Monday, August 4, 2014

Nikon D3300 Review: Comparsion with D3200

Left: Nikon D3200    Right: D3300

Though mirrorless cameras are ostensibly the way forward for the future of the camera market, there are still good reasons to have a DSLR. DSLR's are faster, have longer battery life and for the same price, have better autofocus performance than their mirrorless competitors. A huge advantage for the North American DSLR market is that it constitutes the large bulk of the interchangable lens sector, meaning that Canon and Nikon have economies of scale to keep costs down. Indeed, one of the biggest hindrances of the mirrorless segment is that you almost always have to pay more money for the equivalent image quality and performance of an entry-level DSLR.

Though the Nikon D3300 and its predecessor D3200 are often looked down upon by owners of upmarket cameras, Nikon has been successful with luring in new-DSLR owners with cameras like this ever since the D40. The one disadvantage, though, is that for new camera owners, anything larger than a cell phone is "big" even though cameras like the D3300 and the Canon SL1 are positively lilliputian by DSLR standards. This is perhaps the single biggest threat to entry-level DSLR's, as it takes a bit of educating on the part of Nikon and Canon to dissuade consumers from looking for something smaller.

Nikon has taken a subtle approach and has tackled the problem in a less overt way than Canon's SL1. The SL1 is possibly too small to have broad appeal. The D3300 takes a different approach. Rather than shrinking the body at all costs, it does various nips and tucks that don't immediately jump out at you, but add up to an improved shooting experience. Even though they look similar, the D3300 feels substantially smaller and lighter in your hand than the D3200.

 Body and Design

The Nikon D3300 (like the D5300) uses carbon fiber composite shell for its chassis. There are two benefits to this. The first is the weight savings over the traditional fiberglass/polycarbonate composites, but the second is that the rigidity of the carbon material allows for a simpler internal structure. Put simply, this means that there is less material devoted to the structure of the camera, allowing for internal components to be packed more efficiently.  Externally, the body shell is smaller than the D3200; it's 3mm narrower and 5mm less thick front to back. On a web page, all Nikon cameras tend to look similar; however there are physical tactile differences when you hold them in your hand. Combined with the new retractable 18-55mm kit lens, this difference does manifest between the D3300 and the D3200 despite being almost the same camera.

However, as demonstrated by the Canon SL1, smaller and lighter is not always better. Though the Canon SL1 is smaller still, its kit lens is long and the grip sacrifices holding comfort for smallness. To address this, the D3300 has a re-profiled grip with a larger rubber pad on which to rest your right thumb. Yes, the Canon is smaller, but it it isn't smaller in a meaningful way, as the storage requirements are still the same and you will still need a similarly-sized camera bag. The majority of people who try both the D3200 and the D3300 back to back will prefer the way the newer camera sits in the hand. The downside to the new design is that the control dial requires a minor extra bit of reach from the resting position on the thumb rest.

The new lens photographs better in promotional materials than the old one. This doesn't matter to actual photographic usage, but entry-level Nikon's could be said to have a downmarket appearance because of the fat-barrel/tiny class appearance of the old kit lenses. The new lens looks more proportionate when it is retracted, though the actual length is similar once the extended for use.

Deploying the lens is just as it is on the Nikon 1 series cameras. The camera body will detect when the lens isn't deployed and will flash a reminder message for you to do so before shooting. In any case, you'll notice when the lens isn't deployed because of the blurred image in the viewfinder.

Overall, there's a familiarity with the D3300 if you've used previous Nikons. Like the D3200, the D3300 comes with a pictogram guide-mode for people new to photography. A glaring omission is the lack of built in Wi-Fi connectivity. You can add it with the WU-1a adapter, but this isn't going to win Nikon sales since its a mainstream staple in the mirrorless world. The D3300 is also lacking in terms of touch-screen controls. In actual operation, the lack of these two features does not meaningfully diminish the operation of the camera; the problem is that the lack of these two tick-boxes is a product-positioning short-full on Nikon's part. In other words, the D3300 works like a traditional DSLR and does it fairly well, but the odds are increasing that the new generation of users will want more than what was previously considered normal and acceptable.

Image Quality: JPEG

The following is an ad hoc demonstration of the camera's JPEG output quality through the ISO range. Pay attention to the legibility of the soda bottles for detail retention (or lack thereof) as the ISO value rises, speckling in the broad colour patches for overall image noise, as well as the harshness of the reflections and shadows as dynamic range decreases. These samples are not directly comparable to similar samples found elsewhere in this blog because of variable ambient lighting conditions.

