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Camera choice

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Nikon cameras fall into several categories

Single lens reflex cameras (SLRs) are the normal professional and serious amateur choice. Compact cameras such as the Nikon Coolpix series are generally designed for personal photography. Bridge cameras such as the Nikon Coolpix P90 have some of the characteristics of the compact, and some of those of the SLR.

Single lens reflex cameras are available as digital or [[film]. However, no SLR is capable of shooting both film and digital. The key characteristics of the SLR are:

  • You look through the lens, rather than at a digital representation or a separate viewfinder
  • Lenses are interchangeable
  • External flash can be fitted, and, for most SLRs, other accessories.


Choosing film or digital

Very few film SLRs are now sold. However, when they are sold, they are mostly sold to serious amateurs or to professionals. Film cameras are cheaper to buy, can be designed using only mechanical parts for greater reliability, and can be designed to operate without batteries. The downside is that they are more expensive in use, since film must be purchased and processed, the results are not instantly viewable, and the pictures exist only in a physical form, unless scanned. Until the 1990s, photography was almost exclusively film based.

The vast majority of SLR purchases are digital DSLRs. Professionals like the speed with which they can get the results to clients, the processability, the ability to change ISO during a shoot if necessary, the extensive range of information available immediately post-shooting including the image histogram, and consistent quality. Consumers prefer them because of speed, cost in use, and convenience. However, they do not produce a permanent record unless printed. For many consumers, the ease of use is substantially offset by the fragility of images stored on a home computer, without backup. As pointed out in a famous Kodak advertisement in the 2000s, very few digital images are ever printed. In this sense, the benefits to the consumer of film are much less clear-cut than often presented.

New and second-hand

Film SLR cameras are available second-hand for a fraction of their original real-terms prices. Consumer versions such as the Nikon F50 are readily available, but real bargains are to be had buying 'classic' professional cameras, such as the Nikon FM2. These will hold their value much better in future, and, having been designed with robustness in mind, are likely to last longer.

Digital SLR cameras are also available second-hand for a fraction of their original real-terms price. However, usually, a higher-specification successor is available new (or newer) for a similar price as the lower specification older camera. Professional equipment will retain its advantages of robustness. However, the Nikon D100 was in many ways superseded by the Nikon D70, although D100s were still retailing second-hand for the price of a new D70.

Consumer, Pro and Semi-Pro cameras

The original target users of Nikon's SLR cameras can be identified through Nikon's standard naming in many cases.

  • Single digit cameras are aimed at professionals, such as the Nikon D1, Nikon F6. These are designed to the highest technical specifications of their day, and emphasise robustness and reliability. Film SLRs, such as the Nikon F2 and Nikon F5 were designed as generalist cameras. However, some digital SLRs had a specific market in mind. The designation H, as in Nikon D2H indicates low-noise at high ISO and fast Frame rate, suitable for photojournalism and sport. The designation X, as in Nikon D3X indicates high-resolution, suitable for studio applications. Single digit film bodies may be 'deep' bodies with a vertical shutter release such as the Nikon F5 or 'shallow' without, such as the Nikon F6. Shallow bodies can usually be fitted with a motor drive. All single digit digital bodies are 'deep' bodies. No single digit bodies include an integral flash.
  • Three digit cameras are aimed at professionals and serious amateurs. They are in some countries designated 'semi-professional', although the Nikon Professional Service scheme classifies them as 'professional'. Film cameras include the F100, and digital SLRs include the D100, D200, D300 and D700. All three digit bodies are 'shallow' bodies, with the option of an additional vertical grip giving them a similar format to deep bodies and extended battery life. In later bodies, such as the Nikon D300 and Nikon D700, the vertical grip also increases the maximum Frame rate. They are more robust and better weather sealed than consumer bodies, but less so than the single digit bodies. They all contain integral flash which, from the D200 can control the CLS flash system in commander mode. The D100 has a distinct shutter lag, although this was solved in the D200 and later. Nonetheless, they are noticeably less responsive than the single digit series.
  • Two digit and four digit cameras, such as the F50, the D40X and the D3000 are aimed at consumers. Unlike the single and three digit bodies, which were released in order of their numbering, the lower number cameras in these series are entry level cameras, such as the D40 and the D3000, while the higher numbers, such as the D90, are aimed more at enthusiasts and serious amateurs. X designates a higher resolution version. All digital cameras in these series have integral flash, which can operate as a CLS commander from the D70s onwards. Some are capable of taking a vertical grip, and others, such as the D70 can take a third-party vertical grip. Most cameras in this series have a distinct shutter lag, which makes them harder to use for live action.

