This camera aims squarely at those new to interchangeable lens cameras, but it offers the kind of image quality and affordable price point that will likely give even more advanced users pause when considering their next camera.
The Nikon D3100 doesn’t have the most advanced feature set or image sensor, but it gets impressive results regardless.
For those stepping up from a point-and-shoot experience, the D3100's kitted 18-55mm, 3x optical zoom lens will offer a wider angle of view than what the typical compact camera offers, though it won’t bring subjects as close. A rear 3-inch display functions mostly as an informational readout when shooting and a built-in flash pops up from above the camera’s hot shoe. The flash is more powerful than you would find on a point-and-shoot, with an effective range of 39 feet.
As for the controls, one qualm we have with the design is the rear four-way control pad, which offers directional navigation for the menu, but without labels. Also, the D3100 doesn’t provide common shortcut keys for functions such as ISO speed or white balance, which is always disappointing.
Otherwise, the Nikon D3100 features a typical, physical mode dial on top of the camera, with options for fully automatic shooting with and without the flash, several scene modes, manual, program auto, and aperture/shutter priority modes. There is a helpful “guide” mode on the dial too, which shoots in a fully automatic mode with a greatly simplified display and menu system—an excellent aid for beginners.
The Nikon D3100 features a slew of effects, filters, and scene modes that beginners will love.
In the D3100’s main menu, there is a retouch menu that allows for the application of various digital filters, as well as basic options for in-camera editing. The retouch menu's digital filters can be applied to any image on the memory card. These filters include skylight, warm filter, red/green/blue intensifier, cross screen, and soft focus. The filters usually apply extra creative punch to photos, though many are a little overdone. Once selected, each of these filters also lets the user adjust the intensity of its application and saves a new version on the card, preserving the original file.
Users may also apply corrections for brightness, red-eye, distortion, keystoning, or they may change the color balance of an image. There are options for quick retouches, shrinking images, cropping shots, overlaying images, and converting RAW files to JPEG, too. Altogether, the D3100 gives users plenty to tinker around with.
The Nikon D3100 improves upon its predecessor, the D3000, in many ways.
The standard 18-55mm kit lens on the D3100 produced images with sharpness results that were acceptable through the majority of the frame at most apertures. We found the lens was never exceptionally sharp at any point, but it offered its best results at an aperture of between f/8 and f/10.
The Nikon D3100 did not match the Nikon D5100 our camera of the year for 2011—for color accuracy, but it came very close. The most accurate color mode on the D3100 was the neutral setting, which kept saturation to normal levels. The portrait mode was a close second, with very accurate skin tones, but a slightly more saturated look that kept flesh tones looking more lively.
Regarding noise, we found that the D3100 produced very little image noise at ISO 100. We noted positive results through the ISO range during testing, with decent shots as high as ISO 6400 with fairly minimal image noise. The noise reduction feature is effective, though not overly aggressive until you get to the highest ISO speeds.
The Nikon D3100 is a solid entry-level DSLR.
This is a lightweight camera that handles well, offers a great deal of control, and produces some very nice images without blinding the user with a glut of terminology and byzantine menu options. As the replacement to the D3000 the “friendliest” DSLR ever, according to Nikon’s marketing—the D3100 brings a host of new tricks to the table. In addition to some slight alterations and improvements to handling, the D3100 can also shoot full HD 1080/24p video. Those stepping up from a point-and-shoot camera will also enjoy the live view functionality, which shows the image being shot on the rear LCD instead of only through the optical viewfinder.
We were impressed with the Nikon D3100’s still image performance, too. It put up solid color scores and it improved dynamic range significantly over the D3000. The D3100 upped ISO sensitivity all the way to 12800 (keeping noise down) and was still able to shoot at a respectable 2.8 frames per second.
Overall, this camera expertly splits the line between DSLR-level control and beginner-level features, giving novices the chance to pick up the camera and shoot, growing as photographers as they delve deeper into the menu and feature set.
The Nikon D3100 (MSRP $699) is a successful step up from Nikon's user-friendly D3000 series, offering enough guidance for beginners, but most of the feature set expected by DSLR veterans. Its performance was impressive throughout most of our tests, and we think it's priced perfectly to match what it brings to the table. Continue for an in-depth look at the D3100's image quality.
We found that the lens was never exceptionally sharp at any point.
At the minimum aperture (ranging from f/22-36 through the zoom range), the D3100's sharpness doesn’t fall off as dramatically as with some other cameras. At its worst, the lens resolved detail of around 600 lw/ph, while at its best it achieved around 1500 lw/ph, never really relying on digital sharpness enhancement.
The Nikon D3100 offered excellent color accuracy and long exposure results, but its white balance was a bit of a step backwards.
The D3100 shows a color error of just 2.48 in our testing, which is truly excellent, especially for an entry-level interchangeable lens camera. This Nikon also put forward near-perfect saturation levels at 101% of the ideal, effectively controlling common trouble areas like yellow and magenta.
The landscape and vivid modes showed a color error of 3.8 and 4.45, respectively, though they’re designed to oversaturate key colors to make photos more attractive, so this isn’t really a negative result.
Overall, the Nikon D3100 performed about as expected regarding white balance accuracy, though it fell slightly behind the older Nikon D3000. The problem is the camera’s inability to take an accurate custom white balance reading under most lighting conditions when using a white card.
The Nikon D3100 showed improved high ISO performance compared to the previous model, the D3000.
The D3100 offered very little image noise at ISO 100, with just under 0.5% detectable in our test. This ramped up to a little under 1% at ISO 800, though from then on we advise turning on noise reduction. Without NR, noise spiked to 1.29% and 1.58% at ISO 1600 and 3200, respectively, whereas with NR turned on, the camera maintained noise at around 0.9% at both levels. At ISO 6400 and 12800, the shots are only usable with noise reduction activated, keeping it to 2% and below.
The Nikon D3100 improved greatly on the performance of the D3000, adding two steps of ISO sensitivity (100-12800 against 100-3200, including “Hi” settings), while improving noise performance across nearly the entire range.
Meet the testers
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.See all of TJ Donegan's reviews
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