The camera was kindly provided by B&H – the largest photo reseller in the world that I personally use to buy my photography gear.
1) Nikon D3100 Specifications
- 14.2 Megapixel DX-format CMOS Image Sensor
- Full 1080p HD Cinematic Video with full-time autofocus and sound
- Easy-To-Use with Nikon’s Guide Mode
- Fast 11-point Autofocus System
- 3-in. monitor with One-Touch Live View shooting and movie capture
- Built-in HDMI port
- Control Image and Movie Playback with most HDTV remote controls
- 6 Automatic Exposure Scene Modes – Portrait, Landscape, Child, Sports, Close-up or Night Portrait
- Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait and Landscape Picture Controls
- Built-in pop-up flash
- Includes 3x 18-55mm Zoom-NIKKOR VR Image Stabilization Lens
- Compact and Lightweight Design
- ISO sensitivity 100-3200, expandable to ISO 12800 equivalent
- Scene Auto Selector and Scene Recognition System in Live View
- Features Nikon’s new EXPEED 2 image processing engine
- Active D-Lighting for shadow highlight recovery
- Automatic Image Sensor Cleaning
- In-camera Image Editing
- Compatible with SD, SDHC and SDXC cards
- 95% Viewfinder frame coverage
- 3 frames per second in Continuous Shooting Mode
- AF-S lens required for autofocus (no built-in focus motor)
Detailed technical specifications are available on Nikonusa.com.
2) Camera construction and handling
Being an entry-level DSLR, the Nikon D3100 is built to be a compact and an ultra-lightweight camera, with dimensions of 124x97x74mm, making it the smallest DSLR in Nikon’s current line of cameras. If you have ever handled a heavy pro-level DSLR like Nikon D3s, you will quickly realize how tiny this camera is in comparison. With a weight of only 455 grams without the lens, the Nikon D3100 is 30 grams lighter than its predecessor – the Nikon D3000, which also makes it the lightest Nikon DSLR camera. With the exception of the metal lens mount, the Nikon D3100 is mostly plastic.
The camera handles very similarly as its predecessor and the earlier models like Nikon D40 and D60 and the lightweight Nikkor 18-55mm kit lens balances perfectly with it. With the addition of live view and movie recording, the back of the camera went through some changes. There is now a dedicated lever to enter Live View, with a red button to start recording video. The previous Info and “+” button has now been separated into two dedicated buttons on the left side of the camera rear, making a total of 5 buttons instead of 4 (left: Nikon D3000, right: Nikon D3100):
Two other changes worth mentioning, are the new lever on top of the camera that allows to quickly change the camera between Single, Continuous, Timer and Quiet modes and a rubber grip in front of the camera. Previously, changing camera modes required to go through the camera menu and this is a nice addition for a quicker mode selection. The new rubber grip improves camera handling and will not easily slip from fingers. Overall, considering the entry-level nature of the D3100, there is not much to complain about construction and handling-wise. My only wish, is that the AE-L/AF-L button was located closer to the rear dial – I often use this button for focusing and it felt like it was too far away (same problem with the Nikon D7000).
As for weather and dust protection, although the D3100 is a pretty tough camera, there is no sealing of any kind, which is expected for an entry-level DSLR. This means that you should be careful when using it in challenging weather conditions.
3) Camera Sensor and the new Expeed Processor
The most exciting new change for a gear-head like me, is the more powerful Expeed 2 camera processor, along with the new 14.2 MP (megapixel) high-resolution camera sensor. The D3100, by the way, was the first Nikon DSLR to have the Expeed 2 processor. Although I prefer better image quality over a higher number of pixels, the jump from 10.2 MP to 14.2 MP is certainly good for folks like me who are into landscape and wildlife photography. Higher resolution sensor means larger prints and more cropping opportunities. Nikon has been quite successful in keeping high ISO noise amounts low, while keeping image quality standards high in their latest generation DSLRs with more megapixels. A more detailed comparison between Nikon D3100 and other DSLRs is provided on page 2 of this review.
