Make no mistake, the Nikon D3000 was a seriously good entry-level camera, fully justifying its position as Europe’s top-selling DSLR for the first half of this year. But all good things come to an end and, more recently, the D3000 was showing its age with a complete lack of Live View, video capture facilities and a comparatively low-res 10.2MP CCD sensor.
The D3100 is a radical upgrade, based on a brand-new 14.2MP CMOS sensor that, in resolution terms, outstrips most of Nikon’s current semi-pro and fully professional cameras, including the D300s, D700 and D3s.
The Nikon D3100 has a smarter brain than its predecessor, in the shape of a revamped EXPEED 2 image processor, which promises enhanced image quality and a greater sensitivity range. Indeed, while the D3000 offered ISO 100-1600 in its standard range, the Nikon D3100 boosts this to ISO 100-3200, with two extended modes that raise the bar to ISO 6400 and 12800 respectively.
Other new features include Live View, which comes complete with a Scene Auto Selector function that automatically selects the optimum picture mode for the subject being photographed, as well as offering normal-area, wide-area, face-priority and continuous subject-tracking autofocus. More impressively, continuous autofocus is also available in movie capture mode, the D3100 boasting full 1080p high-def at 24fps and 720p at 24,25 or 30fps.
You can also apply basic in-camera edits to movie clips, for example cutting scenes or saving individual frames as still images.
Getting back to the main job of shooting stills, there’s a veritable feast of in-camera retouching features, including after-shot D-Lighting adjustments for controlling dynamic range, red-eye reduction, trimming, straightening, distortion correction (also available while shooting), perspective control, colour balance and a range of filter effects.
Also at the shooting stage, the Nikon D3100 also inherits chromatic aberration correction from other recent Nikon cameras, which is highly effective at flattering the performance of lenses where colour fringing is often a problem, like with the Nikon 18-200mm VR.
Build Quality and Handling
You wouldn’t expect a camera at this price, with a plastic shell, to feel as solid as Nikon’s semi-pro bodies like the D300s but, even so, it feels reassuringly robust and rugged. There’s no hint of any creaking or flexing when you’re using the camera, and all the buttons, switches and dials feel precise and tactile. The same goes for the covers and catches that make up the flaps for the battery bay, memory card slot and external connections panel.
As for what lies behind the flaps, a new EN-EL14 Li-Ion battery pack has enough juice for about 550 shots between recharging, the memory slot is compatible with SD, SDHC, SDXC and Eye-Fi cards, and external connections include USB 2.0, GPS, HDMI (Type C) and A/V out.
Notable exceptions are a PC sync socket for firing studio flash and an input socket for using an external mic, which is a major letdown when it comes to high-quality movie recording.
On the plus side, the newly designed shutter mechanism should be good for at least 100,000 cycles, and comes with a novel ‘quiet’ shooting mode, which we’ll come to later. Another neat novelty is the Airflow Control System, which teams up with the usual vibrating sensor cleaning function to direct dust away from the low-pass filter.
At 124 x 96 x 75mm, and weighing in at just 505g (including battery and memory card), the D3100 is refreshingly compact and lightweight. The flipside is that the camera feels a little cramped for the big-handed in life but, even so, the chunky rubberized hand grip makes for handling that feels more natural than with some similarly sized cameras, like the Canon 550D.
One of the few corners cut in the D3100′s design is around the back of the camera. While build quality in practically every other respect is very impressive at the price, the 3.0-inch LCD retains the relatively low 230,000-pixel resolution of the older D3000, whereas most new cameras feature LCDs that have four times this, at around 920,000 pixels. Even so, the LCD looks fairly accurate in terms of brightness, contrast and colour balance, and that’s what is most important.
The most noticeable difference in layout between the Nikon D3000 and D3100 is the addition of the Live View lever and video capture button on the back of the camera. As with the other controls, these make for intuitive handling, as the Live View lever flips across to activate both Live View and video shooting. You then either press the regular shutter release button to take a still image, or press the red button to start a video sequence.
Controls and Features
Typical of a smallish DSLR, direct-access controls are kept to a space-saving minimum, but the usual suspects for exposure compensation, drive mode, menu, play, delete, and a 4-way thumb pad are all present and correct.
The main mode dial features the ubiquitous full Auto mode, as well as PASM and various scene modes including Portrait, Landscape, Child, Sports, Close-up and Night Portrait. You also get a Guide mode, which builds on the innovative system incorporated into the original Nikon D3000.
