Even though quite a few of our readers are beginner photographers, we often talk about things that, while simple to us, are much more difficult to understand for those with less experience and knowledge. I remember the painful transition from being a photography theoretician, an arm-chair expert, to one who uses his technical knowledge without thinking about it for the sake of photography (not comparisons and pixel-peeping). The first question I had to ask myself on this journey was obvious: What camera should I get?
You have to start somewhere. Maybe you’ve already decided on a Nikon camera, or you’re weighing Nikon against other brands. Either way, in this article, I will introduce you to several of Nikon’s current cameras as of 2023, both DSLR and mirrorless. You will not find the best camera here, as there isn’t such a thing. But, hopefully, you will find the best Nikon camera for you as a beginner photographer – one you are going to use for years to come.
In Search of Your First Nikon
Every modern DSLR and mirrorless camera is suitable for very serious work. They all employ fast autofocus systems and near state-of-the-art sensors, and even the cheapest entry-level cameras are still very good. The question is not whether the camera you choose is good – these days, all Nikon cameras are good. The question is which one of these is best for you.
Unless you’re already an established photographer, it would be a mistake for your first Nikon camera to be a flagship Z9 or D6, which are expensive and probably overwhelming to use. It’s better to start with a midrange camera or something cheaper so that you can learn the ropes and familiarize yourself with Nikon as a brand.
Nikon has long been known for their DSLR cameras like the Nikon D850, which some say is the best all-around DSLR ever made. But in 2018, Nikon entered the high-end mirrorless camera domain with their Z-series cameras. They currently have eight mirrorless models to choose from, including their flagship Z9, and they are putting almost all their development into mirrorless, not DSLR, these days.
Even though mirrorless cameras are Nikon’s focus today, it is actually still possible to buy new DSLRs like the D6, D850, D750, and D500 – and of course plenty more cameras if you buy used. Thus, you have a few options to choose from for your first Nikon camera.
Here are the more recent Nikon cameras, with links to my review of the camera if I’ve written one:
|Nikon DSLR||Nikon Mirrorless|
Nikon Z7 II
Nikon Z6 II
You may also find this article useful if you want a bird’s-eye view of all the current Nikon cameras:
Nikon Mirrorless or Nikon DSLR?
With the exception of Pentax, camera companies have essentially ceased DSLR development. It’s not impossible that we will eventually see another Nikon DSLR, but at this point it’s looking less and less likely.
Nikon’s mirrorless cameras on the other hand are under active development. If you look at Nikon’s lens roadmap, they already have an amazing selection of lenses. Most of these lenses even outperform their DSLR counterparts in terms of things like sharpness, weight, and focus speed:
Because most of Nikon’s mirrorless cameras are newer, they also tend to have better features, like eye-tracking autofocus, 4K (or even 8K) video, and more frames per second for photographing fast action. Take into consideration the future of Nikon’s DSLR and mirrorless lineups, and mirrorless starts to look even more like the right choice for most people’s first Nikon camera.
Does that mean that you should avoid Nikon DLSRs? Actually, there are some serious reasons to consider a DSLR. The biggest reason is price, particularly if you buy used, where you can save hundreds or thousands of dollars on a DSLR – and even more if you also buy a set of used Nikon F-mount lenses, compared to new Nikon Z mirrorless lenses. Further, autofocus performance favors Nikon’s DSLRs in some cases. You can get a lightly-used Nikon D500 DSLR for about $1000, and the only Nikon mirrorless camera with better autofocus tracking performance than that is the Nikon Z9, which is $5500 new.
Thus, if you need a Nikon camera that can perform in very tricky situations like birds in flight, and you’re on a budget, a Nikon DSLR is still the best Nikon option. That does not mean the other Z cameras like the Z6 II have bad autofocus, of course. But they don’t match the performance of an autofocus-oriented DSLR like the Nikon D500. Aside from that disadvantage, for most photographers, a Nikon mirrorless camera would be my recommendation for a first Nikon camera.
