Originally Posted: December 11, 2010
Last Updated: May 30, 2011
The D3100 is Nikon's entry-level digital SLR, priced from just $699 with an 18 - 55 mm lens. The D3100 is a very user-friendly camera, with help screens and a unique "guide mode" that literally spells out what you need to do in order to get the shot you want. It also has plenty of features to excite camera enthusiasts, including a 14.2 Megapixel CMOS sensor, 11-point AF system, a 3-inch LCD with live view, plenty of manual controls, and a Full HD movie mode.
The D3100 replaces the popular D3000, so I figured that I should probably put together a little comparison chart for you:
As you can see, there are some pretty significant changes between the D3000 and D3100 in the spec department. There are some cosmetic changes as well, which I'll show you when we get to the tour portion of the review.
If you're ready to learn more about the Nikon D3100, then I'm happy to tell you. Our review starts right now!
Since the cameras are so similar, portions of the D3000 review will be reused here.
What's in the Box?
Officially, the D3100 is available in just one kit, which includes the F3.5-5.6, 18 - 55 mm VR lens ($699). That said, you may encounter other kits at certain retailers. For example, my local Costco warehouse sells the camera plus 18 - 55 and 55 - 300 mm lenses for under $1000. Here's what you'll find in the box for the "official kit":
- The 14.2 effective Megapixel Nikon D3100 camera body
- F3.5 - 5.6, 18 - 55 mm AF-S Nikkor VR lens
- EN-EL14 lithium-ion rechargeable battery
- Battery charger
- Body cap
- Eyepiece cap
- Shoulder strap
- CD-ROMs featuring Nikon ViewNX 2
- Quick Start leaflet and 61 page user's manual (both printed), plus full manual on CD-ROM
Since the D3100 comes with a lens, you're ready to start taking photos right away (well, assuming that you have a memory card). The F3.5-5.6, 18 - 55 mm VR (vibration reduction, AKA image stabilization) lens is well built by kit lens standards, though I'm not a fan of the manual focus ring. This lens definitely isn't the sharpest you'll find (try setting the aperture to F8 for best results), and there's some purple fringing here and there, but it's still not bad by kit lens standards. If you want to use other lenses, you can choose from almost all Nikon F-mount models, though only AF-S and AF-I lenses will support autofocus. There's a 1.5X focal length conversion ratio for whatever lens you attach to the camera.
Like all D-SLRs, there's no memory card in the D3100's box, so you'll need to pick one up if you don't have one already. The D3100 supports SD, SDHC, plus the new SDXC cards, and I'd recommend picking up a 4GB card (and perhaps large if you'll be taking a lot of movies). Nikon recommends cards rated at Class 6 or higher for best movie recording performance.
The D3100 uses the new EN-EL14 lithium-ion battery, which is also used by the Coolpix P7000 compact camera. This compact battery packs 7.6 Wh of energy into its plastic shell, which is about average for an entry-level D-SLR. Let's see how that translates into battery life:
As you can see, the D3100 has the best battery life in the group (and the same numbers as its predecessor). That's when shooting with the viewfinder, of course -- live view battery numbers (which Nikon does not disclose) will be considerably lower.
With the exception of the Pentax model, all of the cameras on the above list use proprietary li-ion batteries. These batteries tend to be pricey (a spare EN-EL14 will set you back around $27), and you can't use off-the-shelf batteries in an emergency, as you could with a camera that uses AAs. Some cameras support AA batteries via their optional battery grips, but since the D3100 doesn't support a grip in the first place, it's kind of a moot point.
When it's time to charge the battery, just pop it into the included charger. It takes the charger roughly 90 minutes to fully charge the EN-EL14 battery. The charger plugs directly into the wall (at least in the U.S.) -- my favorite.
As is usually the case with D-SLRs, Nikon offers plenty of accessories for the D3100 (though two of them shouldn't be optional!). I've compiled the most interesting ones into this table:
I definitely have to give Nikon a big thumbs down for not including the USB or A/V output cables with the camera. People shouldn't have to shell out over $25 to be able copy images to their computer! Do yourself a favor and skip the pricey Nikon cable and buy a generic one for $1. The price of the AC adapter is pretty absurd, as well.
There are a few other accessories out there, mostly related to the optical viewfinder.
There are updated versions of Nikon Transfer and ViewNX included with the D3100. As its name implies, Nikon Transfer 2 is used to copy photos from the camera to your Mac or PC. In addition to copying images to a set location, you can also have it send them to a backup folder, and photos can be uploaded to Nikon's myPicturetown online service, as well.
Nikon ViewNX 2
Once that's done, you'll find yourself in Nikon ViewNX 2, which has finally received some real editing tools. The main screen should look familiar -- it's like every other photo browser these days. Here you can e-mail, print, geotag, or view a slideshow of your photos. You can also upload them to the aforementioned My Picturetown service.
