Nikon D3100 Review
Usability - How easy is it to use?
The ergonomics of the D3100 are good with all controls being placed within easy reach. The hand-grip is quite comfortable and provides a secure hold over the camera. Below the control-wheel on the rear, there is a slight protrusion which prevents the camera from slipping outwards. The Nikon D3100 feels reasonably sturdy.
The D3100 has a medium-sized penta-mirror viewfinder which provides a relatively bright image. Just below the viewfinder is large 3" LCD with 230K pixels. While the viewfinder is almost flush with the LCD, it has a good eye-point so that you do not have to press against the camera too much.
While gripping the camera, the forefinger can easily reach the EC and Info buttons which are located just behind the shutter-release. A single control-wheel, located on the camera's rear, adjusts a single exposure parameter. In Manual mode, it controls the shutter-speed when used alone and controls the aperture when used with the EC button. The AE-L/AF-L button is located within reach of the thumb.
Below the AE-L/AF-L button is the - new to the D3100 - Live-View and video recording trigger. A spring-loaded lever activates Live-View. In its center, a round button starts and stops video recording once Live-View is active. As any camera without a video mode, the camera does not know when it is about to start filming. This makes setting up framing for HD video is impossible since it has a different aspect-ratio than still images. No framing guides are available to help either.
Further down is the 4-way controller which is used to select one of 11 focus points in Single-Point AF area mode while shooting using the viewfinder. During Live-View, the 4-way controller moves the focus area in fine increments anywhere around the frame. It is also used to navigate the menu system and information setting screen.
The mode-dial, located on top of the camera, is large with good click-points, making it difficult to accidentally move. The set exposure or scene mode is shown on the Info screen with a small color icon. Pressing the Zoom-Out button brings up a short description of the current mode, as one would guess by the ? next to it. What is great is that the D3100 actually describes how the camera will behave. In Landscape mode, the Info screen says "For landscapes and cityscapes. Greens and blues are rendered vividly, with the foreground and background in focus". This implies not only use of a small aperture but also a change in color-rendition, thus overriding the set Picture Control style.
The Nikon D3100 has a unique Guide mode which is a new take on assisted camera settings. It is a hybrid mode blending scene modes and guided operation. The Guide mode is divided into sections for Shooting, View/Delete and Set-up. The view, delete and setup options are short-cuts to common operations for their respective tasks.
The Shoot section is the most interesting and useful. This section is divided into three subsections. Easy operation gets the user to select a type of subject and the camera selects a scene mode. From there you can start shooting or adjust certain settings, usually Flash, Release mode and AF-area mode, depending on the chosen subject. For example, choosing Night Portrait, the camera says "The camera is now in "Night" Mode. Use a tripod to prevent blur". Choosing More Settings from there lets the user change the Flash mode between Slow-Sync Auto Flash with Redeye Reduction, Slow-Sync Auto Flash or No Flash. This gives flexibility but narrows down choice to the most typical parameters for a type of subject.
For the Advanced operation, the camera sets an exposure mode, either A or S, and explains briefly how to control it. It is even possible to choose an aperture or shutter-speed on screen before starting to shoot. It can be changed later using the command-dial.
The button to delete images is located below the 4-way controller. Tap it twice to delete an image. The delete operation is cancelled if it is not pressed twice. On the other side of the LCD, 5 buttons activate Playback mode, the menu-system, the help-system or zoom-out, zoom-in and the quick-change screen, respectively.
While the D3100 has a reasonable number of buttons, there are not well used in capture mode. The zoom-in button does nothing at all, while the zoom-out button displays a help message. It would be nice if there was easy access to Metering and White-Balance instead. A firmware update could delegate the Help function to Guide and Scene modes and make them customizable in standard exposure modes. The 4-way controller has no mapped functions either, something which is commonly done.
Playback mode is shooting-priority. This means that when the shutter-release is half-pressed, playback is interrupted and the camera is ready to shoot. In playback mode, the control-wheel is used to scroll through images and can do so even while zoomed. This is a crucial feature to compare nearly identical images.
Detailed information on images is available using the up and down directions of the 4-way controller. One push up and a luminance histogram is displayed along with basic exposure parameters and more. A down push from there goes back to the image display. One more down push to get RGB histograms.
The left side of the camera features two more buttons: Fn and Flash. The Fn can control one of several options, as selected in the menu-system. The Flash button, when used with the control-wheel, cycles through various flash-modes depending on the exposure-mode. When used with the control-wheel and the EC button at the same time, the Flash button controls flash-compensation.
The rear LCD is typical for this class of camera. It's sharp, clear and has a reasonable anti-reflective coating. The LCD is used to display the Info screen. Pretty much all important settings are available. All changes made using external buttons such as EC, Fn and AE-L/AF-L are echoed to the Info screen.
The screen can be used as a viewfinder in Live-View mode. It provides 100% coverage, which is clearly better than the OVF's 95%. It does not preview exposure, even though things change with EC. Things like shutter-speed and aperture have no effect on the Live-View display. White-balance is previewed. However, since you need to enter the menu system to change it and that causes Live-View to be deactivated, it takes a lot of steps to find the correct white-balance.
The Nikon D3100 uses a different metering system in Live-View. This system has a very small metering range and often gives up, showing the Lo warning when the metering through the OVF works. This is really too bad as one of the most useful aspects of Live-View is to see a bright image under dark conditions. There is a rather noisy contrast autofocus system which is activated by a half-press of the shutter-release. Manual focus is possible in Live-View and the zoom-in and zoom-out buttons can be used to check focus closely.
Movie recording is part of Live-View. Sound is optional. A number of video resolutions are available, all 16:9 widescreen: 1920x1080 (1080p), 1280x720 (720p) and 640x424. The 720p resolution is available at 30, 25 and 24 FPS. Video recording mode uses the selected focus-mode. In AF-S mode, focus is performed by half-pressing the shutter-release. What is really nice, is that it can be repeated at any time during video recording. In AF-C mode, the camera tries to focus continuously. Since contrast-detect autofocus is slow, this means the camera spends its time hunting for focus rather than in focus.
The camera itself feels sturdy, even the memory and battery doors feel solid enough. Buttons protrude just enough to be usable with gloves on. There is metal tripod mount in-line with the center of the lens, just like on every other DSLR. One slight ergonomic annoyance is that the camera-strap eyelets cause part of the supplied neck-strap to point get in the way while bringing the camera to eye-level. This is the same design as with the D3000 but I do not remember this happening with that camera, maybe the strap is more stiff.
Nikon D3100 Highlights
Sensor-Size: 24 x 16mm
Actual size when viewed at 100 DPI
|14 Megapixels DSLR||ISO 100-12800|
|Nikon F Mount|
|Full manual controls, including Manual Focus|
|Built-in Dust Reduction||Custom white-balance with 2 axis fine-tuning|
|3 FPS Drive, 16 Images||Spot-Metering|
|1920x1080 @ 24 FPS Video Recording||Hot-Shoe|
|3" LCD 230K Pixels||Lithium-Ion Battery|
|Secure Digital Extended Capacity|
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