The Guide interface is split into three main areas of Shoot, View/delete and Set-up. In Shoot, for example, you can opt for Easy or Advanced operation for help with setting up shooting modes for softening backgrounds, freezing the motion of people or vehicles and more besides, and there’s also information about timer and shutter settings, each accompanied by on-screen thumbnail photos for illustrating the salient points.
Drive modes include the usual single or continuous (3fps) options, as well as a self-timer delay of two or 10 seconds, switched via the main Setup menu. There’s also a neat Quiet drive mode, which cancels the autofocus beep and reduces shutter release noise to a minimum.
What’s lacking is direct access to some of the not-so-minor shooting parameters that advanced photographers like to adjust on a regular basis, including ISO, white balance and image quality/size.
As the next best thing, you can assign the Function button, which falls naturally under your left thumb, to any of these parameters via the main menu. Alternatively, you can set the Function button to control Active D-Lighting (see following page) even though you can only set this imaging function to on or off, instead of being able to choose between varying intensities, as featured in some of Nikon’s more up-market cameras.
That said, if you shoot in RAW, you can freely adjust Active D-Lighting levels between off, low, normal, high and extra-high at the editing stage, if you’re willing to fork out a further £130 for Nikon’s Capture NX 2 software.
Another popular way of extending the reach of a limited set of control buttons is to make use of the LCD screen, and Canon in particular does a fine job of this with its Quick Control menu, as featured on cameras like the EOS 550D, EOS 60D and EOS 7D.
The D3100′s so-called Information Display works in a similar way and, while it’s not quite as elegant, it still offers quick access to image quality and size, white balance, ISO, focus mode, AF-area, metering mode, Active D-Lighting, movie frame size, flash mode, flash exposure compensation and regular exposure compensation.
That covers pretty much all the essentials but it’s a shame you can’t quickly access Picture Control settings without resorting to the main menu system, because these work extremely well, as we’ll come to next.
Let’s cut to the chase and see how the new image sensor, EXPEED 2 image processor and the Nikon D3100′s other technical finery, translate into image quality. The short answer is that, in the vast majority of cases, pictures look fabulous straight off the camera, with barely any need for enhancement at the editing stage.
Even in tricky, high-contrast scenes the Nikon 3D Colour Matrix II metering system nails the correct exposure – although, unlike high-end Nikons such as the D300s, it errs on the side of slightly brighter rather than slightly darker pictures.
Good exposure for high-contrast scenes is further aided by Nikon’s supreme Active D-Lighting system for reigning in highlights while boosting lowlight detail for increasing dynamic range. In our tests, the results were much more consistent and convincing than with Canon’s similar Auto Lighting Optimizer, which is fitted to most of its current range of DSLRs. Apart from when you want to exaggerate contrast for dramatic effect, you can really switch Active D-Lighting on and forget about it.
Another rather fine trait of recent Nikon’s that’s carried forward to the D3100 is its Picture Control options. These tailor imaging parameters to the subject at hand and include options for Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait and Landscape. Colour rendition and contrast are refreshingly natural in Standard mode and really punchy at the Vivid setting, as you’ll see from some of our test shots.
One of the drawbacks to increased sensor resolution (even though the Nikon D3100 hardly breaks any boundaries in this respect) is the danger of extra digital image noise, especially at high ISO ratings. In this Nikon D3100 review, the newcomer proved very impressive right up to the highest setting of ISO 3200 in its standard range. Images are still pretty smooth at the Hi 1 setting (ISO 6400) in the extended range, and it’s only at H2 (ISO 12800) that images start to look nastily noisy.
By way of comparison, the Nikon D3100 proved rather less noisy than the Canon 550D at high ISO settings, and more in line with the Canon 60D and Nikon D300. One additional point that’s worthy of note is that our high ISO test images were actually more noise-free when shooting in JPEG mode than when shooting in RAW and converting images to top-quality JPEGs afterwards using Nikon Capture NX 2.
All the test shots featured were taken with the Nikon 18-55mm VR that’s supplied as the kit lens with the camera. The optical quality and effectiveness of the Vibration Reduction system proved extremely good for a budget lens and, what with the Nikon D3100′s built-in corrections for distortion and chromatic aberrations, both of which work at the shooting stage, the camera and lens make an ideal pairing.
