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Nikon D3200 Review: A Mega Boost in Resolution
by Jim Keenan -  7/26/2012

Announced on April 19, 2012 and available in the marketplace at the end of that month, the D3200 is Nikon's latest generation entry-level DSLR. While the D3100 remains on Nikon's website as this is written, the D3200 provides some significant performance enhancements over the older camera for only a $50 increase in MSRP. Maximum continuous shooting rate increases to 4 frames per second (3 fps in the D3100); the 3.0-inch LCD monitor gets a healthy resolution increase up to 921,000 dots and the DX format CMOS sensor (APS-C, 1.5x crop factor in 35mm equivalents) jumps from 14.2 to 24.2 megapixels of resolution. That increased sensor resolution is paired with Nikon's latest EXPEED 3 processing technology - and makes the D3200 the highest resolution cropped-sensor camera in Nikon's lineup.

Overview

As befits an entry-level DSLR, there are fully automatic and scene shooting modes in addition to traditional manual exposure options. Nikon has also included its Guide Mode to assist novice or first-time DSLR users with image capture. The native ISO sensitivity range extends from 100 to 6400 (expandable to 12800) and there's a built-in flash. An optional mobile wireless adapter allows the connected user to share photos taken on the D3200 to an Android platform-based smartphone or tablet.

The camera can capture video in full 1080 HD resolution via a dedicated video record button, utilizes SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media and is offered in kit form, with a red or black body and the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR lens. Here's a look at both ends of that kit lens focal range:

Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Wide Angle
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Telephoto

NIKKOR AF-S or AF-I lenses are fully compatible, but as the camera lacks an internal focus motor most other AF lenses will not autofocus. Here's the sun and the moon, taken with my 600mm VR f/4 AF-S NIKKOR telephoto.

Nikon D3200 Sample Image Nikon D3200 Sample Image

WARNING: The photo of the sun was made utilizing a special astronomical grade filter that is designed to allow unlimited visual observation of the sun through telescopes. Do not attempt photography of the sun without appropriate filtration to prevent irreparable damage to your eyesight and camera equipment.

And with 24.2 megapixels of resolution on that sensor there's plenty of data to allow you to crop the frame fairly substantially to dispense with a lot of that empty space surrounding our subjects. These two crops are both 12 x 8" and 300 dots resolution - there's no up sampling or manipulation of the data, just a straightforward crop.

Nikon D3200 Sample Image Nikon D3200 Sample Image

Nikon includes a battery charger and battery, A/V and USB cables, a rubber eyecup, camera strap, eyepiece cap, body cap, accessory shoe cover, CD-ROM software and printed basic user's manual with each camera - the full manual is on the CD.

Build and Design
The D3200 follows the modern template for a DSLR - an exaggerated handgrip at the right front of the generally rectangular camera body that is topped with the combination penta prism/built-in flash housing. Body materials are largely composites and overall construction, fit and finish appear good and appropriate for the price point. The camera is made in Thailand.

Ergonomics and Controls
While the D3200 presents the classic SLR/DSLR shape, its overall size and weight falls towards the smaller end of the scale Nikon D3200with dimensions of 5 x 3.8 x 3 inches and a body only weight of 16 ounces. The handgrip section of the body is covered with a modestly sticky rubberized material and there's another patch of the same material on the back of the camera body as a thumb rest. The handgrip provides decent clearance between it and the barrel of the lens and the index finger of my right hand fell naturally to the shutter button, albeit right on the joint between the tip and the middle of the finger. I found myself constantly pulling back the index finger just a bit so I could activate the shutter button with the tip of the finger, but the light weight of the camera and kit lens make it a comfortable shooter in one-handed situations.

Controls are also mainstream Nikon DSLR, with the top right of the camera body holding the combination on-off/shutter button, info, movie capture and exposure compensation buttons along with the mode dial presenting the camera's various shooting options. The left front/side of the camera body contains flash compensation and function buttons - with the function button offering quick access to image size/quality, white balance, ISO sensitivity or active D-lighting functions as preset by the user.

The camera back is dominated by the 3.0-inch LCD monitor; arrayed vertically along its left side are playback, menu, Nikon D3200playback zoom, playback zoom out and information edit buttons. A rear facing infrared receiver sits on the left rear of the body next to the eyepiece (there's another receiver on the front of the handgrip), and permits hands free operation of the camera shutter with an optional ML-L3 IR remote. The right rear top of the body has an auto exposure/autofocus lock button and Nikon's typical command dial arrayed horizontally; vertically to the right of the monitor are live view, multi selector/OK, release mode/self-timer/remote control and delete buttons.

