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Nikon nirvana: Which Nikon dSLR?

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

Lori Grunin
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Lori Grunin
1 of 13 Sarah Tew/CNET

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 D3400.

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 D5 and D810.

2 of 13 Sarah Tew/CNET

Cheapest kit: Nikon D3300

The last-generation entry-level dSLR in Nikon's lineup, the D3300's price has finally dropped below (or gotten very close to) that of the D3200, rendering the much older D3200 a forgettable option; with the older 18-55mm II kit lens the D3300 costs about $500 (£400, AU$500) or £370/AU$550 with the AF-P VR kit lens (I can't find the same kit in the US). Because old D5200's price has started the upward trend that indicates it's disappearing from the market, it's about $200 (£50, AU$150) to step up to a significantly better autofocus system in the D5300.

3 of 13 Sarah Tew/CNET

Best kit choice under $1,000: Nikon D5300 with 18-140mm lens

A much better value than it used to be, the Nikon D5300 kit with the 18-140mm f3.5-5.6 lens is the best overall choice under $1,000 (£815, AU$1,300) with a more affordable $700 (£630, AU$850) price, at least in the US and Australia. The body delivers better photo quality than all the cheaper cameras (and similar quality to the D7100/D7200), as well as a much broader feature set that includes GPS 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 D5300 with the 18-55mm VR II lens ($700, £450, AU$650) is also a better buy than the D5500 ($750, £540, AU$1,000) for the kit with the same lens if you have big hands or don't miss the touchscreen and Wi-Fi.

4 of 13 Sarah Tew/CNET

Best modern Nikon under $1,000 for families: Nikon D5500

The D5500 $750 (£540, AU$1,000) 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 $700 (£630, AU$850) is an overall better choice. 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.

5 of 13 Sarah Tew/CNET

Least expensive model for action shooting: Nikon D7100

The least expensive choice for 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 $700 (£560, AU$900) body-only price tag and opting for the D5300 18-140mm kit $700 (£630, AU$850. The newer D7200 (body $870, £700, AU$1,100) is almost the same camera with only minor updates -- the only important one is a better continuous-shooting buffer -- but a higher price.

6 of 13 Sarah Tew/CNET

Mainstream speed: Nikon D7200

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, and the price has finally dropped into great-buy territory at $870 for the body, at least in the US. It's still significantly more expensive than the D7100 in the UK and Australia, though (£700, AU$1,100).

7 of 13 Sarah Tew/CNET

Least expensive full-frame option: Nikon D610

The full-frame D610 competes with the more expensive D750 ($1,900, £1,700, AU$2,500), and the latter is a better camera in many ways. But if your budget's tight, this approximately $1,500 (£1,150, AU$1,800) 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.

8 of 13 Lori Grunin/CNET

Best value over $1,500: Nikon D750

With a great feature set, excellent performance, photo and video quality, plus a solid design, the D750 ($1,900, £1,700, AU$2,500) earned an Editors' Choice Award for general-purpose prosumer cameras under $2,000 (£1,635, AU$2,625). It has a lot of advantages compared to the more-expensive D810 ($2,800, £2,000, AU$3,200) and better photo quality than the D500 ($2,000, £1,650, AU$3000), but only a few drawbacks. If you have room in your budget, it's worth it over the D610 ($1,500, £1,150, AU$1,800), but you might also find it worth it to spend the difference on a better lens.

9 of 13 Sarah Tew/CNET

Best for action under $2,000

Though it costs more than the full-frame D750 ($1,900, £1,700, AU$2,500) the APS-C-based D500 ($2,000, £1,650, AU$3000) is a different beast. The D750 is really a general-purpose prosumer camera, while the D500 is best suited as a camera for shooting action and manually focused 4K video, making it the best choice for big-budgeted bird and sports prosumer photographers and action-shooting pros on a really tight budget. It's fast, with excellent autofocus and great photo quality (for APS-C). The 4K video quality is excellent, but the autofocus in video isn't great.

10 of 13 Sarah Tew/CNET

Best photo and video quality: Nikon D810

Although I haven't reviewed the D810, I have tested it. While its filter-free sensor delivers sharper photos with better dynamic range, compared to the cheaper D750 the $2,800 camera (£2,000, AU$3,200) 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.

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For astrophotography enthusiasts: D810A

It's a bit of a niche, but the D810A ($3,800, £2,900, AU$4,500) is a version of the top-of-the-line D810 optimized for astrophotography with an IR cut filter and some expanded features.

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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, two extra stops of ISO sensitivity in the native range and two in the expanded range and 4K video, to name a few. The price isn't as low as it had been earlier this year, but at $5,000 (£4,200, AU$7,000), it's still a good buy if you can't afford the D5 ($6,500, £5,400, AU$7,000 for the CompactFlash version) -- at least in the US and UK.

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.

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Best for working action photographers: D5

While I haven't finished testing it yet, I the D5 has the best Nikon autofocus and metering system specs to date, at 12fps it's the fastest Nikon as well (though the typical continuous-shooting speed is 10fps and it only hits 12fps under specific circumstances), and it's the first Nikon to offer 4K video. You'll pay for the privilege, though at $6,500, £5,400, AU$7,000 for the CompactFlash version. 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.

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