Ever since its popular D40 model back in 2006, Nikon has done well to dismantle the idea of a DSLR needing to be a large, cumbersome machine. Of course, since then the company has released many even more compact mirrorless 1-series cameras aimed at a junior audience, although it’s maintained its footing in the entry-level DSLR sector with a slew of compact and easy-to-use alternatives for those after something more traditional.
For a number of years, Nikon has chosen to split these into two camps. The D5xxx series has presented an approachable but reasonably powerful solution for those wanting to get going with DSLR photography, but have a little extra growing space as they become more confident, while the D3xxx series has adhered to a no-frills template, one that prioritises small size, light weight and a simple design, all the while maintaining the benefits of an interchangable-lens system.
The D3400 is Nikon’s latest contribution to the latter series, and a follow-up to the D3300. Not only has the company managed to shave a little of the D3300’s weight off the body for this new iteration, but it’s also boosted its battery life and improved a number of features to make it a mightier proposition for the novice user. It’s also launched the camera alongside a redesigned kit lens, one that sports a retractable inner barrel and a more streamlined design that eschews the focusing and Vibration Reduction switches we’re used to seeing.
But, after so many warmly received models and a raft of fine competitors in both DSLR and mirrorless categories, does the D3400 have enough going for it to make it worth the beginner’s attention?
- APS-C CMOS sensor, 24.2MP
- 3.0-inch screen, 921,000 dots
- 1080p video capture
As is the case with every entry-level DSLR, the D3400 has been furnished with an APS-C sized sensor, which is believed to be the same as the one inside the D3300. Its 24.2MP pixel count is very respectable – certainly we wouldn’t expect this to be any higher at this level – and this is heightened by the lack of an optical low-pass filter, which should help it to capture better detail than would otherwise be the case.
This works over a reasonably wide sensitivity range of ISO100-25,600, which represents a one-stop expansion over the native ISO12,800 range of its D3300 predecessor. Once again it’s paired with Nikon’s Expeed 4 processing engine, which, among other things, allows for 5fps burst shooting and Full HD video recording up to an impressive 60p. Nikon’s familiar Picture Controls are also on hand, although for those wanting their images and videos processed into more distinct styles immediately, Effects such as Super Vivid, Illustration and Toy Camera are also accessible through the mode dial.
The camera’s 11-point AF system features a single cross-type point in the centre of its array, with a maximum sensitivity down to -1EV. You can set the system to focus continuously on a subject, including with Nikon’s 3D tracking technology, and the camera can also continue to autofocus in live view and when recording videos. Manual focus is also possible, selectable through the menu and performed with a ring at the very front of the camera’s kit lens.
Not that they’re not bettered elsewhere, but the specs of both the viewfinder and LCD are in keeping with what we expect at this level. The viewfinder is based on a pentamirror construction and shows approximately 95% of the scene, while the LCD measures 3in in size and has a respectable resolution of 921k dots.
Wi-Fi hasn’t been included inside the body, although wireless image transmission is still possible through the SnapBridge feature. First incorporated inside the D500 earlier in the year, this uses always-on Bluetooth Low Energy to deliver images straight to smart devices, either as they are captured or afterwards. It’s not possible to control the camera’s shooting settings remotely in any way, although this is not too great an omission on such a model.
To help the first-time user understand their camera better, Nikon has once again implemented its Guide mode feature. This provides an alternative to the main menus and helps the user quickly capture specific types of images. There’s also the familiar ‘?’ button that can be called upon to explain camera functions.
Nikon though has made a few omissions from the D3300. Gone is the microphone port around the camera’s side, which means that you’re restricted to the built in monaural microphones, although this is not a critical loss when you consider that it’s aimed at beginner users. The flash has become weaker too, its guide number dropping from GN 12m at ISO 100 to just 7m here. Perhaps most importantly, built-in sensor-cleaning technology has also failed to make the cut, which means you have to use a more tedious process that requires you to take a reference photo before processing it with the included Capture NX D software, or raise the mirror and physically clean it with a swab or blower.
