In photography, you have to start somewhere. Maybe you’ve already decided on a Nikon camera, or perhaps you’re weighing Nikon against other brands. Either way, this article will introduce you to all of Nikon’s current cameras as of 2023, both DSLR and mirrorless, and recommend which one you should buy first.
You will not find just one “best” camera here, because there isn’t such a thing. It depends what type of photography you plan to do, and what your budget is. However, you will find the best Nikon camera for you – one that will make an excellent first camera which you can use for years to come.
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In Search of Your First Nikon
These days, all Nikon cameras are really good. They all employ fast autofocus systems and near state-of-the-art sensors. Although there are various reasons why some Nikon cameras are more expensive than others – which you’ll see in a minute – even the cheapest entry-level cameras are still really impressive.
But which one should you get to start? Unless you’re already an established photographer, it would be a mistake for your first Nikon camera to be a pro-level Nikon Z9 or D6, which are expensive, niche, and probably overwhelming to use. Even professional photographers more often choose a more general-purpose Nikon camera like the D850 or the Z8.
Nikon has long been known for their DSLR cameras, but in 2018, Nikon entered the world of high-end mirrorless cameras with their Nikon Z system. They currently have nine 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 doesn’t mean you need to get one! You can still buy several of Nikon’s DSLRs new today, like the D6, D850, D780, and D500, all of which are great cameras. DSLRs are also selling for very low prices on the used market, so if you’re on a budget, a used DSLR is probably the way to go.
Here are the more recent Nikon cameras, with links to Photography Life’s review of the camera if available:
|Nikon DSLR||Nikon Mirrorless|
Nikon Z7 II
Nikon Z6 II
You may also find this article by Spencer Cox to be useful if you want a bird’s-eye view of all the current Nikon cameras:
Now that you know the basics, next up are some specific recommendations.
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 and have more on the way. Most of these lenses 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. If you take into consideration the future of Nikon’s DSLR and mirrorless lineups, mirrorless probably looks more appealing.
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 by getting 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 cameras with better autofocus tracking performance are thousands of dollars more expensive.
In short, most of the time, it’s better if you get a Nikon mirrorless camera as your first Nikon camera. However, if you’re on a budget and don’t need the newest mirrorless features, buying a Nikon DSLR (especially a used one) is a great use of money. Nikon’s DSLRs remain some of the best cameras ever made.
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 Beasts” – Nikon Z9 and Z8
- “The Full-Framers” – Nikon Z5, Z6, Z7, Z6 II, Z7 II
- “The Starter Camera” – Nikon Z50, Zfc, Z30
Nikon Z9 and Z8: “The Beasts”
The Nikon Z9 is Nikon’s mirrorless flagship. With an integrated grip, beautiful electronic viewfinder, 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. After all, it is also Nikon’s most complex camera.
At $5500, the Nikon Z9 is way beyond what most photographers should get as their 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.
However, the Nikon Z8 is essentially 95% of the Nikon Z9, while being much smaller and less expensive at $4000. As you can see in Photography Life’s article Nikon Z8 vs Nikon Z9, you are giving up very little by going with the Z8. This means it’s nearly as complex of a camera, but thankfully, it is at least a lot smaller and more portable.
Even though the Z8 is also a questionable choice as your first Nikon camera because of how complex and advanced it is, it is at least easier to justify a Z8 compared to a Z9. However, there are less expensive Nikon cameras that you should consider, too.
Nikon Z5, Z6, Z7, Z6 II, Z7 II: “The Full-Framers”
If you don’t need the amazing abilities of the Z8 and 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 Z8/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, it’s best to get 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. The Z50 is easier to recommend 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 is also pretty appealing.
Meanwhile, the Z30 is a specialized camera without a viewfinder, and it’s targeted toward vloggers rather than photographers. Most photographers find a viewfinder to be essential, but if you don’t want one, you can save a bit of money with the Z30 and gain a few specialized video features like a longer recording limit and a tally light.
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.
Note that you need a lens with any Nikon mirrorless or DSLR camera, or you won’t be able to take pictures. Nikon’s 16-50mm is the single best value for a first lens on one of these three Nikon mirrorless cameras. (However, this lens is APS-C mirrorless only. It will apply an automatic crop if you use it on any Nikon full-frame mirrorless camera, so don’t get it unless you’re getting the Z30, Z50, or Zfc.)
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, especially for new photographers! But it goes to show that Nikon DSLRs can be an excellent value. The same is true of other superb cameras like the Nikon D500 or D850 that are easily found on the used market today.
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, there was the D3400, D3300, D3200, D3100, and D3000. Those last two (the D3100 and D300) are totally obsolete in today’s world, but a used Nikon D3200 still makes an excellent choice 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 Nikon’s newest Z30, Z50, or Zfc mirrorless cameras, even though a used D3200 can be found for less than $200 on the used market with a lens. Of course, this camera won’t be shooting 4K video, and it has an underwhelming autofocus system for fast-moving wildlife. But the price and image quality are great. The same is true of the rest of the Nikon D3500 lineup.
From the Nikon D3200, you should 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 pick whichever one your budget allows. 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 very few Nikon cameras to have built-in GPS.
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 really where you should be looking.
Most new Nikon photographers will be happy with an entry-level mirrorless camera like the Z50, or an inexpensive full-frame mirrorless camera like the Z5. Meanwhile, if you want a DSLR, the D3500 or D5600 are great beginner-friendly options, while a used Nikon D750 is a nice step up if you want a full-frame camera. There’s nothing wrong with getting a high-end Nikon Z8 or Nikon D850 if your budget allows, but just know that the camera will have a steeper learning curve because of its more advanced features.
With so many different cameras on offer from Nikon, even experienced photographers can find themselves lost. But it’s best to think about your first mirrorless or DSLR camera much like 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. Hopefully this article gave you a good idea of the Nikon camera you should choose first. 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! If you have any questions, you can ask in the comment section below, and Photography Life’s team of professional photographers will work hard to provide an answer.