Editor’s note: This story was originally published on May 8, 2012 and has been updated to include the D3200.
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 you make your decision, keep in mind that two models are ready for replacement: the D5100, which is now over a year old, and the D300s, which has been around for more than 2.5 years. I wouldn’t be surprised if we heard about a D5200 by the end of the summer and a D400 just before this year’s big Photokina show in mid-September.
Also, rumors have surfaced of a D600, a cheapish full-frame model using an Aptina Imaging sensor — that’s what’s in the Nikon 1 series of mirrorless ILCs — rather than the Sony-produced sensor used by the D800. If they’re true, I’d suspect a Photokina announcement for this, too, but I’m not sure the world needs a cut-rate full-frame camera.
Reviews still to come: Nikon D4.
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 frill-free. The D3000 (kit about $475) is the cheapest choice and is still widely available, though it looks like its finally beginning to disappear from the market. For the cheapest model with video, the D3100 (kit about $549) adds that to the D3000 for about $150 over the D3000’s price. The newer D3200 isn’t much more expensive than the D3100, however. It’s faster than the older models, which makes it more suitable for photographing active kids and animals, but I don’t think the higher-resolution sensor produces photos that are visibly better than the D3100’s. Read the full review of the D3200.
Nikon D5100 If you want better photo quality, however, opt for the D5100 (kit about $699). 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, which may complicate your decision a bit, but it’s not so much slower that I think you’d really notice. Keep an eye on this one, as it’s ripe for a 2012 refresh and the price may drop. Read the full review of the D5100.
Nikon D7000 For the best Nikon value, the D7000 (body only about $1,199) delivers the most bang for an admittedly not-inconsiderable amount of bucks. If you’re willing to shell out a little over $1,000, though, you get excellent photo quality, D300s-level performance for all but continuous shooting, and Nikon’s best dSLR design. It doesn’t have the build quality of the D300s, but it’s pretty well-constructed nonetheless.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Nikon D300s If you need pro-level continuous shooting but can’t afford the D4, and don’t need the lens compatibility or wide-angle flexibility of a full-frame model, the D300s (body only about $1,599) offers a few advantages over the lower-end models. It’s better constructed, with a dust-and-weather-sealed body, and provides a more sophisticated 51-point AF system. Its burst performance outpaces the D7000’s as well. Keep in mind, though, that we’re hoping to see a D400 announcement by fall 2012, which would change the dynamic in this price class. Read the full review of the D300s.
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). The D700 (body only about $2,199) remains a solid camera, but the D800 is sufficiently better, faster (at least for noncontinuous shooting), and more feature-packed that you really are sacrificing to save the $800. With the step up to full-frame, the D800 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. Plus it has a more rugged build quality than the D700, though it’s probably not tougher than the D300s. A few complaints have surfaced about the D800, such as inconsistent viewfinder autofocus and intermittent freezing, which Nikon has acknowledged, but I didn’t experience them personally. Those aren’t trivial problems if you encounter them, though, so you might want to wait a bit before ordering.
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.
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 from what I’ve seen of the photo and video quality it’s not quite up to that camera’s standard, the D4 still looks like it delivers excellent results, with better continuous-shooting performance and a sturdier build quality. Read CNET Australia’s full review of the D4.
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