The core specs – notably the sensor, AF system and video specs – compare well with the camera’s chief rival, the Canon EOS 1300D, although these and others are essentially unchanged from the D3300. Some may lament the lack of built-in Wi-Fi, however, as well as a touchscreen.
Build and handling
- Polycarbonate construction
- Design little changed from D3300
The D3400 is designed to be small and lightweight, but Nikon has ensured there is enough grip to get hold of the camera and space on the rear for the thumb to rest without knocking into any controls. At just 650g with its battery, memory card and kit lens in place the model is one of the lightest DSLR combinations around, around 40g lighter than the Canon EOS 1300D and its own 18-55mm kit lens and around 200g lighter than the Pentax K-50 and lens.
Naturally, such a small and light body does have its downsides. Mounting anything but Nikon’s smallest and lightest lenses makes for an imbalanced partnership, for example, and it’s easy to get your nose in the way of the menu selector pad on the rear which can make adjusting the focusing point tricky. The camera also lacks the build quality of its D5xxx siblings, which is to be expected given its lower billing, but harder to swallow given that they currently reside in a very similar price bracket.
Still, there are many positives elsewhere. A soft rubber around the grip improves the model’s feel in the hand, and this is complemented with the same finish on the thumb rest. The mode dial is easy to grip and rotate, and while buttons are somewhat flat and lack much travel they are reasonably sized and well marked. The customisable Fn button to the side of the lens mount is very welcome, particularly in the absence of a direct control for ISO, although this can be assigned three alternative functions. Also nice to find is a dedicated drive mode button, which you’ll no doubt find useful if you tend to call upon burst-shooting and self-timer options with any frequency.
- 11-point AF, 1 cross-type AF point
- AF-assist illuminator
- 3D-tracking AF
In line with many other APS-C based rivals, the camera’s 11-point Multi CAM 1000 AF system covers a healthy proportion of the frame, the points arranged in a diamond-like formation. This is essentially unchanged from previous models, although the new AF-P 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR kit lens has been engineered to provide fast and quiet focus.
It is indeed very quiet, with just a slight burr as it works, and something that’s easily masked by most ambient noise. Overall speed is also very good, with the system bringing subjects to focus as promptly as expected when shooting in good light. Naturally this slows in poorer light, although the AF assist lamp is relatively bright and readily springs into play.
Although only the central AF point is cross type for enhanced sensitivity, the points immediately above and below it also prove to be more sensitive than the other surrounding points. I found this triplet could focus on very low-contrast subjects where the other eight could not.
When set to track a moving subject the system is capable of keeping up as a subject moves around the scene, although as points are positioned much further apart from each other than on cameras with a more densely packed array, it can often lose subjects if they don’t occupy enough of the frame to begin with.
There’s a slight focusing slowdown in live view, although a comparison with a similarly-sized Nikkor lens with an SWM motor shows the newer AF-P version to be both faster and quieter. In good light it still manages to find the subject without too much hesitation, although during this review there were occasions in poorer light where the system could not find focus at all. Still, for studio and other tripod-based shooting, this is completely usable.
- 5fps burst shooting
- SnapBridge connectivity
- 1200 shot battery life
The camera’s metering system can be alternated between multi, centre-weighted and spot options, and on its default multi setting it behaves with a pleasing predictability. We were pleased to see it didn’t tend to overexpose when faced with a predominantly dark subject, although, as is the case with many DSLRs, it does appear to lean slightly towards underexposure when faced with brighter areas. Still, with a dedicated exposure compensation button on the top plate that works in conjunction with the rear command dial, any intervention here is fast and straightforward.
The camera’s Auto White Balance performance is similarly very good, with just a handful of slips during the course of this review. It did better than expected under artificial lighting, with just a little warmth taken away from some scenes, although performance under the traditionally difficult mixed natural/artificial conditions remained commendable.
