, China had also been a strong DSLR region, as well. 

What strikes me more than the regional shipment numbers are the regional value numbers. In the Americas we're at 9.4b yen for DSLRs and 37b yen for mirrorless this year, which reflects a widening disparity that started not very long ago. That's an awful lot of Z5/RP and higher cameras being sold to generate that number, and far fewer D780/D850s. 

Something that usually goes unsaid is that the Japanese camera companies are crafty at gaming the regions. There's a reason why CIPA reports regional numbers: every camera company has been looking for ways to use regions to boost sales for the last 20 years. As we got close to peak DSLR back in 2011/2012 you saw expansion into regions that traditionally didn't have a lot of camera sales support (e.g. India, Brazil, etc.), because they were viewed as potential new customers that could keep the volume up. The mirrorless camera companies first targeted Japan and Asia—and particularly with lower end models—because they originally thought they could make inroads to volume in those regions with smaller, competent ILC at low prices. 

DSLR volume is getting weaker everywhere now, though. It's only a matter of time before Europe also falls to below 50% DSLR. 

The question Canon and Nikon have to answer is this: is it worth it to sustain some DSLR production against this shift, and if so, what models would that be? 

I'm on record with my answer. For Canon, 90D Mark II, 5D Mark V, and 1DX Mark III. For Nikon, D580, D780, D880, D6. Unfortunately, the Sony A1 has put pressure on Canon and Nikon to respond with mirrorless equivalents (R3 and Z9, respectively, coming in September and November, respectively), which means that the 1DX and D6 are probably the last major iterations of the pro model on the DSLR side. If those models do iterate, it will likely be in minor ways (the old "s" version in Nikon-dom, ala a D6s). Canon seems to have dropped pretty much all EF iteration, which means no 5D Mark V. The jury is still out on what Nikon will do. An awful lot of Nikon D500/D8xx users are out there that could be upgraded into a new equivalent model DSLR if done right. 

The problem with a D580 is that there is no clear image sensor to move to. To fully satisfy the D500 user in terms of upgrade, you can't just add the Z50 Live View, you need "something more." As in 26-32mp, and maybe 6K video? But what sensor would that be? And if Nikon had such a DX sensor, wouldn't it make more sense to deploy it in a Z90? I see the prospect of a D580 update as low (<25% probability), and the easy option for Nikon would again be an "s" type update: A D500s would get Z50 Live View, USB Charging, and a few other minor bits. Is that enough to sustain the model?

But the D850 is Nikon's gem, and it still has the ability to wow. I'll now propose a different update approach to the one I proposed earlier (Sony 60mp or other higher pixel count sensor): just bring the Z9 sensor/processor over to the D8xx chassis. That ups the camera to 8K video, gets the Live View bits, and provides more horsepower for focus and other algorithmic work. Couple that with a faster mechanical shutter and you've got a new standard setter in the DSLR world, one that would keep many in the D7xx/D8xx crowd updating for awhile longer. I give this (or other D850 update) option a far greater chance of happening. I'd like to say it's more likely to happen than not, but I'll just put the odds at 50/50 right now. 

Unfortunately, the pandemic has not been on the side of us getting DSLR updates. I've had to downgrade my optimism for future DSLR iterations.

Beyond the fact that the camera companies became less productive in 2020 and into 2021, potential buyers had a chance to spend time considering what they really want and when, and to evaluate all brands. The current trend towards mirrorless was already in progress in 2019. Ditto the trend towards Sony. DSLRs outsold mirrorless in quantity in 2019, but the majority of the value of those shipments had shifted to mirrorless, and particularly Sony. Mirrorless passed DSLRs in quantity in 2020, and that's the way it will remain in the future (FWIW, I was a year off in my prediction on when that would happen; five years ago I went on record saying DSLR volume would stay above 50% until 2021). 

And beyond those things, the current parts shortage causes additional angst in the DSLR realm: if you only have enough guaranteed parts for X cameras, how many of those parts would you commit to making new DSLRs? The answer appears to be "as few as possible." Note that the D780 hasn't been going on deep discount as you might expect and is pretty much sticking to its slightly high price point. That's because Nikon wants to use those image sensors for Z6 II's right now. It also currently appears that Nikon is clearing out its parts commitment obligations for consumer DX DSLRs and starting to stop selling them into some regions as they wind down. 

By the time the pandemic becomes enough of a thing of the past that life worldwide reverts fully to normal—no I can't reliably predict when that will happen, but I'm looking at 2023 now—mirrorless is where all the focus will be, and particularly high end mirrorless, as that's where all the dollars are. Nikon is likely prioritizing a Z7 III (or Z8) higher than a D880 now. Canon already got there. 

So what's the good news for DSLR owners? Plenty, actually. There's nothing wrong with the cameras we currently have. Nikon's D500, D780, D850, D6 are spectacularly good. Best APS-C camera bar none, excellent DSLR/mirrorless/video crossover, 2nd best all-around camera you can buy, and best focusing sports/wildlife camera, respectively. Moreover, there are strong value buys now in the used Nikon DSLR market (particularly the D810, and maybe the D4/D5). The lens base for these cameras is excellent, and plenty of excellent condition used lenses are popping up as more customers transition from F-mount to Z-mount.

Serious Canon DSLR users probably would have liked a better image sensor (more DR) before Canon started shutting down the upgrade parade, but the 90D is a very good APS-C camera and the 5D Mark IV and 1DX Mark III are still right up there close to the D850/D6 in capability. The one downside on the Canon DSLR side is that EF lens choice is starting to wither a bit as Canon stops making some lenses. 

My advice: if you're using an older DSLR and want to upgrade, now's the time to do it while your choices are still many. If you're using one of the many recent excellent DSLRs, instead pay attention to your lens set and work on wringing everything you can from the camera you have (e.g. work on technique). 

Of course, if you're a Pentax DSLR user, nothing has changed at the moment. You simply wait for Pentax's painfully slow DSLR iteration to continue and that this hopefully gives you want you want. And be prepared for oddities from Pentax, such as the current APS-C camera selling for more than the current full frame one. 

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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