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Nikon D3100 Exposure
Exposure Modes. The Nikon D3100 gives you all the exposure options you'd expect in a consumer SLR. Available exposure modes include Full Auto, Program AE, Manual, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority modes with shutter speeds from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds available in 1/3 EV steps, as well as a Bulb setting for longer exposures. Also provided are the six standard Scene modes found on most consumer Nikon SLRs (Portrait, Landscape, Child, Sports, Macro, and Night Portrait), and a Flash-Off Auto mode. There's also a Guide mode designed to help users through complicated settings by letting them select what kind of photo they want to take and the camera makes the settings from there. Refer to the Modes and Menus tab for more details on each exposure mode.
A very nice touch that's common to other Nikon DSLRs is that, while in Program AE mode, you can rotate the Command dial to select different combinations of aperture and shutter speed settings than those normally chosen by the autoexposure system. (That is, if the automatic program would have chosen 1/125 second and f/5.6, you could instead direct the camera to use 1/60 at f/8 or 1/30 at f/11, to get greater depth of field.) Dubbed Flexible Program in Nikon parlance, this is a very handy option for those times when you need some measure of increased control, but still want the camera to do most of the work for you. We personally use this capability more than Aperture- or Shutter-priority metering in our own shooting.
An interesting feature when using Manual exposure mode is the electronic analog exposure display visible in the optical viewfinder data readout. This shows the amount the camera thinks an image will be over- or underexposed, based on the settings you have selected, and helps you find the best exposure for the subject.
Exposure Metering. Nikon has one of the most sophisticated and flexible metering systems on the market today. Like most SLRs, there are three main metering modes on the Nikon D3100: Matrix, Center-Weighted, and Spot metering. Where Nikon's system differs is in the capability of these modes. Nikon's matrix metering is called 3D Color Matrix II, as it takes color as well as distance into account. (Distance requires the use of CPU-equipped lenses.) It covers a wide area of the frame with a 420-pixel RGB sensor. The Nikon D3100's Center-Weighted metering mode gives a weight of 75% to an 8mm diameter circle in center of frame. Spot meters a 3.5mm diameter circle (about 2.5% of the frame) centered on the active focus area. (Most DSLRs only meter the very center of the frame in Spot metering mode.) The 420-pixel RGB sensor also serves to ascertain automatic white-balance, and provides assistance for focus tracking when the subject leaves the AF sensor area. Metering range is specified at 0 to 20 EV in Matrix or Center-Weighted, and 2 to 20 EV in Spot metering mode.
Exposure Lock. The AE-L/AF-L button locks the exposure and/or autofocus, useful for off-center subjects in tricky lighting. It can be programmed for AE lock, AF lock, AE + AF lock, or AF-ON functions via the custom menu. You can also program the button to toggle instead of requiring the button to be held.
Exposure Compensation. Exposure compensation on the Nikon D3100 is adjustable from -5 to +5 exposure equivalents (EV) in 1/3 EV step increments, and is controllable in Program, Aperture-priority, or Shutter-priority modes. Note that in Manual exposure mode, the EV button becomes a shift button that changes the function of the Command dial from controlling the shutter speed to changing the Aperture. The Nikon D3100 does not support exposure bracketing.
ISO Sensitivity. ISO ranges from 100 to 3,200 and can be extended up to ISO 6,400 (Hi 1) or ISO 12,800 (Hi 2). ISO can only be adjusted in single EV steps (100, 200, 400, 800, etc.). Nikon's excellent Auto ISO feature is carried over as well, which allows you to set both the upper ISO limit (up to ISO 12,800) as well as the minimum shutter speed (selectable from 1s to 1/2,000s) required before ISO is increased automatically.
White Balance. The Nikon D3100 offers the usual white balance settings: Auto, six presets consisting of Incandescent, Fluorescent, Direct Sunlight, Flash, Cloudy, Shade, and a manual mode where white-balance is determined from a white or grey card. The Fluorescent preset has seven sub-settings consisting of Sodium Vapor (2,700K), Warm-white (3,000K), White (3,700K), Cool (4,200K), Day White (5,000K), and High Temperature Mercury Vapor (7,200K), and the Preset Manual setting allows one custom white-balance measurement to be stored. All the presets are tweakable via a 2D fine-tuning grid display, but the Manual setting can't be tweaked.
Active D-Lighting. D-Lighting has proven a popular post-processing feature in Nikon's consumer digital SLRs, as well as some of the company's point & shoot models. It's a quick software process that attempts to overcome underexposed images, and bring detail out of shadows. Active D-Lighting on the D3100 doesn't have the many options found on higher-end models, though, just Off and On.
Auto Distortion Control. A particularly interesting feature of the D3100 is its Automatic Distortion Control function, only recently introduced to Nikon SLRs in the D5000. Enabled via the Shooting menu, this option automatically corrects for barrel and pincushion distortion in JPEG files when using most Nikkor D- and G-type lenses (PC, Fisheye and certain other lenses excluded). We gave it a try with the Nikkor 18-55mm VR lens that ships with the Nikon D3100, and it worked very well. See the Optics tab for geometric distortion test results with this feature disabled and enabled. The Nikon D3100 also offers distortion correction as a post-processing function, available from the Retouch menu. There, you can create a copy of an image after applying either an automatic amount of correction, or manually adjusting the amount on a preview display.
