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 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.
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.
ISO Performance at low ISOs (ISO 100-800)
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.
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.
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.
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