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Quick Look Review

Nikon Coolpix 3100 Digital Camera

Camera QuickLook
Review Date
02/18/03
User Level
Novice - Amateur
Product Uses
Family / Travel
Digicam Design
Point and Shoot
Picture Quality
Great, 3.2-megapixel CCD
Print Sizes
4x6, 5x7, 8x10
Availability
March 2003
Suggested Retail Price
$349.95

Please Note: This camera is the "big brother" of the Coolpix 2100. The only significant difference between the cameras is the 2-megapixel CCD in the 2100 vs the 3.2-megapixel CCD in the 3100. If you've read my review of the 2100 already, you can save yourself some reading, as the features are the same. If you're already familiar with the 2100, you can just skip down to the "Test Results" section to see how it performed in my testing. - Dave Etchells


Introduction

Review Links
Overview
Picky
Details
Design
Operation
Recommended Accessories
Test Images
Specifications
Conclusion

As I've observed before when introducing a review of a Nikon camera, Nikon is one of the few companies that you can say truly needs no introduction in the world of photography. Their name has been identified with professional and high-end amateur photography for a good five decades now, and they've been highly successful in translating that long history of expertise into the digital arena. Their 2.1-megapixel Coolpix 950 and 3.3-megapixel Coolpix 990 and 995 digicams led the popularity charts at the high end of the "prosumer" market segment at their respective introductions, and the various high-end Nikon models announced since then have continued that tradition. The key has been the combination of excellent picture quality with an amazing range of features, all calculated to give the photographer maximum control over the picture-taking process.

In the last year or so, Nikon has addressed the digital picture-taking needs of "ordinary people," rather than just focusing on the "enthusiast" crowd. Cameras like the Coolpix 885 and 775 incorporated "Scene" modes that set up the camera for specific picture-taking situations (such as "party," "beach," "fireworks," etc.). Special modes make it easy for novices to get usable photos in tricky situations, without having to take an advanced course in photography first. Based on the popularity of these models, it looks like Nikon is on the right track to meet the needs of the masses.

One of the newest members of the Coolpix line, the 3100 model, extends the Nikon product line further down the price curve toward true entry-level consumers, without compromising basic picture-taking capability. Taking their commitment to the average consumer even further, Nikon has introduced a selection of Framing Assist modes on the Coolpix 3100. These innovative modes overlay framing guides in the shape of people, mountains or an alignment grid on the LCD monitor, making it easy to frame your subjects to best align with the camera's exposure and focusing systems. Consumers thus have a nearly foolproof way to capture great pictures in just about any situation.


Camera Overview
Built to be portable and compact, the new Nikon Coolpix 3100 ranks among the smallest digicams currently on the market. The camera's square style and slightly knobby design are a firm departure from the previous swivel-lens and more streamlined Coolpix models. - The overall look is rather similar to the earlier Coolpix 775 model, albeit a bit thinner. Slightly larger than a credit card and a little under an inch and a half thick, the Coolpix 3100 is designed to fit nicely into shirt pockets and small purses, perfect for travelers. It's so tiny (weighing just 7.5 ounces (212 grams) without batteries or storage card), I'd highly recommend keeping the included wrist strap securely around your wrist when shooting. The automatic lens cover makes it quick on the draw, and eliminates any worry about keeping track of a lens cap. The camera's duotoned silver body is attractive and modern, with a small, blue highlight on the front handgrip, a throwback to previous Coolpix designs. Built into the Coolpix 3100 is a 3x optical zoom lens and a 3.2-megapixel CCD for capturing high quality images, and a incredible amount of preset shooting modes. Since the camera operates mainly under automatic control, its control layout and menu display are very user friendly.

The Coolpix 3100 features both a real-image optical viewfinder and a 1.5-inch color LCD monitor. Though the LCD monitor provides more accurate framing, it also decreases battery life. You can turn it on or off via the Display button on the rear panel. The camera's 3x, 5.8-17.4mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 38-114mm lens on a 35mm camera, a moderate wide angle to medium telephoto) offers maximum apertures from f/2.7 to f/4.9, depending on the zoom setting, and is made up of seven elements in six groups. The camera uses contrast-detection autofocus in normal mode, which ranges from 1.0 foot (30 centimeters) to infinity. In Macro mode, the camera focuses as close as 1.6 inches (4.0 centimeters), and automatically switches to continuous AF mode, focusing constantly when the Shutter button is not half-pressed. Turning on the camera triggers the shutter-like lens cover to open, and the lens to extend forward a bit over a half an inch. In addition to its 3x optical zoom, the Coolpix 3100 offers a maximum 4x digital zoom, which lets you "zoom" in even closer (equivalent to a 460mm lens on 35mm camera), although the digital zoom simply enlarges the center pixels of the CCD, resulting in lower image quality. The 3.2-megapixel CCD produces high-resolution images, good enough for printing to 8x10 inches with good detail, as well as lower-resolution images for sending via email or printing as 4x6-inch snapshots.

