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The Nikon D3100 is Nikon’s latest “entry level” Digital SLR; however, if you look at the features you wouldn’t think so. The D3100 features full HD video recording, 3 inch screen, 14.2 megapixel sensor, ISO12800, and 11 focusing points, as well as a built in guide, Vibration Reduction (VR) optically stabilised 18-55mm kit lens, and live-view. Rather than simply being a minor upgrade to the Nikon D3000, the D3100 is more like a little brother to the Nikon D5000, and the price of the D3100 is also very similar to the D5000.
Nikon D3100: Features
The Nikon D3100 comes with a Nikon DX AF-S Nikkor 18-55mm VR lens that is equivalent to 27-82.5mm in 35mm film terms, and features a Silent Wave Motor (SWM) that should help keep lens noise down in videos. To make full use of the Full HD video recording, the camera has HDMI out, and SDXC memory card support, which lets you use cards up to 64gb in size. The camera and lens come with a 2 year warranty.
Another useful feature of the D3100 is a built in Guide, this will guide you through the various aspects of the camera including shooting, viewing, and setting up the camera. Selecting the playback and setup menus takes you to a simplified menu system with larger text and clear labels. Using the camera in the Guide mode, the camera will provide helpful information when you press the help / “?” button – this also provides a description in other modes.
|The Nikon D3100 control screen – this is the “Classic view” - a more traditional DSLR control screen is also available.|
Live view – despite the 3 inch screen’s low resolution of 230k pixels, the screen updates quickly, has bright highly saturated colour, and good skin tones. The screen has accurate representation of image quality and colour when compared to viewing photos on the computer.
Movie mode – Full HD 1920x1080 / 1080p at 24fps – This makes the Nikon D3100 one of only a few entry level Digital SLRs, along with the Canon 550D and Canon 500D (albeit at 20fps) to offer full 1080p HD Video - this is the full resolution. Some other DSLRs such as the Sony Alpha A33 only offer 1080i, and the Pentax K-r and Nikon D5000 only offer 720p. Considering all of this, it makes the Canon 550D the closest competitor with Full HD video support.
Vibration Reduction (VR) optical image stabilisation is built into the kit lens, and can be switched on and off using the switch on the side of the lens - this will help avoid blur with low light or telephoto shots.
Additional features on the D3100, compared to the D3000, include a new live view switch and video button, shooting mode switch for continuous shooting, microphone, speaker, and HDMI out, a new 14.2 megapixel sensor, as well as an EXCEED 2 processor which should speed up performance of the camera.
Nikon D3100: Handling
A large hand grip and well positioned rubber thumb grip make it easy to hold on tight . A large rubber grip on the lens gives another good area to grip the camera to ensure it's held steadily at all times. The camera has well positioned controls with an easy to reach mode dial, and switches for on/off, live view and shooting mode.
Despite the plastic body, the D3100 is well built with a solid construction, and large rubber eye cover. It has high quality switches and controls, and metal strap mounts. The memory card cover, however, doesn’t look like it would survive any mistreatment, or accidental damage while open. The buttons to the left of the main screen feel a little loose and wobbly although it’s unlikely this will actually cause any problems.
Ease-of-use / controls
There is one function button – pressing this lets you quickly set the option using the command dial / wheel. There is also a dedicated exposure compensation button. For other settings that you want to change you will need to go into the options on the back screen, or go into the menu of the camera.
The camera is very easy to use, and more advanced users may find it a little limiting, as a lot of options or settings require you to enter the menus to change or set them, and some useful options seem to be missing (such as exposure bracketing). However, the lack of complicated buttons also makes it easy to use for those who simply want the higher image quality a DSLR offers over a compact camera.
The menu system on the camera is split into five sections: Playback, Shooting, Setup, Retouch, and Recent Settings. Navigating the settings is fairly straightforward and you can press the “?” button to bring up help on any setting. Recent Settings brings up three pages of history showing your most recently changed or accessed settings, and the camera also remembers where you were the last time you accessed the menu to allow quicker changes to settings.
