Having already launched two professional-grade DSLRs in the shape of the D4 and D800 earlier this year, Nikon has turned its attention to the entry-level end of the market with the launch of the D3200. The new model will, for the time being at least, sit alongside the 18-month-old D3100 as one of two models specifically aimed at first-time DSLR users and those upgrading from a compact camera. Available for as little as £550 online if you shop about, does the D3200 offer enough to tempt potential compact system camera purchasers away towards a ‘proper’ DSLR? Let’s take a closer look and find out.
Although the D3200 shares many of its specifications with the D3100 and is of a similar size and shape they are in many other ways very different cameras, with the newer model able to take advantage of the very latest digital camera technology. For example, whereas the D3100 used a 14.2MP sensor and Nikon’s EXPEED 2 image processor, the D3200 gets an all-new 24.2MP sensor and Nikon’s latest EXPEED 3 image processor.
Other highlights include an improved Guide Mode that offers illustrative advice on the right settings to use in certain conditions and for certain subjects; the full range of PASM exposure controls along with a range of easily-accessed Scene specific modes; the ability to shoot Raw images in Nikon’s proprietary .NEF format; a top Continuous shooting speed of 4fps; a sensitivity range that stretches from ISO 100 to 6400 (and which is expandable to 12,800); 1080p Full HD movie recording at 25fps, with the ability to attach an external microphone; a range of digital effects filters that can be applied to images post capture (although not at the point of capture); a fixed 3in, 920k-dot LCD monitor and an optical viewfinder that covers 96% field of view. In addition, for an extra £50 there’s also the option to purchase Nikon’s WU-1a Wi-Fi add-on that attaches directly to the camera to allow for the wireless transfer of images.
While that ticks most of the boxes of what can be expected from an entry-level DSLR, the headline-grabbing feature of the D3200 is undoubtedly its 24.2MP APS-C CMOS sensor. This represents a significant increase over the 14.2MP chip found inside the D3100 and is, in fact, the highest resolution of any Nikon DSLR apart from the pro-spec, full-frame 36.3MP D800 we reviewed recently. In terms of the competition from rivalmanufacturers, there isn’t really an entry-level DSLR that comes close to the D3200, at least in terms of headline resolution: Canon’s 1100D offers 12.2MP, Sony’s SLT-A37 offers 16.1MP, while the Pentax K-r offers 12.4MP.
Of course some of you may recall that only a couple of years ago Nikon was adamant that 12MP was ‘more than enough’ resolution for a DSLR – how times have changed! And, of course, most new camera buyers now recognise that taking the headline resolution figure on its own is far too simplistic a way to judge a camera's overall ability and potential. That said, there are of course some practical benefits to having a higher resolution at your disposal, not least the ability to crop more aggressively into your images post-capture without losing too much in the way of image quality. Certainly by opting for a 24.2MP sensor D3200 users will be well equipped to experiment with creative framing without having to necessarily get it exactly right at the moment of capture. The big question of course (and one that we’ll deal with more specifically in due course) is whether the increased pixel density of the D3200's sensor in any way compromises its performance in low light.
In addition to the new sensor, Nikon has also worked on further improving the Guide Mode first seen in the D3000 and then refined in the D3100. This is given its own spot on the main exposure dial and once selected the camera goes into a kind of hand-holding mode, with information and shooting advice displayed on the rear screen, all illustrated with pictures. The idea behind it is to offer DSLR newbies practical advice on how to get the best results from any given situation, whether it’s controlling blur in fast-moving subjects, or creating a shallow depth-of-field to make portraits stand out from their background. By agreeing to the Guide Mode’s advice (via the OK button) the D3200 will automatically set the camera up to shoot in the recommended way.
While it’s really no substitute for a half-decent book on technique or online tutorial, the D3200’s Guide Mode does serve a purpose and is certainly admirable in its intentions. It is rather basic though, which is both a strength and a weakness; good because for someone who’s never picked up a DSLR it’s clearly signposted and easy to follow, but not-so-good in that it only really covers the most basic scenarios and is therefore of limited value – in the long run at least – to learning how to get the best out of a DSLR. Of course, once you’ve mastered everything the Guide Mode has to offer, you can always switch over to one of the more advanced settings, such as Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority or even fully Manual mode.
Of course, this being an entry-level DSLR there are some notable omissions as well as areas where costs have deliberately been cut in order to a) keep the price down and b) distinguish it from other mid-range Nikon models (we’re thinking primarily of the D5200 here). In this respect the D3200 doesn’t have a built-in AF motor, which basically means that in order for the autofocus to work you’ll need to use it with Nikon AF-S lenses. For the vast majority of users this is unlikely to be a problem though.
On the back of the camera is a 3in, 920k-dot LCD monitor. While there's no faulting the sharpness of the display it occasionally display images with a cold blue/magenta hue, which can be a little off-putting if you're trying to use it to gauge the correct colour temperature. Thanks to all the sensor's high resolution moire can also be a bit of an issue when the monitor is asked to display certain types of images, although zooming into these soon gets rid of the effect.
Should you want to use the D3200 at eye level then the viewfinder offers 95% coverage of the full scene with 0.8x magnification. Compared to more expensive Nikon DSLRs the D3200's viewfinder is quite a bit smaller but still remains perfectly usable. Indeed, as good as some of the latest electronic viewfinders are getting (we're primarily thinking Sony here) they'll never quite be able to better traditional optical viewfinders. It's one area where compact system cameras - for all their other strengths and advantages - will never quite be able to match a DSLR in terms of usability.