Whether you’re in the market for new or used Nikon gear or an established fan of the brand, here the best Nikon DSLR cameras ever made – from pioneering firsts to the latest cutting-edge models. Read on to discover how to choose the best Nikon DSLR for you, or just to celebrate the company’s proud heritage.
Nikon has been a constant in DSLR photography and the brand has become synonymous with the technology . From the late 1990s onwards, Nikon has been selling digital single-lens reflex cameras, or DSLRs for short, with its branding on them. Well before that, Nikon was a pioneer in 35mm film SLRs, introducing the Nikon F range in 1959.
Nikon F SLRs were used in the space program as a lighter alternative to Hasselblad equipment, and were favoured by some very famous professionals – Don McCullin’s Nikon F stopped a sniper’s bullet when he almost became the target of a Khmer Rouge sniper during the wider Vietnam War conflict, for example, which probably saved his life. That camera really did have a bulletproof build and older Nikon film SLRs remain highly collectible.
Coming right back up to date, the company is now concentrating its research and development on mirrorless cameras, like most of its rivals. Nikon DSLRs continue to perform well, and make a great used buy.
Indeed, the rise of mirrorless – including Nikon’s own mirrorless Z range – has seen prices for DSLRs take a tumble. Almost every camera on our list that is still available has got cheaper since launch, and if you’re willing to shop on the second-hand market, there are even greater savings to be had.
There are still many positives about choosing a DSLR. Many photographers prefer the bright optical viewfinders, for example, not to mention the wide choice of reasonably priced lenses. Battery life can be longer with a DSLR too. And with many higher-end mirrorless cameras coming in about the same size and weight as older DSLR models, you may well find there is not so much space saved in your camera bag after all.
In this guide, we’re counting off the best of the best Nikon DSLRs, from those early achievements that pave the way for what was to come, to the last great DSLRs ever made.
What was the first Nikon DSLR?
You could argue that the first Nikon DSLR made its debut all the way back in 1987, in the form of the NASA F4 Electronic Still Camera, which flew on the Space Shuttle Discovery in September 1991. Made specifically for taking photographs in space, this was essentially a Nikon SLR body with its innards scooped out and NASA-made electronics inserted in their place.
The first Nikon-branded DSLR to go on sale to the public wouldn’t arrive until 1999, in the form of the Nikon D1. Its APS-C sensor sported a resolution of 2.7MP, which seems very modest compared to the high-resolution behemoths of today. The Nikon D1 started a revolution, however, and Nikon would go on to release more than 50 more DSLRs, all the way up to the professional flagship D6 and enthusiast-focused D780, both of which arrived in early 2020. And given the increased prominence of the best Nikon mirrorless cameras in the form of the Z series, it’s likely these will be the last Nikon-branded DSLRs to be developed.
But Nikon DSLRs still have loads to offer, and Nikon has denied that it is exiting the DSLR market. As recently as December, the company’s Muneaki Tokunari told Japan’s Nikkei business news service that ‘it is true that we are concentrating development resources on mirrorless cameras, but we have not decided to end or withdraw from developing, making, selling and supporting single lens reflex cameras.’
Which is good to hear. Nikon DSLRs are still very popular among photographers who prefer ruggedly weatherproof bodies and the immediacy of an optical viewfinder. Plus, the range of the best Nikon F-Mount lenses is arguably one of the best on the market today, with a very wide choice.
How to choose the best Nikon DSLR
As with any camera-buying decision, picking the best Nikon DSLR is about weighing up two factors – your budget, and what you want to shoot. You aren’t going to get the best of all features in a budget camera, so it pays to prioritise the specs that will best suit you.
For instance, resolution is best for making large prints of your images, so if this is something you want to do, pick a DSLR with a high megapixel count. However, higher resolution cameras tend to be slower as all those pixels require more processing power. So if you want to shoot fast action or wildlife, it’s best to prioritise fast burst speeds.
A big factor with Nikon DSLRs is sensor size. You have two choices here – DX-format (APS-C) and the larger FX-format (full-frame). Bigger sensors give you greater dynamic range in images, the ability to create shallower depth of field, and upgraded low-light performance, with the main trade-off being that they are more expensive, and require larger camera bodies. Nikon offers plenty of DSLRs in both sensor sizes – see our full guide to APS-C vs full-frame for a complete run-down of the pros and cons of each type.
It was a tough challenge to narrow the huge list of Nikon DSLRs down to 12 seminal models – but we reckon we’ve done it. Here, in chronological order, we present the 12 best Nikon DSLRs ever made…
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
The Nikon D1 seems somewhat quaint by the standards we hold cameras to today, with its 2.7P APS-C sensor, 4.5fps burst shooting and 2-inch LCD screen. However, at the time it had a number of clever advantages that saw it become a popular choice for pro photographers starting to make the jump to digital.
For a start, while the APS-C sensor meant taking a hit in image quality, the 1.5x crop factor it imposed upon lenses provides users with greater effective telephoto reach. On an APS-C camera, a 100mm lens behaves like a 150mm lens, and this can be hugely useful in the world of sports photography. Also, the legacy of F-mount meant that users had a huge range of lenses to choose from, and if they were already on board, all their old lenses would work.
