Nikon D5200 Digital Camera Review
Nikon latest sub-$1000 DSLR doesn't drastically improve upon the D5100, but is that really such a bad thing?
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In general, the Nikon D5200 doesn't do much to improve over the already excellent D5100. Sharpness remains virtually identical, despite the much higher resolution sensor, color accuracy is still superb, automatic white balance still struggles under artificial light, dynamic range is still among the best in class, and noise levels are still quite good. Nikon has added a 1080/60i mode to its video recording options, but we found that it hurt resolution of detail even as it produced a smoother image.
Man did we love the Nikon D5100 (MSRP $599.95). In fact, we loved it enough to name it our Camera of the Year back in 2011. So last April, when Nikon announced the D3200 (MSRP $699.95), our mouths started to water. We knew an update to the company's other sub-$1,000 DSLR wouldn't be far behind. And now, here it is.
Almost all of the D5100's lab scores were above average, leaving the updated D5200 (MSRP $799.95 body-only, $899.95 w/ kit lens) with big shoes to fill. The D5200 carries over the previous model's best test results, including accurate colors and extremely wide dynamic range. While the new model is a relatively modest update, major changes include a big jump in resolution, plus a significantly improved autofocus system.
The D5200 and 18-55mm kit lens produce mundane results—neither shockingly bad nor impressive.
We didn't expect any surprises from Nikon's basic kit, and we didn't get any. The 18-55mm lens is sufficiently sharp for everyday use, but as you'd expect, its resolution numbers didn't exactly blow us away. We were really hoping that the D5200's high-resolution 24-megapixel sensor would make an appreciable difference here, compared to what we saw from the D5100's 16-megapixel unit, but it seems that both sensors are limited by the same old entry-level glass.
The sharpest apertures were in the f/9 to f/14 range, where the sensor resolved just over 2000 lw/ph at MTF50 when shooting at full wide angle. Swapping to full telephoto, resolution figures maxed out around 1600 lw/ph. As you can see, focal length is inversely related to sharpness—a common trait with most 18-55mm kit lenses. (Typically that's a sacrifice photographers are relatively ok with, since 55mm on an APS-C body provides a nice field of view for portraits, and portraits are more flattering when slightly soft.)
We tested (but didn't score) apertures as narrow as f/36, but diffraction severely affects sharpness when using such settings, so we urge you to avoid them for everyday use. On the other hand, using the kit lens's widest apertures didn't have nearly as dramatic an effect on sharpness.
Noise reduction is minimal up through ISO 800, then takes strong effect.
Like most mid-range DSLRs, the D5200 is capable of absolutely insane low-light shooting compared to the film cameras of yesteryear. The native sensitivity of its sensor runs from ISO 100–6400, but this can be extended out to Hi1 or Hi2 (12800 or 25600) without a resolution penalty.
Three high-ISO noise reduction settings are available, plus the ability to turn the feature off entirely. Regardless of which NR setting you employ, noise levels bottom out at ISO 100, coming in around 0.60% (with 0.63% when NR is turned off and 0.59% at the High NR setting). True to its name, this camera's high-ISO noise reduction really doesn't do much for sensitivity levels less than 800. Overall noise crosses 1.00% at ISO 800, which is typical for a DSLR of this caliber and price level, however this remains a trend for all noise reduction levels except High.
The differences are much more pronounced at higher sensitivities. ISO 3200 images produce 1.89% noise without any NR applied, but this can be reduced all the way down to 1.34% using only Normal noise reduction. Noise from the D5200 is composed evenly of chroma and luminance noise, for a very pronounced, very distracting effect when it does occur. We'd prefer to see more luminance (film-like grain) and less chroma (colored splotches).
Design & Handling
Highlighted by a great, fully articulated rear LCD, the D5200's design is easy to use and comfortable to handle.
We may be overanalyzing here, but we think the concave body paneling and receding angles leading away from the mount lend the D5200 a rather aggressive appearance, as if the lens is leaping out at your subject. As with the D5100, this produces a distinctive look that makes the camera instantly recognizable if you see one in the wild. The chassis itself is very sturdy, but without much heft. In fact, the camera is quite light overall, even with the battery installed.
The swing-out, fully articulating LCD monitor is one of the D5200's most useful design features. It's a 921,000-dot panel that's bright and feels sturdy during use. It's snowing pretty hard in the Northeast USA right now, but even in these brightest of conditions, the LCD is usable outdoors. The panel's omnidirectional positioning also helps with framing tricky shots, and highlights Nikon's ongoing focus on improving video capture capability in its DSLRs.
