With Christmas on the horizon, the D3100 is an important digital SLR for Nikon, targeted as it is at beginners and those upgrading from compact cameras. It also replaces the existing D3000, which its manufacturer claims is the number-one dSLR in Europe.
The D3100 is available now for around £500 with an 18-55mm VR (vibration reduction) kit lens, or for around £400 for the body only. Buying the lens is a sensible option for those who haven't already bought into the Nikon ecosystem -- the camera doesn't have built-in vibration reduction, so having a lens with that feature is important.
Clunk, click before every clip
The compact and relatively lightweight D3100 incorporates all the latest must-have features, and more, including some we wouldn't expect to find at the entry-level end of the market. For example, for the first time in the Nikon dSLR range, the D3100 includes 1080p video-capture capability, shooting in the widely compatible MPEG-4 format and at 24 frames per second. The D3100 has its own camcorder-like, one-touch video-record button.
Would-be film-makers won't sniff at the ability to use umpteen lenses from across Nikon's range with the D3100, but the camera's video-capture system still seems clunky compared to the translucent-mirror mechanism of Sony's new Alpha SLT-A33 and SLT-A55 models. The same is true if you compare the camera to mirrorless Micro Four Thirds models, such as Panasonic's Lumix DMC-G10 and the Olympus Pen E-P2.
With the D3100, you have to wait for its mirror mechanism to audibly flip out of the way before live view kicks in and video recording can commence, the camera's optical viewfinder blacking out while doing so. Unless you already have live view selected, there's a delay between seeing something you might want to film and being able to do so.
Guides aren't just for girls
It quickly becomes obvious when you start using the 14.2-megapixel D3100 that the emphasis is firmly on ease of use. Even though an enhanced 'guide' mode, which aims to hold your hand through the image-taking process, sits on the large shooting-mode dial, the dSLR doesn't feel dumbed down, which is a commendable achievement. On the contrary, it feels more like Nikon is dragging curious amateurs up to a better level of photographic skill. Relevant settings can be selected from within the guide mode, without having to dip out of it, so it's far more than just a substitute for reading the manual.
The mode dial also contains the full complement of creative settings, including program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual modes. There's also a standard automatic setting and further optimised settings for common subjects, such as night portraits, close-ups, action shots, children and landscapes. The dial has just the right amount of give to avoid accidentally jogging a chosen setting, and it slots into place at each turn with a definite click. Drive modes are selected courtesy of a lever alongside the dial.
Weighing 505g with a rechargeable battery and SD card inserted, the D3100 feels as well-built as we'd expect a Nikon camera to be, despite its relatively low price. The hand grip is on the small side, though, so it's a squeeze to wrap the usual three fingers around it. It measures a compact 124 by 96 by 75mm.
The camera's response times are fast -- impressively so, given its target audience. A flick of the power switch and photographers will be shooting with the D3100 as fast as their fingers can reach the shutter-release button.
The top photo-capture speed in continuous-shooting mode is a modest 3 frames per second, but the D3100 features a slightly better 11-point autofocus system than is usually found at the entry level. With a half press of the shutter-release button, it manages to locate intended targets pretty much instantaneously. Press the button fully and the shutter fires with a satisfyingly loud clunk.
With the option to shoot JPEG or NEF (Nikon raw) files, Nikon allows users to further tweak the look of images via the camera's 'picture control' functions, letting you choose between standard, natural and vivid settings. Most cameras now feature a dynamic-range-enhancing mode of some sort and, as this is a Nikon model, the D3100 offers the D-Lighting system, selected as the camera's default setting. We found this coped automatically with tricky exposures and preserved detail in both shadow areas and highlights.
Though the default 'picture control' setting of standard produces perfectly naturalistic results, we enjoyed utilising the vivid and landscape modes from among the same raft of options. These modes helped to boost blues and greens within the frame and avoid flat, lifeless results on overcast days.
Results were a tad soft using the kit lens, but not unacceptably so. Where the sensor-lens combo really impressed us was with regard to low-light shooting without the flash. It's only at its top expanded light-sensitivity setting of ISO 12,800 that noise/grain starts to become particularly intrusive. This means just about anyone can achieve pleasing image results with minimal hassle.
If we could make one change to the Nikon D3100, it would be the addition of a tilting LCD screen -- as found on Sony's SLT-A33 and Panasonic's new Lumix DMC-GH2 -- rather than the current fixed variety. Oh, and the resolution could do with being boosted beyond the bog-standard 230k dots. Apart from that, there's not a great deal wrong with the D3100. For the price, it should make for a very sound investment for first-dSLR buyers.
Edited by Charles Kloet and Emma Bayly