Nikon did entry-level dSLRs first, and they’ve usually done entry-level dSLRs well. Their latest model is the D3100, a camera without any truly head-turning features but with a competitive feature set and the benefit of about five generations of tweaks and refinements. Typically selling for around $600 including a kit lens (down from the original suggested $700 price-tag), it’s one of the most affordable current dSLRs. But is it one of the best values in the suddenly crowded “entry-level interchangeable-lens” class?
Body & Design
The D3100 looks like an evolution of the now-classic Nikon entry-level dSLR design. It’s small by dSLR standards, though much bigger than mirrorless cameras at a similar price point.
A comfortable in-hand feel is a matter of personal preference, of course, but the D3100 just feels comfortable. Anyone familiar with the Nikon line should feel at home here. It takes the basic layout of its predecessor, the D3000, and adds a handful of Up top, there’s a mode dial with 7 pre-set modes, Auto Mode, Guide Mode, and the typical Manual, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Program modes. The power switch wraps around the base of the shutter, with dedicated “Info” and exposure compensation buttons. New to the D3100 is a shutter mode-selection switch next to the mode dial: Single, continuous, timer, and quiet shutter. And of course, there’s a pop-up flash and a hot shoe.
A 3-inch, 230k dot LCD dominates the back panel. On paper, it’s pretty lackluster compared to the displays on competing models, but it’s not much to complain about in practice -- unspectacular, but serviceable. An optical viewfinder sits above the screen; it’s standard fare for this class, covering 95 percent of the field of view with about 0.8x magnification. There’s also a diopter adjustment, as well as a rubber eyepiece.
To the right sits an autofocus- and autoexposure-lock, a thumb-selection wheel, a four-way pad with an “OK” button in the center, a trash button, and, to accommodate the D3100’s new video and live view modes, a dedicated video button surrounded by a live view lever. On the left, there are now five buttons (up from four on the D3000 and prior) for accessing playback mode and the menu system, zooming in and out of images while in playback mode, and an info screen hot-key. And around the corner, tucked onto the front-left of the D3100, sit a flash-mode hot-key and an assignable function button. The flash button allows the user to quickly cycle through flash settings -- forced, auto, off, slow synchro, and the like -- while the function button can take the role of hot-key for pretty much any adjustable setting. Most users will probably assign it to ISO, since there’s no dedicated ISO button.
And for the doors and ports: The sturdy battery door sits on the bottom, the SD/SDHC/SDXC-slot door is on the right, and on the left, there’s a rubber cover for a GPS accessory hookup, a USB port, a mini-HDMI output, and an A/V output.
The D3100 kit ships with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S Nikkor lens, the same lens that’s shipped with several generations of Nikon consumer dSLRs. It’s a good place to start for first-timers, offering a fairly wide starting point (equivalent to about 27mm on a full-frame camera) and offering a zoom factor of roughly 3x. It's a decent starter lens, but ultimately unspectacular. Anyone upgrading from an older Nikon dSLR probably has this lens already, and there’s no reason to buy it again; the body-only configuration is a better option in that case. Also, anyone with older Nikkor lenses should check if they’re compatible with the D3100 -- there's a good chance that they are, if only in manual-focus mode -- and possibly grab the body-only version in this case, too.
Nikon has entry-level dSLR design down to a science. While it lacks the refinement of some mid- and upper-level dSLRs -- the screen is fixed rather than a tilt-and-swivel, there’s no secondary display atop the camera, fewer hot-keys, only one selection wheel, so on and so forth -- novice and lower-intermediate photographers that Nikon is targeting with the D3100 won’t miss the control, and will probably feel more comfortable with fewer buttons and slides to worry about.
The only notable design “flaw” is its size. Two years ago, this would’ve been one of the smallest interchangeable-lens cameras available. But with the glut of new compact mirrorless models and even Sony’s SLT cameras, the D3100 looks quite beefy by comparison. But that’s the tradeoff for an optical viewfinder; as good as electronic viewfinders have become, many folks prefer the real-time feel and clarity of a pentamirror viewfinder.