Depending on the individual shooting mode selected on the mode dial, the information edit button can provide quick access to a screen permitting inputs into image quality, white balance, ISO sensitivity, release mode, focus mode, autofocus area mode, metering, exposure and flash compensation exposure and flash mode settings. With this feature the D3200 permits fairly quick access to shooting settings likely to be utilized and changed on the fly by more advanced shooters.

Menus and Modes
Menus are typical Nikon DSLR in layout and consist of a one-page playback menu, two-page shooting menu, four page setup menu, three page retouch menu and three page recent settings menu. The retouch menu itself offers a fairly comprehensive suite of processing and effect options, including D-lighting, redeye correction, trim, and a filter effects submenu with options such as skylight, warm, red, green, blue cross screen and soft filters. There's also in-camera RAW processing, fisheye and perspective control options and a movie editing submenu.

Once in any particular menu you can scroll through all the available choices (which may vary depending on the individual shooting mode) and the menu will repeat itself once you reach the end. The menu items themselves are fairly intuitive and easy to use.

Shooting modes are what you would expect from an entry-level DSLR, consisting of automatic and scene modes along with the traditional manual exposure options. The camera also offers a "guide" mode, which in fact turns out to be basically a set of menus that assist the novice user in achieving desired results for image capture, review or camera set up. When you first switch into guide mode you're presented with a screen offering "shoot," "view/delete" or "set up" options. Selecting the shoot option takes you to submenus for easy or advanced operation, with additional options within each submenu Here's a look at the primary guide mode screen as well as the screen you get if you press OK with the shoot option enabled:

Nikon D3200 Sample Image Nikon D3200 Sample Image

And here's a look at the screens that are displayed if you press the easy and advanced options.

Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Easy
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Advanced

Scrolling to the view option and pressing OK produces these two screens:

Nikon D3200 Sample Image Nikon D3200 Sample Image

The view/delete option gives you one-page menu allowing use of single or multiple photos, locating photos from a certain date, a slideshow or deletion of images. And finally, scrolling to set up and pushing OK brings up these screens:

Nikon D3200 Sample Image Nikon D3200 Sample Image

Selecting set up produces a three-page menu providing access to parameters such as image quality, image size, auto off timers, display and sound settings, movie settings, playback display options, etc. These are all settings that can be located in the traditional menu but are presented in this format to simplify things for novice users.
Here's a detailed rundown on the D3200 shooting modes:

Display/Viewfinder
The 3.0-inch LCD monitor on the D3200 has a 921,000 dot composition and is adjustable for eight levels of brightness. The monitor has a 160 degree viewing angle and measured a fairly low 376 nit peak brightness in our studio tests, well below the 500 nit threshold we like to see as a minimum. Contrast ratio came in at a more satisfactory 767:1, well above the 500:1 threshold for that value. Outside, the D3200 monitor did pretty well for image composition and capture in live view mode, but Nikon D3200there were still times when lighting conditions could make it difficult to use.

My experience with monitors has been that those with larger resolutions such as the D3200 seem to compensate for sub-500 nit brightness if their contrast ratios exceed 500:1, and in general perform better outdoors than the low peak brightness level would indicate. That seems to hold true with the D3200, but with a fairly decent viewfinder the only time to be using live view for image composition or capture is when there is absolutely, positively no other way to get the shot. One such instance is during video capture, as the D3200 requires you be in live view mode in order to capture movies. Monitor coverage is not specified but appears to be about 100%.

The D3200 viewfinder offers approximately 95% coverage in both horizontal and vertical planes as well as a diopter adjustment for varying degrees of eyesight. The viewfinder is not as large and bright as a Nikon pro body like my D3S, but is comparable to other entry-level DSLRs I've reviewed. Still, 95% coverage means there's going to be objects creeping into photos around the edges that aren't apparent through the viewfinder, so a little careful composition can go a long way toward saving some post-processing cropping.

Performance

The D3200 in kit form is fairly light and compact as DSLRs go, and quite comfortable to carry on all day shooting sessions.

