The distinction between consumer and professional dSLR cameras is becoming increasingly blurred. For many, it now comes down to the size of the chip, the maximum shutter speed and the number of auto-focus points.
It's perhaps for those reasons that Nikon includes the D3200 in its consumer line-up. In every other respect this is a serious, top-quality camera that easily outguns what would have been considered a high-end pro unit just a few years ago.
The Nikon D3200 can be bought now from around £550 online.
Specs and resolution
The biggest and most impressive stat -- and the one that's sure to catch the eye -- is the resolution. At 24.2 megapixels, it beats many pro cameras even today, including the Canon EOS 5D Mark III (22.3 megapixels), and most of its consumer rivals. The D3200 produces shots of 6,016x4,000 pixels.
Where the pro cameras still have the edge though is in the physical sensor size, with the Canon EOS 5D sporting a full-frame chip that matches the size of a regular 35mm frame. In the D3200, it's an APS-C-sized chip -- Nikon's DX format -- which means that its photosites are packed slightly closer together.
In some cases, that can lead to increased noise -- particularly in very dark conditions. I didn't notice that in my tests of the D3200, which coped admirably with sensitivities as high as ISO 1,600, with only slight grain. Around ISO 6,400, the grain became more of an issue, but I had to push it to ISO 12,800 to produce an unattractive result. Even this would still be usable if converted to greyscale for a monochrome print, so long as you were happy with the high grain level.
The noise is only noticeable if the image is zoomed to 100 per cent. When viewed full screen, the degradation is more difficult to make out as the high resolution renders it too small to see, while colours remain accurately reproduced.
Pairing so many pixels with a decent kit lens has paid off enormously here, with the D3200 capturing a staggering amount of detail for a so-called consumer dSLR. The trailing flowers on this loggia would present a challenge to lesser cameras, but not the D3200. It's easy to make out individual fronds through the full depth of the frame.
There's an 11-point auto-focus system, which locks onto subjects accurately and quickly. Again, this is an area where paying more for a true professional camera would usually -- but not always -- buy you more flexibility. For example, the Nikon D800 has 51 focus points and the 5D Mark III has 61, but the 5D Mark II, has only nine, offering fewer options than the D3200.
Shot-to-shot times of less than a second were easily achieved throughout my tests, while the maximum frame rate in burst mode touched 4 frames per second.
Shortest exposure times are 1/4,000 sec, extending to 30 seconds. If you're an Android user, you can pair the camera with your smart phone using the optional WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adaptor to control it remotely. There's currently no equivalent for Apple iOS users.
I found the D3200's bright 3-inch display easy to use in direct sunlight, and the information it provided was useful and easy to navigate. The graphical aperture illustration, in particular, makes it simple to understand what changes you're making to the lens aperture. An illustration shows the blades extend and retract as you change the setting, as well as the effect you're having on aperture as you zoom in and out.
The D3200 will make a very tempting upgrade for anyone currently using a high-end compact or toying with the idea of an interchangeable lens compact system camera, so it's good to see that Nikon has built in a comprehensive Guide Mode that will show new users how to achieve certain shots using the camera.
Each is presented as a plain English option, such as 'soften backgrounds', 'show water flowing' or 'freeze motion', with an example of what you might shoot with it. Selecting one sets up the camera using its regular options, without you having to work through the menus yourself.
I tested the D3200 using the 18-55mm VR kit lens. Images were shot in JPEG and raw, side by side, using the raw files for analysis. The DX-format sensor has a crop factor of 1.5x, meaning that this lens behaves like a 27-82.5mm unit on a regular 35mm camera, with a zoom of just over 3x. I set the camera to aperture priority so that I could keep control of depth of field, while allowing it to make all other decisions about shutter speed, sensitivity and so on.
I started out by setting it the tricky task of capturing this church tower and steeple, with strong backlighting from a full sun (below). In many cases you'd expect it to be a silhouette, but the D3200 produced a superb result, thanks to its Active D-Lighting feature that maximises the dynamic range.
The colours of the facing stonework have been preserved and the grass that lies in shadow is accurately reproduced. Even dark areas such as the peaked window on the side of the tower are clear and full of fine detail. It hasn't burned out the sky while significantly lightening the shadow areas.
It's important to point out that the results you will achieve will depend on your choice of lens. Using the 18-55mm kit lens, I experienced a slight fall-off in the level of focus towards the edge and corner of the frame, where the glass has to bend the light to the most extreme angle to reach the sensor. Here, there was some smearing that wasn't evident at the centre of the frame, as can be seen in the carving below.
Perhaps inevitably, this meant that there was a very small amount of colour fringing -- known as chromatic aberration -- on fine detail where the light was focused slightly out of sync at the extremities.
At low sensitivities, the clarity of the D3200's output is hard to overstate, even when working with a narrow colour palette. The elder blossom below is predominantly white with pale yellow stamen, yet it's easy to make out one from the other. The petals of each bloom are creamy and smooth, with sharp edges and clean transitions between similar shades.
Likewise, the chimney above the portico on this country house very closely matches the colour of the overcast sky behind it, yet the D3200 renders the two with sufficient clarity to make each easy to differentiate. Furthermore, the roofline is clean and crisp, unlike the examples seen in the output from the much cheaper Samsung ST200F and Pentax Optio WG-2, tested simultaneously under matching conditions.
Its dynamic range really becomes apparent at closer quarters. Shooting the same building face on, with a high degree of reflected light, would usually cause the camera to have trouble balancing the darker areas (such as the front door with the very bright paintwork). However, the D3200 makes such a competent job of balancing the two that not only can we clearly see the grain of the wood in the door, but also a hairline crack at the apex of the portico -- each of which sit at opposite ends of the luminance spectrum.
Nikon is trumpeting the D3200's video features almost as loudly as it is its stills performance. It shoots Full HD at 1,920x1,080 pixels, 30p, 25p or 24p, as well as 1,920x720 pixels at 60p and 50p. There's also an option for 640x424 pixels (around 3:2 aspect ratio), at 30p and 25p.
The video results were as good as you might expect after close examination of its stills, with full control over microphone sensitivity, movie quality and frame rate.
Sound reproduction was excellent, without excessive wind noise, while captured footage was sharp and vibrant. It handled luminance changes smoothly and without stepping, and had no trouble capturing complex movement with plenty of changes in the frame, such as subjects passing close by the lens.
Some cameras are a joy to use, and the D3200 sits very firmly within that group. The fact that its output is so crisp and clean is a bonus, making this one of the best dSLRs currently available this side of £1,000.
The superior quality of the shots you'll take won't fail to impress. In part, that's down to the high resolution, but credit should also be given to the underlying firmware and processor, which do a great job of tackling noise and balancing out very complex and uneven lighting.
If you have already bought into a rival camera brand, you may be reluctant to start rebuilding your lens library from scratch. But the D3200 would make an excellent upgrade from an earlier Nikon model or for professional photographers who want a lighter, cheaper, knockabout camera for recreational use. It would be a first-class companion to a higher-end unit.
Either way, if you invest in a D3200, you won't be disappointed. It has all the specs and performance to keep you happy for years to come.