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Canon PowerShot A3100 IS
Overview

by Mike Pasini and Stephanie Boozer
Review Date: 06/09/2010

The entry-level Canon PowerShot A3100 is based around a 12.1-megapixel sensor, with an optically stabilized 4x, 35-140mm zoom lens. Maximum aperture varies from f/2.7 to f/5.6 across the zoom range. The Canon A3100's 2.7-inch LCD has a resolution of 230,000 dots.

The Canon A3100's sensor allows sensitivities ranging from ISO 80 to ISO 1,600 equivalents. Exposures are determined using Evaluative, Center-weighted Average, or Spot metering, and direct control of shutter speed or aperture isn't possible on this camera. 2.0EV of exposure compensation is available, in 1/3EV increments. Seven white balance modes are available on the Canon A3100: Auto, Manual, or five presets. The PowerShot A3100's built-in flash strobe has a range of 13 feet at wide angle, dropping to just 6.6 feet at telephoto, and recharges in around seven seconds.

As well as still images, the A3100 can capture video clips at VGA (640 x 480) resolution or below in Motion JPEG AVI format. The Canon PowerShot A3100 stores images on SD / SDHC / SDXC / MMC / MMC Plus / HC MMC Plus cards, and unusually for a PowerShot A-series camera, draws power from a proprietary lithium-ion battery pack. Battery life is rated at 240 shots on a charge, to CIPA testing standards. Connectivity options include USB 2.0 high-speed data and NTSC / PAL standard definition video.

The Canon PowerShot A3100 is available in the US market from late February 2010, priced at around $180.

 

Canon A3100
User Report

by Mike Pasini

Canon's inexpensive A-series had two things going for it: Full manual control and AA batteries. The Canon A3100 has neither. Say it isn't so!

Or could this be some sort of evolution in the low-end market? Instead of those PASM manual settings, you get an intelligent Auto mode. You still have Program and you also get Easy.

But you don't get Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual. There's no way for a budding photographer to learn from their mistakes.

And as for those convenient AAs, well, Canon held the fort longer than anyone else, but lithium-ions do pack more punch. And camera manufacturers themselves make a sweet little profit on every extra one they sell.

The only problem is that after about two years, lithium-ion batteries die a sudden and painful ($20-$50) death. Maybe you'll break the camera or lose it before then. But that's no consolation.

You still get a DIGIC III image processor on the Canon A3100, plus face detection, ISO 1,600, and red-eye correction. And you still get a large, 2.7-inch LCD.

The A-series seems to be morphing into an inexpensive ELPH, a flat, plastic, gripless camera that slips into a pocket.

Look and Feel. Canon never seemed to pay much attention to style in the A-series, but the cameras were well-built and handled very well. Even in their design, they exhibited value. And in that regard, the Canon A3100 holds true. It even looks pretty sharp, too.

The front of the Canon A3100 has a wide chrome ring around a 4x zoom lens that looks serious about capturing light. A focus assist lamp sits just above a microphone at 11 o'clock and the flash is at 1 o'clock along the ring. The hand-side of the front flares out along the raised Canon name to provide something of a grip.

The Canon A3100's body is thick enough that it's a good grip -- but nothing like the handle the old A-series cameras provided with up to four AAs in the grip. You'll want a wrist strap, no question, but the included strap is unusually long, making it hard to secure to your wrist (particularly when you don't want to slip it off).

The Canon A3100's top panel has, from right to left, the speaker, the Power button, the Shutter button, and the Mode dial, which itself rounds out the side of the body.

On the right side, a generous eyelet makes it easy to slip a wrist strap through. A rubber cover above that hides the Canon A3100's AV/USB port.

On the bottom, Canon has put a metal tripod mount centered under the LCD but not the lens, with the battery/card cover hinged right next to it. But you weren't going to use this with a tripod anyway.

On the back, the 2.7-inch LCD with 230,00 pixels can't be missed. All the important controls are along the right side of the LCD.

