initial review: 3/21/11



  Nikon D3100 Review

Nikon fixes the broken D3000, mostly

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I'm going to try to keep this short, as there isn't a lot to talk about beyond what I've already written about low-end Nikon DSLRs.

The low-end Nikon DSLR has had a long run: D50 to D40 to D40x to D60 to D3000, and now the D3100. Unfortunately, the first four years of design progression showed that Nikon didn't quite know what to do to evolve their bottom end DSLRs. In particular, the D40x to D60 to D3000 progression produced three 10mp cameras that didn't redefine low-end DSLRs, but really only churned the design space. The good news is that the D3100 keeps the things that were good about the D3000, but changes some of the things that weren't so good about it.

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan
The 35mm f/1.8G DX is a nice size on the small D3100 body.

It didn't take a lot of changes to alter my view on the basic camera. Where I wasn't overly fond of picking up my D3000 to shoot something, I will pick my D3100 as a camera to use from time to time. Intentionally. What a difference a year makes.

The basic premise behind the low-end DSLR is this: cut as much out from the higher-end products that both adds cost and complicates the product, then add some beginner hand holding. That has meant, for instance, that the screw-drive for older autofocus lenses (lenses prior to AF-S) is gone, as are the DOF Preview button, dedicated buttons for white balance and other camera settings, the Front Command dial, and even the metering selection dial. By comparison, for instance, at the top of the consumer line we have the D7000 with 17 buttons and four switches compared to the D3100 having 13 buttons and two switches. Simplification of controls is the name of the game. Still, the D3100 has more controls than the D3000 it replaces, and just those few changes are enough to make a tangible difference in handling.

Meanwhile, other features get reduced from the higher end consumer DSLRs, too: a smaller LCD, a cheaper pentamirror for the viewfinder, and fewer connections to external things (no infrared remote detector, for instance).

The Japanese have long been good at parsing features out to low end models versus high end in consumer electronics. But often their choices seem questionable to the user. That was especially true in the case of the D3000, but a less true of the D3100. Nikon added back just enough things to make this less of a stripped-down model than its predecessor: video, GPS, and Auto distortion control, for example.

The D3100 was introduced in early fall of 2010. One thing not particularly hyped by Nikon, but definitely needing to be talked about, is the fact that the D3100 comes with a Nikon designed and Nikon produced sensor, the first time that's happened with a DX format DSLR. That it's a video-capable 14mp sensor with good high ISO capability actually makes for the biggest single change from the D3000. A dramatic change. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Recommended
It's not a great beginner's camera, which was the target user. Serious users can ignore the GUIDE mode and use this as a small, light DX body, but the only thing they'll see an improvement over the D60 in is the autofocus system. Still, it's a competent, small DSLR.

features:

performance:

build:

value:

The D3100 hits the average pretty much across the board for DSLR. I was tempted to give it a higher mark for performance, but highlight detail and video quality on motion hold it back.

 



 

The Basics

The D3100 is not really a new body. It's basically a D3000 body (which was a D60 body) with a few tweaks. Like the D3000, the D3100 has a 3" LCD and uses the 11-segment CAM1000 autofocus sensor. If you look closely, you'll also find a GUIDE setting on the Mode dial, and a Shooting Method switch at the base of the Mode dial. Live View gets a lever instead of a button, and the red button in the middle of the lever provides quick access to video recording. There's a small microphone opening (three holes) on the front near the nameplate, and a speaker opening on the back. Other than that and the model number insignia, you'd be hard pressed to find a lot of changes between a D3000 (or even a D60) and the D3100 on external examination.

Internally the big change is the imaging sensor. The D3100 sports a Nikon-designed 14mp DX sensor that's got a few slightly odd properties. First, it's ever so slightly smaller than the usual DX sensor (23.1 x 15.4mm instead of 23.6 x 15.6). That's not enough to really make for an angle of view change, but it does seem odd, as it's a size that hasn't existed before to my knowledge. Why Nikon would pick a different size for a new sensor is unclear.

Beyond the 4608 x 3072 pixel (also a slightly odd number) still images the D3100 produces, the sensor supports 1080P/24 and 720P/24/25/30 video. Interestingly, the D3100 and D7000 both have the same video specifications, and better specifications than any previous Nikon DSLR, at that. Also like the D7000, the D3100 has continuous contrast autofocus available when recording video. ISO values from 100 to 3200 are directly supported, with HI 1 (6400) and HI 2 (12,800) also available.

