To paraphrase the great Mark Twain, reports of the death of the DSLR have been greatly exaggerated. With Nikon announcing the release of the new D780, in the midst of the mirrorless wave, some people might think this move crazy, but from a business standpoint, it might just be genius.
Now, before I get started, I do want to clarify that this is not an article out to debate the relative merits of DSLRs versus mirrorless cameras. While that conflict seems to spark an unreasonable amount of opinion in the Twitterverse, at the end of the day, whether you shoot with a mirrorless camera or a DSLR doesn’t really have a great deal to do with the quality of your photography. Instead, I’d like to talk about why Nikon, as a company in the business of making a profit, is doing the right thing by continuing to service and even expand their line of DSLRs.
According to Nikon’s recent announcement, the new D780 will update the much beloved D750. 24.5MP BSI sensor. Improved processor. 7 fps stills shooting. ISO range extended up to 204,800. Faster shutter speed of 1/8000 s versus the 1/4000 s of the D750. It inherits the rear LCD from the D850. It will have 4K at 24 fps and 30 fps. It can go to 120 fps at 1080p. Most importantly, on the video front, it is supposed to inherit the excellent video capabilities of the mirrorless Z 6. While I would expect it to still be slightly heavier than the Z 6, it is rumored that it would be slightly lighter than the D750. It will have an optical viewfinder with the same number of autofocus points as the traditional DSLRs. However, you will get expanded edge to edge focus points when shooting in live view mode. Basically, it’s a DSLR when using the viewfinder and a mirrorless camera when using the LCD. And naturally, it will have dual card slots.
On the missing front, there will be no IBIS. The rarely used (in my case) pop-up flash from the D750 will be gone. And Nikon continues the curious case of making its cameras incompatible with battery grips. It’s supposed to retail for $2296.95.
So, that’s it for the specs. Some awesome things, some questionable things. So now, let’s get to why this camera, as well as a rumored followup to the D850, and the impending release of the D6 are good business for Nikon.
Much has been made of the mirrorless revolution. A great number of newer photographers getting into photography just now will have had a mirrorless camera as their first body, and I would expect that trend to continue. Again, this article is not meant to bash mirrorless cameras or deny that they are a growing force in the marketplace. Sony even topped Nikon and Canon in new sales last year with a line of cameras that is 100% comprised of mirrorless options.
So, logic would hold that if Nikon and Canon want to be number one that they have to only make mirrorless cameras too. Well, hold your horses. Yes, both Nikon and Canon will eventually need to make strides in the mirrorless space to continue to compete in the long-term. But just like the dunk you saw on ESPN last night is likely not the greatest dunk ever attempted, the strength and staying power of the 102-year-old Nikon won’t be determined over the course of one bad sales year (or a handful of bad sales years). They may be behind in the standings right this instant, but you don’t stick around for over a century without having weathered a few ups and downs. Don’t count them out just yet.
Prior to Sony’s rise, Canon and Nikon reigned over the camera market for decades. They built their strength and reputation on the basis of making powerful and dependable tools that have become the staples of most pro photographers’ kits. While Sony is leading a mirrorless revolution and growing in influence, Canon and Nikon both still have significant numbers of existing DSLR customers in their current bases. Those customers haven’t built their photography careers by chasing the newest technology necessarily. They’ve built their careers with the reliable tools that have helped them do their jobs day in and day out. They’ve built up stockpiles of lenses and accessories. But more importantly, they’ve built up a level of trust with their equipment. There’s a reason why the D750 is still in such high demand over five years after its initial release.
I’ve often heard it repeated that, as a photographer, you need to buy a mirrorless camera to keep up with the competition. And while marketers looking to sell mirrorless cameras would love for that message to sink in, if we step back for a moment, we’d be best to stop and ask why that would be the case? Are your customers demanding you shoot mirrorless? Unlikely. Is the image quality better with mirrorless? No.
Don’t get me wrong, mirrorless has definite strong points. The electronic viewfinder is preferred by some, though not all, because it gives you a preview of what your final image will look like. The weight is a definite advantage to a photographer who has to carry it around all day. IBIS, eye detection autofocus, and other technologies definitely can make a photographer’s job easier. But none of those things really affect the client. All the client cares about is whether or not you can deliver the final product. And I would argue that there is nothing about a camera not being mirrorless that would prevent a skilled photographer from doing that.
The thing is that the benefits of mirrorless are mostly aimed at the photographer, not the client. When the industry moved from film to digital, there was a clear benefit for the client. The client could get their images more quickly. Photographers could shoot tethered, and the client could give instantaneous feedback so everyone knew they were on the same page. No more waiting for the lab results to figure out if the photographer was getting the assets the client needed. Transporting image assets became cheaper and more efficient. Going from film to digital provided a real tangible improvement to a customer. Therefore, clients began to demand it. Therefore, the bulk of professional photographers made the change.