Size and weight

The Nikon F5 was Nikon's largest and heaviest 35mm film camera, while the D3 group is the heaviest digital camera. With integral vertical grips and high powered batteries, these cameras are weather sealed, have metal frames and a high resistance to shocks and damage. The lightest digital SLR is the Nikon D40 group and its replacement the Nikon D3000. These two cameras can only accept AF-S lenses in autofocus mode, since they do not contain their own autofocus motors, required by non-AF-S lenses for automatic focussing. The D40 will fit into a large coat pocket, and is similar in size and weight to the fully manual FM2.

There are clearly enormous advantages to a fully weather sealed camera with a battery life of thousands of shots and a frame rate up to 11 frames per second. However, this comes at a significant cost in size and weight. Equally, there are advantages to a camera which can be slipped into an inconspicuous bag and taken almost anywhere. In choosing a camera, it is important to try its weight and size in the shop, and then consider when and how it will be used.


Almost all DSLRs available now have a resolution of 10MP or greater. The Nikon D3X has a resolution of 24MP. At the optimal viewing distance for an image, which is normally the length of the diagonal of the image, the human eye does not normally resolve more than 300 dots per inch of detail. This means that, when viewed normally, no more than 6MP is required if printed on a continuous tone device. However, when printed using a half-tone device, such as a laser printer, or commercial magazine print, double the resolution is required. Generally, more resolution gives the photographer more options for cropping. However, the trade off is that, for the same generation of technology, the lower the resolution, the better the noise performance. A low noise camera can shoot at a higher ISO, and therefore needs less light.

On film cameras, the photographer chooses the noise and resolution by choosing a film of a particular speed. ISO 100 film captures about 10MP worth of resolution typically.


Fully manual cameras such as the FM2 typically contain a light meter, but no other electronics. This means that they can function entirely battery independent. Most later cameras have electronic shutters, and so cannot function without a battery. Although early camera electronics was often perceived by a professional to be a risk, there are now very, very few defects as a result of camera electronics. Therefore, in principle, the newer cameras are superior because their electronics are more advanced. This is one of the principal reasons why digital SLR cameras lose their value so quickly. The difference of generation with film camera electronics is to some extent one of convenience. However, each generation of digital SLR has better sensor technology, resulting in better images.


Nikon cameras are renowned for their good ergonomics, especially compared to their leading competitors. However, the layout of the controls differs from series to series. The D1, D2, D3 have a similar layout of controls, but this is somewhat different on the D100,D200,D300 and D700, and different again on the D40, D50 and so on.

DX and FX

DX sensors are smaller than traditional 35mm film. The reason for this is because it was originally technically difficult to make a successful 35mm sensor with the angle of light produced by 35mm lenses. This problem was solved by Nikon with the advent of the D3 and subsequently taken across to the three digit series with the D700. The 'full-frame' sensors, like 35mm film, are known as FX. However, by this time, DX, which is the same size as APS-C, a short-lived film format, was well established. All Nikon DSLRs prior to the D3 were DX format. The main difference in use is that the effective focal length of a lens is 1.5x when used on a DX sensor as against FX or 35mm film. This is sometimes referred to as the 'crop-factor'. Of course, the real focal length of the lens does not change. Rather, a DX sensor takes a crop from the centre of the lens. The additional effect is that, by taking this particular crop, only the least distorted part of the lens is in use. Exploiting this effect, Nikon has made a series of smaller DX lenses which are designed exclusively for the smaller format, reducing cost and weight for the same photographic quality. The other difference is that, with a larger sensor, FX lenses are intrinsically less noisy for the same generation of technology and resolution, since they gather the light over a larger surface. In the D3 and D700 this offers extremely high ISO for low noise. The D3X uses the additional size to give higher resolution.

  • DX: longer 'reach' on telephoto lenses, lighter, cheaper DX lenses available.
  • FX: less noise or higher potential resolution, lenses behave as they did under 35mm film, DX lenses cannot be used.
  • This page was last modified on 22 January 2021, at 14:32.
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