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Nikon D3100 DSLR Review

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Nikon's new entry-level camera, the D3100

Nikon's latest offering to the DSLR market is the D3100.

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The Bottom Line

The D3100 is Nikon's replacement for the D3000. Aimed squarely at the entry-level DSLR camera market, it's certainly going to be a wake-up call for other manufacturers. The D3100 has 14.2MP and full HD movie mode. In general though, Nikon has made entry-level cameras that lack specifications, but are fun and easy to use. How does the D3100 measure up?

Description

  • Resolution: 14.2 megapixel DX format, CMOS sensor
  • ISO: ISO 100-3200, expandable to 12800
  • Focusing: 11 AF points
  • Movie Mode: HD movie mode
  • Flash: Built-in popup flash
  • LCD Screen: 3-inch LCD panel, 230,000 pixels
  • Battery: Lithium-Ion battery pack, EN-EL14
  • Dimensions: 124 x 96 x 75 mm (4.9 x 3.8 x 3.0 in)
  • Weight: 505g (1.1 lb) (including battery)
  • Maximum Image Size: 4608 x 3072 pixels (RAW and JPEG)

Pros

  • Good exposure for high contrast scenes
  • 14.2MP of resolution, which is extremely high for an entry-level camera
  • Extremely user-friendly for beginners

Cons

  • Simplified buttons make it hard to get to key features quickly 
  • No stereo microphone input socket
  • High ISO images are inexplicably more noise free in JPEG format than RAW format

Nikon D3100 Review

Nikon's latest offering to the entry-level market represents a giant leap for the manufacturer. At 14.2MP, the D3100 is second only to Nikon's flagship camera, the D3X. And it's the first of Nikon's cameras to offer HD movie mode at 1920x1080 pixels. It can only record clips of up to 10 minutes long, but this is a fairly impressive feature for an entry-level camera.

With an attractively low price tag, is this the camera for other manufacturers to beat? Judging by the specifications, one would immediately say "yes." What is important, though, is how the camera performs.

Controls

As with most of Nikon's consumer-level DSLR cameras, direct-access controls are kept to a minimum. The included controls are neatly spaced and easy to use, but most of the useful shortcut buttons to frequently used parameters are missing here ... something that's common found with Canon cameras. There are no direct-access controls to things like ISO, white balance, image quality, and image size. You can, however, assign these functions to the Customizable Function button on the front of the camera. Unfortunately, this is just one button! It is nicely placed to fall under your thumb, however. 

Image Quality

Whatever other features and gizmos a camera might have, everything comes down to image quality in the end!

The D3100 is aimed at the entry-level market, and so it needs to perform straight out of the box on its default settings. In this area, it's extremely impressive. The D3100 exposes well even in high contrast situations -- an area where entry-level cameras have often struggled. Images look great straight out of the camera. My only slight criticism would be that, to my eyes, the images are sometimes a fraction too bright and colors can look ever so slightly glaring. 

The camera is impressive throughout its automatic ISO range, and it even performs fairly well at its H1 setting, ISO 6400. It's only at H2 (ISO 12800) that the image deteriorates badly, and that noise is suddenly very visible. Still, this performance level is extremely impressive for an entry-level camera. The D3100 is even slightly less noisy at higher ISOs than the Canon EOS Rebel T2i, which is a higher priced camera aimed at a slightly more experienced market.

What I struggled to comprehend, though, was the fact that images were less noisy at higher ISOs in JPEG format than in RAW format. Yes, many beginners will probably shoot in JPEG most of the time, but they are bound to want to experiment with RAW at some point. To then convert these images to high quality JPEGs and find that they are more noisy will be a great disappointment.  

Guide Mode

Introduced on the D3000, and now on the D3100, is the "Guide Mode." This is designed to help those new to DSLRs, without taking away all of the control from them.

When the camera is used in "Easy Operation" mode, the user can have the camera choose the required setting for different situations, such as "Sleeping Faces" or "Distant Subjects." As the users grow more confident, they can progress to the "Advanced" mode, which guides users toward either the "Aperture Priority" or "Shutter Priority" modes. Both are accompanied by a simplified interface showing what changing these settings will do on a small photograph on the LCD panel.

This is an extremely useful feature for those starting out in photography, and it makes the D3100 one of the most user-friendly cameras on the market.

LCD Screen

Rather frustratingly, Nikon hasn't upped the resolution of the screen, and it remains at 230,000 pixels. This is the same as its predecessor, the D3000, and Canon's nearly 2-year-old Rebel XS. Most new cameras have nearly four times this resolution! However, it's bright with plenty of contrast. The D3100's LCD is about as good as these screens can be in bright lighting conditions.

In Conclusion

This is a fine camera which will please not only beginners but will also appeal to those with a little more experience. Image quality is exceptional for an entry-level camera, and the D3100 more than holds its own in its class of camera. There are some drawbacks, but these will probably only begin to frustrate users after they've become very familiar with photography.

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