How to Select the Perfect Nikon DSLR for Your Needs

How to Select the Perfect Nikon DSLR for Your Needs

An article by +Sean Ogle

Selecting a new DSLR can be really overwhelming, especially if you’re a first time buyer.

Not only do you have to decide between brands, but then you have to decide between models, lenses, and accessories – all of which can lead to a daunting experience.

That being said, the goal of this post is to help make that decision a little bit easier.


Why Nikon?

I’ve been shooting Nikon since I first got into DSLR photography about 5 years ago. When I bought my first camera (a D5000), the decision was a relatively simple one: my dad had some Nikon lenses and I didn’t have much money!

Now a few years later I’m as happy with that decision as ever. Nikon’s consistent lens mount size over the years allows you to use lenses going back to the 70s and 80s on many of Nikon’s newest DSLR bodies – meaning you can get quality used glass, at a relatively inexpensive price.

That’s a conversation for another day, however.

The bottom line is, you’re going to get a great camera with an excellent assortment of lenses with either Nikon or Canon. If you have friends or family members that shoot one or the other, and you’ll be around them often, that’s a good enough reason for me to choose either brand.

But since I shoot Nikon, today’s post is all about how to select the best Nikon camera for you!

Get Past the Hype: Things that Don’t Matter

At the time of this writing Nikon has 4 cameras that you may be deciding between: The D3200, D5200, D90 or D7100. These are the most up to date models, and in some cases you may be considering one that’s a generation older in order to save money – we’ll talk about that.

However before we start going into the individual models, I’d rather start out by listing a couple things that you should absolutely stop paying attention to – by doing so, you’ll make your decision a lot easier.


Chances are if you haven’t bought a camera in a while, the very first thing you look at when selecting a camera is the megapixel count.

Stop. Please.

These days any new camera will have more than enough megapixels for what you need. Even one on the lower range that has 10-12 will have enough detail for you to blow up your images to poster size with no major issues, and seriously, how often are you doing that?

It may be nice to have the flexibility, but once you hit 24 megapixels the files sizes are huge. On my D7100, I rarely, if ever, shoot at the highest quality level, simply because it just isn’t practical.

Full Frame Vs. Cropped Frame

New to photography? Then you don’t even look at a full frame sensor. In other words, for a Nikon camera you can immediately stop paying attention to the D600, D800, or D4.


They’re big. They’re expensive. And unless you’re a professional shooter, they’ll be overkill for what you’re looking for.

So save your money for some new lenses and stop thinking about those altogether.

To help set your mind at ease even more, you should know that Nikon’s cheapest DSLR the D3200 has image quality that in most shooting situations will be close to as good as that on their most expensive camera, the D4. Most of what you’re getting with more expensive cameras is more options, on camera controls, and other things professionals need and you probably don’t.


This may matter for a select few of you, but for most of you, it should be a non-issue.

Bottom line, have you ever actually shot video on a DSLR? Most beginners haven’t. It’s not easy.

The sound is awful, the auto-focus doesn’t work in a usable manner, and it’s nothing like using your phone or a camcorder.

If you want a good camera that does video, check out a pocket camera like the Canon S110 – which shoots excellent video and is easy to use.

If you know what you’re doing and have some extra gear, then a DSLR can be a great way to break into a more professional video setup. But if all you want to do is film your kids, you’d be best looking elsewhere.

Does that all make sense? Great, glad we’ve got that cleared up. Now, let’s get you a camera!

Finding the Best Camera for Your Needs

Rather than regurgitate all the technical specs of each camera for you, I’m going to look at the different type of users of Nikon cameras and then help you find a camera based on what you identify with the most.

Best Photo Quality at the Cheapest Price Possible?

As I mentioned earlier, for most applications, in good light, the quality from an entry level DSLR will rival that of their more expensive counterparts. So if all you really want is good image quality and aren’t wanting to break the bank, then pick up the Nikon D3200.

If you’re really concerned about price, you can probably find refurbished models, or the older D3100 which is still a great camera. If you go with that, you’re sacrificing some build quality from the higher end cameras, and the screen is a much lower resolution than the newer model.

Don’t get the D3000, there was nothing very impressive about it.

NIkon D3200 Krabi, Thailand

NIkon D3200
Krabi, Thailand

Experienced DSLR User Wanting to Upgrade, Without Breaking the Bank?

Let’s face it, price is an issue for most of us. So let’s say you’re ready to move past your D3100 or D5000 you’ve had for a couple years, to something more representative of your experience level. You’ve got a few lenses, but still don’t want to overspend.

Consider a D7000. It’s not the newest camera on the block, but the image quality will be comparable to the D7100, and many of the updates that were made will be negligible to the average user.