Editing in ViewNX 2
On the editing screen you can manipulate both JPEG and (finally) RAW images. You can adjust things like sharpness/contrast/brightness/and color, brighten shadows, straighten a crooked photo, remove redeye, or reduce chromatic aberrations. If it's a RAW file you're working with, you can also adjust the exposure and white balance. The only real complaint I have is that it takes forever for RAW adjustments to take effect, and I have a very fast computer. ViewNX 2 also has a movie editor built in. You can put clips into a timeline, remove unwanted footage, add transitions, and then save the results as a new video.
Something else you can use for RAW editing (and more) is Nikon Capture NX2 (priced from $138). This software lets you edit many common RAW properties, and it's unique "U Point" controls take a different approach toward image retouching than what you might be used to. You can select a spot in the image that you want to retouch, select the radius of the area that will be affected, and then adjust things like brightness, contrast, and saturation for that area. You can do the same for things like D-Lighting, noise reduction, and unsharp mask. You can learn more about this software at Nikon's website.
If you own Adobe Photoshop CS5, you can also use its Camera Raw plug-in (version 6.3 or newer) to edit the D3100's RAW images.
So what is RAW, anyway? The RAW image format (Nikon calls it NEF) stores unprocessed data from the camera's sensor. Thanks to this, you can adjust all kinds of image properties without degrading the quality of the image. The downsides of the RAW format are that 1) the file sizes are significantly larger than JPEGs, 2) camera performance is slower, and 3) you must post-process each image on your computer in order to convert it to a standard image format (though the camera does have a built-in RAW editor).
I should point out that the D3100 cannot be controlled from your Mac or PC, unlike Nikon's more expensive models.
The documentation for the D3100 is split into two parts (three if you count the "Getting Started" leaflet). There's a 69 page printed User's Manual to get you up and running. This covers the majority of the features that the point-and-shoot crowd will use, but if you want more details on the camera's manual functions, you'll have to load up the Reference Manual, which is in PDF format on an included CD-ROM. The quality of the manuals is above average -- too bad they could've put everything in one printed book. Documentation for the ViewNX 2 software is installed onto your Mac or PC.
Look and Feel
The Nikon D3100 is a fairly compact digital SLR. It's made of composite materials (read: plastic), though it still feels very solid in your hands. The right hand grip is a bit small for my large hands, though I figure that the average person won't have an issue with it. There's a rubberized finish on the grip that helps keep your hand from slipping, as well. The D3100 has quite a few buttons for an entry-level camera, though thankfully most perform just one function. Like most inexpensive D-SLRs, the D3100 has just one command dial camera, meaning that you'll have to hold down a button when adjusting exposure compensation or the aperture/shutter speed.
The back of the D3000 and D3100
Images courtesy of Nikon USA
The biggest cosmetic differences between the D3000 and the D3100 can be found on the back of the cameras. To the left of the LCD, there's now a button for activating the shortcut menu. To the upper-right of the LCD there's now a combo switch for activating live view and recording movies. The last new addition is a speaker, just to the right of the delete photo button.
Now let's see how the D3100 compares to the other D-SLR and interchangeable lens cameras in terms of size and weight:
Ignoring the two mirrorless cameras for a moment, you can see that the D3100 (which is a bit smaller than its predecessor) is one of the larger cameras in the group, with only the Sony Alpha DSLR-A290 ahead of it (if that's a good thing). The D3100 is one of the lighter cameras in this group of cameras.
Alright, enough about that, let's start our tour of the D3100 now!
Here's the front of the D3100, without a lens attached. This, of course, is the standard Nikon F-mount, supporting countless Nikkor lenses, with a 1.5X focal length conversion ratio. Thus, that 18 - 55 mm kit lens has a field-of-view of 27 - 82.5 mm. As with the D3000, there's no lens drive motor built into the camera body, so autofocus is only supported on AF-S and AF-I lenses (which have built-in AF motors). Any other lens will be manual focus only. To release an attached lens, simply press that black button located to the right of the mount.
Behind the mirror is a 14.2 Megapixel DX format CMOS sensor which, as far as I know, hasn't been used on any other Nikon D-SLRs. Since dust can be a problem on digital SLRs, Nikon has provided several countermeasures to prevent it. When you turn on the camera, ultrasonic waves are passed through the low-pass filter, which shakes dust away. In addition, there's a "airflow control system" that uses the "breeze" created by the mirror-flipping action to send dust into a special chamber away from the sensor. If that still doesn't work, you can create a "dust off reference photo" which you can use in conjunction with Capture NX2 to remove stubborn dust spots from your photos.