The Nikon D3100 battery life is rated at 550 shots according to CIPA standards. I was able to take 480 shots including 7 videos, with some live view use, and minimal flash use. I suspect if you shoot stills only, limit live view use, and rarely use the flash then you should be able to easily match the CIPA results of 550 shots. The battery cover is solid and relatively easy to open, however it's the only thing that holds the battery in as there is no additional clip, so it is possible for the battery to fall out when you open the battery cover. (I prefer the lockable cover on the Olympus DSLRs, where there is a further clip inside holding the battery secure).
Nikon D3100: Performance
Automatic exposure has a slight preference to overexpose and lose highlight detail rather than underexpose, this means that you keep detail in the shadow and more often than not have bright colourful photos, although it’s worth keeping an eye on, and using exposure compensation when necessary.
Focusing – single AF, continuous, speed, accuracy
Focusing is quick and accurate, even in low light thanks to the focus assist lamp. In the live view mode focusing is slightly slower, however I didn’t have any concerns using it, and found that live view was able to focus without having to use the focus assist lamp indoors.
The camera provides excellent resolution and detail and there’s definitely enough resolution to provide embarrassing amounts of detail in people’s faces if the subject is too close. The camera’s kit lens provides sharp detailed images and at telephoto zoom it does a good job of getting close to the subject, almost doubling as a macro lens, although obviously it can’t get as close as a dedicated macro lens.
The Nikon D3000 with a 10 megapixel sensor, had ISO options up to 3200, the D3100 with a 14.2 megapixel sensor has ISO up to 3200 as well as two extended settings, Hi 1 ISO6400, and Hi 2 ISO12800! Whether these additional High ISO modes are beneficial or not is another thing. Let’s find out with some test shots.
|Nikon D3100 Outdoor ISO speed test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.|
The Nikon D3100 provides excellent noise performance particularly at the lower ISO settings, and has exceptionally low noise at ISO100, with very smooth images, and excellent detail. At ISO200 there is very low noise and images are smooth with lots of detail; even up to ISO400 noise is low with smooth images.
At ISO800 noise starts increasing with some dots and colour, particularly noticeable when viewing images at 100% on screen. At ISO1600 detail starts to degrade as the noise increases, and so too the noise reduction applied to the image, although at this setting images are still quite good, and in my opinion they are usable.
ISO3200 is when you start to really notice the loss of detail, the loss of colour, and the loss of image quality, particularly in darker areas of the image, and along edges. At ISO6400 there are even higher levels of noise, including black dots.
ISO12800 images turn into mush, with objects blurring into the background, due to excessive noise. There’s also extreme loss of detail as the noise dominates the image. This leaves very little detail or definition and even black is destroyed by artificial colour from the noise. This option seems to be a marketing tool rather than actually being any use for creating photographs.
|Nikon D3100 Test chart ISO speed test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.|
Studio shots bear out the same findings as can be seen above, click to view full size.
The camera has a number of customisable settings for colour tone, these are Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, Landscape. These options are fairly standard compared to other cameras’ new “Art” or “Creative” modes, however the Nikon D3100 has a number of filters, colour, and creative options available in playback mode. Examples can be seen here.
|Cyanotone||Skylight filter||Warm filter|
|Red intensifier||Green intensifier||Blue intensifier|
|Cross screen (stars)||Soft||Colour balance|
|Colour outline||Perspective control||RAW image overlay|
There’s also a miniature option, red-eye reduction, trim, resize, quick retouch, straighten, distortion control (auto or manual), fisheye, and further options for processing RAW (NEF) image such as: image overlay, and NEF RAW processing – this lets you alter the image quality, image size, white balance, exposure, and colour mode (standard, vivid, etc) and then saves the file as a JPEG.
|Nikon D3100 Dynamic Range: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.|
|D-lighting Off||D-lighting On|
|D-lighting Off||D-lighting On|
The camera has excellent dynamic range. Using the D-Lighting setting further enhances dynamic range and can potentially help keep detail, both in bright skies and in shadow areas, as can be seen in these example shots. The results are impressive particularly when compared to a compact camera, or other cameras without extended dynamic range modes.
