A First Look at The Nikon D3200. Kirk Tuck tangles with cheap ultra-megapixels...

First Studio Portrait with the D3200.

The Nikon D3200 is a very interesting camera.  The sensor inside is currently the highest resolution sensor in the entire APS-C menagerie (with the Sony a77 and a65 sensors just a gnat's whisker lower...) and yet it is one of the least expensive DSLR cameras on the market.  You can buy one with a decent (but not great) 18-55mm VR lens for just under $700. I handled one at Precision Camera earlier in the week and ultimately went back and bought one.  Why? It seemed like a good replacement for a nest of point and shoots I'd just cleared out of the studio.  I sent a bevy of old Canon G models and Nikon Canon-Wannabe_Point&Shoot cameras off to a host of new owners and the only pointy and shooty type camera I had left was my old Sony R1, which for nostalgic reasons I seem unable to sell...

The body of the D3200 is made of non-metallic materials but it seems well built.  It's not much bigger from side to side than my Olympus EP-3 and not much heavier (without lenses attached to either camera). It's slightly taller if you don't count the VF-2 finder that has to be on the EP3.  But it is resolutely of the jelly bean design style of cameras.  All the corners are rounded and there's a decent grip for the right hand.

The menus take about five minutes to master but I miss being able to change menu settings as quickly as you can with most of the major settings on an Olympus Super Control Panel menu.  On the Olympus cameras you can see all the major settings on the rear screen and use the dials to quickly change things like ISO, frame rate and color balance.  On the Nikon you can bring up a panel that quickly shows you what is set but you'll have to jump back in to the main menu to make a lot of the changes.  

Edit 6/22:  Photographer finally reads manual...  I missed it.  The Nikon does have the equivalent of a SCP on the back panel.  The thing I was missing is this:  You push the "i" button once to access the information panel.  You press the "i" button again to be able to navigate through the menu items represented.  You can change:  The file quality (raw/jpeg), the WB, the ISO, the frame rate (S or C), the focusing mode, the autofocus points, the metering pattern, the flash mode, the exposure compensation and the flash compensation.  Additionally, some of these controls can be access directly through buttons.  The FN button on the front of the camera directly accesses ISO, for example.  Thank you to my Nikon readers for pointing out my inaccuracy here.  

The eye level finder is a disappointment after having used the EVF's on the Sony's and the Olympus and Panasonic cameras.  It's right back to the tunnel vision condition that writers have bemoaned since the dawn of cropped frame cameras.  Since the EVF can be made any size, independent of constraints of the direct optical systems their finders, whatever other issues they may have they are much bigger and easier to work with.

Likewise, once you've enjoyed the pleasures of a rear LCD that can be extensively repositioned it's hard to go back to a fixed one.  

And the three paragraphs above are pretty much my list of faults for the D3200.  Now, with that out of the way,  let's move on to the pluses...

The biggest plus, and one measure that will tell you how long I've been shooting digital, is the 24 megapixel sensor.  When I bought my first digital camera in the mid 1990's you had the choice, really, of paying $16,000 for a Kodak DCS 460 or 660 (depending on where in the 1990's you entered the race...) or a 1.5 megapixel Fuji Camera with no LCD and a dinky compact camera squinty finder for around $3,000.  Your choice.  The idea that we'd be snapping up 24 megapixel cameras for about $600 (discounting the lens) seemed, at the time, like science fiction.

I think this is the same sensor that Sony is using in it's two top of the line APS-C cameras, the a77 and the a65.  When I push the camera to higher ISO's or when I underexpose and then correct a stop and a half or two I can see very familiar noise patterns, albeit the Nikon seems to have one half to one stop noise advantage over the Sony's.  The sensor's triple strengths are:  Very wide dynamic range. Incredible resolution and very nice color.  Even in its cheap, Nikon implementation the sensor does really nice colors.  I find the jpeg files a little flat but if you go into the menu and boost the contrast a bit they snap up nicely.

Edit: 6/22:  According to several sources the chip is NOT a Sony product but it a Nikon designed chip.  Apparently Nikon has supplied their own chips for most of the current higher end cameras, with the exception of the D7000, which is definitely a Sony 16 megapixel chip.  Conjecture almost always comes back to bite one on the butt.

The sensor is not a high speed savant. It's excellent to 800 ISO. Very good at 1600. Reasonable at 3200 ISO and really starting to groan and spit out grainy, monochromatic noise at anything higher.  Quantum Physics show its hand.  On the other hand 100 and 200 ISO are pretty near perfect.

