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Nikon D3100 Gordon Laing, November 2010
 
 

Nikon D3100 design and controls

The Nikon D3100 physically resembles its predecessor when viewed from the front and shares essentially the same width and height. It is however thicker and features a classy rubber grip which feels better in your hands than most entry-level DSLRs. The grip also features a shallow indentation for your fingertips which may not be as deep as the company's higher-end bodies, but certainly helps in holding the camera comfortably and securely. Don't expect miracles at this price-point, but personally speaking it enjoys the best ergonomics of its rivals. Note the infra-red remote control sensor in the earlier D3000's grip is now missing, so it's cabled remotes only on the D3100.

   
   


 

In terms of mass, the D3100 body and battery weigh-in at around 500g, which is a little lighter than the earlier D3000, albeit matching the Canon EOS 1000D / XS. Fit their respective kit lenses though and there's a small difference as the Nikkor 18-55mm VR kit lens is a little longer and 65g heavier than the Canon. As such the EOS 1000D / XS entry-level kit enjoys a small advantage in overall size and weight, but this difference is unlikely to be a deal-breaker for the Nikon. Build quality between these entry-level models is essentially the same – they feel good in your hands without any creaks or poor joins, but don't expect any weatherproofing or much protection against significant impacts.

   
 
   
   
 
   

Looking at the D3100 from the top and rear, it again shares the same style and basic layout as its predecessor, but with two major control differences: round the edge of the exposure mode dial you'll now find a four-position lever to set the drive mode, while to the upper right or the screen on the back a new spring-loaded lever to enter Live View, after which the red button in the middle will start and stop video recording.

The Live View lever has a satisfyingly tactile feel as you twist it with your thumb, while the addition of a drive mode lever is a classy touch for an entry-level model – it certainly makes it quick and easy to select, say, continuous shooting or the self-timer.

Eagle-eyed Nikon followers may also notice there's now five buttons to the left of the screen rather than four. There's actually the same number of functions on offer, but on the D3100, zoom-in and information edit 'i' now enjoy their own dedicated buttons. We'll describe how the i control works later in the review.

As before, the main control on the rear is a four-way rocker with an OK button in the middle. Like the D3000, this is unlabelled to make the camera as unintimidating as possible, although it equally means the D3100 misses out on the opportunity to directly select menu pages for common settings, such as for the sensitivity and white balance. While there may now be a dedicated drive mode lever, pretty much everything else requires you to delve into the often laborious screen-based interface, more of which later.

There is some relief in the programmable Fn button though, located just below the flash button by the lens mount. This can be set to offer direct access to the Image quality, ISO, White balance or Active D-Lighting options.

Note there’s still no optical depth-of-field preview on the D3100, although Sony’s entry-level Alpha doesn't have one either. Canon is standing relatively alone in the budget category by offering one on its EOS 1000D / XS.

 
   
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The Nikon D3100 is equipped with both a popup flash with a Guide number of 12 and a hotshoe for external flashguns. Flash compensation and power level is adjustable, and you can also choose from red-eye, slow-sync and rear-curtain options. The built-in flash Guide number increases to 13 with manual control, which matches that of the Canon EOS 1000D / XS; both beat the relatively weak popup flash on the Sony A290 which has a Guide number of 10. The D3100’s built-in flash can either popup automatically or by pressing a button on the side of the head, and once you’re finished with it, just push it back into place.

Like its predecessor, the D3100’s maximum flash sync speed is an average 1/200, leaving us to fondly reminisce about the discontinued D40 which inherited the surprisingly quick 1/500 flash sync speed of the much older D50; ironic since both were entry-level models. If you mount a compatible flashgun like the SB-400, SB-600, SB-800 or SB-900, the D3000 can support the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) which offers iTTL control.

On the right side of the body (as it's held for shooting) you'll find an SD memory card slot that's now compatible with the latest SDXC standard in addition to SD and SDHC. Cards rated as Class 6 or faster are recommended for the HD movie mode.

On the left side of the body you'll find the ports behind a large flap. In addition to the analogue TV output and USB port of its predecessor, the D3100 adds the mandatory Mini HDMI port, along with a proprietary connector for the optional MC-DC2 wired remote control or GP-1 GPS unit.

In a compartment underneath the body you'll find the new rechargeable EN-EL14 Lithium Ion battery pack, rated at 1030mAh and good for around the same 550 shots as its predecessor, under CIPA conditions. In general use, we managed around 200 shots with plenty of Live View compositions and several minutes of video recording. Battery life is shown on-screen using a three segment indicator, but unlike higher-end models in the range, there's no menu showing a precise percentage of remaining charge. After filming an uninterrupted ten minute 1080p clip with a fully charged battery, the three segment indicator fell to one.

