Nikon D3300 Field Test I

A welcome reunion

by Rob Taylor Case | 04/30/2014

Nikon 35mm f/1.8, f/1.8, 1/2000s, ISO 100
RAW processed with ViewNX 2

When I was about 12, I got a mid-range Nikon compact for my birthday. It had zoom and autofocus, it could print the date on the film and even had a little LCD screen with information I didn't understand on it! It was far better than my first compact camera that I'd been using for many years at the time, and the best camera I could imagine... Until it died, three days later. I replaced it with a cheap, non-zoom Olympus compact, and I never used Nikon again.

Until now. Twelve years later, I think it's time this dyed in the wool Canon guy gave Nikon a second chance. And so I find myself sitting here with a brand new D3300 entry-level DSLR next to my EOS 40D and T3i, tentatively prodding the back and waiting for it to explode.

Canon T3i, Nikon D3300, Canon 40D

I jest! It's actually quite a delightful camera. I'm coming at it as someone not only unfamiliar with Nikon controls and ergonomics, but actively accustomed to the opposite. Conversely, I'm also one of those people who can pick something up and use it immediately without instruction, just based on the practical foundations of UI/UX (user interface/user experience) design and technology itself.

Nikon 35mm f/1.8 @ f/1.8, 1/25s, ISO 400
RAW processed with ViewNX 2

Now that we have an understanding of my background, biases, and perspective, let's get started. First I'll share a list of observations and impressions about the camera, and then in part two of this shooter's report, I'll start to put it through its paces.

Adorable. Marginally more so than its predecessor the D3200, the Nikon D3300 is quite adorably tiny and weighs almost nothing, with or without a lens. It'll happily hand-carry all day around Disney World, Prague or a Burmese temple, whatever's more your thing. It's certainly subtler at school events than a D4S -- unless, of course, you get the metallic red version.

The diminutive body is bundled this time around with an equally diminutive lens, the Nikkor DX 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II. Like Nikon's mirrorless lens offerings, this new kit optic collapses in order to save on size in purses and daypacks. For this purpose it seems thoroughly useful, since space is almost always at a premium. It does increase the ready-to-shoot time a little, but if it's stashed in a bag anyway, I'm not sure this is a grave concern. Just don't expect it to be fitting in a point-and-shoot case any time soon.

Nikon's collapsing lens design allows for a dramatically smaller package when collapsed.

Instead of the usual polycarbonate body over metal chassis construction typically found in a camera at the bottom of the ladder, the D3300 features a monocoque body made of carbon fiber-reinforced polymer. That means the D3300 derives its structural integrity not from an internal chassis, but rather the carbon fiber-reinforced shell. This allows for a more compact design that is both very strong and lightweight. I was really impressed that Nikon brought this technology from the more expensive D5300 to its entry-level DSLR.

The old polycarbonate over metal chassis on the left, the new monocoque body technology on the right. Illustration is for the Nikon D5300, but the construction method is the same.
Illustration courtesy of Nikon.

The high-tech body design and swishes that form Nikon's signature style combined to give the camera a bearing well beyond its price bracket. Nikon struck a homerun in this department.

In this case, strength and beauty really are skin deep. Nikon does away with the metal chassis by relying on a carbon fiber-reinforced shell. Fortunately, they've kept the artistic spackling of yore.

The Grip. The first thing I noticed about this camera in use was that the on-off switch is surprisingly low profile and slippery. Unlike the big slab of a power switch on my T3i, the Nikon D3300's is a fraction of the height and not especially grippy. While this is good for not-accidentally-turning-off, it wasn't quite as effortless to turn on as my T3i.

Burly, substantial On/Off switch from the Canon T3i.
Slim, protruding, reach-curl-pull-requiring On/Off switch from the D3300.

The grip itself is super-ergonomic and fits my hand pretty well, and while its slim, pointy design caused my fingertips to mash back against the body a bit, it would probably fit a slightly smaller hand perfectly. I found that the textured "leather" plastic of the grip and thumb rest was a little less grippy than on my T3i, though it's also a lighter camera, so it probably balances out.

Grippy D3300 on right, grippier T3i on left.

Control Wheel. This might only be of interest to brand-switchers, but since Nikon's shown their willingness to move controls around between generations, I'm looking at the ergonomics carefully. I'm not really a fan of the positioning of this wheel, honestly.

I wasn't thrilled with the positioning of the control wheel.

I shoot with my left brow bone glued to the top of the viewfinder eyecup, and my right eye blacked out by the body of the camera, so the view through the camera becomes my entire world. The problem with the control wheel is that it's exactly eye-width apart from the viewfinder, and thus my thumb knuckle sticking out from the wheel position hits me square in my right eye. Considering how many people shoot Nikon every day without a problem, I tend to think this is just me. [Editors note: Rob's left-eye-dominant, while most of us at IR tend to bring the camera up to our right eye. While the issues Rob had with the control wheel positioning don't affect us, they're certainly salient for the left-eye dominant.]

