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Nikon fit most of the shooting-mode options on the top dial.
The ultracompact 3100 weighs just 7 ounces with the batteries and the CompactFlash card installed. While the silver, plastic camera is attractive, it does have a few bulges that will keep you from pocketing it as easily as some of its slimmer competitors. Controls are intelligently placed and large enough for users who fumble with more diminutive models. The 3100 loads all the most frequently needed shooting modes on the top dial for quick access, an unusual design for a point-and-shoot. The zoom switch cradles your thumb, making for easy one-handed shooting. An integrated cover protects the retractable lens.
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|The control layout is logical and efficient.|
Menu navigation is easy; all the options are clearly spelled out and accessible with just a few presses of the four-way pad. Symbols help you make sense of the various shooting modes and image-enhancement selections. The Framing Assist function overlays a head-and-shoulders outline on the LCD to help you properly compose portraits.
As with many point-and-shoot cameras, the 3100 won't let you manually adjust aperture or shutter settings. In the so-called manual mode, you can tweak white balance, exposure compensation, and image sharpening--that's it. But Nikon makes up for this shortcoming with a whopping 14 scene modes, including presets optimized for capturing fireworks, shooting in museums (indoors with no flash), and preserving colors under dusk and dawn lighting. The 3100 is primed for just about any shooting environment.
In situations where you're likely to end up with a blurry shot, such as in a dim room where flash is prohibited, the Best Shot Selector can be a lifesaver. You hold down the shutter button, and the camera grabs up to 10 shots. It then analyzes these images and saves the best of the bunch.
You can't save uncompressed files, but you do get a choice of two JPEG-compression levels at the maximum resolution. You can fit just nine best-quality shots on the included 16MB card, so remember to leave room in your budget for a higher-capacity CompactFlash card.
You can resize and crop photos, as well as apply a monochrome or sepia filter to them, right in the unit. Unlike its little brother, the 2100, the 3100 also provides control over in-camera image sharpening: you can choose one of three presets, switch it to automatic, or turn it off. Since the red-eye-reduction flash works only occasionally, be sure to install the accompanying NikonView software, which has an effective red-eye-elimination feature.
The 3100 supports slightly longer movies than the 2100, but otherwise the two cameras have the same rudimentary video capabilities, and they're disappointing for a higher-end model. You can shoot QuickTime video clips without sound; they're fixed at either 20 or 40 seconds, depending on the selected resolution.
While it's not exceptional, the 3100 performs reasonably well. The minimum shot-to-shot time runs slightly longer than three seconds; you get the maximum seven seconds at high resolution with the flash enabled. In continuous-shooting mode, where the flash is unavailable, you can shoot three high-res images about one second apart before the camera pauses for three seconds to write to the memory card. We took 37 VGA-sized pictures in a row at about that rate before the 3100 began to slow.
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The disposable battery lasted for more than 200 shots.
While the 3X zoom lens is a bit noisy, it's responsive and easy to control with precision. And the autofocus works quickly and accurately, even in low light and with off-center subjects. We did notice that the flash metering tended to underexpose situations with sidelighting, as in our test scene (see the Image Quality section). Like many cameras in this class, the 3100 has a diminutive optical viewfinder that shows only about 80 percent of the image and lacks a diopter adjustment. We prefer using the 1.5-inch LCD, which offers an accurate view of the entire frame and is usable even in direct sunlight.
The included disposable CRV3 lithium battery lasted for more than 200 shots. You can also use a pair of rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride AA batteries; ours were still going after 300 pics.
In image quality, the 3100 is respectable, but it can't match the best of the 3-megapixel-compact competition. For one thing, its pictures aren't as sharp. Cat hairs and grass blades, for instance, lack the definition they have in, say, the Canon PowerShot S230's shots. Even at ISO 100, we saw a bit more noise than we'd like.
The 3100's colors are good but not great. When we worked with the manual white balance, the camera generated exceptionally neutral images with very good color reproduction. But using the automatic white balance under tungsten lights produced a bit of purple, and pictures taken with the Indoor preset looked a shade too yellow. In scenes with high contrast between bright and dark sections, the shadowed areas showed good detail, but the highlights were sometimes washed out. Chromatic aberration wasn't evident in any of our test shots, and there was only slight barrel distortion at the widest zoom level.