It may be an entry-level camera, but the Nikon D3200 features a 24.2-million-pixel sensor that could provide the sort of image quality demanded by enthusiasts. Can the Nikon D3200 cater for all? The Nikon D3200 review find out.
- 24.2-million-pixel CMOS sensor
- Expeed 3 processor (as used in the Nikon D4 and Nikon 1)
- ISO 100-6400, extendable to ISO 12,800
- In-depth guide mode
- RRP £559.99 body only, or £649.99 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens
Nikon’s latest camera releases are a sign of things to come, with the company throwing down a weighty megapixel gauntlet to its rivals. Earlier this year, we saw the FX-format (full-frame) D800 raise the bar with 36.3 million pixels, and it proved to be the best full-frame sensor we have tested so far. Now the company’s DX-format (APS-C) line-up welcomes a 24.2-million-pixel model for the first time, in the form of the D3200. Nikon insists this is an entry-level model, sitting above but not replacing the D3100. It is safe to assume, then, that any future replacements for models higher up in the series will at the very least feature the same sensor.
Like the D3100, the new D3200 has a small body and a simple, beginner-friendly layout, being aimed at those trying out a DSLR for the first time, and ‘the family’. It begs the question whether the target user is ever likely to make the most of such a large number of pixels, and furthermore, whether the available kit lenses can do the sensor justice. Alternatively, the D3200 may turn out to be a lightweight and cost-effective back-up for those who already own an enthusiast-level camera. In either case, this is the most affordable camera around that offers such a high resolution. Whether such a high pixel count in a camera of this level is able to produce good-quality images, however, is another matter entirely.
At the heart of the D3200 is its headline-grabbing, 24.2-million-pixel, APS-C CMOS sensor. The 23.2 x 15.4mm sensor has an output of 6016 x 4000 pixels, enabling 300ppi prints of approximately 20 x 13.3in. This matches the output of the best APS-C sensor currently available, which is used in the Sony Alpha 65, Alpha 77 and NEX-7.
Using full-resolution, 12-bit raw+JPEG capture, a 4GB card is full after approximately 125 shots. Nikon is keen to illustrate that such large files enable the cropping of images while maintaining enough quality to produce a good level of detail. There are no cropped formats in-camera, however, just smaller JPEG formats.
Like the Nikon 1 cameras and the professional Nikon D4, the D3200 features the company’s latest Expeed 3 processor, which provides high-speed operation and enhanced image processing. Using a high-speed UHS-I SD card, the continuous frame rate of the D3200 reaches 4fps for a five-frame burst, after which the buffer takes 7secs to fully clear and enable another full-performance burst. The entry-level D3100 has a 3fps burst.
Like the D3100, though, the D3200 has a guide mode to walk beginners through some photographic basics. This time around the guide has been enhanced and expanded for more in-depth advice, and is positioned on the shooting-mode dial for quick access. It includes three main menus: shoot, view/delete and set-up. In the shoot menu there are advanced operation guides for nine different scenarios. These explain which exposure setting should be adjusted for the given scene, which is linked to the current exposure settings on the camera and what lens is attached.
There are some neat accessories available separately for the D3200, including the ME-1 microphone and the WU-1a wireless mobile adapter. The ME-1 is attached via the external microphone input for improved audio quality over the in-camera microphone. The WU-1a is a USB dongle for wireless communication between the camera and a smart mobile device, enabling wireless file transfer and remote camera control.
The image processing that creates a JPEG file, and certainly on an entry-level camera like the D3200, is designed to produce a bright and punchy print-ready image. The D3200’s JPEG files range between 7.5MB and 15.5MB in size, opening up to 68.8MB in Photoshop, while raw files are 18.5-28.2MB and 137MB in Photoshop.
JPEG files receive a degree of tonal compression, noise reduction, colour alteration and sharpening, all of which make an image look good straight out of the camera. However, to get the most detail from the D3200’s excellent 24.2-million-pixel sensor, it is necessary to shoot in raw format and make any such alterations manually using software.
