The 12 Best Nikon DSLR Cameras Ever
April 27, 2022
To mark the illustrious history of Nikon DSLRs we’ve put together what we believe are the Top 12 Best Nikon DSLR Cameras Ever. Read on to find out what we chose and why…
Nikon created some of the world’s first ever digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras when it partnered with the US space agency NASA in 1987 to develop what would later become the NASA F4 Electronic Still Camera.
Nikon delivered a modified F4 camera body (the 35mm film camera that came out in 1988), but most of the electronics for the camera were designed and made by NASA and other suppliers.
The NASA F4 digital camera was first flown onboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in September 1991, but such a collaboration was still years away from putting mass market Nikon DSLRs into the hands of consumers…
In a similar manner to Canon, during the 1990s Nikon partnered with Kodak to produce DSLRs based on existing film camera bodies, but the real digital breakthrough came with the mid-1999 debut of the 2.7MP Nikon D1 DSLR.
Though by no means an earth-shattering camera, the D1 did herald Nikon’s stand-alone entry into the professional DSLR market.
Since the June 1999 launch of the Nikon D1 there have been over 50 different DSLRs launched by Nikon, with many showcasing new digital technologies, advances in sensor capabilities, increasingly sophisticated file transfer possibilities, ever-improving video shooting abilities and much more…
So, without further ado, read on to discover what we believe are the Top 12 Best Nikon DSLR Cameras Ever…
Nikon D1 (1999)
The first ever stand-alone Nikon DSLR
At a glance
- 2.7MP, APS-C sensor
- ISO range of 200-1600
- 4.5fps continuous shooting (up to 21 shots)
- Shutter speeds of 30-1/16,000sec
- 2-inch, 120,000-dot TFT LCD screen
By modern day standards the Nikon D1 is nothing technologically special – it featured an APS-C DX format sensor that was only two thirds of the size of a 35mm film frame. On the plus side the obvious advantage of the APS-C format sensor was the 1.5x crop factor that gave longer equivalent focal lengths – for example, a 100mm lens would have an equivalent focal length of 150mm.
However, it shot at 4.5 frames per second and accepted the full range of Nikkor F-mount lenses, that dated back to 1959, thus giving it an impressive array of backwards compatible optical support.
Somewhat unusually, the D1 used the NTSC colour space (the colour system more often used for North American and Japanese TV systems), rather than the more conventional sRGB or Adobe RGB colour spaces.
A notably pleasing spec was the D1’s wide shutter speed range (it went from 30-1/16,000sec). This gave photographers the chance to capture everything from slowly documented time-lapses through to fast action sports, such as F1, skiing and Super Bikes.
Nikon D70 (2004)
The first mass market Nikon DSLR
At a glance
- Sold with 18-70mm AF-S kit lens
- 6.1MP APS-C sensor
- ISO 200-1600 (Auto ISO available)
- 3fps continuous shooting (up to 144 images)
- 30-1/8000sec shutter speed range
Nikon’s first mass market DSLR came in at under $1,000 and was regarded as being a superior model to its more expensive D100 predecessor. Indeed, Nikon had rearranged the controls of the D100 to make the D70 a faster camera to use with easier access to settings.
By this time Nikon had developed its colour systems significantly since the D1, and was utilising the sRGB and Adobe RGB colour spaces, with many positive reviews citing a neutral colour balance as well as mentioning the D70’s image processing speed and impressive buffering.
What the D70 did was to put Nikon at the head of the mass market DSLR field immediately after its release.
Thanks to a potent combination of great build quality, a rapid 5-point AF system, improved detail and sharpness in the images coming out of the camera, overall performance and excellent handling… Nikon had, for the first time ever, put itself ahead of Canon as the leader in mass market DSLR sector.
Nikon D3 (2007)
The first ever full-frame Nikon DSLR
At a glance
- Full-frame, 35mm equivalent 12MP CMOS sensor
- Dual Compact Flash card slots
- ISO 200-6400 (boost to 100-25,600)
- 9fps continuous shooting (11fps in DX mode without AF tracking)
- 3-inch, TFT LCD 922,000-dot screen
On its arrival in August 2007 the D3 was another trailblazer in the Nikon DSLR stable as it was the company’s first-ever full-frame DSLR. Nikon dubbed it an ‘FX format’ sensor, as the previous APS-C sensors in its DSLRs had been called ‘DX format’.
In a clear nod to its intended professional audience the D3 also featured a 5:4 ratio mode and the camera’s viewfinder added a mask so you could see what the 5:4 image would look like.
