Olympus PEN E-PL9

The PEN E-PL9 is the latest mirrorless camera from Olympus aimed at those looking for a stylish but accessible upgrade over their smartphone as they look to take their photography to the next stage. 

Whereas the OM-D line of mirrorless cameras is targeted at the enthusiast and professional photographer, the PEN range has always been designed to appeal to the more fashion-conscious snapper, and those who want to take nice-looking images without getting too bogged down with a host of settings.

Features

  • Micro Four Thirds Live MOS sensor, 16MP
  • 3.0-inch tilt-angle touchscreen, 1,037,000 dots
  • 4K video capture

The PEN E-PL9 features a tried and tested (we could also say 'ageing') 16MP Micro Four Thirds sensor that we’ve seen in numerous Olympus cameras in recent years – as we felt when reviewing the OM-D E-M10 Mark III, a boost in resolution to 20MP would have been welcome. This camera does, however, get the latest TruePic VIII processor (also used in the flagship OM-D E-M1 Mark II), with an ISO range running from 100-25,600. 

Rather than 1080p Full HD video capture, the PEN E-PL9 gets upgraded to 4K video capture at up to 30fps, while you can also shoot Full HD footage at up to 60fps.

There's no built-in electronic viewfinder (and there's now no accessory port to attach an optional one either), but there is a 3.0-inch tilt-angle touchscreen. As we've seen on previous E-PL models, the E-PL9 uses a fairly unusual tilt-mechanism, with the display flipping out under the body, rather than above it. For those who love taking a selfie, this is supposed to offer the best selfie-taking experience – perhaps because you're looking just below the lens rather than just above, although we couldn't see massive difference.

To combat camera shake, the PEN E-PL9 takes advantage of the highly effective five-axis in-body image stabilization system we've seen on other recent Olympus cameras. The clever system has impressed before, and delivers a claimed four stops of compensation to reduce blur and shake in both stills and video.

Just as we've seen with the OM-D E-M10 Mark III, there's also the new Advanced Photo (AP) mode. This is designed to make shooting creative images that bit more accessible, with easy access to settings like Live Composite, multiple exposure, HDR, sweep panorama and focus bracketing. 

There’s now a new nostalgic Instant Film art filter

Art Filters have become synonymous with Olympus cameras, and the PEN E-PL9 features 16 effects, including Bleach Bypass, which we first saw on the OM-D E-M10 Mark III, and a new nostalgic Instant Film art filter, which should come into its own when used at night with flash – darker areas becomes green, and skin is given a warm glow. 

Like many new cameras, the PEN E-PL9 combines Bluetooth Low Energy and Wi-Fi connectivity to provide a permanent connection to your smartphone or tablet via the OI.Share app. The app also features a new set of easy-access 'How To' video guides to help get the best out of the PEN E-PL9.

Build and handling

  • Larger grip and mode dials
  • Built-in flash
  • Weighs 332g

The design of the PEN E-PL9 follows on from both the E-PL8 and E-PL7, but there have been some subtle tweaks. For starters, the grip on the front of the camera has been enlarged, and it certainly gives a bit more purchase. 

The mode dials on the top plate have been tweaked and enlarged compared with those on the E-PL8, while Olympus has also managed to shoehorn a small pop-up flash into the camera (older models came with a separate mini- flash). 

Despite these additions, the PEN E-PL9 is still pretty svelte at 117 x 68 x 39mm, while the supplied 14-42mm power zoom lens complements the camera nicely with its compact proportions. 

The finish is pretty good overall, with a nice leatherette material in black, white or tan covering the majority of the camera. However – and perhaps we've been spoiled with the magnesium alloy construction of the OM-D E-M10 Mark III – the PEN E-PL9 comparison felt a little plasticky in parts in comparison with that camera. That said, the quality is certainly in line with its rivals.

Autofocus

  • 121-point AF
  • Coverage across most of the frame
  • Face Priority AF and Eye Detection AF

The 81-point AF system in the PEN E-PL8 has been replaced by the newer 121-point system that's been used elsewhere in the Olympus range.

While there isn't the on-sensor phase-detection autofocus that other systems offer for speedier focusing, in our brief time with the PEN E-PL9 we found focusing to be quick and responsive in the lighting conditions we tried it under.

Early verdict

The PEN E-PL9 looks as though it'll be a sound option for those looking for a sleek-looking, easy-to-use mirrorless camera, although it's a little disappointing not to see a resolution boost, while removing the accessory port seems a bit of a backwards step. 

