The Nikon D5200 was Nikon’s mid-range DSLR camera for 2013. ON release it sat above the Nikon D3200 but below the Nikon D7100. You can’t buy one new today, but there’s a lot of Nikon reconditioned models available on eBay as well as the usual second-hand buys. It’s three years old now, so is it a bargain or should you buy something more recent – such as the Nikon D3300 – which is around the same price new.
Features and design
The D5200 uses a 24-megapixel sensor, which stands up well today in terms of pixel count. But its best feature is the 39-point autofocus, with a central block of nine cross-type points for increased sensitivity. It’s the same autofocus sensor that we first saw in the Nikon D7000, and it’s far more sophisticated than anything else at this price. The dense array of points mean it’s easy to focus precisely on someone’s eye or another small detail in a scene without having to first focus, then recompose and shoot.
It’s also a great benefit to the 3D Tracking focus mode. Here, the camera uses its 2,016-pixel metering sensor to track moving subjects around the frame and keep them in focus. More autofocus points mean more accurate tracking. This lets you think about the composition when shooting moving subjects rather than having to follow their every move to ensure that the selected focus point lines up.
There’s the same 3in, 921,000-dot articulated screen as on the outgoing Nikon D5100, which is a great asset for video and shooting stills in live view mode. Continuous performance is roughly the same as the newer D3300, delivering 4.9fps for 32 frames before slowing to a still-excellent 4.2fps in our tests. This was only possible when lens distortion correction was disabled, though – otherwise, it lasted for just six frames before slowing to 1.9fps. Raw continuous performance was similarly short-lived, slowing to 1.6fps after just four frames. The D3300 slows to 1.7fps but after six frames, so it’s a touch faster here.
Another change compared to the D3200 and D5100 is that the LCD screen’s default display makes it much clearer what the current ISO speed is, including when the speed has been raised automatically in Auto ISO mode. With three circular displays for shutter speed, aperture and ISO speed, it’s easy to see how adjustments to one affect the other two. The ISO speed isn’t displayed through the viewfinder window by default but there’s an option to show it instead of remaining card capacity.
We like the new screen layout, which shows the interrelationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO speed
Cosmetically, there are barely any other changes compared to the D5100. A drive mode button has been added – it sensibly groups continuous and self-timer modes together but bracketing and HDR options are located elsewhere. Other buttons cover exposure compensation, AE lock and a customisable function, assigned to ISO speed by default. The four-way pad moves the autofocus point when it’s not navigating menus. White balance, JPEG/raw settings, bracketing, HDR and metering options are accessed by pressing a button labelled ‘i’ and navigating the on-screen display.
There’s nothing wrong with a menu-driven control system as long as it’s quick. Sadly, this one is rather inconsistent. It’s easy enough to change the ISO speed, enable the self-timer or pick a white balance preset, but toggling Auto ISO on and off, adjusting the self-timer length or calibrating the custom white balance requires a trip to the main menu. This is spread over numerous pages, and we find it slower to navigate than other SLRs’ menus.
In fact, it is possible to calibrate the white balance via the ‘i’ button by selecting manual white balance, hitting OK, pressing OK again and holding it down until the word PRE starts flashing, and then taking a photo to calibrate from. We doubt many people will ever figure this out, though – a white balance option labelled Calibrate would have been much better.
There are a few other instances where attention to detail isn’t as high as it could be. The self-timer switches off automatically after each use, which we found really frustrating when we were using a two-second timer to avoid shaking the camera on a tripod. The same thing happens in HDR mode. This produced great results in static, high-contrast scenes, but we rarely got the perfect shot first time. Having to repeatedly re-enable HDR mode got pretty tedious.
The worst offender is thankfully not the most critical flaw. When switching between PAL and NTSC video modes, a message appears explaining how this affects the video frame rate options. However, this message is only shown for about a second, which isn’t long enough to read it. We had to repeatedly change the setting to give us time to read the message a few words at a time.
We detected a softness to some images shot using the kit lens
The video mode is in line with other recent Nikon SLRs. There’s a choice of automatic or manual exposure modes, but no shutter- or aperture-priority shooting and no option to vary the aperture while recording. Autofocus adjustments while recording were a little clumsy and noisy, but OK for casual home videos at a pinch. There’s a choice of 24p, 25p and 30p frame rates, and for the first time on a Nikon SLR, 50i and 60i are available too. Clips run for a maximum of 20 minutes. Picture quality was excellent, except for the usual moiré interference on repeating patterns such as fabric and bricks. There’s a stereo microphone plus a 3.5mm microphone socket, and the clear on-screen volume metering goes some way to making up for the lack of a headphone out.
The D3200’s 24-megapixel sensor produced disappointingly high noise levels at fast ISO speeds – compared to other SLRs at least – so it’s a nice surprise to find that the D5200’s 24-megapixel sensor exhibited significantly less noise. It also outperformed its main rival, the Canon EOS 650D at ISO 6400 and above, with less chroma noise producing a more forgiving monochromatic noise pattern in JPEGs.
