Nikon D3100 Review

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!

Photo Gallery

Check out our gallery to see how the D3100's photo quality looks!

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.