It's priced at £579.99 body-only and £649.99 with the compact 14-42mm kit lens (US and Australian pricing and availability have yet to be announced), which is only marginally less than one of our favorite mirrorless cameras, the OM-D E-M10 Mark III – and for the small additional outlay you get a brilliant built-in electronic viewfinder and sturdy magnesium alloy body, making the OM-D E-M10 Mark III the better buy.

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Tamron 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD

Here’s a funny thing. People buy a DSLR so that they can use interchangeable lenses, then they want a single lens that does everything.

Available in Canon and Nikon mount options, Tamron’s latest all-in-one ‘superzoom’ lens comes closer than most to that goal, stretching from fairly generous wide-angle coverage to an unprecedented 400mm ‘super-telephoto’ focal length – on Canon and Nikon APS-C format bodies, that’s equivalent to using a 600mm or 640mm lens respectively, on a full-frame camera.

Features

  • Works well as a travel lens
  • Compact and lightweight
  • Good but not great IS

One of the main attractions of any superzoom lens is that it’s convenient for travel photography.

Whether you’re pounding city streets on a mini-break or climbing mountains, one thing you won’t really want to take along is a heavy bag full of lenses.

The Tamron works well as a travel lens because, as well as delivering the same kind of zoom range as two or three regular zoom lenses, it’s also reasonably compact and lightweight; indeed, at 710g the Tamron feels well-balanced when mounted on Canon or Nikon APS-C format bodies, and doesn’t feel unduly big or heavy, even if you’re carrying it around all day.

Along with the record-breaking zoom range, there’s a new-generation autofocus system with an HLD (High/Low torque-modulated Drive) motor. It’s virtually silent in operation and well suited to both stills and movie capture, delivering speedy performance for stills and smooth transitions for movies.

Another headline feature is optical image stabilization, or VC (Vibration Compensation), as Tamron calls it.

Canon and Nikon cameras typically don’t feature sensor-shift stabilization, although Canon has introduced video stabilization in the EOS 77D. That makes optical stabilization pretty much essential for handheld shooting towards the long end of the Tamron’s zoom range. Rated at 2.5 stops, the VC is good, but not as great as in some other recently launched Tamron lenses, such as the Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2, which have a five-stop rating.

Build quality and handling

  • Feels quite robust and solid
  • Zoom creep is fairly minimal
  • Easy to operate

Despite being fairly lightweight, the lens feels quite robust and solid, from its weather-sealed metal mounting plate through to the supplied petal-shaped lens hood. Despite having no less than four concentric sections in its telescoping barrel, the construction feels firm and wobble-free. The zoom ring operates reasonably smoothly, but requires different amounts of rotational force as you progress through the range. There’s a lot of extension too, with the lens stretching to 25cm (10 inches) at its longest zoom setting. Zoom creep is fairly minimal, and only really an issue when you're shooting practically vertically upwards or downwards. A zoom lock switch is fitted to avoid accidental extension while you’re carrying the lens around.

The switches for auto/manual focus, and VC on/off are nice and large, and easy to operate even if you're wearing gloves. One downside to handling, however, is that the manual focus ring rotates during autofocus, so you need to keep your fingers clear, although it's not as much of a problem as it could be, because the focus ring is at the front end of the lens; a bigger concern is that the autofocus system doesn’t enable manual override. On the plus side, with a fully internal focusing mechanism, the front element doesn’t rotate, so it’s easy to use filters like circular polarizers and ND grads.

Performance

  • Electromagnetic aperture control
  • Barrel and pincushion distortion
  • Color fringing is well controlled

Autofocus and aperture control proved consistently accurate in our tests. Electromagnetic aperture control is used in the Nikon-fit as well as the Canon-fit option of the lens. It’s mostly a good thing, compared with the mechanical lever used in most Nikon-fit lenses, but a downside is that it makes the lens incompatible with older Nikon APS-C cameras, up to and including the D300s, D3000 and D5000.

Superzoom lenses are somewhat notorious for compromising image quality in favor of outright zoom range. The new Tamron is no exception, but sharpness is maintained fairly well throughout the entire zoom range, for this type of lens, right up to its 400mm extremity.

Color fringing is well controlled through most of the zoom range, but becomes noticeable at the long end, especially on Canon cameras where, unlike with Nikon bodies, it’s not automatically corrected in JPEG quality modes. Similarly, barrel and pincushion distortions are clearly visible toward the short and long ends of the zoom range, respectively.

Verdict

For overall performance and image quality, the Tamron performs as well as other superzoom lenses like the Sigma 18-300mm and Tamron’s own 16-300mm, despite its extra-long maximum focal length. However, what you gain in telephoto reach you lose in ultra-wide viewing angle, which is still a major plus point of the older Tamron 16-300mm, a lens that's is unique in this respect. The autofocus system of the 16-300mm also has the handling benefit of its focus ring remaining stationary during autofocus, while enabling manual override.

