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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Thoughts on the Nikon D3200

 Last week Nikon announced their new entry-level camera, the Nikon D3200. The camera comes in either red or black (it seems that gone are the days that black and chrome were the only options if there was an option at all…but why on earth red?) and sports a 24mp APS-C sensor. It’s the sensor that’s the talking point as little else has changed from the D3100. 24mp! That’s a lot. To add to that; that’s a lot of resolution for an entry level camera. So is this a wise decision of Nikons?

It’s interesting to remember that at one stage Nikon fans were defending their turf with comments that you “don’t need lots of megapixels” and that “it’s the quality, not the quantity”, while Canon seemed to be ramping up the megapixels on a six monthly basis. Do those same Nikon fans now say that Canon, with their lower megapixel count is a better and wiser camera manufacturer? I thought not. No, the Nikon fans are now crowing that Nikon wears the resolution crown. Silly really.

I’ll get to the sensor in a moment. First, my thoughts on the camera as a whole. The D3100 has been an incredibly popular entry level camera for the past year. It has about the right size in the hand that it doesn’t intimidate the new user. This is more important than it seems as a vast number of its users are women. Then there’s the attractive price-point. It is one of the cheapest DSLRs available. When you look at store discounts and forget that the EOS 450D is still available in some mass-mart like stores, it is often the cheapest DSLR available, and is therefore always on the list of potentials when a user is thinking about moving from a point and shoot to a DSLR. The advertising is also aimed at the ease of use, again tempting point and shoot users with its promise of simplicity and ease.

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The reality is sadly a little far from that which is advertised. Once you move away from the program modes the D3100 (and hence the D3200) is actually a rather complicated camera to operate. In fact it can be down-right confusing. First there’s the typically convoluted Nikon menu system. I’m sorry, but unless you are actually familiar with Nikon’s the menu system looks like the rosetta stone, but without the initial key. Then there’s the multiple option buttons (Canon and Sony are also both guilty of this). This, however , is a drawback of all the single dial designs. Basically, rather than a single push button on dial, you have to depress a button and use the dial is just about all situations (with the bigger brother cameras there are usually 2 dials – one for aperture, the other for shutter speed). So controlling the camera outside of program modes is something akin to playing the guitar.

Now someone at Nikon needs to be taken to task for this, but the D3200 STILL doesn’t have a depth-of-field preview button. To me, and I realize I’m biased, this is an essential tool on a camera. When you are attempting to achieve accurate depth of field in either macro photography or landscape the DOF preview is invaluable. As a photographic teacher who sees a lot of amateur photographers learning the basics, the two most requested genres are, you guessed it, landscape and macro (with portraiture and wildlife coming a sort of tie third place). It would seem obvious then that if you are targeting your camera at beginner amateurs then putting a DOF preview button on the camera would be a clever thing to do. Canon and Pentax both seem to manage it. To add insult to injury Nikon don’t even include it on the next in the line-up, the D5100. You have to buy the third in the range, the D7000, to get that little button.

DOF rants aside, the D3200 doesn’t change too much from the D3100. There wasn’t much wrong to be honest. It retains the small pentamirror (as opposed to a pentaprism) which means looking through the viewfinder is a little like looking through a tiny periscope. The diminutive body is virtually identical. Not a bad thing as Nikon are the one camera manufacturer that is able to make small camera bodies that fit more or less ergonomically into the hand. Said body is still not weather-sealed (interesting when you consider Pentax who are trying to weather seal everything that goes through their doors) and has 11 autofocus points. So really not all that new…except the sensor.

It was only a matter of time until Nikon pushed 24mp into an APS-C camera since they are sometimes-uneasy-bedfellows with Sony. Sony announced a slew of 24mp APS-C cameras last year, so the writing was pretty much on the wall. Rumor sites pretty much called it that the first Nikon to sport the new sensor, tweaked in-house by Nikon of course, would be the replacement of the D3100. Why not the D300s’ replacement is anybody’s guess, but that is possibly still to come this year. Now that number, 24mp. Is this a good idea?

More megapixels is never a bad thing…if you know what to do with them. I would argue that the average user upgrading from a point and shoot doesn’t necessary know what to do with all that resolution though. If readers cast into their memories they might remember the comments that the D3x and even the older Canon 1DsmkIII required impeccable shot discipline and the very best lenses that were available to get the best out of those cameras. In fact, poor shot disciple and sub-standard lenses tended to be highlighted by the sensors in question. It’s a truism to say that most beginner photographers, the type of photographers that Nikon is targeting this camera towards, don’t have perfect shot disciple and the best lenses (yet). This can lead to a level of disappointment in the camera. Many of these entry-level photographers may end up being discouraged by the results in fact. I’m hoping I’m wrong though.

What the D3200 does bring to the field though is an incredible imaging tool in a minute package. If you are a Nikon shooter and you have always wanted a small and light carry anywhere camera, this could be it. Note though that I saying you would be excited about this as a second camera, not your primary camera. This, I suspect is not what Nikon are intending. It’s not a bad result for Nikon, but it sells less cameras than being the entry-level camera that does everything well.

Then, to be fair to Nikon’s marketing department – people buying their first DSLR are still caught up in the megapixel myth. Manufacturers like Nokia have successfully managed to extend this myth with the introduction of things like the Nokia Pureview. Considering the price and specs on paper, the D3200 becomes a no-brainer for someone buying their first DSLR. It’s only cynical photography writers like myself who point out that it isn’t necessary the right tool for a beginner to learn with. Then again, maybe it is. If the D3200 requires perfect shot disciple, maybe the new user will strive to acquire that and will as a result learn faster (and then want a more advanced body to go with that knowledge…oops that means buying the D7000 with a 16mp sensor…huh?!?!?).

The D3200 is going to be a fantastic camera. It really will. Just don’t be fooled by the marketing hyperbole. 24mp doesn’t make life easier for a photographer. It makes it more complicated. I’m not even talking about issues of storage which will shock the neophyte DSLR user out of their point and shoot world (24mp takes up a lot of space, even when it’s only in jpeg). This is route that progress is taking, so I’d better get on board I guess.

A disclaimer on comments over equipment.
I am not a paid reviewer and neither have I tested all equipment in a myriad number of ways to see exactly what nyquist frequency a lens might have, or pixel pitch a sensor possesses. Neither do I buy each and every piece of equipment that I write about, or have it sent to me by a benevolent manufacturer. I do, however, get to see, fiddle and play with a very large range of cameras on a monthly basis through my teaching where I meet student photographers with every variety of APS-C and Full Frame camera available to the buying public (except for medium format). My comments arise from deciphering these camera so that I can better teach my students. So no, I haven’t necessarily tested a camera in full, but I have spent time trying to figure it out so that a problem can be solved by the student that owns it.  

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