Nikon D3100 Review

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:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon EOS Rebel T1i 5.1 x 3.8 x 2.4 in. 46.5 cu in. 480 g
Nikon D3100 4.9 x 3.8 x 2.9 in. 54 cu in. 455 g
Olympus E-620 5.1 x 3.7 x 2.4 in. 45.3 cu in. 475 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10 4.9 x 3.3 x 2.9 in. 46.9 cu in. 336 g
Pentax K-r 4.9 x 3.8 x 2.7 in. 50.3 cu in. 544 g
Samsung NX10 4.2 x 3.4 x 1.6 in. 22.8 cu in. 349 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A290 5.0 x 3.8 x 3.1 in. 58.9 cu in. 456 g

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!

Front of the Nikon D3100

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.

Back of the Nikon D3100

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
  • Metering
  • 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
  • Menu
  • 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!

Top of the Nikon D3100

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:

Option Function
Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with some menu options locked up.
Guide mode The camera assists you with common shooting, playback, and setup options; see below for more.
Program mode Still automatic, but with access to all menu options. The Flexible Program feature lets you scroll through several shutter speed / aperture combinations by using the command dial.
Shutter priority mode You choose the shutter speed, and the camera picks the appropriate aperture. Shutter speed range is 30 - 1/4000 sec.
Aperture priority mode You choose the aperture, and camera picks the correct shutter speed. Range depends on lens used. For the kit lens, it's F3.5 - F36.
Full manual (M) mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself, with the same ranges as above. A bulb mode is also available for super-long exposures: the shutter will remain open for as long as the shutter release is pressed. The optional AC adapter and remote shutter release cable are strongly recommended.

Night portrait

These are all scene modes
Flash off Disables the flash entirely, for natural light photos

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:

Quality setting Performance
RAW + Large/Fine JPEG 12 shots @ 3.0 fps
RAW 17 shots @ 3.0 fps
Large/Fine JPEG Unlimited @ 2.9 fps
Tested with a Lexar Class 6 SDHC card

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.

Side of the Nikon D3100

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)
  • USB
  • HDMI
  • 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!

Side of the Nikon D3100

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.

Bottom of the Nikon D3100

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.