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Panasonic Lumix LX10 / LX15

Although there's always been a healthy interest in the premium end of the compact market, Sony’s decision to squeeze a 1.0-inch sensor into the RX100 four years ago gave the format a much-needed boost. 

While such cameras have their limitations, and cannot always serve as a substitute for interchangeable-lens systems, the continuing improvement in the quality of their output, and their compact proportions, mean they’re often a first choice for general shooting – and sometimes more considered photography too. 

Sony has enjoyed great success with its RX100 line, partly because of the sensor at the heart of these models but also thanks to the use of high-quality optics and advanced video functionality. 

Rival manufacturers, however, have fought back with similar propositions. Canon’s PowerShot G7 X and G7 X II have been Sony's main competitors to date, and now Panasonic has stepped into the ring too, with the LX10 (known as the LX15 outside the US).

This is the first model to sport the same combination of a 1.0-inch sensor, short but high-quality zoom lens, and a body that’s designed similarly to Sony and Canon’s alternatives

Of course, Panasonic is no stranger to enthusiast compacts, with its LX series of cameras often considered as some of the finest of their kind. Yet, this is the first model to sport the same combination of a 1.0-inch sensor, short but high-quality zoom lens, and a body that’s designed similarly to Sony and Canon’s alternatives.

Panasonic’s naming convention suggests the model is positioned above the now-discontinued LX7, which used a respected but ageing 1/1.7-inch type of sensor, and the still-current LX100, which employs the larger Micro Four Thirds type (but at the expense of size).

The LX10 is pocketable, replete with manual controls and has an impressive spec sheet; but does it offer anything different enough to its more established 1.0-inch-sensor-toting competitors to warrant serious consideration?

Features

  • 1.0-inch CMOS sensor, 20.1MP
  • 24-72mm f/1.4-2.8 zoom lens
  • 4K video capture

The Lumix LX10 is designed around a 20.1MP 1.0-inch CMOS sensor, the same kind that has been incorporated into Panasonic’s recent ZS100 / TZ100 and FZ2000 superzoom models. This captures images in a 3:2 aspect ratio as standard, over a capable sensitivity range of ISO125-12,800, with expansion settings down to ISO80 and up to ISO25,600 equivalents.

In addition to stills, the sensor records video in 4K quality, here in the 4K UHD format (3840 x 2160 pixels). This is captured at a maximum frame rate of 30fps, with 25fps and 24fps options also on hand, although if this is surplus to requirements, or you’re using a slower memory card, you can opt for Full HD recording at a variety of frame rates up to 60fps instead.

4K video recording is complemented by a whole suite of supporting and related options, such as the ability to pull 4K-resolution frames from footage and a 4K Live Cropping option that allows you to zoom into the scene and set the camera to automatically pan across, outputting the results at a Full HD resolution.

The lens travels between 24-72mm (in 35mm-equivalent terms), and has a respectably wide aperture of f/1.4-2.8. Its short focal range and wide maximum aperture indicates that this is a high-quality optic, a fact underlined by the presence of two dual-sided aspherical ED elements, four dual-sided aspherical elements and a single Ultra High Refractive (UHR) element.  

The optic has also been furnished with a nine-bladed diaphragm to help deliver circular bokeh, and can focus down to 3cm from the subject when used at its wide-angle setting in a macro mode. Panasonic has also fitted it with an optical image-stabilisation system, which works in conjunction with sensor-based stabilisation to form a five-axis Hybrid OIS+ system. 

The rear of the camera sports a 3.0-inch touchscreen LCD, with a 1.04 million dot resolution and the option to tilt it upwards and around a full 180 degree rotation so that it ends up facing the front. This action immediately brings up a handful of portrait-specific modes such as skin softening and slimming filters, both available in various degrees. 

A handful of Photo Styles enable you to vary colour effects and to call upon monochrome options, and you can even create your own with a Custom setting. These are bolstered by a range of Filter Effects such as Expressive, High Key and Retro, and you can use these for both stills and video recording.

The camera employs a Light Speed-branded autofocus system, with Panasonic’s Depth From Defocus (DFD) technology also on board, with 49 areas as standard but manual adjustment allowing the focusing point to be positioned anywhere. You can do this by either moving the focusing point around the frame or by pressing the camera’s touchscreen to set this, and with the latter option you can expose the frame at the same time. You can also specify your own focusing areas for auto-area focus or call upon pinpoint focus for accuracy when shooting smaller subjects.