I’ve seen body only D7000 going for as low as $649, which is almost half the cost of a new D7100.

The D7000 is a big step up in terms of features and build quality from any of the cameras in the 3000 or 5000 line, so don’t shy away from this just because it’s a couple years old.

It’s also worth noting that while it’s 5 years old, the D90 is widely available and is a great camera for the price. It lacks some of the features of the newer D7000 line, but is a great step up from Nikon’s entry level cameras in terms of controls.

Nikon D90 Petra, Jordan

Nikon D90
Petra, Jordan

Beginning HDR Photographer?

You can do HDR with any camera that allows you to set manual controls, however if you’re serious about it, you’re going to want something that has bracketing built in.

This means your camera can automatically take 3 images at varying exposures, usually one at normal exposure, then one underexposed, and finally one over exposed.

You can then use HDR software to create one perfectly exposed image.

The D3200 doesn’t do bracketing, so for the beginning HDR photographer you’ll want to pick up a D5200 or if money is more of a concern a D5100. A few years ago I learned HDR on my D5000 while traveling through Thailand, and it was a great intro camera. It had a menu system that I was used to with a point and shoot, but a customizable function button that let me easily turn on bracketing.

Experienced HDR Photographer?

If you’re a more experienced HDR photographer, then you should just pick up the D7100.

There are a couple key features that make this a better camera for HDR.

First, you can take 5 shot brackets. As you get better at HDR, you’ll learn that 3 brackets often isn’t enough to get the range of light you need. The D7100 makes it easy to add two more shots.

It also shoots at up to 7 frames per second, so if you’re trying to take brackets on the fly and don’t have a tripod – this will get you much better results (although you should still use a tripod).

The plethora of on camera controls and customization abilities suits itself to a more experienced photographer and will make setting up shots much easier.

Worth noting that the D7000 only does 3 exposure brackets, so in this case I think it’s worth checking out the D7100.

Nikon D7100 HDR Sunriver, Oregon

Nikon D7100 HDR
Sunriver, Oregon

Upgrading from Point and Shoot to first DSLR?

If you’ve been using a point and shoot your whole life, upgrading to a DSLR can be a bit of a daunting task. Don’t worry though, it doesn’t have to be!

The great thing about the D3200 for beginners is that it’s very menu based. The camera can do much of what it’s bigger siblings can, but much of it is still in easy to navigate menus – just like in your point and shoot. There’s even a question button that will explain what different features of the camera do if you’re unsure.

If you’re wanting to have a little more control, but still keep the familiarity of a menu based camera, then the D5200 is worth taking a look at. It will definitely give you more room to grow than the D3200.

Nikon D5000 Havana, Cuba

Nikon D5000
Havana, Cuba

Have a Lot of Nikon Lenses from Your Film Days 20+ Years Ago?

For instance my aunt has an old 50mm f/1.2 that I’ve been trying to obtain on “long term loan” for awhile now. This lens wouldn’t have metered on either my old D5000 or D90. With either the D7000 or D7100 however, almost any lens from 1977 or newer will both meter and autofocus.

So if you have a plethora of old lenses, don’t sell them off just yet, you may just need a new camera body.

Want Professional Features, but On a Budget?

Here you have a couple options. You may be tempted to snag a used D300 for less than the price of some of the newer cameras. On the surface this seems like a great idea. You’re getting incredible build quality, more manual features, and a less expensive price – but I’d think twice about doing this.

The D300 is an old camera. Many advancements in camera tech have been made, and you’ll get better photos and many more usable features in a D7100 than one of Nikon’s older cameras.

Stick with the D7100 which is still almost half the price of the cheapest full frame camera the D600 – and they’re essentially the same in terms of features.

Nikon D7100 Sunriver, Oregon

Nikon D7100
Sunriver, Oregon

Looking to Do More Serious Video and Photography?

If you’re really serious about video, I hate to say this, but consider switching to Canon. I’m a Nikon guy through and through, and I also do a lot of video. The video quality on a D7100 or even D5200 is incredible. But there are certain features that become a bit of a deal breaker. Specifically, you can’t change aperture in Live View.

If you’re going to be doing a lot of video with your new camera, this will prove to be a major annoyance. Not to mention there are many more resources out there for Canon DSLR video – believe me, I’ve looked.

The Bottom Line

Nikon makes great cameras, has a huge, supportive community, and there really isn’t a wrong choice. Whatever you decide to buy will take fantastic photos and give you room to hone your skills.

It’s also important to keep in mind that you’ll probably end up buying a new camera body every few years, but it’s the investment in high quality glass that will really help you build out your photography arsenal.

So if you don’t already have a few lenses, consider going one notch lower on the camera and using the extra money to pick up an extra lens or two – your photos will thank you.