Directly above the Nikon logo is the D3100's pop-up flash, which is released electronically. The flash has a guide number of 12 meters at ISO 100, which is typical of what you'll find on most D-SLRs in this class. Should you want more flash power, you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe you'll see in a moment. While the D3100 cannot control wireless flashes by itself, you can do so by using the SB-700 or SB-900 flashes, or the SU-800 wireless speedlight commander.
On the left side of the photo we find the camera's dedicated AF-assist lamp, which is also used for redeye reduction and counting down the self-timer. Jumping to the opposite side of the photo, just above the D3100 logo, is the camera's monaural microphone.
The first thing to see on the back of the D3100 is its 3-inch LCD display. The screen has 230,000 pixels and doesn't seem terribly sharp, though I admit to being spoiled by the higher resolution screens found on many cameras these days.
Live view on the D3100
On the D3000, the LCD was used for menus and reviewing photos you've taken. The D3100 finally brings live view (albeit basic) to an entry-level Nikon D-SLR. This feature allows you to preview exposure, white balance, and focus right on the LCD, with 100% frame coverage (but no live histogram). You can also enlarge the frame, for help with manual focusing, and a good face detection system is also available. Unfortunately, the camera's contrast detect AF system is very slow, taking anywhere from one to three seconds to lock focus. The D3100 can focus continuously while composing stills or recording movies, but it too is slow, and the noise of the lens motor can be picked up by the microphone (in movies). In other words, you'll probably want to stick to the viewfinder for photographing subjects in motion. I found the quality of the live view to be good outdoors and "just okay" in low light.
Something else that's kind of unusual about the D3100's live view feature is that there's a 30 second countdown that shows up on the LCD as soon as you turn it on. If you don't press the shutter or movie recording buttons during the countdown, the live view shuts off. Most cameras have such features (to keep the sensor from overheating) -- it's never been this obvious before.
|Graphic view||Classic view|
If you're shooting with the viewfinder, the LCD can show shooting information, and let you quickly change commonly-used settings. When using the "graphic" screen, the camera represents the aperture and shutter speed with an image that's not unlike the DCRP logo. The other "classic" view is similar to what you'll find on the LCD info display of higher-end SLRs. I should add that sometimes that question mark icon at the lower-left of the screen will be blinking. If you press the help (zoom out) button, the camera will tell you what's up (such as "subject is dark, use flash"). There's more where that came from, but I'll save my discussion of the Guide Menu for a bit later in the tour.
Adjusting the ISO
You can adjust the settings on either of these info screens by pressing the button with the "i" on it (to the lower-left of the LCD). From there, you use the four-way controller to select the option you want. Nikon has handy "assist images" that visually describe when you'd want to use each of the options (see screenshot). Settings you can adjust here include:
- Image quality
- Image size
- White balance
- ISO sensitivity
- Focus mode
- AF area mode
- Active D-Lighting
- Movie settings
- Exposure compensation (-5EV to +5EV)
- Flash exposure compensation (-3EV to +1EV)
- Flash setting (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, slow sync w/redeye reduction, slow sync, rear curtain slow sync) - fill flash options are available in the P/A/S/M modes
I'll have more info on those settings later in the review.
Now let's talk about the D3100's optical viewfinder, which is located in the usual spot. This viewfinder has a magnification of 0.80x, which is about average-sized in the entry-level class. The viewfinder has 95% coverage, which is also typical. Two things I didn't care for about the viewfinder were the poor focus point illumination, and the difficulty seeing the line of shooting information below the window when taking photos outdoors -- it's too dark. One unique feature on the D3100 (that was on its predecessor, as well) is a rangefinder, which is for manual focusing. If the arrows in the viewfinder point to the left, then the focus point is in front of your subject. If they point to the right, then the focus point is behind your subject. When the arrows disappear, then you're properly focused! On an unrelated note, you can adjust the focus of the viewfinder by using the diopter correction knob located on its top-right.
To the right of the viewfinder is the AE/AF Lock button, which you can also use to "protect' photos in playback mode. Next to that is the D3100's sole command dial, which you'll use for adjusting the exposure compensation, shutter speed and aperture (though you may have to hold down another button at the same time to do so).
Moving south now, we find the new live view switch / movie recording button combo. The movie button allows you to take videos in any shooting mode -- press it once to start, and again to stop. Under that is the four-way controller, used mostly for menu navigation and reviewing photos you've taken. Below that is the delete photo button and the camera's speaker.
Jumping over to the left side of the LCD, you'll find these five buttons:
- Playback mode
- Zoom out / thumbnail view + Help
- Zoom in
- Information edit - opens the shortcut menu shown above
That'll do it for the back of the camera!
The first thing to see on the top of the D3100 is its hot shoe, which is normally protected by a plastic cover. For best results, you'll want to use one of the Nikon Speedlights I mentioned earlier in the review, as they'll sync with the camera's metering system. If you're using the SB-700, SB-900, or SU-800 (which isn't actually a flash), you can control sets of wireless Speedlights. Not using a Nikon flash? Then you will probably have to set the exposure manually. The camera can sync at shutter speeds as fast as 1/200 sec with an external flash. The D3100 does not support Auto FP high speed flash sync -- you'll need a more expensive model for that.
Moving to the right, you'll see the D3100's mode dial, which has a new release mode switch underneath it. Before I get to that, I want to tell you about the mode dial options, which include:
As you can see, the D3100 has a nice mix of automatic and manual controls. If you're using live view, the Auto mode will select one of six scene modes for you automatically. If you're using the viewfinder, it's just plain old automatic. If you want to select a scene mode, you'll find six commonly used selections to choose from.
Using the Guide Mode
The D3100 retains the Guide Mode that was first seen on the D3000. Nikon breaks the Guide Mode down into three sections: Shoot, View/delete, and setup. The shooting options include basics like "close-ups" or "moving subjects", while the more advanced options are things like "show water flowing" or "soften backgrounds". The screenshot above walks you through one of the advanced modes -- you can see that you can change additional shooting options, if you wish. The Guide Mode also allows you to easily access various options in the playback or setup menu. The Guide Mode arguably makes the D3100 the easiest-to-use D-SLR on the market.
If you're looking for manual controls, the D3100 has the usual suspects, including a bulb mode. Do note that this camera, like its predecessor, does not have any kind of bracketing feature.
Now back to that release mode switch, which is a new addition to the D3100. The options here include single-shot, continuous, self-timer, and quiet shutter. That last option turns off all the camera's blips and bleeps, and also makes less noise after you take a photo. You can also keep your finger on the shutter release button, move the camera away from whoever (or whatever) you don't want to irritate, and then let go -- only then will the mirror pop back into position.
One of the options on the release mode switch is for the D3100's continuous shooting mode, and here's what kind of performance you can expect out of it:
While the D3100 won't win any awards for speed, it can take quite a few RAW images in a row (and an unlimited number of JPEGs) before things slow down. If you start a burst in live view mode, the LCD will go black after the first shot is taken.
Returning to the tour, the last items of note on the top of the D3100 include the info and exposure compensation / aperture buttons, plus the shutter release / power switch combo. The info button, not surprisingly, toggles what is being displayed on the LCD. The exposure compensation range is nice and wide (-5EV to +5EV), though the lack of a bracketing feature is disappointing.
Before I tell you what can be found on this side of the D3100, I want to mention those two switches on the 18 - 55 mm kit lens. The top one toggles between auto and manual focus, while the button one turns Vibration Reduction (image stabilization) on and off.
Over on the camera body we find a button for popping up the flash and adjusting the flash exposure compensation, plus a customizable Function button (I'll tell you what options can be assigned to it later).
At the far right of the photo, under a rubber cover, are the D3100's I/O ports. They include:
- Accessory terminal (for GPS and remote control)
- A/V output
I have to again give Nikon a big "boo, hiss" for including neither a USB nor a A/V cable with the camera!
On the other side of the D3100 you'll find its SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card slot. The door covering the memory card slot is on the flimsy side.
Our tour ends with a look at the bottom of the D3100. Here you can see the metal tripod mount (in line with the lens, of course) and the battery compartment. The plastic door that covers the battery compartment comes off VERY easily, though it snaps back on.
The new EL-EL14 li-ion battery can be seen at right.
Using the Nikon D3100
Flip the power switch and the D3100 is ready to start taking photos almost instantly (even with the dust reduction feature turned on).
Autofocus speeds depend on several factors, but mainly 1) whether you're using live view or the viewfinder and 2) what lens is attached. I was very impressed with the AF performance of the D3100 when using the kit lens and optical viewfinder. Wide-angle focus times were around 0.1 - 0.3 seconds, with telephoto delays of 0.4 - 0.8 seconds. Low light focusing was very good, with focus times generally staying under a second (thank you super-bright AF-assist lamp). It's a different story if you're using the camera's live view feature, though. As I mentioned earlier, focus speeds are in the seconds -- anywhere from one to three. Low light focusing is slow and usually does not result in focus lock, since the camera cannot use the AF-assist lamp. Thus, you'll probably want to stick to the viewfinder in most situations.
You won't find shutter lag to be an issues on the D3100, and shot-to-shot delays are minimal.
After you take a photo, you can hit the delete button to review and/or delete the shot you just took.
Now, let's take a look at the image size and quality choices on the D3100:
The D3100 has the ability to take a RAW image alone, or with a Large/Fine JPEG. The D3000 used to save a Basic quality JPEG in RAW+JPEG mode, so this is a nice improvement.
A typical help screen in the menus
The D3100's menu system is identical to the one on its predecessor. It's attractive, easy to navigate, and there are help screens for nearly every option (see above). The menu is divided into five tabs: playback, shooting, setup, retouch, and Recent items. Keeping in mind that not all of these options are available in every shooting mode, here's the full list of menu options:
|Retouch menu (I'll discuss all of these in the playback section)
The last twenty menu options you accessed.
While I'll get to the playback and retouch items later, I want to tell you more about some of those shooting settings now.
|Adjusting a Picture Control||This "grid" shows you how the Picture Controls compare|
Let's start with Picture Controls, which have been on Nikon SLRs for a while now. The camera has six preset Controls (standard, neutral, vivid, monochrome, portrait, landscape), and you can customize them to your heart's content. The following properties can be adjusted in a Picture Control:
- Quick adjust - lets you adjust the items below by ±2 step at one time
- Sharpening (Auto, 0 to 9)
- Contrast (Auto, -3 to +3) - not available when Active D-Lighting is on
- Brightness (-1 to +1) - not available when Active D-Lighting in on
- Saturation (Auto, -3 to +3)
- Hue (-3 to +3)
- Filter effects (Off, yellow, orange, red, green) - only for monochrome controls
- Toning (Black & white, sepia, cyanotype, red, yellow, green, blue green, blue, purple blue, red purple) - each of these can be fine-tuned; only for monochrome
Fine-tuning white balance
The D3100 has a pretty standard set of white balance controls for an entry-level D-SLR. Naturally, it has the usual presets, like incandescent and cloudy, each of which can be fine-tuned (see above). You can also use a white or gray card as reference with the "preset manual" mode. Two things you cannot do on the D3100 are set the color temperature or bracket for white balance.
The camera retains the same Active D-Lighting feature as its predecessor. Quite simply, this feature improves the overall contrast of an image, reducing highlight clipping while brightening shadows. There's just an on and off setting on the D3100 (it's on by default), so you can't choose how much ADL is applied to a photo. Let's see it in action, shall we?
|Active D-Lighting off
View Full Size Image
|Active D-Lighting on
View Full Size Image
The Active D-Lighting feature works pretty much as-advertised! The shadows in the foreground are brighter, you do get back some highlight detail, as well. Nikon warns that some noise may appear as a result of using this feature, though I didn't see anything out of the ordinary in the above test photo.
What about those AF area modes? For the viewfinder, you've got your choice of single-point (you can select which one), dynamic area (you pick a single point but the camera will use the surrounding points if your subject moves), 3D tracking (for moving subjects), or a fully automatic 11-point mode. Live view AF options include face priority (which works well), wide or normal area AF (you can position the focus point), and subject tracking.
I should also mention the focus modes. You've got single-servo (AF-S) for stationary subjects, continuous-servo (AF-C) for subjects in motion, and an auto-servo mode that will pick between the two. In live view mode, you have a choice of AF-S and full-time servo (AF-F), with the latter always trying to focus (even in movie mode). Naturally, a manual focus mode is also available.
Alright, that does it for menu options, at least for now. Let's move onto our photo tests for a while. All of these were taken with the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, except for the night shots, for which I used the Nikon F4.5-5.6, 55 - 300 mm VR lens.
The Nikon D3100 did a very nice job with our macro test subject. The figurine has the smooth appearance that is typical of a D-SLR, yet plenty of detail is still captured. Colors are fairly accurate, though there's a very slight color cast if you look closely. Thankfully, the D3100 has white balance fine-tuning (not to mention RAW support), so if you spend a little time tweaking things, you should be able to get rid of it. I don't see any noise or other artifacting here, nor would I expect to.
The minimum distance to your subject will depend on what lens you're using. For the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, it's 28 cm. If you think you'll be taking a lot of close-up photos, Nikon makes five dedicated macro lenses, though only three of them support autofocus on the D3100 (the 60, 85, and 105).
For the night shot, I used the new Nikon F4.5-5.6, 55 - 300 mm VR lens, which sells for $399 (and comes in that Costco bundle that I told you about earlier). The photo produced by the D3100 body and 55-300 lens is decent, though on the soft side. There's some highlight clipping and mild purple fringing to be found, as well. Taking photos like this is easy on the D3100, whether you're using the Guide Mode or the manual exposure controls.
Now, let's use that same night scene to see how the D3100 performed across its ISO range in low light situations!
ISO 6400 (Hi 1)
ISO 12800 (Hi 2)
The first two crops are very clean, with no noise to be found. There's a slight increase in noise at ISO 400, though it really doesn't start to degrade the quality of the image until ISO 800. Even then, the ISO 800 photo is quite usable, for nearly all print sizes. Things continue to get noisier at ISO 1600, so it's probably best reserved for smaller-sized prints. Details get pretty muddy at ISO 3200, and go downhill rapidly after that.
For nearly all cameras, there's a big benefit to shooting RAW and performing noise reduction on your Mac or PC. Let's use the night scenes from above to see if we can't do that with the ISO 3200 and 6400 photos:
There's a definite improvement in the post-processed ISO 3200 images, with noticeably more detail and a bit less highlight clipping. The same can't be said for the ISO 6400 shot, though. While it's sharper, you're not really getting a whole lot of detail back in return.
We'll take a look at the D3100's high ISO performance in normal lighting in a moment.
The D3100 did very well in our redeye test, with no red to be found. The camera uses its very bright AF-assist lamp to shrink your subject's pupils, and it did the job here. If you do end up with redeye in your photos, there's a tool in playback mode to remove it.
There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the 18 - 55 mm kit lens. You can see what this looks like in the real world in this photo. The good news is that the camera has a built-in distortion reduction system (off by default) which works with modern Nikkor lenses. Let's see what the distortion chart looks like with this feature turned on:
That's quite a bit better! You can also correct for distortion with most decent RAW editing software.
I noticed some very slight corner blurring with the kit lens, but no vignetting (dark corners).
And here's that normal lighting ISO test that I promised earlier. Since this photo is taken in our studio, it's comparable to those taken with other cameras I've reviewed. Remember that the crops below only cover a small portion of the scene, so view the full size photos if you can! And with that, let's take a trip from ISO 100 to 12,800:
ISO 6400 (Hi 1)
ISO 12800 (Hi 2)
As you can see, everything is very clean (though a bit soft) through ISO 1600. There's a bit of detail loss at ISO 3200, but it won't keep you from making large prints at this setting. Heck, even the Hi 1 setting (ISO 6400) looks very good, which is pretty remarkable for an entry-level D-SLR. The only place you really see noise is when you get to the Hi 2 setting (ISO 12800), at which point you'll be limited to small prints, unless you try shooting RAW.
Can we improve the two "hi" ISO photos by using RAW? Let's see:
As you can see, I got much nicer results after spending about a minute loading up the RAW images in Photoshop, running them through NeatImage, and applying a little sharpening. If you're shooting at these two "hi" sensitivities, then I'd recommend doing the same.
Overall, I was pleased with the image quality on the Nikon D3100, especially in terms of high ISO performance. That said, there are a few areas in which things could improve. I found exposure to be accurate, which is a nice change from previous Nikon D-SLRs that I've tested, which always seemed to require some kind of exposure compensation adjustment. The D3100 is prone to highlight clipping, which is especially bad in this photo. Colors look good, with nice saturation that's not over-the-top. My biggest beef with the D3100 is that photos are on the soft side, though the same can be said about most Nikon D-SLRs. It's hard to say if its the lenses I used (which are lower end) or the camera (which could be using too much noise reduction), but it is a bit of a turn-off. You can adjust the in-camera sharpening using Picture Styles, or try closing down the aperture on the lens a bit (the kit lens is sharpest at F8). As you saw above, noise levels are very low on the D3100, with even ISO 6400 being usable without any need for post-processing. Purple fringing is generally caused by the lens you're using, and I found it to be a relatively minor problem with the 18 - 55 mm kit lens.
Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look our photo gallery -- perhaps printing a few of the photos if you can -- and then hopefully you can decide for yourself if the D3100's photo quality meets your expectations!
The old D3000 didn't have a movie mode. Heck, it didn't even have live view! Nikon has made up for that by giving the D3100 the ability to record Full HD video with continuous autofocus. At the highest quality setting, you'll be recording up to ten minutes of continuous video at 1920 x 1080 (24 frames/second) with monaural sound (the camera doesn't support an external mic). You can take a movie in any of the camera's shooting modes, thanks to its dedicated movie recording button.
Don't need 1080p24 video? Then you can select from two lower resolutions: 1280 x 720 (at 24, 25, or 30 fps) and 640 x 424 (at 24 fps). For these resolutions, the recording time limit is also 10 minutes.
Naturally, you can zoom in and out all you want while you're recording a movie. What's more, the D3100 has the ability to continuously autofocus in movie mode which, in theory, should keep things in focus. In reality, though, the autofocus is sluggish, not very responsive, and noisy (at least with the kit lens). You can see what I mean by watching this video clip which I recorded to illustrate this feature. Oh, and if you're using a VR lens, you'll be able to take advantage of its shake reduction capabilities.
