Editorial Nikon

The End of the DSLR Era and the Start of a New One for Nikon

Is Nikon finally stepping away from its successful DSLR offerings and stepping with both feet into the future of mirrorless camera technology? If so, this is incredibly good news.

When Nikkei Asia leaked the news that Nikon has decided to withdraw from the DSLR business and shift its focus toward mirrorless, it did not come as a surprise for those of us who have been following the DSLR-to-mirrorless shift taking place in the camera industry through the years. While this news seems innocuous on the surface, if true, it sends a powerful signal to Nikon’s own imaging department as well as to its outside partners and especially to its camera customers that Nikon has finally made its choice about the future of its cameras: it’s mirrorless all the way.

Panasonic had the foresight to develop and introduce the first mirrorless camera, the Panasonic G1, back in 2008. (The term “mirrorless” generates some controversy. We explain how the term came about and how it should be applied to digital cameras.) The major manufacturers, Canon and Nikon, did not follow suit. Because LCD technology could not then approximate the optical viewfinder, many thought mirrorless would never take off. One glaring weakness of mirrorless at that time was the slow autofocus (AF) acquisition.

Five years later, in 2013, we noticed the remarkable improvements in LCD technology and AF speed and precision taking place, and we predicted that mirrorless would be the future. It just made common sense: A mirrorless camera used less moving mechanical parts and was easier to design and manufacture, thus saving the camera manufacturers money; the electronic viewfinder (EVF) was getting better and better and would eventually allow the photographer to see not only what was coming through the camera’s lens, but also exactly what the camera was actually going to record onto its image sensor (with exposure compensation, white balance and other filter effects applied); AF technology was getting faster and more precise; and, many photographers were getting tired of lugging around big, cumbersome and heavy camera and lenses with the trend inexorably shifting toward more compact and lighter cameras and lenses.

Mirrorless cameras coexisted with DSLRs for many years. At first, Nikon and Canon paid only lip service to their mirrorless offerings, keeping both feet firmly planted into the DSLR world, and only dipping their toes timidly into the mirrorless world, reluctant to cannibalize their very successful DSLR offerings. The first nail in the DSLR coffin came in 2013 from Sony with its A7 model which, besides having a much improved EVF, a compact size, and a growing number of high quality lenses, it also sported an Eye AF that stuck and held, making shooting well-focused portraits and wildlife that much easier. Four years and a number of updated models later, Sony eclipsed Nikon to become #2 in mirrorless sales in the U.S. That would probably be about when both Nikon and Canon started to seriously take notice of mirrorless technology’s potential to overtake DSLR technology.

The Sony A7 was first adopted by enthusiast photographers, then a trickle of pro photographers slowly followed suit. As Sony introduced next versions of the A7, one better than the previous, a distinct and sizeable shift started to occur among pro photographers and that shift was big enough to warrant the attention and worry of the two major camera manufacturers as they started losing loyal customers. Nikon (2018) and Canon (2020) started to respond to Sony’s threat seriously, and both made a 180-degree turn toward mirrorless, effectively signalling a definitive change in their camera design and development strategy. Nikon introduced the Z 6 and Z 7 in 2018, and its flagship Z 9 in 2021; Canon introduced the EOS R5 and R6 in 2020, the EOS R3 in 2021, and its flagship EOS R1 is scheduled for 2023; Sony introduced its flagship A1 in 2021.

Of course, none of this would have happened if mirrorless technology did not catch up with — and then surpassed — DSLR technology. Today’s mirrorless cameras have EVFs with high resolution and high refresh rate so that these are as pleasant to use as a good optical viewfinder; their AF acquisition speed and sticky Eye and Face tracking surpass what is possible with DSLR technology; and they add many more digital stills and video features that are simply not practically possible on a DSLR.

So, Nikon’s news is therefore not a surprise. Nikon has not made an official announcement to this effect, nor has it disavow it; it simply says that it has not made an [official] announcement yet. I believe that it may just be a final recognition from Nikon’s higher management that they are not going to invest in the design and development of DSLR cameras and lenses anymore; instead, they have decided to stake everything on mirrorless going forward.

If so, where does that leave all the pro photographers who are still using and depending on their trusty Nikon DSLRs and lenses? Nikon was quick to reassure them that “Nikon is continuing the production, sales and service of digital SLR. Nikon appreciate your continuous support.

