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Nikon D3100 review: Nikon D3100

Nikon D3100

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Reviews

I've been writing about and reviewing consumer technology since before the turn of the century. I'm also a photographer and cat herder, frequently at the same time.

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9 min read

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7.4

Nikon D3100

The Good

Excellent photo quality; well-laid-out controls; interesting, user-friendly Guide mode; full manual controls in video capture.

The Bad

Smallish viewfinder; slower than the competition; no bracketing.

The Bottom Line

A very good entry-level dSLR, the Nikon D3100 delivers excellent photo quality in a body that's streamlined for experienced photographers, but relatively unintimidating for the less advanced. Its only weakness is performance; though solid, it nevertheless lags behind the competition.

Until I sat down to actually write this review, it hadn't struck me how confusing the market placement of the Nikon D3100 is. It's priced the same as the still-available D5000, which is in many ways a better camera. And with the exception of video, which many users don't care about anyway, it's very similar to the much cheaper D3000. So while the D3100 isn't a bad camera, and for the most part holds its own against competitors from other manufacturers, it still pales in comparison with its own line mates.

The D3100 has a very good noise profile; it matches (and perhaps bests) the current leader in the budget dSLR category, the Pentax K-x. It produces exceptionally clean JPEGs up through ISO 800 and very usable ones through ISO 3200. (Adobe Camera Raw doesn't yet support the D3100 and Nikon Capture NX 2 doesn't provide sufficiently granular enough noise reduction for me to do raw versus JPEG comparisons). The camera delivers excellent color reproduction in its default SD mode as well--a nice change from some overly saturation-pushing competitors like Pentax and Sony--and its metering and exposure system work reliably and well.

Sharpness is, of course, lens dependent, but I was pretty happy with the various models I tested; generally, shots looked sharp but not oversharpened. In addition to the always reliable 18-55mm VR kit lens, I shot with the new pro-level 28-300mm f3.5-5.6 ED VR and consumer 55-300mm f4.5-5.6 ED VR, as well as the older 35mm f1.8 lens. In many ways I think the 28-300mm is a great lens optically, but I didn't like the feel of the zoom ring--it's feels inconsistent and a little too tight--and it's too heavy for a light body like the D3100's. The 55-300mm is obviously a better fit for the body, but it is slower, not quite as sharp, and more prone to fringing; that said, many will find it satisfactory for the money, and good a choice as a second lens. Similarly, for a relatively cheap lens, the 35mm f1.8 fares pretty well overall. There's a little bit of asymmetrical distortion on the right, however, as well as some fringing along backlit edges. But once again, it's a great lens value.

Video quality looks typical for its class, but with seemingly more rolling shutter artifacts than usual (and note that the lens VR makes a huge difference when shooting video). The audio isn't bad, but the full-time AF is not only loud, but pretty bad at locking on the appropriate subject. However, the camera does offer full manual exposure controls during movie capture. A 30-second countdown-to-shutoff timer appears in the upper left side of the display while the camera is idle in Live View/movie mode--an interesting touch.

Though the camera's performance is perfectly fine, it is a bit slower than the D3000 overall and not quite as fast as its competitors. It powers on and shoots in about 0.4 second and can focus and shoot in good light in the same 0.4 second. In dim light, that rises to a still-good 0.6 second, which is better than its predecessor. JPEG shot-to-shot time is about 0.6 second, which increases to 0.9 second for raw; that's slower than the D3000 and the rest of the pack. With flash, it's about 1.1 second. The D3100 also has the slowest burst performance of the group, at 2.9fps; in practice, it really did feel a hair too slow to photograph randomly moving subjects, like squirrels and birds. It might be fine for photographing the kids, though.

It has essentially the same viewfinder as the D3000, although it now uses the tiny AF points I hate; Nikon claims they were requested by users, though. The viewfinder itself is on the small, low-magnification side, but isn't too bad. You can view the LCD pretty well in direct sunlight.

