Nikon DSLR Best Value: D90

Nikon D90 DSLR: Not the latest, but still great

Bottom line: Even today, I think a used D90 is best “cheapest” camera. Cheap here means it is the least expensive option with the qualities we want. 

Three reasons I chose the Nikon D90 12.3MP DX body:

  1. Excellent High ISO performance
  2. Ability to drive older pin-focus, non-AF-S auto focus AF Lenses
  3. Good price-to-features ratio

High quality ISO is important because with our budget, we are not going to buy the brightest lenses and may even skip 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 ISO 3200 quite well, with little grain unless light is very poor and pictures are magnified. D90 and later generation ISO performance is much better than the previous generation’s D50, D70, etc.

For Nikon DSLR cameras, pin drive focus motor opens up the world of high-quality, older AF lenses. These old lenses don’t have vibration reduction or AF-S in-lens silent-focus motors, but they are built like tanks with superb glass, often sharper than newer consumer-priced lenses, and are available at significantly lower price points than their corresponding current versions. 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 focus motor.

I purchased my D90 new, but I have no qualms about buying used equipment. If buying new, look for kits bundled with a lens. Theses kit lenses are often very good (the 18-55mm VR we recommend is such a lens.) You can start your arsenal of cheap lenses for very little extra money this way. Concerning used, there’s a lot of great-condition used equipment out there. I have bought equipment used from Amazon, B&H, Adorama and even eBay and have not been disappointed with the condition of the items.

D90 Current Equivalents

I am satisfied with my D90 and see no need to upgrade in the near future. I did purchase it new, albeit on sale bundled with a lens. Anything newer than a D90 is going to have the good high ISO that prosumer models older than the D90 can’t match. The updated models that are the direct decendents of the D90, that is, in its equivalent price range and having the focus motor are the Nikon D7000, D7100 and the D7200. Right now the D7200 is selling for about the same as a D90 was when the D90 was new; the D7100 and D7000 are older generations, but still available new for less than a D7200. The Nikon D90 is still available new in a few places, from old stock I assume, but the price is too high. I would only shop used if I were looking for a D90 today.

About Full Frame Cameras

Full-frame FX bodies are out of the question currently because of cost and the incompatibility with Nikon’s low-cost but very nice DX lenses. However, if you want full frame, keep in mind that the old AF lenses, which includes any lens built for 35mm film cameras, are all full-format lenses. The time is coming soon when good full frames are going to start being reasonable on the used market. The old AF glass will be ready for your full frame when you, or the price, is ready. (That said, the DX lenses will “work” on full frame, you’ll just have to crop the result back to DX proportions in post-processing.)

Cost-effective Alternatives to the D90

At this time, the Nikon D90 is selling for about $300 used. That’s a really nice value.

For a less expensive alternative to the D90, the Nikon D50 6.1MP is a generation older, but less than $200 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 $250 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.

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).