The Nikon D3100 is an entry-level DSLR with a 14.2-megapixel DX format sensor, which captures great still images, as well as 1080p HD video. The D3100 sits at the low-end of Nikon’s DSLR line-up and is surprisingly affordable given its feature set.
Nikon D3100 Key Features
- 14.2MP CMOS Sensor
- Full 1920 x 1080 HD Video at 24p
- Full Time Video AF
- 11 Point AF
- ISO 100-3200 (expandable to ISO 12,800)
- 3″ LCD Monitor
- 18-55mm VR Kit Lens
Nikon D3100 Handling and Controls
Like the entry-level Nikon DSLRs before it (e.g., D40, D60, D5000), the D3100 is very compact. While my personal preference is a larger-sized DSLR, Nikon has the ergonomics just right for the D3100. It doesn’t feel so small that it is hard to handle or feel cramped in your hands. The D3100’s grip has a nice rubbery coating that makes it easy to hold onto and gives it a more professional feel – even if we all know it’s a consumer level camera.
As an entry-level DSLR, the D3100 does a pretty good job of balancing easy access to shooting modes for novice users with advanced controls reasonably accessible for more advanced users.
There are a number of basic controls available directly from the mode dial on top of the D3100. Nikon has made it easy on novice users by including a couple of point and shoot modes, which are indicated on the mode dial by the green camera icon and a no-flash icon. In these modes, the camera does all the thinking for you and chooses the appropriate setting. Of course, in the no-flash mode, you are forcing the camera to come up with the correct exposure without using the pop-up flash.
In addition to the point and shoot modes, the D3100 features several creative scene modes, which include Portrait, Landscape, Children, Sports, Close up, and Night portrait. These creative scene modes are selected by turning the mode dial to the icon representing the respective mode. These icons are commonplace nowadays and should be intuitive for even the novice user. In many ways, these creative modes are still point and shoot modes; however, as the user, you are telling the camera the type of scene to optimize settings for.
The D3100 also includes a Guide mode, which helps walk beginners through the very basic steps of common camera operations. When Guide mode is selected, the D3100 defaults to a screen that provides three options: Shoot, View/delete, Set up. Choosing the appropriate option then takes you to additional menu dialogs and provide options for easy or advanced operation. Along the way, the D3100 will serve up explanations, tips and sample images to give you an idea of what to expect from the available settings.
Rounding out the mode dial on the D3100 are the traditional P/A/S/M modes, which provide more control over the camera’s exposure settings for the more advanced user.
Alongside, the mode dial is a quick access switch to the D3100’s drive modes. This switch allows instant access to single-frame, continuous (3 fps max), timer and quiet shutter drive modes.
Just in front of the mode dial is the Info button and exposure compensation button. The Info button toggles the display on and off, and is used to cycle through the live view display options. Of course, the exposure compensation button gives you quick access to exposure adjustments in certain shooting modes. The D3100 lets you make up to +/- 5EV adjustments via the exposure compensation button, which is pretty impressive for an entry-level camera.
The shutter release resides in front of the Info and exposure compensation buttons, which puts it comfortably at the front of the grip. The shutter release button is surrounded by the on/off switch, which is a nice, intuitive design that I wish more camera manufacturers would adopt.
On the front-left side of the D3100, you will find a flash button that controls the pop-up flash as well as giving you access to flash exposure compensation. Additionally, Nikon includes a handy Fn button, which is essentially a shortcut button that can be assigned to certain camera functions. By default, the Fn button gives you quick access to the ISO settings. Just hold the Fn button and rotate the control wheel on the back of the camera with your thumb and you can quickly change the ISO speed.
Also on the front of the D3100 is the lone mic for capturing mono sound when recording movies.
Along the left side the camera, Nikon gives you ports for GPS units (this port doubles as a remote port), USB connection, HDMI out and A/V out. Unfortunately, the D3100 does not offer a mic input for those wishing to add a shotgun or other external mic to the D3100’s movie capture.
On the back of the D3100, the scroll wheel resides just above the rubberized thumb pad for quick and easy access. The scroll wheel is used for many functions on the D3100 and it sits in a comfortable and intuitive location. Next to the scroll wheel is the AE-L / AF-L button for locking exposure and focus.
The large 3-inch LCD takes up most of the real estate on the D3100’s backside. It is a rather low resolution with only 230k dots. Compared to the Canon Rebel T2i at over 1 million dot resolution, the D3100’s LCD monitor makes a pretty poor showing. As cheap as the D3100 is though, this is a forgivable feature – and, of course, it is still quite usable and doesn’t affect the end result of images.
