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Nikon D3100
Overview

Reviewed by , Shawn Barnett
and Zig Weidelich
Hands-on Preview: 08/19/2010
Full Review Posted:

Though in some specifications at its introduction it bested almost every camera in Nikon's digital SLR lineup, the Nikon D3100 slots into the company's product line directly above the entry-level D3000.

The newly designed 14.2-megapixel DX-format CMOS image sensor is coupled to the latest generation EXPEED 2 image processor; a combination that allows both higher resolution and 1080p movie capture at 24 fps. Standard ISO sensitivities range from 100 to 3,200 equivalents, with the ability to extend this range as high as ISO 12,800 if needed.

The Nikon D3100 adds today's must-have Live View and Movie modes, both of which were conspicuously absent on the D3000. Marking another first for a Nikon digital SLR, the D3100 can capture progressive scan 1,920 x 1,080 pixel movies -- commonly known as 1080p or Full HD -- at a rate of 24 frames per second. Perhaps even more unusually, the Nikon D3100 provides full-time autofocusing capability both in Live View mode and during movie capture. The Nikon D3100 also offers basic in-camera movie editing capabilities.

The D3100 is the first Nikon digital SLR to support the latest generation of Secure Digital cards, known as SDXC. And the Nikon D3100 adds both an input for an optional GPS accessory, and a high-definition HDMI video output -- two ports that were absent on the D3000, but have been included on all other recent Nikon DSLRs.

The Nikon D3100's burst rate is unchanged, at three frames per second. The D3100 also retains the same Multi-CAM 1000 eleven-point autofocus module and 420-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix II metering sensor that featured in the D3000, as well as Nikon's Dust Reduction and Picture Control Systems. The D3000's friendly Guide mode was also retained, but with some tweaks to make it more approachable.

The Nikon D3100 shipped in the USA from mid-September 2010, in a kit that includes an AF-S NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR lens with optical image stabilization. The Nikon D3100 has an estimated selling price of US$699.95.

 

Nikon D3100
User Report

by Mike Tomkins and Shawn Barnett

The entry-level Nikon D3000 digital SLR has sold well, according to Nikon, since it was introduced in mid-2009; and after a modest $50 decrease in list pricing at the start of this year, spent several months as the dominant seller at its pricepoint. While the Nikon D3100 isn't a direct replacement for the D3000, with the latter slated to continue in Nikon's lineup for the time being, the new digital SLR retains a similar form factor and much of the feature set of its predecessor, along with significant upgrades in a number of areas.

Look and feel. The Nikon D3100's body is all-new, but its dimensions and weight are similar to that of the D3000: 4.9 x 3.8 x 2.9 inches (124.5 x 96.5 x 73.7mm) and about 1.1 pounds (511g) without lens, or 1.7 pounds (777g) with the 18-55mm VR kit lens. Since most controls have similar placement, the new body will offer a shallow learning curve for D3000 and Nikon D40 owners. Several new controls have been added, both for new features, and quicker access to existing ones.

The Nikon D3100's grip is deeper, compared to that of the D3000, and the thumb grip on the rear of the camera has simultaneously been updated with a small rubber panel. These changes make the D3100's body more comfortable to hold -- especially for photographers with larger hands -- and provide a steadier, more reassuring grip.

Like most recent Nikon digital SLRs, the D3100's cut is considerate of the left hand, with a slight rounding of the edge, seen in the lower right of the picture above. This makes it just a little more comfortable to rest the Nikon D3100 in your left palm as your fingers reach out to adjust the zoom and focus rings.

Looking at its front panel, a new three-hole microphone grille can be seen just above the D3100 logo, for use with the camera's new Full HD movie mode. Absent, though, is the infrared remote receiver in the handgrip. Unlike the D3000, the D3100 only makes provision for cabled remotes, and cannot function with an infrared remote.

The Nikon D3100's Mode dial features the same thirteen operating modes as the D3000. Beneath it, jutting out from the right, lies a new Drive Mode switch, which allows the D3100 to be quickly switched between Single, Continuous, Self-Timer, and Quiet modes without needing to resort to the camera's menu system.

Like the D3000 before it, the Nikon D3100 is shipping with Nikon's 18-55mm VR image-stabilized lens. It's an upgrade from the non-image-stabilized kit lens bundled with earlier models, but there's an element of compromise in this change, because the VR kit lens lacks the Extra-low Dispersion glass found on the non-VR equivalent, which is a shame.