Continuous focus when recording both stills and videos, and manual focus with optional focus peaking are also on hand.

As we’ve come to expect from Panasonic, there are a raft of further options designed to make the photographer's life easier, such as built-in Wi-Fi and in-camera raw processing. Particularly creative photographers can also call upon Time-lapse and Stop Motion animation options, as well as the further option to blend multiple exposures together into a single composite file.

Like Canon with the PowerShot G7 X Mark II, Panasonic has found space for a small pop-up flash within the top plate, although there's no viewfinder, nor the option to use an external one on account of there being no hotshoe. A single door on the side of the body houses HDMI and USB ports – the latter allowing for the battery to be charged in-camera – while a door at the base provides access to a combined battery and memory card compartment.

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Build and handling

  • Solid metal construction
  • Dual control ring
  • Weighs 310g

The Panasonic Lumix LX10 / LX15 is clearly designed to be pocketable, just about fitting into the palm of the average hand. Its main body is metal, and the various dials also appear to be built to the same standard, with a handful of buttons on the rear being somewhat small but characterized by good travel.   

The top plate contains two dials, one to switch between shooting modes and a command dial that’s principally used to change exposure parameters. The command dial is well sized and moves freely when rotated, and although the stiffness of the mode dial isn’t entirely unexpected, its flatness does make it slightly more awkward to get purchase. Still, if you only ever stick to a handful of exposure modes, this may not be an issue.

The top plate also sports video record and shutter release controls, with a zoom collar around the latter button, alongside a small catch that releases the flash from its top plate – and on such a small body, everything here falls easily under the finger.

Unlike on the models in the RX100 line there’s a raised section to the front plate that serves as a grip, and this has the advantage of adding only a little to the camera’s size, although some may have preferred something slightly beefier, as it’s not really significant enough to make much difference to handling.

The lens is encircled by a control ring; this is set to zoom the optic by default, but can be customised to perform a range of other functions, from focusing and exposure compensation to many options such as iResolution and aspect ratio.

Between this and the body lies an aperture ring, which has two protrusions around its smooth edge to help the user get a grip. The two rings combined only add a cm or so to the camera’s profile, although the aperture ring’s proximity to the main body and its shallowness mean it follows the mode dial in being somewhat awkward to operate comfortably.

Overall the Panasonic LX10 / LX15 is built to a high standard, with a broad selection of physical controls falling to hand and plenty of scope for customisation, although the small grip and design of the aperture ring show size to have been prioritised over ideal handling and operation.

Autofocus

  • 49-point AF
  • Post-focus function
  • Focus stacking

The last few generations of Lumix compacts and compact system cameras have been blessed with excellent autofocus speeds, so it’s great to find the LX10 / LX15 displays the kind of slick performance we’ve come to expect from Panasonic. 

In good light the camera acquires autofocus with almost no delay, at least none that would make any practical difference. When challenged with darker conditions the lens speedily bounces back and forth before confirming focus, and even in particularly dark conditions the sprightly AF-assist lamp means that focus is often found with only minimal delay.

The responsiveness of the touchscreen means you can effortlessly select the focusing point here, and you can adjust this box over eight sizes using the command dial on the top plate. This is great when you need to focus on a very small (or distant) subject, although you can also call upon the Pinpoint option for greater precision. Here, the camera takes a little longer to find focus than when left to its more conventional settings, but the centre of the screen is magnified as focus is confirmed to give you a better idea of what is and isn’t in focus. If you want, you can even adjust the duration of this magnification, which is quite some control for a compact camera.

Also impressive is the extent to which the camera manages to keep a lock on moving subjects, even when the camera is moved very suddenly or when the subject changes direction. In these situations the focusing system works tirelessly to keep a lock, and partnering this with the slower of the two burst-shooting options reveals AF to be maintained well throughout the burst.

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Performance

  • 6fps burst shooting
  • Modest start-up time
  • 260-shot battery life

It takes just over a second or so for the Panasonic LX10 / LX15 to fully extend its lens and be ready to shoot after being powered up, which isn’t particularly speedy but is pretty much standard for such a model. There is a slight further delay if you immediately attempt to play images as the camera is turned on, roughly another second or so. 

The lens moves relatively slowly through its focal range, although this is necessary when you consider how short it is. A welcome feature is that the zoom collar around the shutter release button is responsive enough to recognise very slight nudges, which makes it possible to adjust focal range in single mm increments for precision. You can choose to step the zoom should you only require commonly used focal lengths such as 35mm and 50mm. 