The above image, taken at ISO 200 in good light, shows the difference in overall quality between raw and JPEG. Viewed at 100%, it can be seen that the JPEG compression process causes a loss of shadow detail and less tonal information, that the smoothing from noise reduction impacts on the level of fine detail, and that colours are very bright and not always ‘lifelike’. In contrast, the unedited raw file lacks punch in areas of clarity and colour, while luminance noise is evident in shadow areas. Manually addressing these elements using software means it is possible to get excellent image quality from this entry-level camera, and at a fraction of the price of an enthusiast-level model.
Build and handling
Image: The small, discreet body of the D3200 is ideal for street photography
As an entry-level camera, the D3200 is built to be compact, lightweight and simple to use. Indeed, at 505g including card and battery, the camera equals the D3100 as the lightest in the Nikon DSLR line-up. Its dimensions are also virtually the same.
Lightweight does not mean poor quality, however, as the D3200’s body is a sturdy, plastic construction with faux leather hand and thumbgrips, just like the D5100, which is the next model up in the range. The D3200 also uses the same EN-EL14 battery as the D3100 and D5100.
With a smaller body and simpler layout, the D3200 gives less space to external controls. One dial is designed for adjusting exposure, namely shutter speed and aperture. In manual mode, holding down the exposure-compensation button switches the dial to aperture control rather than shutter speed. One function button is placed near the lens and is set by default to control ISO, but this can be changed to control white balance, image quality/size or Active D-Lighting.
With little direct access to key controls on the body, most (including white balance, autofocus and metering) are instead found via the ‘i’ button in the quick menu. Interestingly, though, other regularly used controls do get a direct-access button, including drive mode, for which high-speed shooting and quiet shutter are available. Another direct control activates live view, which handily allows magnification to aid precise focusing.
For those who do not own editing software – which could be a good many who buy this camera – there are a number of edits that can be made in-camera, with miniature effect, color sketch and filter effects making their way over from the D5100. By default, auto image rotation is deactivated, and portrait-format images must be rotated manually.
Image: This image is taken with the fully compatible 50mm f/1.4G lens, enabling a shallower depth of field than the kit lens and giving crisp detail
Like all Nikon DSLRs, the D3200 uses the standard Nikon F mount, so it is compatible with a host of lenses. It is not fully compatible with older lenses, however, including the AF-D type. I used both the Nikon 135mm f/2 DC AF-D and the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 Macro lens (with which we usually shoot our resolution charts) with the camera, and autofocus is not available. (Consequently, the resolution charts for this test have been recorded using the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 VC lens.)
The pop-up flash has an output of GN 12m @ ISO 100 and can be manually adjusted from +1EV to -3EV, while the hotshoe provides compatibility with all Nikon flash units, of which the SB-400 is the most suitably sized.
White balance and colour
Given that the target market for this camera is ‘beginners’, most users are likely to stick to auto white balance. On the whole, this setting is accurate enough, if a tad on the cool and neutral side. For example, in sunny conditions I find somewhere between the cool rendition of AWB and warmer rendition of the sunny preset is best.
Image: In this sunny scene, there is a marked difference in the warm, sunny WB preset and the cooler AWB
All the white balance settings can be tweaked, although a quicker method for precise colour is taking a manual white balance reading. This is achieved in the same as on any other Nikon DSLR, via the main menu, which is a little slower than some other systems. A single custom reading can be saved at any one time, while more advanced Nikon models allow up to four readings at any one time for quick access.
‘Picture control’ can be found in the main camera menu only, and it offers six colour modes, with the camera set to standard by default. In this mode colours are bright and punchy, especially the greens in a landscape. All the colour modes can be adjusted for sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue, while the monochrome setting offers filter effects, which is fun. Being fussy, I often tweak the colour of images straight out of the camera to get them just right.