The remainder of the Nikon D3100's new controls are found on its rear panel. At the top right corner of the LCD display is a new dedicated Live View switch. It's a momentary switch that rotates to the right to enter and exit Live View mode. When activated, the Nikon D3100 raises its mirror and opens the mechanical shutter to expose its image sensor, then clocks off a continuous data stream to provide a Live View on the rear-panel LCD. Whenever the Live View mode is active, the button at the center of the Live View switch acts as a dedicated Movie Record button: press to start recording, press again to stop.

The Info Edit button (marked with an i) is also a new addition to the entry-level line, as it previously shared a button with the Zoom-in button. The apparent reason for the change is that the Zoom button, in addition to offering zoom in Playback mode, now provides the ability to access a magnified view when using the new Live View mode, so the Info Edit button needed its own control. It also brings the D3100 in line with other recent Nikon DSLRs, with the D3000's shared Zoom / i button having been the sole exception in recent memory.

The Nikon D3100 retains the same 3.0-inch diagonal TFT LCD from the D3000, with a display resolution of 230,000 dots. This equates roughly to a 320 x 240 pixel array, with each pixel constituting three separate red, green, and blue dots. One further change on the Nikon D3100's rear is the addition of a nine-hole speaker grille at the lower right corner, for use with the new movie mode. To accommodate the speaker, Nikon has moved the card access lamp somewhat closer to the LCD display.

Finally a diopter adjustment dial juts out from the upper right of the optical viewfinder's rubber eyecup, just as it does on the D90 and D300S, but not on the D3000 or D5000. Diopter adjustment range remains the same as the D3000's, at -1.7 to +0.5m-1.

The remaining external differences of note between the Nikon D3100 and its predecessor are to be found on its left side. The small compartment door that housed the D3000's USB and standard definition video outputs has grown to encompass almost half the left side of the body, and now houses two additional connectors alongside those from the D3000.

Connectivity. The Nikon D3100 offers Accessory (top) and HDMI (third from top) connectors, as well as the USB (second from top) and standard-def video (bottom) connectors from the D3000.

A new Accessory port allows connection with an optional GPS receiver unit, meaning that all Nikon DSLRs but the D3000 offer GPS connectivity. The same port is used for an optional MC-DC2 remote cord. There's also a new high definition HDMI port, which supports the Consumer Electronics Control (HDMI-CEC) standard, allowing certain playback functions to be controlled through an attached high definition display's remote control unit.

Sensor and processor. On the inside, the Nikon D3100 sports the pairing of a newly developed, Nikon-designed DX-format CMOS image sensor, and a new generation of Nikon's EXPEED image processor. The sensor size -- roughly equivalent to that of a frame of APS-C film -- is unchanged, but where the D3000's CCD imager offered 10.2-megapixel resolution, the Nikon D3100's CMOS chip now provides 14.2 megapixels (4,608 x 3,072) from its 14.8-megapixel sensor. That makes the D3100 the third-highest-resolution Nikon DSLR behind the 24.5-megapixel, FX-format, D3X professional DSLR and the 16.2-megapixel, DX Format, D7000 prosumer model -- at least for the time being. With that said, the difference in resolution between the D3100 and the bulk of Nikon's DSLR lineup at twelve megapixels is relatively modest, with only a little over 7% more linear resolution available from the fourteen megapixel imager.

While burst speed is unchanged from the D3000, the combination of a new image sensor and image processor has brought an increase in sensitivity for the D3100, which offers ISO sensitivities from 100 to 3,200 equivalents in 1 EV steps, with the ability to increase this to ISO 6,400 equivalent using the Hi-1 setting, or ISO 12,800 equivalent with the Hi-2 position. The Nikon D3100 can shoot image bursts at three frames per second. Just like the D3000, the Nikon D3100 can shoot not only JPEG or .NEF RAW image files, but can also simultaneously record each image in both formats. Three JPEG compression levels are available, although only the highest quality Fine compression level is available when shooting in RAW+JPEG mode.

Storage. As well as Secure Digital and SDHC cards, the D3100 is the first Nikon DSLR to support SDXC cards.

The Nikon D3100 records images not only on Secure Digital and SDHC cards, but also on the latest generation of SDXC cards. Compared to SDHC cards, which are limited to 32GB capacity, currently available 64GB SDXC cards can provide twice as much storage, and the newer format will eventually offer even greater capacities. (The theoretical limit is two terabytes, although physical constraints will keep actual SDXC capacities well below this level for the foreseeable future.)

