Nikon D3100 Gordon Laing, November 2010
 
   
 

Nikon D3100 verdict

Nikon's D3100 is the company's latest entry-level DSLR and the successor to the best-selling D3000. It builds-upon that model's friendly operation and brings it right up to date with higher resolution images, Live View and HD movie capabilities. Indeed it's arguably now the best-featured entry-level DSLR and will appeal equally to beginners along with enthusiasts on a tighter budget.

The new 14 Megapixel sensor records noticeably finer details than 10 Megapixel models, while noise levels are kept in check at high sensitivities – indeed as you'll see in our results pages, the D3100 performed similarly to the pricier Canon EOS 550D / T2i, at least when both were equipped with their kit lenses.

The presence of Live View and HD movies may not make much difference to DSLR traditionalists, but they're essential features in today's market. Live View finally allows Nikon's entry-level DSLR to compose with its screen and offer features like face detection and subject tracking, while the HD movie mode boasts both 720p and 1080p, along with an attempt at autofocusing while filming.

   
   




As a camera aimed at beginners or those upgrading from a point-and-shoot though, the D3100's most important feature is arguably its friendliness. Its predecessor was already pretty helpful with a Question mark button which presented context-sensitive help at almost any point, while the GUIDE mode asked a series of questions about the photo you wanted to take, before applying the appropriate settings. The D3100 now enhances its GUIDE mode with thumbnail images giving examples of different settings, while also asking if you'd like to compose with the viewfinder or screen – or film movies.

This step-by-step approach is fantastic for beginners who know the effect they want to achieve, but don't understand the technicalities behind it. The D3100 will guide them to the desired result, while also teaching them as they go. It allows the owner to grow at their own pace, then graduate onto the traditional PASM modes later when they're ready. The GUIDE mode, alongside a very capable Auto option, arguably makes the D3100 the most approachable and friendly DSLR on the market.

It's also nice to find two very well implemented new controls: a tactile spring-loaded lever to enter Live View and an unexpected but welcome lever to set the release (drive) mode; the latter is a particularly classy touch to find on an entry-level DSLR.

 
   

Some things don't work so well though. The highly anticipated continuous autofocus during video is a brave move, but one which you may end up disabling for many of your clips. The problem is it relies on contrast-based autofocusing, which on the D3100 typically takes a couple of seconds to lock-on. During that time, the lens visibly – and audibly – searches back and forth, which can be very off-putting on your recorded footage, especially when it happens every few seconds. We have several examples in our Movie Mode page where it ruins the clip, but to be fair, a handful of others where it's proven reasonably effective.

Technologically it may be the best attempt at continuous autofocus using a contrast based system on a DSLR, but that doesn't mean you'll want to use it all of the time. We ended up disabling it for most clips, and only turned it back on again in situations where we knew it would be preferable to manual focusing. The bottom line is if you demand effective continuous autofocus while filming video, either go for a hybrid camera like the Sony Alpha SLT-A33, or stick with a consumer camcorder instead.

Sticking with the movie mode, it's great to have 1080p capabilities, but why fix them at just 24fps, when 720p is offered at 24, 25 and 30fps? We know independent film makers prefer 24fps, but the D3100 is targeted at consumers who may find 25 and 30fps options more appropriate. It would also have been great to have an external microphone input and more definitive control over exposures while filming, although to be fair, these would tread on the toes of the D7000.

The D3100 may be one of the most sophisticated entry-level DSLRs to date, but there's also a number of aspects where it's lacking. Most obviously the screen is very average, lacking the brightness, vibrancy or detail of many rivals. Like previous Nikon DSLRs with Live View, the magnified view also becomes steadily fuzzy as you zoom-in, making precision focusing harder than a Canon DSLR. There's still no live histogram either.

Interestingly despite inheriting the same 11-point AF system as the D3000, D5000 and D90, Nikon has swapped their transmissive LCD viewfinder focusing screens for one with etched details. This means the AF points are always visible, and there's no longer an on-demand alignment grid. Shame.

The D3100 also inherits some of the limitations of the D3000. There's still no exposure bracketing, no optical depth-of-field preview, and no motor to autofocus older (non AF-S) lenses, and while there is a programmable function button, it still takes too long to adjust multiple settings. Continuous shooting is also average at 3fps, so not particularly-suited to capturing fast action.