Shooting Performance
The camera powers up in typical DSLR fashion, which is to say pretty quickly, with focus points going active immediately upon flipping the power switch. I was able to acquire focus and get off a first shot in about one second after power up. Single shot to shot times are basically as quick as you can reacquire focus and press the shutter button for each subsequent shot. Shutter lag was 0.01 seconds but we measured a fairly slow (for a DSLR) 0.33 second AF acquisition time with the kit lens in our studio tests.

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Sony Alpha SLT-A55V 0.16
Canon EOS Rebel T3i 0.18
Pentax K-r 0.19
Nikon D3200 0.33

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate
Sony Alpha SLT-A55V 17 10.8 fps
Pentax K-r 29 6.4 fps
Nikon D3200 54 4 fps
Canon EOS Rebel T3i 8 3.7 fps

In the field, the D3200 did not impress me as being particularly slow when it came to AF acquisition time - it seemed like a typical entry level DSLR with regard to speed in this area. Once I became aware of the measurement I spent some time just shooting various scenes and subjects, and even going from focus on a subject at minimum focus distance to a subject out at infinity. With the kit lens onboard and going from focus at minimum focus distance to focus at infinity (and vice versa) AF acquisition times seemed in the ballpark with our studio measurement. In the course of normal shooting, with different subjects and varying distances (but not one extreme to the other) the D3200/kit lens combo acquired focus promptly, certainly on a par with other entry-level DSLRs I have reviewed.

I also swapped the kit lens for number of my other AF-S Nikkor lenses, including the 70-200VRII f/2.8, 14-24 f/2.8 and 24-70 f/2.8. These are pro-grade AF-S lenses and in each case the D3200 seemed a bit quicker to acquire focus, even in the extreme focus situation. The kit lens is an AF-S consumer grade model with an MSRP of about $200; the 70-200 and 24-70 go for about $2400 and $1900, respectively. Obviously, all AF-S lenses are not created equal and throwing a bunch of money at high end glass seems to include slightly quicker AF acquisition times as part of the deal. But having shot the D3200 for about two weeks, with the exception of the minimum focus distance/infinity focus distance situation, overall AF acquisition times seemed average. The camera does take a bit more time to acquire focus as lighting conditions go into the dim range, a not uncommon occurrence with many DSLRs.

Continuous shooting measured 4 fps for JPEG fine images, right in line with Nikon's claimed "up to four fps." The D3200 produced 54 images at this rate (14 if shooting RAW images) before slowing as the buffer becomes saturated. It should be noted that this buffer capacity was based on the camera at default settings, and as I'll explain later in the lens performance section there is a distortion control feature (disabled by default) that may be enabled to help with some lens distortion issues. Apparently distortion control soaks up a healthy chunk of processing power and produces a dramatically lower write speed that causes the buffer to fill much more quickly. How quickly? That would be 10 JPEGS, 9 RAW or 8 RAW/JPEG combos before things slow down.

Continuous auto focus performance in the continuous shooting mode is pretty good while tracking moving subjects, but with only 11 focal points to choose from small, fast-moving targets such as seabirds can sometimes slip out of focus if you're not very precise holding the focus point on them. The camera has Nikon's dynamic area autofocus mode which in theory continues to track the subject with surrounding focus points should it wander off from the primary focus point, and is my method of choice for shooting moving objects like surfers and jets at airshows. With the 51 point systems in my D3S and D300S you have to try pretty hard to lose focus on moving objects, but the D3200 with 40 fewer focus points to choose from is a bit less forgiving. Still, continuous autofocus tracking is at least the equal of any entry-level DSLR I've reviewed.

Nikon lists a guide number of approximately 39 feet for the D3200 built in flash at ISO 100 - this translates into a maximum range of a bit over 11 feet at wide-angle. Flash recycle times shooting in auto mode were rapid with a fully charged battery - basically as quick as you could reacquire focus and shoot again, at least for the first several shots. Shots designed to produce a full discharge of the flash resulted in recycle times of about 3.5 seconds.

Battery life for the D3200?s EN-EL14 lithium-ion battery is listed as 540 shots, so prudence would dictate a second battery for all day shooting sessions.