The camera has a wealth of white balance options, and all of them can be further customised (including the 7 sub-settings under fluorescent). The list includes Auto, Fluorescent (Sodium-vapour lamps, Warm-white fluorescent, White fluorescent, Cool-white fluorescent, Day white fluorescent, Daylight fluorescent, Mercury-vapour), Direct Sunlight, Flash, Cloudy, Shade, and Pre-set Manual.
Trying to match the lighting / light bulb can occasionally be a problem, however, with the number of options provided by the D3100 this shouldn’t be a problem. The camera does such a good job of auto white balance that you should rarely need to access the white balance options, and occasionally the auto white balance did a better job of matching the light than the fluorescent pre-set options. Auto white balance outdoors in daylight was excellent, and I never felt the need to manually set white balance or choose a pre-set. The only time I felt the need to use manual was when taking product shots indoors.
Flash performance – in low light, red-eye etc
The D3100 has good flash performance, and in low light focuses well thanks to the focus assist lamp. When using the flash the camera tends to increase the ISO setting to ISO3200 quite often, depending on the subject distance, which results in softer, noisier images. Red-eye however didn’t seem to be a problem in any of the photos I took with flash.
Write times – buffer size – Continuous shooting
The camera shoots at 3 fps, and the buffer will fit 15-20 JPEG shots or 7 RAW shots before slowing down. With flash continuous shooting is not possible - even though the camera has a very quick flash recharge time, you need to release the shutter before taking the next photo with flash.
The kit lens has a SWM – which Nikon say provides super quiet operation, however, if you use the autofocus while recording videos the lens noise seems loud and is easily picked up by the built in microphone. There is no support for an additional microphone. If you need to refocus while recording you’re better off using the manual focus to avoid lens noise. With movement there is image roll / jelly effect.
Maximum recording time for all videos (regardless of size or quality) is 10 minutes. (Due to EU regulations – DSLRs cannot record video longer than 10-11 minutes or larger than 4GB whichever comes first.) Videos are recorded as Quicktime .MOV files (H.264 MPEG-4 AVC, 20mbps, Mono, 387kbps audio, 24khz).
Basic movie editing is built in – allowing you to cut movies, and also cut frames out of the video and use as a photo. Photo quality from the video is fairly good, even though the resolution of the photo is only 2.1mp (1920x1080).
|Nikon D3100: Test video 1|
|Nikon D3100: Test video 2|
The kit lens does an excellent job – providing good levels of detail and quite sharp images, which could easily be sharpened further in Photoshop or similar photo editing software, to bring out even more detail. Images are sharp in the centre as well as at the edges, and corners, and the performance of the lens at all zoom ranges make the lens feel like a premium quality lens, rather than just a “budget kit lens”.
The built in Vibration Reduction should help get sharp photos in low light situations and at the telephoto end of the zoom. This can be easily switched on or off if you’re using a tripod, and there is also a switch on the lens to switch between manual and automatic focus. The manual focus is adjusted by turning the front of the lens, is quite smooth, and allows fairly precise control of the focus. It is definitely preferred over the focus-by-wire systems employed in some lenses.
Even though a hood is not supplied, I did not notice lens flare while using the lens, except when shooting directly into the sun, and the lens coped well with the extreme conditions.
Minimum focusing distance is 28cm or 0.9 feet. While this isn’t very close to the subject at wide-angle, at full telephoto zoom it allows for some acceptable, even good macro shots.
I noticed some chromatic aberration in some areas of high contrast, where the sun was overexposed behind a black object, but overall there does not appear to be much noticeable aberration in general photographs.
DxOMark provides objective, independent, RAW-based image quality performance data for lenses and digital cameras to help you select the best equipment to meet your photographic needs.
