Author Topic: Nikon D3100, Initial Impressions  (Read 6067 times)

keithsnell

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Nikon D3100, Initial Impressions
« on: September 21, 2010, 08:07:38 AM »
We picked up a new Nikon D3100 at Best Buy last night.  They had two in stock, although their online status didn't show it, and they didn't have it on display.  If you were smart enough to ask, you got the camera. I don't have time for a technical review, but thought I would provide a few "first impressions."

First, I should provide a bit of context for our decision to purchase the D3100.  My primary camera is currently the Nikon D3.  I love it!  It's extremely capable, and is the first digital camera I've owned that just "gets out of the way" and lets me photograph the way I want to.  It's almost the perfect compromise between resolution and high ISO capability.  The ability to bump the ISO up to 1600 and not worry about any noticeable degradation in image quality is liberating.  But, it's big, heavy and obtrusive.  In casual social situations I'm often hesitant to lug around the D3, and its a bit intimidating and obtrusive.  Instead of using the D3, we often reach for our (now long in the tooth) Canon S3 point and shoot.  The S3 was a great camera in it's day, but it is starting to show it's age.  And, we're often disappointed at the image quality from the S3.  It's great for web shots, but anything else is asking a bit much from the S3.  Rebecca's primary camera is the Nikon D2x.  The D2x isn't quite as big as the D3, but it is still a large, heavy, obtrusive camera, and it doesn't do well in low light.  Quality standards vary from individual to individual, but my typical break point for the D2X is ISO 400.  Above ISO 400 you give away significant image quality to noise, or smear details with noise reduction.  The D2X is a great landscape and studio camera (where you can control the lighting) but not that great for event photography, sports, or wildlife.

Let me give an example of what I'm talking about with respect to photographing wildlife.  Earlier this month I photographed elk at Rocky Mountain National Park.  We found one relatively cooperative bull elk in decent light.  Here's a shot from that day:


You can see from this image that we had halfway decent light.  There was soft morning sunlight coming through thin clouds.  Still, my shutter speed at ISO 1600 was only 1/125th of a second.  This isn't fast enough to prevent motion blur for any animal that is moving.  To get a sharp image, you have to time your shots for when the animal is still, or shoot a lot and get lucky.  Why only 1/125th of a second?  Because I was shooting with my 500mm f4 lens and 1.4x teleconverter (for an effective aperture of f5.6) and stopped down one stop to f8 to compensate for reduced sharpness of the lens + teleconverter combination.  So, even with my venerable D3, and halfway decent light, I was still shooting in a zone where shutter speeds were barely adequate to get acceptable wildlife shots (if I was lucky).  I could have used the D2x instead, and achieved the same effective focal length shooting without the teleconverter (because the D2X has an APS-C size sensor, this acts as a "focal length multiplier" of 1.5x).  So, I could have shot the D2x and 500mm combination at f4, ISO 400, and a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second, putting me in the same zone of barely adequate shutter speeds.  What I needed was an APS-C size sensor that would allow me to bump the ISO up to 800 without a significant loss in image quality.  

A camera like the Nikon D300s would probably get me there, but the D300s is due to be replaced soon...  I've been carefully following the rumors, announcements, and initial image samples for the Nikon D3100 and D7000.  It's tough to make an assessment of their capabilities because standards for "acceptable" noise vary widely between photographers.  Some early assessments were wildly optimistic, placing the D3100 and D7000 in the same league as the D700 and D3.  I carefully scrutinized what image samples were available, and soon came to the realization that these optimistic assessments just weren't true.  A photographer whose opinion I respect made a statement that the "design goal" for the D7000 and it's 16 megapixel sensor was to match the noise characteristics of the 12 megapixel D300s.  Based on what I have seen of the image samples, I think they met that design goal.  Based on my "hands on" experience with our new D3100, I'll be happy with the quality of ISO 800, but anything above that is pushing it for MY standards of acceptable quality.  

So, for $699 I could buy a camera that could potentially provide one stop better performance for wildlife photography (albeit with a much less capable autofocus system), that was also compact and light enough to be a replacement for our Canon S3.  The D7000 might be slightly higher resolution, but it is also larger and heavy enough that it wouldn't be a real replacement for the S3, and it's more expensive.

