Raising the bar, a review of the Nikon D3100
The Nikon D3000 is one of my favorite entry-level DSLRs. Now that's not just pure fan-boy talk, but a conclusion reached after reviewing a gamut of entry-level DSLRs: that the D3000 offers the most bang-for-the-buck. So why is Nikon tampering with its 'winning formula'? Well, in Nikon's world, the D3100 doesn't replace the D3000. It is considered a complimentary model for users looking for more features than the D3000 offers. Secondly, something tells me Nikon took a long, hard look at the competition and customer demands, then upped that by a comfortable margin and squeezed it all into the tiny body of the D3100.
So what is Nikon getting even more right this time?
It blows your mind
The image quality in the D3100 is amazing. The best I have come across to date in any entry-level DSLR or ILC. Nikon sure made some magic with this brand new 14Mp CMOS sensor. The 10MP CCD sensor in the D3000 was one of my few 'raised eyebrows' with that camera. Yes, it produced great images, but seeing the quality from the D3100, there really is no comparison. Great job, Nikon!
Samples of the improved sensor on the D3100. All photos with the Nikon 105mm VR f2.8 Micro lens.
Now, this will blow your socks off. Not just does the D3100 produce great images, it continues to do so at unheard ISO levels in the entry-level DSLR class. With the debut of the D3 and D300 more than three years ago, Nikon found the 'secret sauce' for good image quality at high ISO. The D3100 continues to deliver on that legacy. Wow! Completely usable image shot @ ISO 3200, and even 6400 in a pinch, is just plain amazing considering its entry-level status.
Reading up on my older reviews, I did give DSLR video quite the shellacking. The two main caveats have been lack of manual control and poorly functioning autofocus. That has not been completely solved, but with the D3100 Nikon is definitely heading in the right direction.
First of all, the quality shot is full HD 1080p video @ 24 fps. A nice, film like quality. Secondly, you have full manual control over shutter speed, aperture and ISO before starting the video recording. During recording, you can alter shutter speed and aperture. Or at least, you can see it change on the LCD, but after several tests, I wasn't able to discern any difference between video shot @ f2 and f9 when changed during recording, not before. Strange! So something tells me that despite seeing the aperture number change on the LCD, it actually does not change in the video. Will follow up with Nikon and update blog accordingly.
Lastly, Nikon has implemented a new feature called "full-time-servo" that on paper automatically focusses and tracks subjects in liveview and video recording mode without you half-pressing the shutter button. My grade? I will give a "B" for effort, but for actual usage, it still receives a failing grade. Autofocus during video recording just doesn't work that well on a DSLR. Skipping the technical explanation, the only solution I currently see to improve DSLR video autofocus is simply to remove the mirror and go with a similar solution as offered by newer Interchangeable Lens Cameras (ILC) or Sony's new A33 and A55 translucent mirror cameras. Which leaves us at if you want great focus during video recording, learn to manually focus.
Ease of Use
The D3100 gets a lot of facets right when it comes to making DSLR photography easy. And it does so without dumbing the camera down or oversimplifying it, like the Sony NEX-5 (with first generation firmware) had a tendency to.
I normally stay clear of lists and bullet points in review, but there are just too many point. This is the list accumulated so far.
- Improved GUIDE mode that now includes educational and easy to understand images. Say you want to shoot your daughter's soccer match. Flip the switch to GUIDE mode, select advanced operation, and find the "freeze motion" option. Under the option, you can see how differently motion is frozen depending on your shutter speed. The mode will read current settings against available light, and tell you if your subject will be too dark. Very handy!
- When image is taken, you are directly in playback mode. You don't have to press playback button like on other cameras. Love it! Make comparing photos in same series very quick.
- Menu remembers where you left from. Meaning, if you are tweaking metering settings: set to spot meter --> take photo --> go back into menu to change to centre weighted, the menu will start at metering. Sweet! You don't have to go through numerous futile clicks to get to where you left off. Other camera manufacturers, please take note.
- Recent settings. The menu contains a category named "Recent settings" that quite literally collects your most recent visited menu settings. Very convenient and works like a de facto custom bank. I change my auto ISO settings and metering quite often. Now I have very quick access to those to settings. Great!
- Programmable FN (function) button. Choice between image quality/size, ISO, white balance, or active D-Lighting. I have it set to ISO, but the choice is yours.
- New livevew latch. It is one of those: why didn't I think of that myself. Pushing the lever down is so intuitive to select the liveview. And to boot, Nikon has placed a nice, red video record button right in the latch, so no doubt is left where to activate video recording. Thank you!
- A new release mode switch lets you very quickly select single shot, continuous shot, timer, or quiet shot. Super convenient.
- Set the AF mode to either single point or dynamic area, and you can easily change the focus point using the four-way rocker. This is by far my most used feature. In all my photography I love being able to precisely set the focus point for even better composition and framing. Super!
- Finally, the D3100 carries forward the great auto ISO feature also found on the D3000. Really a set-and-forget feature where you set the ISO to a minimum and maximum, along with the minimum shutter speed you want to shoot at. Afterwards you just worry about aperture and shutter speed. Very, very convenient. Takes a lot of complexity out of today's digital photography.
Along with the D3100 I also received the new Nikon 55-300mm VR lens. Think of it as the 55-200mm lens, just with more reach. In converted terms, 200mm equals 300mm on a 1.5x crop body, such as the Nikon D3100. A 300mm focal length equals 450mm. That's quite a bit of extra reach, and a very powerful telephoto lens that should satisfy most users.
True, the extra reach comes at an added price tag. But when comparing the alternative, the Nikon 70-300mm VR lens, the new 55-300mm VR lens is still the less expensive choice. The 55-300mm comes bundled with the D3100 in some cases. Along with the 18-55mm VR kit lens, the 55-300mm should tie you over for some time in terms of lenses needed.
I love it! The D3100 raises the bar significantly over the D3000, my previous favourite entry-level DSLR. Yes, the price tag has also been raised along with all the new, great features. But comparing what you get for the extra dollars spend, the new features significantly outweighs the added cost. Let me sum it up: unrivalled 14MP sensor in entry-level class (so far), full HD 1080p video, and an ease of use not seen in any other camera I can think of.
Are you looking for a new lens?
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- 85mm f1.4
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- shutter speed