Choosing a Nikon Mirrorless Camera
If you’ve decided upon a mirrorless camera instead of a DSLR, you might as well familiarize yourself with the entire Nikon Z mirrorless camera lineup so far. After all, there have only been nine Nikon Z mirrorless cameras so far, and they fit into three general categories:
- “The Beast” – Nikon Z9
- “The Full-Framers” – Nikon Z5, Z6, Z7, Z6II, Z7II
- “The Starter Camera” – Nikon Z50, Zfc, Z30
Nikon Z9: “The Beast”
The Nikon Z9 is Nikon’s mirrorless flagship. With an integrated grip, beautiful life-like EVF, amazing autofocus, and 8K video, the Z9 is suited to any photographic situation, except going lightweight. It is the best Nikon Z camera for sports and wildlife photography by far. However, it’s not a good first Nikon camera for most photographers, unless you are switching to Nikon from another brand and are already an experienced photographer.
At $5500, the Nikon Z9 is way beyond what I normally recommend for a first camera. It is actually not a bad value for what you get (comparable Sony and Canon cameras are over $6000) but it is overkill for any beginner photographer. Luckily, there are much more affordable and beginner-friendly ways to get into Nikon mirrorless.
Nikon Z5, Z6, Z7, Z6 II, Z7 II: “The Full-Framers”
If you don’t need the amazing abilities of the Z9 but still want a full-frame camera, these five cameras are your options. As the names suggest, the Nikon Z6 II and Z7 II are the second generation of their respective lineups. Compared to the original Z6 and Z7, they add an additional memory card slot, a bigger image buffer, and a somewhat better autofocus system. Even so, they are not at the level of the Nikon Z9 or a good Nikon DSLR in terms of autofocusing on fast-moving subjects like quick birds in flight.
The Z7 and Z7 II cameras have Nikon’s high-resolution 45.7 megapixel sensor, whereas the other three cameras have a 24 megapixel sensor. In practice, 24 megapixels is already a lot, and it should be enough for most photographers. Since this is the biggest reason to get a Z7 or Z7 II, most photographers will be safe with the Z6 or Z6 II instead.
What about the Nikon Z5? It is also a very capable full-frame camera, but it has some compromises. The camera sensor on the Nikon Z5 is not quite as good in low light, and there are other lower-end features like only shooting 4.5 frames per second and capturing 4K video only with a significant 1.7x crop. These issues won’t matter to a lot of photographers, and the price of the Z5 is a great value. For a first-time photographer, the Nikon Z5, Z6, or Z6 II would all be solid choices, although you may need to pick a used Z6 or a new Z5 if you want a camera around the $1000 mark, or a used Z5 if you want something even less expensive.
Nikon Z50, Zfc, Z30: “The Starter Camera”
Nikon has so far produced three mirrorless cameras with a smaller APS-C sensor instead of the larger full-frame sensor: the Z50, the retro-style Zfc, and the Z30. Each of these cameras can use any of Nikon’s Z lenses, albeit with a crop factor because they have a smaller sensor. Traditionally, APS-C cameras have been one of our top recommendations to new photographers, since they are an inexpensive way to do advanced photography, with surprisingly few downsides compared to more expensive full-frame cameras.
The Z50, Zfc, and Z30 do have some drawbacks compared to “the full-framers” above. They perform a bit worse in low light conditions, and it’s harder to get a shallow-focus effect with creamy bokeh. Nikon’s three APS-C mirrorless cameras also don’t have built-in image stabilization with the camera sensor, so you need to use a lens that has built-in stabilization. (All of Nikon’s full-frame mirrorless cameras have built-in stabilization, which means that every lens is stabilized and can be shot in low light handheld more easily.) Maybe one day Nikon will release an APS-C camera with in-body image stabilization, but for the lineup right now, I recommend lenses with vibration reduction, like the Nikon Z DX 16-50mm VR and Nikon Z DX 50-250mm VR.