So, now that I put down the cash and have a D3100 in hand, here are a few of my initial impressions:  Before purchasing the D3100, I played a bit with the D3000 on the store shelves.  One thing I didn't like about the D3000 was the grip.  It didn't fit my hand well, and was awkward to hold for one-handed shooting (remember we wanted a replacement for our point-and-shoot, so one-handed shooting is often a necessity while carrying kids, etc.).  I can say that the D3100 is a significant improvement over the D3000 in the "one-handed shooting" department.  The grip is slightly deeper, has a rubber pad that provides more grip than the hard plastic on the D3000, and the thumb rest on the back of the camera has been reshaped and has a rubber pad as well.  Thumbs up for the new grip and thumb pad on the D3100, it changed the camera from one that was difficult to hold to one that is comfortably held with one hand.  Overall the camera seems a bit more solid than the D3000.  That said, this is a "budget" camera, so there are still a few parts that feel flimsy.  The part that worries me the most is the battery compartment door.  It feels extremely flimsy and the hinges are made of plastic which could easily be snapped off if one wasn't careful while changing the battery.  The buttons to the left of the LCD also feel a bit "loosey goosey" with a large amount of play that makes me wonder about their long-term durability.  Overall though, the camera seems to be designed extremely well within the constraints of cost, size and weight.  

The 18-55mm kit lens that came with the camera was also designed within the constraints of cost.  This is the first lens I've ever owned with a plastic lens mount, and I don't expect very much in the way of optical quality.  Luckily we have the 18-70mm ED lens that will be a perfect fit for the D3100 (and is also a much more expensive lens) and the kit lens will become Evan's new lens to use with his D100.  (Being only 5 years old, he still has a bit to learn with respect to good hand-holding technique and could really use the VR capability in the 18-55mm kit lens. :) )

Don't expect much from the video capability on the D3100.  It's better than in the past, but still not as "useable" as the video in our 5 year old Canon point and shoot.  If video is one of your primary concerns, you might want to look at something like the Panasonic GH2 instead.

Image quality is pretty impressive for a camera that costs less than 15% of our D2X or D3.  ISO 800 shows a bit of noise, but is a significant improvement over the ISO 800 capability of the D2X.  ISO 800 with noise reduction on is almost noise free, and gives up just a bit of detail.  The noise reduction seems to be much more "discriminating" than that in the D2X, removing noise without too much detail smearing.  ISO 800 will probably be my limit for "serious" photography, but ISO 1600 is certainly acceptable for point-and-shoot social occasions, and a significant improvement over ISO 400 in our old point and shoot.  

Although not in the same league as the autofocus of the D2X or D3, the autofocus in the D3100 is adequate.  I grew up on a generation (or two) of autofocus cameras that had only one cross-type sensor in the center of the frame, so that limitation on the D3100 doesn't bother me.  (The D3100 has eleven AF sensors, but only the center sensor is the more sensitive cross-type sensor.)  I don't expect I'll be using the D3100 much for sports photography (I have the D3 for that) and so the less expensive AF system of the D3100 is adequate for what I will be using the camera for.

White Balance and colors seem very accurate.  I would judge this as a significant improvement over most previous Nikon cameras.  The built-in flash seems to integrate well with the camera's exposure and white balance systems.  I suspect that we will be able to use the pop-up flash without worrying too much about exposure or white balance.  The LCD is low resolution, but gives an accurate assessment of image sharpness, white balance and colors.  The zoom controls on the LCD operate differently than the more expensive Nikons, but are intuitive after a few uses.  An RGB histogram is available once turned on in the setup menu.  Automatic D-lighting is on by default.  I'm not a fan of the way this reduces image contrast in the mid-tones, and so I turned it off.  