Lens Performance
The 18-55mm VR zoom lens provided in the D3200 kit is fairly typical of lenses in this class, having maximum apertures of Nikon D3200f/3.5 and f/5.6 at the wide-angle and telephoto ends of the zoom, respectively. The "VR" designation stands for vibration reduction, Nikon's trade name for stabilization. The lens is made in Thailand, features a metal mount and composite barrel along with a zoom ring marked at the 18, 24, 35, 45 and 55 mm focal lengths. The action of the zoom ring was smooth although a bit on the heavy side, at least compared to my other AF-S Nikon zooms. The focus ring is light and quick, requiring rotation through only about 60 degrees to set focus from near to far. Unfortunately, focus is accompanied by a rotating of the front element of the lens, so filters that require manual rotation (polarizing, variable neutral density) will require constant attention as your focal points change.

One nice aspect of this lens is the minimum focus distance is approximately 11 inches throughout the entire focal range. This distance is measured from the subject to the sensor plane within the camera, not from the front of the lens to the subject, producing a fairly decent close-up capability without resorting to a dedicated micro (close-up) lens. Here's a look with the kit lens at minimum focus distance at the telephoto end of the zoom, and another using Nikon's 105 mm VR micro lens.

Nikon D3200 Sample Image
18-55mm Kit Lens
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
105mm VR

While not overly fast, the kit lens turns in a fairly credible optical performance otherwise. There is barrel distortion present at the wide-angle end of the zoom, but this has pretty much disappeared by the time the lens is zoomed into the 26 to 28mm focal range. The telephoto end of the zoom shows just a tiny bit of pincushion distortion. However, the camera provides a distortion control feature in the retouch menu - options are automatic or manual. Here's a look at an uncorrected wide-angle and then the same shot after automatic distortion control has been applied in the retouch menu.

Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Original, Wide Angle
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
With Post-Process Distortion Control

Better still, the camera shooting menu features an auto distortion control setting (off by default) that may be enabled to provide correction as you shoot without resorting to post processing. Here's a look at both wide-angle and telephoto ends of the zoom with auto distortion control enabled.

Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Wide Angle, Distortion Control Enabled
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Telephoto, Distortion Control Enabled

However, there's no such thing as a free lunch - enabling auto distortion control reduces the buffer size for JPEG Fine images from 54 to 10 (suggesting that the process of correcting the images is diverting a lot of processing power from image writing speed), so if you're shooting a lot of continuous sequences you need to really examine the need for distortion control to be enabled while shooting or left for a post processing step with select images.

Optically, the lens is fairly sharp in the center at wide-angle with a bit of softness in the edges and corners along with a bit of light drop-off in the corners. In the 26-28mm focal range where distortion goes neutral optical performance appears about the same but without the light fall off. At telephoto center looks fairly sharp and while the edges and corners are softer, they are less so than at wide-angle. There is some chromic aberration (purple fringing) present at the wide end of the lens in some high contrast boundary areas, although most cases this takes enlargements in the 200-300% + range to be readily visible. The telephoto end does a bit better in this regard, with much fewer instances of the defect being present.

Video Quality
Video quality is quite good in the D3200 and you can go to video capture from any shooting mode except the guide mode. While there is a dedicated video capture button, you first have to be in live view, but the locations of the live view and video capture buttons respectively make this a simple task when hand holding. Activate the live view button with the right thumb, half push on the shutter button to acquire focus and then the video capture button is a short distance from the shutter button, an easy push for the shooting finger.

Download Sample Video

As with any camera with a CMOS sensor, rolling shutter effect is a possibility when rapidly panning the D3200 in video mode, but I found the D3200 required exaggeratedly fast pans to produce a slight effect. The built-in microphone is susceptible to wind noise and can also record sounds of lens during zooming, autofocus and stabilization. There is no wind cut feature per se, but the microphone may be set for automatic or manually established sound levels.

While nominal clip length is 4GB or 20 minutes, the camera can shut down automatically before these limits are reached in order to prevent thermal damage due to overheating under certain conditions, such as high ambient temperatures.

Image Quality
Default image quality out of the D3200 was quite nice with regards to color rendition and fidelity, but I found the images shot in the automatic mode, while very good overall, seemed generally just a bit too soft for my taste. Switching to the manual modes, my impression was sharpness was even a bit less satisfying than automatic, so I ramped up the sharpening level in the camera to the maximum and found that produced a more pleasing sharpness, at least for my eye. Here's a look at default images in automatic and aperture priority modes, and the third in aperture priority at maximum sharpness.

Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Auto Mode, Default Sharpness
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Aperture Mode, Default Sharpness
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Aperture Mode, Maximum Sharpness

Even if the results of any particular image is not quite to your liking there's always the opportunity to post process, particularly if shooting RAW files, but between pretty good automatic mode image quality and the ability to fine tune camera settings for the manual modes most folks should be able to get output directly from the camera that meets their needs and likes with little, if any additional image crunching.

The "set picture control" menu offers manual mode shooters a palette of color options including standard (the default), neutral, vivid, monochrome, portrait, and landscape. Here's a look at all six.

Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Standard
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Neutral
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Vivid
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Monochrome
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Portrait
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Landscape

I used the standard color mode for most images captured for this review.

Auto white balance was used for all the imagery captured for this review and did a good job across a range of light including daylight, incandescent, open shade, and flash. Manual mode shooters have incandescent, cool white fluorescent, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade and preset manual white balance options.

Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

The D3200 has matrix, center weighted and spot metering exposure methods on board, with matrix being the default for the manual shooting modes. In all other modes the camera chooses the exposure metering method, but matrix is the method of choice for most situations. Shooting manually, the matrix method would on occasion lose highlights in some high contrast scenes but overall it did a fairly good job.

With 24.2 megapixels of resolution packed onto an APS-C sized sensor, I was curious to see how the D3200 would do in the noise arena as ISO sensitivities ramped up. ISO 100, 200 and 400 were virtually indistinguishable - I had to look long and hard at 100% magnifications to find a spot here or there with little success. For all practical purposes I believe you can shoot these settings interchangeably with no noticeable effect on large print quality. ISO 800 was virtually indistinguishable from 400, with perhaps just a hint of graininess starting to appear on the white background. The jump from 800 to 1600 was the first that was somewhat easy to tell apart, as there was a slight but definite increase in graininess in the background on the 1600 shot.

Nikon D3200 Sample Image
ISO 100
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
ISO 200
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
ISO 400
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
ISO 800
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
ISO 6400
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
ISO 6400, 100% crop
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
ISO HI
Nikon D3200 Sample Image
ISO HI, 100% crop

ISO 1600 was still quite clean, with some slight losses in a few fine detail areas - but still a usable setting for large prints. ISO 3200 shows a more definite drop-off from 1600, but is still holding fairly good fine details in most areas. ISO 6400 and 12800 both show increased graininess with loss of fine details and smudging becoming more apparent. All in all, I would be comfortable shooting up to 1600 if necessary for large prints, 3200 for smaller prints and I'd save 6400 and 12800 for those situations where a high ISO sensitivity was necessary to get the shot.

Additional Sample Images

Nikon D3200 Sample Image Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Nikon D3200 Sample Image Nikon D3200 Sample Image
Nikon D3200 Sample Image Nikon D3200 Sample Image

Conclusion

While the D3200 may be Nikon's entry-level DSLR, its 24.2 megapixel resolution sensor makes it the highest resolution cropped sensor camera in the entire Nikon fleet. With its predecessor carrying only 14.2 megapixels it's clear that Nikon chose to go for high resolution versus high ISO performance in their current generation entry-level model. That resolution can come in handy, allowing shooters a fair amount of leeway to crop images when necessary to provide more pleasing formats, or for printing really big enlargements. The D3200 is fairly light and compact as DSLRs go, and the kit lens provides decent overall image performance. The camera is fully compatible with over 40 Nikon AF-S/AF-I lenses and tele-converters in the current Nikon catalog - lenses that range from 10mm to 600mm (with an 800mm on the way).

Auto focus acquisition time can be a little pokey if you ask the kit lens to go from near focus to infinity (and vice versa), but otherwise the D3200 kit seems on a par with other entry-level DSLRs and shutter lag is negligible. Still and video image quality is very good, but even with the dedicated video button the process of initiating video recording requires first switching into live view and then acquiring focus before proceeding with capture. The continuous shooting rate of 4 fps is in the ballpark with other entry-level DSLRs and the continuous autofocus performance when shooting bursts of moving subjects is pretty good. All available shooting modes are quickly and easily accessed via the mode dial atop the camera body, and guide mode can be a big help in leading novice photographers through the steps needed to accomplish their particular image capture goals. If you're in the market for your first DSLR the Nikon D3200 is a worthy consideration.

Pros:

Cons: