For those people who have set their sights on owning a Nikon DSLR, whether as a main camera or as a back-up body, there are no fewer than 18 models to choose from in Nikon’s line-up.

Nikon D3300 front view

For the novice looking to buy his or her first DSLR, the Nikon D3300 comes highly recommended for the way it delivers an impressive specification at a price of around £500.

Nikon D5300 front view

Those who can stretch their budget by around £120 have the choice of the slightly more advanced Nikon D5300 – a model that looks virtually identical to the D3300 and shares the same 24.2-million-pixel resolution, but which benefits from a few more practical functions, such as built-in Wi-Fi.

Then there is the Nikon D7100. Sitting above the D5300 and costing around £840, the D7100 is the most advanced enthusiast, cropped-sensor model currently in Nikon’s range.

Nikon D7100 front view

While all three models offer something different, based on the ability of the consumer they’re aimed at, each also present its own questions. Does the D5300 make the better buy over the D3300? Will novices outgrow the D3300 too quickly? Is the £340 difference between the D3300 and D7100 justifiable?

Before subjecting the cameras to the full lab test to ascertain which offers the superior image quality with regard to detail, dynamic range and noise performance, it’s important to outline the key differences.

Those unfamiliar with the Nikon system could be under the illusion that similarities between the three models are few and far between, but there are, in fact, a number of key crossover areas. We’ll kick off by familiarising ourselves with the key functions before focusing our attention on build quality and handling.

Touching on performance, too, we’ll analyse our lab results in an attempt to uncover which Nikon APS-C-format DSLR provides the best image quality and all-round performance for the best price.

Nikon D3300 vs. Nikon D5300 vs. Nikon D7100 – Features

Although it is classified as an entry-level model and it is the most affordable option of the three, the D3300 is by no means underspecified.

Just like the D5300, the D3300 boasts a 24.2-million-pixel sensor and has no optical low-pass filter to help maximise the level of detail captured – a trend that all started on non-full-frame Nikon DSLRs with the arrival of the D7100.

Although the physical size of all three CMOS sensors is the same (23.5×15.6mm), and the maximum pixel output is identical (6000×4000), the D7100 has a marginally lower total effective resolution of 24.1 million pixels.

Nikon D3300 front angled

ISO range

Take into account the native ISO 100-12,800 range on the D3300 and D5300 (expandable to an equivalent of ISO 25,600), and both models have a 1EV advantage over the D7100, which only shoots as high as ISO 6400 before its extended settings come into play to take it up to its maximum ISO 25,600 setting.

This implies that the D3300 and D5300 benefit from a different CMOS sensor – something we’ll touch on shortly.

Nikon’s latest Expeed 4 image-processing engine is used on both the D3300 and D5300. Despite this, the Expeed 3-equipped D7100 remains the first choice for shooting action, being capable of shooting continuously at 6fps, or up to 7fps in its 1.3x crop mode.

The fastest the D3300 and D5300 can shoot is up to 5fps and neither model offers the option of a 1.3x crop factor, which is an advantage to D7100 users who like to get closer to the action with telephoto lenses, albeit at a reduced resolution of 15.4 million pixels.

Nikon D5300 front angled

AF Set-up

One of the key areas in which the three cameras differ is in their autofocus systems. As is perhaps to be expected, the most basic model, the D3300, features the fewest autofocus points.

It has an 11-point AF system with one cross-type sensor in the centre, which is not as advanced as the D5300‘s 39-point AF system that includes nine of the more sensitive cross-type sensors.  

The D3300‘s AF system will meet the demands of first-time DSLR users, locking on to subjects quickly in bright lighting conditions. When I attempted to focus in low-light conditions, the acquisition speed wasn’t as fast or as responsive as the D5300 or D7100.

On the subject of low light, it wasn’t until we photographed a dark scene with all three cameras that we discovered the D3300‘s AF points are more difficult to view due to the fact they’re much smaller than those of the other two models.

Overall, the D7100‘s Advanced Multi-CAM 3500DX autofocus sensor module, with its 51 focus points and 15 cross-type sensors, is hard to beat, and offers the best coverage over a reasonably broad range of the frame.

Wi-Fi connectivity is featured only on the D5300. Users wanting to connect the D3300 or D7100 to a smartphone or tablet will need to purchase the WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adapter (around £45), but the drawback is the way this protrudes from the side of the camera body.

Nikon D7100 front angled

LCD and viewfinder

The D5300 also excels at the rear, boasting a 3.2in, 1.037-million-dot display of the pull-out-and-tilt variety, unlike the fixed screens found on the D3300 and D7100.

Ideal for those who regularly shoot from low or high angles, the sharpness and clarity of the D5300‘s screen is in a league above the D3300‘s 3in, 921,000-dot monitor, although it can’t quite match the impressive quality of the D7100‘s 3.2in, 1.229-million-dot display.  

Regarding frame coverage, the D7100‘s viewfinder provides an accurate 100% field of view. This permits a view exactly matching that of its sensor and comes with a high 0.94x magnification that’s a cut above the D5300‘s 0.82x magnification.

The D3300 offers the same 95% frame coverage as the D5300, but boasts an improved 0.85x magnification, making it the better specified of the two.

Nikon D3300 vs. Nikon D5300 vs. Nikon D7100 – Design

The D3300 and D5300 share similar dimensions, giving the impression they will feel alike in the hand. Both offer reassuringly secure, comfortable handgrips that let you wrap your hand around to get a good solid hold.

Connected to heavy telephoto zooms or held in a larger-than-average-sized hands, however, the cameras can feel on the small side, but with their kit lenses attached or used with the DX-format lenses for which they’re designed, they feel very well balanced and make a great choice if you’re conscious of travelling light.

The extra 70g of the D5300 plays a part in its handling. It feels fractionally more solid than the D3300 and its toggle switch around the mode dial makes for intuitive operation of live view mode.

Whereas the D5300 has a ‘monocoque’ design that involves a single shell made of carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic without a metal chassis, the D7100 employs magnesium-alloy top and rear covers for maximum robustness and durability.

Nikon D3300

Weather sealing

Weighing 195g and 265g more than the D5300 and D3300 respectively, the D7100 also comes weather-sealed to the same standard as Nikon’s professional-level D800. Although this won’t be a requirement for all photographers, a sealed body does allow users to keep shooting no matter how harsh the environment, while at the same time reducing the risk of water and dust creeping into the internals.

For travelling, or in circumstances where a number of lenses will be carried, the D7100 will increase the weight of a kit bag, but if you’re prepared to make this sacrifice you’ll get a DSLR that feels considerably more robust than the D3300 and D5300 in return.

Nikon D5300

Controls

The spacious layout of buttons across the body and twin control dials for independently adjusting aperture and shutter speed give the D7100 a premium feel, and its LCD display on the top-plate is invaluable for referring to camera settings – a feature lacking on both the D3300 and D5300.  

With mention to the cameras’ graphical user interfaces (GUI), the D3300‘s GUI feels somewhat more crowded than that of the D5300 and D7100 due to its smaller screen. That said, the design of each camera’s GUI is excellent.

Nikon D7100

Info display

The GUIs of the D3300 and D5300 are both tailored to novices who appreciate easy-to-understand visuals, such as how the aperture value relates to the aperture opening of the lens.

The D3300 provides access to 10 commonly used settings from its info display – not as many as found on the D5300 – and lacking a vari-angle screen, the D3300 and D7100 list their playback, menu and zoom buttons beside the screen, which on the D5300 are smaller and less intuitive to find.

Nikon D3300 vs. Nikon D5300 vs. Nikon D7100 – Image Quality

Metering performance comparison

Metering

Whereas the D3300 features a 420-pixel RGB sensor, the D5300 and D7100 rely on a 2016-pixel RGB sensor metering system. To uncover if there were any obvious differences between the systems, we set each camera to its matrix metering mode, which works by gathering information from the RGB sensor and factoring in distance information provided by the lens to calculate accurate exposure.

Interestingly, in use we found the D3300‘s metering system produced images that were around 1/3EV-2/3EV darker than those produced by the D7100 and D5300 when shooting high-contrast scenes where subjects were illuminated by sunlight.

Thankfully, this exposure difference wasn’t at the cost of underexposure, and unlike the D5300 and D7100, which occasionally benefited from -0.3 to -0.7EV exposure compensation, the exposures produced by the D3300 were hard to knock and required minor adjustment.

Taking several more shots in similar lighting conditions supported our findings. Even when shooting towards the sun through a stand of trees, the D3300 handled the scene best, capturing an image that required less work with the highlights slider in Camera Raw to recover detail from burnt-out areas.

Resolution performance comparison

Noise, resolution and sensitivity  

The D3300, D5300 and D7100 put in a comparable detail performance on test. To guarantee our resolution testing was comparative and fair, we connected each body to one of the best prime lenses in the Nikon system – the Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.4, which is equivalent to 52.5mm when the 1.5x crop factor is taken into consideration.

With this premium optic attached and each camera set to shoot in the uncompressed raw format, all three resolved an impressive 32 lines per millimetre (lpmm) at ISO 100. Readouts at higher sensitivities were also consistent, with 28lpmm being resolved at ISO 1600 and up to 26lpmm being made out at ISO 12,800.

