BUILD AND DESIGN
The D3100 is configured in classic DSLR design, with a deeply-sculpted handgrip at the right front of the camera body. Size and heft are decidedly un-Nikon-like (if your Nikon of choice happens to be a D3 like mine) and more like an Olympus.
In fact, an Olympus E-420 was the smallest DSLR I'd reviewed until the D3100 came along - the D3100 dimensions are surprisingly close. The body is composite and seems well built with materials, fit and finish appropriate for the price point. The shutter is rated for 100,000 actuations.
Ergonomics and Controls
Having just concluded a review of the Canon EOS 60D, I was struck by the difference in the feel of both composite bodies. The Canon composite had a smoother finish and felt almost slippery to the touch; the Nikon has a slightly rougher finish and felt more secure. Both cameras have rubberized material in the hand grip and thumb rest areas that promote a more secure feel once you're established in shooting position.
The right index finger falls naturally to the shutter button on the D3100, and the right thumb positions itself adjacent to the Live View lever and movie capture button, making the transition from still to video image capture a simple process. The body is so small that the little finger of my right hand has no place to go but curl itself under the body when shooting.
The D3100 permits a fair amount of user input for shooting settings without resorting to internal menus. The mode dial on the top of the camera body displays all still image shooting options and the adjacent release mode selector lever designates single or continuous shooting mode, self-timer or quiet shutter.
A host of other shooting settings can be viewed and adjusted in the information display on the monitor - the exact settings will vary depending on shooting mode. If the display is not illuminated, a half push of the shutter button, or a push of the information button (camera top) or information edit button (lower left camera back) will bring the screen up.
Once the screen is up, a push on the information edit button is required to gain access to the settings - in this case, we go in and find the "metering" setting is highlighted.
Since we're interested in changing the focus mode, we use the multi selector button (camera back) to scroll to the focus mode setting.
Once there, we push the "OK" button (camera back) to enter the focus mode menu and then scroll/select whichever option we wish.
Menus and Modes
There are five major internal menus in the D3100: playback, shooting, setup, retouch and recent settings. Once you're into any particular menu, navigation is a simple matter of scrolling/selecting through the menu via the multi selector and OK buttons. As befits an entry-level camera, menus are fairly simple and intuitive - and the Guide Mode can steer novices to camera settings via menus as well. Switching the mode dial to "guide" gets us this screen on the monitor.
Selecting "shoot" gives us this page.
And selecting "easy operation" gives us the first page of a multi page menu.
If instead of easy operation we scrolled to "advanced operation"
and selected it, we'd have been taken to this page
where selecting "soften backgrounds" takes us to this page.
The D3100 offers 13 still image shooting modes including automatic and scene specific options as well as the just discussed Guide mode which incorporates existing camera shooting options to accomplish user-designated image parameters. There is also a full HD video capture capability.
The 3.0-inch diagonal LCD monitor on the D3100 has a 230,000-dot composition and is adjustable for 7 levels of brightness. Nikon doesn't state, but monitor coverage appears to be about 100%. The D3100 monitor tallied 308 peak brightness and 933:1 contrast ratio scores on our new monitor evaluation scale - peak brightness in excess of 500 and contrast ratios in the 500 to 800:1 range tend to identify monitors that are more usable in bright outdoor lighting conditions.
The D3100 monitor was pretty good most of the time outdoors, but could be difficult to use at times in bright conditions. Like its big brother the D7000, the D3100 comes in with a fairly low peak brightness score that seems to be offset to some degree by its fairly high contrast rating.
The D3100 viewfinder offers 95% coverage both horizontally and vertically, and has a diopter adjustment for varying eyesight. Image composition via viewfinder will produce images with some added details on the edges of the frame thanks to that 95% figure.
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