Sub-£500 DSLR group test: Nikon D3100
Nikon has long ruled the entry-level market and the latest D3100 is the company's bid to keep hold of this sector. Well-specified, the camera relies on its ‘beginner market' pull with the likes of a Guide mode that explains in visual and written forms what various options and modes do. It's a camera that tries to take the fear out of using a DSLR, and it's certainly a good model to use if you're an unsure newbie. Once you've got your photo stride on, as it were, there are all the usual full manual controls and other features at your fingertips.
With a 14.2MP APS-C CMOS sensor the D3100 is the most resolute of cameras in this test. Its ISO 100-3200 (12,800 extended) falls one stop short of the Pentax K-r's range, but is still a wide range for all forms of shooting - whether in bright sunlight or the low evening dull.
An 11-point AF system provides one central cross-type sensor for enhanced portrait orientation sensitivity, with all the information fed back via the 95% field of view optical viewfinder or visible on the 3in, 230k-dot LCD screen.
Of the three models the Nikon looks, from an aesthetic standpoint, the best conceived of the trio. Although still plastic in finish, the rubberised grip adds some texture and the rounded shapes and smooth lines make this look all the more an attractive camera.
From beginners to the more advanced the D3100 has plenty to offer, from its helpful Guide mode through to Auto and on to Scene modes and full manual controls. There are more additional buttons and sliders, including a well-place drive mode collar-like switch around the mode dial and lots of quick-access buttons on the rear. The movie mode's one-touch button and new live view switch mode also feel more integrated for the user experience.
By comparison to the other models the D3100 is a bit of a mixed bag in performance terms. Although its 11-point AF is well arranged and viewfinder feedback a success, it's the slowest to achieve focus of the three models by a noticeable margin.
Pop the camera into live view and this is turned upside down: the D3100 is far faster than previous generation Nikon cameras and focus is picked up on swiftly. However the Pentax K-r pips it to the post by being the marginally quicker of the pair. Where the D3100 does come up trumps, however, is with its ability to select focus anywhere across the width and height of the screen (it's the only one of the three to offer this edge-to-edge focusing capability).
Movie mode is more of a numbers game than complete success. While the 1080i resolution may sound higher and the 24fps frame rate is the perfect potion for cinematic playback, there's a lack of overall quality and data that, in this instance, stop the most resolute camera from being the best of the bunch.
For burst shooting the 3fps burst mode sits between the Canon and Pentax capabilities. It's fast enough, though is outpaced two-fold by the Pentax, but does have one secret up its sleeve: a large buffer. What this means is that more shots can be reeled off in succession with no interruption. A full 13 Raw + JPEG shots could be captured before there was any sign of a pause in our test - so even without the top speed there's more reliability to stream off images for longer overall.
Although the Nikon files are larger this has little effect on final image quality, which is a success through most of the ISO range. High ISO performance is good, though the upper echelons of the range do show pronounced colour noise which renders the ISO 12,800 setting of little use. Dip down a stop to ISO 6400 and the resolved detail is useable, but doesn't quite beat the Canon 1100D's perceptively sharper shots.
Colour can be a little warm, particularly under artificial lighting, but it's exposure that's the D3100's single biggest problem: the new metering system has a tendency to overexpose in a variety of situations.
This article has more pages:
- 1. Sub-£500 DSLR group test
- 2. Sub-£500 DSLR group test: Canon EOS 1100D
- 3. Sub-£500 DSLR group test: Nikon D3100
- 4. Sub-£500 DSLR group test: Pentax K-r
- 5. Sub-£500 DSLR group test: Image Quality and Verdict