by Brad Nelson 5/1/16
This will be a synopsis “trust me” review. There are many good reviews of the D3300 on the web (which generally put it at the top of the list for starter DSLRs) and I suggest you search some of them out before spending hundreds of dollars on a camera. In my review, I’m not going to go into every geek detail except the ones that I think are relevant for a rich overview. This saves me time and you time.
The Nikon D3300 is a DSLR (digital SLR…”single lens reflex”) camera. This brand of camera offers better and/or interchangeable lenses, a better viewfinder system, and sometimes more control and/or picture quality. “It depends,” because many of the compact point-and-shoots take tremendously nice photos and offer a lot of creative control with the same choices of settings that you’ll find on the more expensive cameras (aperture and shutter priority modes, for instance). You can actually spend more on a top-of-the-line compact camera than a DSLR, even though the DSLR is technically the better category.
The Nikon D3300 is a “compact DSLR.” That is, there are larger, more monsterous versions of the DSLR type, mainly meant for professionals. In some ways, you get the best of both worlds with the D3300. With its “kit” (that is, “stock”) 18-55mm zoom lens, battery (great battery life, by the way), and memory card, it weighs only 1 lb. 8 oz. And this lens is very good. Typically lenses included with the camera are junk. This one is not. You even get a bit of macro ability. It will focus very close.
The reason I bought the D3300 and moved up to the DSLR type is that it was painfully difficult to manage the focusing of my existing Canon compact camera. These compact cameras are meant to be point-and-shoot cameras, as much as they try to sell themselves as a device for “creative control.” Well, the first and most basic level of control is getting your subject in focus. And at least on the Canon A570 that I have, it’s hit and miss. The ability to manually focus (or make use of the auto-focus) is much improved on a DSLR camera.
Still, there is no magic to it and automated cameras, no matter how many magical focus-points they have built into its system, will often auto-focus on things in the background or in the foreground…that is, on things other than your main subject. There is a huge amount of artificial intelligent built into cameras now — whether a compact or DSLR model — but it’s still hit or miss. One reason you can pay $3000.00 or more for a top-of-the-line DSLR is because they have more focus points which, working together, do a better job of automatically guessing at what should be in focus and then keeping it in focus if the subject moves. If you’re a photojournalist, for example, you can see why someone would pay extra for that. News events don’t typically stop and re-stage themselves just so that the journalist can fix the focus.
The D3300 has a moderate amount of focus points. It makes good, but not perfect, guesses as compared to more expensive DSLR models (whether Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Sony, Olympus, or whomever). My need for the D3300 was twofold: control of focus (because of doing a lot of studio product shots) and quality of the image sensor. The auto-focus is superb and easily customizable (by going to single-point focus mode, for example, where you can tell the camera exactly what to focus on…a benefit indeed in itself, but also for those whose eyes aren’t getting any younger).
The secret of the D3300 is that this 24 megapixel camera (no small thing unto itself…that’s a huge number of pixels to work with) has one of the best image sensors that money can buy. You can buy a more expensive camera (Nikon or otherwise), but you’ll be hard-pressed to buy a better image sensor. What the more expensive DSLR cameras typically give you are more dedicated buttons for changing basic things such as your ISO setting so that you’re not digging down into menus to do so. That’s important for various forms of photojournalism, including just taking wedding photos.
And the D3300 does have some dedicated buttons for some of the features. But I actually find it handier to go right to the menus for some of the settings. Whatever works for you. Just be careful about paying extra for “pro” features when you might not need them. But, of course, if you’re a wedding photographer it might help to impress your clients if you bobble an expensive camera on your shoulder.
There are other categories of camera that you might consider other than either a DSLR or simple compact. There is a category of compact cameras that have interchangeable lenses. Frankly, I wouldn’t purchase a DSLR for a travel camera. The compact ones take great photos and are, of course, compact. You don’t have that big lens sticking out. And some of the compacts are small enough to fit in your pocket. Do not get a DSRL to look like a pro or to try to impress your friends. If you want to both take great pictures and impress your friends, try the Fuji X100T.
But if you need what a DSLR can offer you — mainly control and quality of photo — then by all means, take a look at the category and especially at the Nikon D3300. The advantages of the D3300 are the price (about $396.00 at Amazon), the quality of the lens that is bundled with it (18-55 zoom, reviewed here), and the quality of its built-in image sensor.
I find this last feature very important. The image sensor of the Nikon D3300 has 24 megapixels which gives you some flexibility in terms of the size that you will print the photo and how much you can crop it. The sensor also has lower noise which means you can take better looking pictures in darker conditions and/or set faster shutter speeds when you need them (or smaller apertures for a larger depth-of-field).
A lot of cameras have ISO’s (the sensitivity of the sensor) that go fairly high but produce junk. The lowest ISO (best quality) of the D3300 is 100. But you can shoot perfectly good quality photos on settings all the way up to 1600, and 3200 is perfectly acceptable. I was shooting some shots of the stars last night (photo 1, photo 2) using an ISO of 12,800 and they turned out great, although without some kind of tracking device, sky objects will noticeably blur with exposures greater than 20 seconds (using a wide angle lens…times are even shorter for longer telephoto lenses).
The good news about the Nikon D3300 is that it isn’t the camera that is going to get in the way of a great shot. You can pay more for better hardware controls on the body, but this really is an amazing price on a piece of technology that is cutting edge in a lot of ways. The downside is that it is not weatherproof, the viewfinder could be a little brighter (use a pentaprism instead of a pentamirror), and have wifi and gps capabilities built in, as many compact point-and-shoot cameras do. Plus, a more expensive DSLR will give you more built-in focus points for smarter (in theory) auto-focus.
But that’s about all of the downside. I find Nikon’s menuing system reasonably easy to navigate. The camera is small, but fits comfortably in my hands. Those with really large hands may prefer a larger camera. And the D3300 will take HD-quality videos. You may use an external mic as well. And unlike some competing cameras, you get autofocus during the video (which is why you might want the external mic so that you don’t pick up the sounds of the lens autofocusing). And if you need to shoot action shots, the 5 frames-per-second burst shutter mode is definitely a “pro” feature. It was also, of course, take RAW files allowing you the maximum amount of flexibility regarding getting a great image out of the Nikon’s digital image sensor.
The D3300 accepts the latest and greatest memory cards. But it’s not completely backward compatible in terms of legacy lenses. These new “DX” style of cameras have the image stabilization mechanism built into the lens (which is a great feature to have and is available on various categories of cameras). Other cameras (or more expensive Nikons) have the image stabilization system build into the body of the camera so that even “non-IS” lenses gain the benefit.
This is a non-issue for me since Nikon is producing some amazing and relatively inexpensive lenses for their DX cameras. And many older Nikon lenses will work although you may need to manually focus them (not an issue for in-studio product shots, landscapes, or other such work).
Before buying, be sure to check out the Pentax K-S2 which a friend of mine swears by. He thinks I’m an idiot for buying the Nikon. Brand loyalty, and all that. But the Pentax really is a superb camera as well. Also check out the Canon line.
But if you want to move past what even a good compact camera can give you, then check out the Nikon D3300. It produces stunningly good photographs, gives you all the creative control you need, and has some neat bells and whistle as well including one of the best panorama modes on any camera.
Here are some shots I took with the Nikon D3300…mostly with the new (refurbished) 55-200mm zoom lens I acquired a couple weeks ago.
Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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