Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Nikon Camera Models

Posted in photography by Jason Gray on August 7, 2010

In 2009, Nikon Corporation celebrated 50 years of continued success with its F-Mount design. The F-Mount is an integrated system of compatibility between the world’s largest collection of unique, interchangeable lenses and a wide variety of camera models, both film and digital. What this means is that, since Nikon has not varied its lens mount design in over fifty years, the contemporary photographer has access to a cache of some of the world’s most celebrated lenses stretching back across that whole period. There are some caveats, however.

1. New Nikon Lenses are not necessarily backwards compatible with older cameras. Modernization in lens design has led to the elimination or addition of certain features that make them incompatible with how older cameras functioned. Cost and ergonomics are generally the instigators of these changes, and one example is the aperture ring. On all older lenses, the most important control feature after the focusing ring was the aperture ring. The aperture ring was a band located around the base of the lens that controlled the lens’ f-stop. It functioned much like the focus ring, in that you could manipulate your aperture by turning the ring. In modern cameras, this feature is managed through the camera by the photographer’s movement of his/her thumb or forefinger across a scroll wheel. The idea is that the photographer no longer needs to change either of his/her hand positions to alter the aperture, plus, the camera manufacturers save money by not having to incorporate an extra ring on the body of their lenses. The down side is that the newer lenses, without aperture rings, are useless on cameras that pre-date the technology. However, older lenses, with an aperture ring, are still compatible with newer cameras (either they have a switch that locks the aperture ring and switches control to the camera, or the camera can be set to function like an older model).

2. The lower-end/entry level camera models require lenses with an interior motor for their auto-focus function to work. In the old days of autofocus design, autofocus was driven by a motor in side the camera that turned a screw, making the lens focus mechanically. Because the interior motors are expensive and because newer, quieter, and more efficient AF technology now exists, the latest cameras coming out at the entry level lack an interior motor to drive the lens. This doesn’t necessarily make the older lenses incompatible with the newer cameras, it just means that you have to focus those lenses manually.

3. Lenses from before Nikon’s earliest AF lenses will not meter on the latest entry-level, or even the latest entry mid-level, DSLRs. This means that information which generally helps the photographer to approximate exposure is not translated by these lenses to these cameras. Over time, technology has moved towards making photography more automated and photography equipment more compact (at the entry level, depending upon how you look at it, thing shave gotten larger and more complex at the professional level). Extremely advanced exposure calculators, such as the modern Matrix Metering, have made it easier for the novice to pick up an SLR and let it do the thinking. This does not mean that the older lenses are functionless, it just means that you will have to either carry a light meter or resort to some degree of trial and error (plus, you’ll have to manually focus). Sounds terrible doesn’t it? Hard to think that that used to be the norm, and only photographers with time and experience under their belt knew how to intuit the settings of their camera in relation to the light encountered. Bah, who wants to go through all of that?

4. Lenses from before Nikon’s AI (Automatic Indexing) design will not mount on modern DSLR’s without a conversion, and in some cases, may intrude into the camera to such a degree as to damage the mirror system. There aren’t a lot of these lenses just floating around on the open market anymore, and generally their value as collectors items dictates that you probably won’t be buying one by accident. More on lens compatibility here.

So what are the Nikon Camera bodies available to the DSLR shooter today (complete Nikon camera history here) and what do I think of them?

1. Entry Level DSLRs- these cameras include the D3200 and D5100 bodies, and possess a range of features and design that appeals to the casual user. Most of the controls are manipulated through a series of menus, which makes these cameras familiar to those who are stepping up from digital point-and-shoot cameras. In addition, they are extremely lightweight and small on average when compared to other DSLRs available. They are usually packaged as part of a kit (often with the Nikkor 18-55mm and/or the Nikkor 55-200mm lenses). If your goal is just to improve the images that you are taking of family members, or if you are looking for a good general purpose camera to use at your office (your business is not photography-specific), then either of these cameras are a good choice. The D5100 even offers 1080p HD video. The rumor mill suggests that the D5100 is about to be updated by a D5200 (this year). Remember that these cameras are incompatible with AF in lenses without built-in motors, and that they will not meter with pre AF-D lenses.