In keeping with the tradition of the Coolpix line, the Coolpix 3100's exposure control is very straightforward. Operating mainly under automatic control, the Coolpix 3100's user interface is easy to learn. Most of the exposure options are controlled through the multi-page LCD menu system, although a handful of external controls access basic features. A Mode dial on top of the camera controls the operating mode, with four preset "Framing Assist" modes, a Scene mode for specific shooting situations, Auto and Manual settings, and Movie and Setup modes. In this case, Auto and Manual exposure modes refer to the number of exposure options available, since aperture and shutter speed remain under camera control at all times. The Framing Assist modes include Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait, each offering a range of framing scenarios. For example, under Portrait mode, you can set up the framing for a centered single subject, a single subject off to the right or left, a close-up portrait, two subjects positioned side-by-side, and a figure shot with the camera held in portrait rather than landscape orientation. Once a specific setup is chosen, bold yellow subject outlines appear in the LCD monitor to help you line up the shot for the best focus and exposure. (See the animated screenshot at right, showing the framing options for portrait mode.) Sports mode offers enhanced options for capturing fast-paced action, such as a rapid fire mode that captures 16 tiny images in two seconds that form a single picture. The Scene position of the Mode dial provides access to 10 preset "scenes," which optimize the camera for what would normally be more difficult shooting situations. Available Scenes are Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close-Up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, and Back Light. Each scene mode sets multiple camera options to configure it for the specific type of subject and shooting condition chosen. These tools make the Coolpix 3100 extremely flexible in a variety of conditions, providing almost worry-free operation.

Depending on the exposure mode, the Coolpix 3100 offers a wide range of exposure options. The Auto and Manual designations on the Mode dial refer to the amount of exposure control available to the user, although no mode allows the user to control the aperture or shutter speed directly. Though not reported on the LCD display, the Coolpix 3100's shutter speeds range from 1/3,000 to four seconds. The Exposure Compensation adjustment optionally increases or decreases overall exposure from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. A White Balance adjustment offers five preset modes, an Auto setting, and a Custom setting for manually determining the color balance. The Coolpix 3100 uses a 256-Segment Matrix metering system to determine exposure, evaluating the contrast and brightness across the frame to determine the best exposure. In any of the Framing Assist modes, the emphasis of the exposure reading is placed on the AF area. ISO light sensitivity is rated at 50 during normal shooting (although my test unit never recorded an ISO setting in its file headers of less than 100 in all my shots), but the Coolpix 3100 automatically raises it as high as 800 when conditions require it. (Note though, that the camera doesn't report its chosen ISO value to the user while shooting.) You can also adjust the overall sharpness of an image, and access Nikon's Best Shot Selector mode, which automatically chooses the least blurry image in a series shot while the shutter remains pressed. (The Best Shot Selector feature is one of my all-time favorite digicam features, as it makes it possible to hand hold even very long exposures.) The Coolpix 3100's built-in flash is effective to approximately 9.8 feet (3.0 meters), and operates in Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Anytime (Fill) Flash, and Flash Cancel modes. In some Assist and Scene modes, the flash mode is automatically set for you. Portrait Assist, for example, defaults to Red-Eye Reduction mode but can be overridden, while in Night Portrait Assist the default Red-Eye Reduction can not be overridden. Night Portrait Assist and the Scene modes Night Landscape and Dusk/Dawn also enable an automatic Noise Reduction feature when long
shutter times are being used, to eliminate excess image noise resulting from the higher ISO sensitivity and longer exposure.

