Nikon D3400 review: The D3400's a bit better cheap dSLR than its predecessor -- but just a bit

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The Good The Nikon D3400 delivers the image quality and speed that a first-time dSLR buyer should expect.

The Bad A lot of the small annoyances from previous models remain, including tiny autofocus points in the viewfinder and a nonpersistent self-timer mode. Plus, its Bluetooth-only wireless solution isn't very good.

The Bottom Line Very good photo quality for its class plus performance fast enough to capture kids and pets make the Nikon D3400 A solid choice for a first dSLR.

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

The Nikon D3300 has long been my go-to recommendation for a cheap dSLR, but after two years it's usually time to slap a new coat of paint on consumer products. Nikon's 2016 update to that camera, the D3400, has some small enhancements to bring it up to date, but nothing vital. It remains a great value -- fast with very good photo and video quality and a new kit lens optimized for shooting via the LCD -- but its weak wireless file transfer barely feels like a step up from nothing.

Along with the camera, Nikon has kits with two versions of two new kit lenses. The AF-P lenses incorporate stepper motors like Canon's STM lenses for smoother and quieter focus Live View, the LCD-based view on a dSLR. There are two versions of each, 18-55mm and 70-300mm, one with optical image stabilization (Nikon's Vibration Reduction, or VR) and one without; the names differ solely by the "VR" designation.

Nikon's offering two kits of the D3400, available in different regions. The primary option is bundled with the 18-55mm VR lens for $650 and £490 (not sold in Australia); £470 and AU$700 with the non-VR version of the lens (which isn't sold in the US). The other option is a dual-lens kit with the VR version of the 18-55mm lens but the non-VR version of the 70-300mm. While that's a silly configuration -- stabilization on the lens where you don't need it and no stabilization on the one where you do -- it allows Nikon to hit its just-under-$1,000 price of $999.95. That dual-lens kit doesn't seem to be available in the UK and Australia, but you'll be able to get a body-only version in those regions for £400 and about AU$575.

Sharper cookie

Overall, the camera delivers very good photo and video quality for its price. Thanks to its new sensor -- the same resolution as the D3300, but without an anti-aliasing filter to slightly unsharpen the image -- the D3400 delivers slightly sharper photos in low light than its predecessor. They don't seem to have better tonal range in shadows and highlights than before, but the extra sharpness makes a difference.

The automatic white balance isn't great: It displayed a purple cast under our LED test lights and a moderate cyan cast in real daylight, so photos look a bit too cool. But under most circumstances, you won't really notice it if you're not hypersensitive to color accuracy or comparing to a more accurate camera. This type of issue isn't unusual, though.

You also can't get significantly better noise-reduction results by processing the raw files; the JPEG processing is pretty good. However, you can recover a bit of highlight detail in higher ISO-sensitivity shots, boost underexposures for low ISO-sensitivity photos and fix the aforementioned white balance issues in raw.

And thanks to the AF-P lenses, Nikon now has improved -- faster and smoother -- autofocus during movies, which makes them look a lot better for fans of automatic.

Analysis samples

JPEGs look clean through ISO 1600. And with nothing to compare them to, the white balance looks OK.

Lori Grunin/CNET

JPEGs still look good at ISO 3200, which gives you some latitude if you need to shoot action in daylight with the narrow-aperture kit lens. By ISO 6400 you start to see some detail smearing. However, the balance between detail and noise reduction in JPEGs (it's a trade-off) remains decent all the way through the camera's sensitivity range.

Lori Grunin/CNET

When you compare to a neutral, manually white-balanced shot, you can see the difference.

Lori Grunin/CNET

The camera's cool automatic white balance for daylight shots actually makes the photos look flatter and lower contrast than the raw versions; it's usually the opposite.

Lori Grunin/CNET

The colors generally look bright and saturated. Thankfully, manually white balancing with the camera is very easy if you feel the need.

Lori Grunin/CNET

I don't have comparable performance results for the D3300, but overall the D3400 is sufficiently fast at focusing and shooting -- including continuous shooting -- for typical kids, pets and travel photography, as well as faster than many similarly priced cameras. It can autofocus during continuous shooting, though speed and accuracy depends upon which continuous autofocus mode you choose and how fast the subject is moving. It can't autoexpose at the same time, though, which means that it fixes the exposure on the first shot in the burst. So for subjects moving through daylight and shadows you'll probably get some that are under- or overexposed, depending upon initial conditions.

More important, though, the tiny autofocus points in the viewfinder make it really hard to figure out what the camera is focusing on and whether or not a shot's in focus.

The new lenses also improve the speed of the camera's Live View (via the back LCD) shooting; it's not fast, but at least Nikon gets it to under a second to focus and snap a single shot.

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