Nikon D3100 at a glance:

  • 14.2 million effective pixels
  • 3in, 230,000-dot LCD screen
  • 1080p HD video
  • Live View
  • Street price £499 with 18-55mm kit lens

With sales of micro-system cameras (MSCs) increasing, the position of the MSC’s direct competitor, the entry-level DSLR, comes under the spotlight. While Nikon has hinted that it is looking into launching an MSC model, nothing has been announced yet. Instead, the company is continuing with the development of its entry-level DSLRs, with the Nikon D3100 being its latest model. Nikon is hoping to build on the success of its popular predecessor, the D3000, which was released in July 2009. For Nikon, this entry-level DSLR represents the biggest hope in sales, acting as a gateway for the consumer into a more expensive world of DSLR camera bodies and accessories such as lenses and flashguns.

Without becoming embroiled in an argument over MSC versus entry-level DSLRs, it is safe to say that each system has its own benefits. Until now, micro-system cameras tended to have a broader range of features, a more compact body and a slightly higher asking price. While the Nikon D3100 sits below the bigger D5000 as an entry-level camera, its initial RRP of £579 with kit lens is higher than that of the D3000 when it was first released. In fact, it is on a par with the price of many MSCs. This suggests that Nikon is broadening the specification of its entry-level DSLRs to compete with MSCs and lead the way in the DSLR market. These key changes to the specification have probably increased the production costs, and therefore the asking price.

It will be interesting to see whether the performance and new features of the Nikon D3100 will be enough to maintain Nikon’s success in the entry-level DSLR market. We will also see if the company is able to persuade the first-time buyer to part with a few extra pounds and choose to enter the world of the more highly specified DSLR rather than the micro-system camera.


A quick glance at the list of the Nikon D3100’s key features shows that, rather than just tweaking them, Nikon has made significant changes in some areas. However, this doesn’t mean that the D3000 failed to make the mark, as it received 84% (Very Good) when we tested it (see AP 5 September 2009) and it has been one of the best-selling DSLRs of 2010. As such, many successful features remain, including the 11-point AF system, a shooting ‘guide’ mode that tutors beginners through the basics of photography, 3fps continuous shooting, in-camera editing and a 3in, 230,000-dot LCD screen.

With a 14.2-million-pixel, APS-C sized CMOS sensor, only the D3X and the (yet to be tested) D7000 in the Nikon range have more pixels than the D3100. An increase of four million pixels from its predecessor is impressive. My concern is whether or not this will be at the expense of its ability to maintain low noise levels. On the plus side, more pixels mean an increase in resolution and therefore output size. An increase from 3872×2592 pixels in the D3000 to 4608×3072 pixels in the D3100 should enable images to be printed at a slightly larger size. At 300ppi prints measure 390x260mm (15x10in), although it should be possible to create good A2 prints and certainly A3 prints without any compromise in quality.

A new Expeed2 image processor deals with the data created by the sensor in all Nikon’s latest releases, including the D3100. This processor should improve noise reduction and colour rendition, and it has enabled Nikon to increase the ISO range found in the D3000 by 1EV. It now stands at ISO 100-3200 and can be expanded to ISO 12,800. Expeed2 can process raw and JPEG files simultaneously, and Nikon’s NEF raw-format files can be processed using the supplied View NX2 software.

Given that the D3000 has no video function, the other most notable improvement is that the D3100 has surpassed the 720p HD video of the D5000 and the D300S with Nikon’s first Full 1080p HD video capture mode. To accompany this video function is the addition of Live View, which is useful for composing both pictures and videos. Other useful new features include additions to the post-capture, in-camera editing, such as straighten horizon, distortion control, fisheye effect, perspective control and ‘edit movie’.The D3100 seems to start off life on a higher plane than its predecessor, hence the higher RRP. Of course, we expect improvements with each release, but many of those brought in here suggest that the D3100 could be here to stay for a while yet.

Post camera editing in camera

The Nikon D3100 is a camera aimed at beginners, so basic in-camera editing tools are included. These tools save the user from needing to use post-capture photo-editing software. For the more advanced photographer they are also useful tools for checking what effects they are likely to use on photos between the photo shoot and sitting at the computer screen. There is a vast array of effects, and while in-camera editing has been around for a while, several new features have been included in the D3100. When used with subtlety, generally pleasing results can be produced.

