|Nikon D3200 Review
Nikon Invents a New Term, the HD-SLR
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I know this annoys some of you who just want the facts, but I personally don't think that you can fully understand a product without understanding a bit about how it's being presented by its maker.
The D3200 is Nikon's best-selling interchangeable lens camera. It's the low-cost leader in their DSLR line, in particular the DX DSLR line. At a (current) street price of about US$650 including the kit lens, it's a clearly affordable solution for most anyone looking to buy a serious camera, so the question is whether it actually does what it promises.
Nikon has started using the term HD-SLR in regards to the the D3200. To quote Nikon: "D3200: megapixel power, creative possibilities and a no-fear Guide Mode to take you through every step. And it comes in red."
The low-end Nikon DSLR tends to get updated on a yearly basis. The D3200 was a little late, probably due to the Thailand floods, but continues this quick iteration process. From a purely body oriented view, the D3200 is not much different than the D3100 or D3000 that came before it. The biggest body changes are a few button tweaks on the back to better align the camera with Nikon's other DSLR offerings and a 921k dot LCD instead of the older 230k dot one.
It's what's inside that's the biggest change this time around, much like it was with the D3100 versus D3000: a higher resolution sensor, more and better video options, a bit faster internal processing, and a small WiFi accessory option.
The basic premise behind the low-end DSLR is this: cut as much out from the higher-end products that both adds cost and complicates the product, then add some beginner hand holding. That has meant, for instance, that the screw-drive for older autofocus lenses (lenses prior to AF-S) is gone, as are the DOF Preview button, dedicated buttons for white balance and other camera settings, the Front Command dial, and even the metering selection dial. By comparison, for instance, at the top of the consumer line we have the D7000 with 17 buttons and four switches compared to the D3200 having 15 buttons and one switch. Simplification of controls is still the name of the game. That said, the D3200 has more controls than the D3000 and earlier low-end Nikon DSLRs, and just those few changes are enough to make a tangible difference in handling. Both the D3100 and D3200 are very good in that respect, with the primary thing more serious users are going to miss being dedicated controls for WB, ISO, and autofocus.
This time around, the D3200 has gotten a few higher end hand-me-downs, most likely because of the higher emphasis on video. We get a 921k dot LCD for a change, which is a very welcome upgrade from the D3100. We get a microphone in jack, too. Plus, we get front and back IR detectors for the wireless remote.
The D3200 was introduced in April 2012 and is likely to be the entry point for the Nikon DX DSLR lineup until sometime in mid-2013 (a replacement would be likely somewhat before that, but Nikon's modus operandi is to keep the outgoing camera in the lineup at a reduced price for an overlapping period).
The D3200, like its predecessor, hits average pretty much across the board for a DSLR. The new sensor gives it an edge in performance over the camera it replaces.
The D3200 is not a new body, nor does it have a lot of new body parts, externally or internally. I've already mentioned the external changes, so let's jump right to the big internal change: a 24mp Nikon-made DX sensor. A lot of folk were expecting Nikon to use the Sony 24mp sensor, and indeed when the first tests started to appear the fact that it tested pretty much like the Sony 24mp APS sensor made a lot of people think that the D3200 used a Sony sensor. It doesn't. The sensor inside is clearly packaged differently, and it's now been verified that it is a Nikon made sensor, right down to the internal etchings on the silicon itself.
It's quite possible that there is intellectual property licensing going on between Nikon and Sony. There are a few too many commonalities amongst the two sensors for them to be a coincidence, but I don't think that's particularly important. That's because the D3200's sensor is as good as it gets for high megapixel count in the DX/APS size (at least to date as I write this). The quantum efficiency is a small bit lower than the Sony sensor, but the well saturation is a small bit higher (it's the near identical read noise that implies similar design). Compared to the D7000, the D3200 has very similar dynamic range but more pixels. Compared to the D3100, the D3200 improves significantly in every measurable aspect at the sensor. Ironically, the D3200's sensor makes it the highest performing of any of Nikon's DX DSLRs. We'll speak to that more when we get to the performance section.
