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Is this new starter DSLR right for you?
Meet Nikon's lowest-priced digital SLR. Is this step-up camera ideal for first-time DSLR users? How does it compare to the step-up-and-then-some D5000? We take it into the field and interperet DxOMark image quality lab tests.
• 10.2MP CMOS sensor
• Simple “Guide” feature walks snapshooters through key settings
• Manual metered exposure available for more advanced photographers
• Pop-up flash
• Hot shoe for external flash, Nikon Creative Lighting System advanced wireless lighting
• Compatible with Nikon G AF lenses, other Nikon F-mount lenses with limited features
• 3-inch LCD monitor with 230k dots
• RAW & JPEG images
• Six “scene” modes
• ISO range 100-1600
What it lacks:
• Live View
• Flash PC terminal
Who it's for:
• Snapshooters stepping up from compact camera
• Advanced shooters who want an additional, light, inexpensive body
• Vacation, family, travel photographers
Price (as of 1/18/10): $499.95 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED AF-S DX VR lens (sold only as a kit)
If you are a point-and-shoot camera owner thinking about stepping up to a digital SLR to take advantage of the better image quality produced by the larger APS sensor and the flexibility of using interchangeable lenses, the D3000 is the first Camera Nikon wants you to look at. And for good reason.
The D3000 is designed with the beginner in mind—although there's plenty of room to grow as you become comfortable using manual controls for greater creativity. The D3000 lacks certain features that you can find on its more advanced sibling, the D5000. For instance, it doesn't have Live View, which would let you see the image in the LCD viewfinder, any kind of video recording capability, or a flip-out LCD. And it has a 10MP sensor, instead of the D5000's 12MP sensor.
But lacking these features is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if your goal is simply to take great still pictures either in auto-everything or by taking full manual control of the camera, the D3000 may be just enough camera. Let's take a closer look.
Back of camera control layout is typical for a starter DSLR. Menu navigation is controlled via four-way switch surrounding “OK” button on right side. Buttons going down left control image preview, access menu, on-board camera guide that explains current settings and gives shooting suggestions, calls up top-level settings for quick adjustements, and enlarges or reduces image size in preview mode.
In the hands
The D3000 is ever-so-slightly smaller than the D5000, with much of the latter's bulk taken up by its flip-out LCD. The D3000 is comfortable to hold, even though the well-contoured grip is textured hard plastic and not rubberized like some other camera grips. The layout is basic and logical, with all controls placed within easy reach. For beginners, many of these controls may be strange and require some getting used to , but some quality time with the concisely written manual will help you get started.
The thumb rests naturally on the thumbwheel control dial, which is used to change aperture and shutter speed, and it is easy to shift to the master four-way toggle control to navigate through the menus.
Top-of-camera controls are clustered on the right side, and are almost identical to those on the D5000. The main difference? The D3000 has “Guide” instead of “Scene.” See text.
Absolute beginners can turn the top mode dial to GUIDE, which holds your hands and guides you, via the LCD monitor, through a handful of settings that are designed for specific picture-taking scenarios. Easy Operation lets you choose from Auto, No flash, Distant Subjects, Closeups, Sleeping Faces (that's a confusing name but actually means “child mode”), Landscapes, Portraits and Night Mode. Advanced operation, oddly, only offers three choices: “Soften Backgrounds” (basically, aperture-priority auto mode for those of you who know the lingo) “Freeze Motion (people)” (Shutter priority auto, forces you to choose a shutter speed that will stop action), and “Freeze Motion (vehicles)” (Shutter priority, but forces you to choose an even faster shutter speed.)
The main menu dial gives you a lot of camera setting information at a glance, although first-time DSLR users might get information overload.
If you are more advanced, ignore the GUIDE mode and choose from the usual PASM choices and when you select menu you will gain access to a wide variety of image controls, such as white balance, noise reduction on/off, focus mode, metering options, built-in and external flash options, and so on. The GUIDE mode is the most obvious difference between the D3000 and the D5000, which has “SCENE” mode in its place, and this accesses that camera’s 18 or so shooting modes, which the D3000 doesn’t have.
The Retouch menu is identical to the D5000's, offering post-processing in camera to remove Red-Eye, expand the dynamic range, apply various monochrome effects and virtual filters (such as a cross-screen filter) or a very cool but limited selective focus “miniature effect”.
The camera has an image sensor cleaning feature which shakes off dust particles that might accumulate on the sensor during lens changes. I recommend setting it to run every time you turn the camera off. There is an option to run image sensor cleaning whenever you turn the camera on, but this delays picture-taking operation by a second or two.
