Choosing Nikon DSLRs

Published on Author Yean Wei Ong

Nikon currently has the second-largest DSLR market share worldwide, after Canon. These two companies are far ahead of the rest of the field, and they have the most complete systems, in this particular market. Below, I describe what I consider to be the current mainstream Nikon DSLRs. There are other Nikon bodies available, such as the D4S (flagship professional body), but they’re much more expensive and probably not the best tools for people new to DSLR photography.

My comments below are based primarily on analysis of product information, balanced with personal experience with Nikon bodies over several years, and brief handling of some of the DSLRs named below. A general observation is that Nikon tends to have deeper hand grips on its DSLRs, which is probably good for people with larger hands, but maybe not so good for those with smaller hands. Nikon has a reputation for high quality, and every Nikon DSLR I’ve handled has seemed well made.

Prices are approximate market prices in Australian dollars as of May-June 2015. Specifications are from Imaging ResourceDigital Photography Review, or DxOMark, and DX bodies’ viewfinder magnification figures are relative to full frame (i.e., 1.5x crop has been applied). Images are from the Nikon USA press room, and are not necessarily to scale relative to each other. If you’d like to see some on-line comparisons, visit

Nikon DX bodies

There are three streams in Nikon’s DX bodies. They use the same model names across the world (unlike Canon’s consumer models, which have different product names in the USA and Japan from the rest of the world). The 3000 series represents entry-level consumer bodies, the 5000 series represents mid-level consumer bodies, and the 7000 series represents high-level consumer or ‘prosumer’ (professional consumer) bodies. If nothing else, this makes the Nikon consumer line-up simpler and clearer to analyse than Canon’s line-up.

Nikon D3300 – approx. $500 body only, or $600 with 18–55 mm kit lens. This is Nikon’s entry-level consumer DSLR body, and the smallest and cheapest Nikon model available. If you’re considering this model, you should certainly try handling it to see if it’s comfortable for you to shoot with. Note that this body will not provide autofocus with older Nikkor AF lenses; you’ll need AF-S lenses, which have the AF motor built into the lens (like Canon’s EF and EF-S lenses). A visual comparison to the Nikon D70S, which should be reasonably representative of a small- to medium-sized DSLR, might be useful.

Nikon D3300
Nikon D3300 image © Nikon 2015. Used under Copyright Act 1968, Section 41.
  • Viewfinder coverage: approx. 95% of image frame (0.57x magnification relative to full frame).
  • Autofocus (AF) points: 11 (1 cross type).
  • Base sensitivity range: ISO 100–12800.
  • Maximum frame rate: 5 frames per second (fps).
  • Buffer size: 100 frames JPEG, 7 frames RAW.
  • Sensor resolution: 24 megapixels (MP).
  • Battery: EN-EL14 (approx. 700 frames per full charge).
  • Card slot: Secure Digital (SD).
  • Introduced: February 2014.

For the cheapest model in the line-up, the Nikon D3300 looks like a very capable body for low light action photography. The maximum frame rate is good (considering the price), as is the base sensitivity range. The buffer should give you 20 s of burst shooting in JPEG mode (at 24 MP resolution), which is quite extraordinary for an entry-level model. Battery life is good for such a small DSLR.

Based on specifications, the D3300 looks like a very capable body for low light action photography, and appears to be exceptional value for money, considering its price.

Nikon D5500 – approx. $900 body only, or $1,000 with 18–55 mm kit lens. This is Nikon’s mid-range consumer DSLR body. The D5500 features a variable-angle rear LCD, which flips out from the body and can be rotated; this feature adds considerable flexibility to facilitate shooting from unusual angles. The D5500’s LCD also has touchscreen capability. As with the D3300 above, bear in mind that this body will not provide autofocus with older Nikkor AF lenses; you’ll need AF-S lenses, which have the AF motor built into the lens. visual comparison shows that the D5500 is smaller than the Nikon D70S.

