Nikon D3100 Review

 
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Nikon D3100 Operation

Like the existing D3000 model, the Nikon D3100 is aimed at beginner and casual shooters, rather than professionals and hard-core SLR enthusiasts. It's thus no surprise that the D3100 inherits an interface which is very similar to that of the D3000, with an uncluttered layout that places most controls in the same positions as in the earlier camera. There are a few differences, though, made to accommodate new features, bring existing ones out of the menu system, and reduce complexity. Perhaps the most visible change is a new Release Mode Selector lever, located at the base of the Mode dial on the top deck. Moving to the rear panel, Nikon has added a new Live View switch with central Movie Record button, providing a home for two important features that the D3000 lacked. Finally, the Information Edit button is now dedicated to its purpose, sitting adjacent to the Playback Zoom In button with which it previously served double duty.

Overall, the Nikon D3100's design keeps the number of buttons, knobs and dials to a minimum. It replaces the top-panel data display traditionally found on more complex SLRs with a very attractive and logically laid-out information display on the large, rear-panel LCD screen. The mode dial is easily accessed with your thumb while you're holding the grip, and sports a Guide mode aimed at making the camera even less intimidating to those who don't yet understand the technical details of things like apertures, shutter speeds, and ISO sensitivities. The Guide menu not only helps beginners set the camera up to achieve the effects they desire, but also explains what settings changes have been made and why, providing a valuable learning opportunity. Experienced shooters may seldom if ever touch the Guide menu, but it could prove a lifesaver for less-experienced photographers, allowing the user manual to stay at home.

Nikon D3100 Shooting Mode

As with Nikon's other recent consumer digital SLRs, the Nikon D3100 displays shooting info and settings on the main LCD when the Info button is pressed in record mode. There are two shooting display styles: the Graphic display which helps the user to visualize what's happening with shutter speed and lens aperture, and the more conventional looking Classic format (see right), which displays the same basic settings information, but uses larger fonts and icons. I personally like the Graphic format a lot, but can see a time coming when my eyes will prefer the larger type of the Classic display. Unlike the D3100, you can't choose different display formats for different camera operating modes. Instead, it's a one-size-fits-all affair, with all exposure modes except Guide sharing the same display type. You can still change the color of the displays, though, with choices of green, black, or brown for the Graphic display, and blue, black, or orange for the Classic mode (as shown at right). The Nikon D3100 will also rotate the display 90 or 270 degrees when shooting in a vertical orientation.

The illustration below (Courtesy of Nikon USA) shows the meaning of the various icons and readouts in the Graphic (top) and Classic (bottom) display modes.


1
Shooting mode
16
Help icon
2
Aperture (f-number)
17
Exposure indicator
3
Shutter speed
Exposure compensation indicator
4
Shutter speed display
Electronic rangefinder
5
Aperture display
18
Number of exposures remaining
6
Auto-area AF indicator
19
"K" (appears when memory remains for over 1000 exposures)
3D-tracking indicator
20
Flash mode
Focus point
21
Flash compensation
7
Eye-Fi connection indicator
22
Exposure compensation
8
Date imprint indicator
23
Image quality
9
Manual flash indicator
24
Image size
Flash compensation indicator for optional flash units
25
White balance
10
Auto ISO sensitivity indicator
26
ISO sensitivity
11
Picture control
27
Focus mode
12
Release mode
28
AF-area mode
13
Beep indicator
29
Metering
14
Battery indicator
30
Active D-Lighting
15
GPS connection indicator
31
Movie frame size

There's a lot of information shown there, but a logical layout and the large/sharp LCD screen makes it easy to tell what you're looking at. The column of data down the right side of the screen and the row across the bottom of the screen represent settings you can adjust directly from this screen.

As mentioned above, settings can be adjusted right in the shooting display by pressing the "i" button. The cursor keys can then be used to navigate to the setting you wish to change. The OK button is used to select the setting, and a new value or option is selected using the Up/Down cursor keys. For features that have a dedicated button (such as exposure compensation, shutter speed, etc.), the button is pressed and/or the command dial is used to change the value or option. The animation on the right shows the top-level contents of each item in the information display. As part of the Nikon D3100's designed-in user-friendliness, most options on the shooting menu include "assist" images, to help you understand the types of shots or conditions for which each setting is most appropriate.

 

Nikon D3100 Playback Mode

Playback mode is entered by pressing the Playback button. The Nikon D3100's Playback mode provides a great deal of information about your pictures after you've shot them. You can cycle through a variety of Playback displays using the up/down arrows on the multi-selector, including the image alongside either file information, basic shooting data and a luminance histogram, or an RGB histogram (if enabled in the display mode menu). Four further displays include the image with either three screens of overlaid shooting info and image parameter information, or the image with a blinking indication of clipped highlights. To reduce the number of button presses to get to your desired screen type, the highlights, RGB histogram, and info displays can be disabled in the display mode menu if you don't use them Perhaps more unusually, the D3100 offers two slideshow-like transition effects, applicable not to the slide show function itself, but to when you switch between individual images or movies in the standard "image with file info" display type. It's very much a consumer-oriented feature, but doesn't slow the camera down as much as you might think, given that you can interrupt the transition effect to continue switching between images and movies.

The Nikon D3100's histogram display modes are very useful tools. Regarded as almost mandatory by many pros for evaluating exposure levels, histogram displays are de rigeur on professional digital cameras, and common even in many amateur models these days. A histogram is simply a graph of how many pixels there are in the image at each brightness level. The brightness is the horizontal axis, running from black at the left to white at the right. The height of the graph shows the relative number of pixels having each brightness level. This sort of display is very handy for determining under- or overexposure. An underexposed image will have a histogram with all the data lumped on the left-hand side, with nothing reaching all the way to the right. Likewise, an overexposed image will have all the data lumped on the right side. The one defect of a luminance histogram is that it might not be obvious that there's clipping if it is restricted to only one of the three color channels. The inclusion of an RGB histogram function hence allows the photographer to confirm that each individual color channel is correctly exposed, with no clipped values.

Of course the Nikon D3100 also lets you zoom out to quickly find and select images, or magnify them for closer inspection on its 3.0-inch LCD. There is a calendar view as well as the normal 4-, 9-, or 72-image thumbnail displays available by pressing the thumbnail/zoom-out button, and you can magnify images up to approximately 27x for large, 20x for medium, and 14x for small images, using the zoom-in button. Once magnified, you can scroll around the image using the multi-selector to examine critical detail and framing, and you can view other images at the same zoom ratio using the command dial. The Nikon D3100 can detect up to 35 faces while in Playback mode. The camera highlights them with a white frame, and you can cycle through them at the current zoom ratio by holding the Info Display button while pressing the left or right arrow buttons, and zoom in or out on faces by holding Info Display and pressing the up or down arrow buttons. This makes focus verification of faces faster and more convenient.

To return the Nikon D3100 to shooting mode, simply press the Playback button again, or half-press the shutter button.

 

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