This is the D3200 and D3300 side-by-side. Both are shot with the lens at 18mm, f/5.6 and aperture priority mode, with exposure done in matrix metering mode.Click on each image for 100% crop view:

ISO 1600
ISO 3200

ISO 6400

The results aren't completely straightforward. Though image noise is similar between both cameras it's hard to make a concrete judgment with this sample... the cameras are metering the scene differently. Despite using the same settings and shooting in the same ambient conditions, the D3300 is producing a darker rendering than the D3200 in this instance. Even when you compare equivalent exposures (D3200 at ISO 6400,1/1000s against D3300 at ISO 3200, 1/1000s), you can see that the D3300 produces a darker and more neutral image than the D3200, which is brighter and more vivid.

There's quite a bit of sensor-output tinkering going on here. The stated output of the D3300 will look more impressive than the D3200 if you go by the EXIF data, but if you equalize exposures to the same brightness, the D3300 is overrating it's ISO compared to the D3200. Certainly the EXPEED 4 processor is making the most of the output, but there's nothing particularly earth-shattering about the difference.

Though a vivid approach to colour would be the stylistically correct choice in this situation for aesthetic purposes, the D3200's default settings are a bit too saturated for advanced shooter's taste. Paradoxically, the D3200 will appear to produce the cleaner-looking images of the two cameras... unless you also pay attention to the detail. Herein lies the rub; everybody wants sharp looking images, but the human eye tends to react to brightness and contrast before it sees detail. The D3300, like the D5300, does not have an optical low-pass filter. You can see the effects in the bottles; the edges and labels have crisper edges than in the D3200. A minor downside is that the removal of the low-pass filter increases image noise by a small amount; however, even if there is more grain the increase in overall contrast and detail is apparent.

What this shows is that even though this is the third mini-generation of 24mp DX sensors for Nikon (1st was D3200, 2nd being D7100/D5200 and 3rd as the D5300/D3300) the amount of improvement has been incremental. Sensor technology as we know it is at a mature state; though the D3300 is better by virtue of producing more detailed images, it is not enough of a difference to matter to  the core demographic that is interested in this type of camera. The amount of improvement that the D3300 has over its predecessor is easily lost through sub-optimal hand-holding technique.

Concluding Thoughts

Nikon contemporaries: D7100, D5300 and D3300

By virtue iteration and improvement, the D3300 is the best entry-level DSLR that Nikon has ever produced. That will probably not be enough to stave off erosion by the mirrorless competitors, but anybody picking one up will get excellent value for the money. As of summer 2014, Nikon was also selling kits with the D3200 bundled with the retractable 18-55mm II kit lens. At first this seemed to be an odd choice, given the constant criticism of the camera industry that there is too much old inventory in the distribution channels. Three possible explanations:

  1. Nikon made too many D3200 bodies and now has to pair them with the new kit lens to clear them.
  2. Nikon is going for a shelf-stuffing strategy and is trying to load up retail shelves with multiple permutations of cameras at the sub $600 price point. 
  3. Nikon doesn't intend to sell as many D3300's as they would have you believe, and intend for it to be a halo product in the entry-level end of the market. In other words, the D3300 draws in the budget-conscious customer, who then leaves the stores with a slightly cheaper D3200.

Update, November 2014: The answer seems to be a combination of 2.) and 3.) above. D3200 kits with the new 18-55 lens are selling at an average selling price below $500, where as the D3300 is priced roughly $80-$100 above that. So yes, it is possible to have halo products even at the bottom end of the price spectrum. This is an inelegant way of marketing cameras as there are too many price points in too small a market space for not enough differentiation between the different products. It bears repeating that this is befuddlement that is occurring within Nikon's shelf space, not between the various choices offered by the camera industry as a whole. The real problem is that the consumer who is looking at the D3300 and is comparing it against the D3200 kits also faces a number of non-Nikon options:

If you add up the number of Nikon kits and competitors choices, that's seven possibilities for the consumer to ponder before settling on a camera. That's not including non-direct choices, like a step up to the D5200 or a side-step to the RX100M2. Of course, each camera appeals to different types of shooters, but even under reasonable circumstances with some choices eliminated, that's 3-4 alternatives that first-time large-sensor camera buyers have to face. However, if you have narrowed your choice down to a Nikon DSLR, the D3300 is a nice improvement over its predecessor and is a decent photographic tool for both beginners and people looking for an inexpensive DX backup body. Compared to the sub $600 USD alternatives, the D3300 arguably has the best image quality. For an interesting go-anywhere combination, try this camera with the AF-S 35mm f/1.8 DX. It's a shame that Nikon doesn't make more small DX primes...

With thanks to Broadway Camera.


  1. Wow!
    Thank you very much for your post. This information is very useful and helpful for
    Nikon D3300

  2. Nice evaluation of the D3200 and D3300... I'm in that undecided group between Nikon and Canons 24 mega sensors...and ergonomics...and then there is the mirror less question...aye !!

  3. that's really a good article and informative for me and definitely for others. you can also browse this website to compare different digital cameras and their rates.