The D3100 is a compact, feature-packed DSLR from Nikon. It has many useful upgrades from the existing D3000 and is looking to establish itself as the best entry-level DSLR for consumers. This review explores how good it really is, and includes some sample images to show what you can expect.
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Who is it for?
The Nikon D3100 is a new entry-level DSLR from Nikon. Primarily it is aimed at point-and-shoot graduates, or those moving up from advanced compact cameras like the Nikon P7000, because it is lightweight and easy to operate. However, it may also appeal to D3000 owners who missed having a live view LCD, the option to record movies, or the ability shoot cleaner, noise-free images at high ISOs. On paper it offers a lot for amateur photographers, but can it really live up to its spec sheet? Read this Nikon D3100 review to find out.
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Body and Design
While D3000 owners may not notice too much of a difference, the D3100 is actually a little larger than its entry-level sibling. It is still a very compact camera for a DSLR, and actually manages to weigh less than the D3000, but extra room was needed in this new body to accommodate the extra technology required for the live view LCD and movie recording functionality. The grip is firm and secure to hold, but personally I prefer the extra room you get on the Nikon D90 or D5000, because my little finger was often in limbo at the base of the camera. Still, if you are used to small DSLRs like the D3000, you will doubtless be fine with this.
Externally, Nikon have included more controls and buttons to save you diving into the camera's menu system. For instance, the drive mode is now usefully positioned around the mode dial. Live view or movie recording is accessed quickly and easily with the flick of the live view rocker switch on the rear of the camera, and movies are started and stopped with the red record button. An HDMI connector is included, as is a GPS input for Nikon's GP1 GPS device.
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The headline feature of this camera, and the one that every Nikon D3100 review will mention, is the HD video capabilities. Not only will it record in 1080p (the first Nikon DSLR to do so), but it also can be used to shoot movies with continuous autofocus, as opposed to the manual focus movie modes on other cameras. DSLR movie enthusiasts have been wanting for continuous autofocus for some time now, while those graduating from point and shoot cameras are often mystified that this feature has been lacking in Nikon DSLRs, so it is nice to see that Nikon are moving in that direction.
The self-cleaning sensor is a 14.2 megapixel CMOS that has an ISO range of 100-3200, but the option exists to expand that further to 12,800. The 3-inch LCD is big and bright, but not quite as good as what you will find on the D90 or the D300s. The continuous shooting mode will capture 3 frames per second, and the 11 focus points are retained from the D3000.
A new 'Guide' mode has been introduced. This is basically a step-by-step wizard that walks a novice user through all the steps required to produce a specific type of image. In essence it is a good indicator of the kind of photographer that that this camera is aimed at. The usual metering and exposure compensation modes are included, but, as has been common with entry-level Nikons, there is no place for a bracketing exposure mode.
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JPEG images from the D3100 are actually very good, but they should be when you consider that the majority of the people who buy this camera will likely use this over file type instead of the RAW picture option. Colors are bright and contrasty, but not overly saturated like some entry-level DSLRs are. The full 14.2 megapixel file has plenty of resolution to it and the D3100 is capable of taking some perfectly good noise-free images all the way up to ISO 1600. This in itself is a noticeable improvement over the D3000 model and testament to the strides that Nikon continues to take towards improving the image quality on all its cameras.
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Nikon D3100 Sample Images
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As great as it is to have full 1080p HD video on the D3100, the new continuous autofocus is a bit of a disappointment. Although the camera can now track subjects that move towards and away from the camera, it takes several seconds for it to lock on focus and the noise that the focus motor makes in quiet surroundings is definitely audible on playback. The 'rolling shutter' phenomenon remains, but there are full manual controls for photographers who are using the Nikon D3100's video mode.
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Value for Money
The Nikon D3100 is priced at $649 USD or $699 CAD when purchased with the 18-55mm VR kit lens. This means that it is currently priced about the same as the Nikon D5000. The D3100 certainly has more video options than the D5000, but the articulating LCD, a larger body, and the ability to bracket your shots may make the D5000 an equally tempting option for some consumers. Still, the size and weight of the D3100 is hard to match, and the image quality is very good, so you really can't go wrong with the Nikon D3100. It really is one of the best DSLRs in its class.