Other camera features include a Self-Timer mode, which provides a 10-second delay between the time the Shutter button is pressed and the image is actually captured. A Continuous Shooting mode captures a rapid series of images while the Shutter button is held down, with the actual number of images dependent on the size and quality settings, as well as the amount of memory card space. (The sequence length varies from three images at the 3100's highest resolution and image quality setting, to approximately 45 images at the smallest image size and lowest quality.) There's also a Multi-Shot 16 mode, which captures 16 thumbnail images in sequence, arranged in rows of four within a full-sized image. A second Multi-Shot mode captures a series of images at 15 frames per second, for a maximum of seven seconds while the Shutter button is held down. From this series, the camera selects 16 frames at regular intervals and arranges them in four rows of a single 1,600x1,200-pixel image. The Coolpix 3100's Movie mode offers four options: Small movie (320x240 pixels), Movie clip (interlaced 640x480-pixel frames suitable for television), B/W clip at the small size, and Sepia clip at the small size and five frames per second rather than the 15 the other modes capture. The actual length of recording time depends on the amount of available CompactFlash card space, and appears in the LCD monitor.

The Coolpix 3100 stores images on CompactFlash (type I) memory cards, and comes with a 16MB Lexar "starter" card. Given the camera's 2,048 x 1,536-pixel maximum resolution size, I'd recommend picking up a larger memory card so you don't miss any important shots. - Cards are cheap enough these days that you should plan on getting at least a 64 MB card. Images are saved in JPEG format, with three compression levels available. A CD-ROM loaded with Nikon View software accompanies the camera, compatible with both Windows and Macintosh platforms (including Windows XP and Mac OS X). Nikon View provides minor image editing and organization tools, for enhancing images. The camera comes with a set of two single-use AA alkaline batteries, but can also use rechargeable NiMH AA cells, one CRV3 lithium battery pack or two LR6 AA nickel manganese batteries. As always, I highly recommend picking up a couple of sets of high-capacity rechargeable batteries, and keeping a spare set freshly charged at all times. Click here to read my "battery shootout" page to see which batteries currently on the market are best, or here for my review of the Maha C-204F charger, my longtime favorite. The optional AC adapter is handy for time-consuming tasks such downloading images to a computer, but good-quality rechargeable batteries largely eliminate the need for it. Also included with the Coolpix 3100 is a video cable for connecting to a television set for slide shows, and a USB cable for downloading images to a computer.


Basic Features

  • 3.2-megapixel (effective) CCD delivering image resolutions as high as 2,048 x 1,536 pixels.
  • 1.5-inch color LCD display.
  • Real-image optical viewfinder.
  • 3x, 5.8-17.4mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 38-114mm lens on a 35mm camera).
  • Maximum aperture f/2.7-f/4.9, depending on lens zoom position.
  • Shutter speeds from 1/3,000 to four seconds.
  • 4x Digital zoom.
  • Automatic exposure control.
  • Built-in flash with four operating modes.
  • CompactFlash memory storage.
  • Power supplied by two AA batteries, one CRV3 lithium battery, or optional AC adapter.
  • Nikon View software for both Mac and Windows.

Special Features

  • QuickTime movies (without sound).
  • Continuous Shooting, Multi-Shot, and Multi-Shot 16 modes.
  • Ten preset Scene modes, plus four Framing Assist modes.
  • Self-timer for delayed shutter release.
  • Best Shot Selector mode.
  • Sharpness adjustment.
  • Macro (close-up) lens adjustment.
  • White balance (color) adjustment with seven modes, including a manual setting.
  • 256-Segment Matrix metering.
  • ISO equivalent of 50 (ranging to 800 in Night Portrait mode).
  • DCF (Design Rule for Camera File System) compatibility.
  • Exif Version 2.2 support.
  • DPOF (Digital Print Order Format) compatibility.
  • USB cable for quick connection to a computer.
  • Video cable for connection to a television set.


Recommendation

Midrange Point & Shoots
If you're interested in the camera in this review, here are some competing models that may also interest you. (Camera names that aren't links are those we haven't reviewed yet. - Stay tuned.)
Three Megapixel, 3x zoom
Canon A70 Prices
Fuji A303 Prices
Kodak DX4330 Prices
Minolta Xi (subcompact) Prices
Nikon 3100 Prices
Olympus 560 Prices
Olympus 550* Prices
Pentax 330GS Prices
Sony P72 Prices
* - model phasing out
Confused?
Check out Dave's Picks!

As one of the smallest Coolpix models in the line, the 3100 melds the power of a Nikkor 3x optical zoom lens, a 3.2-megapixel CCD, and a range of automatic, preset shooting modes into a very consumer-friendly digicam. Automatic exposure control lets the camera take charge of all the picky details, although a handful of exposure options provides creative tools when you need them. With its diminutive dimensions, the Coolpix 3100 is great for travel, and the range of preset shooting and framing modes anticipates most common shooting conditions. The 2,048 x 1,536-pixel maximum resolution is high enough for making 8x10-inch photographic prints, while the 640x480-pixel resolution setting is perfect for sending email attachments over the Internet. The uncomplicated user interface means you won't spend much time learning the camera. Perfect for novice users or anyone looking for a point-and-shoot camera with a few extra features and great ease of use, the Coolpix 3100 could also serve as a great take-anywhere snapshot camera for more advanced shooters.

