Shooting with the Nikon D5100

Well, it’s been a while writing for Perfect Futures and I apologise for the delay. There was a time when I’d be saying it was all due to photo-taking and the urge to put them up on Flickr, but right now that wouldn’t be so accurate, as my time seems to be more divided between ‘real life’, photography and checking Facebook, where the cause celebre is writing a couple of lines to encapsulate everything… which of course is what Twitter was trying to be and text messages always were. Are we living in the age of the text, the soundbite, the photo-snap? Perhaps, but I am going to give some more blogging a go regardless, in the hopes that some, somewhere will find it interesting, or even be of like mind.

One thing you definitively learn from photography is the gear only counts for what you can use it for. That massive camera only makes sense if you actually take it out and get good images from it, good images that would make the most of it’s superior IQ. On the smaller scale, the Leica only has a meaning if it is coming out with you and you can still afford the rent and bills after paying for it and of course you got the wife’s approval before you bought it, not having her storm out and leave you with nothing but TV dinners as consolation. You get the picture. Which is why when I gradually found that my seductively portable compacts just don’t take good enough photos to rely on them inspiring me to do my best, I started to look elsewhere. Likewise, I often found the D300 and large lenses just too much camera to take along with my on active outings. I just don’t have the energy to hike with massive slabs of metal around my neck, so something had to give.

In my case, there was a gradual migration of bodies; first the D3000, which was mainly as backup and I couldn’t really accept it as more than that, with it’s minimal controls and D200-era sensor (which is more or less capped at a fairly noisy ISO 800), then the seemingly better D3100, which I have gradually decided just doesn’t capture the rich images I really want to have and now the D5100. Here, despite it not being the most lusted after body ever, I have a kind of camera Nirvana. So, what are it’s good points?

* Fantastic 16mp Sony sensor, from the D7000, the best yet in the DX world.

* Great exposures, perhaps due to the features Expeed 2, also from the D7000.

* A hi-res, swing-out LCD. I’d really been hoping for the high res, as the lower-res screens aren’t much good for reviewing focus, nor for live view. Now, with the tilt-as-you-like action, using a tripod with live-view is a dream (though it be a battery-sapping dream). Live view AF, while improved, is unfortunately still way too slow to realise the other dream of NEX-style waist-level street shooting, but with some creative pre-focusing and a wide lens, that might well be possible. It has already lead to some shots that I quite simply wouldn’t otherwise have managed; eye-level photos of children and dogs, close-ups of ornaments I’m no-where near elastic enough to get otherwise. Some day, all LCDs may well swivel… or even be removable and wireless, leading to some new problems “Hey guys, did you see where I left my LCD??”

* Of course the DX cropped sensor and depth of field potential here. A bit of good and bad with this, as I’d really like full-frame, but I don’t want a gargantuan monster just to get me there (why no small full-frame, Dear Nikon??) and of course, we still await a D800 or so. So the good? Better DOF control than M4/3, much better than CX and light years better than compacts like my LX5. The M9 is quite simply well out of my reach, so I ust compare to what I otherwise might be likely to be using. The bad? The usual DX moaning of having primes that either don’t yet exist or come off with bizarrely different focal lengths than advertised on the tin (well, barrel).

* Good AF, whether it be still or moving thanks to phase-detect. This is of course, the same Nikon Multi-Cam 1000 module as in the D3000 and D3100 and even the D200 in which it debuted

* Fantastic low-light performance (the first time I can realistically use 3200, let alone the occasional 6400 bar-shot).

* Thanks to the sensor, the best yet dynamic range for DX. Making a tonemapped HDR image from one file is a more realistic prospect than ever before… and yes, the camera does have a bracketing feature, so you can do it ‘properly’ too, though with only 3 shots unfortunately.

* 1080p video at.. wait for it… 30fps. Wow, now at last we can get smooth full HD footage. The D5100 also has the fastest live-view AF and the least jello effect yet in DX (I know, the new D4 will go beyond this, though not in these hands). I have already taken the best videos, in terms of picture quality, I’ve ever taken.  Beautiful, memorable and thanks to the new LR4 beta also editable. Simple thing like lightening exposure or fixing white balance can now be done in post, well, by me for once at any rate. The possibilities are endless, especially with the tilting LCD and newer VR lenses making them realistic. You can plug in a microphone if you like, too.