Like the D3000, the D3200 has a 3" LCD and uses the 11-segment CAM1000 autofocus sensor. Likewise, the viewfinder is basically unchanged, as is the flash, shutter, and a few other critical aspects. Again, the big change is the imaging sensor, the minor changes are button/control arrangements that more closely match other current Nikon DSLRs.
We still have the GUIDE setting on the Mode dial, but we lost the Shooting Method switch at the base of the Mode dial (replaced by a button on the back). Live View goes back to a button instead of the lever, and we get a new red button up behind the shutter release to start movie recording. The zoom in/out buttons are now in on top, out on bottom, like all the other recent Nikon DSLRs.
In the menu system, not a lot has changed, but there are some subtle things that are worth noting: we get a manual movie settings On/Off ability, and there is no CUSTOM SETTINGS menu so some things like Flash Control are living on the SHOOTING menu now, while others like Auto Off timers are on the SETUP menu. For the most part, Nikon made reasonable choices in menu simplication here.
The GUIDE mode is actually improved and less likely to confuse or say something incorrect, and now the user might actually learn a few things starting with the GUIDE. There's still work to be done, though. The consistency in the GUIDE mode is missing. Someone forgot to template wording. Half the entries being "The camera is now in..." and half just state something like "Aperture-priority auto mode..." There aren't a lot of options in the GUIDE mode, either: nine advanced and nine easy "operations." The easy operations are basically no more than the Scene exposure modes set via a lot of menu diving and button pressing when they could be done more easily by choosing them on the Mode dial. So there's not much there there in the GUIDE. At least it isn't deceptive any more.
The bottom line is that the basics haven't changed much. To wit:
Not a lot of changes there, right?
Yes, the lack of body-based screw-drive means that you can't use older autofocus lenses. Only AF-S lenses will autofocus on this camera (also Sigma HSM and Tamron or Tokina with built-in motors). But Nikon now has enough AF-S lenses that this isn't really a terrible problem, and the third parties are adding similar lenses every day. Plus the D3200 has the same "rangefinder" option that the D60 thru D3100 did, which can be very useful in manually focusing older lenses. I've written at length about the compromises that result from the requirement that a lens be AF-S to autofocus on these cameras before (e.g. see my D40, D40x, and D60 reviews). I won't belabor that here. Either the lack of the screw drive is a deal breaker for you or it isn't. I'm on the "isn't" side of the fence, but I understand those on the other side of the question.
The control changes on the D3200 are easy enough to get a handle on if you use any other recent Nikon DSLR, and even if you're moving up from a D60, D3000, or D3100.
The really big issue in handling is in access to a number of functions that some people like to change a lot: ISO, WB, metering, and focus modes. These are all probably quickest accessed via the INFO button and Shooting Information Display. Press the back INFO button with the Shooting Information Display shown (top INFO button will turn it on and off, but its default behavior is to be on if the camera is active). This highlights one of 11 settings and allows you to use the Direction pad to navigate to the one you want and then press the OK button to access those settings. Not exactly quick, but often faster than menu diving, especially if you're setting the same item over and over (e.g. white balance).
There's no functional difference in this handling from previous low-end Nikon DSLRs, and it's become a bit second nature to me over time. Personally, I think it's time that Nikon offer at least a couple of user settings on the Mode dial, so that users of these cameras can set the camera a couple of ways and switch between them very quickly. The only other way I can think of that Nikon could improve the controls without overly complicating them is to go to a touch screen, but that's a bit of a problem for a camera where you nose may be hitting the screen a lot.
The Fn button can be programmed as a QUAL, ISO, WB, or Active D-Lighting button. The AE-L/AF-L button can be programmed to the usual suspects plus AF-On. For serious users, those are decent choices, though a bit limiting.