Lens mount. Like the D3000 before it, the Nikon D3100 sports an AF-S lens mount, which lacks autofocus support for the older AF lenses whose focus mechanisms were driven from the camera. These lenses have what looks like a little screwdriver slot on their mounting flange that couples with a protruding, screwdriver-looking shaft on the camera body. A motor in the camera body is thus required to drive the lens mechanics to adjust focus.

More recent Nikkor lenses have motors built into the lens body, which tend to be both faster and quieter than the old-style drive system, as well as allowing the camera body to be lighter, smaller and cheaper. These newer lenses carry an AF-S or AF-I designation in their name, and are the only types of lenses the D3100 can autofocus with. CPU-equipped lenses lacking built-in focus motors can be used in manual focus mode, and type G or D lens types will also support full 3D color matrix metering for more accurate exposures, particularly when flash is being used. (You can tell CPU-equipped lenses by the set of five electrical contacts arrayed on the side of the lens flange.)

Focus and Exposure. The Nikon D3100 shares the same Multi-CAM 1000 phase-detection autofocus sensor module that's previously appeared in the D3000 and D5000, among others. The Multi-CAM 1000 module offers 11 focusing points, of which the center point is a cross-type sensor. While the AF sensor itself is unchanged, Nikon has updated the viewfinder point display. In the D3000, the approximate AF point locations were indicated with dense black marks in the viewfinder. For the Nikon D3100, these have been replaced with much fainter markings, illuminated by single LEDs. One further change to the viewfinder display, perhaps related to this change, is that the Nikon D3100 lacks the on-demand grid display function from the D3000.

The Nikon D3100 also retains the D3000's Scene Recognition System, 3D Tracking capability, and selection of auto-area, single-point, and dynamic-area AF modes. The Multi-CAM 1000 system integrates the AF sensor data with information from the 420-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix II metering sensor, allowing the system to better track objects moving through the scene. The Multi-CAM 1000 sensor has a detection range of -1 to +19 EV at ISO 100 / 68°F. The selection of exposure modes is unchanged from the Nikon D3000, with the D3100 offering Full Auto, Program AE, Manual, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority modes, as well as a selection of six scene modes -- Portrait, Landscape, Child, Sports, Macro, and Night Portrait. Operation of the Auto exposure mode has been changed, however, as the D3100 will now automatically pick a scene type from among the six scene modes when first entering Auto mode. Metering modes include matrix, center-weighted (weight of 75% given to 8mm circle in center of frame), and spot (2.5% of frame centered on selected focus point).

Available shutter speeds range from 30 seconds to 1/4,000, with flash sync at 1/200 second. As with the D3000 and D5000 before it, the shutter mechanism included in the Nikon D3100 is rated at a lifetime of 100,000 cycles. Exposure compensation of +/- 5 EV is available in 1/3 EV steps, and the D3100 also offers flash exposure compensation of -3 to +1 EV with the same step size. Flash modes include Forced, Slow Sync, Rear-curtain Sync, Red-eye Reduction, and Slow Sync with Red-eye Reduction. The flash itself is the same as that used in the D3000, and is fairly powerful, with a guide number of 12 meters or 39 feet at ISO 100 in auto mode, extending slightly to 13 meters (43 feet) in Manual mode.

Dust control. The Nikon D3100 includes the company's three-pronged strategy for controlling dust on the image sensor. Nikon's Dust Reduction System uses vibration to shake dust off the low-pass filter, whereupon the mirror chamber design causes an air flow with each shutter release that carries dust to a capture receptacle. The final part of the approach requires the optional Nikon Capture NX 2 software, and involves creation of a reference photo that is used to identify the location of stubborn dust specks. These can then be replaced by automatically interpolating data from areas of the image adjacent to the dust.

Live View / Video. Perhaps the main area in which Nikon's earlier D3000 lags behind its current-day competition is in the absence of either Live View or movie capture capabilities. Both functions still prove somewhat divisive, with some photographers finding them an unnecessary, little-used distraction, and others greatly enjoying the ability to frame images in the same manner as they would with a compact camera, or to shoot movies with the same versatility (in terms of both interchangeable lenses and shallow depth of field effect) that SLR photography makes possible in still imaging, something most dedicated camcorders can't offer. The absence of video is probably the lesser evil, as arguably most video-capable DSLRs haven't proven ready for consumers, thanks to the absence of continuous autofocus capabilities. However, there's little question that with a generation of photographers now strongly accustomed to framing images on their LCD, Live View is simply a must-have feature even in a consumer digital SLR these days.