As with the D3000, the menus have been changed and a number of things moved (various Custom Setting items found their way either to the SHOOTING or SETUP menus), making for a fairly straightforward and logical menu system (though if you use other Nikon DSLRs you'll need to look for where a few things went (e.g. GPS is now on the SETUP menu, not the SHOOTING menu as it is on other Nikon DSLRs). Finally, the GUIDE system has been updated a bit and gives you yet another way of "using menus." More on the GUIDE system later.

The D3100 also gets a new battery, the EN-EL14 (same as Coolpix P7000). While I don't like the constant parade of new batteries, apparently one of the motivations behind the new one is that Japanese export laws have forced electronics firms to create batteries without exposed terminals.

The bottom line is that the basics haven't changed much. To wit:

 
D60
D3000
D3100
Sensor
10mp Sony CCD 10mp Sony CCD 14mp Nikon CMOS
Shutter Speeds
30 to 1/4000 30 to 1/4000 30 to 1/4000
Flash Sync
1/200 1/200 1/200
Matrix Meter
420 pixel sensor 420 pixel sensor 420 pixel sensor
Flash
i-TTL, manual i-TTL, manual i-TTL, manual
Focus
CAM 530, only AF-S lenses CAM 1000, only AF-S lenses CAM 1000, only AF-S lenses
Storage
SD or SDHC card SD or SDHC card SD, SDHC, SDXC card
ISO
100-1600 1EV steps + HI1 100-1600 1EV steps + HI1 100-3200 +HI, HI2
Frame Rate
3fps 3fps 3fps
Color LCD
2.5", 230,000 dots 3", 233,000 dots 3", 230,000 dots
Viewfinder
Pentamirror, 95%, 0.8x magnification, 18mm eyepoint, -1.6 to +.5 diopters Pentamirror, 95%, 0.78x magnification, 17.9mm eyepoint, -1.6 to +1 diopters Pentamirror, 95%, 0.8x magnification, 18mm eyepoint, -1.7 to +0.5 diopters
Other
No DOF Preview, No Top LCD, No Mirror Prerelease, No LCD cover, No Front Command dial, No vertical grip, has FUNC button, no bracketing No DOF Preview, No Top LCD, No Mirror Prerelease, No LCD cover, No Front Command dial, No vertical grip, has FUNC button, no bracketing No DOF Preview, No Top LCD, No Mirror Prerelease, No LCD cover, No Front Command dial, No vertical grip, has FUNC button, no bracketing, Live View capability added, 1080P and 720P video recording, GPS support
Remote
IR wireless only IR wireless only MC-DC2 cable
Battery
EN-EL9 EN-EL9a EN-EL14
Size
5 x 3.7 x 2.5" 5 x 3.8 x 2.5" 4.9 x 3.8 x 3"
Weight
1 lb (471g) 1.1 lb (485g) 1 lb (455g)

Not a lot of changes there, right?

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan
As befitting a low-end camera, the controls on the D3100 are relatively simple. Only nine buttons on the back (some Nikons have as many as 16).

 

Handling

Yes, the lack of screw-drive means that you can't use older autofocus lenses. Only AF-S lenses will autofocus on this camera (also Sigma HSM and Tamron or Tokina with built-in motors). But Nikon now has enough AF-S lenses that this isn't really a terrible problem, and the third parties are adding similar lenses every day. Plus the D3100 has the same "rangefinder" option that the D60 and D3000 did, which can be very useful in manually focusing older lenses. I've written at length about the compromises that result from the requirement that a lens be AF-S to autofocus on these cameras before (e.g. see my D40, D40x, and D60 reviews). I won't belabor that here. Either the lack of the screw drive is a deal breaker for you or it isn't. I'm on the "isn't" side of the fence, but I understand those on the other side of the question.

But let's get to the crux of the review. I liked the D40x. I liked the D60. I didn't like the D3000. How come the D3100 is now back on my like list? It's a little difficult to explain, as the changes that provoked the change of heart are actually relatively small. The dreaded (and still poor) GUIDE mode is still there, but you can pretty much ignore it if you want to. So let's look at those other little things.