One thing Nikon did do that's a little better with both the D3100 and D3200 than before is they didn't force as many restrictions with Scene exposure modes. With previous low-end cameras, once you set a Scene exposure mode you usually were locked out of virtually all other settings. They've release a few of those locks (for example, in Sports exposure mode you can override Autofocus Area mode now (but still not White Balance).
One good news bit about handling is that the PASM exposure mode user who wants to control basic camera settings still can do their thing. And for the most part the camera won't get in the way. The things that user sees in the menus and controls is improved for the most part.
New on the D3200 is the optional WU-1a WiFi adapter. This is a really small device, as in "so small you'll probably lose it some day." The WU-1a plugs into a slot on the side of the camera, which then of course leaves the wide rubber flapup and in an annoying position that can get in the way. At least there are no extra cables to get caught, and the small profile of the device also doesn't really add bulk to the camera.
Getting the WU-1a working required me to read Nikon's manual. And then ignore it and many of the labels in their software. They refer to "WiFi settings" as an option in the Wireless Mobile Adapter Utility app, but it's actually labeled "Connection" on the Settings page. This makes working through the documentation a hassle. But even translating the translating doesn't quite do it, as Nikon leaves out steps ;~). So here's the full set of steps (using my iPhone as an example):
Note that camera settings can't be changed unless you move "focus" from the smart device to the camera (via a setting in WMAU), or you back out to the main WMAU menu.
It's not a perfect solution (the camera image is quite dim on the smart device--the camera is focused on something well lit in the above example, but note how dim it appears), but it works as a basic remote with transfer. Frankly, it feels like a prototype app done by a first time programmer. There's no depth or breadth, few options, sluggish performance, and an unrefined layout. But it works. The WU-1a even has a pretty good range. I was able to pick up the camera downstairs at close to the 50' (15m) range, even though there was a floor and considerable structure between the two.
It took Nikon quite a few iterations to get to where they are today. If you look at all the control/menu/handling/guide iterations they've done since the D50 on the low-end camera, you wonder what took them so long to get to the current solution, which is reasonable. Good job, Nikon, but a little slow to get there.
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Note also that the WU-1a is a minor battery drain. I was expecting it to suck down the battery faster than it did (ala previous Nikon WT's), but it seems a bit better behaved and lower in power draw than I thought. Still, if the camera is on and the WU-1a is connected, it's drawing power. Something to remember when you leave the camera in the bag for awhile without turning the camera off; the battery is going to be drawn down when you pick the camera up again.
Writing to Card
Note that 24mp images do chew up more space than you may be used to. If you've been shooting with a 12mp (or lower) camera, you're going to want to move up a card size when moving to the D3200 (e.g. a 16GB card instead of an 8GB one).
Note that you don't get as much control from an 11-position autofocus sensor as you do with the D7000, for example, but you get close to the same focus performance at the same settings from the central sensor, slightly less in the outer sensors. The 11-sensor arrangement is highly optimized to the central sensor and the triangular shape of the other sensors doesn't help for far off-center subjects much, so to some degree the D3200 tends to be best for Single Servo, focus-and-reframe shooting.
Which brings me to this: 24mp reveals a lot. It reveals focus misses very well, for example, at least if we're looking at pixel-level views. My camera had a slight tendency to back focus with the various DX lenses I used on it, which was frustrating because there's no AF Fine Tune to fix that. (see Image Quality for more discussion.)
Continuous autofocus using the contrast method is available, but it doesn't work very well. Getting an initial focus for Live View or video via contrast AF actually works halfway decently and quickly in good contrast or light, but continuous performance? No, Subject-tracking AF rarely does what its name implies.
So is the Nikon 24mp as good as the Sony 24mp sensor? The answer is yes. But before we get to those details we need to step back.