There are no manual controls in movie mode on the D3100 -- everything is fully automatic. In addition to manual exposure controls, a wind filter would've been a nice extra. The one setting you can change is the exposure compensation, but only in the P/A/S modes. The camera can take a photo while you're recording a movie, though there will be a brief pause in the video while the image is saved.
Movies are saved in QuickTime format, using the H.264 codec.
I have two sample movies for you. The first is taken at the 1080p24 setting, while the second was recorded at 720p30. The quality of the Full HD video is just fair, with noticeable artifacting and an overall soft appearance. The 720p movie looks a lot better to my eyes.
The D3100 has probably the most elaborate playback mode of any digital SLR. Before we get to the interesting features, let me tell you about the basics. They include slideshows (now with transitions), image protection, DPOF print marking, thumbnail view, and playback zoom. When you're zoomed into an image, you can use the control dial to switch between photos, while keeping the zoom and location intact.
|Calendar view||Mega thumbnail view|
Photos can be viewed one-at-a-time or as thumbnails, with the ability to see as many as 72 on the screen at once. You can also display a calendar view, which allows you to quickly see which photos you took on a specific date.
|D-Lighting brightens shadows||And color balance gets rid of color casts (or tries to)|
Now onto the good stuff, all of which can be found in the Retouch menu. The items here include:
- D-Lighting - brightens dark areas of a photo; select from low, normal, or high
- Redeye correction
- Trim (crop) - you can select an aspect ratio of 3:2, 4:3, 5:4, 1:1, or 16:9
- Monochrome - changes a color photo to black and white, sepia, or cyanotype
- Filter effects - use virtual skylight, warm, red/green/blue, cross screen, and soft filters
- Color balance - adjust the color of a photo
- Small picture - downsize an image
- Image overlay - combines two RAW images into one
- NEF (RAW) processing - edit RAW images, see below
- Quick retouch - uses D-Lighting and also boosts contrast and saturation
- Straighten - new to the D3100
- Distortion control - reduce barrel or pincushion distortion in your photos, automatically or manually; new to the D3100
- Fisheye - a special effect, new to the D3100
- Color outline - turns a photo into something suitable for a coloring book
- Perspective control - reduce the distortion caused by taking photos from the base of tall objects (like buildings); new to the D3100
- Miniature effect - makes a selected area of the photo appear small, with everything else blurred out
- Edit movie - trim unwanted footage off of the beginning or end of a clip; you can also grab a frame from a movie and save it as a still image
That's quite a collection! And I'm glad to see that Nikon put a movie editing feature on the D3100 -- every camera should have one!
RAW processing in playback mode
As with its predecessor, the D3100 lets you edit and convert RAW images right on the camera. You can change the image size and quality, white balance, exposure compensation, and Picture Control setting.
By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but if you press up or down on the four-way controller you can get a lot more, as you can see above. Do note that you may need to turn on some of these screens in the playback menu (display mode option).
If you've got the transitions turned off, the D3100 can move from photo-to-photo instantly. While nice to look at, the two transitions slow the process down noticeably.
How Does it Compare?
The Nikon D3100 is a very good entry-level digital SLR. Clearly targeted toward the beginner, its combination of Guide Modes, assist images, and help screens easily makes it the most accessible of any D-SLR out there. Add in very good photo quality, snappy performance (in most cases), a solid feature set, Full HD movie recording, and best-in-class battery life, and you've got a winner. The D3100 is not a perfect camera by any means, though. Photos are on the soft side, and it clips highlights at times. The LCD isn't terribly sharp, autofocus is terribly slow when using live view, the burst mode isn't terribly quick, and the bundle could use some work. Despite these flaws, the D3100 is a camera that I can easily recommend to folks who are ready to jump into the world of digital SLRs.
The D3100 is a fairly compact digital SLR with a composite (read: plastic) body. Even with the plastic body, the camera feels solid in your hands, and most people will find it easy to hold. The camera has a decent amount of buttons and dials, but thankfully most of them only perform just one function. The D3100 can use nearly all Nikkor F-mount lenses (with a 1.5X crop factor), though only AF-S and AF-I lenses will support autofocus. On the back of the camera you'll find a 3-inch LCD display with a resolution of 230,000 pixels. The screen didn't seem terribly sharp to me, nor was the viewing angle worth writing home about. Being a D-SLR, you shouldn't be surprised to hear that the D3100 supports a ton of accessories, including a GPS, wired remote control, and (of course) an external flash.
