Nikon D5100 Operation

Like the preceding D5000 model, the Nikon D5100 is aimed at beginner and casual shooters, rather than professionals and hard-core SLR enthusiasts. It's thus no surprise that the D5100 offers an interface that is as clean, uncluttered, and approachable as possible. There are quite a few differences in layout from the earlier camera, though, largely made to accommodate the new side-mounted LCD articulation mechanism. Perhaps the most significant change is a new Live View switch, located beneath the Mode dial on the top deck, and replacing the rear-panel Lv button from the D5000. There's also a new Movie Record button on the top deck, adjacent to the still image Shutter button. On the rear panel, the column of buttons at body left from the D5000 have all been relocated, although their functions are largely unchanged from those in the earlier camera.

Overall, the Nikon D5100's design keeps the array of buttons, knobs and dials to a manageable number. It replaces the top-panel data display traditionally found on more complex SLRs with a very attractive and logically laid-out information display on the large, rear-panel LCD screen. The mode dial is easily accessed with your thumb while you're holding the grip, and while there's no Guide mode (as found in Nikon's entry-level models), the D5100 provides a variety of scene and effects functions that will help less experienced photographers to get the creative results they're looking for.

Nikon D5100 Shooting Mode

As with Nikon's other recent consumer digital SLRs, the Nikon D5100 displays shooting info and settings on the main LCD when the Info button is pressed in record mode. There are two shooting display styles, selected through the Settings menu, and shown at right. The Graphic display helps the user to visualize what's happening with shutter speed and lens aperture, and the more conventional looking Classic format displays the same basic settings information using larger fonts and icons, but without the graphic visualization of exposure variables. I personally like the Graphic format a lot, but can see a time coming when my eyes will prefer the larger type of the Classic display. Unlike the D5000, you can't choose different display formats for different camera operating modes. Instead, it's a one-size-fits-all affair, with all exposure modes except Guide sharing the same display type. You can still change the color of the displays, though, with choices of green, black, or brown for the Graphic display, and blue, black, or orange for the Classic mode. The Nikon D5100 will also rotate the display 90 or 270 degrees when shooting in a vertical orientation.

The illustration below (Courtesy of Nikon USA) shows the meaning of the various icons and readouts in the Graphic (top) and Classic (bottom) display modes.

Shooting mode
Exposure indicator
Aperture (f-number)
Exposure compensation indicator
Shutter speed
Bracketing progress indicator
Shutter speed display
Number of exposures remaining
Aperture display
White balance recording indicator
Auto-area AF indicator
Capture mode indicator
3D-tracking indicator
"K" (appears when memory remains for over 1000 exposures)
Focus point
Flash mode
Manual flash indicator
Flash compensation
Flash compensation indicator for optional flash units
Exposure compensation
Print date indicator
Picture control
Auto ISO sensitivity indicator
Image quality
Multiple exposure indicator
Image size
HDR indicator
White balance
Beep indicator
ISO sensitivity
Battery indicator
Release mode
GPS connection indicator
Focus mode
Eye-Fi connection indicator
AF-area mode
Help icon
ADL bracketing amount
Active D-Lighting
Bracketing increment

There's a lot of information shown there, but a logical layout and the large/sharp LCD screen makes it easy to tell what you're looking at. The column of data down the right side of the screen and the row across the bottom of the screen represent settings you can adjust directly from this screen.

As mentioned above, settings can be adjusted right in the shooting display by pressing the "i" button. The cursor keys can then be used to navigate to the setting you wish to change. The OK button is used to select the setting, and a new value or option is selected using the Up/Down cursor keys. For features that have a dedicated button (such as exposure compensation, shutter speed, etc.), the button is pressed and/or the command dial is used to change the value or option. The animation on the right shows the top-level contents of each item in the information display. As part of the Nikon D5100's designed-in user-friendliness, many menu options include "assist" images, to help you understand the types of shots or conditions for which each setting is most appropriate.


Nikon D5100 Playback Mode

Playback mode is entered by pressing the Playback button. The Nikon D5100's Playback mode provides a great deal of information about your pictures after you've shot them. You can cycle through a variety of Playback displays using the up/down arrows on the multi-selector, including the image alongside either file information, basic shooting data and a luminance histogram, or an RGB histogram (if enabled in the Playback menu). Four further displays include the image with either three screens of overlaid shooting info and image parameter information, or the image with a blinking indication of clipped highlights. To reduce the number of button presses to get to your desired screen type, the highlights, RGB histogram, and info displays can be disabled in the display mode menu if you don't use them.

The Nikon D5100's histogram display modes are very useful tools. Regarded as almost mandatory by many pros for evaluating exposure levels, histogram displays are de rigeur on professional digital cameras, and common even in many amateur models these days. A histogram is simply a graph of how many pixels there are in the image at each brightness level. The brightness is the horizontal axis, running from black at the left to white at the right. The height of the graph shows the relative number of pixels having each brightness level. This sort of display is very handy for determining under- or overexposure. An underexposed image will have a histogram with all the data lumped on the left-hand side, with nothing reaching all the way to the right. Likewise, an overexposed image will have all the data lumped on the right side. The one defect of a luminance histogram is that it might not be obvious that there's clipping if it is restricted to only one of the three color channels. The inclusion of an RGB histogram function hence allows the photographer to confirm that each individual color channel is correctly exposed, with no clipped values.

Of course the Nikon D5100 also lets you zoom out to quickly find and select images, or magnify them for closer inspection on its 3.0-inch LCD. There is a calendar view as well as the normal 4-, 9-, or 72-image thumbnail displays available by pressing the thumbnail/zoom-out button, and you can magnify images up to approximately 31x for large, 23x for medium, and 15x for small images, using the zoom-in button. Once magnified, you can scroll around the image using the multi-selector to examine critical detail and framing, and you can view other images at the same zoom ratio using the command dial. The Nikon D5100 can detect up to 35 faces while in Playback mode. The camera highlights them with a white frame, and you can cycle through them at the current zoom ratio by holding the Info Display button while pressing the left or right arrow buttons, and zoom in or out on faces by holding Info Display and pressing the up or down arrow buttons. This makes focus verification of faces faster and more convenient.

To return the Nikon D5100 to shooting mode, simply press the Playback button again, or half-press the shutter button.


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