Compare Nikon D3200 vs D3100 vs D5100 – Best Beginner’s DSLR?

May 23, 2012

Nikon beginner's DSLR cameras

In this article I want to compare the Nikon D3100 vs D3200 vs D5100, among the three most popular entry-level cameras on the market today. Some of you are probably torn between those three cameras and I can really understand you.  Picking up a new DSLR camera takes time and quite a lot of reading and understanding of the differences. I hope that after reading this comparison review you will be able to choose a model that best fits your specific creative and professional  needs.

Let’s start by a short overview of each camera and continue discussing the differences after that.


Nikon D3200

Comes with extra features over the D3100, features that you might need.

Nikon D3200

Let’s start by saying that I am a proud Nikon D3100 camera owner (disclaimer). The D3100 is an amazing camera and one of the most popular DSLR camera in the market. The D3200 does not replace the D3100, but it’s actually a new model that sits between the D3100 and the D5100. It’s a more advanced camera that includes some features that beginners and enthusiast photographers might want or need to have. Some people say that When Nikon announced thee D3200, it actually wanted to “Kill” Canon’s EOS camera range.  I don’t if it’s true or not, but I do agree that Nikon really play smart here. After all, you can’t just produce one model that fits everyone, but indeed the D3200 have features that many people wanted on the D3100, but they couldn’t afford or didn’t want to invest more to get the D5100.

The Nikon D3200 is equipped with a 24.2-megapixels APS-C CMOS Sensor. Yeh, 24.2MP, that certainly a big leap over other cameras. Just in comparison, the D300s has 12.3MP, D7000 16.2MP, D3100 14.2MP and D5100 16.2MP. So Nikon have decided to come up with a very high resolution DSLR in the form of an entry-level camera. I was surprised to see it too, but hey, if the ISO performance is great, I really don’t care. In fact, it can be great to have more resolution especially if you like to edit your photos afterwards in image editing software (more details, cropping, etc.)

D3200 also features EXPEED 3 image processor, can shoot up to a native ISO 6400 and ISO 12800 with boost (Extended ISO Range). It comes with a 3-inch 921K-dot fixed LCD, can shoot up to 4 fps in burst mode, record 1080p /30, 24 fps videos and all of that in a relatively compact camera body (compare to other DSLR cameras in Nikon’s range).

Nikon D3200 is compatible with the WU-1a, a Wi-Fi module that can be attached to the camera and can help transferring images between your camera and your computer or cellphone. In comparison, if you want to use Wi-Fi with the other cameras, you will need to use an EyeFi card. I will talk about it more later on. Nikon also coupled the D3200 with a 3.5mm stereo jack which allows you to attach external stereo microphones and record videos with pure and crystal clear stereo sound. It’s great for those of you who are more serious about shooting videos.


Nikon D3100

The most basic entry-level Nikon DSLR camera, great for beginners who are moving from point-and-shoot, but not only.

Nikon D3100

AS I told you, I am a Nikon D3100 owner. My experience with this camera has been great. If you don’t need the extra features that the D3200 or the D5100 has to offer, many, including me, will recommend you to invest in the D3100 and use the spare budget to buy a higher quality lens, one with better optics and features.

The Nikon D3100 is the most entry-level DSLR camera in Nikon’s range. A great camera for beginners who are coming from shooting with point-and-shoot cameras, but also for those who want to advance their photography skills and want a great camera to start with. Many photography students buy this camera and upgrade to more advanced models afterwards. You first need to know the camera and learn how to shoot well before jumping to a more expensive model. Of course I am considering that you might have a tight budget for cameras + lenses.

The D3100 has a 41.2MP sensor, it’s equipped with EXPEED 2 processor (older generation processor), can shoot up to ISO 3200 and 12800 with boost. At its rear you can find a 3-inch 230K-dots Fixed LCD, which has a much lower resolution compared to the D5100 and D3200 (921K-dots). The camera can shoot up to 3 fps in continuous shooting mode, record Full HD 1080p videos at 24 fps, but lacks the 3.5mm mic jack for connecting external microphones.