If there ever was a D-SLR for beginners, the D3100 is it. Need a little help choosing the right settings for certain situations? The unique Guide Mode will literally lead you in the right direction. If you want a totally point-and-shoot experience, there's a standard auto mode, which can select a scene mode for you when in live view mode. There are also help screens for every single option in the menu system. Speaking of live view, this is actually a new addition to the D3100 -- its predecessor did not have this feature. The live view experience on the D3100 is just okay. While most of the standard features are present, I miss having a live histogram (though beginners probably have no idea what it represents). The big downer is that you're stuck with a frustratingly slow contrast detect autofocus system, which takes anywhere from one to three seconds to lock focus (and forget about low light). While live view is fine for stationary subjects and movies, forget about using it for action photography. On the manual control side, the D3100 has the usual exposure controls, plus white balance fine-tuning and support for the RAW format. One feature you won't find is any kind of bracketing. The D3100 has an impressive playback mode with a ton of special effects and editing options (including RAW processing).
The D3100 sports a Full HD movie mode, with the ability to record videos at 1920 x 1080 (24 fps) and 1280 x 720 (30 fps) with monaural sound for up to ten minutes per clip. While the camera can focus continuously while focusing, it's not very responsive, and the noise of the lens motor is easily picked up by the microphone. There are no manual controls available in movie mode, unless you count exposure compensation. Video quality was just fair at the 1080p setting.
Camera performance was generally excellent. Flip the power switch and the D3100 is ready to start taking photos. If you're composing photos with the optical viewfinder, you'll find that the camera locks focus very quickly. In low light situations, the D3100's bright AF-assist lamp helps keep focus times under a second in most cases. As I mentioned above, live view autofocus is very slow, and I found myself rarely using it as a result. Shutter lag was not an issue, and shot-to-shot delays were minimal, as you'd expect from a D-SLR. The camera's burst mode can take a decent number of photos in a row, though it's not going to win any awards for speed with its 3 fps frame rate. As was the case with its predecessor, the D3100 has the best battery life of any entry-level D-SLR or interchangeable lens camera.
Photo quality was generally good, though there's room for improvement in a couple of areas. Exposure was accurate in nearly all of my real world photos, though the camera has the tendency to clip highlights at times. Colors were accurate and vivid, save for a mild color cast in our studio. The biggest weak point in the image quality department is sharpness, or rather a lack thereof. Photos are usually on the soft side, which may be due to the kit lenses I used, heavy noise reduction, or both. There are a number of ways to sharpen your photos, including using the Picture Styles feature, using a smaller aperture (if possible), or shooting RAW. On a brighter note, the D3100 is really impressive at high sensitivities. Noise won't be an issue until around ISO 800 in low light and ISO 3200 in good light. Even the ISO 6400 and 12800 settings are usable if you shoot RAW and do some easy post-processing. Continuing the good news, redeye wasn't a problem, but if it does crop up, there's a removal tool in playback mode.
I've got two other things to mention before I wrap up this conclusion, both of which relate to the bundle that comes with the D3100. First, there's no USB or A/V output cable included. Nikon's been leaving out the video cable for a while now, but the lack of a USB cable is disappointing (not everyone in your target market has a card reader, Nikon!). Second, while there's a good started manual in the box with the camera, if you want more information about camera features, you'll have to load up the full camera guide on an included CD-ROM.
The Nikon D3100 is an entry-level digital SLR that can start off as a point-and-shoot camera, and then gently guide you into the world of manual controls. Once you factor in its good (albeit soft) photo quality, impressive selection of features (especially for beginners), and HD movie mode, it ends up looking like a pretty good deal for $699 (with lens). It's not a perfect camera by any means, but it's still good enough to earn my recommendation.
What I liked:
- Good photo quality, with impressive high ISO performance
- Compact, well designed body
- Full manual controls, RAW image format supported (now with an improved editor)
- Fast autofocus system (when using viewfinder)
- Full HD movie mode, with continuous AF
- Guide Mode, help screens, and assist images make the camera very easy to use
- Tons of retouching features in playback mode, including in-camera RAW and movie editing
- Redeye not a problem
- Best-in-class battery life
- Optional GPS unit
- HDMI output
What I didn't care for:
- Photos tend to be soft; camera tends to clip highlights
- Slow focusing in live view mode
- Movie mode woes: so-so quality, sluggish and noisy continuous AF, no manual controls
- No bracketing of any kind
- Slower-than-average burst mode
- LCD could be sharper
- Autofocus only available with AF-S and AF-I lenses
- USB and A/V cable not included; full manual on CD-ROM
Some other D-SLRs in this class worth considering include the Canon EOS Rebel T1i, Olympus E-620, Pentax K-r, and Sony Alpha DSLR-A290. You may also want to check out the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10 and Samsung NX10 mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras.
As always, I recommend heading to your local camera or electronics store to try out the D3100 and its competitors before you buy!
Check out our gallery to see how the D3100's photo quality looks!