Although the camera is missing some of the direct controls available on more expensive cameras, (a white balance button for example) these parameters are easily accessed by pressing the "i" button on the back of the camera and navigating to the menu item with the four-way controller.  The function (Fn) button can be programmed to directly access the parameters for image quality, ISO sensitivity, white balance, or active D-lighting.  Overall the controls are very intuitive.  Rebecca and I were able to pick up and start using the camera without referencing the manual (it's still wrapped in plastic.)  The shutter noise is more "muffled" than more expensive cameras (the mirror doesn't have to swing out of the way quite as fast) and this will be a plus when photographing during a wedding ceremony, etc. It has a seven shot buffer when shooting RAW plus JPEG.  The buffer clears rapidly (in about one second) allowing another two shot burst, and then another one second delay and two shot burst as long as the shutter button is depressed.  An unanticipated bonus is that my nose doesn't smear the middle of the LCD when I have the viewfinder up to my eye.  Instead, my nose falls to the left side of the much smaller D3100 body.  :)

Overall we're pleased with our purchase of the D3100.  I'm still amazed at how inexpensive a decent digital SLR is these days, compared to even five years ago.  Because of it's combination of image quality, size and weight, I suspect that the D3100 will be the camera Rebecca and I reach for most often for our personal photography.  We leave tomorrow for a meandering trip up to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, and I will try to post some images from the D3100 upon our return home the first week in October (or before that if we have internet access).  Hopefully this rambling synopsis of my initial impressions will help some of you that might be considering the D3100.

Keith
« Last Edit: September 21, 2010, 05:53:50 PM by keithsnell »

Chris

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Re: Nikon D3100, Initial Impressions
« Reply #1 on: September 21, 2010, 04:46:38 PM »
Thanks Keith. Can't wait to see pictures from it. Best Buy now has the D7000 on their website for preorder.

girod

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Re: Nikon D3100, Initial Impressions
« Reply #2 on: September 21, 2010, 08:30:11 PM »
Wow......one more very clear and so sensible education from you Keith, thank you very much as always. Since you brought out the practical and cheaper advantage of the APS-C sensor for obtaining more reach, I've been looking too at D300s vs D3100 and now the D7000. I have time to wait until more is known about the D7000 in real world. But the most exciting part now for me is that Ana, my wife, now wants to learn DSLR photography. Her prime motivation - she wants images of me too with the family.
« Last Edit: September 21, 2010, 09:01:22 PM by girod »

keithsnell

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Re: Nikon D3100, Initial Impressions
« Reply #3 on: September 21, 2010, 08:52:37 PM »
Thanks Jaime.  I suspect the D7000 will be a true photographer's camera, well put together and pleasing to use.  Overall the D7000 will be a much more competent camera than the D3100, and a bargain for the price.      If it was my only camera, I would have definitely gone for the D7000.  Since I already have a "serious" camera in the D3, and the D3100 was intended more for an easy camera to carry on casual family outings and social events, it made more sense to go for the smaller and lighter camera.  The D3100 was about as big as we wanted to carry for a "point-and-shoot," and will fit in the current bag we used for our Canon S3.  I'm not sure I could have sold Rebecca on buying the D7000 to replace our point-and-shoot.  Besides, I need to save my money for the D4 when it comes out. :)

That's great to hear that Ana is interested in learning DSLR photography.  It's wonderful to be able to share a hobby with your partner.  (And it will be great to see images of you with the family too.)

Keith
« Last Edit: September 21, 2010, 08:54:25 PM by keithsnell »

RebeccaSnell

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Re: Nikon D3100, Initial Impressions
« Reply #4 on: September 23, 2010, 11:19:50 AM »
For those of you that are interested.  This image was shot with the D3100 in "point-and-shoot" mode (i.e., shot from the car window waiting for Keith to get his shot).  Auto ISO on, which resulted in an ISO of 1250 with the selected shooting parameters of f11 and 1/125 shutter speed.  Image exposure was lowered 1 EV in post processing in order to reduce clipping in the red channel when converting to sRGB color space.

Tractor

D3100 is looking like it will make a pretty decent "point-and-shoot."  :)

Chris

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Re: Nikon D3100, Initial Impressions
« Reply #5 on: September 23, 2010, 01:12:37 PM »
I'm so tempted to stop by Best Buy this weekend while I'm in KC. This would leave more money for lenses. I still think I'd prefer the D7000 though. I'm afraid I'd just want to upgrade later if I got the 3100 now. I may be going to Indianopolis in a couple weeks and it would be nice to have a new camera while I'm there.