 

Design
With its tiny dimensions, the Coolpix 3100 could almost hide behind a credit card (it's just a bit taller). Though the camera body has a few protrusions, they're slight enough to prevent its hanging in pockets, especially when combined with the smooth contours that define the camera. Despite its size, the Coolpix 3100 fit my hand surprisingly well, though I highly recommend making use of the included wrist strap. The Coolpix 3100's duotone silver body is modern and chic, with only a hint of slate blue on the front handgrip echoed by the screen printed button icons on the back. High quality Nikkor optics and a 3.2-megapixel CCD give the Coolpix 3100 great image quality, and a selection of Scene and Framing Assist modes make operation a breeze, even for novice users. The Coolpix 3100 measures 3.4 x 2.5 x 1.5 inches (88 x 65 x 38 millimeters), and weighs 7.5 ounces (212 grams) without batteries or memory card.

The camera's front panel contains the 3x zoom lens, built-in flash, optical viewfinder window, and the self-timer lamp (right next to the flash). A shutter-like lens cover protects the lens when not in use, and automatically slides out of the way when the camera is powered on (eliminating the hassle of keeping track of a lens cap). When powered on, the lens telescopes out nearly 5/8 inch into its operating position. A curved, sculpted ridge beneath the Shutter button acts as a finger grip, and comfortably aligns your fingers as they wrap around the camera.

On the right side of the camera is the CompactFlash memory card compartment and an eyelet for attaching the wrist strap. The CompactFlash compartment door opens toward the back of the camera, and is hinged to the camera body so that it can open as wide as necessary to access the card. Inside the compartment, a small eject button releases the card from the slot.

On the opposite side of the camera is a connector compartment, protected by a plastic cover that remains attached to the camera. Inside are the Video Out / USB and DC In jacks.

The Shutter button, Mode dial, and Power switch are the only features on the Coolpix 3100's top panel.

The remaining external controls are all located on the camera's rear panel, along with the 1.5-inch, TFT color LCD monitor and optical viewfinder. Two LEDs next to the optical viewfinder light or flash to indicate camera status, such as when focus is set, the flash is charging, or the camera is accessing the memory card. A two-way zoom rocker button in the top right corner controls optical and digital zoom, as well as some Playback viewing options. In the center of the back panel is a multi-directional rocker pad, which accesses Flash, Macro, and Self-Timer options, in addition to navigating menu screens. Across the bottom of the LCD panel are the Erase, Display, Menu, and Playback/Transfer buttons.

The Coolpix 3100 has a flat bottom panel, although rounded edges curve up toward the rest of the camera. The battery compartment door and plastic, threaded tripod mount line up side-by-side, making quick battery changes while mounted to a tripod impossible. This won't likely be a problem for most Coolpix 3100 users, though, given the point-and-shoot nature of the camera. A hinged, plastic door covers the battery compartment, with a lock release button to open it.


Camera Operation
Despite the Coolpix 3100's limited exposure control, the camera offers a nice selection of external control buttons, making for an easy-to-navigate user interface. Flash mode, Self-Timer mode, Macro mode, zoom, record mode, and an Erase function are all accessible via external controls. The Mode dial on top of the camera accesses the main operating modes, and a multi-directional Arrow pad on the back panel navigates through on-screen menus, in addition to accessing camera features directly. The LCD menu system is fairly short, with user-friendly icons in the Scene and Framing Assist modes. Operating this camera is so straightforward I doubt you'll need the manual for much more than reference. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes to get into the swing of things.


Shutter Button
: Resting slightly above the power switch, the Shutter button sits on the right edge of the top panel. This button sets the camera's exposure when halfway pressed, and releases the shutter when fully pressed.

Power Switch: Encircling the Shutter button on the top panel, you slide this switch briefly toward you to turn the camera on or off. When released, it springs back to its original position.


Mode Dial
: The only other control on the top panel, this ribbed dial selects the camera's main operating mode. Choices are Setup, Movie, Manual, Auto, Scene, Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait.


Zoom (W and T) Rocker Button
: Located in the top right corner of the camera's back panel, this two-way rocker button controls the optical and digital zoom (when enabled) in any record mode. In Playback mode, the "W" button activates the index image display mode, while the "T" button controls digital enlargement of the captured image.


