Cameras

Nikon D3100 Review

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Make no mistake, the Nikon D3000 was a seriously good entry-level camera, fully justifying its position as Europe’s top-selling DSLR for the first half of this year.

But all good things come to an end and, more recently, the D3000 was showing its age with a complete lack of Live View, video capture facilities and a comparatively low-res 10.2MP CCD sensor.

The D3100 is a radical upgrade, based on a brand-new 14.2MP CMOS sensor that, in resolution terms, outstrips most of Nikon’s current semi-pro and fully professional cameras, including the D300s, D700 and D3s.

The Nikon D3100 has a smarter brain than its predecessor, in the shape of a revamped EXPEED 2 image processor, which promises enhanced image quality and a greater sensitivity range. Indeed, while the D3000 offered ISO 100-1600 in its standard range, the Nikon D3100 boosts this to ISO 100-3200, with two extended modes that raise the bar to ISO 6400 and 12800 respectively.

Other new features include Live View, which comes complete with a Scene Auto Selector function that automatically selects the optimum picture mode for the subject being photographed, as well as offering normal-area, wide-area, face-priority and continuous subject-tracking autofocus. More impressively, constant autofocus is also available in movie capture mode, the D3100 boasting full 1080p high-def at 24fps and 720p at 24,25 or 30fps.

You can also apply basic in-camera edits to movie clips, for example cutting scenes or saving individual frames as still images.

Getting back to the main job of shooting stills, there’s a veritable feast of in-camera retouching features, including after-shot D-Lighting adjustments for controlling dynamic range, red-eye reduction, trimming, straightening, distortion correction (also available while shooting), perspective control, colour balance and a range of filter effects.

Also at the shooting stage, the Nikon D3100 also inherits chromatic aberration correction from other recent Nikon cameras, which is highly effective at flattering the performance of lenses where colour fringing is often a problem, like with the Nikon 18-200mm VR.

Build Quality and Handling

You wouldn’t expect a camera at this price, with a plastic shell, to feel as solid as Nikon’s semi-pro bodies like the D300s but, even so, it feels reassuringly robust and rugged. There’s no hint of any creaking or flexing when you’re using the camera, and all the buttons, switches and dials feel precise and tactile. The same goes for the covers and catches that make up the flaps for the battery bay, memory card slot and external connections panel.

As for what lies behind the flaps, a new EN-EL14 Li-Ion battery pack has enough juice for about 550 shots between recharging, the memory slot is compatible with SD, SDHC, SDXC and Eye-Fi cards, and external connections include USB 2.0, GPS, HDMI (Type C) and A/V out.

Notable exceptions are a PC sync socket for firing studio flash and an input socket for using an external mic, which is a major letdown when it comes to high-quality movie recording. On the plus side, the newly designed shutter mechanism should be good for at least 100,000 cycles and comes with a novel ‘quiet’ shooting mode, which we’ll come to later. Another neat novelty is the Airflow Control System, which teams up with the usual vibrating sensor cleaning function to direct dust away from the low-pass filter. At 124 x 96 x 75mm, and weighing in at just 505g (including battery and memory), the D3100 is refreshingly compact and lightweight. The flipside is that the digital camera feels a little cramped for the big-handed in life but, however, the chunky rubberized handgrip makes for handling that feels more natural than with some similarly sized cameras, just like the Canon 550D. One of the few corners cut in the D3100’s design is around the back of the camera. While build quality in practically every other respect is very impressive at the price, the 3.0-inch LCD retains the relatively low 230,000-pixel resolution of the older D3000, whereas most new cameras feature LCDs that have four times this, at around 920,000 pixels. Even so, the LCD looks fairly accurate in terms of brightness, contrast and colour balance, and that’s what will be most important.

The most noticeable difference in layout between the Nikon D3000 and D3100 may be the addition of the Live View lever and video capture button on the trunk of the camera. As with the other controls, these make for intuitive handling, as the Live View lever flips across to activate both Live View and video shooting. You then either press the regular shutter release button to take a still image or push the red switch to start a video sequence.

Specifications

  • 14.2-megapixel DX-format CMOS sensor
  • 3.0″ LCD monitor (230,000 dots)
  • Image sensor cleaning (sensor shake)
  • 11 AF points (with 3D tracking)
  • IS0 100-3200 range (12,800 expanded)
  • HD movies (1080p, 720p or WVGA)
  • Higher resolution sensor (14.2MP vs. 10MP)
  • Ability to shoot Raw + Fine JPEG
  • Socket for connecting Nikon GP1 GPS unit
  • Optional wired remote via GPS socket
  • No wireless remote option
  • Live view
  • 1080p HD movies
  • HDMI output
  • Wider ISO range
  • Full-time AF mode (AF-F in live view)
  • Revised focus screen (different AF point illumination)

Controls and features

Typical of a smallish DSLR, direct-access controls are kept to a space-saving minimum, but the usual suspects for exposure compensation, drive mode, menu, play, delete, and a 4-way thumb pad are all present and correct.

The main mode dial features the ubiquitous full Auto mode, as well as PASM and various scene modes including Portrait, Landscape, Child, Sports, Close-up and Night Portrait. You also get a Guide mode, which builds on the innovative system incorporated into the original Nikon D3000. The Guide interface is split into three main areas of Shoot, View/delete and Set-up. In Shoot, for example, you can opt for Easy or Advanced operation for help with setting up shooting settings for softening backgrounds, freezing the motion of people or vehicles and more besides, and there’s also information about timer and shutter settings, each accompanied by on-screen thumbnail photos for illustrating the salient points.

Drive modes include the usual single or continuous (3fps) options, as well as a self-timer delay of two or 10 seconds, switched via the main Setup menu. There’s also a neat Quiet push setting, which cancels the autofocus beep and reduces shutter release noise to a minimum. What’s lacking is direct access to some of the not-so-minor shooting parameters that advanced photographers like to adjust on a regular basis, including ISO, white balance and image quality/size.

As the next best thing, you can assign the Function button, which falls naturally under your left thumb, to any of these parameters via the primary menu. Alternatively, it is possible to set the event button to control Active D-Lighting (see the following page) even though you can only set this imaging function to on or off, instead of being able to choose between varying intensities, as featured in some of Nikon’s more up-market cameras. That said, if you shoot in RAW, you can freely adjust Active D-Lighting levels between off, low, normal, high and extra-higher at the editing stage, if you’re willing to fork out a further £130 for Nikon’s Capture NX 2 software. Another popular way of extending the reach of a limited set of control buttons is to make use of the LCD screen, and Canon, in particular, does a fine job of this with its Quick Control menu, as presented on cameras like the EOS 550D, EOS 60D and EOS 7D.

The D3100’s so-called Information Display works in a similar way and, while it’s not quite as elegant, it still offers quick access to image quality and size, white balance, ISO, focus mode, AF-area, metering mode, Active D-Lighting, movie frame size, flash mode, flash exposure compensation and regular exposure compensation.

That covers pretty much all the essentials but it’s a shame you can’t quickly access Picture Control configurations without resorting to the main menu system, because these work extremely well, as we’ll come to next.

Check Out: Best Nikon D3100 lenses 

Verdict

It’s all very well having a posh specifications list and the barrow-load of features, but it’s how they translate into the photographic quality that’s key. With great handling for such a small SLR and impeccable image quality in practically every shot, the Nikon D3100 is both highly impressive and utterly dependable.

Check Nikon D3100 Price 

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