Nikon D3300 Field Test Part III

Another take

By Cullen Welch | Posted: 12/02/2014

Nikkor 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6, 62mm, f/7.1, 1/320s, ISO 100, -1/3 EV, Vivid

Introduction

Wow! What a brilliant couple of days I've had with the Nikon D3300. As a mid-range consumer photographer on the verge of a semi-professional hardware and skillset upgrade, the D3300 provided a well-rounded and robust shooting experience for me. The camera fired on all cylinders and continued to surprise me positively throughout our time together.

Nikkor 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6, 35mm, f/4.2, 8s, ISO 100, Vivid

My first DSLR foray was with a Nikon D40 back in 2009, purchased with little foresight and even less understanding of the craft at the time. I have since graduated to a Nikon D7000 that has exceeded all expectations and provided a superb photographic experience for almost three years now. It alone has accounted for over 30,000 of my personal images along the way, and I am keen on it continuing to serve me into the foreseeable future! That said, the D3300 presents a particularly interesting blend of commendable elements from both the nimble and compact entry-level DSLR class in terms of size, weight and cost, and the intensive and more lumbering mid- to high-end consumer DSLR range in terms of sensor performance and image processing, finding an excellent combination of portability and image quality that is friendly on the pocketbook.

Ergonomics

The D3300 body was a bit small for my moderate-to-large finger spread. The shooting grip comfortably accommodates three curled fingers along its length with an index ready at the shutter release, but this leaves me wanting for space when trying to wield the camera single-handedly. Shooting without a strap for a brief stint required heightened awareness in terms of finger purchase, whereas, larger DSLR bodies with more generous grips may make the strapless single hand experience more comfortable and secure.

As with other reviewers, I struggled with the loss of several external buttons, dials, and levers that I personally find integral to my shooting. However, most of the manual functionality that I want and am accustomed to in an entry-level camera was indeed accessible by way of on-screen menus, though I did miss not having auto exposure bracketing support. The process of actually making the adjustments via menus was simply a notch in an otherwise pretty seamless experience.

Nikon has done a good job keeping things understandable for entry-level users, even going so far as to add a "?" function across most menus, to provide quick explanations for novice photographers. There's also a dedicated Guide mode which offers very easy to understand instructions for setting up the camera to produce the desired result for those with little to no previous photographic experience.

Autofocus

The visual representation of the single-point and dynamic-area AF points within the viewfinder began and ended in struggle for me (although I should add here that the AF 3D-tracking worked brilliantly and negated any concerns about the AF point visualization). I found the points themselves to be undersized and difficult to discern in the viewfinder against outdoor scenes with intricate detail and bright highlights, especially as their red-illumination upon adjustment lasts only briefly (as opposed to other displays where the active focus point(s) remain visible). Nevertheless, despite my preference for a chunkier viewfinder graphic AF display, the D3300 did perform with precision within the bounds of its 11-point system and had no shortcomings in terms of performance. Its 3D AF-tracking worked brilliantly and pretty much negated any concerns I had about the AF point visualization.

Shooting modes

In experimenting with the playful "Effects" modes, I had a bit of a learning curve in terms of practical application. Proceeding logically to the "Quick" menu to make an adjustment, it took me a moment to realize that the different settings within the "Effects" mode are accessed initially by turning the command dial on the rear of the camera, as opposed to selecting a readily visible menu icon on-screen, as with the majority of other D3300 settings. (Though in all fairness, the display does show a helpful hint in the form of a graphic of a rotating command dial.) User-impairment aside, the effects were a lot of fun to toy with!

Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II, 28mm, f/11, 1/500s, ISO 360, Miniature Effect

The new "Easy Panorama" feature proved highly intuitive, produced spectacular results most of the time, and may be the D3300 feature that I miss the most in my own personal equipment. To use it, you need to enable Live View mode, where you are presented with a framing grid over the preview image to help with alignment. You then focus by half-pressing the shutter button, and when you fully press the shutter, the display shows 4 arrows prompting you to start panning across your scene horizontally or vertically. Recording of frames automatically starts once the D3300 detects the start of the pan, and it automatically stops, at which point the camera stitches the frames together to form the panoramic JPEG image. (Note that RAW format is not supported.) Two sizes are available: Normal and Wide. Normal results in a 4800 x 1080 pixel image when panned horizontally, or a 1632 x 4800 image when panned vertically. Wide results in a 9600 x 1080 horizontal image, or a 1632 x 9600 vertical image.

