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Nikon D5100 - Interface and Autofocus

Audley Jarvis

By Audley Jarvis

Reviewed:

Summary

Our Score:

8

User Score:

Despite many of the buttons moving around, one thing that remains very much in the D5100’s favour is the straightforward menu navigation system. Nikon has always excelled at simplifying menu navigation and the D5100 is no exception. This makes the D5100 really easy to use. While the main Menu button to the left of the viewfinder is used to access more complicated settings, the handy button to the right of the viewfinder can be called upon to access a single-screen menu of the most regularly used settings – from ISO to AF mode via Picture Controls and Metering mode. With all the options displayed clearly on the monitor, accessing and changing these key settings with the D-pad proves both easy and intuitive, becoming almost second-nature before long.

DSLR newcomers trying to gain a better understanding of what all the various features and functions do are well catered for too, with a simple tap of the ‘?’ button bringing up short snippets of easy-to-understand information on what each of the selected settings and functions does. It’s not quite as simplified as the Guide Mode of the D3100, but still a useful addition.

Nikon D5100

Turning to performance, we found the D5100 to be an extremely competent camera overall. When switched on the camera is instantly ready to operate, although it’ll generally take half a second or so for the autofocus to lock on.

We found the D5100’s 11-point phase-detect system to be generally fast enough when shooting through the viewfinder, although it is worth reiterating that because the D5100 lacks an internal AF motor, AF performance is very much determined by the choice of lens attached – in this case the supplied 18-55mm VR kit lens. This is by no means the fastest optic we’ve ever used, but should prove fast enough for the overwhelming majority of situations.

Nikon D5100 5

Ideally, we would have liked to have seen the diamond-like formation of the 11 AF points cover a bit more of the viewfinder, especially on the horizontal plane, as they’re a little bunched in together towards the centre of the viewfinder. A few more cross-type sensors would be really helpful too, especially if, like us, you prefer to determine your own point of focus using Single-point AF rather than letting the camera decide via Auto-area AF. One other slightly annoying thing we found is that, while using Single-point AF, we couldn’t find an easy way to lock down our chosen point, making too easy to accidentally change with a stray thumb on the D-pad.

Using the camera in live view, we found the contrast-detect AF system to be surprisingly quick – far quicker than the Canon EOS 600D by comparison, and with much less back-and-forth focus-hunting involved. Used in ‘always on’ full-time-server AF mode we found the D5100 fairly quick to respond to focal distance shifts in brightly lit situations, although it does get gradually slower (with an accompanying increase in annoying focus-hunt) the less light is available. We were impressed by how quickly and smoothly the D5100 reacts to extreme changes in light, such as when panning from bright sunlight into darker shadows.

PoisonJam

May 12, 2011, 3:38 am

I'm confused as to how this sits alongside the D90. Going by the 'best price' given, the D90 with the much more versatile 18-105mm VR lens can be had for less. The D90 also has the missing features you cite.

I can only imagine this has been added to the line-up to compete with competitors' products for those who feel things like HD video and a twisty screen are important. As long as Nikon continue the D*0 range I'll be happy.

I've got an old D70s and the one thing I don't think I could cope without is the front wheel that's missing from the D5100...

Metalex

May 12, 2011, 2:24 pm

No direct access ISO button... seriously? Given that higher ISO's are so much more usable nowadays, the omission of an ISO button is unforgivable, especially at this pricepoint.

Serrimo

May 12, 2011, 6:44 pm

I've had my D80 for some years now, and just got myself a D5100. In France the D5100 is offered with the 18-105mm lens kit.

The front wheel and the top LCD screen are the 2 things I miss. The missing AF motor makes some old lens "unusable". The slower top shutter speed can be problematic with very fast lens too.
However, if you can live with those short-comings, the D5100 beats the heck out of my D80.

First and foremost, image quality is incredible. MUCH better than the D80; not to mention the much improved high ISO performance. Even 6400 iso is quite usable, better sharpness and noise than 1600 iso on the D80.

Secondly, full HD video. Not everyone's cup of tea, but I appreciate the ability to record video if needed. The main reason I pick the D5100 over Canon 600D is better video AF and better high iso perf.

Thirdly, the small size and light weight really help to carry the camera everywhere with you.

I wouldn't go back to the D80. Top LCD screen and front wheel be damned. I'm not sure if there are enough reasons to get the D90 today. Judging from the better image sensor alone, for me, the D5100 is a clear winner.

Audley

May 13, 2011, 2:01 pm

True, there is no dedicated ISO button, although thanks to the 'quick settings menu' (accessed via the 'i' button to the right of the viewfinder) it's only takes a button press or two more to change ISO settings. While I'd certainly agree that a dedicated ISO button is convenient, I'm less inclined to agree that the omission of one is 'unforgivable'.

Audley

May 13, 2011, 2:19 pm

Nikon have said that the D5100 sits below the D90 within their range. While the D90 is undoubtedly a fantastic camera (that does indeed offer wireless flash control and a depth-of-field preview button) it's also a couple of years old now, which in digital camera terms means it's close to receiving a free bus pass. Nikon made it clear at the D5100 launch that the D90 was being retained due to "continued demand", which I would take to mean exactly that - continued demand for a great product.

JK

May 16, 2011, 8:18 pm

@Audley Jarvis - Thanks for the review. I'm wondering if you could help me with something..?

I'm looking for a camera with interchangeable lenses, that produces great image quality in both stills and video (full HD), but one where I NEVER have to use the viewfinder. Oh, and it has to have a fully articulated monitor as well.
So the AF needs to be quick and reliable while using Live View mode, and it needs to have Continuous AF when shooting video.

Now, I know that Panasonic's GH2 ticks all these boxes. But I'd like to know if there are any serious alternatives out there, mainly amongst the more traditional DSLRs like this Nikon D5100, or Canon's 600D? Or does their more traditional technology prevent them from being used effectively without the viewfinder??

I'd be grateful to hear a professional opinion from someone who's actually tried using these different models in this way. Cheers!

Metalex

May 17, 2011, 6:47 pm

Sony Alpha A55 or NEX-5.

Both have great live view systems, great image quality, and video performance is very decent.

The Alpha A55 is a more like a traditional DSLR, but uses a translucent mirror which enables the camera to permanently use phase detect AF, even during video, so it's very fast.

The NEX-5 is a more compact system, but uses an APS-C sensor, so image quality is comparable to DSLRs using the same type of sensor. It uses contrast detect AF though, which is slower than phase detect, but focusing is completely silent.

The A55 is pretty much designed around live view, but the way it combines live view and full-time phase detect AF makes it seem like the ideal camera for you, based on the requirements you've listed.

PaulR

September 18, 2014, 4:34 am

I bought a D90 shortly after it was introduced as my first serious, if not a fully professional, DSLR. Since then I have been reasonably pleased with the results, particularly for portraits using only natural lighting. However, I've recently seen some shots taken with a D5100 which are extremely good and seem sharper than my D90 even though it seems to be in the same general category as my D90. Is this because the chip in the 5100 is superior, being closer to that in pro Nikon models? Would it even be worth trading the D90 for a D5100?

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