Arriving in the marketplace about mid September 2010, the D3100 became Nikon's new entry-level DSLR. While the D3000 and D5000 remain on Nikon USA's website at this writing, you can bet those cameras are on their way out of the picture.
Rumors of a D5100 arriving fairly soon are making the rounds, and with the introduction of the D7000 as the D90 successor Nikon's DX sensor (APS-C) fleet now awaits only the unveiling of the D400 (possibly late 2011) to complete a re-do of the cropped sensor family of cameras. More importantly, the new lineup offers clearly defined entry and prosumer level equipment, leaving Nikon free to make the D400 a full-blown pro body if they so choose.
The D3100 was the first Nikon DX sensor camera to push past 12.3 megapixel resolution, going to 14.2 megapixels along with EXPEED 2 processing technology and full HD video with automatic AF. The native ISO sensitivity range widens to 100 to 3200, expandable to 12800 - the D3000 managed 100 to 1600, expandable to 3200. The 11-point AF system of the D3000 is retained, and in a nod to the D3100's entry-level clientele, the Guide Mode has been "enhanced" to now provide sample assist images that change with camera settings so novice users can better visualize the impact upon the final product, or help them to the camera settings that will deliver the image they have in mind.
There's a fairly comprehensive suite of options for in-camera retouching of images and a quiet shutter setting. The camera is offered in kit form matched to the AF-S 18-55mm VR (stabilized) zoom lens, covering approximately the 27 to 83mm focal range in 35mm equivalents. Here's a look at both ends of that zoom:
Wide angle, 18mm
Lens compatibility is full functionality with Nikon AF-I and AF-S lenses: there are currently 39 AF-S lenses in the Nikon catalog, spanning focal lengths from 10 to 600mm. I used my 400mm f/2.8 VR, 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII, and 105mm f/2.8 micro Nikkor lenses in this review in addition to the 18-55 and 55-300 zooms provided by Nikon. The D3100 uses the Nikon "F' bayonet mount first introduced in 1959, so there's a wide range of archival glass that can mount on the camera, but non-CPU lenses (those without a connector to transfer basic lens information to the camera) won't meter for exposure and require manual focus and exposure. SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media are compatible and Nikon includes a Li-ion battery and charger, eyepiece cap, eye cap, camera strap, hot shoe cover, body cap, CD-ROM software (including detailed user's manual) and printed basic user's manual with each camera.
The D3100 looks to be a logical progression from the D3000. Let's see how Nikon's newest low guy on their DSLR totem pole measures up in the shooting department.
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.
The 18-55 kit lens provided with the D3100 makes a compact and light combination. Adding the 55-300 lens introduced at the same time as the D3100 gives this little camera a one-two punch covering the 27 to 450mm focal range in 35mm equivalents.
The D3100 powers up promptly and you can fire off a first shot as quickly as you can flip the power switch, focus and go full push on the shutter button - about 0.6 to 0.7 seconds in my case.
Single shot-to-shot times were basically as fast as you could shoot, focus and shoot again - about 0.5 seconds - and the camera made the advertised 3 fps continuous shooting rate for 24 JPEG fine images, slowing to about 2.5 fps and holding at that rate past image number 40 when I stopped the sequence.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focus)
|Canon Rebel T2i||0.02|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Canon Rebel T2i||0.18|
|Pentax K-r||29||6.4 fps
|Olympus E-5||120||5.0 fps
|Canon Rebel T2i||170||3.7 fps
|Nikon D3100||24||3.1 fps
*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
The D3100 seemed to acquire focus and shoot in average entry-level speed in the field, and generated 0.14 and 0.04 second timings in the focus acquisition and shutter lag categories, respectively. Truth be told, the shutter lag on the D3100 wasn't something that was apparent - the camera seemed to shoot promptly - but the timing is among the slowest in the entry level class of cameras. The lens proved a bit slow going from focus at one end of the focal range to the other, such as when shooting a bug on a leaf at about 12 inches and then shooting a tree at infinity, but this is not an unusual occurrence. My 70-200mm f/2.8 on the D3100 was a bit slow going from extreme to extreme as well, although quicker than the kit lens. For most shooting situations users won't notice unusual delays in acquiring focus or getting off a shot.
The 11-point Multi Cam 1000 AF system on the D3100 did a fairly good job of tracking moving subjects - not as good as Nikon's 51 point systems on the D300/300s or D3/3s, but good by entry level standards. Nikon's D200 has the Multi Cam 1000 as well, and the D200 was Nikon's prosumer class body during the time of the pro-bodied D2x/D2xs, so yesterday's prosumer AF system has found its way into today's entry level unit (as well as the D3000).