Nikon D5500
Nikon D5500 image © Nikon 2015. Used under Copyright Act 1968, Section 41.
  • Viewfinder: 95% (0.55x).
  • AF points: 39 (9 cross).
  • Base sensitivity: ISO 100–25600.
  • Frame rate: 5 fps.
  • Buffer size: 100 JPEG, 7 RAW.
  • Sensor resolution: 24 MP.
  • Battery: EN-EL14a (820 frames).
  • Card slot: SD.
  • Introduced: February 2015.

The big improvement over the D3300 is the AF unit, which covers much more of the viewfinder frame and offers many more cross type sensors. Apart from that and the variable-angle LCD, most of the key specifications above are the same or only slightly better. The viewfinder itself appears to have slightly poorer coverage and magnification than the D3300, which seems odd.

This is a new model, so you might also want to consider the previous D5300 body if the price is right. (There was no D5400.) The D5300 is heavier, has poorer battery life, does not have touchscreen capability, and has a slightly smaller buffer, but otherwise has similar functionality to the D5500.

The D5500 should be a very capable body for low light shooting. Dave Pardue at Imaging Resource recently called it the best indoor sports camera for under $1,000 (US Dollars). On paper, the D3300 appears to have a slightly better viewfinder, so it would be worth examining both models in person if you’re choosing between them.

Nikon D7200 – approx. $1,300 body only, or $1,700 with 18–140 mm kit lens. This is Nikon’s high-end consumer DX body. It doesn’t have the variable-angle LCD of the D5500, but it does have an AF motor built in, which allows it to autofocus with older Nikkor AF lenses. The D7200 is a medium-sized DSLR; a visual comparison shows that the it’s roughly the same size as the Nikon D70S.

Nikon D7200
Nikon D7200 image © Nikon 2015. Used under Copyright Act 1968, Section 41.
  • Viewfinder: 100% (0.63x).
  • AF points: 51 (15 cross).
  • Base sensitivity: ISO 100–25600.
  • Frame rate: 6 fps (7 fps with some limitations).
  • Buffer size: 56 JPEG, 18 RAW.
  • Sensor resolution: 24 MP.
  • Battery: EN-EL15 (1,110 frames).
  • Card slots: 2x SD.
  • Introduced: April 2015.

The viewfinder and AF unit are much improved over those of the lower models, and the maximum frame rate also goes up slightly. Strangely, the buffer size appears smaller than on the D5500—noting that both have 24 MP sensors, so image resolution should not be contributing to the difference, and the maximum frame rate is not significantly different. Battery life is very good, and the dual memory card slots can help protect against card-writing errors, if you make use of both slots. The D7200 is the cheapest model that uses the Nikon EN-EL15 battery, which is the standard across Nikon’s prosumer DSLRs.

This is a new model, so you might also want to consider the previous Nikon D7100 body. The biggest difference between the two bodies is that the newer D7200 has a much larger buffer, which will give you a few seconds of burst shooting rather than the (approx.) single second of burst shooting with the older model.

With a larger viewfinder image, better AF unit, faster frame rate, and longer battery life, the D7200 would clearly be preferable to the lower-end Nikon DSLRs for low light action photography. If you’re considering buying this body with the kit lens, do note that the lens has a greater range (18–140 mm) than the kit lens on the D3300 and the D5500 (18–55 mm), and that accounts for the bigger price difference.

Nikon FX bodies

Over the past few years, Nikon has been advocating that Nikon shooters move from DX bodies to FX bodies, but there’s no getting around the fact that the FX bodies are inherently more expensive. As I’ve mentioned previously, what we can expect from a full frame body is roughly one stop in shallower depth of field, better image quality at high ISOs, and probably worse performance at the borders for any given lens. I wouldn’t recommend that a beginning DSLR photographer start shooting with a full frame DSLR, unless he/she can afford to do so, and really wants to do so.