Mirrorless adds a few creature comforts for photographers. But the end product, on the client side, remains the same. Therefore, there is little reason for the client to pressure photographers to change over. So really, one’s willingness to go mirrorless is entirely a function of whether or not that photographer sees enough of a benefit to completely upend the way they’ve always done business. For some, that benefit will be there. For others, changing to mirrorless is more of a chore than a benefit. And since there is little added benefit to the customer, there is little pressure to make a change.
Tony Northrup pointed out keenly in a recent video that sales from its mirrorless Z 6 and Z 7 lines account for only roughly 2% of Nikon’s revenue. He also pointed out that five years after its release, the D750 is still the most searched for Nikon camera on the internet, surpassing even the fresh-faced Z 6 and Z 7. So, while it is undeniable that media hype surrounding mirrorless may seem like a tidal wave, those buyers inclined to look to Nikon for their camera systems are still doing so largely based on the performance of their DSLRs.
That does not mean that their mirrorless cameras aren’t any good. It simply means that their DSLRs are amazing. And the customer base knows it. The DSLRs are so amazing, in fact, that existing Nikon users have proven themselves incredibly reluctant to make the switch to mirrorless. Again, why go mirrorless just to prove to your fellow photographers that you’re ahead of the curve when your DSLRs are doing a great job of allowing you to meet client demand and succeed in your business? Perhaps they allow you to do something specific, like shoot video with eye/face detection that you feel you need (an issue addressed in the new D780). That is a legitimate reason. But, it’s not like you can’t focus a camera without face or eye detection.
The Z 6 and Z 7 are excellent cameras. They are especially good when you consider that they are Nikon’s first effort in the mirrorless space. But no matter how well they did on a first effort, there was no way those cameras were going to be as good at being mirrorless as a D850 or D780 would be at being a DSLR. That’s not a Nikon thing, but rather a simple fact of product development cycles. The first effort is never and should never be the best version of a product. The Nikon DSLRs are the end result of decades of engineering and experience. The Nikon mirrorless cameras are fresh off the boat. The mirrorless cameras are good, and with future generations, will get better. But, if you were heading into combat and you landed in a foxhole with one other solider and your survival depended on him to get you out of there alive, would you rather that soldier be highly skilled but fresh out of boot camp, or a hardened veteran with medals on his chest and battle scars who has proven time and time again that he can get the job done?
All this will eventually change. Nikon, and the market in general, will continue to improve mirrorless cameras. Eventually, those photographers who have only ever known mirrorless cameras will become a larger and larger portion of the market. And even though I don’t necessarily see DSLRs going completely away, there will come a time when even Nikon and Canon’s base will be dominated by mirrorless cameras. But how soon is that really likely to happen?
If mirrorless cameras do, in fact, constitute only 2% of Nikon’s customer base, then that means that DSLRs constitute most of the remaining 98% (or other film cameras that likely use the F mount). That means that almost 98% of the market for Nikon lenses is for the F mount lenses associated with the DSLRs, not the Z mount. Same goes for other accessories. 98% of the people buying these products from Nikon will be doing so for a DSLR. To turn your back on 98% of your customers would make no sense.
So, while mirrorless may be the long-term future, if Nikon plans to live to see that future, they need to service their existing customer base. It would be like if you had a strong wedding photography business, but decided you instead wanted to move your career in the direction of architectural photography. That is a worthwhile goal, but no matter how good you are, it will probably take a little while before you have fully established your bona fides in your new field. You’ll get there, but it will take time. In the interim, you still need to eat. So, while you may begin to gradually shift more and more of your attention to architectural photography, you may find that you still need to shoot a wedding or two to stay afloat during the transition.
I’m not saying Nikon should abandon mirrorless. I’m just saying that for the sake of its business, it would be wise not to ignore the strengths that they currently have in the marketplace.
All of which brings me to why I think the D780 is a brilliant decision. I mentioned the specs earlier, and while I generally feel that specs can be overvalued, there is one line item that really dawned on me that could be the key to the D780 being a very successful product for Nikon.
I own both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. I’ve traditionally used Nikon bodies (D850, D800, D750) for the bulk of my professional work. I also own several Fuji mirrorless bodies. And recently, I rented a Nikon Z 6 for a month.
My purpose for renting the camera was threefold. One, I wanted to see how the shooting experience compared to working with my DSLR. Two, I wanted to see if the added features were valuable enough to make me consider migrating from my DSLRs. And three, most importantly, I wanted to see which shooting situations caused me to reach for the Z 6 and which shooting conditions caused me to reach for my existing DSLR cameras. It wasn’t a scientific test. I just wanted to test at a gut level which camera I preferred and why.
