Editors' note: This story was originally published on May 3, 2012, and was updated May 7, 2013, to include my review of the the D7100.
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 frill-free. The D3000 (kit generally less than $450) is the cheapest choice and is still available, though disappearing from reputable outlets. For the cheapest model that includes video, the D3100 (kit less than $500) adds that to the D3000 for about $75 over the D3000's price. At roughly $600 though, the newer D3200 isn't much more expensive than the D3100. 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. However, the older D5100 can now be found for about that same $600, 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 about $600). 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 $900 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.
Read the full review of the D5200.
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 and opting for the D5200.
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 D600 is more of a step up from the D7000 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 D600 (body only, $2,000) is sufficiently better, faster, and more feature-packed. With the step up to full-frame, the D600 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 D7000. While the D600 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.
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.
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.