The D3 incorporated Nikon’s then new EXPEED image processing engine and it was also the first Nikon DSLR to offer a Live View facility, so photographers could see what the sensor was seeing in real-time, via the camera’s rear LCD screen.
The D3’s rugged body was made out of magnesium alloy and its other standout specs included a 51-point autofocus system, a 1005-pixel RGB metering sensor, 14-bit RAW image file capabilities and built-in chromatic aberration. Add to that a claimed shutter life of 300,000 exposures and you can quickly see why the D3 became a ‘go-to’ DSLR for many professional photographers.
Nikon D90 (2008)
The world’s first DSLR with video shooting
At a glance
- D-Movie mode for 720p HD video recording
- 12.3MP DX-format sensor
- ISO 200-3200 (expandable to 100-6400)
- Up to 4.5fps continuous shooting
- 3-inch, 920,000-dot TFT LCD screen
Amidst the fuss about the Canon EOS 5D Mark II’s 1080p HD video capabilities it often gets forgotten that it was Nikon’s D90 that introduced the world to the possibilities of shooting video footage on a DSLR camera. The D90 pre-dated the 5D Mark II by several weeks and offered budding filmmakers the opportunity to shoot HD 720p videos, with mono sound, at 24 frames per second.
Aside from its video breakthrough the D90 was a very solid, ‘prosumer’ model which had a built-in autofocus motor – this meant that virtually all Nikon F-mount AF lenses could be used when shooting with the camera’s AF mode.
The D90 was also notable as the first Nikon to include a third firmware module – labelled ‘L’ – which provided an ‘updateable’ lens distance integration database that improved autoexposure functions.
So-called ‘trickle down’ technology in the D90 came from Nikon’s D300 and D3 cameras in terms of gaining a pro-spec 12.3MP DX-format sensor, the EXPEED 1 image processor, the rear 920K-dot LCD screen (which has seven levels of brightness adjustment) and a 96% coverage viewfinder. All-in-all the D90 is a highly memorable DSLR.
Nikon D810A (2015)
Best DSLR for astrophotography
At a glance
- Modified infrared cut filter
- 36.3MP sensor
- ISO 100-12,800 (expandable to 50-51,200)
- 3D noise reduction system
- 3.2-inch, 1229K-dot TFT LCD screen
The clue is in the camera’s name – the A on the end of D810A hints that it’s a DSLR that’s suited to astrophotography. In fact, it’s specifically designed for astrophotography thanks to a modified infrared (IR) cut filter that sits in front of the D810A’s sensor – this is four times more sensitive to the H-alpha spectral line (a wavelength of approx. 656nm) than Nikon’s ‘normal’ D810 camera.
This enhanced sensitivity to Hydrogen-alpha long-wavelength light means the D810A delivers an improved capture of infrared phenomena in the sky, such as diffuse nebulae. You can, of course, shoot night skies with other cameras but almost all of them aren’t modified internally to help you to do so straight out of the box.
The Live View system, when in long exposure mode, allows you to preview an image equivalent to the one obtained at 30 seconds and also lets you zoom in by 23x to check focus and the scene in front of or above you. The camera’s intervalometer can shoot up to 9,999 images in a sequence – potentially very useful for shooting time-lapses and star trails.
The fact that the D810A also has a 36.3MP sensor also helps in ensuring you’re able to capture the night skies at high resolutions for high contrast images with minimised false colour. The D810A is literally a camera that opens up new worlds of picture taking possibilities.
Nikon D500 (2016)
Best DSLR for wildlife
At a glance
- 20.9MP DX format sensor
- ISO range of 50-1,640,000!
- Up to 10fps continuous shooting
- 153-point AF system
- 3in, 2.36m-dot tilting rear LCD screen
The headline specs of the D500 are, at first glance, quite astonishing – an extended top ISO value of 1.64million, a 153-point AF system and 10fps continuous shooting (up to 30 RAW frames and 90+ JPEGs). That combination of AF possibilities, speed and low-light shooting mark it out as a great camera for shooting wildlife or sports.
The D500’s sturdy body is built from magnesium alloy and it has a variety of customisation options that let you assign certain functions to certain buttons – potentially very useful if you’re shooting fast-moving wildlife or sport.
The 153-point AF system in the D500 was effectively inherited from the pro-spec D5 DSLR and it offers 55 user-selectable points with the rest devoted to help to assist with focus tracking on moving subjects. You can, however, switch to a 3D tracking mode that uses all 153 AF points and works in combination with a 180,000-pixel metering sensor that helps to track the main subject of your photographs.
