So you've used your entry-level consumer DSLR avidly for a few years and want to take your picture popping pastime one step further. You don't have the budget for a proper professional camera, but you'd still like something a little speedier and a bit more robust than your current model. Nikon's solution: The $899.99 D5100. The successor to the Japanese company's popular D5000, this new camera offers significant upgrades that range from improved image quality to enhanced functionality.
Its large, 3-inch articulated screen, which swings out from the side rather than from below, offers about four times the resolution of its predecessor's display, providing clear, high contrast images in both live view and playback modes. It's not a standout performer in direct sunlight, but with the ability to rotate the screen in almost any direction you like - including flipping it forward for self portraits - it rarely proves difficult to find an angle free of reflection.
With the new screen's hinge on the left side, Nikon's engineers were forced to substantially rearrange the button layout on the back of the camera. However, the new configuration feels quite comfortable, particularly for people who find themselves shooting with a single hand. Everything but the menu button is located on the right side of the body, and all buttons and dials are within easy reach of finger or thumb. Frequently used controls are intuitively located - including the live view switch, which sits right beside the mode dial, as well as the video record button, which is just beside and in front of the shutter release - and it's easy to track down those that are less used.
Inside, the D5100 sports a 16.2-megapixel image sensor - the same one found in Nikon's higher end D7000. Anyone upgrading from the D3100 or D5000 ought to notice clear improvements shooting at higher ISOs. My anecdotal tests - which included shooting an outdoor sporting event, a day at the splash pad, and evening interior shots in low lighting - delivered impressive pictures that were free of noise up to ISO 2000 and relatively clean images with excellent tone all the way up to ISO 6400.
Of course, part of the appeal of consumer DSLRs is that you don't need to know anything about a potentially enigmatic term like "ISO" to fire off rapid bursts of professional-looking shots in which water looks like glass and fast-moving children appear crisply in front of blurred backgrounds. Just set the D5100 to "auto" mode and these benefits are yours.
But it offers even more advantages for those willing to delve just a little deeper into its feature set. For example, one of the features the new HDR (high dynamic range) setting. Professional photographers often take multiple shots of the same subject using different settings and later combine the results to create a perfectly exposed picture that would be impossible to achieve with a single shot. When set to HDR, the D5100 takes the work out of the process of bracketing by automatically snapping a short series of shots back to back with different settings, then creating a composite of these exposures without the need for any external editing software. It's beneficial only under certain circumstances, but I found that it could markedly improve a shot of, say, a motionless subject taken in less than ideal lighting conditions.
Another useful feature is the night vision mode in the new effects menu. It's not true night vision in that it doesn't make use of infrared light. Rather, it captures a black and white image taken at an extremely high sensitivity. The results are grainy and often a little blurry, but the subject is so brightly lit as to almost appear to be in daylight. It's handy when you can't use a flash, and the results tend to have a pleasant, artsy appeal.
Other effects menu settings deliver the sort of images professional photographers typically labour to create in post-production. I particularly liked the selective colour feature, which generates dramatic greyscale pictures highlighted by a single colour of your choice (imagine the scenes with the girl in the red coat in Schindler's List). For example, you can take a picture of a grey cityscape with a bright blue sky, or one of children in black and white playing against the background of a lush green park. The effect can be applied not just to still images but also videos.
On the subject of movies, the D5100 makes for an excellent makeshift video camera. With image quality bumped up from the D5000's 720p to a full 1080p at 30 frames per second, moving pictures are smooth, clear, and beautiful. I'd place video quality about on par with mid-range consumer camcorders. Face and subject tracking makes it possible to maintain focus without constantly pressing the shutter button, though you will need to dig into the menu system to switch between the two. What's more, an upgrade in maximum recording time from five minutes to 20 helps to ensure recording doesn't cut out midway through your daughter's ballet recital.
Sound quality is predictably middle-of-the-road, but more serious videographers can plug in an external stereo mic and attach it to the accessory shoe behind the flash. Also handy is the ability to crop videos in-camera without affecting the original file. Just choose new start and end points and a fresh video file will be generated.
I mentioned at the start that a D5100 kit complete with chassis and an 18/55 lens lists for $899.99, but I found major Canadian photography retailers selling it for $799.99. That's a great price for a camera that ought to help amateur enthusiasts take their hobby to the next level.