Tuesday, March 29, 2016

New Toy: Nikon D3100

Apologies (again) for the lack of posting. It seems that I generally only have time to do two Nautography-related things at a time, and as of late that has largely been shopping for cameras and getting ready for our upcoming BVI trip. (Less than a week away!) Curse you day job!

As someone who's budding social media career depends greatly on taking pictures, I have found myself lacking in the camera department for some time. Most of my experience snapping pics has, sadly, been done with just a smartphone. They're compact and easy-to-use, they're obviously great for uploading images, and doing something as simple as turning on the gridlines on your display make lining up quick shots a breeze, but they are fundamentally limited in what they can do in terms of, you know actually taking pictures.

I addressed part of this limitation last summer when I bought my GoPro Hero4 Silver. (In hindsight, I should have written a post about it at the time, but I got it just before several trips so I was busy posting about them instead. Oh well.) In my GoPro, I gained the ability to shoot while wet (which is kind of important on a boat), take higer-resolution images (my trusty Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini is definitely showing its age in this department), and its wide-angle lens affords me the opportunity to do things take closeups of sailboats without clipping off the mast and also capture good panoramic shots. And yes, it does shoot amazing action videos too and the ability to mount it places and control it remotely is incredibly handy. But as I soon learned, even with my GoPro supplementing my GS4m, I was still largely limited to taking non-landscape pictures of subjects relatively close to me. I referred to that limitation as "the boatlength rule" because I could really only take good pictures of things within about one boatlength* of wherever I was.

This winter, I started on my quest to fill yet another gap. I spent a lot of time asking around and doing some research. While the choice of my GoPro was practically a no-brainer, my next choice for a camera was far less clear. Should I go with a waterproof, ruggedized, point-and-shoot like an Olympus TG-4? Or should I go with a more conventional-yet-less-boat-friendly digital camera like a DSLR or mirrorless? Should I go high end or something with fewer bells and whistles? WiFi enabled? GPS enabled? There were just so many things to consider.

Well, as the title indicates, DSLR won. Specifically, a factory-refurbished version of an older DSLR won. The Nikon D3100 had almost all of the things I was really looking for: manual controls so I can broaden my photographic horizons, exchangeable lenses so the camera can grow with me as I learn, and a low pricetag ($270 with 18-55mm lens and all factory accessories) that went a long way towards sealing the deal. It uses the same media (MicroSD cards with an adapter) as my GoPro and my GS4m, which greatly simplifies logistics. And to top it off, even though it's not WiFi enabled, I can just drop the MicroSD card directly into my GS4m to post pictures in the field if I want to.

Not too shabby for a camera that was released over five years ago.

A photo posted by Ben Cushwa (@nautography) on

Given the cost of a typical 18-55mm lens, I pretty much only paid $170 for a fairly modern and capable Nikon DSLR. No, it's not brand new and no, it's not top of the line, but as someone who's just learning neither of those things matter to me right now. I can do far more than I could before, and I can do it without having broken the bank, so that's pretty much perfect for me.

The one thing** I sacrificed, and the one advantage that the Olympus I mentioned earlier had over my Nikon, was water resistance. The Olympus would have been wonderful for taking underway (and even underwater) pictures, but it would have been far more limited while working afloat (i.e. docked, moored, anchored, etc.) or ashore. Since I already have some underway/underwater capability in my GoPro, I opted for the camera with more growth potential (both in the camera and in my abilities) with the understanding that I wouldn't necessarily be able to use it while underway. Had I gone with the Olympus, I feel like I would have just gotten another GoPro-like camera, which is really not what I was looking for.

Check back in here (and on Instagram) for pics from my trip, but for now, here's a few teasers:

A photo posted by Ben Cushwa (@nautography) on

A photo posted by Ben Cushwa (@nautography) on

I also have it on good authority that someone took it upon themselves to order me a 300mm telephoto lens as an early birthday gift and had it shipped here. It should arrive just in time to take some fabulous pics in the BVI. THANKS MOM & DAD! B^)

UPDATE: I've got a few weeks of shooting in with my D3100 and I'm now convinced that it is an ideal camera for me at the moment. Coupled with the fantastic Nikon 55-300mm telephoto lens, a lightweight bag, and a few extras, I've got a kit that is light, small, and capable. I'd eventually like to get a few prime lenses (one each for general use & low light, portraits, and wide-angle), but I think what I have right now will work just fine for a while. And even when I do eventually snag a few prime lenses, I'm such a fan of keeping my bag light that I'll likely only ever bring two lenses with me at a time: one on the camera and one spare.

A photo posted by Ben Cushwa (@nautography) on

Here are some specific things about the D3100 that I like and dislike.


Size/Weight: I didn't realize it when I bought it, but the D3100 is one of the smallest and lightest DSLRs available. It's not much bigger (sans lens) than many mirrorless cameras. This makes it ideal for travel use and lugging around all day.

Ergonomics: I can snap pictures, switch modes, and make some basic adjustments with just my right hand. This is very useful on a boat when I'm often using my other hand to hold on to said boat. Nikon's higher-end cameras all have their mode dials on the opposite side of the camera so they require two hands. I added a hand strap for extra security when shooting one-handed.

Capacity: The D3100 has an older, lower-resolution 14MP sensor. It's immediate successor, the D3200, and several other Nikons released around the same time, have 24MP sensors. Unless you are using top-grade professional lenses, digitally zooming your pictures, or blowing prints of your pictures to several feet or larger, 14MP is plenty. I save all of my pictures as full-resolution JPEGS and RAW files, and between the smaller file size of the older sensor and the recently available 64Gb SD cards I have never even come close to running out of space. My whole week in the BVI only took up a little over 5Gb.

Cost: You can find refurbished models with a standard 18-55mm kit lens for under $300. New ones can still be had for under $400. That's hard to beat.


Speed: Powering up and taking single shots seems quick enough, but in continuous shooting mode the D3100 really struggles at about 3 frames per second. This isn't really quick enough to get an action sequence. You can increase this by not saving the RAW file and opting for smaller JPEGs, but not much or for long.

Viewfinder: I like that the viewfinder isn't cluttered (all you see are your image and 11 small auto-focus points), but shooting on my GS4m and GoPro definitely spoiled me to using grid lines to compose my shots. I've tried to use the AF points to help with shot composition and horizon leveling, but it doesn't seem to be as effective. Fortunately, it's easy enough to digitally rotate images in post-processing. (Note: gridlines are available if you shoot using the LCD screen, but the disadvantages of doing that far outweigh the benefits of the gridlines.)

Availability: The D3100 has been discontinued by Nikon, so they're not always available new or used. Fortunately, the D3200 is still in the lineup and it has many of the same advantages, especially if you save your images at less-than-maximum resolution, but it does cost more.

* For reference, I typically sail on boats 40ft in length or less.

**I wouldn't really call this a sacrifice, but I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't shiny and red like in the Amazon listing. At this price though, I'm not going to complain.