Which Nikon DSLR to Buy First

Even though quite a few of our readers are beginner photographers, we often talk about things that, while simple to us, are much more difficult to understand for those with less experience and knowledge. That is why we strive to share our experience as someone shared theirs with us when we were just starting. The most difficult part for us is not the writing itself, however – mind you, we aren’t holding anything back. The most difficult part is becoming the beginner again so as to remember all the questions we had when we started. Make no mistake, we’ve had plenty of those. I, too, didn’t know what aperture and shutter speed was. I, too, had a hard time getting to know my gear in such a way I would be able to get quality results from it. I remember the painful transition from being a photography theoretician, an arm-chair expert, to one who uses his technical knowledge without thinking about it for the sake of photography, not comparisons and pixel-peeping. Thank goodness that part of my life didn’t last more than a few days. But before any of these questions came to my mind, I, too, had to make what seemed like the most difficult choice of all at the time. The first one, the one that gave way to all the other questions that followed and follow to this day. Where to start? Which camera to buy first?

Your first camera is not just a piece of equipment. It’s your entry into photography world. The “buy-the-most-expensive” logic doesn’t work here even if you have the means to do so. You have to get it right. Your first camera has to be “just enough”. It will either be too difficult, too heavy, too mind-boggling with all the functions, or too dull and alien. It may turn you to another system, or from photography altogether. Or it will fit you like a glove and lead you down the path of learning everything, and then learning, again, of what’s actually important. So, lets start from the start. In this “Which Nikon DSLR to Buy First?” article, I will introduce you to several Nikon DSLRs – you will not find the best camera here, as there isn’t such a thing. But, hopefully, you will find the best camera for you as a beginner photographer, one you are going to learn with and love for years to come.

1) What is a DSLR?

DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras are cameras with removable lenses and mirrors used to direct light from the lens to an optical viewfinder. Typically, DSLRs are much bigger and heavier than any point-and-shoot camera, and are capable of delivering incomparably superior technical image quality under varying lighting conditions, especially in lower light. In their design, they remain virtually unchanged from old film cameras with removable lenses, which were called SLRs. The biggest difference is that film used in old cameras has been replaced with electronic sensors that capture light.

Here are the basic elements of a DSLR (image courtesy of Wikipedia):

  1. Lens
  2. Reflex mirror
  3. Shutter
  4. Image sensor
  5. Matte focusing screen
  6. Condenser lens
  7. Pentaprism
  8. Eyepiece/Viewfinder

Here lies another important difference between these expensive, large cameras and their compact, take-anywhere siblings – sensor size. The bigger the sensor, the better technical image quality is potentially possible to achieve. Nikon DSLR cameras have two sensor sizes. One, the more common and popular, is APS-C sized sensor (crop-sized), which measures approximately 23.5 x 15.6 mm in dimensions. The more expensive cameras meant for advanced users with more demanding needs have larger sensors, called full-frame (FF in short) or FX. These sensors measure approximately 36 x 24 mm and are more or less equal in size to 35mm film used in old analogue cameras (hence the “full-frame” term). Compare that to compact camera sensor size, which can measure 7.44 x 5.58 mm or even less. Large sensors are much more expensive to manufacture. Because of that, cheapest current full-frame cameras cost around $2000, while cheapest APS-C cameras may cost three or four times less.

Read our “What is a DSLR?” and “Nikon DX vs FX” articles to find out more, or see how they compare to compact cameras.

2) Why Would Someone Buy a DSLR?

This question has become much more valid over the last three years or so. If not so long ago DSLR was an obvious step forward for any aspiring point-and-shoot user, today entry-level cameras are fiercely rivaled by mirrorless cameras. But the battle is not lost. So far, many aspects of a well-established DSLR system make it much more mature in terms of lens choice in new and used markets. The wide array of lenses mean a DSLR can be used for any kind of photographic task. Also, most DSLR systems (with the exception of Pentax) have room to “grow”. In other words, they offer cameras with bigger sensors, but same lens mounts, and give the choice of upgrading to a more serious piece of gear in the future should such a need arise.

3) In Search for Your First Nikon

Further on, I will introduce you to several Nikon DSLR cameras. All of them are, to an extent, suitable for very serious work – they all employ swift autofocus systems and near state-of-the-art sensors as well as plenty of other functions, such as HD video. At the same time they are suitable as DSLR entry options because, while still entirely different to any compact camera in their complexity, are sufficiently simple to use and learn with. The question is not whether the camera is good – in general, all current DSLR cameras are good. The question is which one of these is better for you.

  • Nikon D3200

    Nikon D40, first in this segment of Nikon cameras, was a huge success. From a technical standpoint, it wasn’t a very advanced camera even when introduced in 2006. It had an old-ish 6 megapixel image sensor, when 10+ megapixel sensors were expected. Even so, many found it to be so good at what it did, there was hardly a better camera with just enough features. Keyword here’s just enough. I remember owning this camera, and I remember loving it despite also owning “better” gear. It’s newest successor, launched only a short while ago, improves on the same philosophy.