Got any pointers on shooting a car race? Looks like I'll be able to shadow the official photographer for the event, if I get to go. Should be fun! and educational.

keithsnell

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Re: Nikon D3100, Initial Impressions
« Reply #6 on: September 23, 2010, 06:48:43 PM »
Hi Chris,

I think you are smart to wait for the D7000.  The autofocus will be MUCH better in the D7000, and would be awesome for shooting car races, etc.  I can accept many of the limitations of of the D3100 because I have a more capable camera that I can use if I need one of the missing capabilities (like tracking autofocus or fast frame rate).

Pointers for shooting a car race?  Follow focus.  In other words, start focusing and following the cars before you want to take the picture.  Focus on a high contrast area in the front of the car.  Use the highest possible shutter speed you can, unless you are purposely trying to get blurred surroundings by panning.  (Even then, you'll need a fairly high shutter speed.)  Watch how the cars are handling the track and learn to anticipate the line they will follow.  If you have difficulty with follow-focus, then try pre-focusing at a specific point on the track and snapping the image at the moment the car comes into focus.  (Probably easier said than done.)

Sounds like a blast!

Keith

Cindy Miller Hopkins

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Re: Nikon D3100, Initial Impressions
« Reply #7 on: September 28, 2010, 11:20:20 AM »
Thanks again for your input on the new D3100. I was on a waiting list, but have now let it go to somebody else. I wanted it for the 1080 HD video clip function ONLY, but it sounds like I will wait it out for a better model. Since I currently shoot two, Nikon D2x's and a D200, I know that I would be disappointed with the D3100.

Thanks also for the comments and input from other Spirit of Photography members as I always learn from their comments and questions. THANKS to all.

Cindy

Chris

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Re: Nikon D3100, Initial Impressions
« Reply #8 on: September 30, 2010, 02:30:25 PM »
Thanks Keith. I expect to get a chance to practice this weekend. I'll be going to Heartland Park on Sunday.

I had a chance to try out a couple Nikons last weekend. One of my friends has a D60 and another has a D80. After trying those out, I'm pretty sure I'd be happy with the D7000, so I went ahead and pre-ordered one today, the kit with the 18-105. Now I just have to wait and see how long it takes to get from Japan to Kansas. lol

In addition to the camera I ordered a 50mm 1.4 and the 70-300. I think those three lenses will cover just about everything well enough, for now.
« Last Edit: September 30, 2010, 02:43:37 PM by Chris »

Cindy Miller Hopkins

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Re: Nikon D3100, Initial Impressions
« Reply #9 on: October 02, 2010, 06:45:11 AM »
Well, I just put my name on the waiting list for a the D7000. Hopefully, it will ship in a few weeks. I'm getting it to "dip my toe" into learning to shoot video clips. I feel that I will still be using my D2x's for most of my still images, but I also feel that this camera will be a better choice from the D3100 and good enough to do both (provide 1080 HD video as well as provide acceptable still images) if need be. IF it comes in time ... I will be taking it to Europe with me in early November and I will let you know what I think. The one thing I know I don't like is that it used SD cards ... I DO like using CF cards so much better, but no way around that one!

Chris

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Re: Nikon D3100, Initial Impressions
« Reply #10 on: October 08, 2010, 12:14:45 PM »
A big brown truck brought me a big brown box. In that box were three smaller gold boxes but none of them said D7000. I'm really excited and anxious now. Hopefully it won't be more than a couple weeks until it comes.

keithsnell

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Re: Nikon D3100, Initial Impressions
« Reply #11 on: October 08, 2010, 01:56:19 PM »
So what was in the three smaller gold boxes?  You'll definitely have to tell us about your new goodies once you get them. 

Iliah Borg (someone who knows what he is talking about) mentioned in a post on DPreview that his impression of a "pre-production" D7000 was very positive, and that he wouldn't hesitate to shoot with that camera.  He seemed impressed with the real resolution of the camera (not just more megapixels) and with the quality of the raw files.  Looks like you made a good choice.

Keith

Chris

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Re: Nikon D3100, Initial Impressions
« Reply #12 on: October 08, 2010, 02:00:51 PM »
50mm 1.4, 70-300mm and SB-900

Thanks for the info. I'll have to go back to dpreview and check it out.
« Last Edit: October 08, 2010, 02:03:15 PM by Chris »