It will be incredibly good news to all photographers if Nikon is finally going to throw all its weight into the design and development of mirrorless cameras and lenses. No more internal budget and personnel battles on whether to develop a DSLR or mirrorless next. No more division of scant labor and financial resources. Everyone at Nikon imaging can now concentrate fully on mirrorless.

Nikon engineers have proven with the Z 9 that they can do mirrorless in a spectacular way. Now, it is imperative that they develop a smaller and lighter Z 9 (call it Z 8?). This is because now that pro photographers still using Nikon DSLRs face the need to switch to mirrorless, they will have the opportunity to stay with Nikon — or adopt a competitive brand. And since the trend is toward more compact and lighter cameras and lenses, Nikon has to execute well in this regard or risk losing more users. Nikon therefore needs to set up a new design and development team to brainstorm the future of Nikon mirrorless cameras, and come up with innovative design and technology for their (compact) pro and enthusiast mirrorless camera offerings. Executed well, it may turn out to be Nikon’s finest moment yet.

UPDATE 2022-07-15:

It’s happening all over again: As the film SLR era was ending, we had lots of discussions about how digital SLRs had their advantages but could not quite replace film SLRs. And what were people afraid of? Now, the same discussions have shifted to what are you afraid of DSLRs, they are better with better optical viewfinders and better battery life, etc. Why do you want DSLRs to die? I’ll stick to my trusty DSLRs for now. Or, on the other extreme: Of course, mirrorless is better than DSLRs, where have you been all these years, this is not news, we all saw it coming. Yes, those of us who watched saw it coming. But, today it has finally come. And many of those who are now saying it’s no big deal were the most vociferous against mirrorless. That is what the news is all about. And if you blink, you miss it.

Why is this important, and why should we even care? Because a company divided and unsure which direction to go will struggle to make progress and waste its time with internal infightings. But when higher management all agree that the company is going one specific direction, and not the other, then all resources and effort can concentrate on making that a success. Nikon can now focus on making the best mirrorless cameras, period.

As photographers, we all have our preferences and bias. Mine is the Olympus OM-1 film SLR. IMHO, no other camera — film, DSLR or mirrorless — has even come close to its handling and use, and the availability of a whole system of lenses and accessories to support it. But, it does not matter what I like: Folks, the train has left the station and its destination is Mirrorless Land. There is no point to use film anymore today, so I use a Fujifilm X-Pro 1 (yeah, the original) APS-C mirrorless as my main camera. If you are a pro and still using a DSLR, you should start considering and researching mirrorless; you do not want to make the same mistakes film SLR camera users made and had to scramble to switch to digital SLRs. Mirrorless cameras have enough differences from DSLRs in features, characteristics, and workflow that it takes some time getting used and becoming 100% proficient. And then, there are different systems to choose from. Take your time, try out a couple, see what your preferences and bias are, and it’ll all go well. Ignore mirrorless, and you’ll be scrambling in panic mode.

No companies have deep enough pockets to work on two camera systems at the same time: the one or the other will suffer. So, for a long time, Nikon and Canon gave preference to DSLRs at the expense of their mirrorless offerings, resulting in half-baked mirrorless cameras with few interesting and high quality lenses and accessories. The news today is simple: Nikon may have finally decided to go all in with mirrorless so that the company as a whole can now move forward as one. That is very good news for us photographers.

Why is this important for Nikon? Because the Z 9, as good as it is (and we all agree it is i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-y good), is still a HUGE and heavy camera more akin in dimensions to a big DSLR than what a mirrorless camera should be. Like it or not, the trend is toward more compact and lighter cameras and lenses. There is a reason why so many pro photographers (and news agencies) are switching to the compact Sony A7 / A9 / A1 series. Cameras like the Nikon Z 9, the Canon EOS R3 / EOS R1 will have its fans, but if you can have the same image quality and operational performance in a body a fraction the size and weight, which one would you prefer? It should not be too difficult for a Nikon Z 8 to approximate the size and weight of the Sony A1: start with the Nikon Z 9, get rid of the vertical handgrip, miniaturize a few components, squeeze a few mm length, height and depth, and suddenly there is a contender in the ring.

Nikon Z 9 vs Sony A1 size comparison Images courtesy of camerasize.com

Nikon Z 9 vs Sony A1 size comparison
Images courtesy of camerasize.com

The good news is that Nikon can now get to work and get all its bright and intelligent engineers and software developers to concentrate on making sure all its future mirrorless offerings are better (waaaaayyy better) than its competitors. I bet they can do it. And the competition to outdo one another is the good news for us photographers. So, hold on to your seat: interesting days are ahead.