While this is not a full review of the Z 6, I will say that it was an excellent machine capable of carrying the load for most hybrid shooters. Good image quality. Solid EVF with limited blackout. But where the Z 6 really rose to the occasion was while shooting video. I enjoyed shooting video with it so much that I could realistically see using it, as opposed to my X-T3 or even C200 in some cases, to shoot my video projects.
On the flip side, I still preferred shooting stills with my DSLRs. I shot quite a bit with the Z 6, but after a month, I was still never convinced that I wouldn’t have preferred using my D850 or D750 for the same projects. That is, of course, a wholly subjective opinion. That opinion based largely on the fact that I found the D750 easier to hold given the size of my hands, and that try as I might, I still prefer optical viewfinders over electronic viewfinders. I would feel bad about that, but given the fact that 98% of Nikon’s market share is still centered around optical viewfinders, I am clearly not alone.
I mention that because I think it might be the key to unlocking a huge market segment for Nikon. In a recent article, I talked about what I was hoping to see in a future Z 8 or Z 9 camera from Nikon. In the article, I wished, admittedly in vain, that there would be a way to incorporate some kind of hybrid viewfinder into the Z 8 or Z 9, something akin to my Fuji X100S, where you could easily alternate between an optical viewfinder and an electronic one. I realize the mechanics of this would be unlikely, but it would be nice.
But the more I thought about the specs of the new D780, which would presumably be carried over to a D880, the more I realized that Nikon may have just found a way to give me my wish.
By building a DSLR with a mirror that allows me and other existing Nikon users who prefer an optical viewfinder to continue to shoot stills without having to use an EVF, the company is satisfying some of the ergonomic preferences of a large segment of its customer base. But, by incorporating the same video capabilities as the Z 6, those same users will be able to take advantage of the massive advantages mirrorless cameras have when it comes to video.
True, in order to access these advantages users will need to shoot using the rear LCD instead of looking through the viewfinder. But, since I generally shoot stills with my eye pressed to the viewfinder and video with my face away from the viewfinder and looking at the LCD, it really is the best of both worlds. It is essentially two cameras in one. Optical viewfinder DSLR when pressing my eye to the body to shoot stills. Mirrorless advancements like face detection, eye autofocus, and edge-to-edge focusing points when shooting video using the rear LCD.
It could be a perfect middle ground for an existing Nikon DSLR shooter who sees some of the benefits of mirrorless when it comes to video, but still prefers looking through an optical viewfinder to capture stills. That customer who still has a lot of legacy F mount glass and is not prepared to make the wholesale switch to mirrorless and buy all new Z mount glass can still partake in some of the advantages without having to completely overhaul their approach to gear.
Obviously, it’s not the complete overhaul of their entire customer base to mirrorless overnight that would allow it to compete with Sony, but it is a way to play to the company’s existing strengths while they are in the long process of building their own mirrorless line. And keep in mind, we all like to talk about how Sony is killing it in the mirrorless market. And that’s true. But, what is also true is that Sony has no presence at all in the DSLR market. And while it is clearly the less popular market of the two, it is still a very valuable market in 2020 and likely for some time to come.
Part of Nikon’s troubles are, of course, self inflicted. Quite simply, they’ve created a product that is simply too good. My D850 is three years old now, and I see no reason why it won't still be my main camera three years from now. The D800 I sold when I upgraded to the D850 would be turning eight years old right now, but honestly, were it to still be in my camera bag, I would have no hesitation pulling it out to shoot. I only recently bought my D750 despite it having been released five years ago, and I honestly see no reason why I won’t still have it five years from today, unless, of course, I trade it in to upgrade to the D780. DSLRs, regardless of the growth of mirrorless, will still be around for a while.
It’s understandable that Nikon and Canon need to keep up with Sony. Sony is the new kid on the block, and they are putting out terrific mirrorless cameras. But, of course, all Sony ever had were mirrorless cameras. They and Fuji were early to the mirrorless market, and their brand reputations are based solely on their mirrorless offerings. So, it makes sense that they would have a leg up in the mirrorless market and likely will continue to have a leg up for at least the next five years. That’s the advantage of creating a market versus joining one.
But Nikon and Canon have created a market of their own, the DSLR market. And that market, while it might be destined to fade over the long-term, should still be around for at least the next decade, until this redux of the roaring twenties gives way to 2030. During that time period, Nikon will continue to develop its mirrorless offerings and, I expect, eventually regain its place atop the market. But in the meantime, there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. They need to continue to grow, but they shouldn’t forget that they are not starting from square one. They have a firm foundation to build on. And the D780 feels like a step in the right direction.