If you’ve decided on an APS-C model for your first Nikon camera, which one should you get? The Z50 and Zfc are very similar but they do have differences. I would recommend the Z50 for most people because it has a more comfortable grip and is a bit less expensive. However, the Zfc has some additional features, like a rear LCD screen that can fully articulate around, instead of just flipping up and down like on the Z50. The Zfc’s retro theme also looks pretty nice to me.
The Z30 is a specialized camera without a viewfinder, and it’s targeted toward vloggers rather than photographers. I find the viewfinder essential, especially for handheld photography, but you can save a bit of money with the Z30 and gain a few specialized video features if you don’t need the viewfinder. The specialized video features are pretty small, like a 125-minute recording limit and a built-in light that alerts you when you’re filming.
All in all, the Nikon Z50 is one of the best first Nikon cameras for the typical photographer, whereas the Zfc or Z30 may be the best for you, depending on your needs. You can buy the Z50 with the 16-50mm kit lens included, for $1000. You can also find it used for about $650 with the 16-50mm lens if you wait for a good deal. You need a lens with any Nikon mirrorless or DSLR camera, or you won’t be able to take pictures, and the 16-50mm is probably the single best value for a starting lens from Nikon. (Note that this lens is APS-C only, and it will apply an automatic crop if you use it on any Nikon full-frame camera, which I strongly recommend against.)
How to Choose a Nikon DSLR
Do you still want a DSLR, even though knowledgeable and sincere experts on YouTube are saying that the DSLR is obsolete and useless? You’re not crazy. Sometimes, the older, tried-and-true technology is the way to go, even though DSLR cameras aren’t where Nikon is innovating these days. Just be sure that you’re happy with buying used (since many of Nikon’s DSLR lenses and accessories are no longer made new) and keep in mind that you may eventually need to switch to mirrorless and sell your DSLR equipment if you want any of Nikon’s new mirrorless features.
A great thing about Nikon DSLRs are the low used prices. For example, it is not hard to find the once-flagship Nikon D5 with a very low shutter count for around $2500. This camera came out at $6499 and would be overkill for almost any situation, and it is not what I recommend to a new photographer! But it goes to show that Nikon DSLRs can be a heck of a value. The same is true of other amazing cameras like the Nikon D500 or D850 that have flooded the used market despite their superb features.
Here are the Nikon DSLRs that are still available new on B&H Photo, from most to least expensive:
Not all of these are traditionally “beginner” cameras. A typical choice for your first Nikon DSLR would be one of the two cameras at the end of the list, the D5600 or D3500, or at most a mid-range camera like the Nikon D7500 or the (discontinued) D7200 or D610.
All of the cameras in the list above have older, discontinued models from the same lineup. For example, before the Nikon D3500, we had the D3400, D3300, D3200, D3100, and D3000. I wouldn’t bother with the D3000 or D3100 any more, but a used Nikon D3200 is still my recommendation today for someone who wants the cheapest possible camera with great image quality. In fact, the image quality on the Nikon D3200 is comparable to the image quality of the Nikon Z30, Z50, or Zfc, even though a used D3200 is easily under $200 on the used market with a lens. Of course, this camera won’t be shooting 4K video and has an underwhelming autofocus system for anything that moves fast, and other old features – but the price and image quality are great. The same is true of the rest of the Nikon D3500 lineup.
From the Nikon D3200, I would ramp up in this order based on your budget, for general-purpose photography: D3200, D3300, D3500, D5300, D5600, D7100, D7200, D7500, D610, D750, D780, D810, D850. Each one is a moderate step up, so just go where your budget takes you. Buying used will save a good deal of money on each camera.
A couple of noteworthy beginner cameras on the list are the Nikon D3300, which is the cheapest camera that accepts Nikon’s newest AF-P lenses (very small and inexpensive lenses, with a great wide-angle option in the 10-20mm AF-P) and the Nikon D5300, which is one of only two Nikon DSLRs to have built-in GPS (and the other is the $6500 flagship D6).
