Nikon D3000 £450
8th Sep 2009 | 11:30
Probably the most beginner-friendly DSLR on the market
Nikon D3000: Overview
The Nikon D3000 represents Nikon's attempt to put a DLSR into the hands of people who would normally feel out of their depth with that kind of high-end camera.
While there are lots of great digital SLRs out there, nobody has quite worked out how to make them really easy for novices.
Even confident and creative compact-camera users tend to blanch when you pass them a DSLR; there's something about that foreboding black body and plethora of buttons and dials that puts people off.
So Nikon deserves a big round of applause for the D3000, which is the most beginner-friendly SLR we've ever seen. This £500, 10.2MP DSLR is a direct challenge to the well-received Canon EOS 1000D, as well as entry level rivals such as the Sony Alpha A330, the Olympus E-450 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1.
As such it's perfectly placed to attract the still-substantial number of compact owners who are looking to buy their first SLR. The entry-level SLR market remains massively profitable for makers for one simple reason. Once you've attracted somebody to your SLR system, you can keep flogging them lenses and accessories for the rest of their photographic career.
At first glance, the Nikon D3000 looks like standard fare, with its diminutive proportions and modest but effective 18-55 zoom lens (a very similar spec to Canon's entry-level kit lens).
You only notice the camera's unique selling point when you glance at the top shooting dial. As well as the usual PASM exposure modes, there's a new addition called GUIDE. Select GUIDE and this SLR suddenly resembles a compact. A big colourful screen pops up with three options: Shoot, View/Delete and Set-up.
The last two are self explanatory, but Shoot is a unique addition that lets you choose from a range of shooting options – from close-up to action, and from night shots to blurred backgrounds in portraits.
While nigh foolproof, it's far from being Fisher Price, as each shooting option explains how to achieve the effect you're after, rather than just being a dumb pre-set – so it's a useful learning tool for getting to grips with the creative exposure controls on a D-SLR.
There's also a More Settings option that takes you straight to Flash and AF modes. It's all explained very well. So what doesn't the camera have? The biggest omissions, apart from a top LCD, are Live View and the ability to record HD video.
This is quite a risky strategy, but Nikon's obviously hoping that SLR beginners will be happy to sacrifice these handy extras in return for an easy to use stills camera.
Nikon D3000: User-friendly interface
As mentioned earlier, if you're looking for a cutting-edge SLR with HD video recording and Live View, this is clearly not the camera for you.
It's very much aimed at helping D-SLR novices make the transition from compacts, so it's on this basis that we'll review it. As a beginner's SLR, the D3000 is very convincing.
It's just the right size, being compact enough to take on a family outing, but not so downsized that people with big hands will struggle to use it. Build quality is very good and the 18-55mm kit lens feels sturdier and better made than the Canon equivalent.
Let's look at the camera's big selling point, the GUIDE option, in more detail. The first option, Shoot, is divided into three categories, Easy Operation, Advanced Operation and Timers and Remote Control.
Easy Operation contains all the most basic 'point and click' modes, before moving on to more challenging tasks like Distant Subject, Close-Ups, Portraits, Landscapes and, er, Sleeping Faces (remember Nikon is a Japanese company so it'd be letting the side down if there wasn't some cloying cuteness somewhere. At least it isn't Sleeping Puppies!)
For each of these options, a brief explanatory panel pops up, before giving you the option to start shooting. When you feel a bit more confident, you can select a second tab, 'More Settings' to adjust flash and other parameters.
So we think Nikon has struck the right balance here. Impatient novices can quickly get the results they are after by going straight to 'Start Shooting,' but you can then fine-tune the settings, if required.
And of course, beginners are getting all the advantage of shooting with a D-SLR, namely superior lenses and image-processing technology.
So that's Easy Operation; Advanced Operation goes a bit further. If you want to blur the background on a portrait while keeping the subject sharp, for example, you simply select 'Soften backgrounds' and read the explanation.
You're then given the chance to widen the camera's aperture to achieve this effect, before finally being invited to take the shot. Now, cynics might argue that in the time it's taken somebody to work through all these screens, they could have simply gone to A (Aperture Priority) mode, dialled in a wider aperture themselves and taken the shot – a five second job.
Therein lies one of the contradictions of this camera, and here's another disadvantage to Nikon's approach. It might not be immediately obvious to an impatient newcomer that you control the width of the aperture (and thereby the depth of field of an image) via the A mode on the top dial.
This will be a problem for anyone upgrading to another, less beginner friendly SLR. Maybe a diagram of the top dial would help here? To be fair to Nikon, though, trying to explain everything to a beginner is nigh impossible, and the 'Guide' mode is a very well thought-through solution.
Nikon D3000: Features
We've focussed a lot on the beginner friendly widgets on this camera but what about the other features?
