A match made in heaven?
Don't bother spending hours playing 'spot the difference' with the D5200 and D5100, because the designs are identical. The large-handed may find the D5200 a bit small, but it's all in the name of compactness (except when using the 18-105mm lens). The D5200 will fit easily into any shoulder bag, backpack or purse, so there's no need to dish out more for what's usually a high-priced logo-touting camera bag. The D5200 features the same changes to the classic button arrangement that Nikon introduced with the D5100: the most frequently used ones are on the right half of the body, which frees up your left hand to work the lens, stabilise the camera and hit the Fn button when needed (by default, the Fn button is assigned to the ISO settings).
The catalyst behind this reshuffle, the pivot screen, is the number one feature that makes this Nikon different from all other Nikons—but not from the competition. Like the D5100, it has a 3-inch diagonal and 920,000 dots. If Nikon wanted to replace the display with a touchscreen, we wouldn't complain.
Compared to the D5100, we detected a drop in quality in the screen's image. The rendering is less warm (7,200 K, where the D5100 has 6,000 K), the gamma is less consistent (blacks are blacker, whites are whiter) and the colours are less accurate (the average Delta E equals 3.1, compared to 1.8 on the D5100). In practice, anyone with non-bionic eyes (99.999999% of us) shouldn't be able to tell the difference. But it's a shame, at least in principle, to have traded in such an excellent screen for less accurate colours, high saturation and exaggerated contrast, just to dazzle impressionable consumers. It's a sadly common habit among camera brands today.
In true Nikon form, the display menu is highly extensive. (Only, there are multiple ways of interpreting the word 'extensive': customisable, arborescent, complicated, convoluted...) If you're already familiar with Nikon's products, you'll figure the menu out in a second; if not, you'll figure it out in two or three. There's so much information in the menu that beginners may be easily intimidated. Even experienced users may feel overwhelmed by the sheer density of information (31 elements, of which more than half are manually configurable). Luckily, Nikon has included illustrations and contextual explanations that you can bring up by pressing the '?' button). These concise, informative clarifications are a helpful addition for photographers wishing to learn more about both photography and their camera.
However, we did find a certain number of incongruities in the features. By default, the self-timer gives you 10 seconds to prepare your shot. If you want to drop that to 2 seconds, you have to go rummaging through the menu to change the timer. Instead of saving the new time you've chosen as a permanent alternative to the default, it simply becomes the default. What's even stranger about this choice is that the cabled/infrared remote control options, by contrast, are available simultaneously, even though fewer people use this function. In another bizarre choice, AUTO ISO mode is only available when everything's on automatic (with or without a flash); you can't select it when you're in PSAM mode. So, in order to reactivate AUTO ISO you must once again go through the menu. And during playback very little information is shown onscreen: not the sensitivity, not the shutter speed, not the aperture! To delete pictures, unless you use the menu it's either one-by-one or all-at-once. This isn't very practical, considering how much easier it would have been to simply have the trash button do everything.
At the end of the day, what you get is a certain sense of indecision on Nokia's part. On the one hand, these are highly effective features for photographers who want to take good photos without too much hassle. On the other hand, the at-times random choices and over-complexity can get in the way of the more adventurous who prefer to choose their settings manually.
To prove its mettle, the D5200 has two of its predecessors to contend with. It needs to be faster than the D5100, and since it has the same autofocus system as the D7000 (a Multi-CAM 4800DX with 39 focus points and 2,016-dot sensor), it should be at least as responsive.
Our initial speed tests gave suspiciously slow results (two to three times slower than the rest of the Nikon range). So, to see if it was just our camera that had a fluke, we got ourselves a second D5200. New body, new 18-55mm lens, new 18-105mm lens. We went back into the lab and re-ran the same tests. Here's what we found:
Left: the 18-55mm lens / Right: the 18-105mm lens
This round of tests was more reassuring, but it confirmed that the D5200 is indeed a step down from the D7000 and D5100.
In practice, the D5200's autofocus works well, as long as you're gentle with it. It has trouble finding its target with subjects that lack contrast and is sluggish (and loud) when trying to switch between far away subjects. The AF can take nearly 1.5 seconds with static subjects, and even be desperately slow (more than 2 seconds on average!) when using LiveView.
In sum, when it comes to responsiveness the D5200 does its job, stagnating in the average for non-specialist SLRs released this autumn/winter season. All without being extraordinary, it benefits from the fact that the average performance these days is sufficient for most types of shot. Hence its tentative four stars.
Following on the heels of the D3200, the D5200 is the newest member of the ever-less-exclusive club of APS-C's that have 24 million pixels, or 6,000 x 4,000 resolution. Surprise: as far as we know, this is the first time Nikon has had Toshiba make an SLR sensor for it, making this quite an initiation!
Let's make a comparison. This new 24-Megapixel sensor is quite a step up from the D3200's. Both more consistent and more detailed at 1600 ISO, it's still fully usable at 3200 ISO and holds its own at 6400 ISO (although beware of heavy smoothing). The highest sensitivities (Hi03 to Hi2) are little more than decoration, flying off the chart and producing tons of grain. All the same, the result isn't bad for a new sensor that seems to have crystallised out of thin air.
And compared to the D5100, how much of a difference do the added 8 million pixels make? The good news is that they don't degrade the image quality or dynamics. The bad news is that they push this entry-level lens to its limits. With the 18-55mm zoom lens we got respectable results from f/8 to f/11. Outside of that range, the edges become slightly dulled—though acceptable for up to 20 x 30 cm prints. This is where this little zoom lens shows its weakness. Anyone who wants to make the most of the extra pixels should think of investing in a more ambitious lens.
Using the included 18-55mm lens in the 18mm position, at f/8 and 100 ISO: notice the barrel distortion
The increase in quality isn't quite as high as the increase in resolution, but the D5200 has the same things going for it as its predecessor. While it may not be a work of sublime mastery, the Nikon/Toshiba match-up has begun on solid ground. The D5200 isn't a complete departure from the last generation (in other words, it stagnates), but there's no doubt their partnership will be back in the rest of the range (maybe one day in 24 x 36 SLRs...?). To be continued.
The D5200's built-in microphone records in stereo, making up for one of the D5100's shortcoming. Everything else is pretty much the same, except for one issue the D5100 didn't have: a rolling shutter. When you move the camera too quickly along the horizontal axis, the image distorts, making the bottom of the picture move faster than the top (and sometimes vice-versa). That's a guaranteed migraine. You can also see this in still images when using LiveView.
All zigzags aside, the quality is entirely acceptable for everyday use. The only major drawback is that quick movements to either side tend to look jerky (as with the green toy train in our test, seen blurred below). The autofocus is pretty good, although for more flexible, quiet and precise focusing, you'll want to switch to manual. Worth noting, one thing this camera does not do is take stills while filming.