We would all love to produce consistent professional-quality images, but doesn't that require the appropriate, and very expensive, gear? Not at all, says Tim Coleman, as he explains why Canon's EOS 1100D and Nikon's D3100 entry-level DSLRs could save you thousands of pounds
For the purposes of this test I have used professional-grade lenses instead of the standard kit lenses. With the Nikon D3100, I used the 17-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor and AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G lenses. Paired with the Canon EOS 1100D are the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM and EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM lenses. To really put the cameras to the test, I took them to the opening of a new restaurant for some documentary, portrait and food photography, and also to the Lake District for some classic landscape opportunities.
An APS-C-size imaging sensor is capable of rendering an impressive level of detail. The D3100’s output equates to an image size of 15.36×10.24in at 300ppi, while the 1100D’s is 14.24×9.49in. Both cameras are capable of producing fine-quality prints up to A2 size before a noticeable degradation in print quality.
General responsiveness and speed are areas where users are most likely to notice a difference between an entry-level camera and some of the more expensive models. The 1100D and D3100 produce speeds of 3fps, which is fairly slow considering the entry-level Pentax K-r gives 6fps. Enthusiast models, such as the EOS 7D, boast speeds of up to 8fps.
The 1100D and D3100 demonstrate their own characteristics for colour rendition, but neither is better than the other so it is a matter of taste. White balance is consistent throughout each manufacturer’s range, so one can expect the 1100D to show similar characteristics to the EOS 7D, and the D3100 to the D7000, for example.
According to DxO Mark (www.dxomark.com), the difference in the dynamic range between the 1100D and D3100 is marginal, at 11EV and 11.3EV respectively. All of Canon’s APS-C-format DSLRs score under 12EV, so there is little difference across the range. Nikon bodies have a slightly better dynamic range, often between 12EV and 13EV, and the D7000 has an impressive 13.9EV. This means the D7000 is able to capture 2.5EV extra contrast than the D3100. For high-contrast scenes, the D3100’s DRO does a good job of filling in the lost details in highlight and shadow areas. In fact, it is probably best to leave it on, unless high-contrast images are preferred. It can also be added to an image post-capture. Nikon’s DRO is a little more consistent than Canon’s ALO over a variety of scenes.
Autofocus is one of the key areas that define differences between these entry-level DSLRs and the more advanced models. That said, AF systems are aided by the fast AF motors in ‘pro’ lenses. Nikon has included its responsive Multi-CAM 1000 11-point AF system in the D3100, with a cross-point sensor in the centre. This matches the D5100, which is the next model up in the range.
Furthermore, it includes tracking AF, which cannot be found on the 1100D’s nine-point AF system, with a cross-type sensor in the centre. Higher end models offer more focus points and a greater number of cross-type sensors, to allow faster and more accurate focusing. In practice, only trickier low-contrast light scenes and high-action scenes confuse and slow down these simpler AF systems. Action photographers will find this compromises the versatility and responsiveness they desire.
However, if the subject is well lit and a little more static, such as in portrait, landscape, macro and documentary photography, then the systems in both the 1100D and D3100 are more than adequate. AF in live view is much slower generally, but the D3100’s is much quicker than that of the 1100D.
There is little to choose between the metering systems of these cameras and, in fact, other models higher up the range. Canon’s DSLRs up to the EOS 7D use its iFCL 63-zone metering. Nikon’s D3100 has a 420-zone metering, which can also be found on the next model up. The D7000 features a 2,016-zone metering system, which is the highest of any camera at any level. However, the benefits seem limited over this standard 420-zone system.
The performance of cameras in low light has come a long way in recent years. With regard to noise levels, when compared to older but higher specification models, such as the Canon EOS 500D and Nikon D300S, the 1100D and D3100 both perform admirably. However, those who shoot regularly at higher sensitivities will see the benefits if they buy one of the current crop of more expensive models that perform better still.
With the premium lenses fitted to the 1100D and D3100, images were much improved from those possible with the standard kit lenses.
Details appear pin sharp with good depth of field control and lifelike colours. Although there is a two-million-pixel difference between the resolutions of the 1100D and D3100, this only equates to a small difference in size when outputted at 300ppi and is indistinguishable with prints up to A3 in size.
In fact, until you enlarge images from these cameras beyond A2 in size it would be difficult to tell them apart from those taken on more expensive camera bodies, under decent lighting.
Image: Sample image taken with the Nikon D3100. Low-light photography benefits from fast optics, and both cameras provide compatibility with a number of such lenses.
The distinction becomes clearer when shooting at higher ISO, as typically higher end cameras show less noise, and although the D3100 does extend up to ISO 12,800 in Hi settings, at ISO 6400 noise becomes evident, as it does on the 1100D. True ‘professional’ bodies use physically larger ‘full-frame’ sensors to allow larger photosites, shallower depth of field potential and a wider angle of view from the lenses.
Image: Sample image taken with the Canon EOS 1100D. The Canon 17-55mm lens has a good focal range and a constant fast aperture of f/2.8. When used with the Canon EOS 1100D, this lens is great for portraits and event photography.
For composition and reviewing, both the 1100D and D3100 feature relatively small viewfinders (0.8x magnification) with a limited 95% coverage from each. The rear LCD screens, although not particularly small, are of a much lower resolution than on higher end models, making critical review of focusing more problematic.