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Man did we love the Nikon D5100 (MSRP $599.95). In fact, we loved it enough to name it our Camera of the Year back in 2011. So last April, when Nikon announced the D3200 (MSRP $699.95), our mouths started to water. We knew an update to the company's other sub-$1,000 DSLR wouldn't be far behind. And now, here it is.
Almost all of the D5100's lab scores were above average, leaving the updated D5200 (MSRP $799.95 body-only, $899.95 w/ kit lens) with big shoes to fill. The D5200 carries over the previous model's best test results, including accurate colors and extremely wide dynamic range. While the new model is a relatively modest update, major changes include a big jump in resolution, plus a significantly improved autofocus system.
We may be overanalyzing here, but we think the concave body paneling and receding angles leading away from the mount lend the D5200 a rather aggressive appearance, as if the lens is leaping out at your subject. As with the D5100, this produces a distinctive look that makes the camera instantly recognizable if you see one in the wild. The chassis itself is very sturdy, but without much heft. In fact, the camera is quite light overall, even with the battery installed.
The swing-out, fully articulating LCD monitor is one of the D5200's most useful design features. It's a 921,000-dot panel that's bright and feels sturdy during use. It's snowing pretty hard in the Northeast USA right now, but even in these brightest of conditions, the LCD is usable outdoors. The panel's omnidirectional positioning also helps with framing tricky shots, and highlights Nikon's ongoing focus on improving video capture capability in its DSLRs.
You'll feel comfortable and confident handling the D5200. A medium-sized grip is provided for the right hand, and your pointer finger will come naturally to rest on the shutter release. The grip is a bit shallow, though, so you'll be holding on mostly with your fingertips. Thankfully, the entire area is covered by a rubberized surface to give you a little extra traction.
The rear panel is equally comfortable. The thumb naturally comes to rest in its intended area below the command dial, and Nikon has included a tall lip on the right side of the this thumb rest for better leverage. We noted the camera was also much lighter than expected, with most of the weight shifted to the right side of the body, making for good balance once a lens is attached.
In contrast to its rivals at Canon, Nikon's DSLRs usually feature control elements that aren't self-explanatory. Pure novices will find themselves referring to the manual at first, and even experienced photographers coming from other brands may scratch their heads over the Nikon way of doing things. In time, this effort is usually rewarded with faster, more precise, and more hands-on control that justifies the learning curve. For example, the D5200's Auto ISO function uses an older, more complicated technique that requires some attention from the user; but then again, this method is also better and more precise than competitors' versions.
Having a learning curve isn't all bad, but even Nikon purists will agree there's some room to tweak for ease of use. Drive mode options, for example, are split into two menus in two very different locations, so getting the right setting can be a pain. The D5200 also makes very little effort to explain when or why certain functions won't work. Movie mode, for example, won't automatically lift the mirror; the camera expects you to know enough to activate live view beforehand. Basic stuff, we know, but a little convenience never hurts either.
The button layout is almost untouched since the D5100. The "i" button is still helpful for quickly changing the most common settings, and the programmable AE-L/AF-L button alongside it is handy. What is new is the new graphical display that shows up on the rear LCD by default during shooting. Where the older GUI only showed the shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO as numbers, the new interface has a simulated dial for the first and last, while the aperture indicator actually closes and opens an on-screen iris. It's an interesting take, but not one that adds much to the shooting experience—for one thing, how many rookies actually know what a smaller iris implies? Not many, we'd wager.
The D5200's overall performance is equivalent to the D5100's, meaning that it's very strong indeed. Once again, color accuracy and dynamic range are the standout results, meaning that the camera should produce exceptionally good portraits and landscape shots.
Nikon's traditional 18-55mm kit lens is serviceable, but far from the best we've seen. Sharpness is good at the widest focal length, but drops off to just-okay status at 35mm and 55mm. In-camera JPEG noise reduction performance is similarly adequate, but not excellent. Thankfully, Nikon's robust ISO sensitivity controls make it easy to program the camera for exactly how much noise you can tolerate.
The D5200's new and improved focus system is exactly what we hoped it would be: fast, smart, and accurate. The 39-point phase detection system is quick, almost always chooses the most appropriate point or points, and is easily controlled and managed via the "i" menu. Continuous autofocus is usable for all but the most hyperactive subjects, and we say this even after being spoiled by the 1D X sitting in our office.
Although 1080/60i video capture has been added to this model, video image quality seems unchanged. Movies shot with the D5200 are just as sharp as the clips we got from its predecessor, though no sharper. We can hardly complain about this—or really any of the D5200's performance results—it just would've been nice to see some improvement... somewhere.
The D5200 is light on brand-new features, but most of the ones that have been included are there to improve videography. Nikon has also implemented a new Manual Movie Settings menu option. This unlocks shutter speed and ISO settings for user control, adding to the aperture, white balance, and exposure compensation control that was already present in the D5100. There's a mic input jack, too, meaning budding filmmakers can feasibly use the D5200 as an all-in-one capture device.
Secondary control options also remain in familiar territory. A slew of scene modes and picture effects are available directly from the mode dial, and we're thrilled to see the aforementioned improvements to autofocus speed and settings. An in-camera interval timer has also been included, perfect for time-lapse photography, along with Nikon's take on the ever-popular HDR effect.
Beyond those largely incremental or extraneous feature upgrades, the most important new addition is compatibility with Nikon's WU-1a WiFi module. When plugged into the D5200's USB port, it facilitates two-way communication between the camera and an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet, allowing you to use your device as a remote viewfinder and control panel. We're sure all of this could be compelling for the right user. Not us, but presumably that "right user" does exist, somewhere out there.
The D5200 boasts excellent color rendition and wide dynamic range, just like the D5100. It struggles with automatic white balance, but custom white balance is accurate...just like the D5100. Videos are sharp, like the D5100, but the same mediocre kit lens is used again. All these similarities wouldn't be so bad, except that one kit is currently selling for $300 less than the other. So what exactly are we paying for?
If you go with the new model, you'll need to be pretty clear-minded about how you actually plan to use it. You'll spend a little bit of that $300 on video, a little on WiFi adapter compatibility, a bit on extra megapixels, but most of it on the new autofocus system. If you're an action photographer that likes shooting the occasional video too, then this might sound like a good buy. If not, consider the aging—but still relevant—D5100 instead.
The ultimate irony of these cameras is this: when the D5100 first came to market we awarded it both Camera of the Year, and Budget DSLR of the Year. It was just such an amazing deal, with rare levels of performance at the price point. But after two years and little improvement for the D5200, this great camera didn't hit us with the same impact its predecessor did. Like we've said countless times in the review, the D5200 is a fine camera, but it's not $300 finer than the old one.
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