Upgrade from D3100

edited January 2015 Posted in » Nikon D3100 Forum
Hi! I've been following along here for a while, but this is my first time posting. The D3100 was my first DSLR and I've been using it for a few years now for portrait photography with a 50mm f/1.8 lens. I never use the video functions or the kit lens and I just feel that I'm ready for something better. My head is spinning with the forums about full sensors and crop sensors. I love my lens and I just want to buy a new, upgraded Nikon body but I don't know what to buy. What is the best Nikon body for portrait photography? If I am interested in the full sensor body will I have to buy a new lens?


  • edited January 2015
    I believe the 50mm f/1.8 lens is a full frame lens, so it will work on a full frame body, but the field of view will be different. It's a normal lens on FX, similar to a 35mm on DX. The same field of view you now get in DX will require a 70mm lens in FX (EDIT NOTE it's 75mm, not 70mm. No 70mm prime exists, and the usual short telephoto portrait length would be 85mm). In FX format, an 85mm is very nice, but good ones are expensive. If you are happy with the field of view your 50mm gives now and want to keep things as they are, then your best bet is a DX camera.

    What you really need to do, I think, is to decide what it is in your current setup that is not adequate, and base your choice on what you need to upgrade. Full frame will make wider angle lenses easier to come by, and probably get you relatively better low light performance. If you are happy with the lens you have and the field of view it covers, you may be better off sticking with DX. Even the lowest current model, the D3300, has very good low light performance and ISO range, and as good a 24 megapixel sensor as any. If you opt for more expensive, you will get better auto focus and more user options, but there is not much point in getting these if you do not need them. ANOTHER EDIT NOTE: one thing the more expensive cameras will provide is a better viewfinder. The D7100 prism is better, and FX viewfinders are much larger. If you manually focus, that's a consideration.

    Nikon makes only one digital camera with no video at all, the full frame DF. It is designed in part to appeal to more retro users who wish to utilize older lenses, and prefer the feel and appearance of older, pre-AF rigs like the F3. It's a beauty, but very expensive, and not really relevant if you do not have an arsenal of older lenses. When it comes right down to it, you might as well get the video capability and not use it.

    In terms of quality of construction, weather proofing and robustness, as well as compatibility with older AF lenses, the D7100 is the top of the DX line, and is very nice. My wife has one of these, largely because she has a number of older AF lenses that require an in-camera motor which the other DX cameras lack. I have a D3200 which won't autofocus screwdriver lenses, or meter with any manual lens, but can mount and shoot almost anything manually. This is true of all the D3xxx and D5xxx series.

    There is a gear acquisition syndrome that grips us all from time to time, the urge to get better, newer, fancier equipment. I, for example, still lust after a DF. If they come out with a newer version that has a denser sensor, who knows.... I would suggest that you stick to the minimum camera that realistically fills your needs and spend the rest on lenses. Cameras come and go, and improve constantly, but a good lens is a good lens forever. In your situation, if you do a lot of portraiture, perhaps you should look at more lighting and tripod options. Every one of the current lineup of DSLR's will make a great image if the person operating it uses it right.
  • edited January 2015
    There are really just 5 upgrade paths. So let’s look at each one and you can decide if it’s the right one for you.
    1. You can stay with Nikon’s entry models. That means going to either the D3200, D3300, D5100, D5200, D5300, or D5400. You really won’t be gaining much compared to what you already have. In my opinion, this is the worst of your options.
    2. Get a mirrorless camera. You’ll be able to lighten your load but you will need new lenses. You may want to consider this option if you don’t action or sports much.
    3. Move up to the D7100. What you’ll be getting is more controls, better viewfinder, significantly better AF, and about a 1-stop improvement in high-ISO performance.
    4. Move up to full-frame. This is a pretty huge and expensive change. If you need to ask, then this is probably not the right move yet.
    5. Stick with your current camera body and get new lenses.

    First step you need to take is to identify what it is about your D3100 that you feel is holding you back.
    Nothing, but you just want something new? Get the D3300 or D5400.
    Is it the size and weight? Move to mirrorless.
    Is it the lack of controls? Get the D7100.
    Are you always shooting in low-light? Full-frame should be under consideration.
    Is there something you want to shoot but can’t? Get new lenses.