Live View is now in the camera and that's a very handy feature for any DSLR. It's invoked with a small lever on the back of the camera. No fiddling with dials as with the old D3 design; just a simple and direct lever. Flip it and you're in Live View. Flip it again and you're out. In the middle of the Live View lever is a red button, and that starts and stops video recording. So, you flip to Live View to get the video stream going and check things like white balance and focus, then press record. A simple and reasonably elegant solution. If you're in a hurry, you can almost do both at once. But what you don't have is the problem I find with some low-end cameras: you can't accidentally hit the red button and start recording a video unintentionally. I can't tell you how many times I've done that on some cameras that have "instant video" buttons, and it's annoying. No annoyance in Nikon's new implementation. Score one for the design team.

The Shooting Method switch underneath the Mode dial is also nice. Going from single frame to continuous to self timer to quiet mode (yes, there's a quiet mode on the shutter release) is just a simple flick of a switch. When you've only got a few options available, using a button+dial seems like overkill. Nikon seems have figured that out. That's two plus marks for the design team.

One confusing thing is that there are two INFO buttons. The one on top of the camera just turns the Shooting Information display on and off. The one on the back of the camera turns the display on first press and jumps you to direct setting mode on the second, ala the higher end DSLRs. Could the engineers not figure out that a third press ought to turn off the display? The D7000 engineers figured that out. Did the D3100 engineers miss that meeting? Yes, I know that the D3100 doesn't have a top LCD so turning on the back LCD seems like a logical choice, but in practice, I'd prefer off. Also, having the rear LCD on while looking through the viewfinder is distracting; what happened to the auto off feature? The top INFO button also could have been used for something more interesting, like ISO, white balance, or metering method (the latter would make the most sense in terms of keeping designs consistent). Oh dear, that makes the design changes score: 2 pluses and 1 minus.

Hurray, hurray, the most used SHOOTING menu items are on the first page of the SHOOTING menu (and it's only two pages total). The SETUP menu doesn't fair quite as well, and could have used a bit more in terms of logical grouping (there are doing things [format card, etc.], setting things [LCD brightness, etc.], and configuring things [Buttons]. It would have been nice if they were grouped together, and in that order, as that's basically the likelihood you'll change them (you configure once, you set occasionally, you do most often). Given that the D3100's SETUP menu is different than all the other cameras (as was the D3000), it really is a shame that they didn't carry through with a strong rationale behind where things were on that menu. Ah well, the SHOOTING menu is more important most of the time, and they got that right. That's 3 pluses, 2 minuses.

The Fn button can be programmed as a QUAL, ISO, WB, or Active D-Lighting button. The AE-L/AF-L button can be programmed to the usual suspects plus AF-On. For serious users, those are decent choices, though a bit limiting.

The GUIDE setting on the Mode dial still produces chaos, though less chaos than before. Since I just described a few things about the menus, here's one of the problems: Image quality is on the SHOOTING menu normally. When you switch to GUIDE, it's on the...wait for it...SETUP section/menu. Oh dear. This pretty much does the thing that I faulted the D3000 for: a good novice system helps a user learn things that are useful for when they switch to the Big Boy controls. The D3100 doesn't do that (nor did the D3000). Shooting is shooting and setup is setup. Don't make something move back and forth between those two words.

The good news is that a few of the "guides" in the advanced version of the system are now okay. The bad news is that things I complained about in the D3000 are still there in the D3100: for instance, select "Distant subjects" from the "Easy operation" section of the "Shooting" section and you find the camera stating "The camera is now in 'Sports' mode. Choose for fast shutter speeds with low blur." What!?!? Why the heck does a distant subject need fast shutter speeds? Perhaps if the distant subject is a Formula 1 race car headed towards you, but there's a complete disconnect between the setting and the advice being given in many of the "Easy operation" settings. Whoever wrote this system needs a crash course in basic photography. So will the user who tries to master it.

Some of the "Easy operation" settings are a bit strange. For instance, we have "Sleeping faces" as one of our choices. Apparently the goal of this setting is to turn off the flash so that it doesn't wake your subject. Most compact cameras get this more right than the D3100: just turn off the flash! In other words, a No Flash setting.

