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. That is why we strive to share our experience as someone shared theirs with us when we were just starting. The most difficult part for us is not the writing itself, however – mind you, we aren’t holding anything back. The most difficult part is becoming the beginner again so as to remember all the questions we had when we started. Make no mistake, we’ve had plenty of those. I, too, didn’t know what aperture and shutter speed was. I, too, had a hard time getting to know my gear in such a way I would be able to get quality results from it. 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. Thank goodness that part of my life didn’t last more than a few days. But before any of these questions came to my mind, I, too, had to make what seemed like the most difficult choice of all at the time. The first one, the one that gave way to all the other questions that followed and follow to this day. Where to start? Which camera to buy first?
Your first camera is not just a piece of equipment. It’s your entry into photography world. The “buy-the-most-expensive” logic doesn’t work here even if you have the means to do so. You have to get it right. Your first camera has to be “just enough”. It will either be too difficult, too heavy, too mind-boggling with all the functions, or too dull and alien. It may turn you to another system, or from photography altogether. Or it will fit you like a glove and lead you down the path of learning everything, and then learning, again, of what’s actually important. So, lets start from the start. In this “Which Nikon DSLR to Buy First?” article, I will introduce you to several Nikon DSLRs – you will not find the best camera here, as there isn’t such a thing. But, hopefully, you will find the best camera for you as a beginner photographer, one you are going to learn with and love for years to come.
1) What is a DSLR?
DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras are cameras with removable lenses and mirrors used to direct light from the lens to an optical viewfinder. Typically, DSLRs are much bigger and heavier than any point-and-shoot camera, and are capable of delivering incomparably superior technical image quality under varying lighting conditions, especially in lower light. In their design, they remain virtually unchanged from old film cameras with removable lenses, which were called SLRs. The biggest difference is that film used in old cameras has been replaced with electronic sensors that capture light.
Here are the basic elements of a DSLR (image courtesy of Wikipedia):
- Reflex mirror
- Image sensor
- Matte focusing screen
- Condenser lens
Here lies another important difference between these expensive, large cameras and their compact, take-anywhere siblings – sensor size. The bigger the sensor, the better technical image quality is potentially possible to achieve. Nikon DSLR cameras have two sensor sizes. One, the more common and popular, is APS-C sized sensor (crop-sized), which measures approximately 23.5 x 15.6 mm in dimensions. The more expensive cameras meant for advanced users with more demanding needs have larger sensors, called full-frame (FF in short) or FX. These sensors measure approximately 36 x 24 mm and are more or less equal in size to 35mm film used in old analogue cameras (hence the “full-frame” term). Compare that to compact camera sensor size, which can measure 7.44 x 5.58 mm or even less. Large sensors are much more expensive to manufacture. Because of that, cheapest current full-frame cameras cost around $2000, while cheapest APS-C cameras may cost three or four times less.
2) Why Would Someone Buy a DSLR?
This question has become much more valid over the last three years or so. If not so long ago DSLR was an obvious step forward for any aspiring point-and-shoot user, today entry-level cameras are fiercely rivaled by mirrorless cameras. But the battle is not lost. So far, many aspects of a well-established DSLR system make it much more mature in terms of lens choice in new and used markets. The wide array of lenses mean a DSLR can be used for any kind of photographic task. Also, most DSLR systems (with the exception of Pentax) have room to “grow”. In other words, they offer cameras with bigger sensors, but same lens mounts, and give the choice of upgrading to a more serious piece of gear in the future should such a need arise.
3) In Search of Your First Nikon
In this section, I will introduce you to several Nikon DSLR cameras. All of them are, to an extent, suitable for very serious work – they all employ fast autofocus systems and near state-of-the-art sensors, as well as plenty of other functions, such as HD video recording. The cameras listed below are entry-level DSLRs that are simple to use and learn, especially for someone with no prior DSLR experience. The question is not whether the camera is good – in general, all current DSLR cameras are good. The question is which one of these is better for you.
The Nikon D40, the first in this entry-level segment of Nikon cameras was a huge success. From a technical standpoint, it wasn’t a very advanced camera even when introduced in 2006. It had an old-ish 6 megapixel (MP) image sensor, when 10+ MP sensors were expected. Even so, many found it to be so good at what it did, there was hardly a better camera with just enough features. Keyword here is just enough. I remember shooting with this camera, and I remember loving it despite owning better gear. Its newest successor, the Nikon D3400 improves on the same philosophy.
The Nikon D3400 features a well-received 24.2 MP APS-C sensor, a fast EXPEED 4 image processor, pretty solid video specifications capable of shooting up to 1080p @ 60 frames per second (fps), up to 5 frames per second continuous shooting speed, a fairly solid 11-point autofocus system, Bluetooth connectivity and a beefy battery – plenty for any beginner. The basic idea behind the entry-level camera hasn’t changed – it’s a small, lightweight and very easy to use DSLR. If you are new to DSLR photography, it is a very well accomplished piece of gear and almost certainly more than enough for your needs. Being so small, you can also be sure you will often take it with you wherever you go rather than leave it on a shelf at home. If you are after a camera that is sure to deliver all the basics and is easy to use, the D3400 is very likely to be that camera, especially if you are on a budget. You will be tempted by more expensive and, on paper, more capable options, but remember – give in to such a temptation, and you may end up with a high-end DSLR and not having a clue how to use it. Yes, more advanced cameras might have a better build quality, weather sealing, faster frame rates and insanely fast autofocus systems, but do you really need all those features when starting out? Most likely not.
If you are a beginner with a limited budget and are looking for a new Nikon DSLR, look no further. This is a fun, simple, capable camera. A proper photographer will always be able to appreciate such strengths and if you run into one who thinks less of you because of your cheap Nikon, well, it’s his lack of understanding and in no way yours.
