Press the big "On" button, turn the zoom ring to deploy the lens, then you're ready to shoot with the D3300. While that start-up process may sound familiar to users of Nikon 1 cameras and other brands' mirrorless interchangeable lens models, the D3300 and its new 18-55 mm zoom lens are the first pair to bring this to an SLR. So what you gain in size with the camera/lens combo's new compact design, you in turn lose in start-up time, as deploying the lens doesn't automatically switch on the camera and retracting the lens doesn't automatically switch it off.
Apart from that slight change, the D3300 is a very classic kind of SLR—perhaps too much so. In fact, that's already something we criticised the D3200 for back in the spring of 2012. On the upside, at least regular Nikon users won't feel too lost, slipping back into the controls and handling like a well worn pair of slippers. But any Nikon users who learnt their trade with the D3200 two years ago will have probably moved on to a more advanced model by now and won't be investing in the D3300. Since D3300 is mostly aimed at users making their début in the wonderful world of SLR photography, the "continuity and familiarity" argument really doesn't hold much weight here.
And so we were ultimately left feeling a bit "meh" about this SLR. It's true that the D3300 is a generally good SLR. Build quality is decent, even if the bright red version does look very plasticky. None of the buttons or dials feel loose or wobbly, there are USB, HDMI, headphones and remote control ports, the screen is clear, sharp and pretty precise, and the menus are comprehensive. On the whole, the D3300 is a perfectly good SLR for anyone starting out. It would surely have been a real hit three years ago, but in 2014, it feels like it's lagging behind.
First of all, the screen could definitely be more exciting. A tilt or swivel screen would have made a nice addition, as seen in Nikon's D5300, and some touch-controls wouldn't have gone amiss either, as seen in Canon's EOS 100D. As is often the way with SLRs in this price bracket, the optical viewfinder is quite tight and doesn't offer 100% coverage for lining up shots proper precision (that's Pentax's speciality). Eye relief isn't great either, which could prove problematic for anyone who wears glasses. To record a video, you're better off switching to LiveView mode via the "LV" button on the back of the camera, then hit the video record button just next to the main shutter-release. Come back handy little video/LiveView switch from the D3100, all is forgiven!
There's a button for the pop-up flash on the left-hand side of camera's the lens mount, but this only works in P, A, S and M modes. There's also a practical "Fn" button which, by default, brings up ISO sensitivity settings. Still, that soon serves as a reminder that in PASM modes, you have to go digging around in the menus to activate "ISO Auto", which can get quite annoying. While you're in the menu, you might want to head over to "Playback Display Options" in the "Playback" menu to get the main settings used (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc.) to display onscreen when viewing back photos. And there are lots of little quirks like that in this camera. Taken alone, they're not too bothersome, but they can soon get frustrating when you add them all up.
This SLR is built with all of Nikon's know-how and experience, and has been treated to comprehensive menus and loads of customisable options. And that'll suit plenty of users down to the ground. But anyone who's actually capable of using all those advanced functions is more likely to opt for a D5000-series or D7000-series model ... or for a competitor SLR. So although Nikon clearly knows how to make very good cameras, one key factor has been overlooked here—the D3300 is aimed at beginners or users with minimal experience, so its design, controls and layout should be adapted to suit those kinds of users. In that respect, this camera could do a lot more to help beginners find their way around. The "Guide" mode doesn't really serve its target audience and the help screens that pop up when you press "?" can't make up for deeper problems in design. This camera should have been able to distinguish the essentials from the unnecessary more effectively, and should have made greater efforts to be more user-friendly. In the end, all this makes the D3300 quite a dull camera. And next to the higher-end D5300—which seems to do everything and have all kinds of onboard technology—the D3300 can only rely on its racy red finish to try and hide its rather boring personality.
If you're starting out in photography and user-friendly handling is especially important to you, the D3300 may not be the best option out there. The Canon EOS 100D could prove a more attractive choice with its compact design, touchscreen and onboard Wi-Fi, or even the Pentax K-50 with its 100% viewfinder and weatherproof body (although it's slightly pricier and a little bulkier). And if an optical viewfinder isn't a must-have, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 mirrorless interchangeable lens camera is a seriously heavyweight alternative. Again, it's a little more expensive, but it's a real treat to use.
The D3200 is now just a distant and slightly painful memory, as the D3300 had been brought up to Nikon's current standards on responsiveness. The autofocus works very quickly in all conditions. Photo-to-photo turnaround is very fast in JPG mode but RAW takes a little more time, as the photo-saving time slows down a fair bit after five shots (although that still leaves you plenty of room for manoeuvre). In burst mode, the D3300 shoots at 4.5 frames per second for 20 shots in JPG mode. In RAW mode, on the other hand, the buffer memory gets clogged up after just three photos, even with a very fast memory card. We'd therefore recommend sticking to JPG shots when working in burst mode.
Note that we got a start-up time of under half a second with the lens already unlocked and deployed. With the lens fully retracted, you'll need to add about one second to that, but that's still not likely to hold you back
Like the D3200, the D3300 uses a 24-Megapixel APS-C format CMOS sensor. However, this is now a model made by Toshiba rather than Sony, as already used in the D7100 and the D5300. Note that the sensor has no optical low-pass filter.
Same sensor, same results. The D3300 doesn't harbour any nasty surprises and can happily shoot up to 3200 ISO without a second thought. Finer details start to get slightly dulled from 1600 ISO but it's nothing too dramatic. You won't notice anything dodgy when printing shots up to 24" x 16" (60 x 40 cm) in size (or larger still). However, image processing is a little different in this model, as colours look less vivid and pictures have a slight tendency to look under-exposed, which makes photos come out darker.
While the sensor passes our lab tests without too much trouble, the new Nikkor 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 GII AF-S DX VR retractable zoom lens doesn't come off quite as well. Irrespective of whether this is a direct consequence of the slightly more compact build, this lens is quite simply disappointing at wide-angle, with strong barrel distortion, a fuzzy lack of sharpness and quality that doesn't stay consistent across the frame—and that's at all aperture settings. Even at f/8—where the lens is at its best at wide-angle—the edges of the frame are weak and the lens just can't get the best out of the sensor's 24 Megapixels. Thankfully, quality improves gradually as you zoom, reaching an excellent level at 55 mm, with no distortion or chromatic aberration and excellent levels of sharpness over the whole frame. And quality stays good right the way up to f/16. Portrait shooters will no doubt appreciate that.
There's no specific video mode in this camera, so you start recording from whatever mode you're working in by hitting the video-record button. However, that means that there's no onscreen preview of the movie frame you'll be shooting with its relevant aspect ratio (3:2 for photo but 16:9 for video), so you sometimes end up cutting off people's heads or feet when you start filming. Note that there's no separate menu for video settings either. These are instead found in the main "Shooting Menu" under "Movie Settings"
The D3300 films 1080p Full HD video at 50 frames per second. The image is very sharp and well balanced but, like in photo mode, the image tends to be a little dark. Sound is recorded in mono but it's still acceptable in quality. That said, at a time when most compacts and cheaper cameras can stretch to stereo sound, it's hard to understand why Nikon hasn't bothered here. A mic socket is on hand so you can always plug in an external microphone accessory, but how many beginners are likely to do that?