The lens’s maximum aperture of f/1.4-2.8 compares favourably with rivals that only manage f/1.8 or so at the wide-angle end, although using the camera reveals that the maximum aperture closes down to f/2 by 27mm, and to f/2.8 by 32mm, which may disappoint some. 

The LX10 / LX15’s LCD screen remains impressively visible outdoors, and its resolution ensures details are reproduced with very good clarity; this is certainly one of the better screen on such a camera. The only time where it appears to fall short is when videoing certain subjects with defined details, as this can occasionally give rise to slight artefacts on the screen.  

The option to tilt the screen upwards further improves its visibility when shooting at awkward angles, although rival models such as the Sony RX100 IV and Canon Powershot G7 X Mark II have a dual-hinge design that enables both upward and downward tilting; in the absence of the same here the screen struggles to be as usable when the camera is held above head height. 

The screen is, however, pleasingly sensitive to touch, particularly when used to select the focusing point, although you quickly find this to be just as useful when selecting shooting options. You can also use touch to swipe through and zoom into images, although on such a small body it’s arguably more comfortable to use the physical controls to perform these tasks.

One small issue here is that the screen’s flushness with the rear of the camera, together with its proximity to where your thumb rests, means that it’s all too easy to thumb the screen inadvertently in its corner. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but when the touchscreen is enabled this has the effect of shifting the focus point to this area.

Image quality

  • ISO125-12,800, expandable to 80-25,600
  • Solid metering system
  • In-camera raw processing works well

In general, there appears to be little need to call upon the camera’s exposure compensation function in day-to-day shooting, as the default evaluative pattern copes well with a range of scenes. Shooting out on the street, the camera only underexposes a touch when faced with a larger area of bright skies, generally doing a fine job of maintaining a balance across the frame. Likewise, when capturing a predominantly dark subject, the camera isn’t easily foxed into delivering an overexposed image like so many others are.

Processing raw images shows a reasonable degree of latitude with such scenes too. Areas underexposed by a stop or so can be lifted successfully, and those underexposed even further are also able to be rescued, although only in conjunction with careful noise reduction and sharpening. Raw processing in camera is fairly well thought-out, with a good range of options including the choice to save files over existing versions or as new ones.

When using the Standard Photo Style, colours appear accurate and true to life, but perhaps without the punch expected. Switching to the Vivid option lends images a pleasing depth without oversaturating colours or making everyday scenes appear unnatural, and is also perfectly suited to the kinds of scenes in which you might make a point of calling upon it, such as nature and landscapes. 

The camera’s Auto White Balance system is accurate under natural conditions, and does very well under combinations of artificial and natural light, with consecutively captured images showing excellent consistency. 

Sharpness isn’t too bad at f/1.4, particularly in the centre of the frame where this is highest, although comparisons with the same images captured at smaller apertures shows that stopping down has a marked effect. The camera appears to be doing an excellent job to correct curvilinear distortion at wide angles too, with just a touch remaining in raw files compared with JPEGs. Furthermore, while some chromatic aberrations are visible in raw files, these are also generally low enough not to be objectionable. 

Image noise is fairly absent at lower sensitivities, and only a gentle pattern affects images captured in moderate lighting when using mid-range sensitivities such as ISO1,600, one that could be easily processed out with any ill effects. Nevertheless, the noise reduction applied to images at higher sensitivities is not only destructive to details but also reduces colour saturation and leaves images lifeless. Unlike on many other cameras, high-ISO noise reduction is adjusted for each Photo Style rather than applied globally, although you can also tweak this as part of the camera’s Raw-processing functions post capture.

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Verdict

Panasonic has a long and commendable history in the enthusiast compact market, and the LX10 / LX15 is another fine addition to the Lumix stable. 

Its snappy autofocus system and clear, responsive touchscreen make it a highly enjoyable camera to use, and the standard of its images and videos is reliably high. The fact that the camera is so diminutively proportioned also means you won’t feel discouraged taking it out for the evening, but will still feel confident enough to use it in more demanding scenarios, where you might normally use an interchangeable-lens camera.  

It’s not, however, alone in managing to offer all this, and highly capable rivals from the likes of Sony and Canon mean it’s worth thinking carefully about what you need, and what you’re happy to do without. The lack of a viewfinder and a proper grip alone, for example, will be enough to put off many, particularly those accustomed to interchangeable-lens systems. Those capturing seascapes or long exposures may also be irked by the omission of an ND filter, although this is a minor point and it won’t upset everyone.

If these things don’t put you off, the Panasonic LX10 / LX15 is worth a serious look, particularly if you’re lucky enough to own a 4K display of some kind and imagine you’ll call upon video recording with some frequency. True, it may not be significantly different to existing compact options, but it still manages to offer and excellent performance-to-size ratio – and that’s precisely the point of such a camera. 