To the left of the LCD are the image preview, menu, zoom out / thumbnail, zoom in and info edit buttons. These are comfortably arranged for easy access with your left thumb while navigating the camera controls.
On the right side of the LCD, there is a switch that enables the D3100’s live view mode. When enabled, you can shoot still images by composing your shots on the camera’s LCD. Additionally, you can press the record button in the center of the live view switch to record movies from live view mode. Below it, is a 4-way control dial which serves as the primary menu navigation tool with an OK dial in the center for making selections.
The D3100 can capture full HD 1920 x 1080 video at 24p, as well as 720p video at 24p, 25p and 30p. The D3100 can also record 640 x 424 video at 24p. In each of these modes, the D3100 can record a maximum of 10 minutes per clip. Unfortunately, advanced users will be disappointed with the inability to manually control exposure in video capture mode. Video enthusiasts who recall the 5D Mark II’s video functions prior to the “manual exposure firmware upgrade” will, however, appreciate the ability to lock exposure using the AE-L button, as well as make exposure compensation adjustments up to +/- 3 EV with the exposure compensation button.
Shooting with the Nikon D3100
As an entry-level to cheap-enthusiast camera, the D3100 really delivers. The basic features allow the complete novice to step into the DSLR world without feeling overly intimidated. All the while, the D3100 offers a lot of power to the more advanced user and gives the novice user plenty of room to “grow into” this camera.
I already praised the D3100’s grip, but I’ll go ahead and mention it again. For a small camera, the D3100 simply handles great. There is plenty of meat to grab hold of and that rubbery surface gives you plenty of tact when shooting with the camera.
The viewfinder, while smaller than the pro cameras, is still bright and competent for most uses. The 11-point autofocus system works great and seems to be very accurate for still image capture in every lighting condition I tried it under. This AF system is a huge step up from where the D3100’s predecessors came. I recall complaining vigorously over the D40’s puny 3-point AF system (which it was puny). For the price of this camera, it really delivers in the AF department.
Nikon’s shutters have always been quieter (and less squeaky) than entry-level Canon DSLRs. The Nikon D3100 is no exception – it is crazy quiet. And that’s not even in quiet mode. Unless you are two feet away from Tiger Woods as he’s lining up his putt, I doubt that you’ll ever have a need to turn on quiet mode because the normal capture mode is so quiet.
Notably absent from the D3100 is the ability to auto-bracket exposures and to capture time lapse images – two features that have been great Nikon features on many of the company’s other DSLR models. As these are more advanced features though, it is not a complete surprise. And while auto-bracket is an excellent feature, photographers can still use their own noodle and fingers to quickly bracket their shots for HDR capture. I took the below image with the D3100 in Aperture priority mode using the exposure compensation controls to quickly cover a 5-stop range in this scene.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way around the time lapse capture mode (as is found on the Nikon D5000 and other higher-end Nikon DSLRs). That’s too bad. It was a cool feature that I have enjoyed on previous Nikon cameras.
Nikon D3100 Movie Mode
The biggest disappointment for me on the D3100 was the video capture feature. Nikon is really tooting its horn over the D3100’s capability to record 1080p video. The slogan on the D3100 product page at the time of this review is “Beautiful Pictures. Amazing Movies. Incredibly Easy.”
With “Amazing Movies” being a such a prominent piece of propaganda, I would expect the camera to embrace some basic video capture standards – like manual exposure and mic inputs. Unfortunately, as the camera is currently situated, video capture is simply an add-on feature that makes up more marketing hype than real substance. Understandably, this is a consumer-oriented camera; however, you won’t be able to “record cinematic-quality movies” as Nikon claims on its website.
I will say that the D3100 can capture usable footage for informal uses. Additionally, the video enthusiasts on a very tight budget will be able to work around the exposure limitations and capture audio on an external device to produce very stunning movies. Of course, the D3100 is also plagued with the common DSLR problems with moire and jello effect. You’ll see both of these in the sample video below; however, Nikon lenses with VR substantially reduce the jello effect when hand-holding the camera. Ideally, you’ll be using the D3100’s video features when mounted on a tripod, but the VR lenses from Nikon make it quite usable as a handheld device as well.
Consumers who are looking at the D3100 for video capture desires should also note that Nikon’s claim of full-time autofocus is utter rubbish. When it works, the full-time AF is slow as molasses – so don’t expect it to capture the kiddos in action. And, unless you have optimum lighting conditions, the full-time AF during video just doesn’t work at all. Moreover, the AF motor during video capture is so ridiculously noisy that it will ruin any scene in which you use it. So, even if the AF did work well, it would be unusable because the camera doesn’t have a mic input to attach an external shotgun mic that would avoid the lens AF motor noise.
