Nikon “Auto-Mode” Ramblings, Battery.

I was finally able to put the D5100 through some more challenging pictures yesterday than just walking around my house. There’s an annual picnic my parents attend with their Tai Chi-oriented friends, so I played event photographer for a day. The setting is a big sheltered picnic area from late afternoon to evening, which means huge dynamic range (bright surroundings, shadowy interior) and generally poor lighting. My general impressions of the camera and in-lens VR system are that they function great. I didn’t stray off the Auto picture mode very often though, because I didn’t feel like fiddling with shutter or aperture too much. The most I would have done is manually adjusted the exposure, and I did play with setting my own AF points.

The D5100’s idea of “Auto” is rather different from what I’ve used with Pentax, and I hear it’s also different from Canon’s ideology. What I used to do was go into “Auto” on my K20 and let my camera choose shutter and aperture based on ISO. If ISO was also handled by the camera, then it had a range of between 100 and 400 or 800. This meant that you would almost never sacrifice image quality in terms of graininess, but you could very easily be stuck with undesirable shutter speeds in low light. Blur-tastic.

What Nikon does instead is it gives you no control over ISO, and instead puts limits on minimum shutter speed (ex. 1/30s) and maximum ISO (3200). Within those bounds, anything is fair game. It will do pretty much everything in it’s power to ensure that your pictures come out sharp and usable, since grainy pictures beat out blurry pictures any day. If you have the luxury of a tripod, you may not want your Nikon making such drastic compromises, in which case you have to make a few extra button presses to do it your way. This is why DPReview characterized the D5100’s Auto Picture system as being more ‘sports and action’ oriented than other cameras. It’s almost as though it’s in permanent ‘shutter-priority’ mode. It’s not a bad thing if you’re using it handheld, like a pocket camera (point-shoot, repeat). If you want buttery-smooth color rendition, you’ll have to set the camera yourself.

I shot about 400 pictures, some with and some without using live-view. I used flash for maybe 20-30 shots. VR was enabled for all pictures. At the end of 3 and a half hours, I was on my last bar of battery life. It’s perfectly reasonable, but it does mean you’ll want a second battery for extended outings. And to that extent, the internet is awash with people complaining about how third party batteries don’t work in the D5100, or even D3100. Nikon apparently built a chip into their batteries that prevent unbranded batteries from working in their cameras. Good for quality control, bad for cheap shopping. I’m not sure why I’m so offended by that when I own Apple products. But it does mean I will have to shell out some more money before July 4th. Oh well. Such is life.

Small photo set can be found here: I didn’t include a ton of pictures, since that would borderline on being a creep.

P.S. 300mm is great. If you have an extra $100 to spend, opt for the 55-300mm VR instead of the 55-200 VR. In addition to the extra reach, you get a metal lens mount, which is a little more comforting than the plastic of the 18-55mm kit.

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