As for the wheel itself: in manual mode, it's the standard setup of wheel for shutter speed, exposure compensation button + wheel for aperture, which seems fairly intuitive to me on single-dial cameras. So that's good news.

Display and Quick Menu. The LCD screen is very nice, adhering to what seems to be the modern standard of three inch, 921k-dot. It's bright and contrasty -- about all that can be asked for.

Bright and contrasty.

The default information panel is a little glitzy for my tastes, though the skeuomorphism is probably helpful for complete beginners to understand exactly what it is they're looking at and changing in software. I found the monochromatic menu 'theme' to be more to my liking, and there's also a 'Classic' option for a more textual display.

The default UI was effective, if a little glitzy. You can opt for a more pedestrian display format and alternate color schemes.

As a geeky aside, the aperture animation actually uses a photographically accurate logarithmic scale, rather than showing a simplistic linear scaling as might be easier. A small detail for sure, but a welcome one.

'?' button and 'i' button pictured. Additional 'info' button not pictured.

The quick menu is fairly solid, if a little on the small side. It gives quick access to all the usual controls that are otherwise typically under thumb or index finger buttons. Strangely, perhaps, there's no "Q" button, which might logically denote a quick menu. Instead, it's hidden in the "i" button. I assumed the cursive "i" is shorthand for "information," but in fact the information button is labeled "?" as a second function of the zoom-out playback button. As if that weren't enough, there's another button labeled "info." A small quibble from this brand switcher, but a change easy enough to get accustomed to.

Buttons and Layout. It may just be me being used to Canon, but much of the control scheme was unexpected. It's not only limited to the "i"-"?"-"info" strangeness above: the info button is, in practice, mostly just a "display on/off" switch which could be relegated to a shooting menu entry (for dark places) or even just a proximity sensor (to reduce distraction), though it does cycle through different display options in Live View mode.

Nikon hasn't traditionally offered a depth-of-field preview button on its entry-level models and the D3300 is no exception. Notably though, Canon does offer this on their diminutive SL1.

Like most recent DSLRs, there's no dedicated video mode on the dial. There's a record button next to the shutter release, which starts and stops video recording, but you need to be in Live View mode first. Otherwise, the record button does nothing. To snap a quick video, you'll need to turn the camera on using the switch in the front, then press the Live View button on the back of the camera, then press the record button to the left of the shutter. You can also abbreviate the process slightly by switching the camera on while holding the Live View button, but I found I preferred Canon's solution on the SL1: you get a wholly dedicated video slider as part of the on/off switch. Turn the camera on and to video mode, then press record.

As can be expected from the above, the video shooting menu is fairly lightweight, though it does offer 1080p60 video recording, which is quite exciting. I'll be testing that in a coming segment.

You get a dedicated movie record button, but you need to enable Live View first.

The built-in flash release button also serves for internal flash exposure compensation, but only if you think to try holding it in conjunction with the regular EV-comp button, which started feeling like Photoshop keyboard shortcuts to me. This is also only available in TTL-flash mode, which is a shame, since a method to adjust manual flash power on the fly without going into the main menu would be quite nice. Of course, this is just the internal flash, so it's largely irrelevant: anyone using it is most likely shooting in automatic, TTL snapshot mode anyway.

This little guy doubles as flash exposure button when you hold it and the regular EV-comp button together.

In playback, it might be logical to assume that the info button would provide information about the image you're reviewing. Sadly, it doesn't. You just get dumped back into shooting mode. Image info is actually, as I discovered accidentally, accessed with the up and down arrows on the directional pad.

Pressing the 'info' button here in playback mode dumps you back into the shooting mode.

The focus/exposure lock button next to the control wheel can be customized to act as focus lock, exposure lock, both simultaneously, or used for back-button-focusing. Nikon's label on this button is certainly more explanatory than the arbitrary-feeling asterisk on Canon cameras.

This little menu went a long way to easing my ISO-anxiety.

The "function" button below the flash pop-up button is very useful and well placed. Rather than having to pull my eye away and my hand off the lens to get into the quick menu (accessed from the left rather than the right), I could adjust ISO on the fly by assigning it to this button.

One welcome advantage of the D3300 sensor relative to that in my aging T3i: restricting the ISO level isn't so strictly necessary, so I could shoot using auto-ISO without remorse. Given the great high ISO performance and the fact that the target demographic isn't scrutinizing noise levels at 100% crop, this could be used for any number of other things instead.