Performance & User Experience
Much of the user's experience flows from the camera's design; as a well-designed dSLR, the D3100 is a charm to use. Most of the settings that need frequent adjustment are tweakable with hot-keys and the second tier of controls are adjustable on the Info panel, which only requires a few extra keystrokes. Of course, Auto mode is always available for the hands-off users who want to let the camera do all the work, and that’s fine too -- the D3100 does a very good job there.
But for folks who want to learn how to use their camera a bit more effectively, Guide Mode is available to help. First seen on the D3000, this hand-holding mode is aimed squarely at novices, folks who aren’t sure what the “MASP” letters on the mode dial mean just yet, or what to do with the “scrolly wheel” and “that plus-minus button.” This mode helps those users choose settings based on shooting scenarios. “Easy Operation” options, like “Distant Subjects,” “Close-ups,” or “Moving Subjects” choose all the settings for the user. “Advanced Operation” options, including “Soften Backgrounds,” “Freeze Motion (Vehicles),” and “Show Water Flowing” bring the user into assisted Aperture or Shutter Priority modes. The guide explains which settings to adjust, why you want to adjust them (sort of), and tries to display how certain settings will affect photos as the user cycles through different apertures or shutter speeds.
There is some room for Guide Mode improvement. The golden touch would be incorporating live view for an actual preview of how adjustments affect the exposure (which it doesn’t even do in non-Guide Mode live view). It’s also well-short of being an all-in-one tutorial, though there is a separate “help” button, so users can access an explanation for pretty much any function. As helpful as it can be for finding and sometimes schooling users on settings, it’s not quite rich enough to teach the fundamentals of photography; to make the most out of the D3100 (or any dSLR for that matter), novices should still take an introductory class, or at least spend a few hours reading a how-to book or some Web-based tutorials. Even so, it’s the best guide mode I’ve seen in a relatively advanced camera, and definitely helps users ease their way out of Auto mode.
Also of note is a robust in-camera editing suite, offering a number of effects and filters, as well as more “serious” edits like D-Lighting adjustment, distortion control, trim, and RAW processing. Most of this is better done in photo editing software, but for newer users who may be working with more casual programs like iPhoto or Windows Photo Gallery, this menu could be useful.
In terms of speed, the D3100 is fast enough. It’s smack in the middle of what the market offers at this price. Compact mirrorless cameras tend to be slow by dSLR standards; while several match the D3100’s maximum 3 fps burst shooting (give or take a small amount), their autofocus times are noticeably slower. They focus the same way that compact cameras do. Mirrorless camera manufacturers are making forward progress, but there’s no substitute for focusing through a mirror. In live view mode (using the LCD rather than the viewfinder), the D3100’s autofocus speed drops down to mirrorless-like levels, maybe even a bit slower, but that’s to be expected. On the top end of the class, Sony really changed the game with their SLT cameras, which use stationary, translucent mirrors (semi-clear, as opposed to transparent). They focus and shoot simultaneously, so shot-to-shot times are barely noticeable, and they can shoot as many as 10 frames per second.
That said, anybody stepping up from a point-and-shoot camera will find the D3100 to be especially fast, certainly fast enough for most casual and hobbyist users’ needs.
Image & Video Quality
dSLRs take dramatically better pictures than point-and-shoots. Shots rarely blur from shutter lag. The white specks of chromatic noise in low-light shots are much tougher to see. Coloring is usually very accurate. Details are preserved down to a pixel level. There’s even that eye-pleasing subject-background separation (the “soft background” effect), though this depends as much on the lens as it does the camera.
The D3100 does well for an entry-level camera. Its predecessor was maligned for ho-hum image quality (among other issues), but the D3100 uses a new 14.2 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, and the improvements are quite visible. High ISO shots (low-light images use high ISO settings) are quite good up to 3200, and even decent at 6400 despite some noise. The 11-point autofocus is accurate, as is the metering in most cases, though it tends to overexpose in high-contrast situations -- it adjusts to the brighter area of the picture, so the darker areas look a little bit muddy -- but that can be mitigated by changing metering modes, or ramping up the D-Lighting, or adjusting exposure compensation. Minor irritations aside, the out-of-camera JPEG files are very good, and RAW files are even better for users who prefer to take processing into their own hands.
Even compared to its price-point competitors. It outclasses the mirrorless segment, including Micro Four Thirds (they use significantly smaller sensors after all), as well as the larger-sensored Sony NEX and Samsung NX series. Compared to similarly-priced dSLRs, it holds its own but comes out slightly behind cameras like the Sony A55 and Pentax K-r (the latter of which has very impressive low-light capability). Then again, those cameras are notably more expensive than the D3100, both in terms of MSRP and street price. Canon just announced a bottom-end model, the T3, which isn’t out yet -- we’ll have to wait to see how that stacks up. In a sentence: The D3100 doesn’t have the absolute best image quality in its class, but it is very good overall and really nothing to complain about.
The video quality (1080p) is nothing to scoff at in a camera at this price range. The big feature here is the purported continuous autofocus. It works...to a degree. For steady or slow-moving objects, it holds a lock, but the point of continuous autofocus is to hold focus on action scenes with moving objects. The D3100 tries, and does an admirable job of tracking subjects, but it will lose focus from time to time. I didn’t get the chance to test it with a lens that’s designed specifically for video (since Nikon cameras aren’t known for their video prowess in the same way that, say, Canon dSLRs or Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras are), but I have a feeling that it might work more effectively with a video lens.
This is perhaps the most well-balanced entry-level dSLR out right now. There aren’t any deal-breaking flaws. Nikon knows how to design a comfortable, intuitive shooter, and even first-timers should feel relatively comfortable shooting this after a bit of practice. The control scheme is tight enough to keep owners interested as they become intermediate shooters, and should tide them over while they save up for a more advanced body.
Image quality is quite good, as expected. It’s competitive with the current crop of entry and mid-level dSLRs as well as any mirrorless shooters. The target audience for this camera -- first-time dSLR buyers -- should be impressed by the image quality (really folks, it is that much better than your compact or superzoom camera). JPEG quality should be plenty good for most folks, and picky shooters can switch to RAW.
I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to step up to a serious camera, but with a caveat: The landscape is a lot different than it was two years ago. The question is no longer, “Should I buy an entry-level Canon dSLR or an entry-level Nikon dSLR?” Pentax has two excellent dSLRs in the K-x and K-r, and Sony’s A33 and A55 SLT models are game-changers. Then there are all of the worthy mirrorless cameras, like the Sony NEX-5 and Olympus E-PL2; they’re not as quick or quite as sophisticated as dSLRs, but the image quality can still be excellent, they’re still “systems” and they’re much more compact for about the same amount of money.
All that said, the D3100 is still a sure bet that now-crowded “entry-level system camera” category, and is surely one of the top three cameras I’d personally recommend in that space. Nikon has the most experience making entry-level dSLRs, so the total package is pretty airtight. The feature set is up-to-date with the best that the market has to offer at this price. Guide Mode is a helpful set of training wheels for novices, and while it’s not really a substitute for a proper tutorial, should help new shooters get the hang of a dSLR-style control scheme; it’s still a more elegant system than any low-end mirrorless control scheme out there. Then there’s the strength of the Nikon system: Just about any lens you can imagine is out there, somwhere. And there are millions of folks out there with old Nikon lenses lying around somewhere in the attic or old film SLR bag -- that old glass fits on the new bodies, so that absorbs some of the cost of buying a new system.
The only major things that the D3100 have going against it right now are the relatively bulky size and plain aesthetics, but it’s actually pretty small by dSLR standards, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder -- some people may prefer the “traditional” dSLR look.
There are faster cameras, there are better-looking cameras, and there are people who refuse to use anything but Canon cameras. But the D3100 is great all around. All things considered, it’s highly recommended for anyone looking at an affordable next-level camera.