DCRP Review: Nikon Coolpix 3100
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: March 21, 2003
Last Updated: March 21, 2003

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The Coolpix 3100 ($350) is one of three new cameras introduced by Nikon at the big PMA show in Las Vegas last month. It's a 3 Megapixel upgrade to the old Coolpix 775 with a few other extras. A similar model, the Coolpix 2100, was also introduced -- it's the 2 Megapixel version.

The entry-level 3 Megapixel arena is very crowded, with all of the major manufacturers participating. That means you need quite a camera to come out on top.

Find out how the Coolpix 3100 fares in our review!

What's in the Box?

The Coolpix 3100 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 3.2 Mpixel Nikon Coolpix 3100 camera
  • 16MB CompactFlash card
  • One CR-V3 lithium battery (non-rechargeable)
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • Video cable
  • CD-ROM featuring NikonView and drivers, plus a "Let's Get Started with Coolpix" CD-ROM
  • 93 page camera manual (printed)

The Coolpix 3100's bundle isn't very exciting. You'll find the famous Lexar "Starter" CompactFlash card, which only tells you its capacity (16MB) in small print on the back of the card. This is a starter card in the truest sense of the word: you'll want a larger one right away.

Another thing you'll want are some rechargeable batteries, as the 3100 comes with a throwaway lithium battery that will last for about 150 minutes. I recommend picking up at least two sets of NiMH rechargeable batteries and a fast charger. Since the 3100 uses two AA batteries, a four pack will be a great place to start.

Nikon estimates that you'll get about 80 minutes of usage when you use NiMH AA batteries. I was pleased to see that the 3100 didn't use an expensive proprietary battery, though the battery life probably would've been better.

The Coolpix 3100 has a built-in lens cover, so no lens cap is needed.

Believe it or not, the 3100 can use an external flash! First you need to buy the SK-9 flash bracket ($50). Then you can hook up Nikon's SB-30 Speedlite ($115). It's triggered by the flash on the CP3100.

Other accessories include a soft case and AC adapter.

Nikon includes the latest version of NikonView with the 3100 (version 6 for Windows, and version 5.5 for Mac). They also give you ArcSoft's capable PhotoSuite package.

Despite having different version numbers, NikonView for Mac (including OS X) and Windows are quite similar. The main difference is that the Windows version has some basic editing tools, including the over-hyped "one button redeye reduction" feature.


Main screen, NikonView 5.5 in Mac OS X


Edit screen, NikonView 6 in Windows XP

NikonView (for Mac at least) has improved over earlier versions in terms of performance. I'm not sure that I can say the same for reliability, as I got it to crash within minutes of installing it.

For more advanced editing, you can use ArcSoft's PhotoImpression on either platform. While it has a cool-looking interface, I wish they'd have stuck with something simpler.

Although cluttered at times, the manual included with the Coolpix 3100 is decent. An included CD-ROM will also help you become familiar with the camera.

Look and Feel

The Coolpix 3100 is a very small, plastic camera that is an evolution of the Coolpix 775 body. The plastic seems sturdy enough to me. The 3100 is not the smallest camera of the bunch, but it can still fit into any pocket with ease.

The dimensions of the 3100 are 3.4 x 2.6 x 1.5 inches (W x H x D), and it weighs 150 grams empty.

Let's begin our tour of the camera now!

The lens on the Coolpix 3100 appears to be the same one that was found on the 775. That means it's an F2.8, 3X optical zoom Nikkor lens, with a focal range of 5.8 - 17.4 mm. That's equivalent to 38 - 115 mm. The CP3100 doesn't support conversion lenses.

At the top-center of the picture is the built-in flash. The flash has a working range of 0.4 - 3.0 m at wide-angle, and 0.4 - 1.7 m at telephoto. I already covered the 3100's ability to use an external flash.