4) Autofocus Performance and Metering
The Nikon D3100 is equipped with the same 11 Point AF System with 1 cross-type sensor in the center, as in Nikon D3000 and Nikon D5000 cameras, so there is no change in AF performance. If you are interested in seeing how AF points and cross-type sensors impact the autofocus performance, please see my DSLR Autofocus Modes article. In short, the Nikon D3100 performs very well in daylight conditions and its autofocus performance might suffer in low-light conditions. If you experience autofocus problems in indoor/low-light situations, it might be a good idea to use the center (cross-type) AF point to focus instead of the 10 surrounding AF points for better accuracy. If framing and composition get difficult, simply switch the function of the AE-L/AF-L button to “AF-On” and use that button to focus and recompose instead. But be careful about doing this, because focusing with a center AF point and then recomposing might result in AF shifts, especially when focusing on nearby subjects. As for metering, the Nikon D3100 does a pretty good job just like its predecessor, giving pretty accurate results in most conditions.
5) Movie Recording
Although I personally do not shoot much video (except for occasional family videos), the high-def 1080p video mode on the Nikon D3100 was very tempting to try. I shot a series of videos of a Taekwondo competition indoors and the video quality was pretty impressive (see below). Live View/Video mode is super easy to switch to, thanks to the new lever on the back of the camera and I certainly like it much more than the “Lv” button on other Nikon DSLRs. The bad thing about shooting video on the D3100, is that there is no proper exposure control while recording video, which means that you cannot fully control your aperture, shutter speed or ISO during movie recording. You can set lens aperture before recording video and you can lock the exposure by holding the “AE-L/AF-L” button while recording, but that’s pretty much it. 1080p is limited to 24fps and 720p is capped at 30fps. In comparison, the Canon 550D has full exposure control when shooting video and can do 1080p at 30fps and 720p at 60fps. So if you are looking for a DSLR with good video capabilities, the Canon 550D is going to be a better candidate at a similar price point.
Here is a sample video of a Taekwondo tournament that I shot with the Nikon D3100 with the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II lens:
Don’t forget to switch to 1080p and watch it in full screen.
6) Dynamic Range
The dynamic range the Nikon D3100 offers is pretty similar to the D3000 dynamic range, so there is nothing new to be excited about. Although I did not perform any scientific tests to measure the dynamic range, I compared some some high contrast sample images from both cameras and tried to recover some shadow details from RAW files. Both looked about the same, around 3-3.5 stops for highlights. Don’t forget that dynamic range decreases as you increase ISO, so if you want to be able to recover the maximum amount of details, you should be shooting at ISO 100 on the D3100. This is especially important for HDR photography – always shoot at base ISO of 100 and use a tripod.
By the way, don’t worry about D3100 not having a bracketing feature. Some people emailed me asking how they can shoot HDR without having a bracketing feature on their cameras. Here is a quick tip for you – just change your camera mode to Manual Mode, set your aperture to one number like f/8.0, set ISO to 100 (and turn off Auto ISO), then look at the built-in meter inside the camera and set your shutter speed. Take a sample picture and make sure that it is not severely overexposed or underexposed. All you have to do from this point on, is take a picture with the shutter speed twice less the current value and twice more the current value (for 3 brackets) or you can take more pictures at slower/faster shutter speeds for more information. For example, if your aperture is f/8.0, ISO 100 and shutter speed is 1/500th of a second, take one picture at 1/250th shutter speed, then another at 1/500th and finally one at 1/1000th – you will have three bracketed images with lots of details (three full stops) for an HDR photo. If you need more information for a very high contrast scene, take more pictures at slower shutter speeds and then at higher shutter speeds. When decreasing the shutter speed, divide the last number by two and when increasing the shutter speed, multiply the last shutter speed value by two.
As for Active D-Lighting, if you shoot RAW and do not use Nikon’s Capture NX2 product, you should just turn it off. For all other cases, leaving Active D-Lighting On works great.
7) Built-in Flash
The built-in flash is identical as in Nikon D3000 and earlier models, with no new or special features. Sadly, the entry-level DSLRs do not have the capability to control other flashes, so you will see no option to “command” other flash units through the camera’s pop-up flash as I show in my “How to get the best out of your pop-up flash” article. The built-in flash works great as fill flash and can be used in low-light situations, although you have to watch out for subject distance, shadows, red eye, size of lens hood and other potential problems when using flash.
Since Nikon D3100 was released, a few bugs were identified in camera firmware. I highly recommend updating the D3100 firmware to the latest release, which is 1.01 as of 03/04/2011. You can download the 1.01 firmware from this link on Nikon USA’s website.