These resolution test results confirm our initial prediction that there’s no detail advantage to be had from choosing the more expensive D7100 over the D3300 or D5300, but can the same be said for the way each camera handles noise?

As to be expected, clean, noise-free results are produced by each camera between ISO 100 and 400, and it’s not until ISO 800 is reached that the first signs of luminance noise start to become obvious in raw files when they’re inspected at close magnification.

Pushing up to ISO 1600 revealed an comparable level of luminance noise, although in our test images at higher sensitivities we discovered that the D3300 and D5300 are slightly less prone to colour noise compared to the D7100 – something we put down to the newer sensor working more effectively with Nikon’s latest Expeed 4 image processor.

Although all three cameras are capable of shooting as high as ISO 25,600 by using the H2.0 setting on the D7100 and the Hi1 setting on the D3300 and D5300, it should be avoided. At this setting the D7100 produced a green cast compared to the magenta cast produced by the D3300 and D5300.

On a day-to-day basis, the limit to which we’d be willing to push the sensitivity is ISO 3200, although acceptable results are also achievable on all three cameras at ISO 6400, and ISO 12,800 at a push, after noise reduction is applied.

Dynamic range

Prior to testing dynamic range, we asked Nikon whether the sensor used in the D7100 is different from the one in the D3300 and D5300. While the company confirmed that the sensor is different, it was not willing to state whether the D3300 shares the same 24.2-million-pixel sensor as the D5300. We’re left to assume that they do, based on near-identical dynamic-range readouts.

As the graph above shows, the dynamic range of all three cameras is similar, despite the fact the D3300 and D5300 feature a revised sensor to the D7100. At the lowest and highest sensitivities, the D7100 appears, on paper, to have the edge over the D3300 and D5300, although it is a very small margin. The D5300 has the best performance between ISO 800 and ISO 1600, but the figures at these two settings are within a margin of error.  

Readouts at around the 12EV mark at a camera’s base ISO reveals an excellent performance. The wide dynamic range of these three models will be well received by photographers who like to squeeze out a high level of detail from bright highlights and dark shadows.

Active D-lighting

Included on all three DSLRs is Active D-Lighting – a mode that can be used to brighten dark tones and darken the brightest areas in an image to ensure that more detail is visible across a broad tonal range. This mode comes into its own in high-contrast scenes at risk of blown-out highlights or a loss of detail in the darkest shadows.

Active D-Lighting is found in the shooting menu, but whereas the D5300 and D7100 offer precise control with a selection of low, normal, high, extra high and auto settings, Active D-Lighting on the D3300 is much more basic, only allowing the feature to be turned on or off.  

As the human eye is capable of seeing more detail in the shadows than in the highlights, most dynamic range optimisation systems are calibrated towards extracting more detail from the darker parts of the image.

Nikon’s Active D-Lighting system is no different, and while D3300 users will typically find themselves leaving Active D-Lighting permanently switched on for the best results, D5300 and D7100 users should set Active D-Lighting to normal for day-to-day use and manually adjust it to high or extra high in extreme conditions for a broader tonal range.

Nikon D3300 vs. Nikon D5300 vs. Nikon D7100 – Verdict

The Nikon D3300, D5300 and D7100 are all 24-million-pixel DSLRs capable of delivering equally impressive levels of detail from their APS-C-sized sensors.

Each model has an excellent set of features tailored for different photographers’ needs. For those who want a tilting screen and wireless connectivity, it’s the D5300 that gets the nod.

It costs around £120 more than the D3300, but it’s worth paying for the more sophisticated autofocus system and larger screen, and is better tailored for novices wanting to enhance their photographic ability quickly.  

That said, it shouldn’t put off anyone from considering the D3300. This is one of the best-specified DSLRs that £500 can buy, and it will satisfy casual photographers’ needs without committing them to the outlay required for more advanced features that may just get overlooked.  

If you’re undecided between the D5300 or D7100 and can stretch your budget to around £840, the D7100’s robust chassis, superior feel in the hand and top-line spec will satisfy the demands of most enthusiast photographers.

Features such as its 1.3x crop mode, wide AF coverage, larger battery and dual SD card slot make it a great match for advanced photographers or to those who feel their ability has outgrown their current entry-level model.  

As we envisaged at the start of this test, budget plays a big role in which DSLR will be chosen. However, there’s no bad camera and they’re all excellent in their own right.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Nikon D3300 vs. Nikon D5300 vs. Nikon D7100 - Features
  3. 3. Nikon D3300 vs. Nikon D5300 vs. Nikon D7100 - Design
  4. 4. Nikon D3300 vs. Nikon D5300 vs. Nikon D7100 - Image Quality
  5. 5. Nikon D3300 vs. Nikon D5300 vs. Nikon D7100 - Verdict
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