I understand the idea behind putting a "guide" into a beginners's camera. But Nikon's implementation is such a mess as to be worthless, in my opinion. Indeed, it just complicates what would otherwise be a simple and fairly convenient camera.

One thing Nikon did do that's a little better than before is they didn't force as many restrictions with Scene exposure modes. With previous low-end cameras, once you set a Scene exposure mode you usually were locked out of virtually all other settings. They've release a few of those locks (for example, in Sports exposure mode you can override Autofocus Area mode now (but still not White Balance).

One good news bit about handling is that the PASM exposure mode user who wants to control basic camera settings still can do their thing. And for the most part the camera won't get in the way. The things that user sees in the menus and controls is improved for the most part.

The bottom line is this: if you stay out of GUIDE the camera is basic and direct. Get into GUIDE and you'll get lost in a sea of confusing information. Simple solution: stay out of the GUIDE mode.

 

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Performance

Battery Life
Battery performance is good, about right for the intended user of the camera. I was able to get more than 1000 images to a charge. Nikon suggests that the camera gets 550 image for the CIPA standard test, and 2000 for their continuous release test. Actual use seems to fall in between those two test patterns. I never approached 2000 images in normal use, though I could duplicate Nikon's numbers with exactly their test procedure. But I also wasn't limited to just 550 images, either. The target user for this camera will do just fine with the battery life. The serious users who attempt to use this camera as a small and light every day shooter won't have any troubles with carrying an extra battery, especially since they're small and light.

Writing to Card
The D40, D40x, D60, and D3000 weren't exactly speed demons writing to the SD card, but they weren't slouches, either. The D3100 continues that tradition. It's worth moving to at least a Class 6 card with this camera for stills, Class 10 for video, but anything above that tends to be overkill. The camera supports SDHC and SDXC for larger card sizes and long movies.

Autofocus System
Autofocus performance is excellent within its 11-postion constraints, same as the D3000.

The use of the CAM1000 system was the one nice update to the D3000, and it remains here in the D3100 mostly unchanged. Not only does this give the camera more area to find focus in than the older low-end Nikon consumer bodies, it supports better and more sophisticated focus tracking than the D40, D40x, and D60 bodies did. You don't get as much control as you do with the D7000, but you get about the same focus performance at the same settings from the central sensor, slightly less in the outer sensors.

Continuous autofocus using the contrast method is available, but it doesn't work very well. Getting an initial focus for Live View or video via contrast AF actually works halfway decently and quickly in good contrast or light, but continuous performance? No, Subject-tracking AF rarely does what its name implies.

Image Quality
So the bottom line comes down to this: just how good is the new 14mp Nikon DX sensor? Answer: quite good.

Let's start with a typically hard to capture landscape scene (here shot with the 55-300mm DX lens at 100mm at the base ISO of 100). The first image is the whole scene, the second is actual pixels:

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan

There's plenty of detail in this image (I'll have more to say about dynamic range in a bit). This image has been converted using Adobe Raw Converter with no noise reduction and minimal sharpening. The plain sky area does not have the classic Nikon "grain" to it, which is nice to see. Edge acuity is good. You'd be hard pressed to tell this is a 14mp sensor versus the D7000's 16mp. In fact, the giveaway wouldn't be resolution. Nikon seems to have a slightly relaxed AA filter in this camera and it's on the over-resolving side, not the under as usual.

You want the gym shots, I know, so let's delve into them. First, straight from the camera JPEG at ISO 3200 with noise reduction turned off:

Copyight 2011 Thom Hogan

We've got some clear color noise (see the basketball and parts of the net). A credible job, though not great. Now let's look at the NEF file from the same shot brought up to the correct exposure and using some basic Adobe noise reduction (ignore the color change, that's a typical Adobe "too orange" conversion):

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan

The D3100 is very close to the D7000 here (but does not match it). The same things I see in D7000 low light work I see here: some modest luminance noise that can be tolerated, but noise reduction techniques tend to destroy edge and detail integrity. That's true of the in-camera noise reduction, too. The implication here is that the dynamic range is as good as the other Nikon bodies, but that doesn't quite seem to be true to me.

