After an evening of playing around with the Nikon D5100, I do believe it’s a very capable camera. I took a couple of pictures outside about half an hour before sunset and it handled most lighting conditions competently. It even did macro without a tripod reasonable well. The built-in HDR mode is fast enough to do scenery handheld with reasonable sharpness, and the selective color effect lets you choose up to 3 colors to sample.
There are a few nuances I’m still not sold on however, converting from Pentax. The first is lens quality. The kit 18-55 lens is a remarkable piece of optical engineering in that they built vibration reduction into their cheapest lens. It works pretty well, as I saw with my macro shots at 55mm. Usually before dusk, I have to either crank up ISO or use a tripod to get any decent pictures. Kudos to Nikon for managing to implement it, but I’m not thrilled with the shortcuts they took to get there. The overall construction of the lens feels plastic-y, the action of the zoom ring doesn’t have the smooth feel of a metal cylinder. They even made the lens mount plastic, which probably won’t affect anything in the grand scheme of things but doesn’t inspire a feeling of quality. With a 5-year warranty though, I’m not too worried. It’ll be Nikon’s bill if this lens doesn’t hold up.
The one thing they did really well though was their silent wave motor autofocus mechanism. The difference in noise level between it and a regular DC motor AF mechanism is like the difference between… hmm… a cell phone vibrating on a wooden table, and a cell phone vibrating on carpeting. It’s also reasonable fast, and the D5100 is pretty accurate in most cases. It’ll lock on and focus onto its target in one continuous action, instead of the “BRSHHHHT. Click, click. *chirp*!” I was used to with my Tamron super-zoom lens.
Item two that I’m slightly dismayed with is the Nikkor focus mechanic. When you zoom in at an object, the lens elongates, but does not rotate. This is good. When you focus on an object, the end of the lens will rotate as the internal lens assemblies fine tune themselves. This is bad, because if you use certain attachments (ex. graduated filters), the effect is direction dependent. It also means you’re stuck using circular lens hoods, which i find ugly. I much prefer the “flower” style lens hood, where you have plastic petals arranged on four sides. Much more minimalistic, looks a lot less like a delinquent dog. And potentially helps counter vignetting at wider angles.
My last gripe with Nikon is their use of a custom accessory port. It’s about the size of a mini FireWire connector with 8 contacts. While this is great for things like GPS modules which need to pass data, it’s not so great because you’re stuck buying proprietary Nikon gear for things like remote camera triggers. Or you could be like me and just buy one from a third party website that ships from Singapore for 85% less money than an official Nikon MC-DC2 remote. Even if it breaks after a few uses, it won’t be much of a loss. My greatest disappointment was not being able to use my computer mouse remote trigger with it.