There’s a fair amount of grain in this ISO 2000 shot but still plenty of detail too. At typical print sizes the noise would be hard to spot – click to enlarge
Even at ISO 11404 image quality is good enough for non-critical use – click to enlarge
The D5200 should have taken a clear lead over the 18-megapixel 650D for details, but it took us a few attempts to get sharp photos in our studio test shots. Even then, the D5200’s photos were bigger but not obviously more detailed than the 650D’s to our eyes.
The D5200’s 24-megapixel photos are a little bigger than the Canon 650D’s 18-megapixel output, but it’s the Canon that picks out more detail (particularly in the hair) in JPEGs – click to enlarge
Comparing their raw output narrows the gap, but we’d still be hesitant to say that the D5200 is more detailed than the 650D – click to enlarge
There appears to be various contributing factors. Nikon’s default digital sharpening in its JPEGs is less aggressive than Canon’s, but this is a matter of personal taste and is easily customised on either camera, so it’s a trivial matter. However, even when comparing their raw output developed in Lightroom, the EOS 650D was still a match for the D5200, despite their differing resolutions.
Many of our outdoor shots were a little soft too, and some were more than just a little. After some extensive tests, we’re confident that the lens’s optical stabilisation was mainly to blame. While it clearly helped at shutter speeds slower than 1/50s, between 1/100s and 1/400s it appeared to introduce a small amount of blur – switching it off gave consistently sharper results at 1/200s. Switching it off is easy enough to do, but we’d prefer not to have to bother thinking about it.
Many of our test shots displayed perfectly respectable detail levels, but they weren’t quite pin-sharp – click to enlarge
Others were less impressive – this level of detail was a fairly common occurrence – click to enlarge
Direct comparison with the same shot taken with an 18-megapixel Canon EOS 7D reveals the full extent of the problem – click to enlarge
Even with stabilisation off, the kit lens didn’t deliver the level of detail we’d hope for from a 24-megapixel sensor. When we switched to the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G prime lens, details were better but still only good rather than excellent, and not significantly better than the 16-megapixel Sony NEX-5N or 18-megapixel Canon EOS 7D we tested it against.
These are details from the centre of photos, all taken at ISO 100 with a 1/200s shutter speed and 35mm focal length (50mm for the full-frame Sony A99). Each shot was taken five times (from left to right). The top two rows demonstrate a big difference when stabilisation is on and off. Switching from the kit lens to a 35mm prime lens (middle row) improves sharpness further, and it’s only then that the D5200 can match the 16-megapixel Sony NEX-5N with its kit lens (fourth row). The Sony A99 (bottom row) shows what a 24-megapixel SLR can and should be capable of – click to enlarge
None of these detail-related issues was disastrous, and the 650D and its predecessors have their own focus problems with their 18-55mm kit lens. However, we’d advise caution to anyone who is considering upgrading to the D5200 for the sake of its high resolution.
There are plenty of other reasons to choose the D5200, though. Its sensor delivers impressively low noise, and gives a significant image quality boost over older Nikon digital SLRs. The autofocus is the best available at this price, and the video mode and articulated screen are up there with the best.
Today, the choice between a reconditioned Nikon D5200 and a brand-new Nikon D3300 isn’t a straightforward one. They cost around the same amount and have the same resolution sensor. The D5200 has far more focus points, though, and an articulated screen. The D3330 is slightly better in low light, has better battery life and is lighter to carry. We narrowly prefer the D5200, mainly for the screen, but you’re not making any great compromises if you want the security of having a new camera. Buy the Nikon D5200 now from eBay
|CCD effective megapixels||24.0 megapixels|
|Viewfinder magnification, coverage||0.78x, 95%|
|LCD screen size||3.0in|
|LCD screen resolution||921,000 pixels|
|Zoom 35mm equivalent||27-82.5mm|
|Image stabilisation||optical, in kit lens|
|Maximum image resolution||6,000×4,000|
|File formats||JPEG, RAW; QuickTime (AVC)|
|Battery Life (tested)||500 shots|
|Connectivity||USB, AV, mini HDMI, microphone, GPS|
|Lens mount||Nikon F|
|Focal length multiplier||1.5x|
|Kit lens model name||AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR|
|Accessories||USB cable, neck strap|
|Warranty||one year RTB|
|Exposure modes||program, shutter priority, aperture priority, manual|
|Shutter speed||30 to 1/4,000 seconds|
|Aperture range||f/3.5-22 (wide), f/5.6-36 (tele)|
|ISO range (at full resolution)||100 to 25600|
|Exposure compensation||+/-5 EV|
|White balance||auto, 6 presets with fine tuning, manual|
|Additional image controls||contrast, saturation, sharpness, brightness, hue, Active D-Lighting, noise reduction|
|Closest macro focus||28cm|
|Metering modes||multi, centre-weighted, centre|
|Flash||auto, forced, suppressed, slow synchro, rear curtain, red-eye reduction|
|Drive modes||single, continuous, self-timer, AE bracket, WB bracket, interval, multiple exposure, HDR|