Back to 2003, as a matter of fact. Back then I wrote both on this site and others that I believe, after doing a fair amount of math, that DX would max out at about 24mp. We're there, so I need to update people on what I was writing about. First, let me make something clear: more pixels is always good. More sampling always gives you more data from which to work, and more data is good. The question I was trying to answer in 2003 was "at what point would it become very difficult to see better results?" The key term I wrote was "max out."
There are a number of factors that all need to be considered. One is diffraction. At 24mp DX and f/4, a 10" print viewed normally probably isn't diffraction limited, a 20" print almost certainly is. Essentially small detail is starting to be masked. Of course, one reason people think they're buying 24mp cameras is to resolve fine detail.
Another factor was the resolving power of existing DX lenses. More megapixels is more sampling, and more sampling means that you better see just what you lens does and doesn't do. A number of DX lenses seem weak already at 16mp (the 18-200mm being one of them); the visual impact of those weaknesses will increase with more resolution at the sensor (at least at pixel levels).
There were a number of other factors that I wrote about back in 2003 but one I didn't mention then (though it was considered in my math) was the focus system. Here's a simple example: if you focus on an eye but the focus actually locks ever so slightly behind or in front of the eye, will you notice that? Back with the old 6mp DX cameras, not really. But with each bump of resolution we get closer to the built-in tolerances of the underlying focus system. The phase detect focus system used in DSLRs isn't infinitely precise. It's finitely precise. If you saw how small a movement was being made by the focusing elements in some of your lenses, you'd understand what I mean: we're operating at micron-level tolerances and at some point if the camera resolves really, really well, a small misplacement of focus is going to show up when you stare at the pixels.
So what did I mean when I wrote that 24mp would max out DX? I meant that as we increased megapixels in sensors up to 24mp it would be relatively easy to see differences between sensors: most people would be able to tell that their 24mp results were better than their 16mp results, all else equal. Same was true of 16mp versus 10/12mp, 10/12mp versus 6mp. But if I were able to stick a 36mp sensor into the D3200, I suspect we'd lose a fair number of you: you wouldn't see any significant differences between your 24mp and 36mp shots, all else equal. That does not mean that there isn't more information or resolution in the 36mp shot, it just means some of you are going to have a hard time seeing it or putting it into any useful practice (other than perhaps printing larger).
There's one exception to that, and it's worth talking about. Let's say I had a 36mp sensor and a 12mp one (hey, we do, in FX bodies!). If I downsized the 36mp image to 12mp, I'd see more edge acuity overall: that extra resolution would start to show up a bit. Noise would also get masked by the downsizing. That's one of the things that makes the 36mp D800 a better camera than the 12mp D700, all else equal.
So the question here is: is the 24mp D3200 better than, say, a 12mp D90? Simple answer: yes, and for the same reasons the D800 is better than the D700. The sensor size is the same, thus the sampling rate per area is higher. If you use that for reasonably sized output (say 8x10, or 11x14 prints), you should indeed see better results from a D3200 than a D90. How much better? A lot better, actually. Not only is the D3200's sensor a generation or more newer than the D90 (and thus has a higher dynamic range), after downsizing those extra pixels are enough to make a visible difference in higher acuity and lower noise, too.
Of course, you might want to use extra pixels to go larger with your output. A 12mp image prints to about 13" wide at 300 dpi, a 24mp image prints to about 20" wide. This is exactly where we have to start watching very carefully. First, the newer sensor generation does help with noise and has more dynamic range, so that's good and helpful. Indeed, the quantum efficiency (how many of the photons get converted to electrons) increases to 43% on the D3200 versus 29% on the D90. That's good, because the individual sites where we're capturing photons have gotten smaller. The read noise on the D3200 is just above 2 electrons, while it's more than double that on the D90. Still good. Good enough that I'd probably take the 20" D3200 print over the 13" D90 print, even not considering the size difference. The difference is not completely dramatic, but the difference is clearly visible to me.
You may notice I'm going about this section a little different than usual. For the serious user, it's important to understand the big picture, pardon the pun. There's good news and bad news in that, and that dictates what you actually get out of the camera.