That burst rate of 4.5fps, while it might sound tame next the blistering 120fps Nikon Z9, was pretty impressive for the time. The wide shutter speed of 30-1/16,000sec was also a welcome addition. It meant that sports photographers using the D1 could capture pretty much anything.
There were some unusual choices on the D1, like the decision to use the NTSC colour space. This is the system mostly used for American and Japanese TVs, rather than the conventional sRGB of Adobe RGB. It wouldn’t be long before Nikon switched up.
Read about world-beating Nikon cameras
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
While the D1 was intended for professionals, the Nikon D70 was one of the first DSLRs pitched towards the mass market. Widely considered to be superior to the D100 camera that preceded it, the D70 featured a lot of smart design choices, including a revamped control layout that made it easier to get to your preferred settings faster.
By this point, Nikon had switched over to the sRGB and Adobe RGB colour spaces (so long, NTSC), and was praised for it in contemporary reviews. The processing speed of the D70 was also lauded for the time.
All this helped the D70 take Nikon to the top of mass market DSLRs. The 5-point AF system, rugged built quality and impressive image sharpness all combined into a superb camera, one that put Canon on the back foot for the first time in a long time…
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
The Nikon D3 was a milestone all of its own – the first full-frame Nikon DSLR. Nikon called its new sensor ‘FX-format’, a name that would live on into its full-frame mirrorless Z-series cameras.
Pitched at professionals, the Nikon D3 featured the brand new EXPEED image processing engine, enabling such cutting-edge features as 9fps continuous shooting. Which is still pretty good even today, and helped cement the D3’s popularity among professional sports photographers. It also featured a 5:4 ratio mode, and even had an overlay in the viewfinder to help you see what the 5:4 ratio would look like.
Other firsts for the Nikon D3 included Live View mode, enabling photographers to see what the camera was seeing in real time via the rear LCD screen. A 51-point autofocus system rounded out a compelling package. Also, the D3’s magnesium-alloy body was rated for an impressive life of 300,000 shutter actuations, meaning professionals could get plenty of years’ happy use out of it. And they did!
These days, the Nikon D3 can be picked up second-hand for less than £400 or $600. For that price, it’s an absolute steal, especially for wildlife photographers. The camera would also later be upgraded to the D3S, which added among other things a video mode. Read our full Nikon D3S review to see what we thought at the time. A typical used price is around £50/$80.
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
While the Canon EOS 5D Mark II was the camera that kickstarted the DSLR video revolution, it was technically Nikon who got there first. Pipping the 5D Mark II to the post by a scant few weeks, the Nikon D90 was capable of shooting HD 720p videos at a cinematic frame rate of 24p. Solidly built and designed for the upper mid-range ‘prosumer’ demographic, the D90 was an impressive DSLR all-around.
With a built-in autofocus motor, the Nikon D90 could use virtually all Nikon F-mount AF lenses in its AF mode – something of a novelty at the time. It inherited plenty of its tech from the D300 and D3 cameras, such as a 12.3MP DX-format sensor, an EXPEED1 image processor, a high-res 920K-dot LCD screen and a viewfinder covering 96% of the frame.
Ultimately, the Full HD 1080p resolution of the EOS 5D Mark II meant that it won over filmmakers, and took its place in history for ushering in the DSLR video era. But the Nikon D90 was still a highly commendable achievement in its own right. A typical used price is around £100/$130
Read our Canon EOS 550D vs Nikon D90 comparison
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.
Discover more about the Nikon D810A
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
- Price: $1,999 / £1,729 body-only on release (current street price around $1,599 / £1,159 body only)
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 have 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
- Price: $799 / £799 with kit lens on release (current used price around $450 / £350)
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 delivering 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
- Price: $1,249 / £1,299 body-only on release (current street price around $1,200 / £859 body only)
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
- Price: $3,300 / £3,499 body-only on release (current street price around $1,800 / £1.200 body only)
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
- Price: $499 / £449 with kit lens on release (current street price around $570 / £499 with lens)
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.
To help beginners and less experienced users get to grips with the camera’s controls and thereby become more confident photographers, a handy Guide Mode presents a series of options to help people handle specific situations. The aim is to explain in simple terms how to use the D3500’s settings to best effect and the Guide Mode offers a choice of ‘Easy’ or ‘Advanced’ shooting scenarios (more experienced photographers can bypass it altogether).
The D3500 also 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
- Price: $2,299 / £2,199 body-only on release (current street price around $2,196 / £1,369)
With its focus shifting more to mirrorless cameras, 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 in our original review that 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
- Price: $6,499 / £6,799 body-only on release (current street price around $6,499 / £6,299 body only)
Nikon’s current flagship pro DSLR is the wallet-busting D6. As you might expect it has a hefty price 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.
Powerful ISO performance is another key selling point. The 20.8 MP full-frame sensor works with the Expeed 6 processor to offer ISO 100-102,400 – this is impressive enough, but it can be expanded to an astronomical figure of 3,280,000.
Other features include fast in-camera Wi-Fi 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.
Discover more about the Nikon D6 pro DSLR
- Discover over 70 years of world-beating Nikon cameras
- Best zoom lenses for Nikon DSLRs
- Best DSLR Cameras (all brands)