8) ISO Performance at low ISOs (ISO 100-800)
Some technical junk:
- White Balance: Auto, changed to “Custom”: 3000 Temp, +9 Tint in Lightroom
- ISO: 100
- EXIF information is preserved in the images
- Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II lens with VR set to “Off” was used for all tests
- Aperture: f/4.0
- Focusing was performed through Live-View Contrast Detect
- Mirror Lock-Up mode with Exposure Delay set to “On” and remote cable release to completely eliminate camera shake
- Long exposure NR: Off
- Image Format: RAW/NEF
- Imported images into Lightroom and cropped to 100% – no resizing was performed in Photoshop
- No exposure adjustments were performed in Lightroom (besides White Balance)
- Lightroom sharpening: 25, 1.0, 25, 0 (default)
- Lightroom export: sRGB JPEG Quality 80
Let’s take a look at how the Nikon D3100 performs at low ISOs. Here are some crops at ISO 100, 200, 400 and 800:
The noise levels at base ISO are typically the cleanest, as the above crops indicate. ISO 100 and ISO 200 look pretty much identical to me. ISO 400 picks up a little shadow noise (visible on the right side). At ISO 800, there is more noise visible across the frame, but the image details are still preserved very well. Overall, the ISO performance of the Nikon D3100 at ISOs 100-800 yields very pleasant results.
9) High ISO Performance (ISO 1600-12800)
High ISO performance is a very important measure of DSLR sensor quality. Here is how the Nikon D3100 performs at high ISO levels between ISO 1600 and 6400:
ISO 1600 adds a bit more grain when compared to ISO 800, but there is still plenty of detail to work with. I would not hesitate to use ISO 1600 on the D3100 and would probably use noise reduction software if I needed to get rid of the noise. At ISO 3200 we are seeing loss of detail, especially in the shadows, but the image is still quite usable. ISO 6400 looks too grainy for me and ISO 12600 is even worse, with a clear loss of colors and details across the frame. Judging from the above crops and my field tests, I personally would shoot between ISO 100-1600 and push ISO to 3200 every once in a while when needed.
10) ISO Performance Summary
It is hard to judge the performance of the Nikon D3100 without direct comparison against other cameras. Although I have not had a chance to perform ISO comparison tests between Nikon D3100 and the older Nikon D3000, I did a comparison against the higher end Nikon D90 and Nikon D7000 DSLRs, which you can see in the next pages of this review.
Compared to Nikon D90
Whenever manufacturers increase the number of pixels on the same size sensor, pixel density increases and individual pixel size decreases. This ultimately results in less dynamic range and higher amounts of noise, unless new sensor technologies and noise-reduction algorithms are employed. So far Nikon has been doing a pretty good job in keeping ISO noise levels to the minimum whenever a new sensor with higher resolution is released. Let’s see if the same holds true for the Nikon D3100.
To make sure that I do not get major differences in depth of field, I changed the aperture to f/8.0 on both cameras. I turned off Active D-Lighting and Noise Reduction on both cameras and used exactly the same shutter speed and ISO. To get to a similar field of view, I slightly zoomed in with the Nikon 70-200mm VR II lens when shooting with the Nikon D90. Focusing was performed via Live View contrast detect. Nothing else was changed during the test.
11) Nikon D3100 vs D90 ISO Comparison at low ISOs
At low ISOs between ISO 100 and 800, both Nikon D3100 and Nikon D90 have about the same noise levels with slightly cleaner shadows from the D90. Details also look very similar, but the colors from the D3100 certainly look different. Take a look at the below crops at ISO 100 (L 1.0 on Nikon D90), 200, 400 and 800:
12) Nikon D3100 vs D90 High ISO Comparison
What about high ISO levels above ISO 800? Let’s take a look:
ISO 1600 and 3200 look about the same to me – there is hardly any difference in highlights and shadows, besides some differences in colors. ISO 6400 looks a tad worse on the D90 to me, because I see more larger artifacts across the frame. The grain on the D3100 at ISO 6400 looks a little finer and the colors are retained better. Either way, I personally would not shoot above ISO 1600 on either camera.