 

 

Nikon D3100 viewfinder

The Nikon D3100 shares the same viewfinder specification as its predecessor: a penta-mirror system delivering 95% and 0.8x magnification. Technically speaking, the apparent size of the D3100’s viewfinder falls fractionally below that of the Sony A290 and Canon EOS 1000 / XS, but look through all three one after each other and you’re unlikely to notice any difference – in terms of coverage and apparent size anyway.

The markings through the D3100 viewfinder do however look different to the earlier D3000. The D3000 impressively featured a transmissive LCD focusing screen, which allowed focus point markings to disappear when not active, while additionally offering an alignment grid which could be switched on and off as required. This was a really nice feature to find on a budget DSLR, but sadly Nikon's swapped it on the D3100 for a more conventional screen with fixed etchings which remain in place when the camera's switched off; suffice it to say, there's no longer an on-demand alignment grid either. It also means rather than using black LCD rectangles for each AF point, they're now illuminated with red dots when active.

 

The information running below the viewfinder image remains the same as before, which means there's still no ISO value shown at all times. Like the D3000 before it, there's also no IR sensors to switch off the screen as you compose with your eye against the viewfinder, but the default timers turn the screen off pretty quickly, and there's always the INFO button to do it manually if required.

An interesting feature inherited from the D60 and D5000 is the Rangefinder option, enabled in the Custom Function menu. This uses the exposure compensation scale in the viewfinder (but not on the main screen) to indicate focus distance while manually focusing. As you approach perfect focus, the scale reduces to just two markers either side of zero.

 

Nikon D3100 screen and live view

 
   

The Nikon D3100 is fitted with the same 3in / 230k / 320x240 pixel fixed screen as its predecessor, which is somewhat of a disappointment considering the panels available today and the camera's elevated price. To be fair, it is bigger than the 2.5in / 230k screen on the cheaper Canon EOS 1000D / XS, but falls behind on brightness and viewing angle.

Meanwhile, the similarly-priced EOS 500D / T1i boasts a 3in / 920k VGA screen with much finer details, while spend a little more on the EOS 550D / T2i and you'll enjoy a 3in / 1040k monitor which matches the 3:2 shaped images which all these cameras capture, allowing them to fill the screen. Place the D3100 next to any of these cameras and the image looks duller and coarser, while in our tests also suffering from quite visible smearing in strong sunlight. If this all sounds harsh, don't get us wrong, the D3100's screen is okay, but just falls behind its rivals and is ultimately disappointing given the rest of the camera. It's also worth noting Nikon's own D5000, which costs roughly the same as the D3100, features a fully articulated (albeit slightly smaller) 2.7in / 230k screen.

One of the headline new features of the D3100 is Live View, a capability sorely lacking from its predecessor. Some traditionalists may still not see the point in Live View, but the ability to compose with the screen has many advantages over the viewfinder, for both beginners wanting the familiar operation of a point-and-shoot, and enthusiasts who'll exploit magnified focusing assistance direct from the sensor and superimposed graphics. As such it's a key new feature for the D3100 and while the implementation is similar to the D5000 before it, it boasts a brand new capability we've not seen on any Nikon DSLR so far.

To enter Live View on the D3100, you flick the spring-loaded lever by the corner of the screen with your thumb – this control has a classy and satisfyingly tactile feel to it compared to a plain button. A second flick of the lever will exit Live View unless the built-in timer does it for you first.

When first entering Live View you'll notice the timer in the upper left corner counting down from 30 seconds. Pressing any button will effectively reset the counter back to 30, but once it hits zero, the camera will exit Live View. Nikon doesn't state whether this is to save power or prevent overheating, but the manual does say it may not appear straightaway. We're not sure when it wouldn't appear though, as it started counting down every single time we entered Live View throughout our testing period during New Zealand's Spring weather conditions. When attempting fine adjustments on a tripod, we frequently found the D3100's 30 second Live View timer a little hasty and somewhat off-putting. A half-press of the shutter release may have reset it, but it did feel like the camera was constantly telling us to 'hurry up!'

     
     

Pressing the Info button by the shutter release cycles through three display options: the default view shows basic shooting information in a black bar below the live image, with additional details super-imposed at the top. The second view removes the super-imposed details for a clean view of the image with basic exposure details below. Finally, the third view super-imposes a four-by-four alignment grid. Like other non-pro Nikon bodies, there's no live histogram, which is beginning to feel lacking when one is available on entry-level models from other manufacturers. Suffice it to say there's no virtual horizon either.