The little light to the left of the flash is not an AF assist lamp. Rather, it's the self-timer lamp. At a time when companies like Canon and Sony are putting an AF assist lamp on every camera they sell, it's a shame that Nikon still hasn't done the same.

Here's the back of the camera now. The CP3100 has a 1.5" LCD display with 110,00 pixels (that's good). The LCD is bright and fluid. You can adjust its brightness in the setup mode.

Directly above the LCD is the optical viewfinder, which is good-sized for a tiny camera. There are no cross-hairs or similar on the viewfinder, and there's no diopter correction feature either. The viewfinder shows approx. 82% of the frame.

Below the LCD are three buttons, which thankfully only have one function. They are for deleting a photo, turning the LCD (and info displayed on it) on and off, and for activating the menu system. The next button over enters playback mode.

Above that is the four-way switch, used mainly for menu navigation. It also adjusts several other functions:

  • Up - Flash (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash off, fill flash)
  • Left - Self-timer
  • Down - Macro

The last item on the back of the camera is the zoom controller. The lens moves quickly from wide-angle to telephoto in under two seconds.

Up on the top of the Coolpix 3100, you'll find the mode wheel, shutter release button, and power switch. The power switch is wrapped around the shutter release, and I kept thinking it was the zoom controller. You know what happened next.

The mode wheel has quite a few options, including some that are unique to the Coolpix in ways that I'll explain shortly. The mode wheel options are:

  • Setup
  • Movie mode
  • Manual record
  • Auto record
  • Scene mode
    • Party/indoor
    • Beach/snow
    • Sunset
    • Dusk/dawn
    • Night landscape
    • Close up
    • Museum
    • Fireworks show
    • Copy
    • Back light
  • Portrait Assist
  • Landscape Assist
  • Sports Assist
  • Night Portrait Assist

The Coolpix 3100 doesn't have a real manual mode with control over things like shutter speed and white balance. Rather, the manual mode here just unlocks all the menu options that are hidden while in auto record mode.


Scene modes

I'm a fan of scene modes on entry-level cameras, as they pick the best settings for common situations that everyday photographers find themselves in.


One of the portrait assist mode overlays

The four "assist modes" take the scene mode idea one step further. In addition to choosing the best settings for each situation, the camera can also put outlines of people or gridlines onto the LCD for you to frame your shot. Of course, I think most people can probably figure out how to frame a portrait without needing an outline of a person on the LCD.

I'll have more on the various camera modes later in the review.

On this side of the Coolpix 3100 are the I/O ports, which are safely kept under a rubber cover. The ports are for USB, video out, and DC-in (for optional AC adapter).

On the other side of the camera is the CompactFlash slot. The door covering this slot is pretty flimsy. This is as Type I slot, so no Microdrives. Nikon says the CP3100 supports cards as large as 1GB.

The included "starter card" is shown as well.

Finally, here is the bottom of the camera. You can see the plastic tripod mount, which is located at the center of the camera. The battery compartment is down here as well, and it holds two AA cells or one CR-V3 (shown).

Using the Nikon Coolpix 3100

Record Mode

The CP3100 takes just under three seconds to extend the lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures. When you halfway press the shutter release button, the camera locks focus quickly -- under a second in most cases. If light levels were lower and the autofocus needed to "hunt", the wait is a little longer. In some of those cases, the camera couldn't lock focus at all.

Shutter lag was not an issue when shutter speeds were fast. When you start approaching "tripod speeds", the lag was noticeable.

Shot-to-shot speed is average. You will wait for about 2.5 seconds before you can take another shot. Unlike some other Nikon cameras, you cannot pause/delete a photo as it's being written to the memory card. You can, however, hit the delete button after it has been written, and remove it then.

Press the Delete button as the picture is being written to the memory card, and you can delete it.

The CP3100 has very basic image quality/resolution choices. They are:

Option Resolution # Images on 16MB card
High* 2048 x 1536
(1:4 compression)
10
Normal 2048 x 1536
(1:8 compression)
19
1600 x 1200 31
PC screen 1024 x 768 69
TV screen 640 x 480 144

The CP3100 does not support TIFF or RAW file formats.

