Nikon’s presence in the entry-level DSLR market has been strong for many years, and following the success of the D60 and D3000, the latest D3100 amps things up a couple of gears. With a storming features-list that takes advantage of relatively sparse recent competitor model releases, can this new DSLR live up to the hype?
With a new 14.2-megapixel CMOS sensor, the D3100 is the first of Nikon’s latest generation of DSLR cameras. As well as large stills from ISO 100-3200 as standard, the latest EXPEED 2 processing engine also has a Hi1 and Hi2 setting for ISO 6400-12,800 equivalent at full resolution. And if that didn’t seem like enough then an updated movie mode features too; now capable of capturing motion in Full HD 1080p at 24fps for cinematic-like quality, the D3100 sees the old Motion-JPEG capture of Nikon’s older generation cameras ousted, favouring the H.264 compression codec for best compression quality. It’s a strong look as the D3100 succeeds in out-classing a number of DSLR cameras classed as "higher spec" in various manufacturers’ ranges.
However, it never shies away from the fact that it’s an entry-level camera through and through - by matching up that top specification with Guide Mode there’s an assurance that first time photographers of every level will get the best from the camera thanks to simple-to-read menus that spell out what modes and functions do in plain English. These written instructions and explanations don’t hinder the more knowledgeable user however, as other modes such as Auto or the variety of Scene modes work much like a point-and-shoot compact. And for those looking to get more adventurous there’s the usual array of fully manual modes. Tucked away in the menus is also a Set Picture Control option for toggling between Standard, Vivid, Monochrome and other picture settings. Nikon’s D-Lighting also features, and can be switched on to better expose for shadow and highlight detail simultaneously in one shot - though, for realism, this is best used sparingly.
Design-wise and the camera is every piece the usual DSLR in terms of layout, though there are some nice touches that fall effortlessly into place too. An Fn (Function) button appears to the front left side of the camera, tucked behind the lens in a position that’s easy to reach. This can be assigned to quickly adjust a user-defined setting (though there are limitations to which options) once you’ve got to grips with everything else, and helps stop over-working the amount of menu digging required to use the camera in detail. Elsewhere and the main mode dial has a drive mode switch around it for easy adjustment between single frame shooting, self timer, continuous shooting (up to 3 frames per second) and a new Quiet Shutter option, as per that found on the Nikon D300s. When in the Quiet setting all camera’s beeps and sounds are automatically turned off and, although the shutter is not silent, the more “separated” occurrence of sound does take the edge off such an abrupt shutter noise.
There’s very little to criticise about the camera’s layout whatsoever, though the sole thumbwheel on the rear may have been more comfortably positioned to the front side of the camera.
When shooting there’s a choice of utilising the viewfinder with its 95 per cent field of view or the 3-inch, 230k-dot LCD on the rear in live view mode. Both are comfortable standards for this level of DSLR, though the LCD isn’t wholly accurate in displaying final exposure compared to how images look on a computer screen. On the upside the live view mode has the ability to use the magnification buttons to enlarge a preview area for accurate manual focus as required and the 11 autofocus points clearly show and light up red through the viewfinder for accurate use. Autofocus in live view is much slower than when using the viewfinder due to the different focus types employed. Through the viewfinder and the focus system works well in good light, though isn’t lightning fast - yet perfectly amicable for this level. The centre AF point is cross-type which makes for increased sensitivity whether shooting portrait or landscape orientation and the two furthest points are set wide apart for a good range of coverage across the sensor. Low light focusing is assisted by an AF-assist lamp that’s effective; when not deployed dark subjects and flat, similarly-toned surfaces can struggle to register and be focused on.
As much as a full angle of view through the finder and a higher resolution LCD are certainly desirable, the cost implication isn’t. With the D3100 found for around £580 in many online stores with its 18-55mm kit lens, that’s likely to be at the top end of most people's budgets, and is actually fairly close to the Nikon D5000’s asking price. Indeed the asking price may be the D3100’s comeuppance given it’s halfway between entry- and mid-level.
Lastly, of course, there’s the D3100’s rather well-specced Full HD video mode. With a one-touch button centred around the live view switch, take a single press and you’re shooting the action immediately. Focusing during recording depends on a half depression of the shutter button (irrelevant of which AF mode the camera is in) and slight over and under-focusing can be a problem during capture. This is a familiar tale with DSLR cameras and makes more complex subject tracking and various focus levels tricky to achieve. However the new H.264 compression and 1080p resolution (though the sensor itself can only output 1080i max from the mini HDMI port on the camera) certainly brings this model up to date and, although it’s not the most pro option out there (see Sony’s SLT-A33 for the best autofocus and Canon’s 5D mkII for best all-round capabilities) it’s still yet another medal to tag to the trophy given the target audience.
Assessing image quality when only utilising the provided kit lens can be tricky, as using a different and better-specified lens would open up greater scope for quality (relative to the sensor’s ability). As it stands the provided 18-55mm kit lens is fine, though couldn’t be deemed as exceptionally sharp - it does a great job and there’s plenty of scope to buy into other Nikon lenses (though, without a focusing motor in the D3100’s body (it is in the lenses instead) you’ll need to ensure Nikon AF-S or AF-I lenses are used if you want autofocus).
The ISO range can be set to automatically pick from 100-3200 as desired, while the Hi1 (ISO 6400) and Hi2 (ISO 12,800) settings need to be manually selected. The overall quality is impressive, with image noise at the lower ISO settings notably absent. There’s suggestion of a grain-like quality from ISO 400, and this continues to increase up until ISO 3200 where images are slightly softer due to noise reduction. Colour noise wasn’t an issue at all, except in the two “Hi” settings. Despite the increased resolution over the previous D3000 camera, the quality still shows progression and is impressive. Those looking for an all-in-one DSLR package will be best pleased about the images that can be quickly and easily achieved from this camera.
As a whole the D3100 is an incredibly well-specced DSLR that delivers in droves. For those looking for a first time DSLR purchase, then the other options on the market are either dated or pale in significance by comparison.
Great to use, with enough guiding through the user interface for the most novice of shooters, and plenty of spec for those snappers more familiar, there’s very little to moan about at all. Add Full HD movie mode and that ices an already sweet cake.
Precariously close to scoring full marks, it’s only the D3100’s relatively high price and the fact that image sharpness could do with an extra “lick of paint” so to speak (add a better lens, however, and that’s resolved) that ever so marginally hold it back. But that’s just nit picking as, frankly, the D3100 is hands down the best entry-level DSLR available today, bar none.