If you're shooting in Auto, the D3100 exploits Live View to offer scene detection, picking from Portrait, Landscape, Close-up and Night Portrait presets, or reverting to plain Auto for subjects which aren't recognised.

     
     

Pressing the magnifying glass button allows you to zoom-in on the view by up to about 6.8x, although like the D90 and D5000 before it, the magnified live image becomes increasingly fuzzy as you approach the closest view; it’s also worth noting that with a 320x240 pixel screen, the 6.8x view on the D3100 is not even showing the image at 1:1, let alone beyond it. If you then take the photo, playback the image and zoom-in to the same extent, the detail looks much finer. This implementation is in contrast to Canon’s Live View system, which shows a much sharper view when magnified to the same level or beyond. To be fair, Nikon’s magnified assistance still helps when confirming focus, but Canon’s system is far superior in this regard – and it offers a live histogram too.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Pressing the 'i' button swaps the live image for the 'classic' information view which is also available when shooting with the viewfinder; note the shutter remains open at this time, but the live image is hidden. As before this shows the basic exposure details in a rectangle with numerous settings running down the right side, and in a strip below. You can then use the rocker control to highlight the desired option before pressing OK to see a dedicated menu for it. Pressing the 'i' button again returns you to the live image.

Autofocus during Live View exclusively employs a contrast-based system to ensure an uninterrupted view – unlike Canon's DSLRs, there's no 'Quick' mode which temporarily interrupts the live image in order to take a reading from the phase-change system. To be honest we don't miss this option, as by the time the mirror has flipped back and forth, it's rarely significantly quicker, and besides, a contrast-based system avoids any focus calibration errors by taking a reading from the sensor itself.

With the D3100 set to AF-S 'Single-servo AF', it will attempt to focus on whatever is within an adjustable rectangle with a half-press of the shutter release. The AF frame starts-off red to indicate it's not in focus, then flashes green as it locks-on, before finally becoming steady once focus has been achieved. Like the D90 and D5000 before it, this process involves a little searching back and forth by the lens, before locking-on roughly two seconds later. Sometimes it's a little quicker, sometimes a little slower.

New to the D3100, not to mention most DSLRs to date, is an attempt to offer continuous contrast-based autofocus during Live View. This new AF-F 'Full-time Servo AF' mode performs the process described above by itself whenever it believes the subject behind the AF frame is not in focus. Point the camera at a new subject and you'll see the lens automatically search back and forth as it locks-on. Generally speaking it works fairly well too, so long as the subject has sufficient detail for the contrast-based system to lock-onto and stays still long enough for the process to complete. It's technically no quicker than doing it with a half-press of the shutter release in AF-S mode, but could prove faster in practice as the camera's already started the job as you compose. The AF-F mode is also responsible for the continuous AF in the movie mode which we'll describe on the Features page.

In terms of AF targets and areas, the D3100 offers the same four options as the D5000 before it: there's Face Priority, Wide Area (the default option), Normal Area, and Subject Tracking. Wide and Normal Area will autofocus on a framed area which you can move around the screen using the multi-selector; the Normal Area mode unsurprisingly uses a smaller frame and is better suited to tripod-based work. Face Priority can track faces and focus on the closest; like compact cameras, frames are shown around the active faces. Subject Tracking allows you to place a frame over a subject, and after pushing the OK button, the D3100 will follow it around the frame.

     
     

On previous models, Face Priority and Subject Tracking were of limited use, as while the camera could keep a frame over the desired subject, it wouldn't actually focus on it until you half-pressed the shutter release. Now with the new AF-F mode, the camera can at least attempt to stay focused on the subject by itself as it moves closer toward you or further away. Of course the practicality remains restricted by the speed of the AF-F mode, which can take several seconds to make a readjustment and obviously requires the subject to remain fairly static during that time. This rules-out fast action tracking or unpredictable people, but slower motion or people who are willing to hold a pose are within the capabilities of the camera.

Ultimately the AF-F mode is a brave attempt to offer continuous AF with a contrast-based Live View system, but it's too slow for many applications, especially sports or kids who won't stay still for long. Of course both subjects can be successfully captured with the D3100's viewfinder and phase-change AF system, but if you insist on going after them in Live View, you'll be much better off with a hybrid system like those offered on many of Sony's current models. Take the SLT-A33 for instance, which quickly and confidently autofocuses in Live View thanks to a translucent mirror exploiting the phase-change AF system.