For example, dynamic range. I'd peg this camera as being right up with the D7000, maybe a tiny bit better. You'll note I haven't stated a number of stops. There's a reason for that. While at base ISO I think you'll easily get more than 10 stops of very usable dynamic range, trying to narrow down exactly how much you truly have is complicated a bit by the compressed NEF dropping data at the high end. I'm still experimenting here, but I do see some minor differences at the top end between a D7000 and the D3200 when I do extreme post processing, which makes a single-number value not very useful. Suffice it to say that I doubt you'll be disappointed. The only way you're going to get better dynamic range than the D3200 offers is to go to FX, and even that might not be quite the boost you think it should be (basically a stop).
Against the "equivalent" current Canon Rebel, the D3200 has better dynamic range and low light performance, despite having more pixels (24mp versus 18mp). So the short answer is always the same: this is the best crop sensor Nikon has done yet (as of 10/12). I really don't think the sensor itself is going to be an issue for most people.
Along with all that goodness is Nikon's usual brew: the EXPEED Picture Controls are still producing pretty much the same color and options that the other Nikon DSLRs do. It's actually kind of impressive that I can fairly closely match color/saturation/contrast results in JPEGs between a high end Coolpix, the Nikon V1, the D3200, and my D800.
Video: 1080P/30 isn't a high bar. The D3200 does HD video reasonably, but you can see some corners cut. Rolling shutter is visible, though not nearly as bad as the D3100. It might even be acceptable in this iteration. The compression ends up a bit much on the sub-sampled data stream, even at 24Mbps (high quality). Certainly usable, but not the level of quality that you'd want for serious videography, let alone broadcast use. The sub-sampling into compression artifacts really shows up in low light (high ISO values). In reasonable light at lower ISO values, the video's fine for more casual work, and maybe even might be able to be snuck into more serious work without anyone noticing.
As usual, the audio is a weak point. I'm getting old but my ears can still hear the noise in the mic amplification. But that's pretty much true of all DSLR audio: the camera makers just aren't using high end parts in the audio stream, and the lack of balanced inputs doesn't help, either.
We have full time AF while recording video, and like the other Nikon's, it's improved from previous generations, but still has a tendency to hunt and is a bit slow to lock into a new subject.
Should You Get a D3200?
Indeed, those that read my DX Month comments about the incomplete DX lens set probably know where I'm going: it's really a shame that the only small, really competent lens Nikon makes for this camera is the 35mm f/1.8G DX. My 18-200mm just doesn't deliver on this camera (it was struggling at 16mp). The kit lenses show their "kit-ness" on this camera (they didn't back in the 6-12mp days). In short, you very quickly run out of DX lenses you might want to use on this camera to match the high performance of the sensor: 12-24mm, 16-85mm, 17-55mm, 35mm, basically. Everything else will start to show you that maybe you should spring for a better lens ;~). That's not to say that you won't find the results with some of the other DX lenses acceptable. It's just that when you start pixel peeping, you'll definitely see how your lens performs, and you might find it wanting. Of course, if you're printing 8x10's from the D3200, size solves all problems. Just be careful of the "I'll just slap an 18-300mm on there and print 36" prints" thought. That's a size too far.
If you're coming from one of the 6mp, 10mp, or 12mp Nikon DSLRs, there's no doubt on the image quality side: the D3200 is a big step up. More pixels, more dynamic range, less noise, a fairly tight AA, same old EXPEED color. The question is whether or not you can live with the limited feature set if you're coming from any mid-range or higher body.
A question I've gotten asked is whether a DX user should pick up a D3200 just to get the 24mp. Well, if you've got the lenses for it, maybe. As I write this, this is the best sensor Nikon has packed in a DX camera, without a doubt. Of course, I'd expect this sensor (or perhaps an even better one) to work its way up the line, so if you favor the D5100-style body (swivel LCD) and features (more advanced ones), then it might be worth waiting.