The Nikon D3100 corrects both oversights, with numerous changes that combine to provide a genuinely useful Live View function, and a Movie mode with impressive High-Definition capabilities, although still with one important drawback versus shooting with a dedicated camcorder. As previously noted, the Nikon D3100 now includes a dedicated switch on its rear panel that allows Live View shooting to be initiated without entering the camera's menu system. The other big news for Live View shooting is that the Nikon D3100 now provides full-time autofocus in Live View mode. Autofocus starts immediately when the mode is entered, and continues until the shutter button is half-pressed. At this point, focus is locked until the shutter button is released, or half-pressed a second time to resume continuous AF operation.

Perhaps even more unusually, full-time autofocus is also available during video capture, albeit at the expense of clearly audible focusing noise being picked up on the movie's audio track. This is perhaps less of an issue for consumer videographers, who may be willing to put up with the noise in return for the ability to focus during movie capture. The ability to pull focus manually isn't an easy art to learn, after all. It's certainly something to be aware of, though, and with no external microphone connectivity, there's no way to isolate the AF noise, short of recording sound on a separate device and replacing the audio track in post-processing.

The Nikon D3100's Movie mode is also unique among Nikon DSLRs for another reason. The D3100 is the first Nikon DSLR to offer progressive scan 1,920 x 1,080 pixel recording, or what's commonly known as 1080p / "Full HD" video. There's a slight catch, in that for Full HD, the Nikon D3100 can only record at a rate of 24 frames per second (23.976 fps), whereas at 1,280 x 720 there's a choice of 24, 25, or 30 frames per second. Whether the reduced frame rate at full resolution will prove a drawback will depend on your intended use for the video. The only other resolution available is 640 x 424 at 24 fps (23.976 fps).

The Nikon D3100's movies are captured using MPEG-4 AVCHD / H.264 compression, with the file format being .MOV. Each video clip has a maximum length of ten minutes, and the Nikon D3100 does provide for basic in-camera editing of videos, with the ability to trim unwanted content from both the start and end of each clip. The Nikon D3100's internal microphone is monaural, and with no external microphone connectivity, there's again no way to capture stereo audio without swapping the audio for that from an external device in post processing. Movie capture is started and stopped with a new dedicated Movie Shutter button, located in the center of the Live View switch on the rear panel.

With the addition of movie recording to the D3100, Nikon has dropped the stop-motion movie function that was found in the D3000.

Guide mode. The Nikon D3100 further builds on the user friendly Guide mode from the D3000, which is accessed from the Guide Mode position on the Mode dial. When placed in this mode, the Nikon D3100 will greet users with a friendly graphical interpretation of the menu system, with icons labeled Shoot, View/Delete, and Set up. When in the Shoot menu, the photographer is asked a number of questions, and the Nikon D3100 then offers guidance on what to set -- and importantly, why each suggestion is being made. A helpful change from the D3000's Guide mode is the addition of reference photos that demonstrate the effect of settings being applied. For example, as shown in the screenshot (left), when the Guide mode recommends shutter adjustment, it also offers an image of a child kicking a football as an example of the adjustment's effect. As the shutter speed is changed, the reference photo is updated, showing the motion blur at slower shutter speeds, and a sharper image at faster shutter speeds. For aperture adjustment, similar images are available, with the level of background blur changing as the aperture value is adjusted.

Another change to the Guide mode is that, when the user has stepped through the process of answering questions and adjusting their setup per the camera's recommendations, the Nikon D3100 will now ask whether the user wants to shoot a still image using the optical viewfinder or Live View functions, or capture a video. Depending on the answer, the camera will be automatically placed in the correct mode.

Refreshed GUI. This animation shows the difference between the menu styling of last year's Nikon D3000, and that of the new D3100. (Note that the camera model number is identified in the 'Playback folder' field.)

While the remainder of the menu system retains the same basic layout as in the D3000, the visual styling of the menus has also been updated. It's a relatively subtle change, but the net result is that the menu system feels cleaner and more modern.

In-camera editing. As with the D3000, the Nikon D3100 offers a Retouch menu that lets users tweak images to their tastes after capture. Compared to that from the D3000, the Nikon D3100's Retouch menu offers several new functions -- straighten, distortion control, fisheye, and perspective control. As the names suggest, these all correct for (or intentionally apply) distortions to images. The straighten function corrects for tilted horizons, while perspective control fixes converging vertical lines, such as you'd expect when tilting the camera upwards to fit a tall building into the frame. The Nikon D3100 also retains the D3000's ability to process RAW files in-camera, and retains Retouch functions such as trimming, color balance, and red-eye correction, as well as the miniature, filter, and monochrome effects from the D3000.