Nikkor 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G, 18mm, f/8, 1/500s, ISO 100, Easy Panorama mode (4800x1080)

My only struggle with Easy Panorama was shooting a particular high contrast scene in which the camera blew out portions of the frame as a result of starting in a darker area of the scene. Given the lack of manual aperture and shutter speed controls in this mode, I found myself trying to trick the camera into properly metering on a point within the panoramic scene somewhere other than my desired starting point, or using the up to +/-3 EV of exposure compensation available in this mode. Regardless, this is a fantastic feature. I was rewarded with superb results in well-lit areas, and I would certainly take a slightly blown panorama vs not having the feature at all, if it came down to a choice!

Display

At first glance, several of my images looked pretty dramatic in terms of color saturation and contrast on the LCD monitor. When I later viewed these JPEG images on my high-resolution computer screen, though, I discovered that while the same stunning level of sharpness was there, the color and contrast weren't quite as eye-popping as I’d been led to believe at the time of shooting. (The only adjustment available for the D3300's LCD is brightness.)

Nikkor 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G, 13mm, f/11, 1/8s, ISO 800, Vivid

Additionally, in attempting to crop my images tightly through the optical viewfinder, I found more than once that my final image included a stray bit of unintended subject matter... I could compensate for this well enough by remembering that my frame extended slightly beyond the viewfinder edges. This is actually quite common in lower-end DSLRs; the viewfinder shows about 95% of the final image area. It caught me by surprise though, because I'd become so familiar with my D7000, which has 100% coverage.

Battery

After several hours of continuous shooting, I also found myself wishing for a battery charge percentage indicator, as opposed to the simple three-bar measure. Not a huge deal here, but it did prove relatively imprecise for me in a situation where I didn't have charge access and wanted to conserve battery power for that last shot of the day. That said, the Nikon D3300's battery life when using the optical viewfinder is very good for a compact DSLR, CIPA-rated at 700 shots per charge.

Importing RAW files

I updated my personal image processing software (Adobe Lightroom) just several months ago, but discovered -- after failing to import a batch of fresh D3300 .NEF files -- that I needed another software upgrade. A trivial point which applies to any camera that uses a proprietary RAW format, but relevant to any users looking to upgrade their hardware alongside potentially outdated RAW file converters. However, Nikon's free ViewNX 2 software was of course able to open the D3300's NEF files.

Video

As an amateur videographer, I was absolutely amazed by the quality of video recorded by the D3300. Nikon has included support for 1080p footage at frame rates of up to 60fps, so the D3300 can deliver very smooth-looking motion. (Many competitors can only go as high as 30fps in full 1080p mode.) And while the actual process of recording a video was a bit clunky for me (I missed the small "Record" button with my trigger finger twice after activating Live View mode), I quickly got the hang of things and found it bothered me less over time.

Nikon D3300 Daytime Sample Video
1,920 x 1,080, H.264, 60p
Download Original (30.6MB MOV)

In addition to recording 1920 x 1080 at 60p, the D3300 offers 1920 x 1080 at 30p or 24p (50p and 25p in PAL mode). It also shoots 1280 x 720 HD at 60p or 50p, and 640 x 424 at 30p or 25p. All resolutions offer High and Normal quality settings.

Videos are recorded using H.264/MPEG-4 compression with linear PCM audio, saved in a MOV container. Recording times are relatively limited, unfortunately, with only a 10 minute maximum recording time for High movie quality at 1080p60 (this increases to 20 minutes at Normal quality setting). The rest of the 1080p and the 720p framerates have 20m/29m:59s (High/Normal) recording limits, and standard definition video has a 29:59 limit in both quality settings. Note that internal temperature may reduce maximum recording times, as is true for many cameras.

