Although I called this article Why DX has no future, I believe it applies to all cropped sensor DSLR cameras, not just Nikon. Earlier in 2012, I wrote an article called “The Future of Digital Cameras“, where I shared my thoughts on what I think will happen with DSLR, mirrorless, and other camera technologies within the next few years. One of the main points of the article was my opinion on DSLRs and why I think they are here to stay for a long time. I did not clarify what I meant by DSLRs, because the DSLR technology defines how the camera works, not what type of sensor or features it has.
As I am sure you already know, DSLRs today come in different sensor sizes. There are expensive, pro-level DSLRs with full-frame sensors equivalent to 35mm film in size, as well as cheaper DSLRs with much smaller sensors (about twice smaller in size than 35mm, generally referred to as “APS-C”). Historically, DSLR manufacturers have been producing APS-C cropped-sensor cameras for three main reasons: lower cost, smaller size, and lower weight. The smaller size of the sensor meant that the camera’s internal components such as the reflex mirror could also be made smaller and the entire frame of the lens did not have to be used, making cropped-sensor DSLRs and lenses lighter, more affordable, and a little more compact in comparison (see my DX vs FX article).
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The End of the Small Compact and the Rise of the Mirrorless
With personal computing making its way to phones and tablets, instantly reaching millions of people, the message has been clear – people want smaller and more capable devices. This change in consumer behavior is very obvious. If just a couple of years ago the general population was carrying compact digital cameras to capture their everyday moments, now most people just resort to smartphones with built-in cameras. We live in a very connected world today and people are willing to give up a little on quality, as long as they are able to instantly share a picture or video with friends and relatives. They do not want to carry multiple devices – convenience has become hugely important. That’s what has been shattering the compact camera market for some time now and as I have previously pointed out, I believe the small sensor compact market will pretty much disappear within the next few years.
At the same time, the relatively low cost of advanced digital cameras, along with increased online presence via blogs, Internet forums, and social media have spiked up general interest in photography. People want to create more appealing pictures that look better than what smartphones can deliver. Many, however, are not willing to live with the large size, heft, and bulk of DSLR cameras, which gave rise to the mirrorless interchangeable-lens market.
With the increased popularity and tense competition between manufacturers, the mirrorless market has been rapidly expanding during the last few years, resulting in a number of mirrorless camera systems from every major manufacturer. The last two years have seen a flood of mirrorless offerings and it seems like the product line is quickly getting bigger every year, with new lenses and accessories making their way to the market. Micro Four Thirds, being the oldest and the most popular mirrorless system today, uses sensors with a 2.0x crop factor and has the largest choice of lenses. Sony and Samsung entered the mirrorless market in 2010 after Ricoh with APS-C sized sensors (1.5x crop factor). Nikon, Fuji, Pentax and Canon were the last big names to introduce their mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras within the last year. While Fuji, Pentax and Canon chose to use APS-C sensors as well, Nikon did not want to cannibalize its entry-level DSLR cameras, so it chose to use a much smaller sensor with a 2.7x crop factor on its Nikon 1 system (which I believe was a huge mistake). Long story short, everyone wants to be in the mirrorless market, and most companies seem to be settling on bigger, APS-C sized sensors that have been traditionally used in DSLR cameras.
APS-C Mirrorless to replace APS-C DSLR
With mirrorless cameras producing superb image quality that matches or even surpasses some of the current APS-C DSLR offerings, DSLRs have fewer and fewer advantages to offer to compensate for their large size and bulk (lack of high-quality APS-C lenses are forcing photographers to buy full-frame lenses, which are heavier, bigger and pricier). High-resolution electronic viewfinders look very impressive, making analog viewfinders in DSLRs look ancient. Autofocus performance has been getting better and better year after year, especially with hybrid AF systems using both contrast and phase-detection AF. Lens selection is growing rapidly. Processors and memory are getting faster and beefier. Very soon we will be seeing wireless connectivity options. I believe all this will eventually result in mirrorless pretty much taking over the small sensor APS-C DSLR market, just like the phones are taking over small sensor compact cameras. And since entry-level DSLRs and lenses account for the majority of the total sales in the DSLR arena, this would take a huge chunk away from the overall DSLR market share. Japan has already seen mirrorless surpass DSLR sales and I believe this drastic change is coming to the rest of the world pretty soon.