Multi-Directional Arrow Pad (Flash, Self-Timer, and Macro Buttons)
: Situated in the center of the rear panel, this button features four arrows, one pointing in each direction. In any Settings menu, the arrow keys navigate through menu selections.

In Playback mode, the right and left arrows scroll through captured images. During movie playback, the left arrow rewinds, the down arrow pauses or resumes, and the right arrow fast forwards when held down. You can step forward or back one frame at a time by pressing the right and left arrows when the movie is paused.

In Record mode, three of the arrow keys control specific exposure features. The up arrow controls the camera's flash mode, producing a popup menu of options (Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Anytime Flash, and Flash Cancel). The left arrow activates the camera's Self-Timer mode, while the right arrow activates the Macro focus mode.


Playback / Transfer Button
: Beneath the multi-direction Arrow pad, this button accesses the camera's Playback mode. When the camera is connected to a computer via the USB cable, this button enables one-touch image downloading.


Menu Button
: Directly to the left of the Playback / Transfer button, this button displays the settings menu in any camera mode. It also dismisses the menu display.


Display Button
: Centered beneath the LCD monitor and to the left of the Menu button, this button controls the LCD display mode, in both Record and Playback modes. In Manual or Auto Record mode, pressing this button once cancels the information display. A second press dismisses the display entirely. Pressing it a third time restores the original viewfinder display with information overlay. In Playback mode, this button simply toggles the information overlay on and off.


Erase Button
: Directly beneath the lower left corner of the LCD monitor, this button pulls up the Erase menu while in Playback mode.


Batt Open Button
: In the center of the battery compartment door, on the bottom of the camera, this button unlocks the compartment door so that it can slide forward and open.

Camera Modes and Menus

Setup Mode: The following Setup menu automatically appears whenever the Mode dial is turned to the "Setup" position:

  • Welcome Screen: Disables the welcome screen that appears at startup, or lets you designate a previously-shot image as the welcome screen.
  • Language: Changes the menu language to German, English, French, Japanese, or Spanish.
  • Date: Sets the camera's internal clock and calendar.
  • Brightness: Adjusts the brightness of the LCD display.
  • Volume: Turns the camera speaker on or off.
  • Auto Off: Enables the Auto Off feature, which automatically shuts down the camera after a period of inactivity, to save battery life. Times are 30 seconds, or 1, 5, or 30 minutes.
  • CF Card Format: Formats the CompactFlash card, erasing all files (even protected ones).
  • USB: Sets the USB protocol to Mass Storage or PTP. The PTP option is best for Windows XP and Mac OS X systems (unless you want to mount the camera on the desktop), while Mass Storage is best for older operating systems.
  • Video Mode: Sets the video output to NTSC or PAL timing.
  • Reset All: Resets all camera settings to their defaults.



Movie Mode
: This mode is denoted by a movie camera icon on the Mode dial. Movie mode captures moving images (without sound) at 15 frames per second (except for Sepia Movie) for as long as the memory card has available space. Pressing the Menu button pulls up a resolution menu, with options for Small Movie (320 x 240 pixels), TV Movie (interlaced 640 x 480 pixels), B/W Movie (320 x 240 pixels), and Sepia Movie (320 x 240 pixels at 5 frames per second).

Manual Record Mode: This mode is marked on the Mode dial with a black camera icon and the letter "M." Aperture and shutter speed remain under automatic control here, but the Shooting menu offers the following options:

  • Image Size and Quality: Sets the image resolution and compression level. Choices are 3M High (2,048 x 1,536 pixels with 1:4 compression), 3M Normal (2,048 x 1,536 pixels with 1:8 compression), 2M Normal (1,600 x 1,200 pixels, 1:8), PC screen (1,024 x 768 pixels, 1:8), and TV screen (640 x 480 pixels, 1:8).
  • White Balance: Adjusts the overall color balance of the image. Options are Auto, Preset (manual adjustment), Daylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, and Speedlight.
  • Exposure Compensation: Increases or decreases exposure from -2 to +2 EV, in one-third-step increments.
  • Date Imprint: Activates (or deactivates) a date overlay that appears over the image with an option to include the time, too.
  • Continuous: Accesses the camera's drive modes, which include Single, Continuous, Multi-Shot 16, and Multi-Shot 16-2.
  • Best Shot Selector: Turns the Best Shot Selector mode on or off. When enabled, the camera picks the least blurry image from a series. This is helpful when you have to hand-hold the camera at slow shutter speeds. The camera will select the sharpest image from a series of images taken when you hold down the shutter button.
  • Image Sharpening: Controls the amount of in-camera sharpening applied to images. Choices are Auto, High, Normal, Low, or Off.
  • CF Card Format: Formats the CompactFlash memory card, with an option to cancel.