Images are named DSCN####.JPG, where # = 0001 - 9999. The file numbering is maintained even if you replace and/or format memory cards.

The Coolpix 3100 has a totally new menu system. It's very easy to navigate -- great for beginners. There aren't many options, as the 3100 is a true point-and-shoot camera. Some of those options are only available in manual record mode (I'll bold those items). And here they are:

  • Image quality/size (see chart)
  • White balance (Auto, preset, daylight, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy, speedlight)
  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)
  • Date imprint (Off, date, date and time) - print date on your photos
  • Continuous (Single, continuous, multi-shot 16, multi-shot)
  • BSS [Best Shot Selector] (on/off)
  • Image sharpening (Auto, high, normal, low, off)
  • CF card format

As you can see, the 3100 has a manual white balance feature, something that is uncommon on lower-end cameras. The date imprint feature isn't seen very often either, but it's available here.

There are three continuous modes on the 3100. Continuous will take photos at a rate of 1.5 frames/sec, for up to 3 shots. Multi-shot 16 takes 16 shots in a row, and assembles them into one 1600 x 1200 photo. The other Multi-shot mode (a new one on Nikon cameras) takes photos for 7 seconds, and the camera picks 16 of them (with a set interval between photos) and puts them into the same 1600 x 1200 collage.

The Best Shot Selector feature will let you take up to 10 shots in a row, and then the camera chooses the best of the bunch -- and that's the one that is saved to the memory card. This feature is useful in situations where "camera shake" may be an issue.

There is also a basic setup menu, which is accessed via the mode wheel. The interesting items found here include:

  • Welcome screen (Disable, Coolpix, custom) - the custom mode lets you pick a photo on the memory card to use
  • Language (English, German, French, Japanese, Spanish)
  • LCD brightness
  • USB (PTP, Mass Storage)
  • Video Mode (NTSC, PAL)

Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.

Nikon cameras have always been some of the best for macro (close-up) shooting, and the CP3100 is no exception. You can get as close to your subject as 4 cm in macro mode.

The 3100 turned in a fine performance with our usual test subject seen above. THe image is quite sharp (except for the nose), and you can easily make out the dust on the figurine. Colors are spot-on as well.

First, a little trivia about this night shot. For some apparent reason, police can Twin Peaks closed down (for security reasons maybe?), so I ended up just using one of the pull-outs on the road back down. The other thing to note is the helicopters toward the top right... keeping an eye on the protesters below.

Anyhow, the night shot looks good when downsized, but if you view the full-size image you'll see quite a bit of noise. This is a big problem with the Coolpix, or any camera that has automatic ISO (sensitivity) control. The camera will crank up the sensitivity on its own, which boosts the noise levels. I much prefer cameras that let you lock the ISO (at say, 100) so you can get a noise-free shot (Nikon are you listening?).

The 2 second exposure above had an ISO value of 400. Aside from the noise, it's pretty darn good for a point-and-shoot camera.

The redeye test (albeit cropped down) illustrates the noise issue as well. This simple indoor flash picture had an ISO of over 300, which is the cause of the noise. There's also quite a bit of redeye, which didn't surprise me that much, considering how close the flash is to the lens. Redeye can usually be removed in software (including NikonView).

Our new distortion test gives you an idea of the kind of barrel distortion that you can expect to see on the CP3100 at wide-angle. You'll notice this in enclosed rooms or if you have straight lines at the edges of the frame. This test can also show vignetting (darkened corners), but it doesn't appear to be a problem here.

Outdoors and in good lighting, I thought that the Coolpix 3100's photo quality was very good. Colors were accurate, exposures were well-done, and the camera was responsive enough for action photos. There was more noise than I'd prefer in everyday shots, but it was in lower light levels that the noise really stood out. One thing I didn't notice was any purple fringing.