Wireless Services... are only available via an extra module. I found a "Wireless Mobile Adaptor" setting in the setup menu, and got thoroughly excited, busted out my iPhone and went online to find out how to hook them up. Not possible. I would need the sixty dollar WU-1a module sticking out the side of the camera in order to send my images to my phone. (Or use an Eye-Fi SD card.)

Just because you see 'enable' as an option here doesn't mean the camera supports wireless out of the box. You'll need a special adapter for that.

As you may have gathered, I wasn't particularly impressed by this lack of built-in Wi-Fi on a consumer camera. In today's instant-sharing online world, this seems like a serious oversight. While no low-end DSLRs offer built-in Wi-Fi, it would seem a no-brainer to include a $3 chip in order to give camera phone-upgraders the connectivity they're used to. For the school-and-vacations target audience of an entry-level DSLR, omitting a $3 Wi-Fi chip makes no sense to me.  

If you want built-in Wi-Fi, you'll need to upgrade to the Nikon D5300 and Nikon actually does a better job here than its biggest competitor! If you want Wi-Fi in Canon-land, you'll have to jump way up to the 70D. Of course, Canon and Nikon's intention is to upsell people and improve their margins, which is understandable. But the decision to defend margins in the DSLR world hampers competitiveness against mirrorless competition and disruptive technologies (cellphone cameras).

If built-in Wi-Fi, interchangeable lens capability and low price are your priorities, you might look towards the mirrorless world, where the excellent Sony A5000 can be had for $150 less than the Nikon.

As you'll read, the great sensor and lack of low-pass filter made for some great photos.
Nikon 35mm f/1.8, f/1.8, 1/2000s, ISO 100
RAW processed with ViewNX 2

Sensor. Twenty-four megapixels on an APS-C chip. That's a serious upgrade over a smartphone! Not only that, but the sensor found in Nikon's low-end D3300 is superior in many respects to even some of Canon's higher-end APS-C cameras. That's because Canon hasn't meaningfully upgraded the image quality from sensors in budget cameras like the SL1 and T5i since the T3i, released in early 2011. That's a long time in the world of digital cameras and it shows in the image quality achieved by the D3300 in comparison to the SL1 and T5i. While the UI and control quirks of the D3300 sometimes threw this Canon shooter for a loop, the image quality of this pint-sized competitor was largely unassailable.

What's most exciting in the D3300, however, is that Nikon has removed the optical low-pass filter in order to maximize real resolution. That makes the D3300 perhaps the most affordable and beginner-oriented camera to do away with the low-pass filter. This is both very exciting and potentially problematic.

That sensor is probably the biggest reason to consider the D3300 over the T5 or SL1: great photos that are tack-sharp. It's also the biggest reason to think twice before recommending this camera to a rank amateur: moiré might rear its ugly head.

Obviously, upgrading real resolution is a good thing, and filterless cameras have proven quite popular recently. But is it a good thing at the risk of moiré, something much more difficult to remove than the slight blur of an anti-aliasing filter? And, particularly, is this a practical idea on a camera targeted at consumers who may have never heard the term before? Moiré is big and ugly, and measures must be taken to prevent or reduce it. Full-time photographers are aware of this and can adapt accordingly, but those upgrading from compacts and smartphones may have a harder time figuring out why bricks and fabrics look terrible.

Sharpness and image quality are the name of the game for the D3300.
Nikon 35mm f/1.8, f/1.8, 1/4000s, ISO 100
RAW processed with ViewNX 2

On the other hand, for organic subjects like children and family photos, nature, landscape or macro work, sticking even a moderately sharp lens on the front of this body is going to be quite a coup. The extreme sharpness without the anti-aliasing filter and the ~13 EV dynamic range of the D3300 sensor at ISO 100-200 can produce some really stellar results. While the camera itself may lack features, the sensor certainly doesn't!

I'll see what can be wrung out of it (and if/when/how it artifacts) in a coming segment.

Nikon 35mm f/1.8, f/1.8, 1/4000s, ISO 100
RAW processed with ViewNX 2

Flappy Flap Hinges. A minor thing, but worth mentioning: rather than the simple rubber indentation that may be expected on a camera in this price bracket, the I/O dust flap hinges on the D3300 are elongated and slide. This means less fatigue on the hinge, and more room at the side of the camera to access the sockets. A nice touch, especially since the D3300 supports clean HDMI-out.

These are some rugged hinges.

Order the Nikon D3300 kit or just the new collapsible 18-55mm lens from one of Imaging Resource's trusted affiliates:

  • Adorama:
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  • B&H:
    • Nikon D3300 18-55mm VR II kit: Black | Red | Gray
    • Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX VR II Lens: Black


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