Auto Record Mode: Activated by turning the Mode dial to the Auto position (green camera icon), this mode places the camera in control of both aperture and shutter speed, as well as most other exposure features. Pressing the Menu button displays a limited Shooting menu.

  • Image Size and Quality: Sets the image resolution and compression level. Choices are 3M High (2,048 x 1,536 pixels), 3M Normal (2,048 x 1,536 pixels), 2M Normal (1,600 x 1,200 pixels), PC (1,024 x 768 pixels), and TV (640 x 480 pixels).
  • Exposure Compensation: Increases or decreases exposure from -2 to +2 EV, in one-third-step increments.
  • Date Imprint: Activates (or deactivates) a date overlay that's applied to each image as it's captured.
  • CF Card Format: Formats the CompactFlash memory card, with an option to back out.


Scene Mode: Designated by the word "Scene" on the Mode dial, this mode offers 10 preset shooting modes for specific shooting situations. Pressing the Menu button calls up the Scene selection menu, with options for Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close Up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, and Back Light modes. Pressing the left arrow key while in the Scene Assistance pulls up a menu selection screen, letting you choose between the Shooting menu described above and the Scene Assistance menu.


Portrait Assist Mode: Labeled on the Mode dial with a woman in a hat, this mode is best for portraits, and is the first of the camera's Framing Assist modes. In Portrait mode, the camera uses a larger aperture setting to decrease the depth of field, producing a sharply focused subject in front of a slightly blurred background. Pressing the Menu button calls up the Scene Assistance menu, which lets you choose from a range of portrait setups, including basic Portrait, Portrait Left, Portrait Right, Portrait Close-up, Portrait Couple, and Portrait Figure. In each of these modes (except basic Portrait), an outline appears on the LCD display to help you align the subject. Just as in Scene mode, pressing the left arrow key while in the Scene Assistance menu provides access to the main Shooting menu.

Landscape Assist Mode: A mountain scene distinguishes Landscape mode on the Mode dial. Here, the camera employs a smaller aperture setting to produce sharp detail in both foreground and background objects. As with Portrait mode, the Scene Assistance menu offers a handful of options (accessed as in Portrait mode). Framing options are Landscape (no guidelines), Scenic View (mountain outline), Architecture (grid), Group Right (outlines of people), and Group Left (also outlines of people).


Sports Assist Mode: A figure in action is the icon for Sports mode, which uses faster shutter speeds to freeze action. The Menu button accesses the Scene Assistance menu, with options for Sports, Sport Spectator, and Sport Composite modes. Sport Spectator enables the user to instantly press down on the Shutter button without pausing halfway to focus, and works best with unpredictable subjects within a range of 9.8 feet (3.0 meters). Sport Composite mode takes 16 images in two seconds, each time the Shutter button is pressed, and arranges them in a four-by-four array, much like Multi-Shot 16 mode. As with Landscape and Portrait modes, pressing the left arrow key while in the Scene Assistance menu provides access to the main Shooting menu.

Night Portrait Assist Mode: Indicated by an icon of a person in front of a star, this mode is for twilight and dusk portraits. The flash is automatically set to Auto Red-Eye Reduction mode, and syncs to the slower shutter speed, which allows more ambient light in to balance color and shadows. The camera's ISO setting automatically adjusts as high as ISO 800, depending on the light level (not reported on the LCD screen). The Scene Assistance menu offers the same framing outlines as in Portrait mode, with the same access to the Shooting menu.

Playback Mode: Pressing the Playback button on the camera's back panel instantly enters Playback mode. Here, you can review captured images and movies, erase, enlarge, copy, and protect images, and also set them up for printing. Pressing the Menu button offers the following options:

  • Playback Menu
    • Print Set: Sets the DPOF settings for captured images. The "Print Selected" option pulls up an index display, letting you mark individual images for printing. Once images are marked, you can establish whether any text is overlaid on the image (such as image information or the date and time). You can also cancel print settings here.
    • Slide Show: Automates a slide show of all still images on the memory card. You can select either All Images or Selected Images to play back, as well as enable a loop.
    • Delete: Erases selected images from the memory card, or all images (except for write-protected ones).
    • Protect: Write-protects individual images from accidental erasure or manipulation. An index display of the images on the card appears, letting you scroll through and select images to be "locked." Protected images are only deleted through card formatting.
    • Auto Transfer: Marks all images for auto transfer, which transfers images to a computer instantly when connected.