    If the only lenses you currently have are the 50mm and the kit 18-55mm, then moving to full frame won’t be much an issue. Your 50mm will still work just fine. Your 18-55mm will mount, but you’ll only be able to use it in DX crop mode. If you never use it anyway, then it’s no big deal. Just don’t use it. If you feel you need a normal zoom lens, then you’ll need to get one that’s made for full frame (e.g., 24-70mm f/2.8, 24-120mm f/4, 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5, etc)

    Best Nikon body for portrait photography? If money isn’t an issue, then it’s hard to argue against the D810 coupled with the 85mm f/1.4, but that’s not to say that you can’t get sufficiently equivalent results with your current D3100 and 50mm f/1.8.
  • edited January 2015
    Thank you both so much for your feedback. I can't even tell you how helpful you've been making such a complicated decision. The best question is - what don't I like about my current setup? And the answer is that I feel cramped taking portrait pictures indoors. Seems that a full frame camera would open up my view and also allow for more light in low light settings, but this is a major upgrade and investment of money. Maybe my first step would be to keep with the D3100 and switch out the 50mm for a 35mm prime lens and eventually earn my way to a full frame upgrade. Thoughts?
  • edited January 2015
    If your main problem now is field of view, the 35 mm prime will give you a view similar to the 50 on full frame, and you will have two very good lenses to choose from. If your current setup gives you a satisfactory image with relation to ISO noise and the like, then it will do so with the new lens as well. There are many improvements in newer models and in full frame, but it's a lot to pay if you don't really need them.

  • edited January 2015
    Honestly I am not totally happy with the ISO I need to use in low light. I also don't think I'm ready to spend the money on the full frame yet. I'm going to try for the 35mm and go from there. Can't thank you enough!!
  • edited January 2015
    It’s certainly not a bad idea for a DX user to have both the 35mm and the 50mm prime. If you’re just after a larger field of view, have you considered taking your kit 18-55mm lens out of the closet and dusting it off?
    If you have decent lighting and you’re just shooting against a plain background, then f/5 at 35mm shouldn’t be an issue (I hope you’re not shooting portraits with your 50mm wide open at f/1.8 and ISO-3200! If so, you definitely need either a lighting set up or just a change in venue).
  • edited January 2015
    Hmm thanks for the feedback ohyeahar. I would actually get rid of the 50mm for the 35mm because I'm a beginner and also because I have limited budget. My portraits are mostly of my kids and I love the special look I get with the subject isolation having my camera open to f/1.8. I use only natural light. I try to avoid very high ISO, but I think I'm missing something based on the tone of your comment. What is so bad about a f/1.8 when the ISO gets too high? Obviously it's grainy but do you have other suggestions?
  • edited January 2015
    I think it would be a mistake to get rid of the 50mm in favor of the 35mm, even if you do find you need the 35mm often for wider view. You will not be a beginner forever, and the 50mm is a versatile lens that can be used on any format. If you ever do go to full format you'll just have to buy it again. You will get little return for a used one, given that it's inexpensive to start with. If the possibility of a camera upgrade was in any way realistic, then the cost of keeping that extra lens is trivial by comparison. If you cannot afford both the 50mm and the 35mm, do as @ohyeahar suggests, and use the kit lens for wider views, at least until you're surer of what you need. You'll lose some of that grand isolation you get with the 50mm, but you will lose some of that with any change, because depth of field increases not only with smaller aperture but also with a shorter lens. The 35mm wide open will have pretty good out of focus effect, but it will not be as pronounced as the 50mm simply because it's a shorter lens.

    Low available light can be interesting and do some things even lighting cannot. If you want to shoot someone by candle light, then you have to use whatever ISO can get you there. If your interest is mainly in getting portraits, it's worthwhile also trying for stronger, less shadow prone lighting, including reflected light and reflected flash. If grain (or its relative, digital noise) is a necessity, then so be it, but if you can avoid it, all the better.
  • edited January 2015
    Ah, we may have a bit of a misunderstanding. When you said that you shoot portraits, I was thinking of the more controlled type of portraits such as the ones they shoot for kids school photos or those that are done professionally at a studio.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but what you’re shooting is simply lifestyle photos of your kids, right? For example, lots of close-ups of them playing and moving around? They’re probably not looking into the camera and often laughing or smiling uncontrollably (I shoot a lot of these too)?
    If so, then yes, getting the 35mm may be a good idea, but I would keep the 50mm. You’re not going to be getting a high resale value for it anyway. And when you shoot with the 35mm at f/1.8, you’ll actually notice that the subject isolation is not as great as that at 50mm.

    Anyway, let me explain my comment about shooting wide open at high ISO. It pertains to shooting portraits (i.e. headshots). Many of these types of shots are stopped down to f/4, f/5.6, or f/8. This is to maximize sharpness and for the depth of field to span your subjects entire face. If you have to shoot with a fast prime wide-open at high ISO, this suggests to me that your lighting situation is very bad and your shots will probably not turn out very well. Therefore, you would be better off changing your venue rather than your gear.

