Nikon D3100 review: Nikon D3100

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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.

7.4 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7
  • Image quality 8

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 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
n/a raw/n/a JPEG
4 fps
9 raw/100 JPEG (medium/fine)
magnification/effective magnification
95% coverage
95% coverage
95% coverage
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.

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