Probably the D3100's biggest problem though is its price, which at the time of launch was around one third more expensive than a true budget DSLR. Nikon's clearly attempting the same strategy which worked so well for its previous mid-range and semi-pro models: price them a little higher but include better features to tempt buyers into a superior model. While that worked a treat for the D90 and D300s though, entry-level buyers are more price-conscious. The D3100 may offer a step-up from most budget models, but it's comfortably more expensive and almost begins to encroach on the mid-range category. So before our final verdict, how does the D3100 measure-up against the competition.

 

Compared to Nikon D3000

 
 
 
     

The D3000 is the predecessor to the D3100, and Nikon is sensibly keeping it on which stocks last as its most affordable DSLR. In several key respects the new D3100 improves on this earlier model, but you may not care, or your budget may not stretch. It's also interesting to note there's at least one feature which the D3000 has over its successor.

But first the differences: with the new D3100, you get four extra Megapixels, Live View, HD movies, an HDMI port, a slightly enhanced GUIDE mode, and the addition of a release mode lever which lets you quickly set the camera to, say, continuous shooting or the self-timer.

Both cameras share the same 11-point AF system, same viewfinder and screen specifications, same 3fps continuous shooting speed, and both lack exposure bracketing, an optical depth-of-field preview and an AF motor for autofocusing older, non AF-S lenses.

In its favour, the D3000 inherits the transmissive LCD focusing screen of the D5000 and D90 for its viewfinder, which means AF points can disappear when inactive and an alignment grid can be switched on or off as required. It also features an infra-red port for a wireless remote control, whereas the D3100 is cabled-only.

Most importantly of all, the D3000 is comfortably cheaper while enjoying most of the ease-of-use of its successor. If you don't need Live View or movies, and are happy with 10 Megapixel images, then the D3000 is one of the best budget DSLRs on the market. See my Nikon D3000 review for more details.

 

Compared to Nikon D5100

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Nikon's D5100 is the next model above the D3100, although both actually share a number of things in common including 1080p video recording with continuous autofocus and an 11-point AF system.

In its favour, the higher-end D5100 features two extra Megapixels, a fully-articulated screen that's also much more detailed (921k dots versus 230k), continuous shooting that's one third quicker (4fps vs 3fps), 1080p video recording at a choice of 24, 25 or 30fps as oppose to just 24fps, an external microphone input, a series of effects which can be applied at the time of shooting, and support for optional infra-red remote control.

While you'd expect the higher-end D5100 to sport all the advantages, it's not a completely one-sided argument. The D3100 is a little smaller and lighter, while also sporting a GUIDE mode on the dial which literally guides you through taking various types of photos with as little or much help as you desire.

This coupled with the more compact dimensions and cheaper price make the D3100 the preferred choice for DSLR beginners. But greater movie facilities and a number of other step-up features make the D5100 the best bet for those who want somehing more sophisticated than an entry-level DSLR but can't stretch to the D7000.

See my Nikon D5100 review for more details.

 

Compared to Canon EOS Rebel T3 / 1100D

     
 
 
     
 

The EOS Rebel T3 / 1100D is Canon's latest entry-level DSLR and as such is the main rival for the Nikon D3100. But where Nikon has once again opted to upsell potential buyers with a more sophisticated package, Canon is offering a true budget DSLR at a lower price point. At the time of writing, the standard Nikon D3100 kit cost around 20% more than the cheapest Canon T3 / 1100D bundle, which is quite a difference at this end of the market. So what do you get for the extra money, and crucially, is it worth it?

In its favour, the D3100 features bigger numbers than the Canon, some of which make a difference, some of which don't. The sensor has 14 Megapixels compared to 12 on the Canon, but in my tests it didn't deliver noticeably higher detail, but at least noise levels weren't any worse. The AF system has 11 points to the Canon's nine, but again this rarely gave it a real advantage in general-use, although the subject tracking options were a little more sophisticated. The metering system has 420 segments compared to 63 zones on the Canon, but both seemed to cope with the situations I threw at them.

So far so similar, so where does the D3100 really score? First of all in movies where there's 1080p and standard definition options in addition to 720p. There's also a brave stab at continuous AF while filming, although I preferred to switch this off as the searching process is visibly and audibly distracting. Then there's the screen which may share the same basic 230k resolution, but looks noticeably larger at 3in compared to 2.7in. The D3100's continuous shooting speed for JPEGs was roughly the same as the T3 / 1100D, but it could shoot for longer bursts and also match the speed for RAW, where the Canon slowed down. That said, neither are ideal for action photography with sub-3fps rates.