Visit the DxOMark website for tests performed on the Nikon D3100.
Nikon D3100: Verdict
The Nikon D3100 DSLR offers excellent value for money and is currently the cheapest DSLR with full HD video recording, as the nearest competitor, the Canon EOS 550D, costs over £100 more. If you want to be able to take great photos with low noise, and have the ability to record full HD videos, then the D3100 with VR kit lens makes a great case for itself.
The camera is a high specification DSLR with a useful set of features and options, is easy to control, and offers excellent image quality with low noise and lots of detail. Photos produced by the camera have bright saturated colours that should be pleasing to all, and are well exposed with excellent auto-white balance.
More advanced photographers may find the camera a little bit limiting because it doesn’t offer as many advanced options as some other entry level DSLRs, nor very many direct access controls or function buttons.
The D3100, with its built in guide, numerous scene modes, and creative retouching menu is aimed at someone who wants to take great photos without too many complications, and it makes a great camera for those also looking for manual controls. Overall the Nikon D3100 would make a Highly Recommended purchase for those looking for a high quality DSLR with full HD video, without having to spend over £500.
|A high quality DSLR with HD video at an affordable price.|
14.2 megapixel sensor with low noise
Lowest price DSLR with full HD Video
Very good ISO performance
Good battery life
Easy to use with built in guide
Quiet shutter – with additional quiet live view option
Nikon D3100: Cons
Only autofocuses with AF-S lenses
Continuous shooting not available with flash
3fps continuous shooting beginning to look dated
|VALUE FOR MONEY|
Nikon D3100: Specification
|Sensor size||23.1 x 15.4mm|
|Max image size||4608 x 3072|
|Focusing system||TTL phase detection|
|Focus points||11 focus points|
|Focus type||Single-point AF, dynamic-area AF, auto-area AF, 3D-tracking (11 points)|
|Lens mount||Nikon F mount (with AF contacts)|
|File types||NEF (RAW), JPEG, NEF (RAW) + JPEG|
|ISO sensitivity||ISO 100 to 3200 in steps of 1 EV; can also be set to approx. 1 EV above ISO 3200 (ISO 6400 equivalent) or to approx. 2 EV above ISO 3200 (ISO 12800 equivalent)|
|Metering system||TTL exposure metering using 420-pixel RGB sensor|
|Metering types||Matrix, Center-weighted, Spot|
|White Balance||Auto, incandescent, fluorescent (7 types), direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade, preset manual, all except preset manual with fine tuning.|
|White Balance Compensation||Amber / Blue +/- 6, Green / Magenta +/- 6|
|Exposure compensation||-5 to +5 EV in increments of 1/3 EV|
|Shutter speed range||1/4000 to 30 s in steps of 1/3 EV, Bulb|
|Flash sync speed||X=1/200 s; synchronizes with shutter at 1/200 s or slower|
|Image stabilisation||N/A (Lens only)|
|Movie Mode||1,920 x 1,080 (24p) 1,280 x 720 (30p, 25p, 24p) 640 x 424 (24p)|
Eye-level pentamirror single-lens reflex viewfinder
Approx. 95% horizontal and 95% vertical Frame Coverage
|Monitor||7.5-cm/3-in., approx. 230 k-dot TFT LCD with brightness adjustment|
|Media type||SD (Secure Digital), SDHC and SDXC memory cards|
|Power||Rechargeable Li-ion Battery EN-EL14|
|Box contents||Nikon Strap, Battery, Battery charger, Body cap, Eyepiece cap, Accessory shoe cover, Software CD ROM, Quick Start Guide, Users Manual, Reference manual CD ROM, Warranty cards.|
|Size Approx.||124 x 96 x 74.5 mm (4.9 x 3.8 x 2.9 in.)|
|Weight Approx.||455 g (Camera body only)|
The Nikon D3100 with 18-55mm lens costs £494 and is available from Warehouse Express here:
Nikon D3100 with 18-55mm lens