The D3400’s a bit better cheap dSLR than its predecessor — but just a bit
THE GOOD The Nikon D3400 delivers the image quality and speed that a first-time dSLR buyer should expect.
THE BAD A lot of the small annoyances from previous models remain, including tiny autofocus points in the viewfinder and a nonpersistent self-timer mode. Plus, its Bluetooth-only wireless solution isn’t very good.
THE BOTTOM LINE Very good photo quality for its class plus performance fast enough to capture kids and pets make the Nikon D3400 A solid choice for a first dSLR.
The Nikon D3300 has long been my go-to recommendation for a cheap dSLR, but after two years it’s usually time to slap a new coat of paint on consumer products. Nikon’s 2016 update to that camera, the D3400, has some small enhancements to bring it up to date, but nothing vital. It remains a great value — fast with very good photo and video quality and a new kit lens optimized for shooting via the LCD — but its weak wireless file transfer barely feels like a step up from nothing.
Along with the camera, Nikon has kits with two versions of two new kit lenses. The AF-P lenses incorporate stepper motors like Canon’s STM lenses for smoother and quieter focus Live View, the LCD-based view on a dSLR. There are two versions of each, 18-55mm and 70-300mm, one with optical image stabilization (Nikon’s Vibration Reduction, or VR) and one without; the names differ solely by the “VR” designation.
Nikon’s offering two kits of the D3400, available in different regions. The primary option is bundled with the 18-55mm VR lens for $650 and £490 (not sold in Australia); £470 and AU$700 with the non-VR version of the lens (which isn’t sold in the US). The other option is a dual-lens kit with the VR version of the 18-55mm lens but the non-VR version of the 70-300mm. While that’s a silly configuration — stabilization on the lens where you don’t need it and no stabilization on the one where you do — it allows Nikon to hit its just-under-$1,000 price of $999.95. That dual-lens kit doesn’t seem to be available in the UK and Australia, but you’ll be able to get a body-only version in those regions for £400 and about AU$575.
Overall, the camera delivers very good photo and video quality for its price. Thanks to its new sensor — the same resolution as the D3300, but without an anti-aliasing filter to slightly unsharpen the image — the D3400 delivers slightly sharper photos in low light than its predecessor. They don’t seem to have better tonal range in shadows and highlights than before, but the extra sharpness makes a difference.
The automatic white balance isn’t great: It displayed a purple cast under our LED test lights and a moderate cyan cast in real daylight, so photos look a bit too cool. But under most circumstances, you won’t really notice it if you’re not hypersensitive to color accuracy or comparing to a more accurate camera. This type of issue isn’t unusual, though.
You also can’t get significantly better noise-reduction results by processing the raw files; the JPEG processing is pretty good. However, you can recover a bit of highlight detail in higher ISO-sensitivity shots, boost underexposures for low ISO-sensitivity photos and fix the aforementioned white balance issues in raw.
And thanks to the AF-P lenses, Nikon now has improved — faster and smoother — autofocus during movies, which makes them look a lot better for fans of automatic.
JPEGs look clean through ISO 1600. And with nothing to compare them to, the white balance looks OK.
JPEGs still look good at ISO 3200, which gives you some latitude if you need to shoot action in daylight with the narrow-aperture kit lens. By ISO 6400 you start to see some detail smearing. However, the balance between detail and noise reduction in JPEGs (it’s a trade-off) remains decent all the way through the camera’s sensitivity range.
When you compare to a neutral, manually white-balanced shot, you can see the difference.
The camera’s cool automatic white balance for daylight shots actually makes the photos look flatter and lower contrast than the raw versions; it’s usually the opposite.
The colors generally look bright and saturated. Thankfully, manually white balancing with the camera is very easy if you feel the need.
I don’t have comparable performance results for the D3300, but overall the D3400 is sufficiently fast at focusing and shooting — including continuous shooting — for typical kids, pets and travel photography, as well as faster than many similarly priced cameras. It can autofocus during continuous shooting, though speed and accuracy depends upon which continuous autofocus mode you choose and how fast the subject is moving. It can’t autoexpose at the same time, though, which means that it fixes the exposure on the first shot in the burst. So for subjects moving through daylight and shadows you’ll probably get some that are under- or overexposed, depending upon initial conditions.
More important, though, the tiny autofocus points in the viewfinder make it really hard to figure out what the camera is focusing on and whether or not a shot’s in focus.
The new lenses also improve the speed of the camera’s Live View (via the back LCD) shooting; it’s not fast, but at least Nikon gets it to under a second to focus and snap a single shot.
Why I’m blue
The camera’s design and feature set hasn’t changed much since the D3300, and remains functional with few bells or whistles. Plus, at the same time it made movie shooting easier, Nikon took away the mic jack.
As a result, in addition to my issue with the tiny autofocus points, there are other aspects of the camera that continue to irk. The stabilization setting for the AF-P lenses is in the menu system, and there’s no indicator on screen or in the viewfinder to tell you whether it’s off or on (so naturally I accidentally took a bunch of photos and videos with it off). You still can’t make the self-timer persistent — you have to select it for every shot — and there’s no manual aperture selection in video.
But I’m primarily disappointed with Nikon’s support for camera-to-phone connections, the one real new addition. It’s Bluetooth only — no Wi-Fi. That means the camera has a low-power, persistent connection to the phone, primarily intended for automatically transferring photos. However, it’s a low-bandwidth connection, which means you can only send really small, two-megapixel files. That’s smaller than even a typical selfie — shot with an old phone. Transferring video is out of the question, of course. But it will geotag those low-res files and sync the time between the camera and the phone.
A message in the app will pop up asking if you want to wait for a higher bandwidth connection before sending if you select the full-resolution option, but doesn’t bother to tell you that there will never be one. Because no Wi-Fi. There’s no remote shutter, even just to snap a photo without access to settings or focus, though I’m not sure whether that’s an app issue or a Bluetooth issue.
On one hand, these cheap dSLRs tend to lack connectivity altogether, so it’s not a reason to not buy the camera if price is your primary concern.
But this implementation barely counts as more than a checkbox on a features list. For one, there are tons of complaints on both the Android and iOS app stores from people having trouble pairing their devices, and while I was able to connect to an iPhone 6s Plus and an HTC 10 (with some trial and error), I experienced firsthand its overly high CPU consumption and the inability to unload it from memory (both on Android) without going into Settings/Apps and forcing it to stop.
I usually consider these problems transient and don’t complain because I assume that they’ll be fixed quickly in an update. But Nikon has shown consistently that it doesn’t understand wireless file connectivity needs and it doesn’t update its app frequently enough. So I don’t expect a quick fix.
To buy or not to buy
Like the D3300 before it, the D3400 is a good choice for competent and inexpensive, general-purpose first dSLR, and despite my nitpicks, is still better than current similarly priced competitors.