While many of Nikon’s latest releases, such as the P7000 and D7000, have an electronic virtual horizon (deployed using Live View) to help you shoot straight, this is not included in the D3100. Instead, included in post capture in-camera editing is ‘straighten horizon’. Landscapes are difficult to capture completely straight, and using a wideangle lens can also produce distorted results, but this post-capture edit is very simple to use. Having taken the landscape image below, I found it was not quite level.

I performed a post-capture edit and by clicking the left or right arrow, depending on the direction of tilt, I had the straight horizon that I wanted within a few seconds. More than one effect can be applied to the same image, but every time a new effect is made a new file is created. I tweaked the distortion control to combat the minute distortion from using a wideangle lens. This is also useful, to an extent, in correction of distortion in buildings taken from low angles.

Build and handling

Although the body is virtually identical in size and shape to the D3000, the D3100 has a new rubberised grip and more refined controls, and it feels more removed from the D3000’s entry-level build quality. It is surprising how much these little touches can enhance handling, so anyone who appreciates the build quality of a Nikon SLR will not be disappointed. Despite being made from polycarbonate, the D3100 feels solid and more in keeping with bigger models, such as the D90 and D5000.

The D3100 sits comfortably and securely in the hand, with all the buttons and controls placed logically within reach of the fingers. The addition of indentations around the buttons means they are now more prominent, which helps because they have to be suitably small to fit on the body. The mode dial is more prominent, too, at about twice the height of that on the D3000. This keeps it clear of the new drive-mode switch, which provides options of single, continuous, timer and quiet. In the D3000 the drive mode was accessed via the menu, which slowed down operation, so it’s good that this is one control that has made its way onto the exterior of the body. Most users regularly switch from single, continuous and timer drive mode.

A huge array of buttons is daunting for a first-time SLR user, so to keep matters simple the controls have been kept to a bare minimum. One way Nikon has achieved this is by doubling up the function of various buttons. For example, the flash button on the front of the body is not just a catch to release the pop-up flash, unlike on other SLRs. While depressed, the flash modes can be scrolled through and selected. Next to the flash button is the Function (Fn) button. When this is depressed, an image setting can be altered with the user being able to choose between ISO, white balance, image quality and Active D Lighting.

I generally used the Fn button to control ISO. For an experienced photographer the absence of certain functions on the Fn button, such as metering, is limiting. I found the absence of a metering switch the most frustrating, having to revisit the menu time and again to swap between matrix and spot metering. I kept mainly to matrix metering, because there is an exposure compensation button and this is easily operated by holding it down and using the thumb scroll.

Image: Using the Active D-Lighting through the retouch menu in-camera brings back some of the details in dark shadow areas

The most notable ergonomic changes are the ones that accommodate new features. There is a switch for Live View to the right of the LCD screen, which also provides access to the movie record button, and a new built-in speaker for audio. The drive-mode switch, an HDMI socket to connect for TV connection and another socket for Nikon’s GP1 GPS unit are also new. The GPS connection doubles up for use with the MC-DC2 remote control. The only frustration I have with the camera’s handling is the slow access to certain functions menu-only functions.

However, these are features that an experienced photographer would use regularly, rather than a first-time buyer, and at least the menu is easy to navigate. The shooting info menu is designed to help entry-level users and clearly displays the most vital settings, often with visual guidance. For instance, as the aperture is changed, so an animated lens diaphragm alters in size. For an entry-level SLR, I found that the balance between manual control, auto control and the availability of regularly used functions should aid the beginner, and continue to satisfy as the skill levels grow.

White balance and colour

Image: Using the cloudy white balance setting produces results that are much too warm and yellow for my liking, but the auto white balance is generally reliable

On the whole, the D3100’s white balance produces pleasing results with well-balanced and natural tones. In several cases the auto white balance produces better results than the specific settings. Having taken many photos in a shaded woodland on a dull and cloudy day, I found both the shade and cloudy white balance settings produced images that were much too warm and yellow. However, all the specific settings can be manually adjusted if the results are not as desired. Creating a custom white balance is also a simple and speedy process.

In the standard colour setting, the colour is generally punchy with natural tones, and images can be sent straight to the printer. Colour can be controlled both pre- and post-capture. The usual colour modes are present in the Set Picture Control folder of standard, vivid, neutral, monochrome (sepia, black & white and cyanotype), landscape and portrait. Post-capture options include colour balance, monochrome, D-Lighting and various filter effects such as warming and skylight effect.


