Nikon DSLR D90: Not the latest, but still great
Right away you may wonder how I use the word “cheap.” The Nikon D90 is not cheap in price. Frankly, no DSLR is “cheap” in that sense. Cheap here means it is the least expensive option with the qualities we want.
Two reasons I chose the Nikon D90 12.3MP DX body:
- Excellent High ISO performance
- Ability to drive older pin-focus, non-AF-S auto focus AF Lenses
High quality ISO is important because with our budget, we are not going to buy the brightest lenses or require vibration reduction. Good-performance high ISO allows us to cheat darkness and camera shake with higher ISO settings and faster shutter speeds. The D90 manages 3200 quite well, with little grain unless light is very poor and pictures are magnified.
For Nikon DSLR cameras, pin drive opens up the world of high-quality, older AF lenses. These old lenses don’t have vibration reduction or AF-S silent focus motors, but they are built like tanks with superb glass, often sharper than newer consumer-priced lenses, and are priced significantly lower than their corresponding current iterations. Of course, this often (but not always) means buying used, but many lightly-used lenses are available. Two of our three recommended cheap lenses for Nikon DSLR, and their lowest-cost alternatives, need the on-camera AF motor.
If buying new, look for kits bundled with a lens. Theses kit lenses are often very good (the 18-55mm we recommend is such a lens.) You can start your arsenal of cheap lenses for very little extra money this way.
Nikon DSLR good value alternatives
Full-frame FX bodies are out of the question because of cost and the incompatibility with Nikon’s low-cost but very nice DX lenses.
The D90 starts at $600 used. It was discontinued in early 2011. It is still available new, but as stock dwindles deals are disappearing; prices for new are near the MSRP of $900. Look for a used or refurbished unit.
For a less expensive alternative, the Nikon D50 6.1MP is a generation older, but less than $250 used.
This often-overlooked Nikon DSLR has pin focus drive, opening up lens possibilities. However, the high ISO performance is not as good as the D90 and later. I traded my D50 for the D90 for the better ISO. The larger LCD is nice as well; for me, the features were worth the upgrade price. The fewer megapixels is NOT a problem with the D50 for me; I typically shoot my D90 at the equivalent of 6 MP because full-sized 12 MP files are huge, chewing up storage and slowing my editing software. I’m not printing posters of my work anyway.
Nikon D80 10.2MP starts at under $400 used. It is the direct ancestor of the D90 and as a pin focus drive. It has more megapixels than the D50, a preview button and a few more professional touches. Like the D50, it will not have the high ISO performance of the D90.
I would not purchase anything older or less advanced than a D50 or D80.
The latest-generation model that will operate an AF pin drive lens is the Nikon D7000 16.2MP DX-Format CMOS Digital SLR with 3.0-Inch LCD (Body Only), but it’s $1100. It has even better high ISO performance. As a bonus, it can also meter manual focus AI lenses, increasing the field of old but high quality lenses that we cheap photographers look for. (The D90 and D50 will not meter through fully manual lenses. You can use them, but you’ll need an external light meter and dial the settings by hand.)
If you do not want to auto-focus older non-AF-S lenses, then literally any Nikon DSLR will do. I recommend going for the newest generations, anything from the D90 and newer, e.g. the Nikon D3100 or Nikon D5100 because of the superior high ISO performance (slightly better than the D90).