The D3100 and also the D3200, both don’t support AE bracketing (AEB). AE bracketing means that the camera can capture the same image several times with different exposure settings, both an over-exposed image and an under-exposed image. Who needs it – people who need a high dynamic range output (HDR).  AEB wasn’t intended for HDR when this feature first introduced, but rather to make sure that you get at least one shoot with optimal exposure. It’s not a must-have feature for beginners, so I wouldn’t be basing my decision on that, but you should know what it is and understand if you really need this feature. I personally don’t need it, but it certainly can be useful for some of you.


Nikon D5100

An Upper entry-level DSLR, looks less attractive after the announcement of the D3200, but still added some extra features worth knowing about.

Nikon D5100

D5100 was announced in April 5, 2011 and it’s the oldest model in the group. Still it signifies an upper entry-level DSLR camera. And this model is probably the next to be replaced somewhere in the near future.  The D5100 is equipped with a 16.2MP sensor, EXPEED 2, ISO 100 – 6400 and 25600 with boost, has 3-inch 921K-dot articulated LCD,  4 fps burst, in-camera HDR (combines multiple exposures), AE bracketing, shoot Full HD at 24 and 30 fps.

The flip-out screen is great when shooting movies and it’s a feature that many new comers are looking when buying a new DSLR, especially videoraphers. Also add the 3.5mm mic jack that allows you to connect external mic, and you get a very good HDSLR camera for a relatively low price. The thing is that the D5100 sells for almost the same price of the new D3200. Certainly makes choosing a bit harder (or not, depends on what you actually search for in your new camera).

So Nikon kept some features that you find on this camera, out from the D3200. After all, the differences are quite minimal, but they can be significant for those who need it For example, if you really want a flip-out screen for shooting videos (and you probably would if you love shooting videos), no doubt that you will certainly consider getting the D5100 over the D3200 and D3100.


Side by Side Comparison Table

Now let’s take a look at a side by side comparison table that summarize the key feature’s differences:

[table "22" not found /]


High ISO Performance

Important if you love shooting photos in low light without flash, and also great for bumping up the shutter speed and still get optimal exposure.

The image quality is an important factor for choosing a DSLR. From one camera generation to the next, we can clearly see that the high ISO image quality improves. This mainly due to better noise-removal algorithms, faster imaging processors and newly designed CMOS sensors.

When I compared high ISO sample images on dpreview, I could clearly see that all cameras performs amazingly well at ISO 800 – 3200. At ISO 3200 we can see that the Nikon D3100 has less noise when compared to the D5100, but that’s mainly due to stronger NR (noise reduction) algorithms. So the D5100 maintains more details, but has a bit more noise overall. At ISO 3200 the Nikon D3200 falls behind the other two cameras, and that’s probably mainly due to its very high sensor resolution.

At ISO6400 we can clearly see noise in all areas of the image, but the D3200 certainly suffers more from that ISO bump. ISO12800 is certainly only for emergency when you don’t have any other option doe light up the scene and need the extra boost to come up with a photo (for the web and small prints after noise reduction it’s ok). ISO 25600 only on the D5100, well.. you know, crappy photos.

If I had to choose a winner of the three, I would probably give the crown to the D5100, D3100 second (just a tiny bit behind) and D3200 third. So the extra resolution on the D320 actually hurts it’s high ISO performance. Still all cameras performed amazingly well, it’s just that the D3200 couldn’t keep up against the other two above ISO1600.  Some people might prefer getting a camera with more megapixels, because they usually don’t shoot over ISO 1600. Some people use an external flash for many of their low-light shooting, other’s buy fast lenses or shoot in the studio. It’s all depends on your shooting habits. What’s nice is that you have a larger selection of cameras to choose from, that’s the positive side!