You'll feel comfortable and confident handling the D5200. A medium-sized grip is provided for the right hand, and your pointer finger will come naturally to rest on the shutter release. The grip is a bit shallow, though, so you'll be holding on mostly with your fingertips. Thankfully, the entire area is covered by a rubberized surface to give you a little extra traction.
The rear panel is equally comfortable. The thumb naturally comes to rest in its intended area below the command dial, and Nikon has included a tall lip on the right side of the this thumb rest for better leverage. We noted the camera was also much lighter than expected, with most of the weight shifted to the right side of the body, making for good balance once a lens is attached.
Nikon's user interface is more complicated than its competitors', but rewards persistance with excellent depth of control.
In contrast to its rivals at Canon, Nikon's DSLRs usually feature control elements that aren't self-explanatory. Pure novices will find themselves referring to the manual at first, and even experienced photographers coming from other brands may scratch their heads over the Nikon way of doing things. In time, this effort is usually rewarded with faster, more precise, and more hands-on control that justifies the learning curve. For example, the D5200's Auto ISO function uses an older, more complicated technique that requires some attention from the user; but then again, this method is also better and more precise than competitors' versions.
Having a learning curve isn't all bad, but even Nikon purists will agree there's some room to tweak for ease of use. Drive mode options, for example, are split into two menus in two very different locations, so getting the right setting can be a pain. The D5200 also makes very little effort to explain when or why certain functions won't work. Movie mode, for example, won't automatically lift the mirror; the camera expects you to know enough to activate live view beforehand. Basic stuff, we know, but a little convenience never hurts either.
The button layout is almost untouched since the D5100. The "i" button is still helpful for quickly changing the most common settings, and the programmable AE-L/AF-L button alongside it is handy. What is new is the new graphical display that shows up on the rear LCD by default during shooting. Where the older GUI only showed the shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO as numbers, the new interface has a simulated dial for the first and last, while the aperture indicator actually closes and opens an on-screen iris. It's an interesting take, but not one that adds much to the shooting experience—for one thing, how many rookies actually know what a smaller iris implies? Not many, we'd wager.
Thankfully, this series hasn't lost its excellent dynamic range characteristic.
The D5200 shares a dynamic range performance profile with its predecessor. Maximum dynamic range is 8.43 stops at ISO 100, followed by 8.12 stops at ISO 200. From there the range begins to drop off incrementally: only 6.34 stops are available at ISO 400, 4.34 stops at ISO 1600, and as little as 1.98 stops at ISO 12800.
Our dynamic range test is based on "usable" image data, which we define as a signal-to-noise ratio of 10:1. Because of this, something unusual happens at ISO 25600. If noise reduction is turned off, the image is so noisy that the signal-to-noise is never better than 10:1. So according to our test, the D5200 produces "zero" stops of usable data at ISO 25600.
Since we now average all ISO levels into our scoring system (including that zero for ISO 25600), the D5200 appears to have a worse score than its predecessor, but rest assured, they're very similar. Dynamic range is one of this camera's best features, earning scores far better than most DSLRs in this price bracket.
Color & White Balance
Nikon continues to get color accuracy right.
Color accuracy is one of the D5200's strong suits. By comparing JPEG output from the camera to the known values of an X-Rite ColorChecker chart, the D5200 produced a delta-C color error average of only 2.33, which is excellent. Corresponding saturation in the most accurate color mode was 101%, almost perfect.
Examining the gamut in detail, greens and blues seem to be responsible for the most severe errors, both of which are common due to consumer demand for more vibrant skies and trees. Flesh tones are highly accurate though, so human subjects should be rendered in a flattering, realistic way. The most accurate of the camera's color modes—or "Picture Controls," in Nikon parlance—is Neutral, and we stuck with this setting for most of our shooting time with the camera. Portrait and Standard are both fairly accurate, too, but Landscape and Vivid each produce color error averages way over 3.00.
As was the case with the D5100, the D5200's automatic white balance algorithm struggles, but manual white balance capture is highly accurate. That being said, you can certainly get away with automatic white balance under daylight. Here, color temperature errors will average only 100 kelvins, but under fluorescent and incandescent you can expect color temperature to be off by an average of 1500 and 3200 kelvins, respectively. That's more than enough to throw off the color cast of your entire shot. By grabbing a manual white balance reading beforehand, you can reduce color temperature errors under any light source to below 250 kelvins.
