It's hard to make the shooting experience of an entry-level digital SLR feel anything more than cheap and cheerful, but that's what Nikon has done with the D3000. Lightweight, easy to use and able to deliver some great pictures with a decent lens attached, there's only one or two quibbles about the camera that stop us giving it a full two thumbs up. The D3000 comes in a single lens kit with the old workhorse 18-55mm VR for AU$999 and a dual-lens kit with the 55-200mm VR for AU$1299.
Click through for our photo gallery of the D3000, plus sample shots. (Credit: CBSi)
There's a lot to say about consistency between cameras in a manufacturer's range, and the D3000 has similar aspects to its predecessors and stable mates in spades. The slightly mottled plastic around the body is the standard Nikon feel, and overall build quality is excellent considering the price range.
It feels just a bit bigger than the D40 — 10 grams heavier at 485g, in fact — with a strikingly similar layout and configuration. In fact, looking at them both from the front, you'd be hard pressed to find any differences between them apart from the model number badges. At the back, the 3-inch LCD is surrounded by four buttons on the left, and a four-way control pad on the right. There's one solitary control wheel used to change aperture and shutter, and a standard exposure and focus lock button, but that's it. A little spartan, but with such limited space the layout does the job.
All buttons and dials are nicely positioned for those with small hands — someone with a bigger set of mitts might have some difficulty with precision as the D3000 is really quite dainty. The door covering the SD/SDHC card slot is flimsy though, and could easily break off with a bit too much force pushing it the wrong way.
The D3000 isn't going to get any balcony serenades from lovers of feature-stuffed cameras — for that you'll want to look at the Chicken Kiev D5000 or even the Turducken D90. But what it does have is a 10.2-megapixel CCD sensor and a 3-inch LCD screen (only 230,000 dots though, and it's a little grainy and difficult to see in strong sunlight). It uses a different sensor to the D5000 — that one was a 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor. There's 11 focus points, a significant upgrade from the three on offer with the D40, and it carries over the 3D tracking AF mode that we saw in the D5000.
For AU$999 we would have liked to see live view included — those looking for a straight upgrade from their compacts, beware. There's also no D-Movie, Nikon's HD video functionality, but we can see why the latter was excluded to help reduce cost. Continuing the move towards standardising memory card formats across the range, the D3000 uses SD or SDHC cards in a slot nestled into the right hand-grip area — the same as the D5000 and D90.
D-Lighting and Active D-Lighting are also included, a function that attempts to provide an increased dynamic range to shadow and highlight areas. And although the lens mount means that any F-mount Nikon lens can be used, only AF-S lenses will autofocus. Also note that there's no in-body image stabilisation — for that you will have to rely on a Nikon VR lens (the kit 18-55mm lens is VR).
The Guide mode on the dial, for beginners. (Credit: Nikon)
A dedicated guide mode designed for first-time dSLR users is accessible from the mode dial. When selected, it gives a graphical interface that guides you through some common things you might want to do with your digital camera. There are the standard "View/Delete photos" and "Set up" options, and of course "Shoot", which then gives you two further options — either easy or advanced operation. Within easy mode, the camera will take full control and you can choose your target: whether that's something like no flash, distant subjects, portraits or moving subjects just to list a few. There's another screen that gives you a brief run-down on what your selection means, and finally you get to shoot.
Advanced mode makes things a little more interesting, with just three options to choose from: soften backgrounds and to freeze motion (of people and vehicles). Naturally, anyone who's even a little more advanced than absolute beginner will know that with these selections, the camera goes into either aperture or shutter priority mode to achieve the desired effect. We'll leave it up to you to discover which one is which, but don't worry, the camera tells you.
We're starting to see a lot of manufacturers trying to make the leap into the digital SLR world less intimidating. Sony, for example, implements a similar system on its entry-level Alpha range. While it's a great thing to encourage people beyond a simple point-and-shoot methodology, we wonder if it will actually prompt people to start experimenting with other settings and exposure rather than just relying on automatic or scene modes all the time.
The D3000 took 0.25 second to grab its first shot, which makes it a smidgen slower than the D5000 but still very impressive for an entry-level model. It's also on-par, if not a little quicker, than the old D40 and D60's start-up times. Shutter lag is barely noticeable in general use.
We managed to squeeze nine JPEG frames on the fine setting from the D3000 on a class 4 2GB Panasonic SD card before any noticeable slow down in performance, with an average shot-to-shot time of 0.35 second in continuous mode.
The updated AF system (compared to the D40 and D60) is speedy and delivers accurate results most of the time. Focus points are clear and easy to see in the viewfinder, without being obtrusive. The centre focus point is a cross point, meaning it can detect on the horizontal and vertical axis. The battery is rated at 550 shots on a full charge, generally higher than models with live view which tends to drain the battery quicker when it's in use.
After recently reviewing the D5000 we weren't expecting there to be another contender out to get it so soon, but the D3000 really does deliver in the image quality department, as long as you're not too concerned with good low light performance at higher ISO levels.
It has great dynamic range, as well as excellent exposures in adequate light. The colours have a real punch to them — perhaps not as much as the D5000 though — but aren't oversaturated. The D3000 also has really good automatic white balance. JPEG shooting produces surprisingly good results on the fine setting which is great for beginners, but if RAW is more your thing, the D3000 is competent here too. Included in the box is View NF, Nikon's software for viewing and converting RAW (NEF) files, but you will have to purchase Capture NX separately if you want to perform more complex operations. A limited number of RAW processing options are available in-camera, such as adjusting white balance and exposure compensation — useful if you're not tethered to or near a computer while shooting.
The in-built effects are a little curious, but essentially do what they say on the box. A "miniature" function is provided, turning an otherwise standard shot into something that looks like it was taken with a $5000-plus tilt-shift lens — almost. Results are fairly impressive, if a little gimmicky, though in the areas that were supposed to be in soft-focus the D3000 did leave a fair amount of coloured noise that was visible even at a reduced magnification. There's also stop-movie effects, which lets you piece together a number of frames into a movie that plays out at a maximum rate of 15 frames per second. There is also a colour outline, which makes colour-me-in versions of your photos.
Maximum ISO is limited to just 1600, meaning low-light shooters are going to have to invest in a speedy lens or risk missing shots. There's the option to push the camera to 3200 in the "Hi" settings, though. As for noise control, images at ISO 100 are noise-free and very pleasing, a trend that continues all the way up to around 400 when there is some indication of speckling, and ISO 1600 is disappointingly noisy with a significant amount of noticeable chromatic aberrations.
There is a noise reduction filter built into the camera, which does help mitigate artefacts to some extent — check our comparison chart below with the feature turned off and on. As you can tell it does mitigate the noise to some extent, but there is still a real loss of sharpness and detail.
This shot was taken at ISO 1600 with noise reduction turned off (left) and turned on (right). As you can see, the shot on the right has lost some detail in the fur area, from the over-zealous smoothing. (Credit: CBSi)
As long as you don't expect too many fancy bells and whistles, you won't be disappointed with the quality and performance of the D3000. For beginners or prosumers who want a compact digital SLR to complement their existing set up, Nikon has made a very nice camera for a good price. If you've already got a D40 or D60 it's probably not worth the upgrade, but we have to say that this camera has been the first in a long time to get us excited about the entry-level dSLR space — and made us take a whole lot of great photos.