The built-in flash has a guide number of 43, which translates into approximately a 12 foot range at maximum aperture (f/3.5) and 100 ISO - about average in the entry-level class. Flash recycle times varied from almost instantaneous in good conditions to about 3.5 seconds in dim light with a full discharge. Here's a couple hummingbirds caught with the flash.
Battery life is listed as approximately 550 shots using a CIPA standard involving single frame release mode shots. I've always found CIPA ratings to be pretty accurate, so going by this figure, the D3100 is not overly strong in this regard. Nikon lists a battery life of approximately 2000 shots using a continuous release mode shooting cycle, but err on the side of caution and consider the CIPA figure as a guideline at least until you can get an idea of what your individual shooting style does to battery life. Battery life can also be impacted by frequent autofocus operations, use of the monitor, capturing RAW images and using vibration reduction (stabilization).
If your first reaction to the part about stabilization is that the feature is something you'd always want on, you're in the overwhelming majority of folks who feel the same. I used to. However, Thom Hogan is a Nikon pro who has studied the Nikon VR system, conducted test shoots, and talked to other pros and Nikon engineering guys, and he suggests the Nikon VR system should be turned off unless you need it and in any event at shutter speeds above 1/500th of a second.
The explanation is lengthy, somewhat technical and can be found on Thom's website, which has a wealth of Nikon-specific information along with generic tips and info. I'm not affiliated with Hogan or his site, but I've been following his guidelines with regard to when and when not to enable VR in my personal shooting, and I'm happy with the results. The D3100 does not have an abundance of battery power, so any savings users can make will help stretch each battery a bit further.
The 18-55mm kit lens was a little soft in the corners at the wide end, but did a fairly good job at telephoto, with even sharpness across the frame. There's some barrel distortion at wide angle that goes away around 35mm. Chromic aberration (purple fringing) was present at both ends of the zoom, but generally required 200 to 300% enlargement to be readily visible in most cases. The 18-55 does a pretty good job overall, but in some instances a close and critical inspection of images will disclose some fringing at 100%.
One nice aspect of the 18-55 is the close focus range of about 11 inches across the entire focal range. That 11 inches is from the subject to the sensor focal plane in the camera, not subject to lens, so the 18-55 offers a fairly decent close-up capability without having to resort to a dedicated macro lens. Here's a shot of our prized mittens from the 2010 winter Olympics and a close-up of some mitten detail with the 18-55:
But if the close-up bug bites, you can always go macro - here's the view with our 105mm Nikkor micro lens:
The 55-300 was a little soft on the left and right edges at wide angle, but likewise looked fairly consistent at telephoto. There's a hint of barrel distortion at wide angle that goes away at about 70mm, then pincushion distortion appears out to the telephoto end. Purple fringing is present in some high contrast boundary areas across the whole focal range, but generally needs 200 to 300% enlargement to be readily visible. Sharp-eyed scrutiny of shots can reveal fringing at 100% in some cases.
A word here about the 55-300 lens: light, relatively small and stabilized, this lens makes a pretty nice walking about combination with the D3100 for folks who need a relatively long telephoto focal range. That's the good news. The other side of the coin is the lens is fairly slow, with maximum apertures of f/4.5 and 5.6 at the wide and tele ends of the zoom, respectively. The max aperture jumps to f/4.8 at about 100mm; f/5 shows up not too far past 135mm; f/5.3 at 200 and f/5.6 arrives about 225mm. The lens uses Nikon's VR stabilization which is reported to offer "up to" 3 stops of improvement over an unstabilized lens in combating camera shake, but users should consider additional camera support to maximize image quality when shooting this lens toward the long end of the focal range.
Most lenses are sharper stopped down a bit from maximum aperture, which in the case of the 55-300 at the tele end means at least f/8, which combined with the camera's base 100 ISO and a dimly lit or relatively dark subject/scene may result in fairly slow shutter speeds that can compromise image sharpness, even with stabilization. I took about 30 shots of this scrub jay hand holding the 55-300 and this was the best shot - the rest were all a bit blurred by either camera or subject movement.
The shot isn't too bad, but not as sharp as this one, shot as part of a series of about 20 shots using a tripod - and virtually all of the tripod shots were as good.
The point is that even with stabilization, as lens focal lengths get longer, be it with a DSLR or compact digital, camera shake becomes your worst enemy when it comes to image quality and any camera can benefit from a more stable shooting position. Consider a tripod or monopod if your shooting style involves a lot of work in the longer telephoto ranges. I also shot some of this review at ISO 200 to get back a stop of shutter speed without virtually any noise penalty over the base ISO.
