Nikon D3100 Review - The Nikon D3100 looks to raise the bar for entry-level DSLRs. But just how good is it? What Digital Camera's Nikon D3100 review digs below the surface to try and find out...
With an impressive specification, this new model replaces the Nikon D3000 and pitches itself as the ideal first-time buyer’s DSLR. But does the D3100 truly raise the bar of expectation for entry-level models? Find out in out D3100 test…
Nikon D3100 review – Features
The Nikon D3100 is the first release of Nikon’s latest generation of DSLR cameras. A brand new 14.2MP CMOS sensor raises the resolution over previous generations and the sensor is now capable of capturing Full HD 1080p movies at a cinematic 24 frames per second (fps) too. It’s out with the old and in with the new as this is now captured using H.264 compression, not the previous (less favourable) Motion-JPEG format that Nikon DSLRs had been using.
A 3in, 230k-dot LCD screen sits to the camera’s rear for real-time live preview and playback, which is supported by a 95% field of view optical viewfinder just above this.
The proven 11-point Multi-CAM 1000 autofocus system as found in the previous D3000 model still features and offers a variety of AF Area modes, including Wide AF and 3D subject tracking.
Shooting in low light needn’t be a problem either as the new Expeed 2 image-processing engine means sensitivity is increased to ISO 3200 as standard. Hi1 and Hi2 extended options provide full resolution at equivalent ISO 6400-12,800 and the addition of an AF-assist lamp is further assurance that you’ll get the shot in the bag.
Continuous shooting can whirl off images at up to 3fps whether shooting JPEG, Raw or both simultaneously and the addition of a new Quiet Shutter option (as per the Nikon D300s) separates the shutter sound and mutes all the camera’s beeping sounds for those more discreet situations.
First time help
The coveted Guide mode makes it easy for first-time users to read through menus and options in plain English to help their photographic learning along, but the D3100 is far more fruitful than just a beginner’s camera. Outside of the Guide option, the usual manual shooting modes also feature, alongside a number of Scene modes and an Auto setting for those looking for point-and-shoot operability.
Nikon D3100 review – Design
The Nikon D3100 is well laid out, with no unnecessary surprises cropping up during use. On the top is the main mode dial which not only includes all the manual modes but also lists several Scene modes as well as Guide and Auto.
Set around this is a quick-access switch to toggle between Single, Continuous, Self Timer and Quiet Shutter. A Display/Info button sits next to the Exposure Compensation adjustment that’s just behind the shutter release for further quick adjustment.
There’s no dial to jump between the focus types however, nor a Depth of Field preview button (or, in fact, option at all) and although the Fn (Function) button is well placed to the front left of the camera it only permits for the user-assigned adjustment of Image Quality, ISO, White Balance or Active D-Lighting. It would be preferable to have an ever-so-slightly more exhaustive menu set.
On the rear there’s a single thumbwheel that’s integral for the quick adjusting of options, which feels well placed although moving it ever so slightly towards the viewfinder would have perhaps felt more natural.
A live view switch is to the top right of the LCD screen and there’s a one-touch movie button centred inside this (as this mode can only be used once live view is activated). Above this is an AE-L/AF-L for exposure or focus lock, though the more detailed settings of what is adjusted and how the button is used need to be preset by going through the main menu.
Lastly there’s the usual four-way d-pad and Delete key to the right hand side, with a further five individual buttons to the left of the LCD screen finishing the camera off in the same style as all current Nikon bodies. It’s a good base to get to learn the company’s range from or, for those already familiar with the layout, very easy to pick up and use with no fuss.
Nikon D3100 review – Performance
In use the Nikon D3100 is a generally reliable performer. The autofocus system is the already established Multi-CAM 1000 module as found in the Nikon D3000 camera before it. Of the 11-points the centre one is a cross-type that means enhanced centre sensitivity for both vertical and horizontal use.
The same three frames per second burst shooting also remains, capable of capturing 11 Raw + Jpeg frames or 41 fine Jpeg frames before showing signs of slowing (using Panasonic Gold Class 6 SD card). When shooting using the viewfinder there’s a 95% field of view which means a small 5% frame edge isn’t seen in composition but appears in the final shot, a common – almost standard in fact – standard for this level of camera.
However, the arrangement of AF points is relatively wide and each of the points light up red to confirm focus and the whole set-up is ideal for versatile shooting situations. There’s even a 3D tracking mode that’s effective for tracking moving subjects that won’t necessarily remain on a single focus plane.
The only downside is that the focusing isn’t always super-fast, but firmly stands its ground when considering the competitor models out there.
Kit lens modes
The 18-55mm kit lens also provides an ‘A/M’ (Auto / Manual) focus switch on the barrel for quick adjustment and a VR On/Off switch to turn on the lens’s image stabilisation system to counter camera shake.
Lens-based stabilisation provides the benefit of real-time stabilisation as seen through the viewfinder, rather than just in the final images. Lenses without stabilisation, of course, will fail to benefit from this feature and it’s also worth noting that older lenses also won’t autofocus as the D3100 depends on a lens-based focus drive, as per AF-S and AF-I lens types (nothing to worry about unless you own older F-mount lenses and are looking for a new digital body to upgrade to).
Switch live view mode on and the focus type shifts over to the slower contrast-detection form. So, should you intend to use the live preview on screen it’s best targeted at still-lifes, landscapes or similar scenes.
Focus can be rather slow here and particularly struggles when trying to pick out subjects with subtle gradients and non-defined edges. Thankfully an AF-assist lamp can come to the rescue to provide illumination and more accurate focus – a feature that, oddly, doesn’t feature on a number of competitor cameras.