While it isn't as thin as an ultra-compact digicam, the Canon A3100 is not too thick to slip into a shirt or pants pocket. It's thicker than a pack of cards, though, and noticeably larger than a business card.

Controls. The Canon A3100's controls should be familiar to any Canon shooter, but more importantly they are easily mastered by new users.

On top, the corner is occupied by a large Mode dial. About an inch and a quarter in, the Power button sits slightly raised from the panel. Using the camera, I found myself constantly tapping the Mode dial instead of the Shutter button, even after a few days. And because it's so shallow, the zoom control is no ring but a lever on the back of the camera. It's a concession to the slimmer design -- but it reminds me why I liked the old box.

The Power button, left of the Canon A3100's Shutter button, is flush to the top, making it hard to find without looking for it, but again that makes it harder to snag on pockets.

The Zoom lever is in the upper right corner of the Canon A3100's rear panel. It follows the curve of the body, as do all the buttons that slide off the right side of the body. That's comfortable, actually, although it may not look like it.

The four-way navigator with Canon's traditional Func./Set button in the middle is topped by a Face Selector button and the Playback button. The Playback button powers on the Canon A3100 without extending the lens and it also powers the camera off. A very nice touch. Below the navigator are the Display and Menu buttons.

The arrow buttons on the four-way navigator also function to set EV, Flash, Timer, and Focus modes. Smart Auto provides an auto Macro mode on the Canon A3100. Though it is also automatically set to Macro in Program mode, you can also set it with the Focus mode option.

None of the buttons on the Canon A3100 feel cheap, and all work well. The four-way navigator is a single piece, not four tiny buttons. I much prefer that. It's a lot smoother.

Lens. The 4x optical zoom Canon lens is the 35mm equivalent of a 35-140mm range. Add 4x digital zoom to that and your reach extends to 560mm. Fortunately, the lens is optically stabilized.

The Canon A3100 reports aperture and shutter speed settings in Record mode when you half-press the shutter button, but it doesn't let you set the aperture or shutter speed. Your only control is over ISO speed in Program mode.

But Canon documents the maximum aperture of the Canon A3100's lens as f/2.7 at wide-angle and f/5.6 at telephoto. We also know shutter speeds range from 15 seconds to 1/1,600 second (the range of 15 seconds to one second is confined to Long Shutter Scene mode). And just to round out the exposure options, ISO includes 80/100/200/400/800/1,600 equivalents.

Our lens quality tests show the lens to be surprisingly sharp in the corners at wide-angle with very soft corners at telephoto, something of a reversal from the usual situation. More typical, though, barrel distortion is higher than average at wide-angle and barely perceptible at telephoto. And chromatic aberration evident only at wide-angle.

Special Scene Modes. With the Mode dial set to SCN, the Func./Set button brings up the Scene mode options. And with Hints on (in Setup), you get a nice explanation for each of them.

Modes. Without the PASM manual modes, this isn't a great camera for students or anyone who wants to learn photography. That's notable because the A-series has been a very good line for just that person, leaving the shooter who can't be bothered with photography to the ELPH line.

The Mode dial still has a number of options, though.

In addition to Program, which lets you adjust ISO, white balance, metering, and release modes, the Canon A3100 offers Smart Auto and Easy.

Smart Auto mode analyzes both the scene and the shooting conditions to select among 18 specially defined settings. The only setting you can change is image size, although you can also disable the flash. It does have the distinct advantage over Program of switching the lens into Macro mode when the subject is very close.

Easy mode (marked with the heart inside a camera) is even more restrictive, allowing you only to disable the flash. You might find it handy if you pass your camera around to people who don't know a thing about cameras.

Also on the Mode dial are a few Scene modes and a Special Scene mode. Scene modes directly accessible on the dial are Portrait, Landscape, Night Snapshot, Kids & Pets, and Indoor. Special Scene modes available from the Function menu include Face Detection Self-Timer, Low Light (at a 2-megapixel image size), Super Vivid, Poster Effect, Beach, Foliage, Snow, Fireworks, and Long Shutter.

Click to view movie. AVI player required.