Image quality remains almost entirely the same, but the new autofocus system is a great step up.
The D5200's overall performance is equivalent to the D5100's, meaning that it's very strong indeed. Once again, color accuracy and dynamic range are the standout results, meaning that the camera should produce exceptionally good portraits and landscape shots.
Nikon's traditional 18-55mm kit lens is serviceable, but far from the best we've seen. Sharpness is good at the widest focal length, but drops off to just-okay status at 35mm and 55mm. In-camera JPEG noise reduction performance is similarly adequate, but not excellent. Thankfully, Nikon's robust ISO sensitivity controls make it easy to program the camera for exactly how much noise you can tolerate.
The D5200's new and improved focus system is exactly what we hoped it would be: fast, smart, and accurate. The 39-point phase detection system is quick, almost always chooses the most appropriate point or points, and is easily controlled and managed via the "i" menu. Continuous autofocus is usable for all but the most hyperactive subjects, and we say this even after being spoiled by the 1D X sitting in our office.
Although 1080/60i video capture has been added to this model, video image quality seems unchanged. Movies shot with the D5200 are just as sharp as the clips we got from its predecessor, though no sharper. We can hardly complain about this—or really any of the D5200's performance results—it just would've been nice to see some improvement... somewhere.
Do you like your videos smooth or sharp? That's the choice the D5200 offers you.
Nikon added a new 60i recording option this time around, and while this certainly improves motion, resolution of detail is penalized. When shooting 60i, you'll find a hint of trailing in your footage, but no almost artifacting or frequency interference of any kind.
We used the 30p recording mode to score video sharpness, and found this sensor/lens combo is capable of resolving 675 lp/ph horizontally and 625 lp/ph vertically in videos, with identical results in both our bright light and 60 lux tests. For reference, 60i results were 550 lp/ph horizontally and 500 lp/ph vertically under the same conditions.
Amazingly, with the kit lens' aperture fully open, the D5200's sensor requires only 3 lux of ambient illumination to gather 50 IRE of video image data. While the D5100 was sensitive, this result is even better, putting this camera on par with some of the best consumer camcorders.
Amateur videographers stand to gain the most from upgrading to the D5200.
The D5200 is light on brand-new features, but most of the ones that have been included are there to improve videography. Nikon has also implemented a new Manual Movie Settings menu option. This unlocks shutter speed and ISO settings for user control, adding to the aperture, white balance, and exposure compensation control that was already present in the D5100. There's a mic input jack, too, meaning budding filmmakers can feasibly use the D5200 as an all-in-one capture device.
Secondary control options also remain in familiar territory. A slew of scene modes and picture effects are available directly from the mode dial, and we're thrilled to see the aforementioned improvements to autofocus speed and settings. An in-camera interval timer has also been included, perfect for time-lapse photography, along with Nikon's take on the ever-popular HDR effect.
Beyond those largely incremental or extraneous feature upgrades, the most important new addition is compatibility with Nikon's WU-1a WiFi module. When plugged into the D5200's USB port, it facilitates two-way communication between the camera and an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet, allowing you to use your device as a remote viewfinder and control panel. We're sure all of this could be compelling for the right user. Not us, but presumably that "right user" does exist, somewhere out there.
In buying the D5200 over the D5100, you're spending a little extra on video, a little on WiFi, a bit on extra pixels, but most of it on the new autofocus system.
The D5200 boasts excellent color rendition and wide dynamic range, just like the D5100. It struggles with automatic white balance, but custom white balance is accurate...just like the D5100. Videos are sharp, like the D5100, but the same mediocre kit lens is used again. All these similarities wouldn't be so bad, except that one kit is currently selling for $300 less than the other. So what exactly are we paying for?
If you go with the new model, you'll need to be pretty clear-minded about how you actually plan to use it. You'll spend a little bit of that $300 on video, a little on WiFi adapter compatibility, a bit on extra megapixels, but most of it on the new autofocus system. If you're an action photographer that likes shooting the occasional video too, then this might sound like a good buy. If not, consider the aging—but still relevant—D5100 instead.
The ultimate irony of these cameras is this: when the D5100 first came to market we awarded it both Camera of the Year, and Budget DSLR of the Year. It was just such an amazing deal, with rare levels of performance at the price point. But after two years and little improvement for the D5200, this great camera didn't hit us with the same impact its predecessor did. Like we've said countless times in the review, the D5200 is a fine camera, but it's not $300 finer than the old one.
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