The built-in microphone is monaural, however the D3300 includes a 3.5mm jack for an external stereo microphone. Audio levels can be auto or manual, or audio recording can be disabled altogether. There's also an optional wind noise reduction feature.

Single-shot or Full-time (continuous) autofocus are available while recording movies, as is manual focus. You can magnify the preview up to 8.3x to check focus before recording starts, but not during recording, and focus peaking is not supported. When using autofocus, Face-priority, Wide-area, Normal-area and Subject-tracking AF options are available.

Nikon D3300 Nighttime Sample Video
1,920 x 1,080, H.264, 30p
Download Original (37.2MB MOV)

By default, the D3300 automatically sets the exposure for video using matrix metering derived from the sensor (although exposure compensation is available, and exposure can be locked), but videographers can also manually adjust exposure settings by enabling "Manual Movie Settings" in the menu, which gives you control over shutter speed and ISO sensitivity. Like other non-pro Nikon DSLRs, you cannot adjust the aperture while Live View is enabled. You'll need to leave Live View mode, adjust the aperture, and re-enable Live View. You can change shutter speed either before or during recording, but doing so during recording can produce very loud clicks in the audio track, as you rotate the command dial. Available shutter speeds range from 1/4000s down to 1/60s for 60p, and down to 1/30s for 30p and 24p. ISO sensitivity can be set from ISO 100 to 25,600, however ISO can only be changed before recording begins.

The Nikon D3300 includes an HDMI output that can not only be used for image and movie playback, but can stream clean, uncompressed video at up to 1080p30 while recording for use with an external monitor or recorder. HDMI output is pretty common these days, but this was the first time I'd personally been able see clean video output during recording; it's a nice feature, especially on an entry-level model.

The only additional shortcomings I experienced when recording movies were delays in focus acquisition with changing subject distance as well as considerable noise on the audio track when attempting to change focal length and consequently refocus. I also did find some mild moiré upon footage review on my computer that I had missed while filming. The effects are fairly subtle here.

Nikon D3300 Moiré Example Video
1,920 x 1,080, H.264, 30p
Download Original (31.8MB MOV)

Nevertheless, above and beyond these fairly standard DSLR video-capture concerns, I was really impressed by the high quality of the D3300's lowlight filming.

Wrapping it up

As a long-ago D40 vet, this entry-level camera is a significant step up in terms of functionality, performance and image quality. But as a D7000 enthusiast, it pains me to lose access to several of the buttons, dials, and levers integral to my shooting experience. My sole complaint here is a matter of ergonomic design, partially compensated with by preference realignment and interface adaptability. That said, when considering its target audience, the D3300 is a home run, all-around. The images produced, even with only a fairly rudimentary user interface, leave little room for complaint.

Image quality was excellent, even at higher ISOs. And I didn't really find aliasing artifacts to be a significant issue in still images despite the D3300's lack of an optical low-pass filter. Performance was pretty good too, especially considering its high resolution and entry-level status, though autofocus in Live View mode was sluggish. (See the Nikon D3300 Performance page for all the details.)

Nikkor 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G, 10mm, f/6.3, 1/400s, ISO 100, Vivid

The lack of built-in Wi-Fi is unfortunate. It's easily remedied by the optional WU-1a Mobile Adapter, but Wi-Fi is such a basic function in this connected age that I'd really like to see it built in, even on an entry-level camera. (Note that the D3300 does support Eye-Fi SD cards, but if built-in Wi-Fi is important to you, consider stepping up to the D5300, or look into one of the many affordable mirrorless cameras that include Wi-Fi.) Apart from that, though, I didn't see any glaring omissions by way of technical performance or usability other than the aforementioned lack of auto exposure bracketing support. Given its stunning resolution and great video recording at this price point, the D3300 seems like a no-brainer for any photography enthusiast on a budget looking to hit the ground running, with quality shots out of the box.

Stay tuned for our conclusions with pros & cons and our final verdict on the Nikon D3300!

 



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