Nikon Nirvana: Which Nikon dSLR? (roundup)

Having trouble figuring out which Nikon dSLR is for you? Here's some advice to help you get started.

Editors' note: This story has been updated to include my review of the D3300.

Not everyone approaches the dSLR buying decision as a tabula rasa choice. If you've already chosen Nikon -- whether it's because you already have some lenses, your friends are enamored of the brand, or you simply have had good experiences with the company's point-and-shoots -- here's some help selecting the right dSLR model.

On a general note, if your budget is tight, and unless there's a specific feature or performance level you need from a particular model, it's usually a good idea to save money on the body and spend it on a better lens.

Still to come: The Nikon D4S.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Nikon D3200
If you're on a tight budget or need a newbie-friendly first dSLR, Nikon has three similar models still available, though they're all pretty frills-free. The older D3100 (kit less than $400) is a bit cheaper, but for less than $500 -- sometimes a lot less -- the newer D3200 isn't much more expensive. It's faster, which makes it more suitable for photographing active kids and animals, though I don't think the higher-resolution sensor produces photos that are visibly better than the D3100's if that's all that matters to you and you can't afford the extra bucks. However, the older D5100 kit can now be found for less than $500 as well, and it's a much better camera, so it's worth doing some price comparisons before you decide.
Read the full review of the D3200.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Nikon D3300
The newest entry-level dSLR in Nikon's lineup, the D3300 runs about $650 with the collapsible kit lens. It replaces the D5200 as the best overall Nikon value; even though it's a lower-end model I think its image quality and performance are better than the D5100, and it performs as well as the D5300. However, I don't enjoy shooting with it as much as the higher end models.
Read the full review.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Nikon D5100
If you want better photo quality than the entry-level models for a lot less money, opt for the D5100 (kit $400-$500). It has better photo quality than than the D3200, especially at midrange ISO sensitivities, plus it has a broader feature set that includes exposure bracketing and a flip-down-and-twist LCD. It's not as fast as the D3200 or D3300, which may complicate your decision a bit, but it's not so much slower that I think you'd really notice.
Read the full review of the D5100.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Nikon D5200
The D5200 is the least expensive model that delivers a good shooting experience. At about $650 - $750 for the kit, it's a great camera that should serve the needs of most folks who want a camera that's fast enough to keep up with the kids and capable of producing photos with the quality you're looking for in a dSLR upgrade. The D3300 delivers modestly better performance and photo quality for the same money, but the D5200 has a better viewfinder and an articulated display. The "unauthorized" D5300 kit with the same 18-55mm lens seems to run about $900, and it yields better image quality and slightly faster performance, but I still think that the D5200 kit is a comparatively better value.
Read the full review of the D5200.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Nikon D5300
While it's not the best value, the Nikon D5300 with the newer 18-140mm f3.5-5.6 lens is the best overall choice if you can afford its $1,100 price tag. The body delivers better photo quality than the D5200 (and similar quality to the D7100), as well as a much broader feature set that includes GPS and Wi-Fi, plus slightly better performance. While the lens is technically still pretty slow, it covers a much broader range and is a lot more flexible -- especially if you only plan to use one lens. The much cheaper D3300 provides similar photo quality and performance, and you can get the body-only version of that for about $480 plus the 18-140mm lens for about $330 if you're cash-strapped and don't mind losing all the features.
Read the full review of the D5300.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Nikon D7100
It took three years, but Nikon finally announced a replacement for the D7000, a long-time Editors' Choice, and is the best choice for inexpensive action photography. It's a great camera, delivering better photo quality, performance, and improved weather sealing. That said, folks who don't need the build quality or the extra continuous-shooting speed might be better saving some money over the D7100's $1,100 body-only price tag and opting for the D5300. And while there a few tradeoffs, if you're really price sensitive the D7000 is still around at $700-$900 for the body.
Read the full review of the D7100.


