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The Nikon D3200 ($699.95 direct with 18-55mm lens) is the company's entry-level D-SLR, and as such offers a wealth of features that should appeal to photographers in search of their first interchangeable lens camera. The 24-megapixel shooter improves upon the 14-megapixel resolution of the D3100 ($699.95, 4 stars) and also provides full manual shooting controls for seasoned shutterbugs. It does well in low light, and offers continuous autofocus during video recording, but doesn't quite oust our current under-$1,000 Editors' Choice D-SLR, the Nikon D5100 ($899.99, 4.5 stars), with its broader feature set including a sharp, articulating rear LCD.
Design and Features
Even though it dwarfs point-and-shoot cameras, the D3200 is quite compact for an SLR. The body measures 3.8 by 5.0 by 3.1 inches and weighs an even pound (sans lens), slightly smaller than the 3.9-by-5.1-by-3.1, 1.1-pound Canon EOS Rebel T3 ($599.99, 3.5 stars). Even though the included 18-55mm (27-82.5mm equivalent) zoom lens is small compared with professional telephoto zoom lenses, it feels larger than it is when mounted on the small camera.
The biggest advantage that an SLR has over a mirrorless compact interchangeable lens camera like the Sony Alpha NEX-F3 ($599.99, 4.5 stars) is its optical viewfinder. While you do have the option of adding an EVF to many mirrorless compacts, it isn't the same as looking through the lens. However, like most other entry-level SLRs, the D3200 skimps a bit on viewfinder quality. It uses a pentamirror design, which uses a series of mirrors to direct the light captured by the lens to your eye. Enthusiast and professional D-SLRs, like the Pentax K-5 ($1,249.95, 3.5 stars) and Nikon D800 ($2,999.95, 4 stars), use a solid glass pentaprism to redirect the light, which results in a larger, brighter image. If you're accustomed to a point-and-shoot, the D3200's viewfinder will be a huge step up, but old-school photographers may be surprised at just how small the finder is compared with classic 35mm SLRs.
If you have a stable of old Nikkor lenses that you would like to put to use on a digital body, you'll be happy to know that pretty much any lens manufactured after 1977 will mount on the D3200. Most, even those that support screw-drive autofocus, will be limited to manual focus mode only—the D3200 doesn't have a focus screw to support these lenses that lack internal focus motors. Couple that with the relatively small viewfinder, and you'll quickly realize that this was not a camera that was designed with manual focus in mind. If you have autofocus Nikon lenses without internal motors, you should consider the D5100, since it includes the hardware needed to focus them.
If, on the other hand, you're a complete novice, you'll like the D3200's killer feature—its Guide Mode. Switching the Mode Dial to Guide brings up a colorful menu on the rear display that asks you if you'd like to shoot, review photos, or configure the camera. The Shoot menu is broken up into Easy and Advanced situations which feature presets for landscapes, close ups, low light portraits, fast action, and other common photographic subjects. This, along with select number of scene modes that live on the Mode Dial, goes a long way into configuring the camera to best capture the image at hand, without the need for encyclopedic knowledge of photographic technique.
The D3200's shooting controls are scattered about its body. The Movie Record, Info, and EV Compensation buttons are located directly behind the shutter release, and you'll only find a four-way controller, Drive Mode control, Exposure Lock, and Live View button on the rear of the camera. The button to raise the flash and control its output, as well as a Function button, round out the shooting controls—they both live on the front left of the camera, right above the Lens Release button.
Aside from EV Compensation, shutter speed, and aperture, which are visible in the viewfinder, you'll need to use the rear 3-inch LCD to view settings as you adjust them. The 4:3 display is quite bright and sharp thanks to a 921k-dot resolution, but it doesn't tilt away from the camera's body like that of the Canon EOS Rebel T3i ($899.99, 3.5 stars) or the Sony Alpha 65 ($999.99, 4 stars). Hitting the I button, which is located to the left of the LCD, gives you quick access to Image Quality, White Balance, ISO, Drive Mode, Focus Mode, AF Area, Metering, EV Compensation, Flash Compensation, and Flash Mode. If you need to adjust anything else, you'll have to dive into the full menu.