+Sean Ogle is an HDR photographer and entrepreneur. He specializes in helping people build small businesses that allow them to do more of the stuff they like to do. He also golfs way more than the average person probably should. DPS readers can grab his book 50 Tips to Improve Your HDR Photography for free here.

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Some Older Comments

  • Monjurul Hoque September 1, 2013 05:13 pm

    i have a Nikon D50 and i want to upgrade but my budget is low, so can i select Nikon D90?

  • Dorothy August 31, 2013 10:32 pm


    I have just decided to upgrade my camera from the Nikon Coolpix 8700 and have ordered the D5200. After reading your article I am wondering if I choose more camera than I need. While I have sold some photos I am not a professional photographer, just a weekend clicker who got lucky with great shots. Any advice?

  • Tobie August 26, 2013 06:39 pm

    Camera taste (or needs) obviously is a personal matter as we all have our preferences. Therefore we will have different priorities for spending our hard earned bucks on cameras and gear.

    Just my 2c: I've had the D7000 and it's great value for money but I always had the need for just that something extra which eventually made me trade it in on a D600 (having said that: I'm still of the opinion that one could get away quite well with a lesser priced camera and more expensive lenses!). But my main reason for going D600 was mainly the Full Frame and 24Mpx. Which brings me to an important issue: I have totally underestimated the wow-factor of the 24Mpx combined with the Full Frame lens. The reason being that any telephoto lens has its sweet-spot which is usually at approx. 66% of it max capability. So I prefer taking my distance-photo's at max 180mm with my 70-300mm lens and then crop the desired photo area in Lightroom. In short: the quality photo you get by cropping a chunk of photo even as small as 5% of the original is simply mind boggling! So I have no need for $10,000 lenses to go beyond 300mm - I can rather invest in macro's and wide angles!

    I agree about video on DSLR. It's nice to play with but videocams are much easier to use and more geared for that purpose - and are shamefully cheap these days!

  • Cheezman August 22, 2013 02:50 am


    The camera I assume you can set to a B&W setting, but the generally accepted convention is NOT to do this; to capture in color and to achieve your black and white final version in post processiing. You will have much more control this way. For example, with the color information still in the file, you can adjust the RGB channels to change the tonal range of the colors. You could you Topaz, or Lightroom, or Photoshop, or Photoshop Elements, or Silver Efex; all very effective programs available for reasonable cost.

  • Millie August 21, 2013 06:52 am

    Hi! I left a comment earlier asking for advice but so far....nobody has helped. I am a novice but I love photography. Always have.I am on a tight budget but am thinking about a Nikon D3200. I continue to research and one thing I would like to know,,,does this camera or the D3100 have a way to manually make black and white pics or does it have to be done after using something like Topaz (just using that as a reference)? I love black and white pics but I like the earthy dark almost gray and black....where the creases in a persons face are almost black....I hope I am making myself understood.Thank you.

  • robin August 21, 2013 04:20 am

    Hi I have a Nikon d200. I love the camera but I am thinking of upgrading to something newer. Not interested in doing video. What would be a good upgrade.

  • Cheezman August 20, 2013 06:16 pm

    I spent about a year coveting an upgrade of my D50, looking at the D300, then 300s, then the D7000 when came out. Much agonizing over features, price points (I'm definitely on a budget), best bells and whistles. In the end, reality hit me in the realization that I'm a hobbyist, not a professional and there are a ton of used D90 bodies out there for half the price of the 300's and 7000's, many with low shutter actualizations because of the need of others to upgrade to the latest and greatest.

    I've never looked back. The D90 is near enough in all that is important (low light performance, plenty of megapixels, bracketing) that spending twice the amount of money for the few extra features was just not worth it for me. I can say that the ONLY feature I miss on the D90 is the ability to auto-bracket more than 3 steps, for the occasional HDR photo I attempt.

  • Saiful Zaree August 18, 2013 11:14 pm

    @alec If you still want to use CF exclusively, then you have to use Nikon full frame only. D7100, D5200 and D3200 along older crop sensor camera only have DS card(s) variance.

  • Alec August 15, 2013 12:55 am

    Hi Sean, the only thing that is missing here for me (who normally buys new cameras for my wife!) is the supported media formats between cameras. My wife has been shooting Nikon first point and shoot then DSLR with the d70/d70s/d300 which all use compact flash and we have quite an investment in that format.

    Can you comment on what upgrade camera you would suggest?


  • Bill Mac August 12, 2013 01:01 pm

    Very interesting article, thank you. Have you thought about doing something similar but about how to pick the perfect lens for your needs?

