Editors' note:This story was originally
published in a different form on March 20, 2014. It has been updated to
include my review of the D750 plus a discussion of the D810.
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
As an inexpensive entry point into dSLRs -- because it's an older model, the kit is widely available for less than $500 (£400/AU$600) -- the D3200 is probably the best of the cheap models. As a gift, it makes a solid, safe choice.
However, the older D5100 kit can now be found for less than $500 (£450, $AU500 for just the body) as well, and it's a much better camera, so it's worth doing some price comparisons before you decide.
The newest entry-level dSLR in Nikon's lineup, the D3300 runs about $550 (£380/AU$700) 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's, and it performs as well as the D5300. However, I don't enjoy shooting with it as much as the higher-end models.
Better than entry-level for tight budgets: Nikon D5100
It has better photo quality than than the D3200 for about the same just-under $500 price for the kit (£450/less than AU$500 for the body only), especially at midrange ISO sensitivities. Andit 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.
Least expensive model that's nice to use: Nikon D5200
An older model, you can find the basic kit for less than $600 (less than £500/AU$900). 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 $900 (£570/AU$1,000), and it yields better image quality and slightly faster performance, but I still think that the D5200 kit is a comparatively better value.
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 $1,500 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 (£350/AU$550) plus the 18-140mm lens for about $330 (£350; hard to find in Australia) if you're cash-strapped and don't mind losing all the features.
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 $1,000 (£770/AU$1,250) body-only price tag and opting for the D5300. And while there are a few tradeoffs, if you're really price sensitive the D7000 is still around at $700 (£580/AU$850) for the body.
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 (£1,130/AU$2,100) 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 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. 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.
With a great feature set, excellent performance, photo and video quality, plus a solid design, the $2,300 (£1,800/approximately AU$1,600) D750 earned an Editors' Choice for cameras between $1,800 and $3,000 (£1,300 to £2,300, AU$2,000 to AU$3,400). It has a lot of advantages compared to the more-expensive D810 and only a few drawbacks.
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 $3,300 camera (£2,400/AU$3800) 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.