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
Build and handling
Entry-level camera bodies are usually made of less expensive materials than the bodies of enthusiast-level cameras.
In this instance, the Canon EOS 1100D and Nikon D3100 are made of polycarbonate rather than the tougher and costlier magnesium alloy of enthusiast-level DSLRs.
However, both cameras are solid and have the advantage of being a good 50% lighter and 20% smaller than the magnesium-alloy-bodied models. The D3100 is slightly smaller than its predecessor, the D3000, and the 1100D, but they weigh virtually the same when a battery is inserted. The 1100D is bigger than its forerunner, the 1000D, and the EOS 600D.
Image: Nikon D3100 sample image. Both cameras are lightweight, which makes them a good option for a long day out shooting landscapes
Image: Canon EOS 1100D sample image. Both cameras are lightweight, which makes them a good option for a long day out shooting landscapes.
With its rubberised handgrips and textured body, photographers used to a more professional body will feel at home with the D3100. The 1100D has a smooth finish all over, and consequently feels a little ‘cheaper’ in the hand, despite its identical price tag.
Although targeted at photographers of the same level, there is a clear difference between the way the buttons are laid out on the two cameras. For example, the D3100 has small buttons that protrude from the body, while the 1100D’s larger buttons are flush with the body and have distinct white labels. However, both sets of buttons are easily operated.
Unlike the 1100D, the D3100 does not have direct access to ISO or white balance, which is something professional photographers would find frustrating. One of these options can be assigned to the function (Fn) button on the front of the body, although this is a less intuitive method of control. Otherwise, these controls are accessed on the LCD screen via the ‘i’ button, which means taking your eye away from the viewfinder. What is unique to the D3100 compared to other cameras at this level is the drive mode lever, next to the shooting mode dial. This is handy for quick access to continuous and self-timer modes.
Users familiar with Canon or Nikon systems will immediately notice that the menus of the 1100D and D3100 have the same formats as those of their senior counterparts, and new users should not take long to get to grips with what is on offer. These models are geared for the beginner and encourage auto functions, leaving the in-camera menu less populated.
Nikon’s D3100 has a handy guide mode section. While experienced photographers may not need to use this, beginners will find it useful to understand the basics of photography. It is very interactive, using handy visual prompts, and should encourage the new photographer to develop these skills to a professional level of understanding.
Canon’s guide takes the form of one-line descriptions in each setting, which is helpful, too, but much more reminiscent of a compact camera, explaining the various modes. Of the two, the D3100’s guide system is better and also offers visual guidance in the shooting menu, with a diagram to show the effect of changing the aperture on the lens.
There is a lot to be said for setting up your camera to get the best results. Most entry-level cameras will be set up for print-ready images, which can mean they overexpose by at least 1/3EV to give brighter images at the risk of blown-out highlights. Both the 1100D and D3100 offer exposure compensation of up to ±5EV in 1/3EV steps should you need to make any adjustments to the exposures. Nikon’s dynamic range optimiser (DRO) and Canon’s auto lighting optimiser (ALO) are available and fill in a bit of detail to shadow and highlight areas.
Being able to shoot in an uncompressed raw format is essential at a professional level, to allow for the most control over post-capture exposure adjustments. Simultaneous raw and JPEG capture is possible in each camera for the best of both worlds.
For those who frequently use tripods, the position of the memory-card slot and the battery in the bottom of the body of the 1100D may occasionally prove to be an irritation. This is because changing a memory card may require removing the camera from the tripod, depending on the size of the quick-release plate and the design of the tripod.
When shooting with the two models, I found that each camera has unique benefits over the other. For instance, the EOS 1100D can bracket for white balance and exposure. Furthermore, it offers depth of field preview and a histogram in live view, both of which are missing from the Nikon D3100. What the D3100 does offer, though, is quick and intuitive access to drive modes through the switch, while a quiet mode enables more discreet shooting. The exposure compensation control is also well placed next to the shutter-release button switch. What compensates for the D3100’s lack of raw editing software, to a degree, is a much greater scope for in-camera raw file conversion and manipulation, with output size, compression, white balance, exposure comp, picture control, noise reduction, colour space and D-lighting all available for correction after shooting.
The D3100’s built-in flash is more powerful, with a GN of 13m @ ISO 100 (with manual setting) and matches other cameras in the Nikon DSLR range, while the EOS’s 1100D’s GN of 9.2m @ ISO 100 falls a little short. Most ‘pro’ cameras don’t feature pop-up flash because many users will instead opt for an external flashgun and these are considered weak points. Both cameras support wireless flash, but don’t feature wireless controllers. In contrast, both Canon’s EOS 7D and Nikon’s D7000 offer fantastic wireless flash control, which is an advantage over entry-level models.