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. It has been updated to include review-based recommendations for the D5500.
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 widely available for less than $450 (£300/AU$485) -- the D3200 is probably the best of the cheap models. As a gift, it makes a solid, safe choice. The older D5100 kit has finally priced itself out of being a good alternative, but 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 D3300 is only about AU$25 more, so that's worth looking at for those folks.
The newest entry-level dSLR in Nikon's lineup, the D3300 runs about $500 (£390/AU$510) 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.
Least expensive model that's nice to use: Nikon D5200
An older model, you can find the basic kit for about $550 (£430/AU$680). 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 $750 (£550/AU$680), 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 and the UK; in Australia, the D5300 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 (£654, AU$1,305) if you can afford its $950 (£760, AU$1,105) 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 (£350/AU$470) plus the 18-140mm lens for about $500 (£460/AU$425) if you're cash-strapped and don't mind losing all the features. The D5300 is also a better buy than the D5500 ($750/£550/AU$680 for the kit with the 18-55mm VR II lens) ) if you have big hands or don't miss the touchscreen and Wi-Fi.
The D5500 ($750/£550/AU$680 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 is an overall better choice and less expensive than the D5500 paired up individually with the same lens; I can't find the two offered in a kit together anywhere, but that may change over time. 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 $900 (£750/AU$935) body-only price tag and opting for the D5300 18-140mm kit ($950, £654, AU$1,105).
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 (£1,200/AU$1,615) 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 and a now-lower price in the US and Australia, the $2,000 (£1,500/AU$2,040) D750 earned an Editors' Choice for cameras between $1,800 and $3,000. 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 $3,000 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.