Competition

Nikon D3400

The D3400 is the latest in a line of Nikon 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 an even 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.

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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.

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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.

Nikon D3400 image quality

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.

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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.

D3400

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.

D3400 image quality

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.

D3400 image quality

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.

D3400 image quality

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.

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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.

Competition

Panasonic Lumix ZS100 / TZ100

Panasonic entered the digital camera market in 2001, and in 2006 produced the first of its popular ZS range (TZ outside the US), a series of cameras with a small body and a large zoom range designed to appeal to travellers.

It's safe to say that in the 10 intervening years, lots of advancements have been made, many of which Panasonic itself has been first to introduce. ZS / TZ cameras have proved a big hit over the years, and with the shift towards more high-end features in compact cameras, Panasonic has now raised its game with a new model, the Lumix ZS100 / TZ100.

The most noteworthy change that the ZS100 / TZ100 brings is the move from a 1/2.3-inch sensor like the unit found in the ZS60 / TZ80, to a much larger 1-inch type device with 20.1 million effective pixels. One inch sensors have become very popular in the past few years, first with Sony's RX100 range, and more lately, with Canon's latest G series compact cameras.

Features

  • 1.0-inch CMOS sensor, 20.1MP
  • 25-250mm f/2.8-5.9 zoom lens
  • 4K video capture

A 1.0-inch sensor immediately raises the ZS100 / TZ100 above the level of many other rival travel cameras. It's the same same sensor as is found in Panasonic's top-end bridge camera, the very successful Lumix FZ1000. In the ZS100 / TZ100, it is combined with a new Venus Engine processor and a Leica DC Vario-Elmarit 25-250mm f/2.8-5.9 zoom lens. There's also Panasonic's Power OIS stabilisation system for stills photography and 5-axis hybrid OIS stabilisation for video.

Despite the increase in pixel count over that of last year's ZS50 / TZ70, the fact that the sensor is 4x larger in the ZS100 means that the pixels are 2.4x bigger, which should be very good news for image quality and noise control in particular. This has given Panasonic the courage to give the ZS100 a native sensitivity range of ISO125-12,800, and there are also expansion settings of ISO80, 100 and 25,600.

The 10x optical zoom means that Panasonic is describing the ZS100 as belonging to an entirely new sector of the travel compact market – premium superzoom. All of the other small form (pocketable) one-inch sensor cameras are limited in their zoom range, so it's quite exciting to see the company coming up with a camera which should appeal even more to travelling photographers.

Given Panasonic's enthusiasm for all things 4K, it's no surprise that the ZS100 has 4K recording capability (at 30 or 25 frames per second) and 4K Photo modes are present to make it easy to shoot 8MP still images at 30 frames per second (fps). There's also Panasonic's latest addition to the 4K fold, Post Focus mode. In this mode the camera takes a sequence of images with different focus distances and you can choose the shot in which your subject is sharp post capture.

In addition, the ZS100 has 4K cropping which enables the composition of 4K footage to be improved and down-sampled to Full HD in-camera.

Another cherry on the specification cake is the fact that the ZS100 can record raw files as well as JPEGs

Viewfinders are making a welcome comeback to compact cameras and the ZS100 / TZ100 has a 0.2-inch, 1,160,000-dot electronic viewfinder built-in to make it easier to compose images in bright ambient light. Naturally this is accompanied by a larger screen on the back of the camera, and in this instance it's a 3-inch 1,040,000-dot unit that is touch-sensitive. Helpfully there's an eye sensor to detect when the camera is held to the eye to switch off the main screen and activate the EVF.

Another cherry on the specification cake is the fact that the ZS100 can record raw files as well as JPEGs. This sits well with the aperture priority, shutter priority and manual exposure modes that accompany the automated shooting options. Also, the shutter speed may be set to 60-1/2000 secs when the mechanical shutter is in use or 1-1/16000 secs with the electronic shutter. It should therefore be possible to freeze very fast movement and use the widest aperture in bright light.

Interestingly, although Wi-Fi connectivity is present, NFC technology is not – Panasonic says that this hasn't proved as widely used as expected. In terms of competition, the ZS100 goes up against the latest one-inch compact cameras from rivals Sony and Canon, including the RX100 IV and the G7 X Mark II – but neither feature such extensive zooms. Arguably, therefore, the ZS100 doesn't currently have any close competitors.

