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I am looking to purchase a Nikon D3100 as I'm very much a novice and wish to wield a camera that has manual focus and performs well in low light, which leads me to my question: Does the Nikon D3100 perform well in low light?

Links to examples of low light performance would also be appreciated.

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3 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

While the D3100 is an entry level camera its low light high ISO performance is commendable While not quite in the same league as the "big guns" it comes close enough to be useful.

DxO Labs publish their DxO Mark high ISO sensor performance comparison chart which states the highest ISO that a camera can be set to while still achieving certain benchmark performances. These are based on several factors which they feel are necessary to produce an acceptable quality photo. Their publsied figures are "normalised" to what they would be if the camera had a 12 megapixel sensor. this is done by multiplying their measure ISO result by square_root (megapixels/12).
You don't have to understand this - you just read the table.
I personally have some reservations about how well the table reflects reality in some cases, but it is good enough as a guide.

The table below is derived from their chart. I have added the D3100 in red. You will see that it performs slightly less well than anything in the table, but not vastly so.
The D3100's 919 ISO is so close to the 1182 of the D5100 that you would not notice in practice im most situations.
A better comparison is the Canon 5D MkII with an ISO score of 1815. This is about twice the D3100's 919. This 2:1 ratio corresponds to one aperture stop or a doubling in shutter speed. It says that if you scaled both pictures to 12 mp then if a D3100 could take a photo at say ISO 1000, f/5.6, 1/100 second and achieve a certain quality, then a 5D MkII would allow you to change any one setting to eg ISO 2000 OR 1/200 th second or f/8. The difference is useful but not so vast as tp be utterly stunning.

It is my strong personal impression that this assessment is a bit generous to lower ranked cameras and that there is liable to be somewhat more difference than it shows BUR even if there was another factor of 2 involved, the D3100 is close enough to the 5F MKII to be useful.

With a D3100, using a somewhat larger aperture than you otherwise would will help lift available low ISO performance. Affording such lenses is another matter :-).

More later maybe ...

The left hand column is the ISO score as DxO publish it. The column "RAw ISO" is my "denormalisation" by a factor of sqrt(12/mp) eg a 36 mp D800 gets its DxO score REDUCED by a factor of sqrt(12/36) = 1.73:1. This is the ACTUAL sensor performance. It is relevant if you look at a say 4000 x 3000 block of pixels from 2 sensors but not so relevant if you scale a whole image down and print it as say an A4 print from each camera. The top table is sorted on DxO's adjusted ISO score and the bottom one on the raw ISO score.

For comparison, the absolute king of high ISO "35mm" DSLR performance is the Nikon D3s with ~= 3200 ISO DxO benchmark performance (adjusted or raw).
The D3100 is "worse' by a factor of 3253/919 = 3.5:1. This is a tolerably small difference bwteen the best of the best and an entry level camera. In practice I feel that the DxO result rather understates the difference but, eve then, the camera is an acceptable if not stunning low light performer.

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quote "DxO result rather understates the difference but, even then, the camera is an acceptable if not stunning low light performer." Ok, but the result is still better than what Sony A57 achieved, and see what DxO said about the sensor of the Sony: "This new generation of entry-level digital reflex SLT cameras keeps the famous 16Mpix APS-C Exmor sensor, known for its excellent behavior at high sensitivities and in low-light, and for its high dynamic range." So they think it is great (for entry level), and thus makes the test result of Nikon D3100 look very nice indeed :) –  Esa Paulasto Apr 14 '13 at 16:10
@EsaPaulasto - D3100 and A57 are similar. D3100 DxOMark score of 919 is > A57's 785. This is minimal in real terms = 0.23 stop [= log(919/785)/log(2)]. The pellicle mirror drops the result 0.5 stop. D3100 sensor is probably made by Sony. Note that DxO results seem to downrate pellicle mirror sensor systems for reasons not obvious. May be due to their dynamic range inclusion in what looks at face value to be an ISO/ noise test. Note that Sony A99 scores 1555 against D600 with essentially the same sensor at 2980. Allowing for SLT mirror gives 2200 - still down on Nikon result by 0.44 stops. –  Russell McMahon Apr 14 '13 at 22:39
That's cool. After writing my comment, I read the rest of their (p)review of Sony A37. I think A37 is a lot of camera for a little price, but DxO made it sound soo good, IMO they were too nice to it. I might be better to only read their test results and leave the written praisal. –  Esa Paulasto Apr 15 '13 at 4:49
@EsaPaulasto Photo quality wise you can get superb results from most modern SLRs in non-extreme conditions. The lens will usually be the limiting quality factor until you start to push the limits for light or speed or ... . . BUT do have a play with a Sony SLT with a pellicle mirror. Some people are too put off by the "disadvantages" and wish to stay with conventional style DSLRs. Others (like me) find the advantages of the pellicle mirror & EVF so utterly compelling that the disadvantages are something you accept. ... –  Russell McMahon Apr 15 '13 at 10:17
@EsaPaulasto ... As a "photo making system" for on the move photography I consider the SLTs unbeatable. That obviously must be considered a "religious" assessment and some purists will sneer at it. I have a Nikon D700 and a Sony A77. The D700 high ISO performance leaves the A77 for dead. For "making photos" the A77 is vastly ahead of the D700. There will come a day when SLTs or similar are the only logical choice. That day is not quite yet :-). –  Russell McMahon Apr 15 '13 at 10:19
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I have Nikon D3100 and I think that this most depends on your lens. If you would buy body with lens Nikkor 18-55 f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX VR, it's not too well to darkness. But I think it's good enough for beginner (as also I'm).

From my experience, you can set ISO1600 to get good photo quality (there is visible noise, but it's not so bad).

BTW: Manual focus is also matter of lens, isn't it?

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The Nikon D3100 is an entry level camera, which makes it a bit inferior in terms of low light performance compared to its bigger brothers. Yes the lens you will be using will also be a factor but the bottom line lies on the sensor. The D3100's sensor will yield a certain amount of noticeable noise from ISO 1000 and above. So if you are looking for a DSLR which performs well in low light, I would suggest you get maybe a D5100 and a good lens, maybe get the 50mm 1.8, which is a fairly cheap but fast lens. This will allow you to capture good low light photos. Most lens in the market now have manual and auto focus, which you can select via a lever or switch located on the lens barrel. Since your target is low light, better look for a camera with a good performance at high ISO speed. You can check at dpreview and compare the output of different cameras under certain settings : http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/nikond3100/10

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