When AP reviewed the D500 back in 2016 we said, ‘It’s difficult not to conclude that the D500 is the most accomplished crop-sensor camera yet made.’ Whilst it may have been somewhat superseded, the high-spec and quality performance of the D500 has kept it relevant for many years after its launch.
Nikon D5600 (2016)
Best advanced enthusiast DSLR
At a glance
- 24.2MP APS-C format CMOS sensor
- ISO 100-25,600
- 39-point AF system
- SnapBridge for image transfer to tablets or smartphones
- 3.2-inch, 1.04million-dot LCD screen
The D5600 first catches the eye for its small design which, despite being polycarbonate, is robust enough and means you can easily carry the camera (and any accompanying lenses) quite easily. Indeed, handling is very good with buttons and controls that are well-spaced around the camera.
Dig a little deeper into its spec and you find the D5600 has a large, 3.2-inch vari-angle type LCD screen (with touchscreen control), a 39-point AF system (with a block of nine cross-type AF points in the centre) and a sensor that forgoes an optical low-pass filter – this helps to maximise sharpness and fine detail in images. On the AF side of things the camera is notable for its impressively rapid Live View AF.
Also of note on the D5600 is the Nikon SnapBridge technology, which allows photographers to link the camera to their tablets or smartphones for instant wireless transfer of images. You can also use Snapbridge to remotely control the D5600 and use a Live View feed.
Overall the D5600 offers very good image quality, with punchy JPEGs featuring accurate colours. Higher-sensitivity performance is a notable strength, even right up to ISO 6400. Although it’s been on sale since 2016 the D5600 remains a more than capable option for enthusiast photographers, especially those who still prefer to choose a use a DSLR over a mirrorless model.
Nikon D7500 (2017)
Best DSLR for video shooting
At a glance
- 4K video at 30p, HD 1080p video at up to 60p
- 20.9MP APS-C sensor, 1.5x crop factor
- ISO range of 100-51,200
- Up to 8fps continuous shooting
- 3.2-inch, tilting LCD screen
- 51-point AF with 15 cross-type points
The Nikon D7500 has an impressive array of specs that includes shooting speeds up to 8 frames per second, low light shooting at up to ISO 51,200 (and beyond) and a 51-point autofocus system that’s perfect for locking on to moving subjects. The D7500 inherited its DX image quality from Nikon’s more expensive D500 camera, so you’re effectively getting the same image quality for less money.
In terms of movies, the D7500 offers the options of 4K/UHD shooting at 30p or Full HD 1080p video at up to 60p. Nikon’s Electronic Vibration Reduction system will help to significantly reduce the possible effects of camera shake when you’re shooting movies hand-held.
Also of note in the D7500 is the ability to connect the camera with your smart device using Snapbridge via Bluetooth low energy technology. You can sync photos to your device as you shoot and transfer movies manually via the camera’s built-in WiFi system.
The D7500 offers a superb combination of high-speed image capture, trusty AF and great metering to ensure superb pictures are produced. Add to that its use of the lightweight DX lenses and you have a DSLR system that’s versatile, easy to carry and reliable.
Nikon D850 (2017)
Best DSLR for portraits
At a glance
- 45.7MP full-frame sensor
- 153-point autofocus system
- ISO 64-25,600 (expandable to 32-102,400)
- Up to 7fps continuous shooting
- 3.2-inch, 2.26million-dot LCD screen with touchscreen control
Since its arrival in late 2017 the Nikon D850 has been regarded by many as the company’s best camera and, for some, it remains so today, despite the impressive slew of Nikon Z-series mirrorless cameras that have been launched in its wake.
The D850’s headline specification is arguably its 45.7MP full frame sensor, which puts it close to medium format resolution territory but housed within a DSLR body.
The camera effectively inherited almost all of the AF features of the Nikon D5 DSLR that was primarily aimed at sports photographers, but the D850 is capable of capturing much more than sports action. It uses a backside illuminated sensor, which helps to increase the efficiency of the sensor, (thus improving low light performance), and improves peripheral image quality at the edges of pictures. The D850 also has no anti-aliasing filter, which allows for finer detail capture in images.
The D850, it still holds its head up very high amongst the best Nikon cameras, even though some years have elapsed since its launch. The fact that Nikon put a lot of top-line technology into the D850 means it remains a great choice for photographers across a variety of genres – wedding, sports, nature, fashion, portrait, landscape and more. It’s a camera that, in full-frame DSLR terms, remains difficult to beat.