The exposure system and autofocussing are as good as you'd expect from Nikon, and the camera's metering modes coped well with tough lighting conditions.
Obviously this camera isn't fast or robust enough to cope with pro sports photography, but it's fine for bagging great shots of the kids playing football, for instance.
AF is quick and smooth, though there's a really annoying lag when it comes to image playback. The power-saving modes are fiendish too so you'll need to adjust these to keep the camera ticking over.
So how much of a disadvantage is the lack of other features, such as HD video recording and Live View?
No Live View
While you can live without one or the other, having to do without both on a £500 camera is a bit of a disappointment, and we suspect Nikon will introduce them on the next iteration.
Being able to record HD is obviously a good thing, while Live View is very useful when it comes to taking candid shots or still life compositions, for instance.
Not having these extras is a pain; how much of a deterrent it will be to SLR novices weighing up their camera choices remains to be seen.
Nikon D3000: Image quality
Anyone who dismisses the D3000 as a dumbed-down newbie's camera will quickly be silenced by the quality of the shots.
Even when shooting in compressed JPEG mode, we were impressed by the camera's ability to work out the correct exposure in the dullest conditions, and the Matrix metering system is very smart indeed.
Shoot in RAW (NEF) mode and you get the full benefit of uncompressed shots; the level of clarity and detail that can be retrieved is very impressive for an entry-level camera.
This camera also impressive when it comes to ISO (light sensitivity). We shot right up to ISO 1600 without digital noise becoming a serious problem, and it's very well controlled at more sensible settings like ISO 400.
ISO 400:Up to ISO 400, noise is hardly noticeable at all – great if you want to avoid using the flash for low light shots or get a faster shutter speed.
Nikon and Canon's noise-reduction technology is pretty evenly matched, but we reckon the D3000 currently delivers a better high ISO performance than the Canon EOS 1000D.
ISO 1600:Even at bonkers ISO levels, such as 1600, you can still get passable shots – you have to zoom in a bit to see any noise at all here, which is impressive for a budget SLR
The other advantage of being able to shoot at higher ISOs without fear of noise is that it enables higher shutter speeds - this will be a revelation to people graduating from a noisy, sluggish compact camera.
It's probably just as well that the ISO performance is so impressive, as we found the built-in flash pretty weedy. But of course, this is a Nikon DSLR so you can add a range of flash guns.
Guide mode:Taken with 'Soft background' on Guide mode – blurring the background while keeping the subject sharp couldn't be easier. A great optical performance for the money
Auto White Balance is pretty good for a beginner's SLR though it does tend to produce an orange cast when shooting indoors at night. Again, not a major problem if you shoot in RAW, as White Balance can be tweaked post shoot.
LANDSCAPE: The Matrix metering system delivers consistently well exposed shots and the Active D-Lighting widget helps preserve detail in tricky lighting conditions
This being a Nikon, you can also use Active D-Lighting to improve performance in high contrast situations. We struggled to see a major difference with it on or off, and it's kind of irrelevant if you shoot RAW, but still, it's another handy tool in the beginner's arsenal.
LANDSCAPE:Landscape mode in GUIDE selects a narrower aperture for greater depth of field and nicely saturates the colours in your landscape
Autofocus is available with AF-S lenses but not AF, so make sure you get the right kind as the camera lacks built-in image stabilisation.
Nikon D3000: Verdict
If you've got a friend or relative who's outgrown their compact and looking for their first SLR, point them in the direction of the D3000.
The combination of beginner-friendly features and Nikon optical quality is hard to resist. Owning this camera for a couple of years will give anyone an excellent foundation in serious SLR photography.
Be warned though, more intermediate users will outgrow it pretty quickly, and soon rue the lack of decent video recording and Live View.
This is the best attempt so far to make a D-SLR truly beginner friendly.
While purists may dismiss the GUIDE mode as a time-wasting nanny or crutch, there's no doubt that it will really help beginners figure out the core creative controls, namely Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO and lighting, and so on
And once you graduate from the hand-holding GUIDE mode, there's the full range of PASM exposure modes to experiment with. We also like the impressive ISO performance, intelligent metering system and sturdy build quality. The kit lens is great value too.
The GUIDE mode doesn't always make it clear how to use the PASM dial yourself to achieve a particular effect, and the lack of Live View is a real drawback – more so than the lack of decent video recording, as it restricts how you can compose the shot. We also missed a dedicated ISO button and soon became impatient with the sluggish image preview on the rear LCD.
This is a great first SLR and a genuine pleasure to use. It's fast and intelligent, with a good quality kit lens, and comes with all the advantages of Nikon's optical heritage. The ISO performance is great for the money, and the clear LCD makes it easy to make adjustments as you go along.
If Nikon could see fit to throw in Live View or decent video recording (or both), we'd have the perfect first SLR. As it stands, though, it comes pretty close.