D3100 video image quality is pretty good in most cases and the camera can transition from still to video capture fairly quickly - flip the live view switch to enable live view, acquire focus with the shutter button and begin capture by pressing the movie record button. On the negative side, clip length is limited to 10 minutes no matter what resolution the capture is at. There's also a healthy dose of rolling shutter effect - the tendency of CMOS sensored cameras to impart a wavy appearance to vertical lines when panning. The camera may shut off before the 10 minute clip length to prevent damage to internal circuits due to heat, and Nikon recommends exiting Live View when the camera is not in use. Indeed, there is a 30 second countdown that begins when Live View is initiated - capture of a still image or a video capture halts the countdown, which begins again at 30 seconds after capture is complete. If the 30 seconds pass, the camera switches out of Live View on its own.
The video in the player above has been compressed and re-encoded for streaming online. To download the original file in its native resolution and format, click the link below.
Sample Video Download
Nikon also recommends placing the eyepiece cap over the eyepiece during video capture to keep stray light from affecting the video exposure.
Still image quality in the D3100 is, in a word, darn good. OK, that's two words, but the D3100 does nice work when everything's right. Here're two consecutive shots of a pelican with the 400mm f/2.8 - look closely in the first and you can see water starting to drop from the tip of his beak. In the second, note water droplets below and towards the rear of the bird.
Any camera can benefit from a good lens, and the 400mm f/2.8 is world-class good. One of the following 4 shots is not made with the $9500 400mm lens - can you tell which without looking at the shot data?
If you said number 5, give yourself an "A" - the hummingbird was taken with the 55-300 zoom, a bargain at "only" $400.
Default images out of the D3100 were quite good, but I thought the "standard" color setting (the default) was just a bit too saturated for my taste and ended up shooting much of this review in the "neutral" setting which is a more accurate representation. Here are the standard, neutral, vivid and monochrome palette options.
I also increased the in-camera sharpening, although many users will find the default values perfectly satisfactory. The D3100 has in-camera D-Lighting, Nikon's mechanism to expand the apparent dynamic range of cameras. The setting is off by default, but may be enabled to a simple "on" setting. In practice, D-Lighting didn't appear to have much impact on images when applied in the camera as part of capture. The camera also has the feature available in the retouch menu, but with low, normal and high settings. My personal preference is to shoot with D-Lighting disabled and post process in-camera when necessary. Here's an original shot and then the same shot with high D-Lighting employed in post processing.
Auto white balance was used for the majority of shots in the review and did a good job overall, including our 5500 degree Kelvin studio lamps, but shot fairly warm with incandescent lighting. The D3100 offers incandescent, 7 types of fluorescent, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade and preset manual (custom) settings, but no Kelvin temperature option.
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light
Back in the Ergonomics and Controls portion of the review, we discussed how many shooting settings could be changed without resorting to internal menus via the monitor. Those seven fluorescent choices are one instance that requires an internal menu - you can change WB to fluorescent via the monitor, but if that particular fluorescent isn't the specific one you want you have go internal to switch it.
The 3D Matrix metering mode is the default setting and does a fairly good job overall with average scenes, although it could lose highlights in some high-contrast situations. There are center-weighted and spot metering options available in the advanced shooting modes. Exposure compensation is available, but works best with center-weighted or spot metering.
Nikon's D7000 provided exceptional low light ISO performance for a cropped sensor camera and Canon's 60D got high marks in that category as well. Carrying fewer pixels on the same physically-sized sensor as the D7000 would suggest the D3100 could well rival or possibly even surpass its stable mate in the noise arena, but will Nikon let their entry level model outshine their prosumer body?
The D3100 turns in a pretty good performance - 100, 200 and 400 ISO are all very close, with 400 showing just the slightest hint of some graininess creeping in. The jump from 400 to 800 becomes the first where a slight increase in noise is apparent on the 800 image - but the overall image is quite good.
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
ISO 1600 brings on a tiny bit more graininess, but image quality and particularly fine details are still very good. ISO 3200 shows another definite loss of fine details over 1600, but while the drop off is apparent, it's also clear the camera is still doing pretty well, at least for small images. The D7000 seems to still be the top dog in the Nikon cropped sensor family - its images look to have more detail than the D3100 at the higher ISO levels. The D3100 may not have taken the top prize in the Nikon noise sweepstakes, but its performance is quite good.
Additional Sample Images
Nikon's new entry level DSLR offers nice still image quality with good high ISO performance all rolled in to a compact and light DSLR. The 18-55mm kit lens is a solid if unspectacular performer with average AF times, but generally good image quality and a very usable close focus distance. Shutter lag seems minimal despite timings that place it toward the bottom of the pile amongst entry level DSLRs.
Equipped with a 1080 HD video capability, the D3100 can produce good image quality but is hampered by a short 10 minute recording time, and Nikon doesn't seem to have figured out how to deal with rolling shutter effect in videos as well as some of their competitors have. Battery life is not overly generous for a DSLR.
No camera is perfect, but happily most of the D3100's blemishes are video related - and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I'll say it again: if video is your thing, get a video camera. For still images, however, the D3100 will do just fine.