Like the D3000 before it, the Nikon D3100 offers not only a D-Lighting function that adjusts shadows, highlights, and contrast (taking into account the presence of human faces), to provide a fill-flash-like effect after image capture through the Retouch menu, but supplements this with the company's Active D-Lighting function. Active D-Lighting, which debuted on the D3 and D300, is applied to images at the time of capture. In the D3100 can be enabled or disabled, but there's no manual control over the strength of the effect, which was also true in the D3000. Nikon tells us that the new EXPEED 2 image processor has brought improved performance for its Active D-Lighting function.

The Nikon D3100 also includes Nikon's Picture Control System, which allows control of sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue. Picture Control presets include Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, and Landscape, and each can be fine-tuned to the user's preferences.

Storage and battery. The Nikon D3100 stores images on an SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card, and is compatible with Eye-Fi cards for wireless connectivity via WiFi. It uses a new EN-EL14 lithium-ion battery pack, rated for 550 shots on a charge with 50% of shots using the flash (CIPA rating). No vertical battery grip is available for the Nikon D3100.

 

Shooting with the Nikon D3100

Live View. The Nikon D3100's Live View mode helped me get a closeup of these colorful fall leaves, which were well above my head. An articulated LCD would've been helpful, though looking at the LCD from this angle made it hard to frame my subject, and it took five attempts to get a composition I was happy with.

With an intuitive control layout that's very similar to that of the D3000, I felt quite at home shooting with the Nikon D3100. And with the bundled AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR lens attached, the combination is well-balanced, and controls fell comfortably under my fingers. While it's about par for the course among smaller, consumer DSLR bodies, I did find myself wishing that the D3100's grip were just slightly deeper. With my large hands, it was just a little tiring shooting single-handed, placing more of the weight on my fingertips than is the case with the larger grips on other DSLRs.

I'm especially a fan of the Function button on the left-hand side of the Nikon D3100's flash housing, which I configured to provide quick access to ISO sensitivity adjustments without needing to enter the menu system. Likewise, the new release mode switch makes it easy to jump back and forth between single and burst shooting, as photo opportunities present themselves. The new Live View switch with its central movie record button is also a great design -- unlikely to be accidentally bumped, but perfectly positioned for your thumb to quickly launch Live View mode, and to start or stop movie capture with a minimum of handling noise or camera shake. It's a shame that the LCD panel can't be tilted or swivelled, though, as this robs the Live View function of a little versatility. For example, shooting pictures of fall leaves with the Nikon D3100 held well above my head, I found it rather difficult to see my precise framing, as I was having to look at the LCD from an extreme angle. I still got the shot I wanted, but it took me five attempts to get the framing right.

High ISO. On a sunny day in Knoxville, Tennessee, there weren't too many opportunities to shoot at high sensitivity, but this ISO 3,200 shot of a chandelier in a shady lobby shows that the standard ISO range is useful indeed.

I'm not the most active of movie shooters, but I did appreciate the ability to record at Full HD resolution. For videographers who are adept at pulling focus manually, or who don't mind the limitations of autofocus in terms of drive noise being clearly audible in the captured video, the Nikon D3100 can prove a useful alternative to bringing both a still camera and a camcorder on every trip. The Nikon D3100's contrast detection AF is certainly not as fast as phase detection, but it's definitely at the point where I felt it was useful for static or slowly moving subjects. My fall leaf photo was taken on a fairly breezy day, but the Nikon D3100 still managed to lock AF in between gusts and capture a well-focused image without issue.

I found the Nikon D3100's high ISO performance to be very useful, as demonstrated in the above shot. Noise inside the standard ISO sensitivity range is generally controlled well, and the in-camera noise reduction does nearly as good a job as I could manage in post-processing. With the expanded range enabled, noise did start to present itself rather more forcefully, but with a bit more time spent in post-processing, or at more modest print sizes, I could see even the maximum sensitivity of ISO 12,800 equivalent proving useful in a snip. As I've noted, I generally left the Nikon D3100's Function button mapped for ISO sensitivity adjustments. With that said, I actually found myself shooting with Auto ISO adjustment a lot of the time. With the ability to set a minimum shutter speed, the Nikon D3100's Auto ISO mode let me focus on framing images.