Don't just take my word for it though -- have a look at the photo gallery and let your own eyes be the judge!

Movie Mode

The Coolpix 3100 has a lot more movie mode options than the average camera. You can record at 640 x 480 or 320 x 240, for a maximum of 20 and 40 seconds respectively. At the lower resolution, you can record in color, black & white, or sepia tone.

One catch about the 640 x 480 movie mode (called "TV Movie" by Nikon) though: it's not a true VGA movie mode. The camera is capturing the video at 320 x 240, but using vertical interlacing to get to the higher resolution. As a result it doesn't look as nice as a true VGA movie mode.

Sound is not recorded with movies. You can use the zoom lens during filming.

Here's a VGA-sized sample movie for you.


Click to play movie (7.5MB, 640 x 480, QuickTime format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The Coolpix 3100 has a two-tiered playback mode. The usual playback mode functions are there, but there's an image enhancement mode as well.

The standard playback functions include slide shows, DPOF print marking, thumbnail mode, image protection, and zoom & scroll. The zoom and scroll feature (my term) lets you zoom into your image as much as 6 times, and then scroll around in the enlarged photo. This feature is well-implemented on the 3100.

Another nice feature that is all too uncommon these days is the ability to delete a group of photos, rather than just one at a time or all of them.

The Picture Enhance menu lets you retouch your photos before you ever transfer them to a PC. You can add one of three filters (halo, monochrome, sepia) to a photo. You can also downsize a photo you 640 x 480, 320 x 240, or 160 x 120. And finally, you can crop a photo.

The Coolpix gives you the option to mark photos that you want to be automatically transferred when you connect the camera to your PC.

The 3100 unfortunately doesn't give you any useful information about your photos. While I'm not asking for a histogram, a little exposure data would've been nice. The camera moves through images very quickly in playback mode. A lower resolution image is shown instantly, with the high resolution version appearing just a moment later.

How Does it Compare?

The Nikon Coolpix 3100 is a decent enough camera, but certainly not the best in class. It's a point-and-shoot camera with only one manual control (white balance). The scene modes are a nice touch, though I think that some of the overlays on the LCD are a little over-the-top. The performance and photo quality are good, though in low light both suffer. The performance goes downhill due to the lack of an AF-assist lamp, while the photo quality gets quite noisy due to the 3100's auto ISO system. I do applaud Nikon for allowing the 3100 to use an external flash. If I hadn't reviewed Canon's PowerShot A70 recently, I'd probably be more enthusiastic about the Coolpix, but after spending some time with both the 3100 pales in comparison. Still, the 3100 is worth a look -- try it and the competition listed below before you make any decisions.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality outdoors
  • Manual white balance
  • Lots of scene modes
  • Support for external flash
  • Nice playback mode, though no exposure info shown

What I didn't care for:

  • Too much noise, especially at lower light levels
  • Noticeable redeye
  • No AF illuminator
  • So-so movie mode
  • Bundle could be better

Other 3 Megapixel cameras worth considering include the Canon PowerShot A70 and S230, Casio Exilim EX-Z3 and QV-R3, Fuji FinePix A303, HP Photosmart 735, Kodak EasyShare DX4330, DX6340 and LS633, Kyocera Finecam S3L, Minolta DiMAGE Xi, Olympus D-560Z and Stylus 300, Pentax Optio 33L and S, Sony DSC-P72 and -P8, and the Toshiba PDR-3310.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, the Coolpix 2100 is essentially the same camera, except for its 2 Megapixel CCD. The Coolpix 3500 has a lot in common with the 3100, but with a unique inner-swivel lens design.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the Coolpix 3100 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Want to see how the photo quality turned out? Check out our photo gallery!

Want a second opinion?

Check out a review of the CP3100 over at Steve's Digicams. If you're still not satisfied, you'll find another at the Imaging Resource.

Feedback

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

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