Nikon D610 – approx. $1,800 body only. This is probably the one DSLR model that Nikon hopes will lure DX shooters into the FX fold. At the time of writing, it’s clearly the most affordable full frame DSLR out of both the Canon and Nikon ranges—and actually costs less than the Canon EOS 7D Mk II (cropped frame DSLR). Even just a few years ago, this would have been unheard of! What we see with this DSLR is essentially a consumer body with a full frame sensor. A visual comparison shows that the D610 is roughly the same size as the Nikon D70S.

Nikon D610
Nikon D610 image © Nikon 2015. Used under Copyright Act 1968, Section 41.
  • Viewfinder: 100% (0.70x).
  • AF points: 39 (9 cross).
  • Base sensitivity: ISO 100–6400.
  • Frame rate: 6 fps.
  • Buffer size: 30 JPEG, 15 RAW.
  • Sensor resolution: 24 MP.
  • Battery: EN-EL15 (900 frames).
  • Card slots: 2x SD.
  • Introduced: October 2013.

The viewfinder will present a larger image than that in the D7200, but the AF unit is a lesser model and the buffer size and battery life are worse. Based on specifications, I wouldn’t consider the D610 a particularly compelling model compared to the D7200 (which is also $500 cheaper). Looking at ISO 3200 test images from Imaging Resource, I don’t see significantly better image quality from the D610 compared to the D7200, and ISO 3200 is probably the highest you’ll need to shoot at for low light action. At ISO 6400, the D610 does start to pull ahead with better image quality, but the D7200 is still doing a very credible job. Maybe the D610 would be the more capable body if you’re shooting in extremely low light situations.

While the D610 isn’t a particularly new model, it might be possible to find the previous D600 still available at some retailers (or available secondhand). I’d suggest avoiding the D600, even at a lower price, because it had quality control problems during manufacture. (The D600 tends to shed material internally onto its sensor, necessitating more frequent sensor cleaning.)

Overall, I can’t really recommend the D610 when the D7200 is more capable in some ways, and costs $500 less. No one can criticise Nikon for its view that all serious photographers should be shooting with FX bodies, but it probably needs to boost the D610’s capabilities for it to be attractive. Keeping the same AF unit (or including a better one) and the same buffer size (or a larger one) would be minimum requirements, in my view.

Nikon D750 – approx. $2,200 body only. This is Nikon’s mid-range FX body and, except for the buffer size still not being an improvement on the D7200, probably addresses the shortcomings of the D610 (in terms of trying to convert DX shooters into FX shooters). The D750 also features a variable-angle rear LCD like the D5500, although it doesn’t have touchscreen capability. A visual comparison shows that the D750 is roughly the same size as the Nikon D70S.

Nikon D750
Nikon D750 image © Nikon 2015. Used under Copyright Act 1968, Section 41.
  • Viewfinder: 100% (0.70x).
  • AF points: 51 (15 cross).
  • Base sensitivity: ISO 100–12800.
  • Frame rate: 6.5 fps.
  • Buffer size: 40 JPEG, 14 RAW.
  • Sensor resolution: 24 MP.
  • Battery: EN-EL15 (1,230 frames).
  • Card slots: 2x SD.
  • Introduced: September 2014.

The D750 has a nice set of technical specifications, with the only negative being a smaller buffer than  in the D7200. Given that all of the Nikon bodies to this point have 24 MP sensors, it cannot be that sensor resolution is adversely affecting buffer size. With the D750, you’ll get just over 6 s of burst shooting, while you’ll get more than 9 s with the D7200—that’s a big difference, although 6 s is itself fairly generous. The AF unit covers a smaller proportion of the frame than in the D7200, too, which reduces the FX body’s flexibility somewhat.

In the D750, we have a body that’s almost $1,000 dearer than a D7200, but not clearly more capable for low light shooting (except perhaps in extreme conditions—see my comments about the D610 above). As with the D610, it seems difficult to recommend the D750 when the D7200 is available at a much smaller price. The DX–FX situation was quite different some years ago, when the FX bodies gave noticeably better image quality for the same (high) ISO settings; DX sensors have caught up with FX sensors in a big way.

