Nikon D5200 review: A camera that can keep up with the kids

The Good With excellent photo and video quality for its class, a fluid shooting design and solid feature set, the Nikon D5200 delivers a lot for the money.

The Bad Though it has no significant flaws, the lack of an autofocus motor in the body limits your lens-selection flexibility.

The Bottom Line The Nikon D5200 makes a great choice for family and vacation photographers.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Image quality 8

The Nikon D5100 is a solid camera with excellent photo and video quality, but relatively sluggish performance tarnishes its allure for me. Nikon fixes that in the D5200 with the same new autofocus and metering systems that debuted in the D600, plus an updated higher-end viewfinder, and the result is a noticeably better shooting experience that makes it an excellent choice for all-around family and vacation photography.

Image quality
As with the D5100, still and motion image quality remains excellent; but despite a new sensor and updated image-processing engine, it's not noticeably better. The camera does a great job optimizing its JPEGs -- while raw still gives you more adjustment latitude than JPEG, there doesn't seem to be any benefit for sharpness or noise reduction until you hit about ISO 1600. Images look clean up through ISO 800, good through ISO 1600, and remain usable through ISO 6400 depending upon subject matter and output size.

Exposure and dynamic range look good, though the camera tends to produce darker exposures than I expect under a given set of circumstances. Recoverable highlight and shadow detail are in line with what I expect from a camera in its class. It reproduces colors with solid accuracy, and the default color settings don't push contrast or saturation overmuch; the biggest difference between the standard and neutral settings seems to be sharpness.

Click to download ISO 100

ISO 800
ISO 3200

(Sorry about the tilted horizon.)

Video looks good as well, with suprisingly few artifacts. Even low-light video, which on many cameras tends to show a lot of sparkling and moiré on edges as noise increases, displayed nice solidity. The tonal range does decrease as the environment gets darker, with more blown-out highlights and crushed blacks -- that's common -- but otherwise it looks excellent.

The performance of the Nikon D5200 has improved quite a bit over the D5100, thanks to an updated autofocus system, but that's not without qualification. (Note: I've left the D5100's performance times in the chart, they're not directly comparable because of our change in testing methodology; I included them because they strike me as roughly representative. The T4i was tested using our current system.)

Because our shot lag tests incorporate a significant distance refocus and exposure adjustment -- we begin with the lens adjusted for an object close to the camera, out of the range of the lights before focusing on the more distant, differently illuminated scene -- how fast the lens drives to the new location substantially affects lag time. Since the D5200 has no built-in AF motor, that performance will be heavily determined by the motor in the lens, and in this case, the 18-55mm kit lens drives relatively slowly. However, our shot-to-shot times, which don't require any signficant lens movement or exposure adjustment, do reflect the speed boost.

The camera powers on and shoots quickly, in about 0.3 second. Time to focus, expose and shoot in good lighting takes about 0.5 second and in poor lighting about 0.8 second. Two successive shots run an excellent 0.2 second for either JPEG or raw, and the flash increases that to 1.2 seconds, though the latter is hard to measure because the camera doesn't respond to a shutter press (i.e., you can't prefocus) until the flash has completed recycling.

It has excellent continuous-shooting performance for its class, 5.1fps JPEG for an effectively unlimited number of frames (more than 40) without slowing, at least when equipped with a fast 95MB/sec SD card. For raw, it maintains 5.5fps for 8 frames, then slows -- erratically -- to about 2.2fps.

The updated autofocus system is fast and accurate, and as usual its continuous focus tracking system seems to work pretty well. (I didn't have the opportunity to test it extensively, however.) That said, the auto-area AF selection is as relatively unintelligent as most of its peers, tending to select the nearest or brightest area in the scene. Although I didn't formally test the Live View (contrast) autofocus speed, in practice it felt surprisingly responsive most of the time, both for stills and video. While it uses Nikon's full-time AF for video, it's not as fast or quiet as Canon's STM contrast-AF implementation; on the other hand, it's probably fast and quiet enough for most uses (though it depends upon the lens), and it doesn't require a whole new set of expensive lenses.

Unfortunately, I still find the display a little too contrasty, frequently misleading me into thinking my exposures are off.

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