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.
While the Canon A3100 IS doesn't look like earlier "A" series cameras, it uses essentially the same exposure system that made its predecessors popular. Exposure is automatically managed by the camera's DIGIC III processor, which combines most primary camera functions (image interpolation and processing, auto exposure, white balance, JPEG compression, gain control and power management) in one chip that improves efficiency and processing speed. In all exposure modes, the camera automatically optimizes all exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, sensitivity, WB, etc.) to consistently produce correctly exposed images.
Timing (speed of operation) is one of two most important considerations when assessing digital camera performance, and the other is image quality. The A3100 IS comes in right at the top when compared to its competitors, with the exception of the continuous shooting rate, in terms of operational speed.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focus)
|Canon PowerShot A3100 IS||0.01|
|Sony Cyber-shot S2100||0.02|
|Olympus Stylus 7010||0.03|
|Kodak EasyShare Z915||0.05|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Canon PowerShot A3100 IS||0.41|
|Olympus Stylus 7010||0.45|
|Sony Cyber-shot S2100||0.68|
|Kodak EasyShare Z915||0.94|
|Olympus Stylus 7010||2||1.7 fps
|Kodak EasyShare Z915||3||1.6 fps
|Sony Cyber-shot S2100||∞||1.0 fps
|Canon PowerShot A3100 IS||∞||0.9 fps
The A3100 IS features the same TTL Contrast Detection 9-point AiAF (Advanced Intelligent Auto Focus) system as its predecessor. It has two AF modes - Face AiAF and Center. In all exposure modes, the camera analyzes the scene in front of the lens and then calculates camera to subject distance to determine which 9 AF point is closest to the primary subject (closest subject priority) and then locks focus on it. The A3100 IS's default face detection AF mode is linked directly to the camera's auto exposure and auto WB systems. The A3100 automatically finds, locks focus on, tracks and then optimizes exposure for up to nine faces or shooters can lock on a single face and track it through a crowd.
Even though Canon's DIGIC IV processor is showing up in many of its newer cameras, the A3100 IS's older DIGIC III processor still provides impressive performance including quicker start-up, faster AF and snappier shutter fire times than most its competitors. Users can also opt for the 1 AF point (center) AF for classic portraits or traditional landscapes. In low light, a focus assist beam helps illuminate the subject for more accurate focusing.
The built-in multi mode flash provides an acceptable selection of artificial lighting options, including auto, red-eye reduction, auto red-eye correction, flash on, flash off; FE lock, slow synchro and smart flash modes. According to Canon, the maximum flash range is about 13 feet (4 meters), which seems fairly accurate, based on my limited flash use. The A3100's flash recycle time is between 3 and 4 seconds. The Smart Flash Exposure mode adjusts flash exposure to match the subject and the shooting conditions to avoid dark facial shadows in outdoor portraits and for even lighting during macro shooting.
The A3100 IS's optical image stabilization system reduces blur by quickly and precisely shifting a lens element in the zoom to compensate for minor camera movement. Image stabilization allows users to shoot at shutter speeds up to three f-stops slower than would have been possible without it. Image stabilization can also be useful when shooting dimly lit indoor venues where flash is inappropriate.
According to Canon, the A3100 IS is good for about 240 exposures on its fully charged Lithium-ion power pack. That's substantially fewer exposures than the A1100 IS was capable of with a pair of re-chargeable NiMH AAs. The Canon PowerShot A3100 IS supports SD, SDHC, MMC, MMC+, HC MMC+ and the SDXC format (for memory cards larger than 32GB).
When the A3100 IS is powered up, the 6.2mm-24.8mm, f/2.7-5.5 (35-140mm equivalent) 4x zoom extends from the camera body automatically, and when the camera is powered down, the lens retracts inside of the camera body and a built in iris-style lens cover closes to protect the front element. Zooming is fairly smooth and lens operation is relatively quiet. Minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is 1.2 inches. The A3100 IS needs about 3 seconds to move the lens from the wide angle end of the zoom range to the telephoto end of the zoom range. Construction is seven elements in five groups with two single-sided aspherical elements.
The A3100 IS's zoom is surprisingly good and even though the lens displays some very minor corner softness, there's no vignetting (dark corners). Barrel distortion (at the wide-angle end of the zoom range) is minimal, which is impressive since barrel distortion is a common fault with small, highly complex camera zooms. Pincushion distortion is essentially invisible at the telephoto end of the zoom.
The 30 fps VGA (640 x 480) movie mode wasn't designed to compete with a dedicated video camera, but it will do nicely for generating email video attachments for friends and family. Like most cameras, the A3100 IS can't be zoomed while in video capture mode.
Image files produced by Canon's point-and-shoots are optimized for the bold bright hues and slightly hard contrast that many shooters refer to as Canon Color, and the A3100 IS doesn't stray far from its "family" trait. Default color is fairly accurate, with most colors coming pretty close to neutral.
Reds are a little warm, blues are a bit bright and greens are very vibrant, but purples are bluish. Most casual shooters won't consider these minor variations as color faults. Although there is a slight tendency toward overexposure, the A3100 IS produces dependably well-exposed, almost noise-free images when used outdoors in good light. Chromatic aberration is remarkably well-controlled, but some very minor color fringing is present, especially in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds.
Images from the A3100 IS are highly-detailed and surprisingly sharp, although in a small percentage of my shots the AF system didn't hit the mark and the IS system infrequently dropped the ball, which resulted in an occasionally blurry image. In bright contrasty lighting, highlight detail was occasionally blown-out. Overall, the A3100's image quality is slightly better than average for cameras in this class.
The A3100 IS provides users with a decent selection of white balance options, including auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent and fluorescent H, and custom. Overall, the A3100 IS's auto WB system does a good job, but like all of Canon's consumer cameras, the auto WB setting produces colors that are noticeably warmer than real world colors under incandescent light.
Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light
Some DSLRs have a problem generating accurate greens and many consumer digicams have trouble getting purple just right. The A3100 IS suffers from this color interpolation malady. In the photo of the Crocuses, notice that the A3100 IS nailed the lavender in this group of early spring bloomers, but failed to get the deeper purple in the image of the Dwarf Irises right; the color is much too blue.
The A3100 IS provides a decent range of sensitivity options, including auto and user-set options for ISO 80 to 1600. ISO 80/ISO 100 images are indistinguishable in that they both show bright colors, slightly hard edged native contrast and very low noise levels. ISO 200 images were also very good, but with a little less pop.
ISO 80, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
At the ISO 400 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a perceptible loss of minor detail. ISO 800 images are very noisy, but they should be OK for lo-res email images and 3 x 5 inch or 4 x 6 inch prints. ISO 1600 images are way too noisy to be useful for anything beyond record shots.
The Canon PowerShot A3100 IS is noticeably different in terms of both design and size from its predecessors and is obviously targeted to casual photographers rather than photography enthusiasts who bought earlier "A" series models. Factor in the new Lithium-ion power pack and the A3100 is actually closer to Canon's Digital Elph models than to earlier "A" series units. The A3100 IS is practically identical to its little brother, the A3000 IS, so bargain seekers can save about $20 by opting for the A3000 IS over the A3100 IS, without giving up much.
The A3100 is an almost ideal first digital camera and an excellent choice for the primary family camera. It is also a very good choice for travelers who want a tough, lightweight, "go anywhere" camera. I carried the A3100 with me (just about everywhere I went) for two weeks, and even with the changes to the basic "A" series formula, I was consistently impressed, just like I have been with every other "A" series Canon camera I've used so far. The bottom line is that you really can't do much better for under $200.