The 14.2 megapixel Nikon D3100 digital SLR is the upgrade of the chunkier Nikon D3000, Europe’s best selling DSLR, according to its manufacturer, so expectations are high of its compact and lightweight successor.
For those who couldn’t care less about spreadsheets, it’s notable for introducing Full HD 1080p video at 24 frames per second to the Nikon range.
A surprising move, given that this is the manufacturer’s beginner-targeted model rather than a semi pro offering. Aiding compatibility with older PCs, the video format is a widely accessible MPEG-4.
The D3100 feels rugged when gripped, especially with 18-55mm kit lens attached, and though lightweight, it’s still very much a Nikon, by which we mean the build is solid and well put together.
Flick the camera on and you can be shooting with it as fast as your finger can reach the shutter release button. Press this fully once the 11-point AF system has near as instantaneously located its target, and the shutter fires with a satisfyingly loud clunk.
Up to a modest 3fps capture speed is offered in continuous shooting mode.
Nikon D3100: Controls
Given that Nikon is reaching out to the mass market with the D3100, and those looking to upgrade from point and shoot compacts, it’s no surprise that the accent is on ease of use.
Thus, like Sony with its lower end Alpha DSLRs and the Olympus E-PL1 ‘Pen’ hybrid camera, Nikon has included an ‘Enhanced Guide’ mode on the D3100, which has its own setting on the ten pence piece-sized shooting mode dial.
The intention is to teach the basic fundamentals of photography through repeated use – so someone unfamiliar with a more ‘professional’ camera can pick the D3100 up and start experimenting straight away.
Furthering user friendliness, rather than bury the feature within menu screens Nikon has included a dedicated switch for activating Live View.
This is the means by which the D3100’s large, fixed LCD can be used to compose shots instead of the traditional viewfinder above it, which blacks out when ‘LV’ is selected.
The switch for this also ergonomically surrounds a video record button, as found on the Panasonic G2 hybrid camera, suggesting Nikon is keen to make more of HD movies.
However, with no dedicated video setting on the top plate dial, users have to have Live View mode selected before video recording will even commence.
In this respect it’s still not as easy to be up and shooting video as on the Sony A33 translucent mirror model, nor Panasonic’s aforementioned hybrids.
That said, like those models, the advantages of having access to larger and better lenses than your average camcorder when doing so cannot be underestimated.
Nikon D3100: Features
A smaller overall form factor means that there are inevitably some compromises, notably a smaller hand grip, though we still managed to squeeze three fingers around the D3100’s, thumb coming to rest on a small pad at the rear.
Despite the diminutive body size Nikon has kept the buttons fairy large, so its layout can look a little crowded. It’s sensible therefore that Nikon has implemented the Guide feature to make the camera a little more approachable.
Relevant settings can also be selected within this mode, without having to dip back into the shooting modes proper, so it’s not purely a substitute for otherwise reading the manual.
We also get Nikon’s D-Lighting system on board, selected as the camera’s default setting, to cope automatically with tricky exposures and preserve detail in both shadow areas and highlights. This works fairly well though occasionally it lends images a slightly washed out appearance.
Nikon D3100: Picture quality
With the option to shoot JPEG or NEF files (Nikon Raw), Nikon allows users to further tweak the look of images via Picture Control functions.
Though the default setting of standard produces perfectly acceptable natural imgaes, we also enjoyed using the vivid and landscape modes to boost blues and greens in a scene. On overcast days results can otherwise look rather flat.
The kit lens provided - though not as sharp as more expensive alternatives - is adequate for the job, certainly for starters, maintaining good edge to edge sharpness if ever so slightly soft to the naked eye.
Even more impressively on the D3100, it’s only really at expanded ISO12800 light sensitivity setting that noise/grain starts to become particularly noticeable when shooting in lower light without flash.
Nikon D3100: Price and conclusion
Though street prices will inevitably be cheaper, the D3100 comes with a body-only price of £499.99, or it’s £579.99 when adding the standard 18-55mm VR (Vibration Reduction) zoom lens we had for testing.
It’s worth noting that like arch rival Canon, Nikon doesn’t build image stabilisation into its bodies, so anti shake via whichever lens you choose is a must.
Ultimately, despite the inclusion of its Guide mode and manageable body proportions, the D3100 doesn’t come across as a more grown up DSLR that has purely been dumbed down.
On the contrary, its approach appears to be one of inclusiveness, rather than patronization in order to reach a wider audience. The result is a sound investment for any would-be Nikon owner starting out.
The Nikon D3100 is out now, find out more from Nikon