Highlights clip fast on this camera, and overall I'd measure the usable dynamic range of the D3100 as more like the D300s than the D7000 at base ISO. In fact, slightly worse than the D300s. DxOMark's engineering DR measurements seem to confirm this. So let me put it this way: for most uses, the D3100 has more than acceptable dynamic range, and thus, noise tendencies. But take another look at the landscape sample, above. The whitest areas of the image are hitting in the 230's (in 8-bit mode) but not retaining highlight detail well. There's something a little bit strange about the response of this sensor as it nears well saturation, I think. This is not a camera I'd want to photograph the bride's dress with.

Meanwhile, at the dark end, when noise does appear, it's more strongly luminance than color, which means that its visual impact can be tempered. Highlights do tend to clip, though, and you can see that again in those two basketball samples (note the top left of the rim and the diagonal line on the backboard, both of which have gone way past clipping). One final thing in terms of DR: it's a very linear drop as you boost ISO. Unlike some bodies--the D3s being the most notorious, but even the D300s has a taste of this--boosting ISO results in a direct DR loss on the D3100, always.

Color reproduction is quite good, very much on par with the other current Nikon DSLRs, perhaps a tiny bit more saturated at the same settings.

Video is a can of worms. On the one hand, the output looks reasonably clean, better than the D90 output. But on the other hand the D3100 has the worst rolling shutter problems I've seen on a video-enabled compact or DSLR. Rolling shutter refers to the fact that video "frames" are not recorded simultaneously: the sensor outputs one or more lines at a time, then moves to the next line(s). If there's significant delay between grabbing a line(s) motion in the frame, whether it be subject or camera, starts to record with a diagonal component to vertical bits and pieces. For example, pan back and forth on a telephone pole with a CD-based video camera and the telephone pole still stands straight up. On CMOS-based video, the rolling shutter will make the telephone pole lean one way, then the other as you pan back and forth, sometimes referred to as the Jello effect. As I noted, the D3100 is about the worst culprit in this respect as I've seen to date. The D90, D5000, and D300s look tame in comparison, and the D3s looks rock solid. The D3100 is not an action video camera. Don't try to use it as one otherwise your viewers will get seasick.

Overall, the new Nikon sensor is very good, but not great. For most users and uses, there aren't any great complaints. Stay at the lower ISO values and you'll be fine, especially if you watch for highlight clipping.

Should You Get a D3100?
The D3100 is a competent camera. If you don't need the GUIDE system, it's a solid entry-level DSLR, easily the best Nikon has made to date in terms of image quality (and even, surprisingly, feature set now that they've added things like Live View, video, and GPS). I can recommend it if you need that kind of camera. Indeed, in terms of image quality, I think it probably beats a D5000, though not by a lot.

If you're coming from one of the 6mp or 10mp Nikon DSLRs, I don't think there's much doubt: the D3100 is a step up. From the 12mp Nikon DSLRs I wouldn't bother, as you're losing features and gaining (if anything) very little.

A few people will put a 20mm, 40mm, and 90mm Voigtlander manual focus lens kit on this camera and be in heaven. The viewfinder isn't the greatest for manual focus, but Live View gives you an out for that. Such a kit is small, light, and highly competent.

But...

The D7000 sets a very high bar for consumer DSLRs in the Nikon lineup now. The D3100 is about at the D90 level in terms of image quality in most respects, but the bar moved. That makes the "value" of the D3100 a bit less than it probably should be. At US$499 it would be a great value. At it's current price of $599 (with kit lens), it's an average value. Obviously, over time that price will come down. But so too will expectations go up. So pardon me if I see just a little ambivalent in my recommendation of the D3100. There's just enough change here to get me to like the low-end Nikon DSLR again, but not quite enough change to make me excited about it.

Drawbacks

  • Wide isn't wide. Nikon hasn't really produced a true wide angle that's small enough to complement this camera.
  • Video is wobbly. Rolling shutter problems are about as bad as I've seen in a DSLR. Talking head videos are okay; roller blade action, not so much.
  • Complicated for a beginner's camera. The "GUIDE" doesn't. The normal menu system scrolls too much (esp. the SETUP menu).

Positives

  • Good AF. Like the D3000, the AF system is decent, even with Live View for stationary subjects.
  • Nice image. 14mp of goodness through ISO 1600. Can reach the high notes with care.
  • Small and light. It's about the right size and weight for a "daily driver" camera you carry everywhere with you, at least if you couple it with some small primes. It holds up well, too.

 


 

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