VGA movie. 640 x 480 @ 30 fps Motion JPEG format. Optical zoom not available, but digital zoom is. (Click to download 9.7MB AVI file.)

Movie mode is the last icon on the dial, letting you select from among three options: 640x480 standard quality, 640x480 LP (with more compression), and 320x240 -- all at 30 frames per second. None of these are High Definition captures. The format is Motion JPEG in an AVI container. Sound is captured and digital zoom is available.

Finally, there are some special effects: Vivid, Neutral, Sepia, Black & White, and Custom adjustment of contrast, sharpness, and saturation.

Menu System. The Canon controls and menu system are comfortable to use once you learn how to play the game (which seems to change a little on each model, like the inclusion of a Face Selector button on the Canon A3100). After you pick a Record mode, just hit the Function button to see your shooting options. Hit the Menu button for general camera setup options any time.

Image size options include 4:3 aspect ratio 12-Mp, 8-Mp, 5-Mp, 2-MP and VGA options plus a 4,000 x 2,248 pixel widescreen option.

Storage & Battery. The Canon A3100 IS uses SD cards and can handle SD/SDHC/SDXC, MultiMediaCard, MMC Plus, and HC MMC Plus cards. A 4GB card will hold about 1,231 images at the Fine JPEG compression setting and Large image size. The same card holds about 32 minutes, 26 seconds of the highest quality video (640x480 at 30 fps).

Instead of the AA batteries that had been traditional on the A-series, the Canon A3100 uses a proprietary NB-8L battery pack. The AC Adapter Kit ACK-DC60 can be used instead, replacing the battery with a dummy battery attached to a power adapter to power the camera. Canon reports shooting capacity of about 240 shots or six hours of playback time using CIPA testing standards.

I found it easy to install the battery incorrectly. The cover won't close completely if you do, but before you try, make sure the battery is flush with the opening for it and not slightly raised. The easiest thing to do is line up the contacts as you're inserting the battery.

Image Quality. Image quality tests show the PowerShot A3100 IS does shift a few colors: yellow toward green, red toward orange, and, more strongly, cyan toward blue. But overall color is bright and pleasing. I found my rose shots were rendered naturally without the oversaturation of most consumer digicams except for the pure red rose. That shot did show a lack of detail in the reds, something I commonly see.

Playback Mode. Essential exposure information and a histogram are included.

Noise, as in most cameras of this class, is held in check through ISO 400 but above that image quality becomes a bit softer. I think it holds up pretty well, but it is different than low ISO results.

Shooting. On the whole, I found my snapshots with the A3100 IS very pleasing, even better than the two ELPHs I reviewed earlier. They stood up to some pixel peeping, revealing detail I didn't notice at the scene. Image quality has always been one of the A-series strengths; glad to see that hasn't changed.

In my circle of friends and acquaintances, A-series Canons are more popular than ELPHs. "Hey, it was only $150 but I really like the pictures," is the usual appraisal. And I liked my pictures. I wasn't expecting digital SLR quality but I got better than most inexpensive digicams manage. And, really, only once did I regret not having a better camera with me.

But a day doesn't go by that I don't say that!

What's more interesting to me was that while I did take a few preliminary shots in Program mode, I took most of my photos in Auto mode. I never do that.

What I liked about Auto on the Canon A3100 was that it automatically shifted into Macro mode when I moved the camera close to the subject. I shoot a lot of close-ups (flowers mainly) for the gallery shots and remembering to switch modes in Program using the Left arrow is a nuisance.

The results were the same (quite nice). You can see some early Program mode roses compared to some later Auto mode flowers. It really was just a difference of my own convenience.

In another departure from tradition, I tried the Low Light Scene mode. I shot the interior of a 1966 Chrysler New Yorker. In Program I had turned off the flash for the shot and liked what I got. I hadn't turned the flash off in Low Light. Still the shot looked good on the LCD.