I know that I like the camera for its sensor but I'm a bit confused as to why Nikon chose to put this big sensor into a camera that is so obviously aimed at beginners and rank hobbyists.  It may be marketing or Sony may have made this generation of sensors available at a price point that was actually lower than the previous generation of 16 megapixel sensors.  That and the inclusion of the new Xspeed 3 processor means you basically have  state of the art pipeline in this camera.

If you happen to be a rank amateur you'll likely find the menu and GUI un-threatening.  There are lots of consumer touches like a guide menu and a dial with lots of pictograms to walk you through the process of taking photographs.  I've set my camera as I set most of my cameras.  Either "A" mode or "M" mode. Raw. Selected white balance. Center focus sensor.  Single frame. S-af. ISO 100 for daylight.  ISO 400 for most other stuff.  What did you expect from someone who also shoots film in a Hasselblad?  That I'd let the camera choose the focusing point? That I'd want the camera to choose the ISO?  Get real.  In the crazy world of today your camera is one of the few things that you can have complete control over so why would you abdicate that?

Essentially, I'm suggesting that if you want to stay out of the cotton candy menu you can set the camera just about the way you would have set your favorite Leica or other film camera and make all the tiny adjustments when you process your files in raw.

I took my camera with me to swim practice today but of course I left it in my car.  After practice I headed to Barton Springs (above).  Ben's high school cross country team starts and ends at the pool for their two hour morning practice. I headed there to pick him up.  When I got there the sky was beautiful and the pool nearly empty.  I was ten minutes early so I decided to take the new camera out for a spin.  Is it any wonder that Austinites love the giant spring fed pool?  68 degree water flowing through all Summer long.  All year long...

The D3200 handled the wide dynamic range of the landscape well. One note:  while the DR is wonderfully wide the camera is contraindicated for HDR denizens.  Those dwellers in the aesthetic basement of photography will be extremely disappointed to find NO auto bracketing available in this camera.  Either Nikon was just being cheap and holding out features to drive consumers to more expensive models or they share the effete sense of disregard that more evolved photographers have for the disco ball aesthetic of technicolor crap.  Just saying that if you love to do HDR you might want to skip this pup....

The D3200 does not have top mounted window to show information.  You'll have to get it all from the back panel.  The camera is also missing a dial.  There's only one control dial for both the shutter speeds and the apertures but if you are in manual mode you'll have to push the +/- button while turning the one dial to change apertures.  Not very pro.  And the 4 frames per second with a 7 frame raw buffer probably won't impress anyone who's used any number of pro and prosumer cameras on the market.  My response to this is:  You should see the full res files at 6000 pixels wide.  You should see the dynamic range and, did I mention that the camera sells for $700 with a lens?

You probably won't dump your Nikon D4 and take this to a professional sport shooting job but then again, if you put the right lens on the front and time your shots carefully (remember skillful reflexes as opposed to brute force???) you certainly will get shots of the same (or better) image quality.   Put this camera on a tripod, use a remote release and focus carefully, via live view, and this camera will do landscapes and urban scenes and studio work as well or better than anything short of a D800.  And haven't we always been saying that it's the image quality that really matters?

I met this young woman at the end of the Barton Springs Pool. She was looking at the rising sun and getting ready to plunge into the crisp waters for her every morning swim.  She asked if I wanted to take her photograph.  I did.  I stuck the camera on 5.6 and snapped away. I guess I was looking like a pool tourist.

While the lens isn't the greatest piece of glass I've ever stuck in front of a camera it's very usable and when you do it right (middle apertures, VR on, good holding technique) you are rewarded with detail-rich files that will blow up and up and up.  This is a camera that will go either way.  You can shoot 6 megapixel jpeg files and share them pronto.  There's even an attachment (extra) that will send your images to your android device/phone.  So sad though since most advanced civilizations use iPhones....

On the other hand you can use the camera like a mini-view camera, put it on a tripod, shoot at 100 ISO in raw and exactingly process the files in Lightroom 4.x and you'll get stuff that looks amazing.  No more excuses for bad work just because you don't have the budget for a $3K or $4K camera body.  This is another step in the ongoing democratization of photography. 

