Nikon D3300 Field Test II

Wowed by the kit lens and AF, less so the limited controls

by Rob Taylor Case | 04/30/2014

As would be expected from a camera in this price range and size, the control layout can be a little limiting. Since the target demographic isn't generally expected to use quite a number of features, they've been omitted; those needing them can upgrade to the D5300 or the D7100.

IS-NO. Let's get the first omission out of the way: There is no dedicated ISO control. I know I mentioned this previously, but it really did feel to me like a standout missing feature while shooting. I still don't trust a camera to auto-ISO, which may be a hangover from the bad old days of sensor noise appearing the second you crested the ISO 200 hill. You can access it via the quick menu, but that's far too slow for my liking, so I set the Function button to adjust ISO.

For an actual real ISO button, to the D7100 you must go. If you're not loyal to Nikon, and in a budget DSLR you're probably not, you can seek greener pastures in Canon land: both the T5 and SL1 offer dedicated ISO control. Pentax's excellent K-50 not only gives you your ISO button, but also weather sealing and a host of other great features. If you intend to use the D3300 as a 'set-it-and-forget-it' camera though, the lack of a dedicated ISO button is really a non-issue.

While the D3300 lacks a dedicated ISO button, high ISO performance is very good.
Nikon 35mm f/1.8, f/1.8, 1/1600, ISO 6400
RAW processed with ViewNX 2

On the other hand, the menu allows you to set not only maximum acceptable ISO for noise reasons, but also adds the handy minimum acceptable shutter speed option too, with an Auto option that takes the lens' current focal length into account to help avoid the effects of camera shake. Nice. So in theory you can dial in your working parameters ahead of time, and then not have to think about it while shooting. Since high ISO performance is actually pretty good, especially for an APS-C camera, this made the lack of dedicated ISO button an easier pill to swallow.

Despite lacking a dedicated ISO button, Nikon came through with some decent ISO options and settings in the menu.

Bracketing for some, but not for all. There is no auto-bracketing. I don't really care about white balance bracketing since I shoot in RAW, but the lack of exposure bracketing is slightly disappointing. I usually use it for HDR, and combined with a 24MP sensor that lacks the detail-robbing low-pass filter it could be a glorious camera for landscapes and composite backgrounds. On the other hand, the impressive dynamic range of this sensor (as I'll show later) may make this use case a little less vital. (Note: The D3300 has a two-shot "HDR Painting" scene mode, however as you may expect from the name, the results are rather impressionistic.)

Sometimes, even in these digital days, exposure bracketing is still useful for really nailing exposure in a tricky lighting scenario. Alas, it's not to be. For bracketing, you'll need the D5300, or an entry-level ILC from Canon, Pentax, Sony, Panasonic or Olympus.

Exposure bracketing would've been nice for shots like this.
Nikon 35mm f/1.8, f/1.8, 1/3200s, ISO 100
RAW processed with ViewNX 2

Release mode. Check! What the D3300 does have, however, is a dedicated release mode button. With the continuous shooting speed boosted to a respectable 5fps, this button earns its spot on the back. There's now a distinct possibility of someone needing to switch on the fly between single shot (to save card space), continuous (to capture the moment) and even one of the lesser-used options like self-timer (customizable via the shooting menu), remote release (for use with an optional IR remote), or quiet-shutter (which isn't all that much quieter, but is a little more subtle). These are significant advantages in the low-end DSLR arena.

I found the sleeping polar bear photo to be a particularly effective illustration for single frame release mode.

Focusing. As can be expected on Nikons, autofocusing is fairly rapid. It's actually quite impressive on a cheap body with only one cross-type AF point and ten linear AF points. The camera focuses quickly and accurately in a variety of lighting scenarios, and the AF-assist light is quite bright and helpful. That dedicated AF-assist light also differentiates it from the Canon SL1, which relies on flickering the flash to provide the AF system sufficient illumination.

I've tried it in both Auto-area AF (the default) and Single-point AF (my preferred) and each seem to be robust. Obviously single point AF set to the central (cross-type) point is going to provide the combined fastest and most accurate focus lock with lower room for error in most situations, but I was fairly impressed with how reliably the camera knew what I wanted with the area-AF. If you're shooting a single-plane subject, Auto-area AF may be more rapid and precise as it takes in data across more focus points.

AF is crazy fast in full sun, and still surprisingly rapid in a dim indoor room. I was able to keep up with a one-year-old's expression changes indoors at ISO 25,600 and a four-year-old running outside at ISO 200.

This would have been the time to test the 3D tracking AF to see if it does what it says on the tin, but the thought was lost in the heat of the moment and I don't have a convenient dog to go back in and test with! However, it doesn't seem like I really needed it, even as I moved the camera to track the erratic motion of the subject.

Good AF, even without resorting to 3D tracking mode.
18-55mm kit, 20mm, f/7.1, 1/500s, ISO 200
RAW processed with ViewNX 2

Even contrast-detect AF in Live View is pretty solid, though that's becoming more expected since mid-2013 with the increase of DSLR video and competition from mirrorless cameras driving improvements in Live View development. I wouldn't use it to track a Little Leaguer, but for precise framing in Live View (only 95% optical viewfinder coverage, as is standard at this level) or setting up a video shot quickly, the roughly one-second focusing I experienced with the kit lens is acceptable and precise, though still not nearly as fast as most mirrorless cameras.