But there's quite a difference between the two images. The Program image is 4,000 x 3,000 pixels. The Low Light image is 1,600 x 1,200 pixels. The Canon A3100 combines nearby pixels in Low Light mode to reduce image noise. I didn't think the noise was very bad in the Program shot (the DIGIC III no doubt suppresses noise at ISO 800) but I thought the pixel binning and noise suppression of the Low Light image was a bit strong. Low Light captured at ISO 2363 -- with the flash.

The ELPHs I shot with earlier this year didn't do well outdoors, blowing out highlights I expected them to hang onto. But the Canon A3100 held onto them. The last gallery shot is a walkway going south on a sunny day. On the LCD the stone wall to the right was blown out, but on the image itself there's excellent detail in the highlights on top of the wall and on the side in deep shadow as well. Even more surprising, the very high-key distant image of the mountains held some detail.

It can be difficult to judge detail in a distant landscape taken with a 12.1-megapixel sensor. Pixel peeping will always disappoint. The image starts to fall apart, almost as if it had been taken with digital zoom. So on one excursion with the Canon A3100, I also brought along a dSLR and took a similar landscape shot. Seen at 100 percent side-by-side, the Canon A3100 had just as much detail as the dSLR shot!

What I really enjoyed about the Canon A3100, though, were the close-ups. The dandelion shot and the close-up of the ball of yarn both show fine detail that escapes the naked eye. And the fig leaf, while showing some blurring at the edges, is sharp as a tack in the center.

The orange flowers (including the poppy) are accurately captured. Red tends to drift into an oversaturated blob with little detail on most digicams, but the Canon A3100 held reds in check admirably.

And what it did with the iris is almost a work of art. The purple tongue stands out very sharply against the texture of the white petals, which themselves leap out from the dark background as if they were 3D. The light is responsible for the success of that image, but the Canon A3100 captured it.

The one disappointment with the Canon A3100 isn't the camera's fault. I'm heart-broken that Canon has dropped manual modes from the A-series, content to position it as a less expensive ELPH. But learning how different apertures, shutter speeds, and ISO settings affect your pictures is the fun of photography. And having an inexpensive camera for students to learn about that fun was valuable. Not having such a student camera will certainly make the leap to a digital SLR harder.

Still, for the price, the Canon A3100 is a good point & shoot digital camera with a good quality 12-megapixel sensor, producing better images than Canon's current crop of 14-megapixel ELPH digital cameras. See our image analysis below, as well as our conclusion.

 

Canon A3100 IS Lens Quality


Wide: Sharp at center
Wide: Slightly soft upper right
Tele: Sharper at center
Tele: Quite soft, upper right

Sharpness: The wide-angle end of the Canon PowerShot A3100's zoom is surprisingly sharp from center to corner, with just a hint of softness in the furthest point of each corner. However, at telephoto, corners are quite soft, and blurring extends far into the main image area. In fact, the whole image at telephoto appears a little fuzzy, though details at the center are reasonably sharp.


Wide: Higher than average barrel distortion; noticeable
Tele: Virtually no visible distortion

Geometric Distortion: There is a higher-than-average amount of barrel distortion at wide-angle (0.9%), but almost no perceptible distortion (<0.1% or one pixel) at telephoto.


Wide: Moderate
Tele: Low

Chromatic Aberration: Chromatic aberration at wide-angle is moderate, with bright, purplish pixels. Telephoto, however, exhibits less distortion, with a suggestion of reddish and cyan pixels visible.


Macro
Macro with Flash

Macro: The Canon PowerShot A3100's Macro mode captures a very sharp image at the center of the frame, with only mild softness along the edges and corners. Minimum coverage area is 1.41 x 1.06 inches (36 x 27mm). The camera focuses so closely that the flash is blocked by the lens at the most extreme closeup.


 

Canon A3100 IS Image Quality


Color: Overall color is bright and pleasing, with only minimal oversaturation in bright reds, some greens and blues. In terms of hue accuracy, the PowerShot A3100 IS does show a few shifts, such as yellow toward green, red toward orange, and, more strongly, cyan toward blue. Darker skin tones show a warm cast, while lighter skin tones are just a hint reddish. Good performance overall though.


