Nikon D3200 Digital Camera Review
Small, lightweight, and inexpensive, the D3200 is easily the best entry-level DSLR on the market.
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The Nikon D3200 (MSRP $699.95) may be replacing the entry-level D3100, but its user experience is more akin to what you’d get from a mid-range D5100. The most compelling update is the improved image sensor; clocking in at 24 megapixels, it makes the D3200 one of the highest-resolution cameras in this price range. Other additions include 1080/30p video, an improved LCD screen, faster continuous shooting, and WiFi module compatibility.
The D3200 sits at the bottom of Nikon’s DSLR lineup, kitted with an unremarkable 18-55mm VR lens. It’s available now in black or red.
Design & Handling
Small, light, and cheap, the D3200 packs a lot of power into a compact form.
From head-on, the D3200 looks just like last year’s D5100. In fact, the two could easily be confused if not for their large, shiny model number badges. Nikon has repositioned a few buttons, and added one for live view, as well. As on the D5100, the movie button now resides on the top panel behind the shutter release, making it quicker and easier to start a recording. The rear LCD has also been upgraded to a 921,000-dot panel.
This camera is also a bit smaller than the D5100. Some space has been saved by sticking with a fixed-position LCD, and the internals aren’t as heavy, making this one of the most portable DSLRs on the market. While the chassis is plastic, it still feels stable and sturdy. Weighing in at only 550g including the lens, the kit is certainly light enough to operate comfortably one-handed. We reserve special praise for the buttons too, many of which give excellent tactile feedback and produce an audible click when in use.
Inside, the D3200 is equipped with a 23.2x15.4mm APS-C CMOS with an effective resolution of 24 megapixels. The substantial jump in resolution from the 14.2-megapixel D3100 should make this camera much more versatile than its predecessor, giving users a lot more room to crop without sacrificing sharpness or printability.
The D3200 kit is capable of some nice shots, but the high-resolution sensor is wasted on a mediocre kit lens.
Upping the resolution of the D3200 was a bold move for Nikon—the camera is an absolute monster at its low price point, in terms of sheer image potential. In our labs, sharpness was very good, but our remaining image quality tests returned rather uneven results. Chromatic aberration can be a problem with the 18-55mm kit lens, and noise levels were a bit high for our liking, even at low ISOs. On the other hand, dynamic range performance rivaled the best DSLRs on the market and color accuracy was another strong suit when shooting in the camera's most faithful JPEG color mode (Neutral).
Of course, we perform all our testing with kit lenses when available, and can’t help but wonder how many of those 24 megapixels are wasted on such mediocre glass. Sharpness results would certainly be much higher if we had tested the D3200 with better lenses; even something like the sub-$200 35mm f/1.8G prime would absolutely blow away the standard 18-55mm zoom. So take some of these results with a grain of salt and remember, if you do decide to purchase a D3200, find some better lenses.
On the video front, the D3200's output is generally fine, but limited by a maximum framerate of 30fps. Many rivals are sneaking 60i and 60p modes into this price bracket, so Nikon shooters—particularly those who like to tape their kids' soccer and baseball games—might have a legitimate gripe about this camera's less-than-silky-smooth playback.
Nikon's entry-level DSLR far outstrips its closest rival with an impressive feature set.
For an entry-level camera, the D3200 is extremely well-equipped. Canon's closest competitor, the Rebel T3, is absolutely pitiful in comparison. For your $699.95 (or likely a lot less, given street pricing), you get decent 4 frames per second burst speed, improved phase-detection autofocus (11 focus points with 3D tracking), a bright and clear LCD, and let’s not forget the sensor’s impressive 24-megapixel resolution. Nikon has also rounded out the package by making a few key improvements to the button layout. Really the only feature missing is a swiveling display.
If this is your first serious camera—and for many consumers it will be—rest assured that the D3200 offers the convenience and power we expect from all DSLRs, even entry-level ones. This includes quick shot-to-shot speed, RAW file capture, full control over exposure, and decent video capabilities. Serious videographers will probably want to look upmarket, toward the D5100 or newer D5200 at the very least, but the D3200 is still perfectly capable for quick clips.
Beyond the headline-grabbing 24-megapixel sensor, the D3200 doesn't bring much new to the table.
The D3200’s most exciting new feature is clearly the new 24-megapixel image sensor, which is partly responsible for the camera’s strong improvement in sharpness over the D3100. Sadly, when it comes to image quality, the excitement ends there. With few other noteworthy improvements over its predecessor, the D3200 is a rather ordinary upgrade from a performance perspective.
Of course, a modest update to an already respectable camera isn’t so bad. This line continues to handle very well, and Nikon’s subtle improvements to button layout—including dedicated video and live view keys—are welcome changes. The high-resolution rear monitor also makes videography a little bit easier, thanks to more detailed framing and reviewing. Beginners will find plenty of in-camera assistance, with new graphical information readouts keeping you aware of what your camera is doing.
