Nikon D3200 (with 18-55mm VR lens) review

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THE GOOD

With reasonably fast performance and very good photo quality, the Nikon D3200 delivers what you expect from a dSLR.

THE BAD

The camera’s lackluster feature set, some underwhelming design changes, and photos that don’t necessarily surpass its predecessor may disappoint.

THE BOTTOM LINE

A solid if unexceptional entry-level dSLR, the Nikon D3200 should still please most folks looking for an upgrade from their point-and-shoots.

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The Nikon D3200 has a lot of the same or similar components to the D3100, including the same autofocus system (bolstered by Nikon’s newer scene-recognition technology) and viewfinder, it’s got a newer, higher resolution sensor coupled with Nikon’s updated Expeed 3 imaging engine, a higher-resolution LCD, and 1080/30p video with a supporting microphone jack and HDMI connector. But the D3200 may be a case of newer not necessarily being better; it’s a solid camera, but one that doesn’t particularly stand out from the crowd.

Image quality
Compared with its competitors, the D3200 matches their photo quality but doesn’t surpass them; in fact, I think the D3100 has better photos overall, and by the numbers has a better noise profile at all levels up to ISO 12800 (which is immaterial since it’s unusable on most cameras under at least $1,800). In general, JPEG photos look clean up through ISO 400 with increasing noise and loss of detail through ISO 3200, the highest I’d probably use and even then only scaled down. You don’t gain any unambiguous advantages shooting raw until about ISO 1600; it still gives you some headroom for image manipulation, but you can’t easily produce a cleaner image without some trade-offs.

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In other respects — color, exposure, sharpness, tonal range — the camera fares very well. JPEGs are sharp without being oversharpened, it conserves a good amount of highlight and shadow detail for recovery during raw processing, and it delivers relatively accurate color. One thing to watch out for is that the default Standard Picture Control settings bump up contrast enough that you can lose some shadow detail.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the video quality. It’s OK for personal vacation-type use, but even in good light it’s fairly soft and there are a variety of annoying edge-based artifacts. In dim light it’s quite noisy.

Performance
While I’d consider the photo quality comparison with the D3100 debatable, the D3200’s performance is definitely better than its predecessor. It’s still no rocketship, however, compared with models like the SLT-A37. It’s fast enough at powering on and shooting at less than 0.3 second. Its shot lag — focusing and shooting — in good light takes about 0.3 second, which is fast but now typical for its class. In dim light that rises to about 0.5 second; also typical and pretty good. Two sequential shots take roughly 0.5 – 0.6 second, depending upon whether you’re shooting raw or JPEG, bumping up to 0.9 second if the flash fires. Continuous shooting runs at about 3.9fps, which should be good enough for most hobbyist photographers.

 

The autofocus occasionally feels more sluggish than the numbers would indicate, however. It’s smart enough to not hunt when you go for that second shot of the same subject and fine in good light. But in suboptimal conditions you can feel the kit lens moving more slowly. As is typical for the class, the Live View autofocus is slow and cumbersome as well, and the full-time autofocus in video performs about the same as other dSLRs — it can focus, but it doesn’t stick and pulses on unmoving objects.

Design and features
The D3200 essentially has the same body as the D3100 body — it’s still relatively small and light — though it still feels a little plasticky. (Because of the similarities, parts of the body description are the same as in that review.) While it remains a pretty streamlined camera to shoot with, Nikon has changed a few of the control types and locations in ways I don’t particularly like.

It keeps the same viewfinder; it’s small and dim, which is typical for this class. But I also hate the tiny focus points which only illuminate (and briefly) when you half-press the shutter. They’re impossible to see in moderate to dim light, so if you shoot on anything other than full auto you first have to press the shutter to find the appropriate focus point (in my case, center) before you can even begin to frame the scene.

A programmable Fn button — you can set it to control the image quality, ISO sensitivity, white balance, or Active D-Lighting menus — lies under your left thumb, though it’s a little hard to differentiate from the flash pop-up/compensation button that sits above it by feel alone. Behind the shutter button circumscribed by the power switch are the exposure compensation and info buttons; the latter toggles the back display.

Nikon has moved the record button to the left of those buttons to what I think is an awkward location. On the D3100, there’s a combination Live View switch/record button that falls under your right thumb that’s really nice. Now we’re back to the separate Live View button on the back — which you have to invoke first, before you can record — and a record button on top that you’ve got to stretch to reach.

As usual, the top mode dial is segregated into the automatic, semimanual and manual modes. The D3200 keeps the Guide mode that provides various levels of step-by-step help for a limited number of common shooting scenarios. There’s Easy operation, which, like Auto, provides access to a limited number of options, as well as an Advanced mode, which describes the appropriate settings for the chosen scenario and then allows you to change the settings yourself. For instance, in Easy Operation/Distant Subjects it puts you into the Sports scene mode — the camera tells you what it’s doing, which is really nice — then asks if you want to use the viewfinder, Live View or shoot a movie. From there, it optionally allows you to adjust flash, release mode, and ISO sensitivity. The options are not specific to the scenarios, however, which would be useful. My one minor quibble with this is that the controls don’t always function the same in this mode as when shooting normally; so, for example, here you’d adjust shutter speed with the up/down buttons on the multiselector, whereas you’d normally use the command dial to change the speed. This might confuse some people.