  • Picture Enhance Menu
    • Pic. Enhance Menu: Offers a selection of special effects filters. Options are Halo, Monochrome, and Sepia.
    • Small Pic.: Creates a 640 x 480-, 320 x 240-, or 160 x 120-pixel copy of the currently displayed image.
    • Photo Trim: Lets you crop the image and save a copy, using the arrow and zoom keys.


Sample Pictures
See the full set of my sample pictures and detailed analysis here. The thumbnails below show a subset of my test images. Click on a thumbnail to see the full-size photo.

Outdoor
Indoor
Indoor Flash

House
Musicians
Macro

Davebox
Resolution
Viewfinder Accuracy

 


Specifications

See camera specifications here.


Picky Details
Cycle times, shutter lag, battery life, etc. can be found here.


User Reviews

 

Test Results
In keeping with my standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only my key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the Coolpix 3100's "pictures" page.

As with all Imaging Resource product tests, I encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the camera performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how3100's images compare to other cameras you may be considering.

  • Color: Overall, images from the Coolpix 3100 bears a very strong "family resemblance" to those from the 2100 I reviewed just prior to it. Like the 2100, the Coolpix 3100 produced really excellent color throughout my testing. I noticed slight color casts with various white balance settings (typically a bit green with Manual, a bit red with Auto), but overall color was very good indeed. The camera handled pastel tones as well as highly saturated ones nicely, though I did notice that strong additive primary colors (intense red, green, and blue shades) were rendered a bit oversaturated. Skin tones were particularly good. Even the very difficult blue flowers of the outdoor and indoor portraits came out very good, only slightly darker than in real life. (Most digicams have problems with this particular blue.) The camera also turned in a much better than average performance under the very difficult incandescent lighting of my "indoor portrait" shot. Overall, excellent color, much better than I was expecting to find in a more or less "entry level" camera.

  • Exposure: The 3100 exposed most of the test shots quite well, even the very high-key outdoor portrait (although it did require two notches of positive exposure compensation, in line with other cameras I've tested). Shots with the camera's flash were quite dim though, and required a fair amount of positive exposure compensation to get a reasonable exposure. (As with the 2100, flash power is the one real Achilles' heel of the 3100.) The flash also didn't match the hue of the incandescent room lighting in the Indoor Portrait test. On my "Davebox" test, the 3100 had no trouble distinguishing the subtle pastel tones on the Q60 target, while still holding moderate detail in the deep shadows, with low noise.

  • Resolution/Sharpness: The 3100 turned in an average performance for its 3.2-megapixel class on the "laboratory" resolution test chart. It started showing artifacts in the test patterns at resolutions as low as 600 lines per picture height, in both horizontal and vertical directions. I found "strong detail" out to at least 1,000 lines. (Perhaps 1,050 lines horizontally, a bit less than 1,000 lines vertically.) "Extinction" of the target patterns occurred around 1,200 lines.

  • Closeups: Like most Nikon digicams, the 3100 performed very well in the macro category, capturing minimum area of only 1.99 x 1.50 inches (51 x 38 millimeters). Resolution was high, with excellent detail in the dollar bill. The coin and brooch details are a bit soft, likely due to the shallow depth of field that resulted from the very close shooting range. There was more softness in the corners of this shot than in ones of more distant subjects, visible in all four corners. (This is a pretty typical issue with super closeups on most digicams I've tested.) The 3100's flash had trouble throttling down for the macro area, however, and overexposed the shot.

  • Night Shots: Because the 3100's Night Scene mode fixes focus at infinity and forces the flash on, I shot this test in the normal Manual exposure mode. In my testing, the camera produced clear, bright, usable images down to the 1/4 foot-candle (2.7 lux) light level. The target was visible as low as 1/16 foot-candles (0.67 lux), but quite dim. Since average city street lighting equates to about one foot-candle, the 3100 should perform well at slightly lower light levels. Color balance was slightly warm from the Auto white balance setting, and noise was moderate. (The camera apparently automatically adjusts its ISO up to 400 for low light shooting, providing the good capability in this area, but increasing the image noise somewhat in the process.) As is commonly the case in digicams with CCDs of the same physical size, the higher-resolution camera shows more noise than the lower-resolution one. This proved to be the case with the 3100, as it showed about 50% greater noise in the low light shots than did the 2100. The noise level will probably still be acceptable to most consumers, but it's a factor to note if you personally find image noise particularly objectionable.