The end of high-end DX?
With Nikon’s introduction of the cheaper full-frame Nikon D600, it makes little sense to keep a high-end DX camera like Nikon D300s in production. We might see one more high-end DX camera like the Nikon D400 soon, but I doubt we will see any more high-end DX cameras in the future. The cost of full-frame sensors has decreased dramatically over the last few years and it is pretty clear that a budget FX camera would compete head to head with a high-end DX camera. Would you choose a faster DX camera with more features over an FX camera with far better image quality? I don’t think so, not unless the high-end DX camera is significantly cheaper than the low-end FX and has significantly more features in comparison. And Nikon is not the only one to do this – Canon is doing the same with a full-frame EOS 6D.
Both Nikon and Canon know very well that people most likely will not spend thousands of dollars on a small sensor DSLR anymore. However, given that entry and mid-level DSLRs still have a cost advantage over mirrorless for now, both will aggressively continue to push more cropped-sensor DSLRs into the market. As I have already said, I doubt these will be high-end APS-C DSLRs, but we will surely see more entry-level and mid-level DSLRs like Nikon D7000 introduced in the next few years – until mirrorless completely takes over the APS-C DSLR market.
DX for sports and wildlife photography
Many sports and wildlife photographers prefer to shoot with DX, because it gives them better “reach”. They like the faster FPS speeds and robust AF – two important features we only see in the top-of-the-line DSLRs like Nikon D4 today. Unfortunately, I do not think Nikon wants to keep these folks in consideration, not for long. I think Nikon’s general stance on this situation is “sports and wildlife folks often shoot with expensive telephoto lenses, so they should be able to afford high-end camera bodies”. At the same time, DSLRs like Nikon D7000 have gotten much faster and better, so Nikon might be just bringing those high-end features to cheaper mid-level cameras, instead of trying to sell an expensive APS-C camera body.
Full-frame DSLR is here to stay
When Nikon introduced the D700, I sold my D300 and all of my DX lenses. I made the switch. I tried to go back to DX a couple of times afterward (when testing new DX cameras), but I was already spoiled and it was hard to go back to a smaller sensor. If you have shot with FX and DX (or still shoot with both), you know exactly what I mean. DX just cannot compete with FX, period. Tones, colors, ISO performance, dynamic range, depth of field, and bigger viewfinder – a number of factors that draw the line between APS-C and full-frame. This difference in sensor size will always be there, just like the difference between full-frame and medium format.
Mirrorless cameras will most likely shatter the APS-C DSLR market in the long run, but I believe they will do little to harm to the full-frame market. Even if we see full-frame mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras soon (Sony is rumored to announce one fairly soon), it would require a different lens mount and a whole new set of lenses for full-frame mirrorless. No matter how fast everyone tries, it will take a long time to catch up with what full-frame has to offer today. At the same time, Nikon can keep the flange distance the same and simply remove the mirror on full-frame DSLRs, essentially making a mirrorless full-frame. So if that happens, the DSLR technology will disappear, but the mount and the lens selection will be the same. So as far as Nikon is concerned, full-frame cameras will most likely continue to evolve, with or without the mirror.
During my workshop past weekend, the group inevitably spoke about camera gear during the breaks. Mirrorless was a big part of the gear talk. After a short discussion, I expressed my thoughts on DX cameras and lenses and gave my recommendation to stay away from purchasing DX lenses. Some of the workshop participants were quite surprised by what I said, but they took it quite well after I told them why. As many of you already know, aside from the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G DX and a couple of other low-cost/high-quality DX lenses, I rarely recommend purchasing DX lenses to our readers (especially purchasing expensive lenses like Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8G DX). Maybe because I did not have much faith in DX to start with, or maybe I expected this to happen one day…
No matter how many lenses like Nikon 18-300mm we will see in the near future, I simply do not see the DX market growing. Definitely not after full-frame goes mainstream with the D600 and future cheaper FX DSLR cameras.
I could be wrong – only time will tell.