2. Mid-Level DSLRs- these cameras offer a bridge between the novice looking to explore more photographic territory and the professional looking to save a bit of money. For the Nikon brand, there are really three platforms within this level of cameras. The first is the entry mid-level, which consists currently of the Nikon D7000 (rumor has it that this camera may be updated within the year). The D7000 offers a range of features that place it beyond the capabilities of the entry-level models, including the ability to autofocus with non-G AF lenses. In addition, the layout of the D7000 is geared more toward the serious photographer in terms of most of the camera’s controls being accessible without having to troll through annoying menu screens. The D7000 also introduces the secondary LCD screen, on top of the camera, familiar to all of the lines above it. In the current lineup, this model offers an array of appealing features, which make the decision to move up to the D300s a difficult one. In terms of image quality, the Nikon D5100, D7000, and D300s all take virtually indistinguishable pictures (which make all of them attractive options for the professional looking to build an inexpensive kit), although the D3200 is currently the highest resolving DX camera in Nikon’s line-up (a curiosity implying updates soon to the other lines). However, the D7000 builds upon the D5100 in terms of ergonomics and build, just as the D300s builds upon the D7000. Your decision about which camera to choose all depends on your habits and intended use. Note, the D3200/5100 will not meter with pre-AF lenses. The second move up is the true mid-level camera body, which in the current line-up is the Nikon D300s. The D300s is a perfect bridge camera; it offers a semi-professional build with its magnesium alloy body and weather sealing, and an integrated set of features giving the best of both worlds (professional images/affordable price). Like the D7000, the D300s offers dual card slots, but instead of two SDs they are CF and SD. The D300s also offers 14-bit Raw capability, more frames per second, better programability, and a viewfinder showing more of the picture frame. Its heavier weight also helps to balance out that of professional lenses. Nikon may soon be adding an FX camera to this category in the rumored D600. The third step-up is the upper mid-level, or entry pro-level. In Nikon’s current line, these cameras are the full-frame, or FX, D800 and D800E (D800 without anti-aliasing filter; slightly more acuity). The D800 and D800E are very close in features to the D300s, but with a 36mp, full-frame sensor, enabling pictures that offer the highest resolution for all Nikon dslrs and are equivalent in size to 35mm. This larger sensor means better low-light performance, and the D800/800E is well-known for being a standout of low-light performers among all camera designers. Right now, the D800 costs about $1000-1500 more than the D300s and the D800E is a few hundred more, which makes the decision about whether to advance to a larger sensor more complicated than just performance. Compounding that decision is the issue of lenses. With a full-line of DX lenses available to the D300s shooter, that are geared to the crop-factor of that camera and which are virtually useless on the D800/D800E (at least, if your are buying those cameras for their resolving abilities), there is the probability that, if your main camera is the D800/800E and your back-up is the D300s, not all of your lenses will be interchangeable between cameras, an unfortunate extra cost to consider. This is why the D800/800E is really more of an entry pro-level camera. At about half the cost of the least expensive pro body (yet with the same-sized sensor and better resolving ability), the D800/800E is a very attractive back-up camera for the pro-level shooter.

3. Pro-Level DSLRs- do not necessarily mean “the only cameras that professional photographers are allowed or are likely to use”. However, all of the cameras in this class are the best available. Currently, the Nikon D4 is the go to pro-body for photojournalists, wedding photographers, and videographers. If you are making your living from photography, and you’ve got the overhead to allow for purchasing one or two of these bodies, then you are probably doing all right.

A note on buying cameras:
Cameras, like all expensive items, should require some forethought on the part of the consumer. If you are only looking to improve your family/vacation pictures, and/or have little to no interest in pursuing photography further, either as a profession or a hobby, then you should purchase an entry-level model. If you have some photography knowledge, are stepping up now from a film SLR, are a dedicated hobbiest, and/or are interested in maybe pursuing photography as your vocation then you should get an entry mid-level body (D7000). If you definitely know that you want to do professional photography long term, are upgrading from an older, similar body, and/or are looking to build your new business around a single camera body, then you should get either a mid-level or an upper mid-level DSLR (D300s or D800/800E). For those of you seriously considering the pro-level bodies, you already know whether or not you should be getting one.
In terms of used bodies, DSLRs are a lot like cars with the shutter count acting a lot like mileage. You can buy good, used camera bodies (I’ve purchased both a D50 and a D100 used with good results), but you should be selective and closely analyze the camera before purchasing. This website can be a handy resource for checking shutter counts in Nikon cameras before you purchase (just bring along your laptop, snap a picture, and upload it to determine before you purchase). It also helps to buy used cameras from reputable dealers like Adorama, B&H Photo, and Keh, who all rate the condition of each used item for sale. Buying used can be a great way for a person to jump into using a good older body to help gauge their level of interest in photography, or can provide an inexpensive means for a professional photographer to add a second or third body to their lineup.


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  1. […] Camera Models 2. Camera Layout 3. Lenses 4. Creative Lighting System (CLS) Tagged with: CLS, […]

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