The Coming Platform Discontinuations

One of the on-going discussions I see—and the subject of much angst in my In Box—is that of anticipated platform discontinuations. 

Technology moves incessantly onward, so it's easy enough to predict that today's state-of-the-art camera will be superseded by tomorrow's. My advice has long been consistent to those trying to keep up with such on-going updating: buy every second generation, not every generation. It's rare that I advise otherwise (takes a remarkable breakthrough product, basically). 

The problem comes when a platform looks like it will be superseded by a new one, meaning all the cameras in the platform are likely to go away. Several such platforms exist today:

  • Canon M — The new RF-S cameras and lenses seem to indicate that Canon has figured out that they need to match Nikon and Sony in offering their new mirrorless lenses to fit on both crop sensor and full frame bodies. The last M update—the very mild M50 Mark II—happened in October 2020, and the last new M lens was in 2018. By all appearances, Canon is no longer updating the M line.
  • Canon EF-S — The crop sensor DSLRs last got an update in February 2020, and the last new EF-S lens dates all the way back to 2017. As with M, it looks that Canon is no longer updating the EF-S lineup.
  • Canon EF — A trickier proposition, though the last new EF lenses were back in 2018. However, those lenses were updates to serious, pro optics, and 1DX Mark III appeared in 2020. Many of Canon's Cinema series still use EF optics, too. All of the Canon full frame EF camera line is still available, and while a number of EF lenses have been discontinued, plenty of options still exist to buy new ones.
  • Nikon F-mount DX — Nikon's last crop sensor DSLR body update was in 2018, and a relatively minor one at that (mostly centered on cutting out costs). Plus we have to go all the way back to 2016 to find the most recent DX F-mount lens introduction. Nikon's been quietly phasing out F-mount DX lenses, so the choices available today are relatively weak. It seems clear that Nikon made the choice to put DX DSLRs to pasture some time ago.
  • Nikon F-mount FX — A much different story than the above platforms, though still one that sparks caution among many: Nikon put out the D780 in 2020 and the D6 in 2019, which is more "DSLR activity" than any of the competition. Moreover, the five-year old D850 still is a solid all-around camera choice, which shows just how much ahead of the pack it was when launched. The current FX camera lineup of D780, D850, and D6 is a very solid one. The last F-mount lens was the 120-300mm f/2.8E in 2020, a spectacular and versatile lens that every mirrorless lens mount is jealous of. Ditto 2018's 500mm f/5.6E PF and 180-400mm f/4E. Yes, Nikon's been removing older and poorly selling F-mount lenses from the lineup, but the lens lineup is still pretty robust as I write this. Still, the Z9 and the onslaught of Z-mount lenses in the last three years says that the DSLR FX platform probably isn't long in the legs.

Those five platforms represent tens of millions of units in the "active" installed base. I put "active" in quotes because the definitions for that in the industry vary considerably. Did you use your camera once this year? Every month? Constantly? Just how much time are these cameras in these platforms spending in the closet, and why, is an important question for Canon and Nikon to answer, because it dictates how they go about trying to transition their user base via marketing.

Despite the "death is near" vibes for these five platforms, can a case be made for buying into one of them today? 

Absolutely. Consider:

  • Canon M — Really small bodies and lenses. The new RF APS-C cameras can't match the pocketability of the M's. And the M6 Mark II's sensor is pretty APS-C state-of-the-art. Hard to top the M6 Mark II with a couple of well-chosen lenses for portability.
  • Canon EF — The 1DX Mark III and 5D Mark IV remain excellent, pro-level products. The existing base of EF lenses will take you anywhere you need to go, and you might be able to save money by dipping into the used market for them.
  • Nikon F-mount DX — The D500 is still, as I write this, the best all-around APS-C sensor camera you can buy, though it's hold on that title is now nebulous. The D7500 is a very competent smaller brother to the D500. And the D3500 may have been the best APS-C entry camera ever made. The lens situation, however, is getting grim.
  • Nikon F-mount FX — As noted above, this is the platform that seems like it has the longest legs of these soon-to-be-discontinued ones. Three solid bodies, plenty of still available lenses (plus more in the used market).

But the angst I see from readers is real. "Is it advisable to buy into one of these platforms?" they ask. 

Here's my answer: yes if your window of use for the product is five years or less. A D850 at US$2500 is a strong deal for a very good camera that's tough to top with other brands/platforms. You'd have a real difficult time finding a better camera for that money (and buying a camera in a different platform might make you have to re-invest in lenses). 

Why the five years caveat?

Simple: repairability. The worst case scenario is basically this: camera makers will repair equipment for up to about 7 years after they cease production, due (mostly) to California warranty and merchantability laws. Own a D800? Guess what, NikonUSA no longer repairs them. Heck, they won't even do a maintenance and cleaning of them except under extraordinary circumstances. That's because they stopped making the D800 back in 2015 (or maybe 2014, hard to pinpoint the exact date). 

So let's take that US$2500 Nikon D850 you might buy today. Divide by 5. That means you effectively are buying a camera for US$500 payments each of the next five years. And it can be repaired if you drop it, or fixed if it stops working. Try to stretch that out to 10 years, and suddenly you can't guarantee that you can get it repaired during your use lifetime. (Aside: I'd strongly suggest that D800/D800E users consider a D850 upgrade at this point. That would be a big improvement in capability and handling that should net you another five years of satisfaction.)

My 5 year mark is a little arbitrary, but safe. 

So here's how you evaluate whether to invest in a new goodie in one of those five to-be-discontinued platforms: if you believe you can get five years of use out of it and the price is right, go for it. If you don't think you'll get five years of life out of it, or the price is too high, don't buy it. Simple as that. (Note that prices might drop come next holiday season, or maybe even the up-coming Father's Day, assuming the supply chain loosens a bit.)

And yes, the same applies to any new platform you think you might transition to: you really need to believe that a big investment in a new state-of-the-art camera and lenses is going to get you through five years of active use. Remember my every-other-update policy? Well, the most aggressive of the makers tend to hit that mark every four years, and most within five, so you'll see that my advice lines up.

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