My sister asked me this question just this week. Her previous camera was a Nikon high-end point and shoot, which they lost on a recent vacation. When I asked her if she wanted to replace her camera with something similar, or, was she ready to step up to a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera? Her response was, “I think I’m ready to upgrade.” Which Nikon product is a good beginner DSLR? Why Nikon? Since I will be her primary help-desk and I know Nikon, that would be my recommendation. Canon makes great products and product equivalent models to the Nikon models we will discuss.
Here is the process and research I did for her. The first step was thinking about how she would use the camera. She is a busy mom of two pre-teen boys. Photography needs for her are school programs, sports events and family holidays and vacations. When she prints photos, the size is generally 5×7, maybe an 8×10 – no billboards.
The other consideration is the sensor size of the camera. The marketing hype tells you the bigger megapixel (MP) number of the sensor, the better. Yes, you are capturing more data, but there is diminishing return on MP numbers. Above the 15 MP the extra mega pixels don’t return all that much for the increased investment. Not only do the extra mega pixels not help much, they also increase the file size. Larger files fill up the storage card faster, take longer to download and longer to pull up on your computer. For the amateur photographer, it just isn’t worth it. Her PC has a few years on it and if we keep the file size down, her computer will handle the files easier. Since she isn’t doing large prints – think full wall sized posters here – a 24 mega-pixel camera is overkill, and staying in the 15 MP sensor range will save her quite a bit of money.
She wants a camera she can put in automatic mode to begin with and then as she learns more, start to use additional modes and features. She would like a good basic lens and maybe a starting zoom. Built in flash would be a necessity for indoor family events.
Distill this down and you have an entry-level camera, sub 16mp and Nikon brand. What are the options? D3100, D5100 or D7000. The D7000 is a great camera but is at the top end of the product line and has a feature set more than the average amateur needs. That brings us to the D3100 or D5100. Both of these have been out for a few years and the prices have fallen considerably. They are both compatible with almost all modern Nikon lenses and the models that replaced them were primarily sensor upgrades to 20+ MP.
The D3100 vs. the D5100 decision. The D3100 is the entry point to the Nikon DSLR family, the next step up is the D5100 and it adds in a few features: The D5100 adds a 16.2 MP sensor, which is larger than the 14.2 on the D3100, a swivel screen with better resolution, higher ISO and few other features, that while great features, she will probably never use. It is easy when starting a project like this to think, “Go for it and get the better camera!” If the budget allows, there is nothing wrong with that, but the D5100 is about $200 more than the D3100 and for her needs, not worth the extra money.
So which one did I recommend to her? The D3100 with the 18-55mm Lens, here are links to two sources: Adorama or B & H Photo. She does not own any lenses, so the 18-55mm lens would be a cost-effective way to start to build up her equipment and is a great base lens. It has reasonable speed and covers family events, holidays great and works well for wide landscape shots. The included lens has Vibration Reduction (VR) to help take out any operator induced vibration.
For a basic zoom, I would recommend the 55-200mm VR lens. I have used the older, non-VR, version of this lens for six years and find it a good quality lens, but if buying today, would purchase the VR version. If you want to buy a kit that includes the new body, and both of these lenses, Adorama or B & H Photo The great thing about a DSLR is that you can start with the camera body and the basic lens (18-55mm) and buy additional lenses as you learn more and need them.
You can also buy Nikon Factory Refurbished components. The cost savings isn’t huge on the D3100 body, but it can make a difference when you start looking at adding lenses. The warranty is 90 days and Adorama.com will sell you an extended warranty. Just review the information about the refurbished equipment so you understand what you are buying.
If price, size of the camera and weight are not an issue, then the options open up dramatically. If you want to spend the money on a professional level camera and lenses – enjoy! Image quality does increase as you move up the line of products, but, the single biggest determiner of quality is the eye behind the camera. One hint – find a good Introduction to Digital Photography course. The time invested will be worth it.