Picture Control. Nikon has standardized its Picture Control system so that camera settings for sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation, and hue can be finely adjusted and ported to other Nikon digital SLRs that support the system. The D3 was the first camera compatible with the option, and all Nikon SLRs since -- including the D3100 -- follow the standard. The Nikon D3100 has six presets called Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, and Landscape.
Sharpness can be adjusted in ten steps, along with an Auto setting; contrast, saturation, and hue can be adjusted in seven steps, while hue is adjustable in three steps. There is also a five-step "Quick Adjust" setting which exaggerates or mutes the effect without having to adjust each slider individually. When Monochrome Picture Control is selected, Hue and Saturation are replaced by Filter Effects and Toning respectively. Filter Effects offers Off, Yellow, Orange, Red, and Green settings, while Toning offers B&W, Sepia, Cyanotype, Red, Yellow, Green, Blue Green, Blue, Purple Blue and Red Purple settings. Note that Picture Controls are only active in Program, Aperture-priority or Shutter-priority and Manual exposure modes, as the Scene modes already apply preset image adjustments. Of course, the Nikon D3100 also offers sRGB and Adobe RGB settings, in a separate Color Space menu.
Noise Reduction. The Nikon D3100 offers noise reduction, but with only two options: Off or On. This control affects both high ISO and long exposure (dark current) noise reduction simultaneously, so it isn't possible to disable only one noise reduction type. Nikon doesn't state at which sensitivities the D3100 performs noise reduction, but does note that even when set to Off, some high ISO noise reduction will still be performed at higher ISOs. Long exposure noise reduction doubles the exposure times, as it functions by capturing a second image with identical settings to the actual exposure, but with the shutter closed. This generates a picture of the dark current noise, which varies as a function of sensor temperature and exposure time, allowing the locations of dark current pixels to be mapped and automatically removed from your final image. If you're shooting a long exposure, and forget to disable noise reduction before the fact, you can prevent the camera from applying dark current noise reduction by switching the D3100 off during the dark current exposure, after photo exposure has been completed. You can then immediately power the camera back on and resume shooting or review your captured image.
Release Modes. The Nikon D3100's release modes are selected via a lever underlying the Mode dial. Release modes consist of Single Frame, Continuous, Self-timer, and Quiet Shutter. The Nikon D3100's Continuous mode is rated by Nikon for up to 3 frames per second (we got 2.89 frames per second in our testing), for a total of 100 Large/Fine JPEGs before the buffer fills and the camera slows. In raw shooting, the buffer size is rated at 13 frames, while for raw + JPEG shooting, it's just nine frames. Our own testing suggested these numbers to be rather conservative, as we found the D3100 capable of 16 raw or 11 raw+JPEG frames. It's worth noting, though, that when shooting images of a very complex scene with a lot of sharp, fine detail, the reduced compression may result in lower buffer capacities.
Self-Timer mode opens the shutter after a delay of either two or 10 seconds, once the shutter button is pressed. Finally, Quiet Shutter-release is similar to normal Single Frame mode, but with some changes made to reduce operation noise. The D3100's Quiet Shutter-release mode automatically disables the beep sound when the camera focuses, something which can be achieved in other modes through the Beep option in the Setup menu. It also delays lowering of the mirror until the shutter button is released, separating the noise of this operation from that of the mirror being raised and the shutter fired. It also reduces actuation speed of the mirror mechanism, and of the shutter recocking mechanism. The result is, indeed, a much quieter shutter sound.
Retouch Menu. The Nikon D3100 has an extensive Retouch menu, replicating almost all the options from the D5000, and adding a basic movie editing function. The amount of image alteration that can be performed in-camera is starting to rival what basic image editing software packages can do on a computer, so much so that many users may not feel the need to use a computer for Nikon D3100 image editing at all. Retouch options include adjusting D-Lighting, red-eye correction, image cropping (trim), converting to monochrome, applying seven different filter effects, adjusting color balance, resizing to small images (for TV, Web or email), image overlay for combining two RAW images into one JPEG, NEF (RAW) processing, "Quick Retouch" for fast adjustments to saturation and contrast, straightening crooked images, distortion (barrel / pincushion) correction, a fisheye effect, color outline, perspective control (correcting diverging verticals / horizontals), miniature effect (graduated blur at top and bottom of the frame to emulate reduced depth of field), and basic movie editing.
The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Nikon D3100 Photo Gallery.
Recommended Software: Rescue your Photos!
Just as important as an extra memory card is a tool to rescue your images when one of your cards fails at some point in the future. We get a lot of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. Memory card corruption can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. A lot of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digital camera reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...
Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Nikon D3100 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!
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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.