80
100
200
400
800
1,600

ISO: Noise and Detail: Detail is good up to ISO 200, and is still pretty good at ISO 400. Some softening from noise suppression becomes more evident at ISO 400, becoming more intense at ISO 800 and 1,600. Chroma (color) noise remains in check through the range, though luminance noise causes the higher sensitivity images to look quite fuzzy. See the Printed details below for more on how this affects prints.


Wide: Slightly dim
Tele: Good
Auto Flash
Flash: Our manufacturer-specified testing (shown at right) shows slightly dim results at the wide-angle distance of 13 feet, though the ISO is raised to 400. Telephoto results are fairly bright at 6.6 feet (again, at ISO 400). Thus, the PowerShot A3100 IS' flash should be sufficient for average conditions, provided you stay a little closer within range of your subjects.

Auto flash retains some of the ambient light by using a lower shutter speed of 1/20 second, and raising ISO to 320. The Canon A3100's image stabilization should handle the slower shutter speed, but subject movement will be a little more noticeable at this shutter speed.


Auto WB: Close, a hint red
Incandescent WB: Too red
 
Manual WB: Very good

Incandescent: Manual white balance handled our tough incandescent lighting quite well, though the Auto setting came in close behind with a hint of a red cast. Incandescent mode produced a noticeable red color shift.


Printed: ISO 80 and 100 images look quite good printed at 16x20 inches, though some slight chroma noise appears in the shadows, and the soft corners are also visible at this size.

ISO 200 images look better reduced to 13x19 inches, but that's still pretty big for a small camera like this.

ISO 400 shots are pretty good at 11x14, with very good detail and color.

ISO 800 files are usable at 8x10, but better at 5x7, with good color.

ISO 1,600 shots are a little soft at 5x7, but better at 4x6, though color is more muted than lower ISO shots.

Overall printed performance is quite good for an inexpensive camera, exceeding the capabilities of the 14-megapixel Canon ELPH cameras we've just reviewed.


 

Canon A3100 IS Performance


Shutter lag: Full autofocus shutter lag is good, at 0.48 second at wide-angle and 0.52 second at full telephoto. Prefocus shutter lag is 0.078 second, slower than average, but still fast.


Cycle time: Cycle time is on the slow side, capturing a frame every 2.32 seconds in single-shot mode. Canon rates the A3100's full resolution continuous mode at 0.8 frames-per-second.


Flash Recycle: The Canon PowerShot A3100's flash recycles in 7.3 seconds after a full-power discharge. That's about average, but faster than previous Canon A-series models powered by two AA batteries.


 

In the Box

The retail package contains the following items:

 

Canon A3100 IS Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Compact, well-built
  • 4x zoom with optical image stabilization
  • Good detail from 12-megapixel sensor
  • Decent 2.7-inch LCD
  • Smart Auto analyzes each scene to pick the correct settings
  • Good auto white balance indoors
  • Face Detection
  • Face Self-timer
  • Very good macro mode
  • Good shutter lag
  • AF Assist lamp
  • Flash recycles faster than recent AA powered Canon A-series
  • Very good print quality for its class
  • Inexpensive
  • Lens doesn't go very wide
  • Higher-than-average barrel distortion at wide-angle
  • Soft images at full telephoto
  • No manual or priority exposure modes
  • Slow 0.8 frames per second continuous mode shooting
  • Doesn't use inexpensive AA batteries
  • Slightly below average battery life
  • No HD video
  • No optical viewfinder

 

As our Lab Technician Luke Smith pointed out in his shooting notes, the PowerShot A3100 IS "has Canon genes." Everything works easily and just the way you expect it to work. And the results -- the quality of the images -- are pleasing.

I am disappointed that Canon is moving the A-series away from the simple classic design of the past toward budget ELPHdom, but I'm pleased to see image quality remains very high, even higher than the ELPHs I shot with this year. It's that image quality that makes the Canon A3100 stand out among the growing species of inexpensive digicams. That is sufficient distinction to earn a Dave's Pick.