Canon's Powershot A3100 IS is the latest in its "A" series of digital cameras, a line that has enjoyed popularity and customer loyalty since A20 launched 10 years ago. Its popularity is mostly due to the "A" series reputation for delivering excellent image quality and dependable performance. Budget-conscious shooters loved earlier "A" series digital cameras because they were like an inexpensive - and slightly stripped down - version of Canon's "G" series digicams.
The A2000 IS, which was introduced in 2008, was the first step in Canon's makeover of the venerable "A" series. The A2000 was an auto-exposure-only point-and-shoot that lacked manual exposure capability, an optical viewfinder and a handgrip. With the A3100 IS, which replaces the popular A1100 IS, Canon's revolutionary "A" series makeover feels complete.
On the surface, the A3100 IS bears a discernible family resemblance to earlier A series digicams, but under the hood presents a major departure from the basic design philosophy that defined its predecessors. The A3100 IS (like its predecessors) provides excellent bang for the buck. Will it help maintain Canon's dominance in this highly competitive market segment? Let's find out.
BUILD AND DESIGN
In general, the A3100 IS's styling is similar to earlier "A" series cameras; its metal alloy and polycarbonate body is compact, stylish (in a practical sort of way) and durable. The camera feels good in the hand - although a bit small - and is easy to operate. Canon's "A" series digicams have always been powered by relatively cheap and universally available AA batteries, but the A3100 IS (and its nearly identical sibling the A3000 IS) are the first "A" series cameras to be powered by proprietary Canon Lithium-ion battery packs.
The A3100 also incorporates a slight redesign of the control array and a new simplified two tab menu system. Its predecessor featured an optical viewfinder and a rudimentary handgrip; the newest PowerShot eschews both. The A3100 IS is smaller (by about 25%) than its predecessor and looks like a shrunken version of earlier A models. Previous "A" series models were very popular with photo enthusiasts and more serious shooters because they provided a useful range of manual exposure options (Aperture Priority mode, Shutter Priority mode and a full Manual exposure mode), but the A3100 IS uses the same auto exposure-only system as the A1100 IS.
Unlike earlier "A" series units, the A3100 IS is thinner, lighter, easier to use than earlier "A" series digicams and easily pocketable. Earlier "A" series cameras were also marketed to a broader demographic, including photo enthusiasts, but the A3100 IS is clearly targeted toward snap-shooters and casual photographers.
Ergonomics and Controls
The A3100 IS's user interface is logical and uncomplicated; all buttons are reasonably large, clearly marked, sensibly placed and easily accessed. Operation is basic and all exposure options are minor variations on the auto exposure theme. The four-way controller and FUNC button provide direct access to the most commonly changed/adjusted (exposure compensation, WB, ISO, My Colors, flash, macro mode, etc.) features and functions. Kudos to Canon for keeping the exposure compensation button at the top position on the compass switch, making minor exposure adjustments (incrementally lightening or darkening images) easy.
The A3100 IS's mode dial is one of the best I've seen with a logical, almost intuitive layout, but its placement (top right hand corner of the camera body) is a bit disconcerting since it is very close to and directly in line with the on/off button and the slightly-too-small shutter button. Ergonomically, the shutter button should always hold the top right hand corner position.
The mode dial has five dedicated scene positions: portrait, landscape, night snapshot, kids & pets, and indoor. In addition, there is a general scene mode position that leads to a list of less commonly used scene modes including face/self-timer, low-light (2.0 megapixels at 1600 ISO), super vivid, poster effect, beach, foliage, snow, fireworks and long shutter. There's also a dedicated face detection mode button. Canon obviously designed the A3100 IS to as easy to use as possible and most purchasers won't have difficulty using it right out of the box.
Menus and Modes
The PowerShot A3100 IS features a simplified two tab version of Canon's classic menu system. The A3100 IS's menu system, accessed via a dedicated button beneath the compass switch, is logical, easy to navigate and simple, since the camera permits only minimal user input. Push the menu button and the "camera/setup" sub-menus appear. The A3100 IS provides an acceptable selection of shooting modes including program, auto, easy and video/movie modes, and a small, but adequate, selection of automatic scene modes. Here's a complete list of the A3100 IS's shooting modes:
Like many currently available point-and-shoots, the A3100 IS doesn't have an optical viewfinder, relying instead on the LCD for all framing/composition, captured image review and menu navigation chores. Most casual shooters don't use optical viewfinders and in many shooting scenarios (macro, festivals, events, portraits), it is quicker and easier to watch the decisive moment come together on the LCD screen than it is through the optical viewfinder.
The A3100 IS may lack a viewfinder, but makes up for it by adding a slightly larger (2.7-inch versus 2.5-inch) LCD screen with double (230K versus 115K) the resolution. The A3100 IS's TFT LCD screen is bright, hue accurate, relatively fluid and automatically boosts gain in dim/low light, and it displays exactly (100% of the image frame) what the lens sees.
The A3100 IS's LCD works fairly well for framing, composition, captured image review and menu navigation. The user-enabled composition grid display is a nice and useful touch, but it is, like all LCD monitors, subject to fading and glare in bright outdoor lighting. The A3100 IS's nifty chronological image review/compare option makes it easy to select the best picture from a sequence of similar images. Photographers who try to "nail" the shot by covering static subjects from various perspectives - like me - will love this feature.
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