  • Jon August 11, 2013 07:44 pm

    Sorry, but I have to disagree with your conclusions about the D300. I have one, along with a D800, a D3s and two MF film cameras. I paid $300 for mine second hand. For the quality of image that comes out of the camera, I really can't fault it at that price. I used to have a D7000 but sold it, and bought the D300 plus a macro lens for the money I got. A VERY good deal and the D300 produces excellent images, even if the technology is old. For someone on a tight budget I would suggest this is an excellent addition. Personally I use it for time lapse.

  • parthasarathi De August 11, 2013 01:27 pm

    I am an Nikon user . I have a D3100 .This is a helpful article It helps me to improve snap experience. thank you

  • Stephanie August 11, 2013 08:16 am

    Still waiting for the mythical D400....

  • jvw August 11, 2013 05:55 am

    @ Thomas Medaris,
    Bracketing is not the same as HDR. Put simply, bracketing is taking several photos of one scene with different exposures, from 'underexposed' through properly exposed to 'overexposed'.
    HDR (high dynamic range) processing, either in-camera or using external software on a computer, combines those exposures into one image.

  • millie williams August 10, 2013 07:52 am

    Sean, I am a total beginner but think I'm pretty good at photography.Thinking about D3100or D3200. I am curious about black and white pics. Can either one shoot in b&w or is that a filter thing?

  • Darlene Hildebrandt August 10, 2013 04:07 am

    Hey Sean!

    @Paul maybe I'll take a stab at a similar Canon article some time soon! I'll see what I can do for you.

  • Sean August 10, 2013 02:28 am

    @Iain The hardest thing about sports photography is the need for a long fast lens. If you're getting a D3200 I'd look into the 70-300vr. It's not cheap, but it's nowhere near the pro level 2.8 long lenses. I've shot action with it and as long as the light is good, it's a great lens for it. Shoot at full resolution and then crop if you need to.

    @Jim As far as I know, there may not be one. They are marketing the D7100 as their flagship DX camera now.

    @etienne Yes, this article was definitely aimed at the more beginning photographer.

    Thanks everyone for the comments!

  • Mohamad Shahrokh Nasab August 9, 2013 04:59 pm

    Tnx.for your post.I am one Nikon D7100followerand prefer it. extremly makes digital. photography very. desireable and should blieve to a camera to shoot inspirationally.and Nikon D7100 is that camera.I want to buy it on this October .

  • Etienne August 9, 2013 10:49 am

    Interesting article, thank you! I think it is essentially aimed at beginners, isn't it?
    Because I think that for serious photographers full frame has always some advantages in IQ compared to cropped frame.
    I am not a pro, but when my D90 died (this year) I took a full frame because I was looking for the best dynamic range I could find for my landscape pictures. I am also pretty impressed by the bokeh I obtain in macro photography, and the small amount of noise in night photography.
    I know that in the future I will probably switch to something other than DSLR (hybrid, ...) but today if you can afford it I think that full frame can fit the bill (of course depending on the type of photography you are doing / looking for).

  • Wilfred August 9, 2013 10:16 am

    For a casual need, y 1 need a dslr? A mirrorless or standard p&s would do good enough.
    IMO, picking up dslr is for the ability to have more control on shooting, not only the quality

  • Thomas Medaris August 9, 2013 07:42 am

    great article, i have a D-7000 and was wondering about the HDR, but i see Nikon calles it bracketing... gonna check it out.. thanks- Tom

  • Barry E Warren August 9, 2013 02:58 am

    Very worth reading, Being a Nikon user. Not only helpful to beginners,but also for someone thats been in it for a while.... Thanks

  • Clyde August 9, 2013 02:50 am

    This is a great article, even for non-Nikon users. The first half can apply to anyone regardless of model. I myself am a Canon user but a lot of what was mentioned went into me picking my first DSLR. My professor said one of the ways he decided his brand when he switched from film to digital was to look at what the people he admired shot with. That was a big part of my choice along with the Canon layout which was more similar to my former bridge and point and shoots I had used. But all the other things listed are important too, MP, full frame vs cropped, all of that should be remembered. In my opinion the glass you use carries more weight then the body. Find a body that does what you need and then use the money you save to get good glass to get the results you want.

  • Scott August 9, 2013 02:40 am

    Thanks for the post, well thought out and written.

  • jim gray August 9, 2013 02:40 am

    any news about the D400?

  • Iain dewar August 9, 2013 02:01 am

    I'm about to buy the d3200 this evening, any tips on sports photography especially rugby and cricket. many thanks

  • Sean August 9, 2013 02:00 am


    If I were a Canon guy I'd do a similar post, alas I've probably shot with a Canon DSLR maybe 3 times ever, so someone else will have to take over that one :)


  • Paul Parkinson LRPS August 9, 2013 01:57 am

    it would be incredibly helpful to have a similar post on the Canon side of things. Thanks!