  Nikon D3000 Nikon D3100 Nikon D5000
Sensor (effective resolution) 10.2-megapixel CCD 14.2-megapixel CMOS 12.3-megapixel CMOS
23.6 x 15.8.mm 23.6 x 15.8mm 23.6 mm x 15.8mm
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3200 ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 3200/12,800 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 1600/3200 (expanded
Continuous shooting 3fps
n/a raw/n/a JPEG
3fps
n/a raw/n/a JPEG
4 fps
9 raw/100 JPEG (medium/fine)
Viewfinder
magnification/effective magnification
95% coverage
0.80x/0.53x
95% coverage
0.80x/0.53x
95% coverage
0.95x/0.63x
Autofocus 11-pt AF
center cross-type
11-pt AF
center cross-type
11-pt AF
center cross-type to f5.6
Shutter speed 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync
Metering 420-pixel 3D color matrix 420-pixel 3D color matrix 420-pixel 3D color matrix
Live View Yes Yes Yes
Video No 1080/24p; 720/30p/25p/24p H.264 QuickTime MOV 720/24p
LCD size 3 inches fixed
230,000 dots
3 inches fixed
230,000 dots
2.7 inches articulated
230,000 dots
Wireless flash No No No
Battery life (CIPA rating) 500 shots 550 shots 510 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.0 x 3.8 x 2.5 4.9 x 3.8 x 2.9 5.0 x 4.1 x 3.1
Body operating weight (ounces) 18.8 17.7 21.6
Mfr. Price n/a n/a $629.95 (body only)
$549.95 (with 18-55mm VR lens) $699.95 (with 18-55mm VR lens) $699.99 (est, with 18-55mm VR lens)
n/a n/a n/a
Ship date July 2009 September 2010 April 2009

The D3100's body is a little smaller and lighter than the D3000's--it's the lightest in its class--but Nikon has also managed to cram more direct-access controls onto it. It's quite a comfortable camera to shoot with, though it feels a little plasticky. Though the location of some controls has changed, it has the same overall operation.

A programmable Fn button--you can set it to control the image quality, ISO sensitivity, white balance, or Active D-Lighting menus--lies under your left thumb, though it's a little hard to differentiate from the flash pop-up/compensation button that sits above it by feel alone. Behind the shutter button circumscribed by the power switch are the exposure compensation and info buttons; the latter toggles the back display.

As usual, the top mode dial is segregated into the scene, PASM (Program, Aperture- and Shutter-priority, and Manual), and full auto modes. Nikon adds a twist here, a Guide mode that provides various levels of step-by-step help for a limited number of common shooting scenarios. There's Easy operation, which, like Auto, provides access to a limited number of options, as well as an Advanced mode, which describes the appropriate settings for the chosen scenario and then allows you to change the settings yourself. For instance, in Easy Operation/Distant Subjects it puts you into the Sports scene mode--the camera tells you what it's doing, which is really nice--then optionally allows you to adjust flash, release mode, and ISO sensitivity. The options are not specific to the scenarios, however, which would be useful. My one minor quibble with this is that the controls don't always function the same in this mode as when shooting normally; so, for example, here you'd adjust shutter speed with the up/down buttons on the multiselector, whereas you'd normally use the command dial to change the speed. This might confuse some people.