With a fast memory card in place and the camera set to its 5fps burst mode, the D3400 manages anywhere between 13 and 28 JPEGs captured at their finest setting before it begins to slowdown. Set to capture Raw images this decreases to eight frames and raw and JPEGs captured simultaneously reduces this to six. The D3400 is unlikely to be anyone’s first choice for action photography and so this performance is likely to be deemed adequate, although those wanting to capture prolonged bursts may find it tricky to do so when shooting raw files.
The camera’s viewfinder doesn’t throw any particularly surprises, with a pleasingly clear, colour-accurate and reasonably bright rendition of the scene. The LCD screen beneath it is fixed in place and not sensitive to touch, but these are not features we should expect as standard on an entry-level DSLR (even if a handful of rivals do offer one or the other, or both). The key thing is that it can reproduce the scene faithfully and show details clearly, and with 921k dots it does a good job to do both in balanced conditions and indoors. One thing that may cause concern is that the screen appears to be positioned far back behind its protective panel, something that easily causes reflections and compromises visibility in brighter conditions.
Wireless image transfer takes place over the camera’s Bluetooth-running SnapBridge system, for which you need Nikon’s dedicated app of the same name. This has not been well received since it introduction earlier in the year, and it was not possible to establish a connection when paired with an iPhone 6 for the duration of this test, despite both devices recognising each other.
The Vibration Reduction system inside the AF-P 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR kit lens is activated through the menu system rather than a switch on its barrel as is traditionally the case, although there appeared to be no difference in its performance next to other VR lenses with the same claims of effectiveness. The system has a clear effect on the stability of the viewfinder image (which helps with composition) and analysing images afterwards showed to have a positive effect on sharpness at lower shutter speeds.
It doesn’t come as too great a surprise that the camera doesn’t quite stretch to recording 4K video, offering Full HD instead, although good results are possible. Manual control over exposure may be enabled and while a little rolling shutter is visible in certain scenes, this is only really an issue if you pan the camera at speed. The kit lens appears to focus smoothly and very quietly (if a little slowly) while recording, although results appear somewhat weaker at the wide end than at the 55mm setting, so an alternative lens may be called for for wider compositions.
One feature that deserves high praise is the 1200-shot battery life. Having initially charged it fully, the camera maintained a full three bars after two days of being tested. Battery life is an issue for many compact system cameras, whose small batteries often have to power both LCD screen and electronic viewfinders, although the D3400’s battery is far juicier than most other DSLR batteries too (certainly in this class). This places the D3400 at a huge advantage over other models.
Nikon has also included in-camera Raw processing among the D3400’s features, a feature offered in previous D3xxx models but typically confined to more advanced cameras elsewhere. This allows for quick editing and multiple versions of the same image to be created without recourse to a computer, and you can view changes as you make them before committing. Whether or not the intended audience will use this is another matter, but it’s a genuinely useful feature that’s pleasing to see on board.
One small annoyance is that Nikon has maintained the same ‘this option is not available at the current settings or in the camera’s current state’ error message from previous models. This is particularly unhelpful when faced with unselectable options as it doesn’t explain exactly why they cannot be chosen, and it may cause the first-time user to have to check their manual more often than should be necessary.
- No low-pass filter
- Picture Control image effects
With no low-pass filter in front of its sensor, it’s possible to record a very good level of detail in images, particularly if you use a high-quality prime lens, a macro optic or one of Nikon’s pro-oriented zooms. One thing that lets down image quality is the standard of the 18-55mm VR kit lens, particularly at the wideangle and telephoto extremes. Partner the D3400 with some good lenses though, and you achieve images with excellent levels of detail – like the shot below.
At wider apertures images are somewhat soft, particularly in corners and at the edges of the frame, although when used in an intermediate focal length it’s possible get some very good sharpness in the centre of the frame. As with many similar kit lenses, lateral chromatic aberration and curvilinear distortion can be visible in Raw files, although both are successfully and automatically dealt with in JPEGs.