Cons and Pros

Nikon D3100 Pros:

  1. Cheaper than the other cameras
  2. Excellent high ISO performance
  3. Autofocus while shooting videos
  4. Very high video image quality /1080p @ 24 fps (Cinematic frame rate)


Nikon D3100 Cons:

  1. 230K- dots Lower resolution LCD screen
  2. No external mic jack for connecting external stereo microphones (for video)
  3. Older generation EXPEED 2 image processor (D3200 has EXPEED 3)
  4. 3 fps burst, others have 4 fps in continuous shooting (maybe not a cons but worth mentioning)
  5. Only 24 fps frame rate for video (others have 30, 25, 24)

Nikon D3200 Pros:

  1. 24.1MP Very high sensor resolution, lots of details (great for photo editing work)
  2. Utilizes the new EXPEED 3 image processor (the other cameras utilize EXPEED 2, older generation processor)
  3. External mic jack to connect external stereo microphone
  4. 920K dots high resolution LCD screen
  5. 4 fps in continuous shooting (highest in the group together with the D5100)
  6. Can shoot HD videos (720) at 60 fps (smoother videos)
  7. High variety of video frame rates at 1080p
  8. Compatible with WU-1a Wi-Fi module (others only with EyeFi)


Nikon D3200 Cons:

  1. Image quality at high ISO falls short compared to the D3100 and D5100 (mainly due to the large amount of pixels, pixel density considering the same sensor size)
  2. Screen is fixed, not flip-out as the D5100


Nikon D5100 Pros:

  1. Best high ISO performance in the group (D3100 just a tiny bit behind, not a huge difference)
  2. External mic jack to connect external stereo microphone
  3. Flip-out / articulating display (great when shooting movies)
  4. ISO up to 25600 with boost, highest in the group (others up to 12800)
  5. 4 fps in continuous shooting (highest in the group together with D3200)
  6. High variety of video frame rates at 1080p
  7. Longer battery life (660 shots) than the other cameras (D3200 = 540, D3100 – 550)


Nikon D5100 Cons:

  1. Already start to get a bit old, replacement soon? (Nikon D5200)
  2. Older generation EXPEED 2 image processor (D3200 has the EXPEED 3)


Making a Decision.

As you can see,  every one of those cameras has its cons and pros. No doubt that Nikon has carefully crated the D3200 to add some value as it doesn’t replace any other camera, but sits between the D3100 and the D5100. The D5100 has its advantages like 3.5mm mic jack, articulated screen and excellent high ISO performance, For video shooting this is probably a better choice. However, it’s getting old and replacement is probably not far away.  Of course we can’t wait forever, an you shouldn’t. If the D5100 is out of your reach, the D3100 and the D3200 are excellent cameras as well. The D3200 enjoys a very high resolution, 3.5mm jack for external mics, new image processor and 920K-dots LCD.

The D3100 is the most basic camera, but again, it is one hack of a camera. I have the D3100 and I enjoy every minute of it. Yes, it has a lower res LCD, but it doesn’t bother me at all. Video quality is amazing and image quality at high ISO is a bliss. It can only shoot 108p24, you cannot connect external stereo mic but it’s cheaper than the other two cameras. If you are just starting out, I highly recommend getting the D3100. Just ask yourself if their is any feature on the other cameras that you really need and you can’t find it in cheaper models. See, it’s not so hard to choose between those three.

The last tip I can give you is that when you buy a cheaper camera, you can pay what’s left from your budget to purchase better lenses, and that will certainly will contribute more to image quality. Most of the sample images that you see on lab test review’s websites are taken using 50mm f1.4 lenses or other high quality prime lenses. To get a sharp and high contrast image, you probably want to invest in a better lens. Some lenses are good, others are better. I can tell you from experience that even if you buy the 18-55mm from Nikon, you get a very very sharp lens.  But choosing a lens is for another discussion. All I can tell you is that for beginners, I recommend getting the 18-55mm Kit (whether the VR or not). VR is an image stabilization mechanism built in the lens, it’s usually very important for telephoto lenses, less importanat for 18-55mm lens, but if you can afford it, get it as a Kit lens.

Click here to view D5100, D3100, D3200 size comparison (on website).


Amazon Ads