As on the D3100, the D3200’s TTL metering makes use of a 420-pixel RGB sensor to provide information from the scene for the metering modes. The metering sensor holds its own among the immediate competition, but cannot match the sophisticated RGB sensors of the more expensive Nikon cameras. For example, the new Nikon D800 has a 91,000-pixel RGB metering sensor.
The metering options are simple: 3D matrix (evaluative), centreweighted or spot. Matrix metering is perfectly adequate for most situations. As exposure compensation is easily altered via the direct control next to the shutter-release button, should the conditions be too bright or too dark, I kept to evaluative metering for most of this test. For landscapes that include a foreground covering a good 50% of the frame, skies can be a little bright and washed out – and lacking in detail – as the camera meters for the darker foreground, although this behaviour is common.
Noise, resolution and sensitivity
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 VR set to 50mm f/8. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.
A camera with 24.2 million pixels on an APS-C-sized sensor is bound to impress us with its ability to resolve detail, and the D3200 does not disappoint. Using the 18-55mm VC kit lens, at ISO 100 the camera reaches the 30 marker on our resolution charts, which is equivalent to class-leading APS-C-format cameras such as the Sony Alpha 77 and even full-frame models like the Canon EOS 5D Mark III.
For an entry-level camera, this is exciting. With a more expensive lens, such as the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 G, the D3200 resolves up to the 32 marker on the charts at ISO 100.
As the camera uses the company’s latest Expeed 3 processor, we would also have high hopes for its ability to handle noise effectively. The first thing to note is that the native sensitivity runs from ISO 100-6400, like that of the Nikon D800, which uses the same processor, and the range can be extended up to ISO 12,800.
For ‘nominal’ exposures (those suggested by the camera’s metering), noise is well controlled all the way up to ISO 1600. In fact, I have taken some scenes inside a music shop at ISO 3200 that look clean. In these images, luminance noise is visible when viewed at 100%, but much less distinguishable at 50%, which is around the same file size as the D3100 at 100%. This is where the D3200 has a distinct advantage. Not only can files be cropped while maintaining a good level of detail, but if you reduce the print size from a full-resolution file to match a full-sized print of a camera such as the D3100, noise is less obvious. In short, higher resolution affords greater flexibility for cropping and high-quality printing.
It is a pleasant surprise, then, that despite the increased number of pixels, performance in low light is still good. Only the extended ISO 12,800 setting should be completely avoided, as it demonstrates a severe drop in image quality with obvious luminance and chroma noise littering the frame. All in all, though, the level of detail that can be resolved and the ability to control noise by resizing images is where the D3200 shines.
Image: At ISO 3200, chroma noise is not evident at all in this JPEG file, while luminance noise is present but not unpleasant
As an entry-level model, the D3200 uses a simplified Multi-CAM 1000FX autofocus sensor with 11 individually selectable points. These points are in three groups in the central portion of the frame, with the centre point being a more sensitive cross-type.
When using the viewfinder, the AF system works on a phase-detection basis, with the active AF point illuminated red in the viewfinder (chosen via the D-pad in single-point mode).
Other options include 3D tracking (great for videos as well as still images), dynamic area and auto, all of which use the 11 points to gather focus information. For everyday use, the system is snappy and perfectly capable. The more demanding action photographer is, of course, better served by a more sophisticated set-up on a more expensive camera.
When live view is in use, the D3200 employs a contrast-detection-based system. Handily, in this mode the AF point can be set to anywhere in the frame, which is great for off-centre subjects. However, the performance of this AF is a tad slower than the phase-detection system, certainly in low light where the camera often hunts for the subject.
LCD, viewfinder and video
For an entry-level DSLR, the LCD screen has a solid specification. It is a 3in LCD type with 921,000 dots, which is a big improvement over the 230,000-dot screen of the D3100, although it is not articulated like that of the D5100.
The screen is bright enough for live view, image playback and to navigate the menu, but users may struggle to see it clearly in bright, direct sunlight. The viewfinder is a pentamirror type with a 95% field of view and 0.8x magnification, which is the same as on the D3100.