  • Viewfinder Accuracy: The 3100's optical viewfinder is a little tight, showing approximately 86 percent of the frame at wide angle, and approximately 85 percent at telephoto. This is a very typical performance among consumer digicams, but I still would strongly prefer to see the viewfinders show more of the final field of view. The LCD monitor fared much better, showing approximately 95 percent at wide angle and about 97 percent at telephoto. Given that I like LCD monitors to be as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible, the 3100 performed fairly well here.

  • Optical Distortion: Optical distortion on the 3100 is rather high at the wide-angle end of its zoom range, where I measured approximately 0.9 percent barrel distortion. The telephoto end fared much better, as I measured only 0.2 percent pincushion distortion (about three pixels). Chromatic aberration (CA) is pretty good though. The color extends for five or six pixels on either side of the target lines in the corners of the res target image, but that's mostly due to the softness there, not to the CA itself. - The amount of color is fairly low, so CA shouldn't be too visible in photos. (This distortion is visible as a very slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.)

  • Battery Life: The Coolpix 3100's battery life is slightly better than average for a compact digicam, with a projected runtime of 83 minutes in its worst-case power drain mode, and something on the order of 4 days (!) of run time in capture mode with the LCD screen turned off. The extremely low power drain with the LCD turned off is particularly welcome, although the 3100's optical viewfinder isn't accurate enough to rely on it for critical framing. (Not to preach too much about it, but I really feel that consumer digicams should have optical viewfinders with 90-95% frame coverage, rather than the 85% or so that's typical.) As always, I highly recommend picking up a couple of sets of high-capacity rechargeable batteries, and keeping a spare set freshly charged at all times. Click here to read my "battery shootout" page to see which batteries currently on the market are best, or here for my review of the Maha C-204F charger, my longtime favorite.



In the Box
The Coolpix 3100 ships with the following items in the box:

  • Coolpix 3100 digital camera.
  • Wrist strap.
  • 16MB Lexar CompactFlash card.
  • Video cable.
  • USB cable.
  • Two single-use AA alkaline batteries.
  • CD-ROM loaded with Nikon View software and drivers.
  • Instruction manual and registration kit.

Recommended Accessories

  • Larger capacity CompactFlash card (at least 32MB, 64MB preferred).
  • AC Adapter.
  • Two sets of rechargeable AA batteries and charger. (Click here to read about the recommended charger, or here to read my "shootout" of NiMH rechargeable batteries.)
  • Small camera case for outdoor protection.


Recommended Software: Rescue your images!
Just as important as an extra memory card is a tool to rescue your images when one of your cards fails at some point in the future. I get a lot of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. Memory card corruption can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. A surprising number of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digicam reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...

Conclusion

Midrange Point & Shoots
If you're interested in the camera in this review, here are some competing models that may also interest you. (Camera names that aren't links are those we haven't reviewed yet. - Stay tuned.)
Three Megapixel, 3x zoom
Canon A70 Prices
Fuji A303 Prices
Kodak DX4330 Prices
Minolta Xi (subcompact) Prices
Nikon 3100 Prices
Olympus 560 Prices
Olympus 550* Prices
Pentax 330GS Prices
Sony P72 Prices
* - model phasing out
Confused?
Check out Dave's Picks!
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Nikon's Coolpix line of consumer digicams has always been well-received, appreciated for their high image quality and ease of use. From the sharp Nikon optics to the full range of exposure control, the Coolpix series has satisfied a wide range of users. The Coolpix 3100 follows this trend, with its 3x Nikkor lens (with great macro capabilities), 3.2-megapixel CCD, and well-rounded offering of preset shooting modes. As in the earlier 885 and 775 models, Nikon continues to extend the Coolpix line toward the novice user. In the 3100, this focus is expressed in the new Framing Assist modes, providing nearly infallible framing and exposure for entry-level users. Compact and very travel-worthy, the Coolpix 3100 is an extremely flexible point-and-shoot camera, with just enough features to produce great images with little hassle. Best of all, the 3100's image quality lives up to both the Nikon name and the excellent assortment of features it offers. All in all, the Coolpix 3100 looks like an excellent option for entry-level users looking for a camera that'll help them snap great-looking photos under what would otherwise be challenging conditions. Highly recommended!


 

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