Sarah Tew/CNET


Nikon D300s
The D300s has also slipped into the realm of wait-and-see models. It's almost 5 years old and the D7100 delivers a lot of what the D300s does for a lower price -- the natural progression of technology.
Read the full review of the D300s.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Nikon D610
Nikon's best enthusiast model, the full-frame D610 is more of a step up from the D7100 than a step down from the D800. The D700 remains a solid camera, especially if you can find it really cheap used; new models are at the point in the cycle where retailers are charging far above list price for them. But the D610 (body only, $1,900 is sufficiently better, faster, and more feature-packed. With the step up to full-frame, the D610 gives you access to a larger selection of wide-angle focal lengths (no crop factor) and extremely shallow depth of field in situations where it might not be attainable with an APS-C camera. The trade-off is that decent lenses are more expensive for this model than for the D7100. While the D610 supports both DX (APS-C) and FX (full-frame) lenses, to get the most out of this camera you need to use more upscale glass. The only difference between the D610 and its predecessor the D600 is a new shutter mechanism which enables a couple of new features, but the D600 had some issues with dust and oil on the sensor that you might not think are worth the risk just to save a couple hundred dollars on the older model.
Read the full review.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Nikon D800
If you want the best photo and video quality currently available in the Nikon line, this is your dSLR (body only, about $3,000). It has a more rugged build quality than the D600 (though it's probably not tougher than the D300s) and broader tonal range, as well as features targeted at the professional photographer, such as a CompactFlash slot and more sophisticated and sensitive autofocus and metering systems. It also comes in a version without an optical low-pass filter, the D800E, which seems to range in price from $3,000 to $3,500.

The D3X, formerly Nikon's highest-resolution full-frame model, remains in Nikon's product line at the now-inexplicably-high street price of almost $7,000, though I can't think of any reason to buy it over the D800, unless you really want that built-in vertical grip (instead of an add-on) or want the highest resolution you can get with an extra frame per second of continuous-shooting speed.
Read the full review of the D800.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Nikon D4
If you need the best-performing, most rugged full-frame body in Nikon's line, you're going to have to shell out for the D4 (body only, about $6,000). Though it's not as high-resolution as the D800 and I like the video better from the D800, the D4 has an edge in its noise profile for the middle-to-high ISO sensitivities, plus extremely fast continuous-shooting performance. It's also got a boatload of connectivity features enabled by the addition of an Ethernet connector. It's recently been replaced by the $6,449.95 D4S which doesn't really blow the D4 away unless you need the improved tracking AF performance and better high ISO sensitivity results.
Read the full review of the D4.

Read the full CNET Review

Nikon D7000 (with 18-105mm lens)

The Bottom Line: An excellent dSLR for experienced shooters or Nikon professionals looking for a relatively cheap option, the Nikon D7000 delivers on almost all counts, including the company's best shooting design to date. / Read full review

Read the full CNET Review

Nikon D5300 (with 18-140mm Lens)

The Bottom Line: The Nikon D5300 is a great choice as a general-purpose dSLR. / Read full review

Read the full CNET Review

Nikon D3200 (with 18-55mm VR lens, Black)

The Bottom Line: A solid if unexceptional entry-level dSLR, the Nikon D3200 should still please most folks looking for an upgrade from their point-and-shoots. / Read full review

Read the full CNET Review

Nikon D600 (with 24-85mm lens)

The Bottom Line: The Nikon D600 is a really good camera for the money, as long as you're willing to shell out for the lenses that can do it justice. / Read full review

Read the full CNET Review

Nikon D800 (Body Only)

The Bottom Line: An unsurprisingly great camera that's worth every penny of its higher price for its target market of professional nonsports photographers, the Nikon D800 should definitely please those who've been waiting patiently to replace their older Nikon equipment. / Read full review

Read the full CNET Review

Nikon D7100 (Body Only)

The Bottom Line: While it's still a great prosumer dSLR, the D7100 may only be worth the extra cash if you need a faster Nikon right now. / Read full review

Read the full CNET Review

Nikon D4 (Body Only)

The Bottom Line: For Nikon devotees looking for the fastest body available, the D4 delivers. / Read full review

Read the full CNET Review

Nikon D300s (Body Only)

The Bottom Line: The Nikon D300s is a great camera, especially if you need the burst speed or slightly improved low-light focus, but if you don't care about video you might consider looking for a really good deal on a D300 and using what you save to splurge on a good lens. / Read full review

Read the full CNET Review

Nikon D5100 (with 18-55mm VR lens)

The Bottom Line: Though it doesn't rank first based on any individual aspect of the camera, the Nikon D5100 delivers a solid combination of image quality, performance, features, and design that puts it out in front if you're looking for a well-rounded option under $1,000. / Read full review

Read the full CNET Review

Nikon D5200 (with 18-55mm lens, Black)

The Bottom Line: The Nikon D5200 makes a great choice for family and vacation photographers. / Read full review

About the author

Lori Grunin is a senior editor for CNET Reviews, covering cameras, camcorders, and related accessories. She's been writing about and reviewing consumer technology and software since 1988.

 

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