The picture preview screen is uncluttered and provides all the basic image information, but does not show exposure data, which could be helpful if you’re chimping to learn.
In the field
As with other lower-end Nikon DSLRs, the D3000 lacks an internal autofocus engine, and must rely on the less powerful ones built into its G-series lenses. Besides the fact that this limits how many AF lenses will actually focus automatically on this camera, the result (when using lenses with built-in AF engines) is sluggish autofocus performance. Using the included 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR lens, I found focus to be slow. It typically took just under a second for the lens to focus. I also used the 55-200m VR lens, and found focus to be somewhat “searchy” and the shutter release was delayed as much as 2-3 seconds while the lens found focus if there was a dark or low-contrast subject. No matter which lens I was using, when I switched from auto to manual focus, shutter lag was greatly reduced, although there was still an ever-so-slight hesitation, but that shouldn’t bother most users.
With autofocus disabled, I was able to catch fast-moving scenes such as this one down the block from the Adorama building without significant shutter lag. Autofocus slowed down performance.
Auto exposure modes did not slow down performance, fortunately, and I found color balance and exposure to be accurate. I can see where beginners would find the GUIDE menu less intimidating than the more standard modes and if you really just want to point and shoot, I would recommend using this. But if you want to grow in you photographic knowledge, learn to use Programmed Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Metered Manual, also known as the PASM settings.
I found the exposure meter to be accurate. I shot this in full auto, relying on the camera’s matrix metering to deliver a good exposure.
No matter how many automated modes a camera offers, I like to see what it's like when I take the training wheels off and shoot in manual. The D3000's manual operation was easy to use—use the thumbwheel to set shutter speed, and spin the same thumbwheel while simultaneously pressing the exposure compensation button with your forefinger to control aperture. Sounds a bit awkward, but I quickly acclimated to this. So for more advanced shooters, you can easily take control of this puppy
The information in the viewfinder gives you just what you need—aperture, shutter speed, ISO, number of exposures left, and a bar indicator that tells you if your exposure is correct, although this essential information does not show up when looking at an image in preview mode.
D-Lighting off: In this contrasty scene, the camera’s above-average 11-stop dynamic range captures some shadow detail, but we can do better...
D-Lighting on: With dynamic range turned on, the shadows are opened up nicely at the time of exposure. Image processing time increases by about 2-3 seconds, so shooting with D-Lighting on while in burst mode is not a good idea.
At ISO 1600 there is definitely grain, but you can probably coax an acceptable 8x10 print when shooting in JPEG with noise reduction on, although the dynamic range will be lower and contrast will be higher at high ISOs.
DxOMark Lab test results
(Test data provided by DxOMark.com; used with their permission)
While the D5000's sensor results were spectacular—one of the top performers of all APS cameras—the D3000's lab test results were about average for a camera with an APS sensor, with good (but not great) low-light performance and an above average dynamic range. The maximum recommended ISO setting on this camera is 400—it tested out at 583 and there's no intermediate setting between 400 and 800. When shooting RAW files at ISO 800 and higher, digital noise is unacceptable. If you shoot JPEGs, I observed that the on-board noise reduction provides that extra bit of speed so you can shoot with acceptably low grain at ISO 800, and even at ISO 1600 in JPEG the grain wasn’t terrible, so don't count this camera out as a low-light performer.
Dynamic range of 11.1 stops is pretty darn good and slightly above the average, although it falls a full stop short of the D5000's range. Color depth is excellent. The overall DxOMark Sensor rating of 62.4 falls right in the middle of all tested APS cameras as of mid-January 2010.
What do all these numbers mean in the real world? The D3000 will give you very good images—they will certainly be a vast improvement for someone moving up from the world of compact cameras. You will get better pictures without flash in subdued light than you would with any compact, for instance. However, if you are used to higher image quality from more advanced models, you might be disappointed with the D3000 and should instead consider ponying up the extra dollars for the D5000.
Conclusion & recommendation
If you are an absolute beginner to DSLR photography and are easily intimidated by the bewildering controls and creative options on a DSLR, the D3000 is for you. It represents a definite upgrade in image quality, responsiveness and flexibility since it allows you to use Nikon's wide range of lenses. More advanced users will appreciate the manual overrides, as well as the built-in control over Nikon's outstanding wireless TTL flash control. Because it offers simple instructions and menu options you won't have to step outside your comfort zone, but since it also offers many of the advanced creative controls of its pricier siblings, it's a camera you can grow with.
However, if you are more advanced—and have come to expect stellar high-speed performance and image quality, I'd consider the D5000 if only because its sensor has tested as one of the best in its class, and certainly is the best in its price range. If you are expecting HD Videos, again the D5000 would be the better choice.