Having trouble figuring out which Nikon dSLR is for you? Here's some advice to help you get started.
Editors' note:This story was originally published in a different form on March 20, 2014. The most recent update includes review-based recommendations for the D7200 and discussions about the D5 and D500.
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.
As an inexpensive entry point into dSLRs -- because it's an older model, the kit is pretty widely available for less than $400 (£260/AU$450) -- the D3200 kit with the 18-55mm lens is probably the best of the cheap models. As a gift, it makes a solid, safe choice. However, in the US the D5200 kit isn't much more expensive at around $410-$450; if you can find it for less or just a little more, it's a much better camera, so it's worth doing some price comparisons before you decide. Also, in Australia -- at least at the moment I'm writing this -- the newer D3300 kit is only about AU$50 more, so it's worth looking at there.
The current entry-level dSLR in Nikon's lineup, the D3300 runs about $450 (£310/AU$510) with the collapsible kit lens. It replaces the D5200 as the best overall Nikon value in the UK and Australia; even though it's a lower-end model I think its image quality and performance are good enough for most people, and it performs as well as the D5300. However, I don't enjoy shooting with it as much as the higher-end models. And in the US, the D5200 kit is a little less expensive than the D3300 at closer to $400.
Least expensive model that's nice to use and best US value: Nikon D5200
An older model, you can find the basic 18-55mm-lens kit for about $410 (£400/AU$550). At that price, 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 from a point-and-shoot. 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 $700(£490/AU$700), and it yields better image quality and slightly faster performance, but I still think that the D5200 kit is a comparatively better value in the US; in Australia and the UK, the D3300 looks like a better deal.
Best kit choice under $1,000: Nikon D5300 with 18-140mm lens
While it's not the best value, the Nikon D5300 kit with the 18-140mm f3.5-5.6 lens is the best overall choice under $1,000 (£695, AU$1,420) if you can afford its $900 (£600, AU$900) 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 $350 (£260/AU$300) plus the 18-140mm lens for about $400 (£200/AU$425) if you're cash-strapped and don't mind losing all the features. The D5300 with the 18-55mm VR II lens ($450, £310, AU$510) is also a better buy than the D5500 ($600, £450, AU$900 for the kit with the same lens) if you have big hands or don't miss the touchscreen and Wi-Fi.
Best modern Nikon for families under $1,000: Nikon D5500
The D5500 ($600/£450/AU$900 for the kit with the 18-55mm VR II lens) is very similar to its predecessor -- same video and photo quality and I suspect the same performance (I didn't have a D5300 in-house to retest with our new methodology). It's slightly smaller, and the redesigned grip may not be comfortable if you've got large hands.
I qualify this with "modern" because the old D5300 kit with the 18-140mm lens ( $900, £600, AU$900) is an overall better choice and very close in price to the D5500 with the same lens ($850, £550, AU$1,000) -- even cheaper in Australia. Plus, I don't like the 18-55mm VR II collapsible lens very much. However, if you feel the need to only buy current-generation products, the D5500 is a good choice.
Least expensive model for action shooting: Nikon D7100
The best choice for inexpensive action photography, the D7100 is a great camera, delivering better photo quality, performance, and improved weather sealing than its predecessor. 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 $800 (£580/AU$800) body-only price tag and opting for the D5300 18-140mm kit ($900, £600, AU$900). The newer D7200 (body $1,100, £700, AU$1,300) is almost the same camera with only minor updates -- the only important one is a better continuous-shooting buffer -- but a higher price.
It's hard to really differentiate the D7100 from the D7200: the D7200 has slightly improved photo quality and a deeper continuous-shooting buffer, which makes it a marginally better choice for dim light and long-burst photography. And it has a few updated features, including time-lapse movies. It's a good camera, just not a great buy at the moment. My suggestion here is to watch the price. It currently goes for $1,100 (£700, AU$1,300) for the body, and once the price drops by about $200 (£100, AU$400) -- or the price of the D7100 starts to rise -- then it will seem like a much better value.
The full-frame D610 competes with the more expensive D750, and the latter is a better camera in many ways. But if your budget's tight, this approximately $1,500 (£900/AU$1,900) body is worth the step up to full-frame from APS-C; it 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 D7200. 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. However, 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.
Working photographers on a budget and birders: Nikon D500
Though it costs the same as the full-frame D750 in the US and only a little bit more in Australia the recently announced APS-C-based D500 is a different beast. The D750 is really a general-purpose prosumer camera, but based on its price and specs, the $2,000 (£1,730, AU$3,000, body only) D500 really looks like a model designed to deliver "affordable" performance for those who need it -- despite Nikon's pitching it as an enthusiast camera. It's slated to be available in March.
With a great feature set, excellent performance, photo and video quality, plus a solid design and a now-lower price in the UK, the $2,000 (£1,400/AU$2,500) D750 earned an Editors' Choice Award for cameras between $1,800 and $3,000 (£1,250-£2,000, AU$2,150-AU$4,300). It has a lot of advantages compared to the more-expensive D810 and only a few drawbacks. If you have room in your budget, it's worth it over the D610, but you might also find it worth it to spend the difference on a better lens.
Although I haven't yet reviewed the D810, I have started my testing. While its filter-free sensor delivers sharper photos with somewhat better dynamic range, compared to the cheaper D750 the $3,000 camera (£2,400/AU$3,145) has only a few other advantages. It maxes out at one stop faster shutter speed (1/4,000 sec. vs. 1/8,000 sec.), and it has a higher flash sync of 1/200 vs. 1/250 sec.
Working action photographers on a tight budget: Nikon D4s
This now last-generation double-grip full-frame model is still great for sports shooting, but the D5 which replaces it has a lot of important enhancements: better continuous shooting, much updated autofocus system, 2 extra stops of ISO sensitivity in the native range and 2 in the expanded range and 4K video, to name a few. In the US it's not that much cheaper than the D5, either -- $6,000 to the D5's $6,500. In the UK and Australia, however, the price difference is enough to merit some thought, at £4,000 vs. £5,200 and AU$7,000 vs. AU$9,000, respectively. If you're really cash strapped, I suggest that you look for a used model since a lot of people will likely be selling them to buy a D5, and used pro cameras retain their value pretty well.
While I haven't tested it yet -- it won't ship until March -- I can't imagine that it will somehow be inferior to the D4s, and in fact, given its maximum native ISO 102400, I can't wait to see how its dynamic range compares to the D810. The D5 has the best Nikon autofocus and metering system specs to date, at 12fps it's the fastest Nikon as well, and it's the first Nikon to offer 4K video. You'll pay for the privilege, though at $6,500 (£5,200, AU$9,000). It comes in two models which differ by storage media: one with two CompactFlash slots and one with dual XQD slots, the fast but not widely supported media format introduced in 2010.