Yet all cameras have their downsides. We think the D3200’s phase-detect autofocus system—while far better for action than any contrast-detect system, and a big upgrade over the D3100's implementation—is a bit too slow for spur-of-the-moment shots. The LCD would also be for more useful if it swiveled, like the more expensive D5100 and D5200's do. Given the improvements Nikon has made to video capture this year, a swiveling panel would’ve made framing even easier. We understand the company’s efforts to cut costs, but an articulating panel would’ve given some shooters a real incentive to upgrade.
Maybe the wisest reason to buy the D3200 is that it’s the cheapest camera you can get that’ll take you to 24 megapixels. The next closest is the Sony A65, which currently retails for $200 more, similarly equipped. But for those without the luxury of an existing lens collection, the lack of new features in the D3200 means we recommend it mostly for those who can’t find a cheaper D3100 or D5100 on the market. (We also strongly recommend skipping the mediocre kit lens and picking up some better glass, like the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8.) Eventually, the D3100 will go out of production and then this model will be a worthy replacement. But not yet.
What do you get when you cram a 24-megapixel sensor into an entry-level body? Excellent sharpness, great color accuracy, and beautiful dynamic range. to name a few things. But in the case of the Nikon D3200, you also get poor noise control and just so-so video capture capability. Still, given the camera's price and feature set, it's going to be a very attractive option for many DSLR newbies.
The D3200's excellent 24-megapixel sensor is capable of great sharpness, but the kit lens holds it back.
In our lab tests for sharpness, the D3200 achieved excellent scores—likely a result of the new 24 megapixel image sensor. The best levels of image clarity are found at the widest focal lengths, with the kit 18-55mm lens getting a bit softer toward the telephoto end of the zoom range. This distribution is quite normal for such a lens design. Images show some signs of chromatic aberration and particularly geometric distortion, with minor barrel distortion at the widest focal length that swaps to heavy pincushion at the middle and telephoto end.
Again, these properties are related primarily to the included 18-55mm zoom lens, and can be overcome by either buying better lenses or turning on in-camera correction of distortion and chromatic aberration in JPEGs. Similarly, if you shoot RAW you can correct these issues in your editing suite of choice.
Noise levels are higher than we'd like from the get-go, and only get worse from there.
The D3200 has only two noise reduction settings: on and off. In either case, average noise levels start off relatively high: 0.60% or more, even at ISO 100. From there, noise increases steadily and crosses 1.00% at ISO 800—again, regardless of noise reduction—before rising exponentially from there.
Chroma noise (color splotching) is the most distracting manifestation of image noise. It's the worse of two evils, the other being luminance noise, which looks more like film grain. Chroma noise begins to creep into the D3200's JPEG output around ISO 3200 and becomes a real issue at ISO 6400 and 12800. The camera's efforts to combat the high noise levels produced by the sensor also complicate matters. Even images at base ISO show significant smoothing from noise reduction, destroying detail. The end result looks about as good as what you'd get from the D5100 or Canon T4i, but it's outclassed across the entire ISO range by the similarly priced Pentax K-30.
Color & White Balance
The D3200's color accuracy is just as good as we've come to expect from Nikon.
In the most accurate color mode (that's Neutral, by the way) the D3200 recorded excellent color rendition in our lab test. Against the known values of an X-Rite ColorChecker, we recorded an uncorrected delta-C average error value of only 2.2, which is just as good as we expect from Nikon. Saturation of the associated color mode is 98.2%, which is just about perfect. The gamut shows color errors are spread out evenly, with few individual shades standing out as particularly error-prone.
The white balance performance of the D3200, on the other hand, can only be termed "acceptable." Under daylight the automatic WB algorithm will be perfectly adequate, though fluorescent and incandescent each resulted in excessively warm rendition. In fact, incandescent is off by a huge margin (2665 kelvins). This is the case for many cameras, but we've certainly seen much better performance from some competitors.
If you take the time to white balance manually, it's much easier for the camera to deal with different light sources. Incandescent light results in an average temperature error of only 48 kelvins, and fluorescent light is down to 391 kelvins. Very strangely, daylight is actually worst when using custom white balance, in which case error averages spike up to 641 kelvins.
The D3200 outdoes the D5100 for video sharpness, but can't match it in sensitivity.
Videos captured with the D3200 are subject to a little bit of artifacting and signal noise, but this problem is minor compared to the footage's overall lack of smoothness. While other DSLR manufacturers (especially Sony) are implementing 1080/60p video across the board, the D3200 is just now receiving 1080/30p for the first time.
Just as it did for photos, the D3200 captures sharp video as well. In our lab test, the camera was able to resolve 650 lp/ph horizontally and 700 vertically. This is excellent for a DSLR and even better than the D5100, though that might be expected since the D3200 has a higher-resolution sensor. Under low-light conditions (60 lux illumination), results weren't quite as strong. Here the D3200 was capable of only 600 lp/ph horizontally and 500 vertically.
In order to achieve 50 IRE on a waveform monitor during video playback (a standard test for broadcast readiness), the D3200 required only 7 lux of ambient illumination. This is quite an impressive result, though it's easy to think otherwise since the camera's closest competitors are also so sensitive. Both the D5100 and the Canon T4i each require only 5 lux to produce a similarly bright image, though the Pentax K-30 needs 11.