Camera Test: Nikon D3000

An affordable DSLR with a lot to offer.

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You can get a lot of Nikon for your money—the $780 (body only) D90 pops readily to mind as a near-unbeatable deal. But what about the lowest-price entry point into the Nikon system, the D3000 ($550, street, with 18– 55mm f/3.5–5.6 VR lens)? Despite the obvious savings, it’s not nearly as compelling a deal.

Replacing both the Nikon D40 and D60, the D3000 shares the D60’s 10.2MP sensor with its 12-bit A/D converter, the current standard for entry-level DSLRs.

That’s plenty of imaging power, and the D3000 fared well in our image-quality tests against its main rivals, particularly in color accuracy. But sluggish autofocusing and other flaws set it back in the bargain pack.

Handling and Controls

Not that we’re sour on this Nikon. As entry-level DSLRs go, it has a quite good body design. A well-formed grip has an indentation on the inside that nicely cradles your finger tips, and a ridge up top for leverage when tilting up and down.

The body is quite small, and at just over 1 pound, very light. But the small size also means a short grip, which may leave your pinky dangling below the body, and a nose-heavy balance with any but very light lenses. We did a fair amount of shooting with Nikon’s 10–24mm f/3.5–4.5 AF-S DX lens—which can hardly be called enormous—and it noticeably tilted the body downward. The same can be said for the Tamron 17–50mm f/2.8.

Controls are comparable to similar DSLRs, relying on a virtual control panel Nikon calls the Information Display in the 3-inch, 230,000-dot LCD. While we prefer more dedicated buttons, this has become the de facto standard for this level of camera. Once you get used to it, though, Nikon’s user interface provides a quick way to change settings. And a button lets you easily adjust exposure compensation with the lone control wheel on the camera back.

In the Lab

In our tests, the D3000 posted resolution right between two major 10MP competitors, Canon’s EOS Rebel XS ($500, street, with 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 IS lens) and Sony’s Alpha 330 ($550, street, with 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 lens). The numbers were very close, though—2150 lines for the Rebel XS, 2100 lines for the Nikon, and 1970 lines for the Sony A330.

That’s not enough of variance to call one a big winner. Most shooters would be hard-pressed to see a difference between the amount of detail captured by these three cameras in typical shooting conditions, especially when shooting handheld with their respective kit lenses. And while all three of these DSLRs delivered Excellent ratings in color accuracy, the D3000 served up the best result with an average Delta E of 6.4 for 8-bit TIFFs generated from RAW files using the latest version of Nikon’s Capture NX. The Rebel scored 7.8, barely making our cutoff of 8 for Excellent, while Sony split the difference with a score of 7.1. We would have liked better noise control with this camera, however. We’ve seen what Nikon can do with its higher-end models, so we were disappointed that the D3000 maintained a Low or better rating only up to ISO 200, while its two competitors held down noise that far up to ISO 800 (Rebel XS) and ISO 1600 (Sony A330).

Still, we were impressed with the D3000’s ability to keep its resolution virtually unchanged all the way up to ISO 800. Even at ISO 3200, it dropped only to 1930 lines, although that was just enough to lower the score to a High rating from its Very High rating through ISO 800.

In our AF speed test, we were less impressed. In the brightest light (EV 12), it took 0.5 sec to focus—not bad, but the Sony A330 took 0.27 sec under the same conditions. In fact, the Sony beat the Nikon at every light level, though both cameras failed to focus in light dimmer than EV –1 (typical of consumer DSLRs).

To put things in perspective, while the A330 focused in 0.49 sec at EV 4, about the same light level as a well-lit living room, the D3000 took 0.76 sec. And while the Nikon was able to focus at EV –1, taking an average of 1.29 sec, its performance was erratic in that near-moonlit darkness.

Other Trade-offs

You can’t shoot RAW files and Fine JPEGs at the same time with the D3000—instead, it restricts you to Basic (heavily compressed) JPEGs during RAW + JPEG capture. None of this camera’s competitors have this restriction, and we can’t think of any reason for it other than skimping in either processing or the camera’s buffer.

Worse still, the D3000 doesn’t have automatic exposure bracketing, simply unacceptable given that this is purely a matter of programming the camera to shift exposure during continuous drive mode.

Combine these issues with a skimpy manual that doesn’t even have an index, and we started to wonder if Nikon is trying to force buyers to step up to the D5000.

So, while its test results put this Nikon in the middle of the budget DSLR pack, we can’t ultimately recommend the D3000 over Canon’s EOS Rebel XS, which has higher resolution, faster AF, and better noise control. We might put the Sony Alpha 330 ahead of the D3000, too, were it not for a poorly designed grip that seriously affected that camera’s handling in our field tests.

Instead, if you’re committed to the Nikon system, we recommend that you take a good hard look at that D90.

Specifications

IMAGING: 10.2MP effective, APS-C sized CCD sensor captures images at 3872x2592 pixels with 12 bits/ color in RAW mode.
STORAGE: SD/SDHC stores JPEG , NEF RAW, and RAW + JPEG (basic) files.
BURST RATE: Full-sized JPEGs (Fine mode), up to the capacity of your SD/SDHC memory card at 3 fps; RAW, up to 6 shots at 3 fps.
AF SYSTEM: TTL phase detection with 11 illuminated focus points (1 centered cross-type); single-shot and continuous AF with Predictive 3D focus tracking. Tested sensitivity down to EV –1 (at ISO 100, f/1.4).
SHUTTER SPEEDS: 1/4000 to 30 sec, plus B (1/3-EV increments); 100,000-cycle rating.
METERING: TTL metering using 420-pixel RGB sensor, 3D Color Matrix II , centerweighted, and spot (approx. 2.5% of viewfinder). EV 0–20 (ISO 100).
ISO RANGE: ISO 100–3200 (in 1/3-EV increments).
FLASH: Built-in pop-up with i-TTL autoflash, GN 39 (ISO 100, feet); flash sync to 1/200 sec; dedicated Nikon hot-shoe.
VIEWFINDER: Fixed eye-level pentamirror.
LCD: 3-in. TFT with 230,000-dot resolution.
OUTPUT: Hi-Speed USB 2.0, composite video and analog audio.
BATTERY: Rechargeable LP-E6 Li-ion, CIPA rating 550 shots.
SIZE/WEIGHT: 5.0x3.8x2.5 in., 1.25 lb with a card and battery.
STREET PRICE: $550 with AF-S DX Nikkor 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6G VR lens.
INFO: www.nikon.com

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