The distinction between consumer and professional dSLRs is getting ever finer. Nikon has packed the D5200's APS-C-sized sensor with more than 24 million pixels -- a number that would have been almost inconceivable on a high-end device just five years ago.
Full-size images are 6,000x4,000 pixels apiece, and even in low light they're full of detail, with extremely well controlled levels of grain. I paired the D5200 with the 18-55mm kit lens, and put it through its paces under decidedly overcast skies. You can pick one up -- kit lens included -- for around £760 online.
Build and features
The D5200's 3-inch LCD flips out, twists through 270 degrees and folds back on itself, and when combined with the Live View option to frame shots on the screen rather than through the optical viewfinder, it's great for less conventional angles -- either low down or over your head.
The onscreen menus are excellent, and the shooting info screens are a masterclass in how it ought to be done. The screen is dominated by three circles. The first shows your current shutter speed, and replicates the hardware dials found on the top of high-end cameras like the Fujifilm X-Pro 1 or Leica M9. Beside it, a graphical representation of the aperture blades opens and closes as you change the setting, while the current sensitivity sits to the right.
This is great for beginners as it shows at a glance what effect you'll have by changing one setting on the state of the other two.
Below this, there's a more extensive set of options covering the usual bases, like white balance, metering, focus mode and so on, which saves you from having to dig through the menus to adjust common settings. Combined, each of these features makes it very easy to adjust your shooting parameters to cater for rapidly changing conditions.
It's a shame then that the lens could well be the pinch point when it comes to maintaining a fluid workflow. Under overcast skies I found it to be slower than it should have been to find focus when where were significant differences between the framing of sequential shots. Naturally your own experience will depend on your choice of lens.
In other respects, though, the kit lens is a good choice, with built in stabilisation and a shallow depth of field at the widest apertures. Aperture range runs from f/3.5 to f/5.6, and it was easy to precisely focus on selected elements within the frame thanks to the camera's 39 focusing points.
Low light performance is nothing short of excellent. Sensitivity runs from ISO 100 to ISO 6,400, expandable to ISO 25,600 equivalent, and even at higher levels the grain in the image is fine and well controlled, and doesn't greatly impact on the quality of the shot. If you need to trim this further, exposure compensation runs through +/-5.0EV in 1/3 EV steps.
The image below was shot at ISO 1,250 to bring out some detail within the brickwork of this sparse and unlit church. It was exposed for 1/50 second at f/3.5. Despite the long exposure, wide aperture and high sensitivity, the shadows in the roof space remain dark, and the details visible through the door are bleached out.
However, the D5200 has captured far more detail than is immediately evident, and it's easily recovered in post-production. Lifting the shadows and dampening the highlights reveals both the view through the door and the detail within the upper parts of the building.
Colour reproduction is good, and when shooting under overcast conditions the D5200 consistently produces a series of good, punchy tones with the picture control set to standard.
Even when there's only a muted palette to play with, it's able to pull out a good range of colours, so skies and areas otherwise lacking in features are smoothly graduated and contain sufficient depth that the result is a true reproduction of the original scene.
Contrasts are well handled and you'll have to look extremely carefully indeed to find any evidence of chromatic aberration when using the kit lens. This manifests itself as a turquoise and pink fringe on opposite sides of a darker object as it meets a lighter background, and in this case the instance is so fine that it's only visible when zoomed to 100 per cent.
Details are sharp, and with 24.1 megapixels to play with there's plenty of opportunities for cropping if you want to recompose the shot in post production. The level of focus falls off slightly as you move towards the corners of the shot when using the 18-55mm kit lens, but this isn't uncommon, and it's certainly not pronounced enough to have a detrimental impact on the overall frame, unless you're cropping fairly tightly away from the centre.
Still life test
The still life test involves shooting a selection of everyday objects with the camera set to auto, allowing it to make up its own mind on the best way to expose the shot.
Under all lighting conditions -- studio lights, ambient light and using the on-board flash -- it produced the same punchy colours and balanced result as was evident in general outdoor photography. Prime colours, such as red and blue, were particularly well reproduced, while natural wood textures, and fur, were detailed and finely-rendered.
There was a fair amount of shadow in the flash-lit shot, but it wasn't so severe that it became a distracting element within the composition. With the studio lights switched off however, the D5200 not only slowed down the shutter speed, but also widened the aperture, which in turn shortened the depth of field, so less of the composition remained sharp.
The D5200 shoots full HD video at 1,920x1,080 pixels at 60fps or 50fps interlaced, or 30fps, 25fps or 24fps progressive. You can perform progressive capture at 60fps or 50fps if you trim the resolution to 1,280x720, and you can cut it still further to 640x424 if you're shooting primarily for the web.
Although you can set the sensitivity of the stereo mics manually there's no wind-cut feature, so the noise of a stiff riverside breeze was pretty obvious in my test footage, but other than this the D5200 performed well.
The image was crisp, with accurate colours. It coped well with significant movement, such as walking while filming, even with the lens' vibration-reduction feature turned off. It also compensated swiftly and smoothly -- without any stepping -- to changes in the level of available light.
Nikon has put barely a foot wrong here. The only thing that might count against it is the price comparison with Canon's EOS 650D. Sure, Nikon has the higher pixel count at 24.1 megapixels, compared to the 650D's 18 megapixels, but when you're talking high teens and beyond, those extra pixels become less important.
The EOS 650D also has a touchscreen display, and for many users that's becoming more of a draw, which is lacking on the D5200. So it's good to see Nikon has put so much thought into the physical layout of the hardware controls, which when combined with the speedy access it gives to the most common settings makes this a camera that's easy to learn and quick to adjust.
In truth, then, the two are neck and neck, and when the price of the D5200 starts to fall -- as is inevitable -- your choice will likely be determined by whether or not you already have a stock of compatible lenses for one brand or the other. If not, know that you won't be disappointed with either camera. Both will impress, and have sufficiently decent specs and features to serve you well for years to come.