One of the feature sets that compelled me to go and buy the set, and an extra battery or two, is the video set up.  Remember when the Canon 5Dmk2 came out and everyone salivated about being able to do video with their DSLR?  That was only three years ago, right?  But the camera wasn't really all it could have been at the time.  It needed a couple of firmware fixes to get the goodies it needed.  In the meantime there were all kinds of workarounds and hacks.  Need manual audio level controls?  Then how about adding a digital sound recorder and getting a copy of Pluraleyes?
Don't want second sound?  How about a BeachTek JuiceLink mixer box to trick the AGC circuit in the camera into staying put?  Too many wires?  Wait for the hack.

Well, here we are with a camera at one fifth the price that does:  Full manual exposure control video. Fully manual audio gain control with meters.  1080i at 24 and 30fps.  20 full minutes of recording. A stereo microphone jack in the standard size...(hello Panasonic! What's with the 2mm plug?)  So how does it look, file-wise?  Pretty damn good.  Finally, a camera with manual controls and a really good file that I can afford to hand to a teenage video producer without cringing.  They tend to be tough torture testers of gear.

Pop a Rode stereo microphone in the standard hotshoe (Hello Sony !!!!!) and you're ready to go out on your ENG quest.  Beats the crap out of my Canon 7D that couldn't do manual audio....

Will it focus as fast as the PD focusing on one of my Sony's for video? No.  Do the video files look as good? Yes.

My overall impression? It reminds me of how much I love working with good EVF's.  Nikon will have a dramatically good entry the minute they take all these features and tack on a great EVF instead of just a "good" OVF.  The camera is small, light, quick to operate and gives you incredible files.  It's $600 cheaper than an Olympus OM-D with lens.  It's $1300 cheaper than a Sony a77 with lens.  And if you use good glass with the camera it will run with the big dogs and you'll never be able to see a real difference unless it's the extra 8 million pixels you get when weighed against the Oly, or the extra half stop or more of low light performance when compared to the Sony.

Am I going to sell off everything I own and buy nothing but Nikons?  Again?  Nope.  But it sure as hell makes a great point and shoot camera.  I'd take it over a Canon G1x any day... And keep an extra $100 in my pocket.  

The best way to shoot this camera is to shoot in raw (which is a compressed format of raw) and output the files in Lightroom.  I find the AWB to be problematic with most cameras in most scenes with big areas of color so I prefer to set the WB to settings that match the conditions.  It's hardly difficult.

I've been carrying it around with the kit lens on the front and looking for subject matter that works within an old fashioned equivalent of 27.5mm to 82mm.  I have three different normal Nikon lenses that will work on the front of the camera.  My old 50mm D 1.8 will work in all exposure modes but will require me to manually focus.  My ancient 50mm 1.4 and my Micro Nikkor 55 f3.5 will both need to be manually focused and manually set for exposure. I still need to check and make sure they'll mount.

If I had to put together the D3200 camera and just one lens I'd probably choose the Nikon 35mm 1.8 DX lens.  That would get me a nice, normal view on the cropped frame camera and most of the tests I've read concur that the lens is sharp, especially in the center, fast to focus and focuses down to about one foot.

Any one of the new AFS 50mm lenses would also work well.  

I like the battery charger. It doesn't have a cord (Hello Olympus !!!!) it just plugs right into a wall socket.  The charge light blinks while charging (90 minutes to a full charge) and then goes solid. I'm still on my first hundred exposures so I haven't had a chance to give the battery a good test but  I'll get back to you on that.

Who should get this camera and lens?  Your friend who is just getting into photography.  Your son or daughter going off to school who's ready to leave the limitations of their cellphone camera behind. People who are both methodical workers and also in need of great image quality.  Someone who wants to start a photo and film company with no discernable budget. And people who want a great, light weight, walk-around camera with good battery life and access to an ocean of lenses.  

And who should take a pass?  Anyone with a bag full of Canon or Sony glass.  Anyone who's been bitten by the EVF bug. And, anyone who thinks you have to spend big to be taken seriously or to produce serious work.  Seriously? A great, 24 megapixel sensor, good performance and great files for next to nothing.  Moore's law comes to photography again.  What will they do next year?
48 megapixels on a full frame for $499?  Sign me up.

The camera shoots nice raw files and it saves them to SDHC cards. I've been using the 16 GB Transcend class 10 cards but I'm about to upgrade to the 32 GB ones.  Ben and I are shooting the first of what I hope will be dozens of video projects next week and I'd like to have memory to spare.....I know a lot of people groused about the changeover to SD cards but I like them.  Small and light and cheap.  After using them exclusively for six months I find CF cards a bit clunky.  Kinda like floppy drives...