Metering. I found the D3100's exposure metering handled most scenes well, with only occasional blown highlights as you'd expect on harshly lit subjects like these white boats. Even here, the RAW file contains easily enough latitude to restore pretty much everything that's clipped in the JPEG image.

I do think that photographers unfamiliar with Nikon's user interface will perhaps be confused by one point, though. In the Nikon D3100's Shooting menu, there's an option to enable or disable Auto ISO sensitivity, but it's placed directly adjacent to a list of sensitivities that starts with a grayed-out "Auto" position. If you try to select this option, you're presented with the rather cryptic message that it is "not available with current settings." The confusion hails from the fact that, with Auto ISO sensitivity enabled, the numeric value chosen in this list is only a suggestion to the camera as a starting point for the Nikon D3100 to select. The grayed-out option only becomes available in Scene mode shooting, when the option to enable or disable Auto ISO instead becomes grayed out. It seems that Nikon could make this more intuitive by simply hiding the unavailable option altogether, so that you don't appear to have two conflicting options, only one of which is accessible in any given mode.

Plenty of detail. The Nikon D3100's JPEG engine does a good job of holding onto detail from the 14-megapixel CMOS chip, with only a modest resolution advantage to be found from shooting in RAW mode.

The omission of bracketed shooting, presumably to provide differentiation from more advanced Nikon DSLRs, is something I found rather more troubling. I tend to shoot in RAW mode, for the versatility it provides in being able to adjust exposures in post-processing, but when I'm shooting in JPEG mode, I tend to opt for bracketed exposures instead, providing a little reassurance that I'll have an acceptable exposure even with relatively difficult scenes. With the Nikon D3100, that's simply not an option. Thankfully, I found that Nikon's metering system generally hit the nail on the head, with relatively few blown highlights, and then only with harshly-lit subjects occupying a small portion of the frame, such as the sunlit white boat hulls shown above. With this particular exposure, I shot in RAW+JPEG mode, and the RAW file offers good latitude to correct the clipped highlights. If I'd shot only in JPEG, though, there'd have been no restoring them. Even at the entry-level, I consider bracketing to be a must-have feature.

That omission aside though, I found the Nikon D3100 to be a pleasure to shoot with. The most important part of any camera is its image quality, and the Nikon D3100 boasts plenty of resolution, coupled with fairly accurate color. The images I captured in my time with the camera represented my subjects well as I remember them, and as in the street shot above, were generally sharp even in JPEG shooting, with only a slight resolution advantage to be found in shooting RAW. Colors were fairly saturated by default -- this is a camera aimed at consumers, after all -- but thanks to Nikon's standard Picture Controls, it's easy to dial that back a little, and to obtain a rendering that one finds personally pleasing.

While I didn't have need of the Guide mode, and I think it's a little cumbersome, I can see that it could be a useful way to help a complete beginner through the photographic process, and to help them learn about the exposure variables they're adjusting in the process. For more experienced photographers, the Nikon D3100 offers most of the features you'd need, the omission of bracketing excepted. Overall, the Nikon D3100 is a camera that I'd have few hesitations recommending.

 

Nikon D3100 Image Quality

Most digital SLRs will produce a reasonable ISO 100 shot, so we like to push them and see what they can do at ISO 1,600. Recent advances in sensor technology have made ISO 1,600 look a lot more like ISO 100 on many SLRs, but there are still cameras whose quality starts to fall apart at this setting. I also choose 1,600 because I like to be able to shoot at this level when indoors and at night.

Nikon D3100 versus Nikon D3000 at ISO 1,600

Nikon D3100 at ISO 1,600

Nikon D3000 at ISO 1,600

Despite its rise in megapixel size, the Nikon D3100 does considerably better at ISO 1,600 than its predecessor, the D3000. Shadow detail is comparatively smooth. The key is the reduced noise from the sensor, enhanced by a better approach to noise suppression as well. I'd call the D3000's effort to retain detail in the red leaf swatch superior, though; a tradeoff I'd accept for better detail and less noise overall in the Nikon D3100's files.

Nikon D3100 versus Canon T1i at ISO 1,600

Nikon D3100 at ISO 1,600
Canon T1i at ISO 1,600

Against the 15.1-megapixel Canon T1i, the 14.2-megapixel Nikon D3100 comes to a near draw. The D3100 is a little sharper overall, and the red leaf fabric looks pretty good compared to the T1i's more mushy rendition.