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Build and handling

  • Solid metal construction
  • Black and Silver and Black finishes
  • Weighs 310g

One of the most exciting aspects of the ZS100 / TZ100 is that it's not a great deal bigger than the ZS60 / TZ80 announced at the same time. It's about 6mm (0.236 inches) thicker than the ZS60, plus 2.2mm (0.0866 inches) longer and 0.5mm (0.0197 inches) wider. That makes it just about small enough to slip in a jeans pocket and it has a metal body shell that feels solid enough to suggest it would survive being carried in that way over a long period of time.

The ZS100 looks fairly similar to the LX100, Panasonic's other current premium compact. It has fairly clean lines, along with a step in the top-plate. The camera will be available in black, or black and silver finishes, with the black and silver version having a red band around the small silver portion of the top-plate. This is a new styling for Panasonic, so it will be interesting to see if this appears elsewhere in the future.

On the front of the camera there's no texture or grip, but there's an indent which helps the camera to sit nicely in your hand. Nevertheless, it makes sense to attach the wrist strap to give an extra degree of security.

Almost all of the ZS100's buttons are grouped towards the right hand side of the camera, making it easy to use one-handed. On top of the camera are two large dials. One is an exposure mode dial which means you can quickly switch between shooting modes (there's a collection of automated and scene modes, along with more advanced program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual options).

The second dial controls different functions depending on the shooting mode you're in. If you're working in aperture priority, you can use it to alter aperture, or shutter speed if in shutter priority. It's in a convenient position for your thumb and has a satisfying amount of stiffness when you turn it.

There's also a ring around the camera's lens which, again, has a different default function depending on the shooting mode. Both this and the dial on top of the camera can be customised to change something else if you prefer. There are also a further four function buttons (marked Fn), which each have default functions, but can be changed to suit a different purpose if you wish. There are five more "virtual" function buttons, which are accessed via the touchscreen and are also customisable.

The (physical) Fn3 button accesses the ZS100 / TZ100's quick menu by default. You can use this menu to move quickly between common settings, such as ISO, metering and white balance. By default, two of the function buttons are used to access the camera's 4K photo modes.

The ZS100’s electronic viewfinder is ready for action at any time that the camera is powered up and it doesn’t need to be popped out for use

Unlike the electronic viewfinder in Sony's popular RX100 III and RX100 IV compact cameras with 1-inch type sensors, the ZS100's electronic viewfinder is ready for action at any time that the camera is powered up and it doesn't need to be popped out for use. Furthermore, there's a sensor which automatically detects when the camera has been lifted to your eye to switch on the viewfinder, and switch the screen off. Although undoubtedly useful and a bonus on a pocketable compact camera, the ZS100's viewfinder is small, and while the image is clear and sharp, because of its small size it's unlikely you'll want to use the viewfinder for every shot.

The ZS100 / TZ100's screen is touch-sensitive, which means you can use it to set the focus point, simply tapping an area on the screen you want to use (if you have 1-Area focusing selected). You can also use it to navigate through and around the main menu and the function menu. If you don't like using touch screens, the good news is that everything can also be controlled by a physical button, or a combination of buttons, if you prefer.

In order to use the super fast shutter speeds that the electronic shutter facilitates, you'll need to change from mechanical shutter in the camera's main menu. Once you've done this, you can move past the 1/2000 fastest shutter speed offered by the mechanical shutter and reach speeds up to 1/16000.

Autofocus

  • 49-point AF
  • Face/Eye detection
  • Post-focus function

Lumix cameras have always delivered the goods when it comes to AF speed, and the ZS100 / TZ100 is no different – in good light you can expect the camera to lock-on quickly with almost no delay. 

Even when the light levels drop, the ZS100 performs very well, though the contrast-detect AF will start to struggle when light levels are really poor – but that's to be expected.

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Performance

  • 10fps burst shooting (6fps with continuous AF)
  • Decent optical quality
  • 300 shot battery life

The ZS100 / TZ100's all-purpose metering system provides generally accurate exposures, only failing slightly when photographing something with areas of high contrast – but it's no more than we would expect from any camera. Similarly, the automatic white balance system copes well when faced with different lighting conditions. Slightly warmer tones are produced when photographing under artificial light, so if you're concerned with ultimate accuracy, either switch to a preset value or set a custom white balance.

Detail is kept well throughout the ZS100's optical zoom range, with roughly the same amount of detail at the far reach of the telephoto zoom as seen at the wide angle end.

The ability to shoot at 10 frames per second (fps) is pretty impressive, while even with it dropping down to 6fps when you want to use the ZS100's continuous AF is nothing to be sniffed at.