Performance and Conclusions
As a D-SLR, the D3200 is expected to perform snappily—and it does. It can start and shoot in about 0.7 seconds if focus is reasonably close to what the lens is set at, although that figure can increase to about 1.2 seconds if the lens needs to travel a bit to achieve focus. There's a focus assist beam to help the camera lock on faster in dim light—even in very dark light, I was able to get the camera to lock in and shoot in about 1.8 seconds using the kit lens at 55mm, a focal length where the maximum aperture is a dim f/5.6. Focusing under the same conditions in Live View is slower—it requires 3.5 seconds to lock on to focus under the same conditions.
Shutter lag clocks in at a short 0.2-second, and continuous drive mode nets a burst rate of a little better than 3 frames per second. Shooting in Raw with a 95MBps SanDisk SDXC card, the D3200 was able to grab 18 shots before its buffer filled, and managed to write all of those files to the card in only 6.5 seconds. If you opt for the more common JPG format, expect to fire about 100 shots at that rate, and you'll only have to pause for 2.2 seconds as files are written to the card. These figures are even more impressive when you consider the D3200 sports a lot of megapixels.
I used Imatest to see just how good those 24-megapixel photos are in terms of sharpness and noise. The 18-55mm lens included with the camera is a typical f/3.5-5.6 design—it's not the best since it doesn't let a ton of light in, and like similar optics it introduces a pronounced 2.9 percent barrel distortion when used at its widest setting. Despite its lack of speed, it did reasonably well in sharpness tests—save for at its widest focal length. At 18mm f/3.5 the lens only managed 1,642 lines per picture height, shy of the 1,800 lines that mark a sharp photo. Stopping the lens down a bit to f/5.6 rectifies this—at that aperture it notches a very impressive score of 2,424 lines. It sharpens up as you reach the 35mm focal length, where it records 2,245 lines at the maximum f/5 aperture, and it records 2,070 lines at 55mm f/5.6. It's one of the better kit lenses we've tested—the similar 18-55mm lens that ships with the Pentax K-r ($699.95, 3 stars) didn't do as well, notching only 1,416 lines at 18mm, 1,527 lines at 35mm, and a disappointing 1,098 lines at 55mm.
In terms of image noise, which makes a photo look grainy when it crosses 1.5 percent, the D3200 scores quite well. It keeps noise under the threshold through ISO 3200, and does so without robbing photos of detail through excessive noise reduction. If you opt to shoot Raw, ISO 6400 is a very useable setting, and you can probably get away with JPGs at that setting too if you don't mind an image that's a little grainier than most. If high ISO shooting is a major concern, you may want to consider a camera with a little less resolution—the 16-megapixel Nikon D5100 keeps noise under control through ISO 6400—that's one stop better than the D3200, so you can shoot images of similar quality in half the light.
Video is recorded in QuickTime format at 1080p30, 1080p24, or 720p60 quality. The footage looks great, and the addition of a 60fps mode, albeit at a lower resolution, is a boon to action shooting. The camera can autofocus during video recording, although the sound of the lens moving is audible on the soundtrack and the speed of the focus is a bit slow, especially in low light. You can set it to focus only when you press the shutter down or continually without user intervention. Sony's Alpha 65, which uses a fixed mirror to provide full-time phase detect focus during video recording, focuses faster—but it uses an electronic viewfinder rather than an optical one. There is a mic input, so you can connect a directional microphone that will not pick up the sound of the lens. There's also a proprietary USB port, mini HDMI port, and accessory port for an optional GPS unit. Standard SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards are supported.
If you're in the market for your first D-SLR, the D3200 is an excellent choice, at a very attractive price. Its performance and image quality do not disappoint, and the Guide Mode will help folks who don't know a lot about photography take better photos. Its video mode provides real-time autofocus, although it isn't as fast as the Sony Alpha 65. If you'd prefer a little more compatibility with older Nikon lenses, you may want to consider moving up to the D5100, which features an autofocus screw for legacy lenses. There's also the Canon side of the fence, which may be attractive if you've got older Canon EOS lenses—the entry-level camera over there is the EOS Rebel T3, which, while capable, didn't score as well as the D3200.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.