Nikon D3500 (2018)
Best DSLR under £500 & Best for beginners
At a glance
- 24.2MP APS-C sensor
- ISO 100-25,600
- 1080p Full HD video at up to 60fps
- 11-point AF system
- 3-inch, 920K-dot LCD screen
This sub-£500 (£399 body only) entry-level DSLR still delivers an array of impressive features, such as a 24.2MP sensor, shooting at up to 5fps, an ISO range of 100-25,600 that will cope with almost all but the most extreme low light shooting situations.
Although the sensor has the same effective 24.2MP resolution as the previous D3400 and D5600 cameras, the sensor in the D3500 is actually an updated version. Like many other Nikon DSLRs it does away with an optical low-pass filter in order to maximise the ability of the sensor to resolve fine detail images.
The D3500 includes Nikon’s Active D-Lighting processing tool, which is designed to lighten shadow areas and preserve highlight detail when you’re faced with high-contrast scenes. The camera allows you to set Active D-Lighting to ‘on’ or ‘off’ settings.
The D3500 is also notable for having a great body design, a deep grip and an intuitive layout of controls that make it straightforward to use. This is further aided by a Quick Menu screen that flashes up on the LCD screen when you press the ‘i’ button on the rear of the camera – this provides quick and direct access to all of the key settings of the D3500.
Nikon D780 (2020)
Most versatile DSLR
At a glance
- 24.5MP full-frame CMOS sensor
- ISO 100-12,800 (extendable to 50-204,800)
- 51-point AF system (15 cross-type points)
- 12fps continuous shooting in Live View
- 3.2-inch, 2,360K-dot tilting touchscreen LCD
With the focus shifting more to the mirrorless side of things Nikon made sure it also remained firmly in the DSLR camp with the 2020 launch of the D780. It succeeded the D750 in the DSLR range and is said to have the same 24.5MP full-frame CMOS chip as seen in the Nikon Z 6 mirrorless model.
As well as having a low-pass filter to eliminate moiré and backside-illuminated structure to maximise its light gathering capabilities across its ISO range, the sensor has 273 on-chip phase detection pixels to enhance its focusing performance in Live View. Again, this is said to be crossover technology from the Nikon mirrorless camera line-up.
The D780 also deploys Nikon’s EXPEED 6 image processor which, amongst other things, helps to shoot at 7fps via the viewfinder. A shutter speed range of 30-1/8000sec should pretty much over all subjects (arguably bar speeding bullets) and the 180K-pixel RGB sensor inherited from the D850 helps to feed info to the ASF system for accurate and precise tracking of subjects.
For DSLR diehards the D780 offers a superb array of shooting options and choices for capturing all manner of subjects. When AP tested the D780 we gave it a Test Bench GOLD award and said it was, ‘a sensational camera that’s built to a professional standard and is a sheer delight to use’… it really doesn’t get much better than that!
Nikon D6 (2020)
Best professional DSLR
At a glance
- 20.8MP full-frame sensor
- ISO range of 100-102,400
- 105-point AF system
- Up to 14fps continuous shooting
- Built-in GPS
Nikon’s current flagship pro DSLR is the wallet-busting D6. As you might expect it has a hefty price (£6,799 body only) but also a hefty amount of specs packed into it. The company describes the D6 as, ‘Nikon’s most powerful AF system yet’ and says it ‘will deliver incredible shots of defining moments… without fail.’
The truth is that pro photographers – especially news, documentary and sports photographers – want equipment that is reliable and that they can trust to get the shot every time. To help guarantee this the D6 has a new AF engine with 105 (all cross-type) AF points, Group-Area AF with more custom settings for subject tracking and an eye focusing priority setting in Auto-Area AF or 3D tracking.
It’s nigh on impossible to fully explain all the aspects of a pro DSLR in a few paragraphs but the D6 is precisely tailored to meet the requirements of professional photographers. These include such details as fast in-camera WiFi image transfer (15% faster than the D5), Bluetooth connections, higher resolution displays for quick and easy viewing and a robust body.
Neatly enough, for the purposes of this round-up of the best ever Nikon DSLRs, the D6 is the modern-day successor to the original Nikon D1 from 1999. That technological lineage has improved dramatically since the first Nikon pro DSLR and, for now, the D6 is the pinnacle of Nikon’s family of DSLRs.