Nikon D3100 Image Quality
As usual with Nikons, I was impressed with the colors and saturation straight out of the camera. Additionally, this is the first entry-level camera I have had the pleasure of using that produces usable photos throughout the ISO range. Sure, there’s some grain/noise at the higher sensitivity settings, but the ISO 12,800 equivalent is totally usable for the consumer user. Anyone searching for a family-camera to capture shots in whatever the lighting can stop here.
For those Nikon D3100 users willing to venture into using the RAW image format, I was truly surprised to see how well the images held up at ISO 12,800 with a little massaging in Adobe Lightroom 3. But, of course, that’s the extreme and most days we will shoot at ISO 800 or lower. At that level, the D3100 is as good as gold.
The Nikon D3100’s images gave me the most satisfying experience I’ve had from an entry-level camera since the day I got my Rebel XT – and we’re miles past that now. Somewhere around the release of the professional-grade D3 and D3s, Nikon really started getting down to the nitty gritty with noise control and image quality. I think we are now starting to see those advances trickle down into more consumer-oriented cameras, all the while upping the resolution beyond the staple Nikon 12MP DSLRs. Expect even bigger things ahead for Nikon.
Enough talking though. Let’s look at some photos.
In this first batch of images, I put together some close up shots of the same scene captured by the Nikon D3100 throughout the sensitivity range – ISO 100-12,800. I shot this scene with available light, manually focused at on the letters “KR Super II” and custom white balance applied. This is for the pixel peepers out there. For ordinary folk, feel free to skip on down the real world photos.
This first image represents the scene captured in the ISO comparison images below. 100% crops of the focus area follow.
Below are links to the original files from the above 100% crops, which you can download for further personal inspection if you wish. Just right-click the link and choose “Save file as…”
- ISO 100: RAW – JPEG
- ISO 200: RAW – JPEG
- ISO 400: RAW – JPEG
- ISO 800: RAW – JPEG
- ISO 1600: RAW – JPEG
- ISO 3200: RAW – JPEG
- ISO 6400: RAW – JPEG
- ISO 12,800: RAW – JPEG
Note that the files labeled RAW are in JPEG format as exported from the original RAW file.
With that out of the way, I’ve included several shots captured with the D3100 around downtown Knoxville and a couple of other locations. All images were captured with either the Nikon AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 ED VR and Nikon 24-120mm f/4G ED VR lens.
I processed these as RAW files in Adobe Lightroom 3. I took the liberty to edit these photos according to my own personal tastes, so if you want to pixel peep, then stick to the images above. Otherwise, feel free to download any of these for personal inspection only.
Nikon D3100 Accessories
Nikon EN-EL14 Battery – The Nikon D3100 comes with one of these rechargeable lithium-ion batteries; however, if you’re going to be away from power for an extended period, you can pick up spares.
Memory cards – The larger file sizes of both images and video in the Nikon D3100 will benefit from the use of a faster card. Nikon recommends at least a Class 6 SD card in order to reliably capture video. I used the SanDisk Extreme SD card in the D3100 with solid performance. The D3100 will work with SD, SDHC and SDXC memory cards. SD cards only go up to 2GB in capacity, while SDHC format cards have a max capacity of 32GB. SDXC is the newest format, and these start at 64GB, which is the only size currently available even though the SDXC-specification allows for a 2TB maximum capacity. In real world use, I would recommend picking up a card between 8GB and 32GB depending on your usage habits. At a minimum, I would recommend a SanDisk Extreme Video SDHC card.
Memory card reader – If you don’t own a memory card reader, they make transferring images to your computer a world faster. I highly recommend picking one up with the D3100. They’re cheap and big time saver. Lexar makes a good card reader for about $15.
Nikon SB-400 or SB-600 hot shoe flash – A hot shoe flash can be an invaluable tool for extending the flexibility of any DSLR. The SB-400 is a significantly entry-level and affordable flash that matches up nicely with the D3100. For those who want a little more control over their flash, the SB-600 is an ideal first step into the hot shoe flash arena.
MC-DC2 remote cord – This remote cord allows you to take long exposures or close-ups that require complete cameras steadiness.
Nikon GP-1 GPS unit – For those interested in geotagging your photos, the Nikon GP-1 plugs into the side of the D3100 and allows the camera’s location to be embedded in photos as they are taken.
In short, the Nikon D3100 is an excellent entry-level camera. The only real detraction from this camera is the crippled video capture mode, which fails to completely serve the needs of the consumer (no reliable autofocus) or enthusiast (no manual exposure controls) as a video camera. Otherwise, if you are looking for an affordable DSLR that captures great photos, the D3100 is a hit.
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