Raw images (after conversion to TIFF) from the Nikon D3100 show lower signal to noise ratio scores than the Pentax K-r, Sony Alpha 390 and Canon EOS 1100D. This means that the Nikon D3100′s images are likely to contain more noise and have a little less detail.
The Nikon D3100′s raw images (after conversion to TIFF) capture a wide tonal range up to a sensitivity of ISO 3200, beating the Sony Alpha 390 and coming close to the performance of the Canon EOS 1100D. However, it can’t match the Pentax K-r for dynamic range across its entire sensitivity range.
- Left – ISO 100, f/11, 1/125th sec, Evaluative metering, 0EV exposure compensation, Standard (See full image)
- Right – ISO 100, f/11, 1/160th sec, Evaluative metering, 0EV exposure compensation, Vivid (See full image)
- Left – ISO 100, f5.6/, 1/125th sec, Evaluative metering, 0EV exposure compensation, Standard (See full image)
- Right – ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/125th sec, Evaluative metering, 0EV exposure compensation, Vivid (See full image)
- Left – ISO 100, f/6.3, 1/160th sec, Evaluative metering, 0EV exposure compensation, Vivid (See full image)
- Right – ISO 100, f/8, 1/250th sec, Evaluative metering, 0EV exposure compensation, Standard (See full image)
- Left – ISO 100, f7.1/, 1/200th sec, Evaluative metering, 0EV exposure compensation, Standard (See full image)
- Right – ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/200th sec, Evaluative metering, 0EV exposure compensation, Vivid (See full image)
- Left – ISO 100, f/4.5, 1/80th sec, Evaluative metering, 0EV exposure compensation, Standard (See full image)
- Right – ISO 100, f/9, 1/320th sec, Evaluative metering, 0EV exposure compensation, Standard (See full image)
- Left – ISO 100, f/5, 1/100th sec, Evaluative metering, 0EV exposure compensation, Standard (See full image)
- Right – ISO 100, f/9, 1/320th sec, Evaluative metering, 0EV exposure compensation (See full image)
Taking the first step into DSLR photography can sometimes seem more like a daunting leap into the unknown, but beginner-oriented cameras don’t come any friendlier than the Nikon D3100. Along with wide-ranging scene modes, the Guide mode really does take you by the hand and lead you into the finer points of technique, complete with on-screen thumbnail photos for illustration. It’s like having your own tutor living inside the camera.
As beginner-friendly as it is, there’s plenty here to satisfy the most advanced photographer, even if the simplified set of control buttons and dials makes it a bit long-winded to get at some important shooting parameters like ISO, white balance and metering modes. At least the Information Display makes most functions readily available via the LCD and the 4-way thumb pad. Our only real complaint is that there’s no stereo mic input socket to complement the built-in mono microphone.
Naturally, it all comes down to image quality in the end and this is where the D3100 is at its most impressive. Great metering and autofocus accuracy, coupled with excellent performance in the sensor and image processor ensure that photos look stunning almost every time, straight off the camera.
The introduction of Live View and high-definition video capture are key upgrades, compared with the D3000, and the new D3100 implements these seamlessly and to great effect. The new 14.2Mp CMOS sensor and EXPEED 2 image processor make a great team.
You’re never going to get professional-standard build quality at this price but the Nikon D3100 feels reassuringly solid and robust, despite its compact size, and all the buttons, switches and dials have a pleasantly precise feel to them.
So soon after launch, the D3100 is only just shy of £500 with its 18-55mm VR lens. Even so, taking its feature set, build quality and performance into account, it still represents very good value for money and, if the price drops a bit more, it’ll be an absolute steal.
With rock-solid metering performance, pinpoint accuracy in autofocus, excellent Active D-Lighting and superb colour rendition tailored through a variety of Picture Control options, the Nikon D3100 delivers spectacular results in even the trickiest conditions.
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- Nikon Coolpix S4200 Compact Camera Expert Review
- Best cameras for photographing gigs
- Canon EOS 5D Mark III: First Impressions
- 10 things you need to know about the Nikon D4
- Handy Advice For Choosing a Digital SLR Camera
- Great sensor and processor
- Robust build
- Decent value for money
- Live View a welcome addition
- Not quite pro-standard build quality
It’s all very well having a posh specifications list and a barrow-load of features, but it’s how they translate into photographic quality that’s key.
With great handling for such a small SLR and impeccable image quality in practically every shot, the Nikon D3100 is both highly impressive and utterly dependable.