The camera is very capable in its video recording: full HD (1080p) capture is possible in H.264 format at 30fps, or 720p at 60fps. Continuous AF is available via the contrast-detection system, which is very handy for keeping up with moving subjects. A mini HDMI output provides direct connection to TV, and up to 20mins record time is possible for each video file.
Image: The wide dynamic range of the camera is idealfor a high-conrast scene such as this
As the D3200 features a new high-resolution sensor, I have been particularly interested to establish its dynamic range. For instance, we expected the dynamic range of the D800 to be narrower than its predecessor, but it turned out to be even more extensive despite the huge increase in pixels (and therefore smaller photosites). Well, the same has been achieved here.
In raw files, it looks as though images show a wider dynamic range than those from the D3100, by around 2EV. This makes a dynamic range around 13EV and represents a great improvement, and close to the performance of cameras higher up the range. It seems that Nikon has worked hard on the sensor to be able to offer more pixels while improving dynamic range.
Image: Sony Alpha 65
The next most affordable APS-C-format camera with a like-for-like pixel count is Sony’s Alpha 65. Both this and the D3200 have plastic bodies, and the handling is quite similar – both lack a top LCD screen and have no direct access on the body for many key controls. The main difference is that Alpha 65 is slightly more expensive, has a translucent mirror that enables faster frame rates and an electronic viewfinder in place of an optical type.
Nikon insists that the D3200 does not replace the D3100, so this older and more affordable camera is an alternative. The build and handling of the two are very similar, with the big difference being the new sensor in the D3200, which is so impressive in terms of resolved detail, control of noise and dynamic range. It is a case of paying a little extra to get better quality images, but the resulting files take up much more space on the computer. Only time will tell as to what ‘beginners’ prefer.
The nikon D3200 handles in a very similar way to the less expensive D3100, so the extra money is really paying for the increased pixel count. However, in the long run, such a high resolution will be as likely to frustrate the ‘family’ user as give them pleasure once all the disk space is taken up on their computer and external drives need to be purchased. That said, we cannot mark a camera down for offering more.
Most importantly, the D3200 is capable of some very impressive images, even with the 18-55mm VC kit lens, although much more so with a prime lens like a 35mm or 50mm f/1.8. Crisp and punchy images with a wide dynamic range can be produced on a large scale thanks to the high resolution. Perhaps the family photos may start making their way from the computer screen to the walls, or Nikon may just be surprised that the D3200 proves popular with ‘enthusiasts’ who opt to buy the camera as a lightweight back-up for their existing model.
Nikon D3200 – Key features
There is a separate port to attach an external microphone. Nikon recommends the ME-1, the small size of which complements the compact size of the camera. Offering external mic compatibility in a camera at this level is impressive.
The GPS port is used to connect the external GPS unit GP-1, while the A/V out port connects the WU-1a wireless remote and the HDMI port can be used for a direct connection to a TV, enabling a live feed or image and video playback.
The retouch menu offers a host of in-camera edits, including D-Lighting, trim, monochrome, filter effects, straighten, distortion control, perspective control, selective colour and image overlay.
The power of the built-in flash can be controlled in auto TTL using exposure compensation from +1EV to -3EV, or manually from full power down to 1⁄32 power. Flash modes include redeye reduction, slow sync and rear curtain.
Scenarios in the guide mode’s advanced operation menu include ‘freeze motion’ and ‘soften background’. Handily, the mode is linked to the attached lens and the metered exposure of the current scene reflects in the on-screen aperture, shutter speed, white balance, exposure compensation or ISO.
The WU-1a may well be the standout accessory given that it was launched alongside the camera, but there are many other useful compatible accessories. These include the ML-L3 infrared remote control, GPS unit GP-1, ME-1 microphone and MC-DC2 remote cord.
The direct control accesses single-frame shooting, as well as the 4fps high-speed burst, self-timer, delayed remote, quick-response remote and quiet shutter release.
Live view offers a good alternative to the viewfinder, providing up to 20x magnification for precise focusing and continuous contrast-detection AF in video recording.