This camera is the predecessor of the D3400 and, as its newer sibling, shares the same core priorities. It is small, lightweight and easy to use. Better yet, it’s even slightly cheaper new or second-hand. There aren’t many downsides to this camera, and none of them are all that relevant for a beginner photographer. Compared to the D3400, the D3300 has a very similar 24.2 MP APS-C sensor, the same continuous shooting speed of 5 fps and pretty much the same weight.
However, it is not as efficient as the D3400 in terms of battery life – it is limited to 700 shots total, compared to 1200 shots on the D3400. It has no Bluetooth connectivity for smartphone control / image transfer either. Other than that, the two cameras are very similar!
Again, another great Nikon DSLR for a beginner. Personally, I would not worry too much ab
If you want to step up to a more serious camera, the Nikon D5600 is the latest upper entry-level DSLR from Nikon. Featuring a very similar 24.2 MP APS-C sensor and the same EXPEED 4 image processor as the D3300 / D3400 cameras, you guessed it right – moving up to this camera is not about getting better image quality. Instead, you are getting more features such as a better 39-point autofocus system, a larger 3.2″ articulating LCD touchscreen with more resolution, built-in WiFi and ability to shoot timelapses and bracket your shots. As expected, it is a slightly heavier camera, although slightly smaller than the D3400.
The biggest reason for wanting to move up to the Nikon D5600 is the better autofocus system – there is a pretty big difference between 39 and 11 focus points – you have more options (9 vs 1 cross-type AF points), fast autofocus and better accuracy overall, especially when using focus points outside the center area. If you are planning to shoot fast moving action such as sports and wildlife, the Nikon D5600 is clearly a better camera to go with. The second big reason is the articulating touchscreen LCD, which can be very useful when shooting at different angles. We found the touchscreen to work really well, especially for zooming in and out of captured photographs. On the flip side, the camera is a bit more complex to use, although not by much.
Another option is to look for the previous-generation Nikon D5x00-series cameras, such as the Nikon D5500 and Nikon D5300. If you cannot find them new online, you can always check out local listings such as Craigslist to see if you can find a well-used sample.
If you want to shoot with one of Nikon’s best APS-C cameras, the Nikon D7200 might be the camera. The D7200 is a very, very capable photographic tool many amateur and even professional photographers are happy to own and shoot with. With all that in mind, it is still a pretty easy camera to shoot with, although we definitely recommend to read the camera manual in order to fully understand its capabilities and get the best out of it. This camera features all the necessary direct controls and is excellent ergonomically. In fact, until Nikon finally revealed the high-end Nikon D500, it was considered Nikon’s best APS-C camera, so many photographers ended up buying it for a good reason – it is a superb camera that has many of the features of high-end DSLRs.
It might have the same resolution 24.2 MP sensor as the other entry-level cameras, but it is a better-made sensor with slightly improved high ISO performance and dynamic range. It has an insanely fast and accurate Multi-CAM 3500 II DX autofocus system with 51 focus points, which is far superior than the autofocus systems found on Nikon D3x00 and D5x00-series cameras – it is literally a night and day difference, especially when it comes to shooting in low-light conditions. It has a slightly better continuous shooting speed of 6 fps and a larger camera buffer for shooting fast action.
Another key difference is the much better viewfinder. Compared to the D3x00 and D5x00-series cameras, the Nikon D7200 has a pentaprism instead of a pentamirror, which provides brighter and more pleasant experience when looking through it. In addition, it is significantly larger, with a 0.61x magnification compared to 0.54 magnification on the D5600. And lastly, the D7200 has a 100% viewfinder coverage compared to 95% on the D5600, which means that you see exactly what you are going to get.
The Nikon D7200 is also weather sealed, while none of the entry-level DSLRs are. Although this is not going to matter for most photographers out there, if you are planning to shoot in challenging conditions with lots of dust and moisture, the D7200 will keep on shooting, while other entry-level cameras might not do so well and potentially even fail. However, keep in mind that you might also need to invest in better quality lenses with improved weather-sealing options in order to be able to shoot in harsh conditions, so it is not just the camera you need to worry about.
Lastly, the Nikon D7200 has a larger and more capable battery and two memory card slots. Again, these features might not be important for a beginner, but for someone who shoots something critical such as a wedding, being able to shoot to two memory cards at the same time for backup reasons might be worth the extra cost. You may also choose to have RAW images placed in one card, and JPEG versions in the other.
Now the big question is, does a beginner truly need such an advanced camera? Most likely not. I would still recommend to go with an entry-level DSLR instead of something like the Nikon D7200, simply because those are much cheaper options and you probably don’t need to have all the advanced features listed above when starting out. The D7200 does not even have an articulating touchscreen like the D5600 does, which can be a pretty big disadvantage for shooting odd angles.
You may think I’m trying to discourage you from buying the D7200 and you would be right! Make no mistake – the D7200 is an amazing DSLR camera that many are happy to own. However, I would not suggest this wonderful DSLR to anyone who is not serious about becoming a real photographer. There are cheaper, smaller and simpler options out there for those who just want quality images for their family, friends and travel.
For more details about this camera, check out our in-depth Nikon D7200 review.
If you insist on getting the D7200, click here to see the current B&H offers. Just like with the other cameras, you might find great deals on the previous generation Nikon D7100, although I would not recommend to go down all the way to the D7000 due to a big difference in features, specifically the autofocus system.
4) Final Words
With so many different cameras on offer, even those more experienced can often find themselves lost. Deciding which one to buy as the first one is even more difficult. I see a first DSLR 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. In this article, I did my best to introduce you to current beginner-friendly DSLR cameras Nikon has to offer. Hopefully, my words were of some use and will ease your decision or calm your mind in case such has already been made.
Have fun using your new gear!