13) Nikon D3100 vs D90 Summary
As you can see, both cameras perform very similarly at low and high ISOs, which gives an advantage to the Nikon D3100, because it has 2 more megapixels than the D90. Does this mean that you should purchase the Nikon D3100 over D90? No, because these are two different class DSLRs. Remember, the above are only ISO sample image comparisons. Nikon D3100 is the most basic, entry-level DSLR, while Nikon D90 is a semi-professional camera with plenty of features not present on the Nikon D3100 (too many to list). Nevertheless, the Nikon D3100 clearly demonstrates that the newer sensor technology is getting better and better, even as more pixels are squeezed into the same size sensors.
Compared to Nikon D7000
For the Nikon D3100 vs D7000 test, I used the same focal length at the same distance. Again, both cameras had the same aperture, shutter speed and ISO values and Noise Reduction + Active D-Lighting were turned off as well. Focusing was performed via Live View contrast detect.
14) Nikon D3100 vs D7000 High ISO Comparison
Low ISO performance between ISO 100 and ISO 800 looks almost identical on both Nikon D3100 and Nikon D7000, with a very equivalent amount of noise and detail. The same seems to hold true for high ISO performance – take a look at these crops at ISO 1600, 3200, 6400 and 12800:
At ISO 3200 the Nikon D3100 seems to add some artifacts here and there and the shadow detail seems to be lost more. However, the amount of noise is about the same on both cameras, which is good news for the Nikon D3100.
ISO 6400 looks poor on both, with lots of noise and loss of detail/sharpness.
And ISO 12800 is even worse, pretty much unusable on both.
12) Nikon D3100 vs D7000 Summary
Although the Nikon D3100 does not have many of the Nikon D7000 features, it performed quite well against the D7000. I believe Nikon uses the same noise-reduction algorithm on both cameras, because noise pattern and levels look very similar on both. The Nikon D7000 still wins though, because it has 2 MP more resolution and seems to retain details better at high ISOs.
Summary and Image Samples
For many years Nikon has been supplying the camera market with great entry-level DSLR cameras that are very easy to use, pleasant to handle and fun to shoot with. The Nikon D3100 continues this tradition with the much-needed ability to record high-definition 1080p movies, live view mode, a better higher resolution image sensor, longer-lasting battery and some other cosmetic and handing changes, making the D3100 a major update over its predecessor, the Nikon D3000. The D3100 was Nikon’s first DSLR to feature the new and faster EXPEED II image processor and was also the first DSLR in the world to incorporate autofocus while recording video.
While all these changes and innovations are definitely welcomed, Nikon clearly lost a good share of the video-recording niche to Canon, which has been putting 1080p into all new DSLRs (including entry-level models) since 5D Mark II was introduced back in September of 2008. Nikon was not able to respond quicker because of the first-generation EXPEED processor that just did not have the speed and throughput to handle high-bandwidth 1080p video. With the introduction of the new processor, Nikon addressed this problem, but as I have pointed out on the first page of the review, the video recording capability still lags behind the competition with slower frame rates and inability to manually control the exposure. The new video recording autofocus feature is only nice for slow-moving subjects with predictable motion. Trying to track fast-moving subjects results in a lot of focus error, making this feature practically useless in many situations, so I really don’t see much value in it quite yet.
When it comes to image quality, the Nikon D3100 does not disappoint. With a 4 MP jump in resolution over D3000, one would expect image quality to degrade, given the smaller pixel size. As I have demonstrated in pages 2, 3 and 4 of this review, the Nikon D3100 performs very well against the semi-pro Nikon D90 at high ISOs and similarly well against the new Nikon D7000 DSLR. Some sample images from D3000 that I had show heavy noise above ISO 800, so the new D3100 is clearly better than its predecessor in every way. Dynamic range is pretty good for an entry-level DSLR and the colors are very pleasant – similar to Nikon D7000′s.
But best of all, the Nikon D3100 is super easy to use. With the easy to follow camera manual, guide mode, menu help and very simple user interface, the D3100 is clearly designed to help transition a person from a point and shoot camera to a DSLR. Nikon has always paid a lot of attention to ergonomics and handling and the Nikon D3100 body went through some substantial changes to make it even a more pleasant shooting experience for beginners. As for the 18-55mm lens that comes with the Nikon D3100, it is a great lens to start, although I would personally recommend adding the cheap but great Nikon 35mm f/1.8G DX lens to your purchase for portraits and low-light situations.
Overall, I am very impressed by the Nikon D3100 – it is without a doubt a great little camera for anyone that wants to get into photography.