The brand-new entry-level Nikon D3200 has a few tricks up its sleeve that make it super-easy for beginners to use, plus some high-end specs like a mega-high-resolution sensor that you won't find even on some pricier cameras. It's the Best Reviewed entry-level DSLR in expert reviews.
Still, those extra megapixels don't magically produce wildly better images. The older Nikon D3100 (*Est. $500 with kit lens) shoots a bit slower and lacks some video features, but also costs less and shoots pretty comparable photos. The step-up Nikon D5100 (*Est. $650 with kit lens) adds a few advanced features and now costs the same as the new D3200, although critics say the D3200 will eventually come down in price. Reviewers say both cameras -- plus the rival Canon EOS Rebel T3i (*Est. $695 with kit lens) -- are great runner-up choices for the money.
"A DSLR with training wheels." "This is one of the easiest-to-use DSLRs out there," DCResource.com's Jeff Keller says, and other reviewers agree. As with any DSLR, you can simply set the D3200 to Auto and click away while the camera does the rest. But if you want to learn more, the camera's Guide Mode will teach you as you shoot, "like a DSLR with training wheels," says Dan Havlik at Imaging-Resource.com.
In Guide Mode, the camera explains in text on the LCD screen how to shoot a night portrait or close-up, or how to soften backgrounds or show water flowing, along with example pictures to show what you'll get. "For instance, by selecting Show Water Flowing, the Guide Mode will instruct you to use a slow shutter speed (and a tripod)," says Phil Hall at WhatDigitalCamera.com. "As you decrease the shutter speed on the rear screen, a visual example of a waterfall will be used to show the change in the blur." Older entry-level Nikons have a Guide Mode, too, but Nikon has improved it for the D3200.
The camera's body weighs just 1 pound, so it's "small and light enough to carry around every day," Keller says. Testers find it comfortable to hold, with buttons and dials located exactly where you'd expect to find them. For some controls you must delve into the on-screen menus, which critics say are easy to navigate. The 3-inch LCD screen is bright and clear and you can frame your shot in Live View, but experts say autofocus is sluggish this way, so it's better to look through the optical viewfinder.
Snappy speed and pretty photos, but don't expect miracles. The real attention-grabber in reviews of the Nikon D3200 is its 24.2-megapixel compact image sensor. As of this update, that beats all other budget DSLRs, and even some pricey pro cameras.
"For an entry-level camera, this is exciting," says Tim Coleman at Amateur Photographer. Lots of pixels capture lots of detail, so you can blow your photos up really big -- or crop tiny sections of them and blow those up -- without all of the details turning to mush. Theoretically, anyway. There's usually a drawback: The more pixels you cram onto one tiny sensor, the smaller each pixel has to be. Smaller pixels let in less light, which can mean grainy, noisy photos in low-light situations.
Surprisingly, though, the Nikon D3200 manages to straddle the fence. This compact-sensor camera captures outstanding detail -- as much as the pro-quality, full-frame-sensor Canon EOS 5D Mark III (*Est. $3,455 body only) in Coleman's test -- and still handles dim light up to ISO 3,200 quite well. In fact, Imaging-Resource.com's Havlik posts a nice shot of fireworks reflected in a glass-walled skyscraper to prove it.
And that's with Nikon's decent but not spectacular standard kit lens, a common gripe with all brands. Splurge on a better lens and experts say you'll really be able to take advantage of the sky-high megapixels. Nevertheless, more megapixels don't make for dramatically improved photos in tests: When Havlik blows up tiny details from test shots, the D3200's don't look any better overall than the 14.2-megapixel Nikon D3100's (*Est. $500 with kit lens).
In fact, the two cameras are pretty similar except for the megapixels, and the D3200 shoots 4 frames per second (fps) to the D3100's 3 fps, making it better for photographing your kids' sports. Some extra features also mean the D3200 is preferred for shooting short video clips. Like the D3100, the D3200 can continuously autofocus while shooting video, although Havlik says it's slow and loud, and it gobbles battery power.
One other drawback to note: The D3200's whopping megapixels mean whopping file sizes on your computer. "In the long run, such a high resolution will be as likely to frustrate the ‘family' user as give them pleasure once all the disk space is taken up … and external drives need to be purchased," Coleman says, and Havlik agrees.
The D3200's battery is rated for 540 shots on a single charge, more than the 440-shot Canon EOS Rebel T3i. That's "very good," says DCResource.com's Keller, and camera critic Ken Rockwell says he hit 577 shots with one-third of the battery still showing on the meter. DPReview.com testers say, "In real life we found the battery life to be good enough for a typical day of stills shooting with some video capture and image review in between."
Lightweight but sturdy. "Despite being made of plastic (err, composite materials), it still feels very solid," Keller says of the Nikon D3200 at DCResource.com. "Lightweight does not mean poor quality," agrees Amateur Photographer's Coleman. He points out that the D3200's plastic body and faux-leather hand and thumb grips are identical to the Nikon D5100 (*Est. $650 with kit lens), the next model up the Nikon ladder. This older model has been discounted, which is why it's the same price as the D3200.