Nikon D810 – approx. $3,500 body only. This is Nikon’s high-end prosumer FX body, and makes the jump from 24 MP to 36 MP. It follows the well-received D800 and D800E models, and this series no doubt encouraged Canon to come out with its two newly-released EOS 5D models (with 50 MP). The D810 is a sizeable DSLR; a visual comparison shows that it’s larger than the Nikon D70S.

Nikon D810
Nikon D810 image © Nikon 2015. Used under Copyright Act 1968, Section 41.
  • Viewfinder: 100% (0.70x).
  • AF points: 51 (15 cross).
  • Base sensitivity: ISO 64–12800.
  • Frame rate: 5 fps.
  • Buffer size: 57 JPEG, 23 RAW.
  • Sensor resolution: 36 MP.
  • Battery: EN-EL15 (1,200 frames).
  • Card slots: Compact Flash (CF) and SD.
  • Introduced: July 2014.

The D810 wasn’t really designed for low light action shooting, but more for high-resolution requirements (e.g., landscapes, portraits). That said, it would clearly be able to do a respectable job. The only major improvements here could be in the maximum frame rate and the buffer size (though it’s at least back to the level of the D7200, and at a higher sensor resolution, too). Note that with the full frame sensor, the AF unit covers a smaller proportion of the image frame than in the D7200, just as with the D750.

I’ve shot briefly with a D810, and the first thing that struck me was the remarkably smooth and quiet shutter for this class of camera body. The sound was quite reminiscent of my D70S—a gentle yet precise sound.

Overall, I’d put the D810 in the same category as the Canon EOS 5D Mk III; no doubt, an excellent camera, but not as suitable for action shooting as perhaps the D7200. What would really be suited for sports photography, though, would be the successor to the old Nikon D300 and D300S. Thom Hogan (amongst others) expects that the so-called D400 will be here at some point, but Nikon DX shooters have been waiting a very long time for it … the D300 appeared in November 2007, and the D300S came out in August 2009, so there hasn’t been a substantially new model in this series for nearly eight years! (That’s an extremely long time in the DSLR market.)


As I suggested in my first article in this series, set your budget first, then look at ergonomics, and then look at technical factors. None of the bodies presented above will be ‘bad’ for low light action photography—they’ll all certainly be more capable than any point-and-shoot model currently in production.

While the current Nikon range has a simpler structure than Canon’s range, but I’m not quite seeing the same degrees of benefit from moving up to higher models. To me, the Nikon D3300 stands out as exceptionally good value for money as a potential low light action camera. The specifications are very respectable for that price, and I’d have no hesitation recommending it to new DSLR photographers. The main attraction of the D5500 is its better AF unit, but the higher price counts against it. Overall, I’d probably recommend the D5500 to those who can afford it and are keen on low light action photography, but I think the D3300 wouldn’t be too shabby a choice at all.

The D5500 costs around $400 more than the D3300, and the D7200 costs around $400 more than the D5500. For that difference in price, I’d consider the D7200 to be a clearer choice over the D5500 than the D5500 over the D3300. A better viewfinder, better AF unit, faster frame rate, and noticeably better battery life would easily be worth $400, in my opinion.

Spending more on the FX bodies (D610, D750, and D810) could only be justified if you really need better high ISO performance (and you’d want to be shooting at ISO 6400 or higher) or higher resolution (in which case only the D810 would meet your needs). In the current Nikon line-up, the D7200 is probably the highest model I could recommend without reservation.

If you buy a cropped frame (DX) body, I’d recommend the Nikkor AF-S 50 mm f/1.8 lens, which would be a short telephoto prime lens on those bodies. I’d avoid the f/1.4 version, as it apparently focuses a bit more slowly than the f/1.8 version.

If you buy a full frame (FX) body, the 50 mm lenses will be normal prime lenses, which would probably necessitate you moving closer to the action. For a short telephoto option on full frame, I’d suggest the Nikkor AF-S 85 mm f/1.8 lens. The f/1.4 version of this lens is much more expensive, and I suspect will not focus as quickly, but that’s by no means to suggest that it’s a bad lens.