If you’re specifically a sports and wildlife photographer, I would only consider the Nikon D7500, D500, D850, or flagship D4/D5/D6 cameras, since those are the Nikon DSLRs that prioritize autofocus. On the other hand, if you want the best video capabilities, the D780 is your best choice, although mirrorless is where you should probably be looking.
Most new Nikon photographers will be happy with an entry-level DSLR like the D3500 or D5600, which are not only great cameras but are much more beginner-friendly and portable for travel. But because used prices are so good on Nikon DSLRs, it’s less of a commitment to get an advanced full-frame camera like a used D750, so photographers who are considering a career in photography can absolutely step up a level.
With so many different cameras on offer from Nikon, even experienced photographers can find themselves lost. Personally, I see an advanced mirrorless or DSLR camera much like I would see a first car: You don’t want to get started behind the wheel of a Bentley. What you need is a car that’s just right, just enough for you to learn and improve your skills. But afterwards, if you like the experience and even wonder whether you should take up photography to a professional level, Nikon has plenty of amazing tools for you. Right now is the best time to be a Nikon photographer, between the amazing mirrorless features and the low used prices on great DSLRs.
In this article, I did my best to introduce you to current beginner-friendly cameras Nikon has to offer in 2023, and some of the upgrade paths that lie ahead once you pick one. Hopefully, my words were of some use and will ease your decision, or calm your mind if you have already made a decision. The most important point is that all of these cameras are great, and you really can’t go wrong – it’s just about choosing something that is tailored to your budget and situation. Have fun using your new camera!
I’ve learned a lesson, not just in photography, but other hobbies as well. Sometimes you buy a piece of equipment thinking “this will be my starter item” with the idea you are delaying the long term decision. But before you know it, you’ve bought things like lenses that are compatible with your “starter” camera and you are invested in that system to the point that a change would be painful. So that first decision is very important!
Interesting article. I upgraded to a D780 a couple of years ago and am very happy with it. I considered going to the Z6ii mirrorless but the cost of the lenses and limited number of lenses kept me in DSLRs. I don’t see much difference in the pictures for landscape, stationary wildlife, and portrait between the two types of cameras. I do see a difference in action (sports) and moving wildlife. I don’t think the small difference in weight is a factor. I am 74 years old and typically carry a midrange zoom and telephoto zoom in a sling bag. Until the price really comes down i won’t be trading for a mirrorless system.
Great article as usual Nasim!
Still hanging on to my “heavy” Nikon DSLR equipment but now use an XT3 with a kit lens as my tourist camera. Love the top dials.
Always enjoy your articles, Nasim. I am still managing quite well with my rather old D3300 and D7200 Nikons. As I have numerous older Nikon ff lenses, I would probably opt for a D750 or D780 body rather than a mirrorless one.
I was about to add a comment to a post and then realized it was 6 years old. Oh well.
I am a little surprised that in the used DSLR mix, Nasim missed the D7100. Granted, a D7200 is almost certainly better, and I’d go for that if I could afford the difference in price, but the D7100 is still pretty good.
Nikon D7200 vs D7100 by Nasim Mansurov:
Yes, I saw that, but thought if the D3200 gets on the list here, the 7100 ought to too. A minor matter. I still find the D7100 adequate, but envy some small improvements on my wife’s D7200. I notice that my shutter count is up to about 97 thousand, and the labels are worn off most of the buttons, but it’s still kicking.
I don’t know if Nasim recently added the D7100 listed in this paragraph:
“From the Nikon D3200, I would ramp up in this order based on your budget, for general-purpose photography: D3200, D3300, D3500, D5300, D5600, **D7100**, D7200, D7500, D610, D750, D780, D810, D850. Each one is a moderate step up, so just go where your budget takes you. Buying used will save a good deal of money on each camera.” [** my emphasis]
Yes, I think that’s new. I suspect it was just an accidental oversight anyway, and he does tend to pay attention,
Agreed. I only sold mine because I wanted the better AF and buffer of the D7500. If I didn’t enjoy wildlife, I’d still have the D7100.
