Nikon D3400

The D3400 is the latest in a line of entry-level DSLRs that adheres 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.

A follow-up to the brilliant D3300, Nikon has 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?

Features

  • APS-C CMOS sensor, 24.2MP
  • 3.0-inch screen, 921,000 dots
  • 1080p video capture

The Nikon D3400 sports an APS-C sized sensor – as is the case with every entry-level DSLR, with its 24.2MP pixel count 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, 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

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
  • Weighs 445g

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 like the D5600, which is to be expected given its lower billing.

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

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.

Autofocus

  • 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.

Performance

  • 5fps burst shooting
  • SnapBridge connectivity
  • 1200 shot battery life

We were pleased to see the D3400's metering 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.

The D3400’s Matrix metering performed well under a range of lighting conditions

The D3400 is unlikely to be anyone's first choice for action photography, capable of shooting at a modest 5fps. This performance is likely to be deemed adequate of most shooting situations, but those wanting to capture prolonged bursts may find it tricky to do so when shooting raw files.

The camera's viewfinder produces a pleasingly clear, color-accurate and reasonably bright rendition of the scene, while the LCD display beneath it is fixed in place and not sensitive to touch. 

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), but 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 feature that deserves high praise is the 1200-shot battery life…this places the D3400 at a huge advantage over other models

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.

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. 

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.

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.

Image quality

  • ISO100-25,600
  • 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.

The 24.2MP sensor inside the D3400 is capable of delivering excellent levels of detail

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.

It’s possible to recover a decent amount of detail in post-processing

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.

The Vivid Picture Control mode is a lovely choice for flowers and foliage

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.

Verdict

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.

Perhaps most importantly for a entry-level DSLR, the built-in Guide mode and straightforward controls make the D3400 incredibly easy to use

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.

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Matt Golowczynski
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