Although metering is accessed through the menu only, which slows down selection, this may not be the first thing a beginner thinks about when taking photos. Rather than using a mixture of the spot, centreweighted and evaluative (matrix) metering modes available, the matrix metering will be relied upon. It is just as well, then, that matrix metering produces pleasing results in a variety of settings, so an entry-level photographer should largely leave the camera in this metering mode. My images from a shady forest area and of berries in bright overcast light are well exposed, and any slight variations I would usually implement with spot metering can be achieved in-camera using the exposure compensation.

As I have come to expect with evaluative metering, the matrix metering leans towards exposing for midtones in landscape scenes of high contrast, with the sky slightly underexposed. This is certainly the case on an overcast day when the foreground or landscape is not well lit. When I shot a landscape on a brighter day, by gradually altering the tilt of the lens I could change the dominant area of the scene from sky to landscape. There is a gradual, pleasing change in exposure to suit the composition, which demonstrates that evaluative metering can be relied upon, only truly shifting when the dominant area covers at least two-thirds of the frame.


In the D3100, Nikon sticks with the tried-and-tested 11-point AF found in the D3000, with options of single-point, dynamic-area, auto-area and 3D tracking using the Multi Cam 1000 AF processor module. The 11 AF points are fairly central in the frame, so focusing for the edge of the frame can be tricky. In single-point mode, any of these 11 points can be selected. Using the 18-55mm kit lens I found that generally autofocus is rapid and responsive, but slowed down slightly in low-light conditions.

When using the tracking autofocus mode with Live View the focus area tracks moving objects, as demonstrated by a green box. This is useful for focusing when panning with a subject, but I experienced mixed results in this mode because at times the tracking area lost its subject in the frame. Generally, I opted for single-point or dynamic-area focusing. In Live View and video modes four AF options are available: normal, wide, subject tracking and face detection, although manual focus is a better option.

Noise, resolution and sensitivity

Image: Even in overcast light, resolution is good and colours are vibrant with natural tones

As mentioned before, the sensitivity range of the D3100 has been increased from the D3000 and now stands at ISO 100-3200. This can be further extended to ISO 6400 (Hi1) and 12,800 (Hi2), which boosts low-light capabilities and is impressive for a camera in this class. Unlike some other Nikon SLRs, the ISO 100 is not an expanded Low ISO but it is where the ISO range begins, which is impressive.

An increase in resolution from 10.2 million pixels in the D3000 to 14.2 million pixels in the D3100 is a substantial improvement, and it is no surprise that the new camera resolves more detail than the D3000. The amount of detail resolved is respectable, reaching 24 on our charts, although for a 14.2-million-pixel sensor I would expect slightly more. What is good, though, is that the resolution of detail is consistent all the way through from ISO 100 to the highest sensitivity of ISO 12,800, with only a slight drop off to 20 on our charts. Unedited raw files are able to resolve slightly more detail.

Image: There is good detail in shadow and highlight areas in this scene of low light. Noise levels are respectable, too

It would hardly be surprising that high levels of noise are present at such ISO settings. However, I am pleased at how the D3100 coped with noise in my images. Using the noise reduction makes lines a little sharper and punchier, but overall pixels in my images became slightly more smudged as the ISO sensitivity was raised.

Resolution charts: These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using a Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5 kit lens at 50mm. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.

Dynamic range

We do not have the precise figures from the dynamic range test graph, but from scrutinising my images I estimate it to be around 12EV, which is fairly standard these days for a camera such as this. My images from a sheltered forest show a wide dynamic range with minimal clipping of detail on the top highlights of the sky coming through the trees, which is not surprising, while shadow detail is good. Some details lost in blown-out highlights can be recovered when shooting in raw format, using the dedicated View NX2 software. When encountering scenes with wide dynamic range, it is always worth shooting in both raw and JPEG format. Generally, the D3100 produces pleasing levels of contrast.

Image: A wide dynamic range ensures good detail in both areas of shadow and highlight. There is no blow-out on the white window frame in the sun

LCD, viewfinder and video

The D3100 has an LCD screen the same size and same resolution as the D3000, at 3in and 230,000 dots. It is a bright screen that can be viewed from a variety of angles in good conditions and should more than satisfy the target audience. I was able to check the fine details of my images for focus and exposure. However, given that when the D3000 was released more than a year ago it had a relatively low-resolution LCD screen, it is surprising that Nikon has not improved this in the D3100.

