written by: William Springer•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 9/27/2011
Looking for an easy-to-use pocket camera, or something that will require a serious chunk of change? Nikon has something for everyone, from the parent interested in taking snapshots to the serious professional.
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When it comes to cameras, digital or otherwise, there are a number of different brands available. Two, however, stand out above the rest: Canon and Nikon. Both companies have been in the business of producing superior optics for decades, both for cameras and for commercial and industrial applications.
Which is better? Both have their adherents, and both are quite good; I personally started out with a Canon, then switched to Nikon as their top prosumer offering at the time was better than Canon's similar offering in terms of the features I cared about most. Of course, choosing a camera body doesn't lock you into only using lenses by that manufacturer, as there are several good third-party lens makers producing quality lenses for both Canon and Nikon cameras.
Point-and-shoot cameras, while not as sophisticated as single lens reflex (SLR) cameras, can nonetheless take a great photo, and these days you can get a $200 point-and-shoot that offers advanced features like 3D panoramas. In many cases, they even offer more megapixels than more expensive cameras, although the pixels are smaller. Nikon's offering in this area is the Coolpix series, which comes with a variety of options. The letter indicates which series each camera belongs to: AW is for All Weather, L is for Life, P is for Performance, and S is for Style; most Coolpix cameras belong to the L and S series.
A single lens reflex camera, or SLR, allows the photographer more control over the photograph, at the expense of extra equipment: rather than one all-in-one lens, the SLR photographer uses different lenses to fit the situation. Lenses designed for SLR cameras can be used on digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras as well. Since these cameras use larger pixels than a pocket camera, they can capture better photos even when they have fewer megapixels. Indeed, it is actually common for more expensive cameras to have fewer megapixels than less expensive ones!
Nikon's entry-level DSLR cameras are a great way to explore whether you're interested in making photography a serious hobby. Most of them come in a kit which includes a zoom lens, allowing you to try it out without spending any extra money (aside from memory cards). The entry-level cameras can use the same lenses as the prosumer cameras, although they may not get the same results. When dealing with a limited budget, it's always best to spend less money on the camera body and more on the lenses, as the body will be replaced with newer (and fancier) options, but a good lens can be used for decades. Aside from being cheaper than the prosumer cameras, they also tend to be lighter and easier to use. Cameras in Nikon's consumer line are generally denoted by a D followed by a four-digit number; however, the lines often blur between these and the mid-range Nikons.
The mid-range Nikon DSLRs fill the gap for people who are looking for a little more performance than they can get with an entry-level camera, but aren't quite up for the complexity of a prosumer body. At this point, the bodies cost in the $1000 range (compared to half that for an entry-level camera) and have some more advanced features. The D90 was Nikon's first DSLR to shoot high-definition video as well as photographs; it has now been supplemented by the newer D7000 (in many cases, both a camera and its successor will be sold at the same time, as both will do some things better than the other). The midrange cameras have two- or four-digit model numbers.
At this point, we need to mention the difference between full-frame and cropped-sensor cameras. In a full-frame DSLR, the digital sensor is the same size as 35mm film; you can use your old film lenses and get the same magnification. Most digital cameras, however, have a smaller sensor, so they crop the picture; Nikon calls these DX cameras. When you buy a lens, the length marked on it is actually the focal length for a full-frame camera; using one of Nikon's cropped sensor cameras gives you a crop factor of about 1.5, meaning you'll get a picture similar to if you were using a 50% longer lens. Notice that I say similar, not the same as, because the depth of field doesn't actually change.
Full-frame lenses tend to be big, heavy, and expensive, because the light from them needs to cover a much greater surface area. DX cameras also tend to be faster; Nikon's prosumer line can take considerably more photos per second than their professional line. These bodies are as good as you can get with a DX camera, and when the D300 came out, many people considered it to be Nikon's best camera for professionals as well as semi-pros. The D700 straddles the line between prosumer and pro; this is essentially the same camera as the D300 (it even uses the same size body), but with a full-frame sensor. Prosumer cameras tend to be the point where you begin using CF memory cards rather than SD. At this stage, camera bodies are generally sold by themselves, under the assumption that buyers already have lenses to use with them, or at least have a specific lens in mind.
Nikon's full-frame cameras are not for the weak of wallet! The D700, mentioned in the previous section, goes for over $2500 for the body alone, and they go up from there; the Nikon D3, which has been around for eight years, still sells for over $3000 used! The real cost, however, is the lenses; the top full-frame lenses can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. However, if you're looking for the absolute best photo quality you can get with a DSLR, this is where to go. Cameras at this level can hit amazingly high ISO levels without an unacceptable level of noise; while you generally wouldn't want to shoot that high, the D3S actually goes all the way up to ISO 102,000! These bodies are purchased mainly by established professional photographers.
At the extreme end of the spectrum we have large format cameras, which are both the most esoteric and the hardest to use. Also called view cameras, a large format camera uses no mirrors; it consists largely of a lens board (which holds the lens) and a focusing screen, with a black accordion in between; a film sheet or digital back is attached to capture the photo. The advantage of large format is the film (or sensor) size; film for these cameras starts at 4 by 5 inches, so can be enlarged a great deal before losing too much quality. Used view cameras can be found starting at a few hundred dollars on eBay; a new medium format camera, on the other hand, can cost over $40,000. For most purposes, the Nikon cameras above will suit your needs, but if you're interested in extreme photography there are yet more options.
As expensive as camera bodies can be, the real money goes towards lenses, which photographers call glass. The best body in the world will take lousy photos if you put a lousy lens in front of it; additionally, a better body will bring out the flaws in a lesser lens. When I took up DSLR photography, I started with a consumer body and mid-level lenses; I quickly ended up selling off the lenses to buy better ones. Although I've since switched from a Canon consumer camera to a Nikon prosumer camera (the D300), I still use the Nikon version of the same lenses. If you're serious about photography, buy the best glass you can afford: it's worth the investment.
One decision to make is whether you prefer prime lenses, which have a fixed focal length, or zoom lenses. The advantage of prime lenses is that they offer better quality (and higher speed) for less money; the disadvantage, of course, is that you have less flexibility and spend more time changing lenses! The 50mm lenses in particular are excellent for portraits; on a full frame camera, this is called a normal lens because it produces images close to what the human eye will see. (For DX cameras, you can get a similar result with a 35mm lens, although I still like the 50mm).
Getting Good Glass, Part II: Zoom Lenses and Special Lenses
One thing to be aware of when lens shopping is that a zoom lens is not the same thing as a telephoto lens; indeed, one of my favorite lenses is a wide-angle zoom. A zoom lens is one that can provide multiple focal lengths, while a telephoto is one that is longer than a normal lens (50mm); these can range from 70mm short telephotos up past thousand millimeter super telephotos, and can be fixed or zoom lenses. Longer lenses will be heavier and/or slower than shorter lenses, and fast super telephotos generally require their own tripod. The strength of these lenses is in their versatility; I know a number of people who've gone on vacation and taken only the Tamron 18-270mm (which is available for both Canon and Nikon bodies).
Of course, you can have the best body and glass in the world and still take lousy photos. The best camera is the one that you're most comfortable using; don't buy a new camera for your vacation without spending time using it beforehand! Additionally, it's worth reading photography books, both for general tips (such as the rule of thirds and how exposure works), specialized tips for the particular type of photograph you want to take, and of course, tips on how to use your camera! With knowledge and practice, come great photos!