The Nikon Coolpix 3200 eases the first-time buyer's transition to digital photography by combining lots of fun features that are easy to use with acceptable 3.2-megapixel image quality, a pocketable design, and an affordable price. There are almost no manual settings to confuse the neophyte and only a handful of buttons to worry about. If you're looking for an inexpensive compact digital camera to give to someone who's terrified of digital photography, this might be a good choice. (And if 2-megapixel resolution is sufficient for your needs, you can pick up the otherwise nearly identical for about $100 less.) This Coolpix is best suited to photographers who will benefit from digital training wheels. More-experienced shutterbugs looking for a bargain-priced camera can find better options. The Nikon Coolpix 3200's 3.5-by-2.6-by-1.5-inch, 7-ounce, silver-toned plastic body fits comfortably in your grip for one- or two-hand shooting. The camera body is clean and uncluttered, and every control is well labeled and its function unambiguous. The top surface of the camera has only two buttons: a recessed on/off control and a raised shutter release. There's also a green power LED, which flashes when the camera enters power-saving standby mode, and two sets of tiny holes for the built-in microphone and speaker.
The back panel is punctuated by the optical viewfinder and a 1.6-inch LCD on the left and a cluster of six controls on the right that includes a mode dial, a zoom rocker, a menu button, a picture-review key, a Trash key, and a four-way controller pad with an embedded OK/Set button. You can press the pad in the up direction to adjust flash options, down to switch to macro mode, or left to activate the self-timer. Nikon clearly expects this camera to do most of the thinking for you. Adjustments that some other cameras put on the back panel, such as burst-mode controls and exposure compensation, are tucked away out of sight in the menu system.
The Nikon Coolpix 3200 actually has quite a few different menus, all carefully segregated by function to avoid confusing the neophyte. For example, press the menu key when reviewing photos, and a playback menu appears, with choices for deleting photos, watching a slide show, selecting a photo for printing, and other functions. In recording mode, the menu key invokes a shooting menu, where you can choose resolution, set white balance, enter exposure-compensation settings, or activate burst mode. With the mode dial on Setup, five screens of camera settings are available. There's also a separate Scene menu for choosing among 15 scene modes, 4 of which have menus of their own with four to seven different options. All those choices sound confusing, but they're not.
While the Nikon Coolpix 3200 makes a decent first camera, it's unlikely to be the owner's last. The abundance of scene modes can handle everything from sunsets to sports to fireworks, but an enthusiastic digital photographer will soon outgrow this Coolpix's feature set and want a little more resolution, a zoom lens with a better-than-3X range for a wider or longer view, and a lot more control over the results.
Nikon kept the price low by transforming some essentials into options. The camera ships without an SD memory card, and the built-in 14.5MB of flash memory is good for only 9 maximum-resolution shots. If you want rechargeable batteries and a charger, you'll have to buy them, too; only a pair of alkaline cells comes in the box.
The Coolpix 3200's 3X zoom lens is fairly basic, offering the 35mm-camera equivalent of a 38mm-to-115mm range. Autofocus will take you as close as 1.6 inches in macro mode, but you'll need to use the LCD to compose your shot.
The most-useful features revolve around the 15 different scene modes, which simplify some typically vexing shooting situations. For example, shooters who stay up late or get up early will find a sunset/sunrise mode and a separate dusk/dawn mode, along with night-landscape and fireworks-show modes. There's a panorama setting, too, to help you stitch together several pictures into one.
Four of the scene modes (Portrait, Night Portrait, Sports, and Landscape) have positions of their own on the mode dial and a menu of options. Portrait mode has settings for full-body shots, close-up portraits, and two-person shots. Choose one, and outlines representing one or more humans appear on the LCD to help you position your subjects. In Landscape mode, you can choose Scenic View, which superimposes outlines representing the horizon and mountains, or Architecture, which generates a grid that helps you orient vertical and horizontal lines. This assistance seems a little wacky at times, but it's useful.