Editors' note: This story was originally published on May 3, 2012, and was updated December 9, 2013, to include my review of the D5300.
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.
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 frills-free. The older D3100 (kit less than $400) is a bit cheaper, but for less than $500 -- sometimes a lot less -- the newer D3200 isn't much more expensive. It's faster, which makes it more suitable for photographing active kids and animals, though I don't think the higher-resolution sensor produces photos that are visibly better than the D3100's if that's all that matters to you and you can't afford the extra bucks. However, the older D5100 kit can now be found for less than $500 as well, and it's a much better camera, so it's worth doing some price shopping before you decide.
Read the full review of the D3200.
If you want better photo quality than the entry-level models, opt for the D5100 (kit $400 - $500). 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.
Read the full review of the D5100.
The D5200 replaces the D7000 as my choice for best overall Nikon value. At about $650 - $750 for the kit, 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. While the performance is a lot better than the D5100, the image quality isn't significantly better, so if you need to save some money and don't need the speed, the D5100 might be a fine alternative. The "unauthorized" D5300 kit with the same 18-55mm lens seems to run about $900, and it yields better image quality and slightly faster performance, but I still think that the D5200 kit is a comparatively better value.
Read the full review of the D5200.
While it's not the best value, the Nikon D5300 with the newer 18-140mm f3.5-5.6 lens is the best overall choice 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.
Read the full review of the D5300.
It took three years, but Nikon finally announced a replacement for the D7000, a long-time Editors' Choice, and is the best choice for inexpensive action photography. It's a great camera, delivering better photo quality, performance, and improved weather sealing. 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 $1,100 body-only price tag and opting for the D5300. And while there a few tradeoffs, if you're really price sensitive the D7000 is still around at $700 - $900 for the body.
Read the full review of the D7100.
The D300s has also slipped into the realm of wait-and-see models. It's almost 3 years old and the D7100 delivers a lot of what the D300s does for a lower price -- the natural progression of technology.
Read the full review of the D300s.
Nikon's best enthusiast model, the full-frame D610 is more of a step up from the D7100 than a step down from the D800. The D700 remains a solid camera, especially if you can find it really cheap used; new models are at the point in the cycle where retailers are charging far above list price for them. But the D610 (body only, $2,000) is sufficiently better, faster, and more feature-packed. With the step up to full-frame, the D610 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, but 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.
Read the full review.
If you want the best photo and video quality currently available in the Nikon line, this is your dSLR (body only, about $3,000). It has a more rugged build quality than the D600 (though it's probably not tougher than the D300s) and broader tonal range, as well as features targeted at the professional photographer, such as a CompactFlash slot and more sophisticated and sensitive autofocus and metering systems. It also comes in a version without an optical low-pass filter, the D800E, which seems to range in price from $3,000 to $3,500.
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.
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 I like the video better from the D800, the D4 has an edge in its noise profile for the middle-to-high ISO sensitivities, plus extremely fast continuous-shooting performance. It's also got a boatload of connectivity features enabled by the addition of an Ethernet connector.
Read the full review of the D4.