Operation and Handling

Ever since the launch of the D40 back in 2006, Nikon has been making little entry-level cameras that are uncomplicated and easy to use, but with plenty of manual control on offer. The D3100 follows in that tradition, being a generally pleasant camera to shoot with (indeed distinctly more so than many other entry-level DSLRs). The D3200's body is a very similar size and shape to the D3100, which means it has one of the better hand grips of its small DSLR peers. The red-accented lip at the top of the grip is a little hard-edged, but generally it's a pretty comfortable shape to hold for extended periods.

The body isn't very tall, so there's every chance that users with large hands will find their little fingers extend below the bottom of the camera. We've not found this to be a problem, but it's worth being aware of if you're put-off by such things. Unlike Nikon's higher-end DSLRs, the D3200 does not have an accessory battery grip.

In the Auto and scene modes, the D3200 behaves very much as a point-and-shoot, with very little user intervention required or allowed (you get control over focus and flash modes, but that's about it). Guide mode is a middle ground - you take control of the camera's exposure settings using a 'usage scenario' logic - but it's on switching to the PASM modes that the D3200 really comes into its own. The basic exposure parameters - shutter speed, aperture, and exposure compensation - are all handled by the well-placed rear thumbwheel in concert with the exposure compensation button, which is placed behind the shutter release for operation by your index finger. This layout makes changing these settings as quick and fluid as on any other camera in this class. We also like Nikon's dedication of the four-way controller to selecting a focus point manually - combined with the 11-point AF system this makes focusing on off-center subjects a breeze, without having to always focus and recompose for every shot.

The other shooting controls - ISO, white balance, focus mode and the like - are all set from the active control panel on the rear display, which is intuitive and well-implemented, although inevitably a little slower than direct-access buttons. Pressing the 'i' button 'activates' the control panel, and the desired function can then be selected and changed using the four-way controller. A select few options (image size/quality, ISO, white balance and Dynamic Range Optimization) can also be assigned to the Fn button for 'one touch' access. The net affect is to make the camera quick to use, with almost all the major controls at your fingertips.

Info screens

By default the Info screen is displayed on the the D3200's rear LCD screen. You can switch it off by pressing the INFO button on the camera top. It gives a good level of visibility to most of the camera's key functions and via the Setup menu you can select the information display format you prefer - Graphic or Classic (with a choice of three color schemes for each). The information shown on these displays provides an overview of pretty much all camera settings.

In both Graphic and Classic modes pressing the 'information edit' button <[i]> turns the Info screen into an interactive display panel that allows for a large degree of interaction with the camera and its settings (although if you're in Graphic view the display will jump to Classic in the process). When you select any of the options (by pressing OK), you are presented with an image representing the effect of changing the setting. You can also hold the '?' button to read a short explanation of what the setting does.

The graphic view aims to inform the novice photographer, as well as simply showing the camera's status. To this end, an aperture blade graphic illustrates the change as you alter the aperture. The classic display uses a more traditional style and shows the current settings in number format.
The info screen is also the easiest way to get to and change certain key shooting parameters. After pressing the <[i]> button the screen becomes editable. Settings are navigated using the 4-way rocker switch to the right of the LCD, and set with the 'ok' button.

With a limited number of direct buttons on the camera these info screens remain the main interface for adjusting some key shooting parameters such as focus mode and white balance.

However, while this is great for the beginner just learning the camera, it's not the slickest control system for more experienced users. It would be nice if, when selected, you could change a setting by spinning the control dial, rather than having to press 'OK' and engage an extra level of the interface. This small change, while unlikely to have any impact on a novice, would make the camera much more pleasant to use for those who've grown more familiar with its options.

Guide Mode

Originally introduced with the D3000, 'Guide' mode is designed to simplify the operation of the camera for the benefit of those new to DSLRs, without taking all of the control away from them. When the camera is used in 'Easy Operation' mode, the photographer chooses settings based on the requirements of the situation as they understand it - such as 'distant subjects', or 'sleeping faces'. At this point they are directed towards one of a the D3200's generic 'vari-program' exposure presets. The 'Advanced' setting basically just nudges the photographer towards either aperture or shutter priority mode, although both are skinned with a simplified interface.

The Guide mode splash page appears when you first select the mode or when you press the Menu button from within the mode. It lets you choose to shoot images, view the ones you've shot or change camera settings. From the splash page you can select easy or advanced operation. In 'Easy operation' mode you are essentially just guided towards the D3100's various pre-defined scene modes.
In 'Advanced' operation the D3200 basically presents a different graphic 'skin' to its aperture and shutter priority modes. There is small image which simulates the effect of the different settings. A click of the OK button gives you a more detailed explanation of the mode/setting you have selected.

Overall Handling

The D3200 will be an instantly familiar camera to anyone who's ever shot with a DSLR, let alone to someone familiar with the Nikon system. It's small but still pretty comfortable to use. The interface is heavily geared towards the camera's intended audience of novice compact camera upgraders but its capabilities are anything but restrictive - enthusiasts are unlikely to be put off by a bit of extra button pressing, given how promising the image quality appears to be, and how comparatively inexpensive the D3200 is likely to be once it's been on the shelves for a while.

Having exclusively used mirrorless cameras for the past few months, it's nice to use even the D3200's small optical viewfinder again. Phase-detection AF speed depends largely on the lens you mount on the front of the camera - the 18-55mm kit zoom focusses disappointingly slowly, for instance, whereas the 17-55mm F2.8 is lightning quick -and the nine AF points feel a bit restrictive after using cameras that give you free rein over most of the image area, but these are relatively minor annoyances. The sudden drop in AF-speed in live view mode though - where the camera switches to contrast-detection focus - means the experience of moving to shooting with the rear LCD from the viewfinder isn't as seamless as we'd like, but this is still pretty common in today's DSLRs, even at the very top end.

In terms of how you use the camera, the D3200 isn't a dramatic step forward for Nikon, but it fits comfortably into a series has consistently offered some of the best beginners' DSLRs, so it's hard to blame Nikon for not wanting to change the recipe more than it has to.

One of the very few gripes we have regarding the D3200's handling when used in conventional eye-level fashion concerns setting the ISO sensitivity. This is a parameter that we think should be easy to change with the camera to your eye, using a button that's easily identified by feel alone, and without having to shift your grip on the camera with either hand. On the D3200 though, the only way to change ISO via an external control is to assign it to the 'Fn' button. This is reasonably well-placed for operation by your left thumb with the camera to your eye, but because of its close proximity and identical shape to the flash button, the two are still easily confused when working by feel alone. This means it's all-too-easy to pop the flash up by mistake when you meant to change the sensitivity. We'd be much happier to see ISO operated using the button currently assigned to 'info', which after all, is a function you never need to access with the camera to your eye.