Nikon D3100 versus Panasonic G2 at ISO 1,600

Nikon D3100 at ISO 1,600
Panasonic G2 at ISO 1,600

The larger sensor in the Nikon D3100 is to answer for the better rendition of the scene compared to the Panasonic G2. The G2 actually does fairly well with detail, but too much noise is present in the shadows, and the color of the bottle is way off thanks to a bias toward making yellows green. As for the red leaf swatch, it's no contest.


Nikon D3100 versus Sony A33 at ISO 1,600

Nikon D3100 at ISO 1,600
Sony A33 at ISO 1,600

Sony is infamously overaggressive with its noise suppression, so though detail appears a bit sharper in the first two crops above right, the red swatch loses the detail. Regardless, it's a pretty close contest between the two 14.2-megapixel sensors, which are likely of very similar design, and probably shipped from the same factory.


Nikon D3100 versus Nikon D5000 at ISO 1,600

Nikon D3100 at ISO 1,600
Nikon D5000 at ISO 1,600

Two million pixels does make some difference, but ultimately the D3100's 14-megapixel images don't look too different from the D5000's 12-megapixel shots. Seems the D5000 does a little better with the red leaf swatch, but the other two are slightly larger, which amounts to slightly larger printed potential.


Detail: Nikon D3100 vs Nikon D3000, Canon T1i, Panasonic G2, Sony A33, and Nikon D5000

Nikon D3100
ISO 100
ISO 3,200

Nikon D3000
ISO 100
ISO 3,200

Canon T1i
ISO 100
ISO 1,600

Panasonic G2
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
Sony A33
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
Nikon D5000
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
Detail comparison. The Nikon D3100 comes in about in the middle of these five competitors. It is bested by the T1i and Sony A33, but both of these camera also oversharpen their images, resulting in more noticeable halos around high-contrast areas, while the Nikon D3100's images maintain a more honest photographic look (there's still a halo, it's just not as bright). The same is true of the ISO 3,200 shots. Also blurring the issue is that the D3100's image exhibits less contrast in this test shot. Ultimately, the Nikon D3100 holds its own quite well in the detail department, a performance worthy of the Nikon badge.

Printed Results. Peeping at pixels onscreen is only worth so much. It's when we print the images that we get to the relevant performance of a camera's lens and sensor.

Printed results from the Nikon D3100's standard JPEGs are quite good, starting with ISO 100 shots that print very well at 20x30 inches.

ISO 200 shots also look great at 20x30, though our laboratory Still Life shot is out of focus at that setting. Printing other ISO 200 shots, however, confirm its quality, as do the ISO 400 results.

ISO 400 shots are also excellent at 20x30 inches, with only slight softening due to noise suppression.

ISO 800 images are slightly soft, but strong detail is still present at 20x30 inches. Some luminance noise is present in the shadows. Detail softness becomes negligible at 16x24.

ISO 1,600 images are very nice at 16x24 as well, though more of the "processed look" appears around the edges and in the shadows. It's not noticeable at arm's length, though. Reducing print size to 13x19 removes most signs of processing.

ISO 3,200 files print very well at 13x19 inches, though shadows and dark objects start to lose some detail as contrast increases.

ISO 6,400 images are better printed at 11x14 inches, though shadows and colors appear darker. All of this looks more natural printed at 8x12 inches, with only very high saturation and contrast being an issue.

ISO 12,800 look good, but with a watercolor painting effect at 8x12 inches. 5x7-inch prints, though, look excellent in terms of detail, though contrast and shadows are darker and deeper.

Overall, the Nikon D3100 turns out impressive images. Standard JPEGs start out with high saturation and end with very high contrast in their prints, but the D3100 offers some adjustment to both. The only noise reduction options are On and Off, plus RAW, but those should be sufficient for most consumers, as the D3100's printed output can be categorized as "satisfying" in a way that most people will appreciate.

See below for Pro/Con listing and Conclusion.

 

In the box

The Nikon D3100 ships with the following items in the box:



 