    From first glance, D3200 is an entirely different beast. It features a very well-received 24 megapixel APS-C sensor also found in several high-end cameras, has great video specifications and up to 4 frames per second shooting speed, which is plenty for any beginner. But the basic idea behind it hasn’t really changed – it’s small, lightweight and very easy to use. If you are new to DSLR photography, trust me when I say this – it is a very well accomplished piece of gear and almost certainly more than enough for your needs. Being so small, you can also be sure you will often take it with you wherever you go rather than leave it on a shelf at home. If you are after a camera that is sure to deliver all the basics and is easy to use, D3200 is very likely to be that camera, especially if you are on a budget. You will be tempted by more expensive and, on paper, more capable options, but remember – give in to such a temptation, and you may end up with a Nikon D4 and not having a clue how to use it. Yes, cameras like D7000 have weather sealing and faster frame rates. Be honest, how often do you shoot under rain? Owning a D700 I can tell you that I prefer to cover myself with an umbrella, which is usually large enough to hide my camera along with myself.

  • If you are a beginner with a limited budget and are looking for a new Nikon DSLR, look no further. This is a fun, simple, capable camera. A proper photographer will always be able to appreciate such strengths and if you run into one who thinks less of you because of your cheap Nikon, well, it’s his lack of understanding and in no way yours.

    A side note: Nikon D3200 is among several Nikon DSLRs that do not feature an internal focus motor. This means that it will not be able to autofocus with older lenses who’s autofocus is driven by the camera through a mechanical link. Do not worry, though – all recent Nikon lenses feature built-in AF motors (and are named as AF-S lenses, for example the great AF-S 85mm f/1.8G lens) and don’t require a camera to have an AF motor. Older lenses are usually cheaper and great value for money, though, so if you want autofocus (which you do), you will need to spend a little more when buying lenses. In all honesty, you’d probably choose newer lenses even if D3200 had no such limitation.

    Another downside is the lower-resolution screen, which will be less pleasant to use when reviewing images. But it doesn’t really affect your photography, does it?

    Remember – just because there’s a newer camera out there, the older one hasn’t gotten worse or less capable. Nikon D3100 is still great and not exactly old, so if it’s all you can afford, you shouldn’t feel even the slightest bit down about it. D3100 will be there to deliver stunning images as long as you do your part. Owning a newer, “better” camera will not make your photographs superior in any way. Read our review to find out what we think about it in more detail.

    Nikon D5200

    Nikon places D5200 as an upper-entry model and it slots above D3200. Most specs are very similar between the two cameras – they both share similar 24 megapixel sensors, for example. There are certain technical advantages, however. One worthy of note is a better autofocus system, borrowed from the higher-end D7000 DSLR. Instead of 11 autofocus points to choose from when framing your image, you have 39. That is a lot. This particular autofocus system proved to be very capable even in most demanding conditions and is not that far off Nikon’s best systems. On the other hand, it is also somewhat more complex. Not to say D3200 is unreliable in this department, but the 39-point AF system of D5200 will give you more flexibility if you are into sports photography, for example. Slightly faster frame rate at 5 frames per second compliments such thoughts.

    D5200 also incorporates a more advanced metering system, which may prove to be more accurate in some conditions. More importantly, there’s the versatile tilt/swivel LCD screen. It can be very useful when doing video or photographing from uncommon angles.

    Other than that and the rather hefty price of the D5200, the two cameras are very much alike. Think carefully whether additional features of this camera are important to you and your photographic needs. Be sure to read our thoughts on D3200 above – it is possible one of these cameras is all you’ll need for years to come.

    Nikon D5100

    A predecessor of the D5200, this camera, like all the other mentioned so far, builds upon the idea of a lightweight, cheap-ish, high quality DSLR for (advanced) beginners. Just as simple to use, it is not all that different from the newer D5200 or D3200, but costs a great deal less than the former and is still in stock. Nikon D5100 has a slightly older, but very, very good 16 megapixel sensor so praised in D7000 and Pentax K5 for its low ISO noise (which basically means it delivers very good quality photographs in low light environments). Read our “Understanding ISO” to learn more.

    Also, it has the 11-point autofocus system currently used in D3200, so is quite capable in that regard as well. More than that, it has a similar tilt/swivel LCD screen to that of the D5200, which is useful when doing video. A very good camera, this. At its current price (with instant savings till 2nd of March) it competes very well to the newer D3200, and its the camera you are likely to compare it to. If you don’t need 24 megapixel resolution – not many people do – this is a viable alternative to any of these DSLRs. Read our review of the Nikon D5100 and think carefully on what you need and don’t.