I’m very disappointed in Nikon dx mirrorless.
The Z50 is no match for my D7500 and who wants a 12-28 and 18-140 as their basic lenses?
All very good points, but I would add the fact that there are plenty of folks out there who don’t want to start with a heavy and large DSLRs. If size and weight are an issue then perhaps going with mirrorless would be the first choice while taking into consideration the size and weight of some of the full frame Z line lenses. Unfortunately one area where Nikon falls short is in the APS-C line both in terms of camera bodies and lenses. I honestly would direct most newbies towards the Z5 and/or Z6II bodies and get the following lenses (14-30 f/4, 24-70 f/4, and the newly announced Tamron 70-300 f/4.5-5.6).
So glad to see something written by Nasim again. We love your articles and hope to see more.
Mark and Emily
Good to hear from you my friend, it has been a while!
I’m always here, running things in the background. Will certainly try to post more articles as time allows.
Please send my warmest regards to Emily!
Hi Nasim – I think your second illustration is the Zfc and the Z50 – not the Z7II or the Z9.
For a beginner, maybe the controls on the Zfc are a bit daunting – they’re “old school”, and I think they’re more suited to an experienced photographer who wants a bit of “retro” in his life.
Funny that you say that, and I understand. However, for “us” old school-ers (well, me at least) it is actually easier. There are 3 basic settings, shutter speed, aperture and iso, and wow, even an EV compensation dial. Ha. Just like my good old Nikon FG.
Nice catch, and sorry for the typo, which has been fixed!
I agree with the Zfc being targeted towards more experienced users who want to shoot with a retro-style camera. However, keep in mind that Fujifilm targeted many of its entry-level cameras with the same concept, and they were quite successful at marketing them. I don’t think it would be too difficult for a beginner to learn to use retro cameras. The controls are a bit different, but they are not hard to get used to in my opinion…
Anybody looking forward to jump to mirror less system from D5500/5600/3500, should go for Z 30. Inspite of not having EVF, it is far superior to any of them. All your F Mount lenses start focusing properly without any issues of front/back focus, low light focus is superb, eye detect is amazing. For me the best part has been to be able to use AF-P 70-300 FX Lens at shutter speed as low as 1/320s and sometimes even 1/250s and still get tack sharp photos of BNIF. It was impossible to get sharp photos with D5500 at anything slower than 1/1000s. Really helps in keeping ISO lower during late evenings. High ISO photos are cleaner as well, and have much better colour and contrast retention than my D5500. You will start appreciating photos taken at different heights as compared to eye level all the time. Don’t know why it is being touted only as a video camera. It’s photo taking abilities are superb and it won’t let you down and would not hurt your bank either. I am a happy owner of Z30 having graduated from D5500 (4 years) and honestly I don’t miss the EVF.
Abhinav, great that the Z30 works out for your needs! I don’t think Nikon has ever made a bad stills camera, and the Z30 is certainly a great entry-level mirrorless choice.
I personally love to be able to view an image through a viewfinder, which can be useful when shooting in bright conditions. But obviously everyone’s needs are different – if one does not care for the EVF and they are OK always looking at the LCD, then the Z30 is certainly worth looking at. That’s why it is on the list :)
Actually its quite easy: go down the mirrorless list and see which camera you can afford first. If its the Z9, get it. If not, go one step down and see.
I wouldn’t consider that to be a good choice for hiking/backpacking where weight and size are important. It’d be kind of like buying an F350 to haul a jet-ski to the lake.
I agree with Jason – I think one should carefully choose what’s best given their budget and needs. The Z9 is phenomenal, but I don’t think I would want to take that on a long hiking or travel trip…