Operation and Controls

In the Auto and scene modes, the D3300 behaves very much as a point-and-shoot, with very little user intervention required or allowed (you get control over focus and flash modes, but that's about it). Guide mode is a middle ground - you take control of the camera's exposure settings using a 'usage scenario' logic - but it's on switching to the PASM modes that the D3300 really comes into its own.

From the top you can see the D3300's flash, shown here in its closed (stowed) position and the hotshoe which can accept any of Nikon's current range of Speedlight flashes. The left-hand side of the top plate is bare, but on the right of the pentamirror 'hump' you can see a cluster of control points ('info' button, movie start/stop and exposure compensation) along with the mode dial.

The basic exposure parameters - shutter speed, aperture, and exposure compensation - are all handled by the well-placed rear thumbwheel in concert with the exposure compensation button. This layout makes changing these settings fairly quick and fluid, though the twin dials of the Fujifilm X-A1 are a step ahead. We also like Nikon's dedication of the four-way controller to selecting a focus point manually - combined with the 11-point AF system this makes focusing on off-center subjects a breeze, without having to always focus and recompose for every shot.

The rear dial handles either shutter speed or aperture in the semi-manual modes. In full manual mode, the dial sets shutter speed at default - pressing and holding the exposure compensation button switches it to aperture. It's still possible to apply exposure compensation in manual exposure mode (via the 'i' menu), which either applies a bias to the target shown by the meter, or adjusts the image brightness directly, if you have Auto ISO engaged.

The other shooting controls - ISO, white balance, focus mode and the like - are all set from the active control panel on the rear display, accessed by pressing the 'i' button. Likewise Live View is accessed by pressing the 'Lv' button, which you'll need to do in order to record video.

The D3300 also offers a customizable function button on the front of the camera near the lens mount, with just a handful of settings it can be tasked with accessing. The exposure lock button on the rear next to the command dial can also be customized to handle focus and/or exposure only. Here are all of your options:

Button Available functions:
Fn Button  • Image quality/size 
 • ISO sensitivity
 • White Balance
 • Active D-Lighting
AE-L
AF-L
 • AE/AF lock
 • AE lock only
 • AE lock (Hold)
 • AF lock only
 • AF-ON

The function button acts as a direct control to whichever setting it's assigned. Pressing and holding the Fn button makes it possible to use the command dial to change the setting. This means that the user has direct access to either shutter speed or aperture (depending on the shooting mode), exposure compensation, and another setting like ISO. For a beginner learning the basics of exposure, that's probably enough.

Interface

The D3300 features a slightly more condensed 'quick' menu than is offered in its bigger siblings like the D5300, omitting Active D-Lighting access, but all of the essentials are present. The command dial can't be used in either selecting a function or setting it. We were annoyed by this behavior in the D5300, since use of the command dial would make changing settings just a little bit quicker, but D3300 users (who we expect to be using one of the automated modes more often) may not find this as irritating. This camera is targeted more clearly toward a user moving up from a point-and-shoot, so this point-and-shoot-like interface is likely not a problem - unless that user has ambitions beyond that approach.

The 'info' button on the top of the camera toggles this settings display on and off. Two rows of settings are stacked along the bottom of the display.
Pressing the 'i' button on the back panel activates the quick menu, highlighting the item that was last accessed. The four-way controller is used to navigate between settings.

Unlike many of its rivals, there's no option to then directly change the setting, though...
..instead, pressing the 'OK' button brings up a sub-menu where the desired setting can be changed by using the directional buttons (again, the dial remains unused).
'Help' screens are available to explain various camera and exposure functions. Highlighting an item on the quick menu and pressing the '?' button (also the zoom out button) on the back panel will bring up this informational screen.

