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.
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.
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.