The LCD screen’s 230k-dot resolution is a fairly common spec, though at 3in in size it’s a good tool to work with and deals with reflective sunlight relatively well too.
When shooting movies, which can only be captured in the live view setting, it’s worth noting that the focus type is the same as per stills capture in live view. This essentially means that attempts at any dynamic focusing during recording will over and under focus a subject before it becomes sharp and, irrelevant of the focus mode the camera is set in, a half depression of the shutter button is always required to adjust focus.
In many ways this permits a level of control to avoid the camera shifting out of focus when fixed on a single object, but make no bones about it this isn’t like using a video camera and won’t easily continually focus on moving subjects. Saying that, almost all other DSLR-type cameras suffer from exactly the same issues and, where the D3100 is concerned, there’s an ace up its sleeve: Full HD 1080p capture at 24fps.
No other DSLR in this class can currently boast this level of resolution using progressive capture (despite the sensor only outputting in an interlaced format at this resolution). 720p is also available at 24, 25 or 30fps. And, just to sheen up an already well-polished spec, Nikon has ditched the Motion JPEG capture format and opted for the better-regarded H.264 compression type.
Image Quality and Value
Nikon D3100 review – Image Quality
Tone & Exposure
In its standard settings the Nikon D3100 will often plump to expose for mid-level detail which can overexpose skies and suchlike in some situations. Overall the metering system does a good job of balancing out complex exposures and when D-Lighting is turned on the shadow detail is brought up further, particularly in scenes that are more contrasty.
Colour & White Balance
Shots are generally warm, leaning towards the more red-magenta tones, sometimes with a yellow bias. Although not 100% accurate in all situations, the Auto White Balance does an otherwise decent job over a variety of scenes and where light is warm the camera is generally good at not dialing this colour out unnecessarily.
However, no manual Kelvin temperature scale is possible, instead there’s a pre-set white balance option which would be best set with a grey card.
Sharpness & Detail
The 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens was used during this test and its results were reasonable, though the scope for more advanced lenses could open up sharpness that step further.
Although the Raw files are slightly ‘flatter’ in appearance, they are noticeably more detailed, especially for high ISO and long exposure shots. The grain-like detail is softened slightly in the JPEG images, though this can be detrimental to final overall quality. The more discerning users out there will relish the Raw files and View NX2 (provided) does a good job of image management and processing.
Image Noise & ISO
Although the resolution has increased over the previous D3000 model, this more densely-populated sensor doesn’t suffer in terms of image quality. Image noise is absent from ISO 100-200, and a granular texture begins to creep in subtly hereafter. Images are of a good quality up to ISO 800, though colour noise begins to appear from ISO 1600. ISO 1600-3200 are still usable, despite notable softness from noise-reduction processing. It’s only the two ‘Hi’ settings that don’t have a great deal of value, especially the ‘Hi2′ ISO 12,800 equivalent which has rather extreme colour noise, issues with blacks and considerable detail loss.
Overall the equivalent improvement over the previous D3000 model shows in the higher ISO settings however.
Nikon D3100 review – Value
Although positioned as Nikon’s entry DSLR, the price point is pushing the boundaries compared to models of old.
Indeed for £500-580 you’d struggle to do better, though that price is almost neck-and-neck with the D5000 model – which is supposed to be ‘above’ the D3100 in the range despite generally more sparing features.
Those on a tighter budget seeking fast continuous shooting may consider the Pentax K-x for its 4.7fps burst and lower price (though it’s less well specified elsewhere).
Nikon D3100 review – Movie/Video Capture
The quality of the movie files is certainly an elevation over the previous Motion JPEG format. Thanks to the new H.264 compression type the MOV files look good, though can still suffer from the same image noise when shooting at higher ISO settings.
The 1080p setting is Full HD, i.e. 1920 x 1080 full frames recorded at 24 frames per second. Recording is ‘progressive’, though output via the sensor (using the mini HDMI) is interlaced at the highest setting. 720p can be output from the sensor in its native progressive format and is captured at either 30, 25 or 24 frames per second to allow for greater creative control.
Movie/Video Record Time
All clips, irrelevant of quality or frame rate, max out at 10 minutes.
When capturing movies the focusing can only be controlled by a half depression of the shutter button. This means focus is at a fixed point while recording and stops it ‘wandering off’ unnecessarily.
However, re-focusing during recording suffers the same slower pace and often under and over-focus issues as per the contrast-detection live view mode. This can cause great difficulties when tracking subjects (as the 3D/Subject Tracking AF cannot be utilised).
Movie/Video Manual Control
Settings are programmable, though you’ll need to preset aperture and/or ISO values prior to the recording stage because these do not auto-adjust during capture.
A built-in mono microphone can be turned on or off, though there is no external microphone input to benefit from more advanced recording. As the focusing mechanism of the lens is close-up to the camera body this can be picked up as a whirring sound when focusing during recording.
Nikon D3100 review – Verdict
Although the Nikon D3100 may stretch the ‘entry-level’ price point (thus its biggest drawback on the score board), it equally stretches the sheer amount of specification you’re getting too. Usually always on the money, it’s only the slightly sluggish autofocus during live view (and, therefore, movie mode) that may frustrate.
Small niggles mean no Depth of Field preview and the burst rate isn’t the fastest. On the plus side though the images are great, Guide mode will see newcomers quickly unleash their potential, and pound for pound there’s essentially nothing else (currently) out there to match the specification head on.
All things considered, the D3100 is nothing less than the best entry-level DSLR available at time of review.