Nikon D3200 vs D3100 vs D5100

August 4, 2012

Nikon dslr cameras for beginners
So you’ve came to a conclusion that you want to buy a Nikon DSRL. You are a beginner and want to know which is the best DSLR camera for beginners, the Nikon D3100, D3200 or the D5100? – In this short buying guide I will try to help you out. Choosing a new DSLR can be very confusing, especially if this is your first DSLR camera. The selection is big and reading more and more user’s opinions will only get you more confused.

What Do You Need in a DSLR Camera?

The first thing you should ask yourself is what features do you need in your DSLR camera. There are several features that most people looks at and base their decision based on those features:

  1. Camera size and weight (aka Ergonomics)
  2. Sensor size and Resolution (also Focal length, High ISO performance, Bokeh)
  3. Back LCD size and features (ie. articulating vs fixed)
  4. Viewfinder size and specifications
  5. Video Recording capabilities
  6. Lens selection**
  7. Compatible accessories (ie. vertical battery grip)**
  8. Battery Life
  9. Flash connectivity
  10. Continuous shooting speed
  11. Autofocus performance
  12. Metering Sensor
  13. Price

**  (not relevant to this comparison, because all are Nikon APS-C size DSLR cameras)

This is a small part, but it includes very important features that people look at before deciding which camera to purchase.  Although right now you might not be familiar or understand what every feature means, I will give you a short description about each one so you can better understand what each one means

Camera Ergonomics

A large camera can serve you better when you mount heavy lenses on it. It will stabilize the lens weight better, allowing you to hold the camera steady. People with large hand also prefer larger camera because it just feels better in the hands. When you mount heavy lenses, flash and other accessories, you soon find out the advantages of having a large size DSLR camera.

Nikon D3100 vs D3200 vs D5100

Nikon D3100, D3200, D5100 size copmarison (via; click to enlarge

Nikon D3100 – 124 x 96 x 75 mm / 505 g
Nikon D3200 – 125 x 96 x 77 mm / 505 g
Nikon D5100 – 128 x 97 x 79 mm / 560 g

The difference in size is very small, so I don’t think that somebody has to base its buying decision based on the size, they are virtually the same size – D3100 being the smallest. The D5100 weights 60g more than the D3100 and the D3200. Again, not a big difference.Using a specific lens will have large implication on the total weight of the camera. Remember, this is a DSLR camera, you will need to attach a lens to it.

check out the size comparison on compact camera comparison on


Sensor Size and Resolution

The sensor size have direct implications on image quality. In general, larger sensor means large pixels, which means better low light sensitivity and better image quality.  All Nikon entry-level DSLR cameras use a APS-C size sensor. This sensor is smaller than full frame (35mm), but larger than Micro Four Thirds sensor, used in Panasonic and Olympus Micro Four Thirds Compact System Cameras. This sensor size is also much larger than any sensor in point and shoot cameras. This is one of the main reasons why people buy a DSLR in the first place.

Of course you don’t have to buy a DSLR to enjoy a large sensor.  Today we have Compact System Cameras and even compact cameras with fixed lenses that use large sensors (aka large-sensor cameras). For example, Sony NEX mirrorless cameras use APS-C sensors. Canon EOS M Compact System Camera uses an APS-C size sensor, approx. the same size as the D3100, D5100 and D3200.

image sensor size comparison diagram

Olympus OM-D E-M5 (Micro Four thirds) vs Canon EOS-M (APS-C) vs Nikon D3200 (APS-C) vs Canon EOS 5D Mark II (Full Frame) - via

The image above illustrates sensor size differences (click the image to enlarge it). You can see that the Canon EOS 5D Mark II sensor is much larger than the Nikon D3200 sensor (APS-C). The Canon EOS-M (APS-C) is a tiny bit smaller, but almost the same size as the D3200 sensor. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 Micro Four Thirds sensor is smaller than APS-C, but not by a large margin.

Another important thing to consider is the sensor’s resolution. The Nikon D3200 has a 24.2MP (Effective resolution). This is much higher resolution than the D3100 and the D5100. Higher resolution will give you more cropping freedom and will also be able to provide you with more image details (depends also on the lens). Considering the same sensor size (approx.), more megapixels doesn’t necessarily a good thing. With more pixels on the same sensor size, pixels are smaller, which leads to less light sensitivity, and can reduce high ISO performance and that might mean more noise in higher ISO levels.