One thing those processing images will appreciate is the camera’s healthy dynamic range. I found images underexposed by up to around 3-3.5EV stops could still be rectified (depending on ISO) without noise becoming an issue – at least not one that can’t be dealt with by way of careful noise reduction. Just take a look at the shots above.
The camera’s slight tendency towards underexposure when dealing with bright areas also means that more highlight detail is retained than would otherwise be the case, although these areas can be tamed in post-production too. Against high-contrast edges it’s also easy to spot purple fringing, and this remains in JPEGs, so this is one area of attention for raw post-production.
In the kinds of conditions in which high ISOs would be called upon, images captured up until around 800 range are still well coloured and troubled to no great degree by noise, although it becomes harder to process this out from images captured after this point. It’s a shame there is no control over high-ISO noise reduction past on and off, as some may prefer to adjust this in finer increments. Fortunately, the effective VR system inside the kit lens means you shouldn’t immediately need to call upon higher options as light levels fall.
Nikon’s Picture Control options provide a sensible array of color options, and it’s great to see the Flat option that first came along in the much more advanced D810. This can be used when recording videos, as a means of providing a better starting point for grading. Otherwise, the Standard mode is suitable for everyday shooting, neither saturating colors unnaturally nor leaving them lacklustre. The Vivid mode is a lovely choice for flowers and foliage, and gives colours just the right pep, although all can be adjusted fairly comprehensively with regards to contrast, saturation, brightness and so on.
The Nikon D3400 is a fine performer and more than enough camera for most people just getting started with DSLR photography. Its body is small and light and its specs, while very similar to its predecessor’s, are perfectly decent for a model of its class. Image and video quality is more than satisfactory too, and with the further benefit of in-camera raw processing, you can also polish up your creations quickly and easily for immediate use if you wish.
As a Nikon DSLR, its compatibility with decades worth of top-quality Nikkor glass is another major advantage. Furthermore, the benefit of its optical low-pass-filter-free sensor means that you can get the best out of these optics.
The advantage of the 1200-shot battery shouldn’t be overlooked too (especially when compared to mirrorless rivals), and means that it’s much more likely to be taken to a festival, on holiday or elsewhere where you may not always have easy access to a power supply.
Perhaps most importantly for a entry-level DSLR, the built-in Guide mode and straightforward controls make the D3400 incredibly easy to use.
Initially quite a pricey option when launched last year, prices have fallen steadily to make the D3400 a much more appealing proposition. If you’re after an easy to use DSLR with a huge back-up of lenses and accessories at your disposal, this is a great starting point.
If you can live without the connectivity offered by the D3400, then the D3300 is definitely worth a look. Pretty much exactly the same (in some ways it’s better specified in some areas) camera as the D3400, the D3300 is still on sale and can be snapped up for a little less than the D3400. Still our top pick when it comes to entry-level DSLRs.
Read the full review: Nikon D3300
The D5300 may have been updated by the D5500 and D5600, but its impressive spec sheet, ongoing availability and similar price point makes it well worth considering. Currently, for only a few extra pennies more compared to the D3400, you get a host of superior tech inside a better-built body, including a 39-point AF system, Wi-Fi, GPS and a larger, higher-resolution articulating LCD screen.
Read the full review: Nikon D5300
Canon EOS Rebel T6 / EOS 1300D
On paper the EOS 1300D isn’t quite as well specified as the D3400, with an 18MP sensor, 9-point AF system, more restricted ISO range and a battery that has nowhere near as much juice per charge, although it does offer Wi-Fi which the D3400 does not. It’s main advantage, however, is price: having been launched at a lower RRP and with a six-month headstart, you can currently find it quite a bit cheaper. If you can find the even more compact , it’s also well worth adding to your shortlist.
By Matt Golowczynski
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