Meanwhile, enthusiasts who enjoy a pin-sharp magnified view for precision focusing and live histograms will find neither on the D3100, and again be better-served by one of Canon's DSLRs. But to be fair these and action shooters represent the minority of those using the D3100, who'll instead find its Live View system perfectly adequate for general use. It's definitely a very welcome upgrade over the D3000, but again those who had hopes for the AF-F mode allowing them to shoot fast action in Live View will need to reel in their expectations.

 

Nikon D3100 shooting information and menus

Like other budget DSLRs, the D3100’s screen is used to display all shooting information, and like its predecessor, there’s the choice of two presentation styles: the default Graphic format accompanies the figures with a graphical representation of the aperture iris surrounded by marks for the shutter speed, while the optional Classic format emulates the LCD status screens which adorn the top panels of higher-end DSLRs. It’s nice to have the choice of styles and you can even customise the colour scheme: Blue, Black or Orange for the Classic view, or Green, Black or Brown for the Graphic view.

     
     
     
     

Like all DSLRs which use their main colour screens to show information, there’s a wealth of details, with the layout essentially unchanged since the D3000. The shutter speed and aperture sensibly take centre stage with shooting mode, battery life and a number of other icons running along the top, while AF area, flash, exposure and flash compensation run along the bottom. The shots remaining figure has been relocated to the very lower right corner in a light strip, and like all Nikon DSLRs, numbers above 1000 are abbreviated with a k – so 1100 shots is displayed as 1.1k, whereas Canon continues to stop at 999.

   
   

Running down the right side of the screen are the current quality, white balance, ISO, AF mode, AF area, metering mode and Active D-Lighting settings; eagle-eyed Nikon followers will note release mode is no longer present since it now has its own physical switch. To adjust any of the settings, simply press the ‘i’ button in the bottom left corner. This highlights one of the settings in yellow after which you can use the four-way rocker to highlight the desired option before clicking OK to see a screen of relevant options; each option is accompanied by a thumbnail image illustrating how or where you might use that setting.

The thumbnails are certainly helpful, but the number of button presses to access each setting can be a little laborious to say the least. For example, if the last setting you changed was the compression level, you'll need three clicks to reach ISO or six for metering. This could have been so much easier by either assigning double-functions to the rocker control or simply rearranging the settings into a grid rather than a long straight line. The latter, employed by almost every other DSLR, would have transformed the speed at which the D3100 could be operated and adjusted. To be fair, its target audience may rarely change any of these settings, or be happy to do so at a leisurely pace, but enthusiasts or those familiar with the camera will find quickly find this frustrating.

 
 

Some relief can be found with the programmable Fn button which can be set to offer direct access to the Image quality, ISO sensitivity, White Balance or Active D-Lighting options, but the D3100 could still be improved by leaps and bounds with a grid-based user interface on the screen.

In a nice feature borrowed from Sony’s Alpha DSLRs though (and originally from Konica Minolta before that), the D3100 rotates its shooting information as you turn the camera on its sides for portrait aspect shots – this way the text always remains upright on the screen. The graphical representation of the aperture may disappear as the screen rotates, and as soon as you press the ‘i’ button to change anything you’ll also be returned to the landscape orientation, but it’s still a nice touch. In these respects, it’s the same as the D3000.

Like its predecessor, the D3100 has also sensibly retained the context-sensitive help system which displays handy hints on the current setting or menu whenever you press the Question mark button. Sometimes you’ll see the question mark blinking in the corner of the screen, in which case the D3100 believes something’s wrong and wants to make a suggestion, such as to use the flash. If only all cameras were this friendly.

Pressing the Menu button presents the full array of options, arranged into five categories tabbed along the left side of the screen; the five menu categories, not to mention most of their contents, remain the same as the D3000, although they enjoy a redesigned appearance. As before, the five categories are Playback, Shooting, Setup, Retouch and Recent Settings, again with the Question mark in the lower left corner indicating there's a helpful explanation if you need it.

     
     

During playback you can cycle through a number of pages which have been updated in line with Nikon’s higher-end bodies. As such with all Display options ticked, you can view three pages of shooting information, a thumbnail with either brightness or RGB histograms, or the main image by itself, presented either clean or with blinking highlights.

     
     

The Retouch menu offers a variety of in-camera adjustments which include D-Lighting, red-eye correction, crop, various filter effects, colour balance, image overlay, RAW processing, distortion control, an outlining effect and a Miniature option which throws everything other than a narrow strip out of focus for a tilt and shift effect.

     
     

Now let's move onto the camera's other features, including the kit lens, focusing, exposure and drive modes, the sensor and of course the new movie mode in our Nikon D3100 Features page.


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