* Small and light, for a DSLR anyway. With battery it weighs 560g.  A mid-level D7000 is 780g, whilst a semi-pro D300s is 840g. Add in a 200-400g lens on top of that, along with your goodies in the backpack for the day out and you can end up with a lot of bulk, which the D5100 minimises (for me), as now my camera and lens weighs about the same as my D300 alone. It also makes it a suitable backup, as I am adding weight and not doubling it. Just what I was looking for in the D3000 series, but without the (to my mind) crippled IQ.

What’s not to like?

* A fairly plasticy feel to what is ultimately a plastic body. Not nearly as sturdy as it’s larger cousins, not weather-sealed. DX is crying out for a mirrorless solution, phase-detect AF from Nikon, but take their time they will, as sales are still brisk and after all, they’ve just launched their CX mini-system.

* A crummy viewfinder and no EVF, but an optical viewfinder at all is in some ways superior, as it’s not limited by resolution or colour-space. Still, you wander how much longer they will keep this up. Truly we have a compromise for the moment, a moment that might well be a few years.

* Slower AF than the D300/D700 et all and a bit slower than the D7000. WAY slower than the J1/V1 which, as I may have said before, is the direction DXis inevitably, if gradually, heading. But having said that, it’s still fast and accurate enough and can track movement okay, unlike most compacts.

* Relative to the new 24mp sensor, lower resolution. I’m not sure how much resolution we really need, but surely more is always better, all other things being equal

* Ugly (some say). Pragmatically designed and actually kind of cute (I say). The fact this isn’t seen as ‘retro’ now doesn’t mean it won’t be viewed as an artistic period piece a few decades from now. Unlikely, though and at best it’s a plain Jane. I actually think Nikon slipped up a bit here, as looks do play a part and for a lot of people this is about as much as they can see themselves spending on a camera, though I can see their ‘we have the D7000, you know?’ thinking here.

* Big and chunky compared to it’s mirrorless competition. Yes, I said that. Entry/lower-end DSLR’s aren’t just competing against each other anymore, though their versatility is hard to beat. In fact to my mind all DSLR’s are too big, unless they actually have a big lens mounted. Remember what happened to the dinosaurs, Canikon? Too big for their own good..

* Only mono microphone. Whist you can plug in a stereo mic, not many people are going to. Even my little TZ7 has a stereo mic and very good it is too, quite remarkable even. Seeing as this is a camera being marketed as video-friendly and with the swinging LCD it certainly is, you’t think they’d make more of this.

* Poor battery life in live view mode. I was surprised how quickly this sucked the life out of it.

So overall, I find the minus points to be mere niggles with this class of camera. I find it to be a great compromise body for when I don’t want to D3oo it. With the superior sensor and video, it also makes for a more versatile creature, when I see myself using those functions. I’ll admit, the D7000 would be even better and just a bit heavier, just a bit more expensive. But as a D300 user, that leaves a few boxes unchecked and doesn’t really match it in AF or build or sheer sexiness. If I’m going to step forwards and down, I may as well get some more versitility, with the improved video and flexi-screen. It’s also quite a bit cheaper…

So how do I find myself using this in the real world? Well, I’ll chuck it in my backpack as I go to parties or events. I’ll lake a walk around town, with a prime like the 35mm f/1.8, or Sigma’s gorgeous 50mm f/1.4, which thanks to HSM works fine on it and both make for a remarkable low-light combination. I took it to Thailand, with the 18-105mm more or less permanently attached, at times the 35mm. Not a perfect lens for IQ, but great for travel, where I need wide and often want long, for candids, amongst others (I often struggled with this on my 17-50mm f/2.8, much lighter, but not long enough really for a good portrait).  I bring it along as a second body with my D300, or even with the D3100 if I want to keep it light. A great little team, great IQ and great files at the end of it. Believe it or not, I’d been waiting a long time for a smaller, large-sensor camera that has the quality I desire and uses my lens collection. It even uses my card, battery and case collection from the D3100!

Above all, this is the camera that kept me in the Nikon system (as the D3100 ultimately didn’t quite do it for me), in an increasingly mirrorless world, sensitive-sensor world in which the D300 is so often overkill. I’ll bring it along on short camera trips, it’s fantastic and a true joy to use, but it’s way too much to carry, with everything else I need, on a long and active trip. Roll on the affordable, auto-focussing, large-sensor digital range-finders. I think the Fuji X-Pro 1 may well be the first of many. Until then, let’s enjoy all the wonderful compromises that keep us out there shooting, as in the end, the only camera that matters is the one in your hand.

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