    So there’s nothing inherently wrong with shooting f/1.8 at high ISO. You mentioned that you try to keep ISO down, so that’s good. My suggestion to you would be to always see if you can afford to stop down your aperture at least 1 or 2 stops to increase sharpness. For example, if you can only get the shot at f/1.8 1/125, ISO3200, then so be it.
    But if you have a choice between:
    f/1.8, 1/125, ISO400; or
    f/2.5, 1/125, ISO800
    Then the latter choice made be preferred unless you’re really going for that shallow depth of field effect.
  • edited January 2015
    By the way, on the cost issue, I should mention that I just went to the Nikon site and they have both the AFS 50mm f/1.8 G and the AFS DX 35mm f/1.8 G refurbished for $170 each. If that's the price from Nikon, it's crazy to bother trying to sell a used one.

    p.s. @Kcapp, I like your avatar picture.
  • edited January 2015
    Thank you both so much for your help. I'm so glad you suggested keeping the 50mm that's a great idea. It'll be nice to have both. This has been really great for me, I will definitely be posting again.

  • Ps - thanks bruto!
  • edited April 2016
    This conversation was so helpful! I am EXTREMELY new to photography, and all the different f-stops, ISO's, lens sizes, etc. can be a bit scary and confusing! I was just about to invest in a more expensive camera, but I realize I just need to learn the one I have, upgrade my kit lens and maximize my D3100's full potential!
    Does anyone have a suggestion on what I should buy as my back up camera? Should I go to a D5300? Please help! I just want a back up in case of any mishap with my D3100!
  • edited April 2016
    For a backup, I think your main concerns should be, first what your budget is, and second what features you wish your D3100 had. In the DX format, you basically have three families, the D3xxx, the D5xxx, and the D7xxx. Forget the new and (so I hear) quite amazing but expensive D500, which is really a pro machine, just coming out.

    If you like the D3100 and just want another similar camera, then A D3200, now discontinued but still available new, is a very good buy. It gains a denser sensor, better low light capability, and ability to use the IR remote. This is what I have, and I like mine a lot. It makes very good pictures, and, like most of those low-end Nikons, in terms of image quality, it "punches above its weight".

    The D3300 is the next step in that family, with a slightly sharper sensor (no anti-aliasing filter), a bit more low light capability, and panoramic setting.

    Otherwise, D3xxx are similar, and if you are happy with one you'll probably fit right into another. You'll find most of the controls the same, and the few that aren't are close. With each generation you also may get a slightly, but not dramatically, better viewfinder.

    The D5xxx family has similar sensors, more features, and an articulated rear screen, which some people really like for macro and tripod shots. The second digit, like that of the D3xxx, tells you which generation of sensor you're getting. A D5300 would be pretty darn nice if you can swing it, and I suspect that for any update the new camera will likely become your main one and the D3100 the backup. The D5500 is getting pretty expensive, with a touch screen and more wireless functions, and I'd guess the D5300 will be a little more familiar. D5xxx cameras also usually have a better AF system, with more focus points, so if you are finding AF a bit slow and iffy on moving subjects with your D3100, this is a consideration.

    If you want to step really into a different class of machine, the D7xxx family has many more features and capabilities, including the ability to auto focus with older AF lenses that have no motors, and to meter with AI and later manual lenses. The viewfinder prism is better, and it's much nicer for manual and macro work. The D7000 is getting a bit old, but very nice. The D7100 is now discontinued but still available new, and has a 24 megapixel sensor with no anti-aliasing filter, comparable in sharpness to the D3300 and D5300. This may well be more machine than you need, but some people consider the D7100 to be one of the nicest cameras Nikon has made. The D7200 is similar, with a bigger buffer for more shots in sequence, and a little better high ISO capability, but little else changed. My wife has a D7100 (her arsenal of older lenses made it worthwhile to get something that works well with them), and it is very nice. In addition to the features mentioned above, it has one of the best AF systems around, making it a good choice if you are after wildlife and other tricky subjects. It's also a little bit better weather protected, but also larger and heavier than the others.

    Of course, another possibility, depending on what is available where you are, would be to find another D3100. You can still find a few of these new, and perhaps lightly used. One advantage of staying with the D3xxx family, aside from price, is that you can mount different lenses on the pair, and switch easily, using the same or similar controls. New shoes are nice, but old shoes are comfortable.
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