At 300 shots, battery life is reasonable, but if you're intending to use the viewfinder quite a bit, this does drop to 240 shots, so if you're going to be away for a long weekend or longer, then it might be worth thinking about investing in another battery.

Image quality

  • ISO125-12,800, expandable to 80-25,600
  • Can record plenty of detail
  • Pleasing images straight from camera

As the ZS100 / TZ100 uses the same sensor as the FZ1000, we had high hopes that image quality would be good. Happily, those hopes have been borne out both by results from our labs and real-world images.

JPEG images display a great amount of vibrance and punch, without straying too far into unrealistic territory, while the overall impression of detail is fantastic.

At normal printing (A4 or smaller) or on-screen viewing sizes, the ZS100's images, have detail comparable with shots taken on cameras with much larger sensors, such as the GF7 (which has a Four Thirds sensor). And at 100% on screen, despite a little smoothing, it's hard to tell the ZS100's low sensitivity JPEG images apart from the GF7's.

Our lab tests indicate that the ZS100 / TZ100 competes very strongly with the Sony RX100 IV and Canon G5 X, all of which have 1.0-inch type sensors

Our lab tests indicate that the ZS100 / TZ100 competes very strongly with the Sony RX100 IV and Canon G5 X, all of which have 1.0-inch type sensors. For signal to noise ratio, the ZS100 beats the other cameras on test throughout the ISO 100-800 range, and most significantly at ISO200. From ISO 1600, the ZS100 is extremely closely matched to the other cameras, while at ISO 3200, the ZS100 beats both the Sony and the Canon.

It's a slightly more complicated picture for the raw format files, where at the lower end of the scale (ISO100-200) the ZS100 is beaten by the Sony and Canon cameras, but from ISO800 right up to ISO12,800, it beats all of the other cameras on test.

For dynamic range, the story is also a little more patchy. For JPEG images taken at the lower end of the scale (ISO200-800), the ZS100 is beaten by the Canon and Sony, but is still pretty good. At 1600, the ZS100 is pretty much tied with the Sony and Canon, while at ISO3200, the Canon beats the ZS100 very slightly, but the ZS100 beats the Sony. At 6400, all of the cameras are closely matched, but at 12800, the ZS100 wins out more significantly.

Looking at the raw format files, performance is particularly impressive. Although at ISO200 it is beaten ever so slightly by the Canon, from ISO 400 the ZS100 beats the other cameras on test, at times by quite a significant margin.

In terms of resolution, we can use a combination of the labs test and the real world images to make a judgement on how well detail is resolved. At the low-medium end of the ISO run (ISO200-1600), the ZS100 is capable of matching Canon's G5 X sensor, and is slightly worse than Sony's RX100 IV. However, at the higher end of the spectrum (ISO3200-6400), it's better than Canon and matches the Sony's capability, while at 12,800, the ZS100 is the best performer.

Looking at a corresponding raw file, it's clear that the camera is applying a fair amount of noise reduction to JPEG images. While that noise reduction generally results in natural-looking, low-noise images, if you're photographing something particularly detailed, you may appreciate the ability to bring that back by editing the raw format files.

When all noise reduction is turned off, images taken at ISO3200 (see shot above) and 6400 have visible chroma noise at 100%, but it's fairly evenly spread throughout the image and therefore easily tackled by noise reduction software. Even without noise reduction being applied the images still look decent at normal printing and viewing sizes.

Using the electronic shutter allows you to shoot at wide apertures in bright sunlight – this image above has been taken with a 1/16000 sec shutter speed.

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Verdict

Panasonic takes aim squarely at the pocket-friendly 1.0-inch sensor compact camera market with the ZS100 / TZ100, upping the stakes with a 10x optical zoom, something which other manufacturers haven't yet produced.

Although 1.0-inch sensors aren't particularly new or exciting any more, when you couple one with a 10x optical zoom, the resulting camera becomes a much more flexible option which is bound to appeal to travelling photographers looking for something high quality, but convenient.

The ZS100 / TZ100 produces lovely JPEG images, while the raw format images give you good scope to bring out extra detail should you need it. The sensor happily competes with Sony and Canon, who have so far been the big players in the 1.0-inch sensor market. The large sensor facilitates decent low-light shooting, making it a good all-rounder camera.

It's also an enjoyable camera to use, with a good number of buttons and dials, a very responsive touch sensitive screen and an (albeit small) electronic viewfinder. There's also inbuilt Wi-Fi and a range of creative filters. It would perhaps have been nice to see a tilting or articulating screen, but that may have added extra bulk, and certainly extra cost to the camera.

Panasonic claims that it has created a new segment of the market with this camera, and it's hard to disagree with that claim.

Competition