With imminent future releases from other manufacturers detailing higher resolution LCD screens, the D3100 may be a little way behind its competition here. Now Live View has been included, I would like to see an articulated screen to further enhance handling, as found in the bigger D5000, aiding the composition of images when shooting at tricky angles, such as ground level. The viewfinder is on a par with other cameras with a frame coverage of 95% and a 0.8x magnification. It is a good size for an entry-level camera and is bright without blurring at the edges. By and large I was able to use it for focusing, which means that both Live View and the viewfinder are viable options when shooting.

A significant improvement is a move from no video in the D3000, all the way to Full 1080p HD video in the D3100. Offering both good-quality video and photos makes the D3100 a great all rounder. There is a ten-minute limit on the clips and no option for an external microphone, which some may find restricting. When filming quiet scenes, the use of controls such as focus and zoom are clearly audible. For those who haven’t shot on a digital SLR before, there is advice added to the guide mode on how to get the most out of the HD video.

The competition

With Nikon marking the D3100 as the replacement for its entry-level D3000, it is natural to compare it with other entry-level cameras. However, the D3100 specification and price supersede Canon’s entry-level camera, the Canon EOS 1000D. This is now more than two years old and virtually half the price. Two years of technological advancements makes the D3100 a better camera and, in fact, it has much more in common with the Canon EOS 550D. This is around £100 more, but is designed for the enthusiast photographer.

Image: Pentax K-r

The Pentax K-r is likely to offer some stiff competition, too, with an impressive 6fps and 3in, 920,000-dot LCD screen standing out from what is a similar specification and price. However, it only has 720p HD video and 12.2 million pixels. Sony’s Alpha 390 has a slightly smaller, 2.7in LCD articulated screen and no HD video, and will be another option for those who don’t want to pay the asking price of the D3100.

Image: Sony’s Alpha 390

Our verdict

Thanks to the improvements in features and build quality, the Nikon D3100 has reached a level of quality that surpasses its D3000 predecessor and that of any entry-level DSLR currently available. The addition of Live View, Full HD video, increasing the resolution by four million pixels and enhancing the build quality are all factors that have pushed the D3100 to greater heights. Image quality continues to impress and despite the increase in pixel count it still has acceptable noise levels at high ISO sensitivities. This is a particular strength of Nikon’s pro DSLR cameras.

However, all this comes at a cost, and for an entry-level DSLR the D3100 is not cheap. When compared to other models at the same level, though, I believe this is one of the best. The D3100 is a camera built for the beginner, but it should also satisfy photographers as their abilities grow. If substantial changes are needed for a manufacturer to stay ahead of the competition, then Nikon should be sitting pretty. The D3100 marks the next level of quality for an entry-level DSLR, but only time will tell if it is priced correctly for the entry-level photographer.

Nikon D3100 – Key features

The D3100’s viewfinder has 95% coverage with a magnification factor of 0.80x.

Live View
Another new addition is Live View, which can be controlled by this switch. The red button in the centre is for movie recording.

Memory card
The memory card is placed in the side of the camera. The D3100 takes SD, SDHC and the most recent SDXC memory cards. SDXC cards are faster and ideal for use with video.

Drive mode switch
This switch is new, with single, continuous, timer and quiet drive modes available.

Flash sync
The D3100 is compatible with Nikon’s Speedlight flashguns, which include the SB-400, SB-600, SB-800, SB-900 and the recently announced SB-700. However, there is no external flash-sync socket.

Guide mode
The guide mode offers easy-to-use in-camera assistance by asking the user what type of picture they want to take. Once the picture type is selected, such as portrait, a sample image appears on the display to show the effect on the image when suggested settings are applied.

Active D-Lighting
Like many other cameras, the D3100 has a dynamic range enhancement setting called the Active D-Lighting. This doesn’t actually increase the dynamic range, but instead retains details in shadows and highlights. I found images taken with Active D-Lighting felt a little less punchy, but improved natural tones.

Edit movie
Using the in-camera retouch menu, it is possible to make alterations not only to photos but also to movies. Start and end points can be selected from movie files and, once chosen, a new file is created.