According to DXO the Nikon D5100 has the highest high ISO performance, followed by D3200 and last D3100.  The difference between the D5100 and the D3200 is not as the difference between the D3200 and the D3100. So in general, we can see that the D3200 might provide you with better high ISO performance than the D3100. I went to dpreview check the high ISO performance of both D3100 and D3200. I’ve found out that the D3100 high ISO images looks cleaner. However, considering the high Megapixel resolution of the D3200, this is quite a great achievement.  This is also just noticeable in ISO 1600 and above. Below that (<ISO800), I couldn’t tell the difference.

The Nikon D5100 high ISO performance is indeed better than the D3100 and the D3200. It’s noticeable only ins ISO3200 and above, but again, the difference is not big.

Bokeh on all the three should be the same considering the same lens used.  So this shouldn’t be a factor choosing between the three.

Nikon D3100 – 23.1 x 15.4 mm / 14.2MP / APS-C CMOS Sensor / 2nd High ISO Performance
Nikon D3200 – 23.2 x 15.4 mm / 24.2MP / APS-C CMOS Sensor / 3rd High ISO Performance
Nikon D5100 – 23.6 x 15.7 mm / 16.2MP / APS-C CMOS Sensor /1st High ISO Performance

I’ve colored lowest resolution in red, but in this case it doesn’t mean a bad thing.  So think about if you need that very high resolution of the D3200. I personally don’t, but it doesn’t hurt either, at least not that bad when you consider the high ISO performance.


Back LCD Size and Features

The back LCD is very important for many reasons: checking sharpness and focus after taking the photo, for shooting videos or using Live View, changing camera settings and composing your shot when you don’t want to use the OVF (optical viewfinder).  Here we have a big difference between the cameras. Both the D3100 and the D3200 have a 3-inch fixed LCD, the D5100 have a fully articulated LCD. This is great for shooting in high and low angles, and especially useful when shooting videos.

Nikon d3100, d3200, d5100 back view side by side

Nikon D3100, D3200 (center), D5100 - rear view (click to enlarge)

Although the D5100, D3100 and the D3200 have a 3-inch LCD. the D3100 LCD has the lowest resolution (230K-dots) of the three. D3200 and D5100 have a very high-res display, which is great for readability, clarity and better viewing experience of photos and videos. This certainly give the edge to the D3200 over the D3100. However, if you are into video shooting, I highly recommend checking the D5100 out. The articulating LCD is certainly a useful feature. I had it on my Canon EOS 60D, and I found it very useful when shooting videos, even when shooting stills.

Nikon D3100 – 3-inch / Fixed / 230K-dots / Not touch screen
Nikon D3200 – 3-inch / Fixed / 920K-dots / Not touch screen
Nikon D5100 – 3-inch / Fully Articulated / 920K-dots / Not touch screen


Viewfinder Size and Specifications

There isn’t a big difference between the OVF on all three cameras. The D5100 has a slightly smaller viewfinder and all offer 95% coverage.

Nikon D3100 – Coverage: 95% / Magnification: 0.8x
Nikon D3200 – Coverage: 95% / Magnification: 0.8x
Nikon D5100 –Coverage: 95% / Magnification: 0.78x

Would I base my buying decision on that small difference, most probably not.



Video Recording Capabilities

We love shooting videos aren’t we.  The Nikon D3100, D3200 and D5100 all can shoot full HD and HD videos, but there is a difference in the framerate. Also video image quality is changed a bit from one generation to the other, mostly because newer generation DSLR utilize a new generation image processor. The D3200 utilizes a EXPEED 3 image processor, while the D3100 and D5100 utilize an EXPEED 2 image processor (older).  Also remember that the D3100 was announced on Aug 9, 2010; D3200 on April 9, 2012 and D5100 on April 5, 2011.
Nikon D3100

Sound: Built-in monaural microphone
File Format: MOV
Maximum Recording time: 10 min.
Frame size and frame rate: 1080p24 ~ 720p30/24 ~ 424p24
Can attach external mic: No
AF in Video: No (manual focus)


Nikon D3200

Sound: Built-in monaural microphone
File Format: MOV
Maximum Recording time: 20 min.
Frame size and frame rate: 1080p30/25/24 ~ 720p60/50 ~ 424p30/25
Can attach external mic: Yes (Stereo mini-pin jack 3.5-mm diameter)
Can adjust audio level: Yes
AF in Video: Yes, full-time AF during video