  Canon EOS XSi Canon EOS T1i Nikon D3100 Pentax K-x Sony Alpha DSLR-A500
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.2-megapixel CMOS 15.1-megapixel CMOS 14.2-megapixel CMOS 12.4-megapixel CMOS 12.3-megapixel Exmor CMOS
22.2 mm x 14.8mm 22.3 mm x 14.9mm 23.6 x 15.8mm 23.5 mm x 15.6mm 23.5 mm x 15.6mm
Color depth 14 bit 14 bit n/a 12 bit n/a
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 1600 ISO 100 - ISO 3200/12,800 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 3200/12,800 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 6400/12,800 (expanded) ISO 200 - ISO 12,800
Focal-length multiplier 1.6x 1.6x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x
Continuous shooting 3.5 fps
6 raw/53 JPEG
3.4 fps
9 raw/170 JPEG
3 fps
7 raw/25 JPEG (medium/fine)
4.7 fps
5 raw/17 JPEG
5 fps
6 raw/12 JPEG
Viewfinder
magnification/effective magnification
95% coverage
0.87x/0.54x
95% coverage
0.87x/0.54x
95% coverage
0.80x/0.53x
96% coverage
0.85x/0.57x
95% coverage
0.80x/0.53x
Autofocus 9-pt AF
center cross-type
9-pt AF
center cross-type
11-pt AF
center cross-type
11-pt AF
9 cross-type
9-pt AF
center cross-type
Shutter speed 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/6000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/180 sec x-sync 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/160 sec x-sync
Metering 35 zone 35 zone 420-pixel 3D color matrix 16 segment 40 segment
Image Stabilization Optical Optical Optical Sensor shift Sensor shift
Live View Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Video No 1080/20p; 720/30p H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/24p; 720/30p H.264 QuickTime MOV 720/24p Motion JPEG AV No
LCD size 3 inches fixed
230,000 pixels
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
3 inches fixed
230,000 dots
2.7 inches fixed
230,000 dots
3 inches tiltable
230,400 dots
Wireless flash No No No Yes Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 500 shots 400 shots 550 shots 1,100 shots (lithium batteries) 1,000 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.1 x 3.8 x 2.4 5.1 x 3.8 x 2.4 4.9 x 3.8 x 2.9 4.8 x 3.6 x 2.7 5.4 x 4.1 x 3.3
Body operating weight (ounces) 18.5 18.6 17.7 24.0 24.0
Mfr. Price n/a $649 (body only, est) n/a $599 (body only, est) $549.99 (body only)
$649.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $799 (with 18-55mm lens) $699.95 (with 18-55mm VR lens) $649.95 (with 18-55mm lens) $649.99 (with 18-55mm lens)
Ship date April 2008 April 2009 September 2010 October 2009 November 2009

On the back there's a nicely implemented thumb-operated Live View rocker switch and record button. The four-way navigation switch feels a little more responsive than the D3000's.

Nikon moved the drive mode controls--single, burst, self-timer and Quiet--to a switch next to the mode dial, a location I prefer to burying it in the menus or in the interactive display. I also like Nikon's implementation of the interactive display. The adjustment options are arrayed around the edges of the display, which makes the one you're looking for easier to find compared with some of the more cluttered full-screen layouts of competitors. On the other hand, you do have to navigate sequentially through the options, which you don't have to do with control panels that allow you to move up, down, and sideways.

In addition to a composite, a HDMI out, and a USB connector, the D3100 has a connector for Nikon's proprietary GPS module. But there are a lot of more useful shooting features still missing that other cameras in this price class provide, including wireless flash control. Most egregiously, though, the D3100 lacks simple exposure and flash exposure bracketing. Nikon seems to concentrate on in-camera postprocessing for the bulk of its features instead. (For a full account of the D3100's features and operation, download the PDF manual.)

Though the D5000 is expected to remain in the channel for a while, obviously there's significant overlap between the D3100 and the D5000 at similar prices, with only a few things to distinguish between them: the D5000 offers the articulated LCD, better viewfinder, better performance and a more well-rounded feature set (bracketing!), while the D3100 provides a slightly larger LCD, higher resolution which you probably don't need, and better movie capture features. They're about tied on photo quality. So ultimately, unless you're into video, the D5000 is probably the better buy at the same price; if you are into video, the D3100 probably isn't the camera for you, anyway. That leaves the Nikon D3100 as a very nice dSLR, but one that isn't a very compelling buy as long as the D5000 is still around at a decent price.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot  
Raw shot-to-shot time  
Shutter lag (dim light)  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Pentax K-x
0.7 
0.6 
0.5 
0.3 
Canon EOS Rebel T1i
0.2 
0.4 
0.6 
0.3 
Nikon D5000
0.2 
0.5 
0.7 
0.3 
Nikon D3100
0.4 
0.9 
0.6 
0.4 
Nikon D3000
0.2 
0.6 
0.8 
0.4 
Canon EOS Rebel XSi
0.2 
0.4 
1.2 
0.5 

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Nikon D3100
2.9 

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7.4

Nikon D3100

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7Image quality 8