    Nikon D7000

    The D7000 is a very, very capable photographic tool many amateur photographers are very happy to own. In fact it is so good, some professional APS-C camera users dumped their higher-end D300s in favor of this newer model. Even with all that in mind, however, it’s not the most difficult one to use, but will require a lot of studying and effort from the photographer to get the best out of it. This camera features all the necessary direct controls and is very good ergonomically. Otherwise an advantage, such a fact will make it rather confusing for many new users. It’s not the easiest to learn with, keep that in mind. It doesn’t even deliver the best image quality of the lot – it’s on par with each of the cameras I presented earlier.

    You may think I’m trying to discourage you from buying it. You would be right to think so. Make no mistake – I think this is a great camera (although likely to be replaced soon). More than that, I’d be happy to own one myself if I were to start now. Yet I would not suggest this wonderful DSLR to anyone who’s not serious about becoming a real photographer. There are cheaper, smaller, simpler options out there for those who just want quality images for their family, friends and travel.

    With that out-of-the-way, let’s talk a bit about what Nikon D7000 offers. It has the same 16 megapixel sensor found in Nikon D5100, and was the first one to get it. It has great video capabilities and fast frame rate at 6 frames per second, which is good enough for sports photography.

    One of the biggest strengths many advanced amateurs appreciate is the dual SD card slot. It allows two cards to be used at the same time with the option of either holding more images or having them duplicated between the cards. You may also choose to have RAW images placed in one card, and JPEG versions in the other. It has the very good 39-point AF system and a stronger build than any of the other cameras listed here, along with some weather sealing for rough conditions.

    All of this may sound tempting, but remember – Nikon D5200 has more resolution, a tilt/swivel screen, the same AF system, is lighter, smaller and costs less. Think carefully whether you really need the D7000 and if you do, be ready to do some serious studying. Hopefully our “Photography Tips for Beginners” section will hold many answers to your inevitable questions. Do not stop yourself from reading camera manual, too, if you decide to buy it. We have reviewed D7000, but be careful as you read it – you are likely to find it very tempting even if, deep inside, you know it’s too much for your needs and other options make much more sense.

    Nikon D7100

    Replacing D7000 in Nikon DSLR camera lineup, this camera is now the last in my list of recommended Nikon DSLR cameras for beginners. There’s a good reason for that, too. Just as with its predecessor, the D7100 is an extremely capable photographic tool and shares many of D7000’s features, such as dual memory card slot. As of today, it takes place as the high-end DX camera in Nikon lineup, at least until successor to the now ageing D300s is announced. And, because of these and more reasons, I can only recommend D7100 to beginner photographers with huge reservations.

      • D7100 has fast frame rates, great video capabilities, it is very well build, much bigger than lower-end cameras listed above (except the D7000, of course), has great weather sealing and a very advanced autofocus system, similar to that found in professional cameras, such as Nikon D800 and D4. 24 megapixel APS-C sensor is at the heart of the camera responsible for high resolution, low-noise images, which you can preview through 3.2″ high-resolution LCD screen. Tempting as it all may be, however, in its strengths lies D7100’s complexity. It will most likely overwhelm most beginner photographers with all the direct controls and advanced AF and metering systems. The sheer number of buttons will likely be very confusing. $1200 is a lot of money for something you may not be able to fully appreciate, in which case any of the lower-end cameras above make more sense for beginners. Choose carefully and prepare to spend a decent amount of time learning your camera and all the functions and features it has to offer..

    4) Final Words

    With so many different cameras on offer, even those more experienced can often find themselves lost. Deciding which one to buy as the first one is even more difficult. I see a first DSLR much like I would see a first car – you don’t want to get started behind the wheel of a Bentley. What you need is a car that’s just right, just enough for you to learn and improve your skills. But afterwards, if you like the experience and even wonder whether you should take up photography on a professional level, Nikon has plenty of worthy tools for you. In this article, I did my best to introduce you to current beginner-friendly DSLR cameras Nikon has to offer. Hopefully my words were of some use and will ease your decision or calm your mind in case such has already been made.

    In the future, we will cover other DSLR brands as well. As for now, have fun using your new gear!

  • Nikon D3100

    This camera is the predecessor of D3200 and, as it’s newer sibling, shares the same core priorities. It is small, lightweight and easy to use. Better yet, it’s even slightly cheaper new or second-hand. There aren’t many downsides to this camera, and none of them are all that relevant for a beginner photographer. D3100 has lower resolution sensor at 14.2 megapixels. Don’t be fooled by the numbers, they don’t tell the whole story. It is a high quality sensor none the less and offers plenty of resolution for daily needs. You will still be able to print big should you decide so. At the same time, your JPEG images won’t be as “heavy” as those of Nikon D3200.