Nikon D3200

The Nikon D3200 set tongues wagging when announced last month. Its headline-grabbing 24-megapixel sensor promised to be unlike anything the entry-level DSLR market had seen before.

But in a world where the megapixel isn’t always king, can the D3200 deliver across the board, and, more importantly, is it what beginners truly need?

The might of megapixels

There’s no denying it, high megapixel counts have been used to sell cameras for years now. But most users don’t have the need for such resolution, in particular at the beginner or "entry-level" end of the market.

Arguably the D3200 isn’t just aimed at those newcomers. It is, after all, the highest-resolution DSLR in its class, and certainly the most affordable 24-megapixel camera on the market today. That resolution may speak volumes to landscape or portrait photographers that want a budget option capable of outputting huge file sizes for optimum quality prints - but these are people that, most likely, already know what they’re doing.

For the beginner, the megapixel count may be almost inconsequential to their work, yet it does present the option to crop into shots without overall quality loss. This is an appealing prospect, bettered by the camera’s in-camera crop function.

But Nikon has missed a trick here, one that Sony has had in its Alpha line for some time now: the ability to magnify the preview and, therefore, final image, by using less of the sensor’s real estate. A 2x magnifier, for example, would double a lens’s telephoto reach and, in the case of the D3200, still output images at 12-megapixels without quality loss - but that beginner-friendly approach hasn’t made it into the Nikon model.

Guide-ing light

Ease of use is at the forefront of the D3200. Its guide mode, as adapted from the D3100, is an illustrated walkthrough guide that helps to achieve certain types of shots. For example, "capture red in sunsets" will adjust the camera’s white balance. Text and an accompanying image show that "color temperatures 5000K or more bring out reds most effectively". Change the settings within the guide mode and the corresponding image shows how the final result will differ. So it’s a learning process that’s well suited to newcomers that might know the desired result, but not know the camera mode or settings to use.

It’s not infallible though and there are always other settings that can have knock-on effects, or conditions might not suit the desired shot. For example an auto ISO sensitivity is available, but is switched off by default - a little menu digging will find the option, but newcomers may not know to head here, nor understand its relevance. The auto modes also have a tendency to pop the flash up at the drop of a hat and, while it is possible to turn this off from within guide mode, it can become a nuisance.

More advanced users will use Nikon's longstanding i-button to jump into a quick menu that displays on the rear LCD. Although the "info" name may not make perfect sense to newcomers, this Nikon staple is an essential to the camera's design and a key way to access the important settings. To further speed things up there's also a programmable function (Fn) button towards the front left side of the camera, which is well placed to adjust in use in combination with the rear thumb dial. 

Performance

It’s possible to shoot using either the D3200’s viewfinder or the rear LCD screen set in live view mode.

The 3-inch, 921k-dot LCD screen may sound like it delivers on paper, but its playback is too cold/cyan which makes accurate colour balance tricky. This isn’t isolated to our review sample either, as we checked multiple camera bodies.

Live view uses a user-positioned focus point that can be placed anywhere around the screen from edge to edge and, although not as fast as autofocus when using the viewfinder, is standard for this level. Just don’t expect to use it for action shots - it's more one for still life shots and can be useful for unusual framing when it's not possible to have the viewfinder to your eye. 

Burst speed comes in at four frames per second. Paired with the Expeed 3 processor the camera can crunch through images at pace. Although 4fps may not sound fast, consider that the 6016x4000px JPEG files can exceed 12MB each and the Raw files are around 25MB and it’s an impressive statistic. With a Class 10 SD card loaded up in the camera it was possible to shoot eight consecutive raw and JPEG files, or 23 JPEG "fine" shots in one burst. Good show.

It's worth mentioning there's also a wireless transmitter unit available, priced at £55. The WU-1a is only compatible with the D3200 (to date) and is a fun way of transmitting images or controlling the camera using your Android phone. 

The camera’s autofocus system is the same 11-point multi-CAM 1000 system that’s been used for many years by some Nikon product lines. It works well in good light and there’s an AF-assist lamp for when things get a bit too dim, yet the overall speed isn’t lightning fast. It’s an entry-level performance, though the camera’s price tag might suggest it would have stepped things up a gear or two in this department – a potential oversight when considering what else is available on the market. 

Price wars

So, is the D3200 worth it?

The £649 launch price is more than the (mostly) better-specified Nikon D5100 - the model which is supposed to sit above the D3200 in Nikon’s DSLR range.

While the D3200 adds the high-resolution sensor to its features arsenal, it doesn’t add any extras in the autofocus performance department.

Then there’s the Sony Alpha A65. This mid-level SLT uses the very same 24-megapixel sensor, but has a more advanced feature set which includes a faster autofocus system. But it also have a heftier price tag, at around £755 with a kit lens.

Megapixels to marvel at?

But then the D3200’s images are great.

Despite the 24-megapixel resolution the entirety of the ISO 100-6400 sensitivity range is usable to some degree. A feat even more impressive when considering just how high resolution this camera is.

Critical detail is more visible at the lower ISO settings, though processing does render JPEGs softer than their raw counterparts. ISO 100-200 hold the most detail, while ISO 400-800 show more evidence of processing - these middle sensitivity settings look slightly softer yet grainier but are still of good quality.

At the higher settings ISO 1600 is where colour noise becomes noticeable and there’s a steeper turn to softness, while ISO 3200 is yet softer, colour is more muted, and although detail isn’t as prominent as at lower ISO settings there’s room to get a decent shot. ISO 6400 lacks detail but will be useful for some scenarios, and the inclusion of a Hi1 (ISO 12,800) setting pushes the limits of usability, yet isn’t awful.

Hyper-critical eyes will see some evidence of colour noise in gradient areas at any ISO setting upwards of ISO 100. This is negligible until ISO 400 where it has some presence, though won’t be to the detriment of most images.

Overall exposure is accurate, as is auto white balance - even if, in the case of the latter, the camera’s rear LCD screen isn’t the best at displaying the true colour balance.

Resolution hounds, take note, the D3200 has got this one in the bag.

Movie maestro

It was only a matter of time before an entry-level model went out all guns blazing in the moving image department. The D3200 is exactly that model: it includes a 1080p movie mode with 30, 25 or 24 frames per second capture using the H.264 codec to output MOV files.

As well as an onboard mono microphone there’s also a 3.5mm microphone input. This is particularly useful as Nikon AF-S lenses will, in general, create autofocus motor sounds that will be picked up in recordings. But that’s little to no problem when a third-party microphone is attached.

Continuous or single autofocus are both available, as is manual focus. Metering, however, is automatic - there's no manual control to be found here.

Verdict

There are two ways to think about the D3200: as a souped-up D3100 with ultra high resolution, great quality images; or as a camera that’s purporting to be entry-level when it’s straddling the mid-level DSLR market.

The latter is a view to take seriously, as the Sony Alpha A65 - which shares the same sensor as this camera - is roughly £100 more, yet offers both faster autofocus and burst modes and similar, if not the very same, 24-megapixel image quality. In fact the D3200 is pricier than either Nikon’s higher spec D5100 model or the Canon EOS 600D.

But when every penny counts, the D3200 does pull out the image quality stops. This already proven sensor produces fantastic images and ushers in a new era of quality to the entry-level end of the market.

Guide mode is a great tool, as proven by the D3100, that will help first timers to develop their understanding of photography. But then the budget D3100 has the same mode (bar a couple of changes) and costs far less.

In summary it’s all about your imaging needs: If great quality images at high resolution and a decent movie mode to match are a must, or if you’re a newbie, then the D3200 is excellent and outperforms middleweight DSLRs on those fronts.