Product Type: Nikon digital cameras
Newest Review: ... are safe even though Jessops have gone bust). We decided to go for an SLR over a point and shoot as we wanted a higher quality of picture... more
The baby of the range, but can it hold its own?
Member Name: TRadford
Advantages: small, cheap, light, excelent value for money
Disadvantages: Maybe too small for some. Limited options, Full time autofocus on video is a farce
Nikon are one of the leading companies in DSLR manufacture.
They battle the title out with the other Giant Canon, and constantly these two companies lock horns in the battle for the budget DSLR.
The budget DSLR is a funny beast. Its design is one of comprimise, but also of innovation.
It must be cheap.. otherwise no-one will buy it.
It must be easy to use, as its primary market is amateur or beginner photographer.
It must be small and light, to appeal to those used to small pount and shoots.
It must have lots of selling points.. To beat Canon.
Well the D3100 does all of these things, and does them pretty darn well.
I bought a D3100 purely to review for my photography website and also for the HD video function, to film my photography video reviews and tutorials.
My main camera is a Nikon D700, which is one of Nikons top proffessional range DSLR's with a price to match at over £1800 just for the body.
I hadn't held one of the budget models before, and coming from my big, heavy, Magnesium alloy body to this tiny, lightweight, plastic body was quite a shock. This camera weighs less with the 18-55mm Kit lens attached than just one of my proffesional grade lenses alone!
This however should not always be regarded as a bad thing. In fact for me, this is a godsend.
So many times, Im out and about and see so much, but I dont have my DSLR with me, as I just dont want to carry 5KG of camera and lens around with me all the time. The D3100 with the kit lens weighs in under half of that. On top of this, the physical size of the combo is so much smaller, I can fit it in my Briefcase and take it to work with me, for those "just in case" moments.
Of course, for those with large hands, the small size may be an issue. The buttons in particular may be very uncomfortable to reach, and the shallow grip of the camera wont instill confidence when carrying the camera without the included neck strap.
Thankfully, I have rediculously small girly hands, therefore it is not an issue!
So, we know the camera is small and light, one of the pre-requisites for a budget DSLR, so what about the price?
I bought mine second hand, with the kit lens and some other extras for about £30 under £400. Current retail prices for the kit are hovering at around £400, so as you can see, they hold value very well!
For this money you recieve a 14.2 MP sensor with Nikon's latest Expeed 2 image processor. You recieve a large 3 inch screen and the abilty to use Live view on this screen instead of the traditional viewfinder.
You also get Full 1080p HD video, with the abilty for fulltime autofocus, although as I will describe later, this isnt as good as it first sounds.
You also get the Nikon 18-55mm VR kit lens. A great little lens to get you started and covers a wide range of focal lengths perfect for learning photography. It also has Nikons VR (Vibration Reduction) system, which allows you to shoot at shutter speeds much slower than you could without it.
As a package, it seems very good value to me. A high end compact camera isnt much less, and although they may boast longer focal lenghts, the quality and control wont hold a candle to the D3100.
One of the big selling points for this camera is the included Guide mode. This is akin to a personal helper standing over you telling you what to do.
If you have no experience in photography at all, turn the large mode dial on top of the camera to "Guide", and let the camera take you through step by step exactly what you need to do, to get the type of image you want. You choose from a large list of different photograph types, from blured backgrounds, to frozen motion, and the camera will not only set itself up for you, but also tells you what and why its done what it has. This is a great tool, to learn the fundamentals of photography. With this type of help, you are almost guarenteed to get the photo you want.
Aswell as the guide mode, the camera also features an info screen, which with the press of one button, the huge LCD on the back of the camera lights up with all the information you could possibly need to know about the camera's current set up.
It shows the shutter speed and aperture, aswell as a nifty little interactive diagram with shows the effect of the lens and you raise and lower the aperture.
It shows you the current ISO, metering mode, drive mode, quality settings, White balance and much more.
What is even better, is if you press the button again, the screen changes into and edit mode,where you can actually scroll through the different settings to change them. This is a much better method than using the menu, which at first can seem very illogical and take a long time finding the setting you wanted to change.
This is a great implementation by Nikon, as a consequence of a smaller body, means less room for the buttons found on bigger DSLR's, which provide quick and direct access to the most used functions.
This info menu screen maybe a few steps more than one button press, but its certainly a vast improvevement on previous budget DSLR's.
One of the big debates is why you need a DSLR, when you can seemingly get small compact cameras with umpteen Megapixles for half the cost, and no lenses to have to change, surely they are just as good or better right??
A compact camera has a sensor at least half the size of even the smallest DSLR, and its the size of the sensor combined with the amount of MP that makes the difference.
A sensor with 19 MegaPixles but the size of a postage stamp is never going to be as good quality as a traditional DSLR sensor with 10 MP. In fact those 19MP will actaully lessencthe image quality considerably.
Its quality, not quantity that matters here, and thankfully the D3100's sensor is most definately quality.
Images produced from the sensor are rich in colour and contrast. Skin tones are represented faithfully, and the option to change the picture style to suit the scene mean you can get rich, vivid landscapes and then switch to more muted tones for portraits. In additon to this, the D3100 contains in camera editing, where you can add special effects, adjust saturation and contrast and much more.
Noise at higher ISO is controlled very well. At ISO 1600, images are still relatively clean and noise free. Perfectly acceptable for printing. This allows you to shoot images in very low light, without using the flash for more natural looking photographs.
One huge new feature in the D3100 from its predecessor is full 1080P HD video recording at 24 FPS. Although clips are limited to 10 minutes in this setting, its still a great way to get high quality video footage. The camera includes a built in microphone,which predictably isnt really the best tool for the job. Sadly the D3100 does not have an external Mic input, so you are stuck with the internal mic, or use an external sound recording device.
The latter may not be a bad idea. The new fangled AF-F, Nikon's code for full time autofocus on video sounds brilliant, but sadly its execution is lacking.
The autofocus uses a contrast detect method, meaning the camera is constantly searching for contrast to lock onto, and this manifests itself as the lens pretty much constantly moving its focus back and forth. Not only does this ruin your video, but the internal mic also picks up the sound of the lens gears moving the hunks of glass back and forth, and also ruins your soundtrack.
A much better method is the old "half press of the shutter" to activate focus, or go old school and use manual focus for much smoother video.
In conclusion. Despite its small form, its cheap price and its lightweight build, the D3100 can easilly hold its own against its bigger siblings.
Sure, it may not have the fast framerate, the build quality or the wealth of indepth options that the likes of the D5100 or the D90, but for what it is, which is a first time, beginner camera, I dont think it can be beat.
Summary: Excellent beginner DSLR, which provides great quaility images at a fantastic price point.
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