Rockwell notes that the D3200's lens mount and tripod socket are both metal: "This is perfect," he says. "It's lightweight, and the durable parts are still metal."
In fact, "About the only construction weak spot is the door over the memory card slot," Keller says. But one owner who reviews the D3200 at Amazon.com says the "battery and memory card doors are light but don't feel flimsy; they are well designed for quick opening and closing."
Nikon adds new extras, but still leaves a few out. The D3200 includes a few impressive features, reviews say, but omits some niceties you'll find on other cameras.
First, the pluses: Unlike the Nikon D3100, the D3200 has a jack so you can add your own stereo microphone. This is ideal when shooting movies as the built-in mono mic doesn't impress. It also adds manual control over video, so you can adjust things like aperture and mic level. The Nikon D5100 and Canon EOS Rebel T3i include these features, too.
Optional accessories include a $20 wireless remote -- also offered for the D5100 -- and a $60 USB dongle that can beam photos wirelessly to your Android or iOS smartphone or tablet. You can't get these on the Nikon D3100 or Canon T3i.
Now for the minuses: The LCD screen won't flip out or swivel like on the D5100 and T3i. However, a movable screen lets you see what you're doing with odd-angle shots such as when shooting above a crowd; experts say it's especially useful for shooting video without having the camera stuck directly in front of your face.
The D3200 also omits exposure bracketing, a feature in which the camera takes three shots instead of one -- one regular, one at a slightly lower exposure and one slightly higher -- just in case the regular exposure wasn't quite right. This is a pretty common feature, and critics are disappointed that Nikon left it out.
1. Amateur Photographer
Review Credibility: Excellent Coleman thoroughly evaluates the Nikon D3200 both in the lab and in the field. He rates the camera on eight criteria such as features, autofocus and dynamic range and overall, and posts test photos to illustrate his points. He explains how the camera stacks up against the Sony A65, a similarly priced rival with similarly sky-high megapixels, and the older Nikon D3100. The D3200 is the top-rated budget DSLR here.
Review: Nikon D3200 Review, Tim Coleman, June 16, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good This extremely detailed review covers every aspect of the Nikon D3200, from ergonomics to video quality. Testers post plenty of photos to show how the camera handles different situations, and share side-by-side lab shots to demonstrate how it compares with rivals from Canon, Samsung, Sony and Pentax, as well as the earlier Nikon D100. The 3200 stands up to the scrutiny and reviewers name it a "Dave's Pick," although it hasn't been added to the site's list of the best cameras.
Review: Nikon D3200, Shawn Barnett, Mike Tomkins, Dan Havlik and Zig Weidelich, Sept. 13, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good DPReview.com also publishes an extraordinarily thorough evaluation of the Nikon D3200, with plenty of sample shots and several video clips. Testers come to similar conclusions as Amateur Photographer and Imaging-Resource.com: The D3200's kit lens is a letdown, but otherwise this is a solid entry-level DSLR. The camera is given the site's Silver Award.
Review: Nikon D3200 Review, Lars Rehm, July 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good ConsumerReports.org's digital camera reviews are short and to the point. Each major aspect of the Nikon D3200 gets a one-paragraph write-up, plus a ranking from excellent to poor. Editors rate the D3200 against 19 other DSLRs and pick a few best buys. The site accepts no freebies or advertising, so it's a very objective source.
Review: Nikon D3200, Editors of ConsumerReports.org, As of October 2012
5. What Digital Camera
Review Credibility: Very Good WhatDigitalCamera.com recommends the Nikon D3200 and the Canon EOS Rebel T3 as the best budget DSLRs. "Easy to use, performs well and delivers great images," concludes Hall after thoroughly critiquing the D3200's features, design, performance and image quality.
Review: Nikon D3200 Review, Phil Hall, Phil Hall
Review Credibility: Very Good After testing the Nikon D3200 and Canon EOS Rebel T3i in minute detail, DCResource.com recommends both cameras as the best under-$800 DSLRs. Keller evaluates the D3200's design, features, performance and image quality, posting both sample photos and videos.
Review: DCRP Nikon D3200 Review, Jeff Keller, Nov. 13, 2012
7. Ken Rockwell
Review Credibility: Good Rockwell's reviews aren't as finely detailed as at other sites, but they're packed with blunt buying advice. He hits the high points of every aspect of the Nikon D3200. Ultimately, he says, it's all the camera most people need.
Review: Recommended Cameras, Ken Rockwell, October 2012
Review Credibility: Good The Nikon D3200 is one of the top-rated DSLRs here, earning 4.4 stars out of 5 from more than 100 owners. The majority says it's intuitive to use and shoots great photos right out of the box, although some users aren't crazy about the kit lens. A few give it low scores, including some who say theirs malfunctioned quickly.
Review: Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR, Contributors to Amazon.com, As of November 2012