Losing the shortcut to Active D-Lighting is disappointing, but doesn't feel like a huge loss since it's only available in on/off states (the D5300 offers more control over ADL modes). It can be assigned to the customizable Fn button, but that requires giving up your only means of direct access to ISO. The D3300 does not offer a touch screen, and neither do most of its entry-level DSLR peers. However, touch screens can be found among the mirrorless competition - the Olympus E-PM2 and Panasonic GF6 both offer one. We think that those moving to a more advanced camera and are accustomed to point-and-shoot or smartphone interfaces would feel at home with a touch screen.

Auto ISO

The D3300 offers an Auto ISO system similar to what's offered in the D5300. It's accessed from the shooting menu, where you can set a baseline ISO along with a maximum sensitivity and a minimum shutter speed, which can also be set to Auto. Selecting Auto maintains a '1/equivalent focal length' rule for shutter speed in P and A modes. In the D5300 you can also choose to skew this higher or lower, depending on your faith in VR and your confidence in handholding. There's no option to do this in the D3300.

As has long been the case with Nikon, the D3300 makes it unusually awkward to engage and disengage Auto ISO - you can only do so from the main menu. In a move that risks being confusing for beginners, you can continue to manually specify an ISO, while in Auto ISO mode, but all you're doing is specifying the minimum that the camera will use.

Diving into the camera menu is the only way to turn ISO Auto on or off. From this screen you can also set a maximum sensitivity and minimum shutter speed.
What's missing here? The D5300 offers the chance to customize your Auto minimum shutter speed, rather than simply following the 1/equivalent focal length rule. In the D3300, this option is not available.

Even without the ability to adjust its behavior to your liking, this dependence on focal length is very helpful, but doesn't hold up in the very basic full Auto mode. In this mode the camera operates under the assumption that you want to use the built-in flash unit. If you override this and turn the flash off (which thankfully, you can) the camera doesn't take this into account. This means you could find yourself shooting at the long end of the zoom and the camera is happily shooting at ISO 100 and 1/60sec. Take into account the high resolution sensor here and you're likely to see some shake under these circumstances. The bottom line is that, counter-intuitively, beginners might be better served by using Program mode.

Live view

The D3300's live view mode is activated by a press of the 'Lv' button on the back panel. Four different display modes are available - they can be accessed via the 'info' button on the top panel.

In addition to this grid view is an image-only option with the exposure parameters displayed along the bottom of the screen. The small white hash marks at the left and right of the display show the 16:9 video crop that you'll see as soon as the record button is pressed.
This shooting view displays stills shooting information such as white balance and drive mode along the top of the screen.
Video display replaces the white hash marks with light grey, transparent bars to mark the 16:9 crop. They're impossible to see when shooting with a dark background, unfortunately. To the camera's credit, it shows audio levels on this screen.

Settings like white balance and focus mode are accessed in the same way as in viewfinder shooting - by pressing the 'i' button. In PAS shooting modes, the screen will brighten and darken to reflect any exposure compensation set. This won't happen in manual exposure mode, but the exposure meter will show exposure in 1/3EV increments on a +/-2 EV scale.

Unfortunately the D3300's live view mode still shows the same odd quirk that we saw on the D5300 and had first appeared on the D300. When you enter Live View, the camera will stop down to the currently set or metered aperture value (offering an undocumented depth-of-field preview in the process), but what it can't then do is readjust the diaphragm 'live' if you change the aperture setting.

It will honor the specified aperture when actually making an exposure, and indeed return to live view at that aperture afterwards; alternatively you can force it to readjust by exiting and re-entering live view. This can give a misleading impression of the depth of field you'll end up getting, and it further complicates manual focus as you have to remember to always initiate live view at an appropriate aperture (normally with the lens wide open).

Even more confusing is this overlap with movie recording and manual exposure mode. Enabling 'Manual Movie Mode' in the menu sets a 1/60sec minimum shutter speed when you use manual exposure mode in live view. It also prohibits the user from changing the aperture value (which the camera can't change during live view, anyway). This is designed to give a better experience for those who want to shoot video with control over all exposure parameters (more on that in the video section of this review) but is potentially confusing, especially if you've forgotten to dis-engage it after recording video some time ago.