Even in manual focus, the camera still has the ability to give you a hand; in the shooting menu you can enable "Rangefinder," which provides an in-viewfinder display showing degree and direction of defocusing. It's not quite as satisfying as lining up the images in the little box, but it's a little similar, works well, and makes it easier to use older screw-drive AF lenses in manual focus mode. (Like all entry-level Nikon DSLRs, the D3300 only autofocuses with lenses that have a built-in AF motor.)

Kit Lens. The lens included in the D3300 kit is the all-new Nikkor DX AF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II, a retractable lens similar to those for the mirrorless Nikon 1 series and its competition. In my informal tests I found this to be a really solid all-round performer.

Wide open, the bokeh (that is, degree and subjective "quality" of out-of-focus areas) is really quite nice at both ends of the zoom range. This matches my experience with other low-end Nikkors, which manage pleasing bokeh.

Bokeh at 55mm wasn't bad!
18-55mm kit, 55mm, f/5.6, 0.6s, ISO 400
(Click to see full-size JPEG, converted from RAW using ViewNX 2)

In contrast, I find that lower-end Canons, Sigmas and Tamrons have a tendency to get a defined line around the edges of bokeh balls and crunch up graduations between hues.

Pretty nice at 18mm, too!
18-55mm kit, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/5s, ISO 400
(100% crop. Click to see full-size JPEG, converted from RAW using ViewNX 2)

For the full review of the kit lens, we'll have to wait for the folks at SLRgear.com to put it through its paces, but in my informal tests I found it did very well for a kit lens. At wide angle, it's soft in the corners when wide open at maximum aperture, but the lens sharpens up very nicely when stopped down. At the tele end, the lens is pretty sharp across the frame wide open, and very sharp stopped down. Macro performance was pretty good, too.

I did find quite significant distortion and vignetting at wide angle, with better results in the middle and long-end of the focal length range. And chromatic aberration was pronounced in uncorrected RAWs at wide angle, however the camera and the bundled ViewNX 2 software automatically suppress CA. The D3300 and included software also have the ability to correct for distortion.

The 18-55mm kit performed admirably and did a good job with macro shots.
18-55mm kit, 55mm, f/5.6, 1/320s, ISO 100
RAW processed with ViewNX 2

So the lens is sharp, has manageable vignetting and distortion at telephoto, and creates nice smooth bokeh. How does it actually operate, though? What's it like to use? How does it feel in the hand?

In my experience the collapsing feature, while handy for fitting in bags, certainly slows down the process of getting ready to shoot. If you think there's any chance of needing a quick snap, keep it out and ready or it'll blow those "one chance" opportunities that come up. The collapsing feature is certainly an asset in competing with mirrorless and compact models (not to mention the cellphone set), but didn't really do it for me as a lifelong DSLR shooter. Fortunately you can't accidentally shoot with it collapsed; the camera gives an error message until it's expanded, which is handy.

The camera helpfully tells you when you've forgotten to extend the lens.

Shooting. Once you're shooting, the lens actually feels rather nice. The zoom ring is a deep, chunky swathe of rubber that's hard to miss, easy to turn and has no play anywhere in its motion.

The focus ring has no full-time manual override, which is fine for me since I frequently find myself applying focus ring pressure when trying to lock AF. It's a small, plasticky ring, a stark contrast with the zoom ring, but it moves very easily and smoothly with again, no slop in the mechanism. Focus with it is sure and direct.

There's no wobble in the focus or VR switches either. In fact, the only part of the lens that doesn't feel extremely solid and well made is the plastic mount. Of course, for the most likely buyer, this likely isn't much of a problem. The camera shouldn't be taking much of a beating, and the lens probably won't be getting changed all that frequently.

Vibration reduction. The lens' built-in vibration reduction works well and is certainly a welcome feature on any kit, especially one oriented towards beginners. Images are obviously sharper at faster shutter speeds, but I managed to get a sharp image at around 1/4 sec, handheld, at 55mm, which I found thoroughly impressive. Usually I avoid going under about 1/20s - 1/30s when I'm shooting handheld at 50mm.

So, the verdict on Nikon's fancy new kit lens? It's easy to use, feels great, is remarkably well constructed, has an excellent minimum focusing distance, features more than acceptable optics for a kit lens and includes solid vibration reduction. For the majority of people buying this camera, it'll never need to be replaced. Very impressive work.

Wrapping Up. The D3300 is an interesting proposition. Nikon eschews features like a dedicated ISO button, exposure bracketing and depth-of-field preview, suggesting it intends the camera for "set-it-and-forget-it" amateurs. However, Nikon also omitted beginner-friendly features like a touchscreen and built-in Wi-Fi, likely to hit a pricepoint. That suggests the camera is intended for novice photographers looking for a "real" camera on the cheap.

But Nikon certainly hasn't skimped on the quality of its sensor, significantly outdoing Canon in this department. And they've even upped the ante by omitting an optical low-pass filter. That leads to the interesting combination of a low-end camera with a great sensor that many novice photographers won't really appreciate, but with the potential for moiré that could be a rude surprise for the uninitiated.

My verdict thus far? If you're new to DSLRs and are expecting a plethora of special features you've heard about that are missing on compacts and smartphones, you may be disappointed. On the other hand, if you're just looking for sharpness and image quality on a budget (or are recommending the same to a newbie), this little thing's got you covered. In spades.

Stay tuned for more to come as I investigate how well the camera handles moiré, give its video mode a try and render a final verdict!

If you're not looking for a plethora of features and need image quality on a budget, the D3300 might just do the trick.
Nikon 35mm f/1.8, f/1.8, 1/400s, ISO 6400
RAW processed with ViewNX 2

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

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    • Nikon D3300 18-55mm VR II kit: Black | Red | Gray
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