To illustrate how much dynamic range you can pull out of the shadows in RAW conversion with the Nikon D3200's images we have taken the base ISO RAW shots of our studio test scene and developed them in Adobe Camera RAW with a +3.0EV digital exposure compensation to lift the shadows. We've then taken crops in the darkest areas of our scene to compare the level of shadow noise on the D3200 and its predecessor, the D3100. Applying the digital exposure compensation makes shadow noise more visible and at 100% magnification it becomes clear that, despite the higher pixel count, the Nikon D3200 produces very similar amounts of shadow noise to its predecessor.
|Nikon D3200 - ACR 7.1, +3.0 EV||100% crop|
|Nikon D3100 - ACR 7.1, +3.0 EV||100% crop|
Take a look at the real-life sample below to see what the test above means in day-to-day shooting. The image below was taken on a sunny day without any exposure compensation which resulted in good exposure on the trees in the background but an underexposed foreground with little shadow detail. We then converted the file in ACR 7.1 and lifted both exposure (+0.4EV) and the shadows (+100). We also pulled the highlights slightly back (-50).
The resulting image shows much better shadow detail and while there is also some shadow noise it is still within acceptable limits. This end result might be a little too 'HDR' look for some readers' taste but it's meant to show what the D3200's sensor is capable of. Of course you can apply less 'extreme' parameters for more subtle results.
|JPEG - default settings||ACR 7.1 - Highlights -50, Shadows +100, exposure +0.4, NR default|
|100% crop||100% crop|
High ISO noise reduction
At higher ISOs the Nikon D3200's JPEG output is further 'softened' by the camera's noise reduction algorithms. The sample below was shot with the Nikkor 17-55mm F2.8 lens at ISO 3200, noise reduction on. We have converted the raw file in ACR 7.1 and applied customized noise reduction (luminance NR 15, color NR 16, color detail 50) and sharpening (amount 28, radius 1.0. detail 30). The resulting image is crisper with more low contrast detail. As you go higher up the ISO sensitivity scale in-camera noise reduction becomes stronger, and shooting in Raw mode and converting later becomes even more worthwhile.
|JPEG - ISO 3200, NR On, default settings||ACR 7.1 - custom noise reduction|
|100% crop||100% crop|
Below we are comparing the Nikon D3200's noise reduction settings at the highest setting - ISO 12800 (Hi1). As you see with noise reduction set to 'On' the camera produces visibly less chroma noise than the 'Off' setting. There is no significant trade off in terms of fine detail, so at high ISO settings it is recommendable to leave noise reduction switched on. For comparison purposes we have also included an image that was converted in ACR 7.1 with custom noise reduction applied to it (luminance 27, color noise 27, color noise detail 50). The image has a crisper overall look and although there is some grainy luminance noise, chroma noise is well under control and the end result crisper than the out-of camera JPEGs.
ISO 12800 NR On
ISO 12800 NR Off
ISO 12800 ACR (custom NR)
Overall Image Quality
At this point in time the Nikon D3200 offers the highest sensor resolution in the entry-level bracket of the DSLR market. That said, you'll have to use high-quality glass to make the most of the sensor's capabilities. The 18-55mm kit lens, while performing perfectly well compared to its entry-level peers, simply cannot transmit the amount of detail the sensor is capable of capturing. Nikon told us some time ago that a large proportion of the buyers of their entry-level models never take the kit lens off their camera. If this is still true, it means that most D3200 users won’t get the most out of their camera. The Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8G is Nikon's flagship standard zoom for DX, but it's bulky and heavy, and at more than $1200 not an obvious choice for someone who is in the market for an entry-level DSLR. The Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR is slightly more attainable, but still retails for around $700.
Resolution and detail aside the Nikon D3200 offers good image quality, with reliable focusing and metering. Like we've seen on many previous Nikon models before there is a slight tendency to overexpose in bright contrasty conditions. In those situations it's worth dialing in 0.3 EV or so of negative exposure compensation, but even if you don't, it is usually possible to get at least some blown highlight detail back by applying negative digital exposure compensation in raw conversion (see above).
Image noise is not much of an issue at low ISOs. There are some traces of luminance noise in plain colored areas from ISO 200 upwards, but you'll have to look very closely to spot it. The detail-blurring effects of noise reduction start becoming visible at ISO 800 where some fine low-contrast detail is visibly being blurred. However, you'll have to view the image at 100% to notice. At sensitivities higher than ISO 1600 grainy luminance noise and the loss of low-contrast detail become more intrusive. Chroma noise is well under control up to very high ISOs but gets pretty intrusive at the two highest settings, which should be reserved for smaller output sizes.
Shooting raw files can, with the right conversion parameters, give you a small amount of additional detail. At higher ISOs it gives you the flexibility of applying customized noise reduction and generate better results than the out-of-camera JPEGs, as demonstrated in the sample shot above above.