Thom’s Recommended Nikon DSLRs

There’s good news and there’s great news. 

The good news is that there isn’t really a dud amongst all of Nikon’s current DSLRs. The DX DSLRs are all equipped with near-state-of-the-art or state-of-the-art 20 or 24mp crop sensors and differ primarily on how features are brought forward to the user and how many of those features there are. The FX DSLRs come equipped with near-state-of-the-art sensors across the board, but with more variation in pixel count (16 to 36mp).

The great news is that three of Nikon’s DSLRs stand out from the rest:

  • D810 (and D810A) — The D800 was the best all-around DSLR back in 2012, and the 2014 refresh made enough changes that many of us D800 shooters upgraded and are very happy we did. The latest version is quieter and just a little more refined all the way round. The Live View issues are (mostly) solved. And this sensor is about as good as it gets for those that want pixels over high ISO performance, not that it’s a slouch at higher ISO values, all else equal. As I write this, there are only two DSLRs I haven’t used from any maker, and I’ll still stick my neck out and say that the D810 is still the best all-around DSLR here in 2016, just as the D800 was in 2012-2013. Thom’s Review of the D810
  • D7200 — The DX crop sensor has its pluses and minuses. For most of you, the minus is that it’s about a stop removed from the D750 sensor, all else equal, though you can get that back with some clever lens choice (e.g. the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8). The bits of banding deep in the shadows of the D7100 are gone, and the sensor is very well behaved. Plus that pixel density is perfect for the wildlife shooter. Fortunately, the constrained buffer of the D7100 is also gone, plus we now have a 1.3x crop option. Unfortunately, the frame rate and build quality isn’t at the D500 level. That said, the D7200 is the best consumer DSLR Nikon has made, hands down. Thom’s Review of the D7200
  • D500 — This is a mini-D5 with all the latest Nikon technology at its core. A new, better autofocusing system, high performance cards and buffer support at 10 fps, an improved metering system, and built-in SnapBridge. Great additional user controls in a carbon fiber/magnesium body. The new 20mp sensor is arguably the best DX-sized sensor currently made (particularly at higher ISO values), the viewfinder and tilting touchscreen LCD top notch and a specification above the other cameras. Thom’s Review of the D500

As I hinted, I can recommend any of the current Nikon DSLRs. But if you’re not going to pick one of the three above, you should note a few things about the other options:

  • The D3300 and D5500 shoot Compressed NEF only. What that means is that highlight information is sacrificed to make for more compact files. Nikon calls this visually lossless, and it truly is as long as you’re not making huge post processing changes in the highlights. It’s not a deal breaker, but it’s less than optimal.
  • The D3300 and D5500 have arbitrary feature reductions. With the exception of the swivel touch screen on the D5500, both these cameras remove features you’d find on the D7200, and sometimes controls (front command dial, for example). So run through the specifications list very carefully and make sure what you want is really there. Thom’s Review of the D3300, Thom’s Review of the D5500
  • The D610 doesn’t need to be avoided. The D600 dust/lubricant fiasco totally devalued the D6xx series in most people’s minds. Thus, you’ll find the D610 at ridiculously low prices as demand is low. As with the D3300 and D5500, you have to watch for arbitrary feature reductions (from the D750 and D810), but the D610 is a much more complete camera than those DX consumer DSLRs are to start with; the feature reduction is remarkably minimal. Thom’s Review of the D610
  • The D750 is sort of like the D5500: middle model. Nikon really wants you to buy the middle model in the DX and FX lineups. Note that both have desirable moveable rear LCD screens (the D750’s tilts up and down), something you usually don’t find on the other models below and above them. There’s nothing at all wrong with the D750. It’s a fine camera, and given it’s price differential, many of you will buy it over a D810. That said, the D810 is enough better than I rarely use my D750. Thom’s Review of the D750
  • The Df is a bit strange. The DSLR sibling that is the most different is the Df. It’s not just the retro controls, it’s the entire mix of features starting with the 16mp sensor and no video. You really have to want what’s in this package to buy it, I think. For those of you who manual focus through the viewfinder, the Df does have the best focus screen of the Nikon DSLRs, which tells you something about the intended audience. That said, there’s just a little too much Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde to this camera’s personality. Nikon didn’t go all in with the retro-film-like-camera thing, nor did they remove all that much of the digital DSLR from it (it still has Live View, for instance). This makes it a bit of a “tweener” in design, and that shows in some of the control functions. However, this is the smallest of Nikon’s FX DSLRs and the sensor is wickedly good in low light, so coupled with a set of f/1.4 or f/1.8 primes, some folk will be very happy with this camera. The more you zoom, the more I’d suggest this isn’t the camera for you. Thom’s Review of the Df
  • The D5 is really an expensive choice that you need to need. The D500 has virtually everything the D5 has except for one thing: an FX sensor. Moreover, the D5’s sensor is highly tuned towards high ISO work, and the camera nets an additional 2 fps over the D500 in continuous shooting. Still, you pay a big premium for that, so you really have to need those specific things to justify buying a D5. 

Bonus
The popularity of the D810 has actually pushed an awful lot of D800 and D800E cameras onto the used market. Coupled with some hung-over fear from 2012 about left-side focus weakness, this has made the D800 used market totally collapse. You can get an excellent quality, hardly-used D800 or D800E for less than new FX prices. Remember what I wrote above? These were the best all-around DSLRs you could get in 2012 and 2013. They were eclipsed by the D810 in 2014, but that just makes them the second best DSLR you can buy here in 2016. At very low prices. 

But…make sure the seller can prove it’s an official US import. Check the AF Fine Tune and if it’s showing that you need +10 for all of your lenses, it was fixed by Nikon for the focus problem. Check the shutter count (I’d tend to avoid used D800’s over 70k activations because there are so many available below that). Check the 10-pin connector to make sure that it hasn’t been pushed into the body. Run autofocus tests on the camera: if you can’t get repeatable focus then there’s a chance that the body frame was broken just in front of the rear LCD. Thom’s Review of the D800 and D800E

Negative Bonus
Some will ask where the Nikon V3 fits into DSLR recommendations. Simple: it’s not a DSLR. It doesn’t truly handle like a DSLR, it’s not fleshed out and feature-configured like a DSLR, it has lens limitations that come quickly into play, it still includes Nikon’s attempts at something other than photos (the Harry Potteresque Motion Snapshot, for example), and the external EVF is a nuisance you don’t find with DSLRs (or DSLR-like mirrorless cameras). Couple that with a compact camera size battery. 

It’s the 20 fps with fast tracking focus that seems to confuse folk. That’s better than some of the best DSLRs. Fast frame rate and focus plus the fact that a reasonable subset of the DSLR-type features and controls is present—though often with annoying lapses, changes, or limitations—are the reasons why DSLR shooters are intrigued by the V3. The V3 is really a compact camera with interchangeable lenses, basically. Sensor performance doesn’t come close to matching the DSLRs, either; at best case we’re at least three stops down from FX, all else equal. 

Other than snapshot work, the V3 has enough uniqueness and DSLR-ness to appeal to very narrow subsets: the reliable fast focus, folding LCD, and silent shooting make it a pretty easy-to-conceal street shooter, and the 70-300mm CX lens makes the V3 the most portable daylight wildlife shooter you can put together. Beyond that, it gets harder to justify, though as I’ve pointed out on my sansmirror.com site, I don’t understand why every golf photographer doesn’t have a V3 in his kit (silent up to 60 fps during swing shots, anyone?). 

Put another way, DSLRs tend to be a jack of all trades, while the V3 is a master of a few. 

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