Canon EOS Rebel T2i Nikon D3100 Nikon D3200 Nikon D5100 Sony Alpha SLT-A37
Sensor (effective resolution) 18mp CMOS 14.2mp CMOS 24.2mp CMOS 16.2mp CMOS 16.1mp Exmor HD CMOS
22.3 x 14.9mm 23.1 x 15.4mm 23.2 x 15.4mm 23.6 x 15.6mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.6x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 – ISO 6400/12800 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/200 – ISO 3200/ 12800 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/
200 – ISO 6400/12800 (expanded)
ISO 100 – ISO 6400/25,600 (expanded) ISO 100 – ISO 16000
Continuous shooting 3.7 fps
6 raw/34 JPEG
3fps
n/a raw/n/a JPEG
4fps
n/a
4 fps
n/a raw/100 JPEG
5.5 fps
6 raw/14 JPEG
Viewfinder (magnification/effective magnification) Optical
95% coverage
0.87x/0.54x
Optical
95% coverage
0.80x/0.53x
Optical
95% coverage
0.80x/0.53x
Optical
95% coverage
0.78x/0.52x
Electronic
0.43 inches/1.4 million dots
100% coverage
1.1x/0.73x
Autofocus 9-pt AF
center cross-type
11-pt AF
center cross-type
11-pt AF
center cross-type
11-pt AF
center cross-type to f5.6
15-pt phase-detection AF
3 cross-type
AF sensitivity n/a -1 to 19 EV -1 to 19 EV -1 to 19 EV -1 to 18 EV
Shutter Speed 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 x-sync 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/160 x-sync
Metering 63-zone 420-pixel 3D color matrix 420-pixel 3D color matrix metering II 420-pixel 3D color matrix metering II 1200 zone
Metering sensitivity 1 to 20 EV 0 to 20 EV 0 to 20 EV 0 to 20 EV -2 to 17 EV
Video H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/24p/ 25p/30p; 720/50p/60p 1080/24p; 720/30p/ 25p/24p H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/50p H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/ 24p; 720/30p/ 25p/24p H.264 QuickTime MOV AVCHD: 1080/60i @ 24Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1440×1080/ 30p @ 12Mbps
Audio Mono; mic input Mono Mono; mic input Mono; mic input Stereo; mic input
Manual aperture and shutter in video Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Maximum best-quality recording time 4GB/12 minutes 10 minutes n/a 20 minutes n/a
(likely 29m59s)
Image stabilization Optical Optical Optical Optical Sensor shift
LCD size 3 inches fixed
1.04 megapixels
3 inches fixed
230,000 dots
3 inches fixed
921,000 dots
3 inches articulated
921,000 dots
2.6 inches tilting
230,400 dots
Memory slots 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC
Wireless flash Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 550 shots 550 shots 540 shots 660 shots 450 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 5.1 x 3.8 x 3.0 4.9 x 3.8 x 2.9 5.0 x 3.8 x 3.1 5.0 x 3.8 x 3.1 4.9 x 3.6 x 3.3
Body operating weight (ounces) 18.6 17.7 17.6 19.6 17.8
Mfr. Price $599.99 (est, body only) n/a n/a $799.95 (body only) n/a
$699.99 (with 18-55mm IS II lens) $649.95 (with 18-55mm VR lens) $699.95 (with 18-55mm VR lens) $899.95 (with 18-55mm VR lens) $599 (with 18-55mm lens)
n/a n/a n/a n/a $799 (with 18-135mm lens)
Release date March 2011 September 2010 April 2012 April 2011 June 2012

Nikon laudably puts the D3200’s SD card slot in the more accessible grip-side location, and I still like Nikon’s implementation of the interactive display. The adjustment options are arrayed around the edges of the display, which makes the one you’re looking for easier to find compared with some of the more cluttered full-screen layouts of competitors. On the other hand, you do have to navigate sequentially through the options, which you don’t have to do with control panels that allow you to move up, down, and sideways.

In addition to a composite, a HDMI out, and a USB connector, plus the connector for Nikon’s proprietary GPS module, D3200 adds a jack for an external mic, bringing it into parity with its peers. But there are a lot of more useful shooting features still missing that other cameras in this price class provide, notably simple exposure and flash exposure bracketing. (For a full account of the D3200’s features and operation, download the PDF manual.)

Conclusion
There’s nothing about this camera that screams either “buy me!” or “don’t buy me!” It’s faster, has a better LCD and better video than the D3100, but the higher-resolution sensor doesn’t deliver better photo quality. Its bare-bones feature set can’t match that of the cheaper A37, and you can probably find the older but more feature-rich D5100 for less than the cost of the new D3200. Still, I think most entry-level shooters would be perfectly satisfied with the Nikon D3200.

SHOOTING SPEED (IN SECONDS)(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

(1) Time to first shot
(2) Raw shot-to-shot time
(3) Typical shot-to-shot time
(4) Shutter lag (dim light)
(5) Shutter lag (typical)

Sony Alpha SLT-A37

(1) – 0.8

(2) – 0.5

(3) – 0.5

(4) – 0.3

(5) – 0.2

Canon EOS Rebel T2i

(1) – 0.3

(2) – 0.6

(3) – 0.5

(4) – 0.5

(5) – 0.3

Pentax K-x

(1) – 0.7

(2) – 0.6

(3) – 0.4

(4) – 0.5

(5) – 0.3

Nikon D3200

(1) – 0.3

(2) – 0.6

(3) – 0.5

(4) – 0.5

(5) – 0.3

Nikon D3100

(1) – 0.4

(2) – 0.9

(3) – 0.6

(4) – 0.6

(5) – 0.4

TYPICAL CONTINUOUS-SHOOTING SPEED(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Pentax K-x : 4.3

Sony Alpha SLT-A37 : 3.9

Nikon D3200 : 3.9

Canon EOS Rebel T2i : 3.4

Nikon D3100 : 2.9

(cnet.com)

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