Nikon D3100 Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Compact, comfortable body
  • Good ergonomics, plenty of well-positioned external controls
  • Dedicated Live View switch and Movie Record button
  • Drive mode switch reduces menu accesses
  • Excellent image quality from the new 14-megapixel CMOS sensor coupled with Expeed 2 processor
  • Very good high ISO performance; a big improvement over the D3000
  • Good dynamic range
  • Better than average color accuracy
  • Fine-grained adjustment of color saturation, contrast, sharpness, etc.
  • Active D-Lighting does a good job of bringing out shadow detail
  • Good in-camera JPEG engine
  • Automatic chromatic aberration reduction with all lenses
  • Optional distortion correction with most Nikkor lenses
  • Full 1,920x1,080 HD movies (though only at 24p)
  • New continuous AF mode (AF-F) during movies
  • Contrast detection AF in Live View and Movie modes much nearer to phase detect speed than the previous generation of cameras
  • Fast mode switching
  • Good buffer depths for entry-level model
  • Electronic rangefinder helps with manual focus when using optical viewfinder
  • Support for optional GPS unit
  • Revised Guide mode does a good job of helping novices get the shot, and learn how they did it
  • Expanded Retouch options
  • Quiet shutter release mode is great for museums, weddings, and the like
  • Kit lens offers VR (Vibration Reduction, aka Image Stabilization)
  • HDMI-CEC output
  • Fast USB transfer speeds
  • Supports SDXC cards
  • No bracketing capability
  • Auto and Incandescent white balance very warm in tungsten lighting
  • No in-body image stabilization (but bundled kit lens has vibration reduction)
  • Won't autofocus with older "screw-drive" AF lenses
  • No improvement in burst speed over predecessor
  • Built-in strobe doesn't support wireless flash control, and has rather uneven coverage at wide-angle
  • No on-demand grid-lines in optical viewfinder
  • Fixed-position LCD panel makes Live View less useful than it could be
  • LCD resolution could be better
  • No phase-detect AF available in Live View mode
  • Obvious AF drive noise from kit lens picked up by internal mic during movie recording
  • No manual exposure control for movies (other than exposure compensation)
  • No external mic jack
  • No support for IR remotes
  • Limited JPEG noise reduction options (only On/Off)
  • Kit lens somewhat soft in the corners wide open, with high geometric distortion at wide-angle
  • Bundled software is a bit clunky and does not extract any more detail from RAW files
  • Viewfinder view was tilted slightly vs. the image sensor in our sample
  • USB and A/V cables not included

While the Nikon D3100 carries a list price slightly higher than that of the company's most affordable SLR, it offers a number of very worthwhile improvements that make it easy to justify the extra cost. Key among these for most photographers will be its better image quality. For an extra $150 above the list price of the D3000, the Nikon D3100 not only provides significantly higher resolution, but also manages to yield much better high ISO performance to boot. The addition of Live View shooting will ease the transition from point-and-shoot cameras for consumers who've grown accustomed to shooting at arm's length. For $700 list in kit form, the D3100 also adds movie capture, and bests many more expensive cameras in this area, with both Full HD resolution and live autofocus during movie capture. A limitation on framerate at the highest resolution and issues with autofocus drive noise may negate either of these advantages, depending on your intended use, however.

As a camera aimed at the entry level, the Nikon D3100 must cater to photographers who've yet to develop their knowledge of the basics, and a subtly refined variant of the Guide mode seen previously in the D3000 aims to serve this purpose. The addition of example images will certainly make it easier to gain some feeling for the adjustments you're making, but we're still not entirely sure of Guide mode's utility. With spontaneous shots -- where you'll perhaps most need the camera's help -- you likely won't have time to have your hand held, as Guide mode steps you through the setup process. For less spontaneous shots, those who have the time and patience may appreciate the training wheels. Unlike Auto modes that make all the decisions on your behalf, Guide mode can at least prove educational, since you're given an understanding of what settings are being changed.

In most other areas, the Nikon D3100 turns in a solid performance, if not a particularly startling one -- but then, you wouldn't really expect that of an entry level model. Exposures are metered nicely, and color is accurate, if a little oversaturated. Auto white balance does well, but is still a little warm under incandescent lighting. Flash coverage at wide-angle is a little uneven, and the optical viewfinder still suffers the alignment issues noted previously in our D3000 review. On the plus side, though, the bundled 18-55mm kit lens turns in a fairly good performance, especially if shooting in JPEG mode with lens corrections enabled. Thanks to good in-camera noise processing, as well as a JPEG engine that yields lots of fine detail, the Nikon D3100 lends itself well to JPEG shooting overall, and that's an important plus for a camera aimed at the entry-level, where RAW shooting isn't the norm.

The absence of features such as exposure bracketing and the mechanical linkage needed to drive autofocus on older lenses mean that the Nikon D3100 won't make the ideal backup camera for Nikon shooters seeking a second body. That's not really its target market, though. For amateurs looking to move up from a point-and-shoot camera, the Nikon D3100 offers plenty of room to grow. The Nikon D3100 addresses several of the D3000's shortcomings for a relatively modest increment in list pricing, making it a much easier camera to recommend. It's a pretty easy Dave's Pick.