The D3100 doesn't have much in the way of a rubber coating on its grip areas, but there's more than the on the 100% plasticky Canon body. The D3100's popup flash is a little more powerful too. As described earlier, the D3100 also features a dedicated GUIDE mode, which hand-holds you through taking creative photos, which is great for beginners. The D3100 additionally removes coloured fringing from photos automatically, which makes images straight from the camera look cleaner than the Canon. It's also worth noting the D3100 kit comes with a stabilised lens, whereas the Canon is available in two kits, one with a stabilised lens and one without.

It's not all one-sided though. The Canon T3 / 1100D features a better Live View system with bigger and sharper magnified assistance, a live histogram and exposure simulation. It also offers quicker and easier access to settings for those familiar with DSLRs. And crucially the Canon comes in cheaper, although make sure you're comparing apples with apples by ensuring the Canon kit you're looking at has a stabilised lens.

So in terms of specification, the Nikon D3100 certainly trumps the T3 / 1100D in many respects, but in practice only a handful of them make a noticeable difference. I'd say the choice boils down to how confident and experienced you are with DSLRs. The Nikon D3100 is much easier to use and learn with thanks to its clever GUIDE mode, so if you're starting out with DSLRs and want a camera which teaches you as you go along, then I'd go for the Nikon. But if you're already familiar with typical DSLR controls, you'll appreciate the speed and ease with which you can adjust them on the Canon, not to mention enjoying its technically superior Live View system.

See my Canon EOS Rebel T3 / 1100D review for more details.

 

Nikon D3100 final verdict

With the D3100, Nikon has delivered what's arguably the most powerful entry-level DSLR to date. The image quality looks great, there's both Live View and 1080p HD video, and one of the friendliest user interfaces on the market. So it's the best budget DSLR, right?

Not quite. Normally 'entry-level' and 'budget' describe the same category, but while the D3100 is indeed Nikon's latest entry-level DSLR, it costs around 30% more than a typical budget model. As discussed above, Nikon's clearly trying the same up-selling strategy which worked so well with models like the D90. As such, you'll pay more for the D3100 than a typical budget DSLR, but you'll also enjoy more features, like 1080p video with autofocus.

While the D3100 represents a step-up in many key respects though, it stands still in others. You may be spending one third more than the D3000 for example, but you still won't be getting a better screen, exposure bracketing, an optical depth-of-field preview, a motor to drive older non AF-S lenses, an official battery grip or continuous shooting that's any quicker than 3fps. It should also be noted the continuous autofocusing in movies, while technologically brave, spoilt more of our footage than it enhanced, and while there is a programmable function button, enthusiasts will still find the user interface slow when adjusting many settings. If your budget will stretch higher and you don't need the hand-holding GUIDE mode, a mid-range DSLR will certainly offer you more.

As always it boils down to knowing what you want from a camera. If you're after faster continuous shooting, precise focusing assistance in Live View, quicker access to multiple settings or a brighter, more detailed screen, or greater control and customisation, then there are better models out there. But if you want what's arguably the friendliest DSLR on the market which also offers 1080p HD video, then the D3100 is your best bet. Nikon understands the desires of new buyers and the D3100 ticks several key boxes which were missing on the earlier D3000 – which lest we forget still became one of the best-selling DSLRs despite its lack of Live View and movies.

So Nikon's latest entry-level DSLR may no longer be a true budget model, but by upgrading the existing D3000 with Live View, 1080p HD video and an even friendlier GUIDE mode, the new D3100 will sell by the bucketload. So long as you understand what it can't do, we can Highly Recommend it. Ultimately the D3100 is the best DSLR for discerning beginners with a little more to spend.



Good points
14 Megapixel sensor with great quality.
Friendly goal-oriented GUIDE mode.
1080p HD video with autofocusing.
Decent metering and 11-point AF system.

Bad points
Relatively expensive for an entry-level DSLR.
Continuous AF in movies can be slow and noisy.
No bracketing, DOF preview or AF with non AF-S lenses.
Changing multiple settings requires many clicks.



Scores

(relative to 2010 budget DSLRs)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

17 / 20
18 / 20
16 / 20
17 / 20
16 / 20

84%


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