Nikon D5100

Sound: Built-in monaural microphone
File Format: MOV
Maximum Recording time: 20 min.
Frame size and frame rate: 1080p30/25/24 ~ 720p60/50 ~ 424p30/25
Can attach external mic: Yes (Stereo mini-pin jack 3.5-mm diameter)
Can adjust audio level: Yes (sensitivity adjustable, 3 levels)
AF in Video: Yes, full-time AF during video


Here we can probably see one of the big difference between the D3100 and the other two models. The D3100 has less frame rate shooting options, can shoot shorter clips, doesn’t have the option to attach external stereo mic, no audio adjustment levels and no AF during video. All in all the D3200 and the D5100 are much better for videographer and anyone who love exploring the video world. Don’t forget that the D5100 also have an articulating display, what makes it the most flexible HDSLR of the three.


Battery Life

Battery life is certainly an important feature. We won’t to shoot more without worrying about our battery dying on us.

Nikon D3100 – 550 shots (CIPA)
Nikon D3200 – 540 shots (CIPA)
Nikon D5100 – 660 shots (CIPA)

The difference between the D3100 and D3200 is small, but we can see that the D5100 offers better battery life than the other two. Is it a deal breaker, not at all. However, know that more advanced DSLR cameras have much better battery life.  Of course you can always but extra battery just in case.


Continuous Shooting Speed

Continuous Shooting speed is the number of shots per second that the camera can take in burst mode.  I just want to add that the number itself doesn’t tell the whole story. You also need to check the buffer capacity and how fast it empties the data. The larger the buffer and faster the data transfer, the longer the more sequence shot you can take in max. fps speed. The speed also depends on whether you shoot raw of JPEG. The below numbers are for JPEG.

Nikon D3100 – 3 fps
Nikon D3200 – 4 fps
Nikon D5100 – 4fps
All those cameras don’t do super job in the burst category. Sports photographers will certainly want to take a look at more advanced cameras that can shoot at min. 6 fps. Some of you might not need that speed, others might. It really depends on your type of shooting habits. I don’t need more than 3 fps, and the Nikon D3100 have enough speed for my specific needs.


AF Performance

AF speed is something that can be measured, but I it’s hard to find any reliable information on the web that will be very accurate and give us the option to understand the differences.  The AF performance also depends on the lens attached. What we do know is that all three cameras have 11 AF points.

Nikon D3100 – Multi-CAM 1000 AF sensor / 11 AF points (one cross-type) / AF-assist illuminator
Nikon D3200 – Multi-CAM 1000 AF sensor / 11 AF points (one cross-type) / AF-assist illuminator
Nikon D5100 – Multi-CAM 1000 AF sensor / 11 AF points (one cross-type) / AF-assist illuminator

All cameras utilize the same AF sensor.  The 11 point AF is very accurate and offer eexcellent subject-acquisition and focusing performance.


Metering Sensor

All three cameras utilize the same light metering sensor.More advanced camera utilize more pixels and might provide the camera with more accurate data, so the camera can take that data and make Intelligent choices on which parameters to use (ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed) when shooting in semi-auto or full auto mode.

Nikon D3100 – 420-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering II
Nikon D3200 – 420-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering II
Nikon D5100 – 420-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering II

In every new generation, we can see improvement of the metering system. This includes new algorithms that takes that data of the metering system and cross it against an internal database that will make a smart decision on how to render the image (JPEG).  So there might be a slight differences in favor of newer models (ie. D3200). However that’s not a scientific evidence, so take that into consideration.



As for the time of writing this article, the Nikon D3100 is the cheapest of the three, followed but the D5100 and the D3200 as the most expensive one.   I brought you, what I think. is a valuable information regarding those three cameras, so you can make a smarter buying decision. It will do wrong if I will recommend any camera over the other. There are quite a lot of differences between those three cameras. One camera might fit to one person and not the other. You should read this article through carefully and notice the differences. I own the D3100 and I’m a very happy customer. For beginners, I see no reason why going for something more than the D3100, unless you need the high-res articulating screen, more flexible video shooting frame rates, 3.5mm mic jack and faster burst.

Again, I leave you to make your own choice. I am sure that every one of those cameras will serve you well for many years. As an enthusiast Nikon camera owner, you have made smart choice choosing between one of the three. I hope that you will choose smartly and choose the right camera for your specific needs.

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