Operation and controls

As we've already described, the D5100's operational ergonomics are noticeably different to both the D5000 and the lower-end D3100. The D5100's LCD screen is side-articulated, which has forced a significant redesign of the camera's rear. The D5100 gains a mechanical live view switch, but unlike the D3100, it is divorced from the dedicated movie shooting button, which can now be found to the left of the shutter release on the top of the camera.

The D5100's direct movie shooting button is positioned within easy reach for shooting quick 'grab' footage. The live view switch works in the same way as it does on the D7000 and D3100, you have to flick this to enter live view before you can start movie recording. This new position is less convenient for quick activation than the rear-mounted thumb switch of the D3100/D7000, although it's also less likely to be knocked accidentally. Sadly, though, its new position means there's no space for a D3100-stlye drive mode lever.

A summary of the major physical changes over the D5000 follows below:

  • Side-hinged articulated LCD screen
  • Live View lever replaces button
  • Dedicated movie shooting button on top plate (redundant except in live view mode)
  • 'Proper' rubber grip (and thumbrest)
  • Menu button moved to top left of camera's rear
  • Magnification and delete buttons moved to right of LCD screen
  • Dual IR receivers (one front, one rear)

Rear of camera controls

The back of the camera has been carefully arranged so that the primary shooting controls are immediately available on the right-hand side of the camera. The rear dial controls exposure parameters (in concert with the exposure compensation button which sits just behind the shutter button), while the configurable AE-L/AF-L button is also within easy reach. The newly added live view lever isn't as easy to reach as the same control on the D3100/D7000, but has the advantage that it is even harder to trigger accidentally.

Meanwhile the buttons needed when operating the menu or on-screen display (where you're likely to have the camera held away from you to view the LCD), have been moved from the left to the right-hand side of the articulated LCD screen. The new control layout has ended up being significantly different to the D5000, and in some respects (we think) it is less than optimal.

Top of camera controls

On the top of the camera there's an 'info' button that turns the rear display on and off, and the exposure compensation button that's within easy reach of your shooting finger. The mode dial gives easy access to everything from the new 'Effects' mode through to traditional PASM exposure modes, but we're disappointed to see that the D3100's drive mode dial doesn't make it onto the D5100, and is replaced instead by a live view switch.

Front of camera controls

The front of the camera plays host to a customizable function button and an active flash button. You can assign one of four functions to it (image quality/size, ISO, white balance, and Active D-Lighting), of which we suspect ISO will probably the most popular.

The active flash button itself is an unusually good design for this type of camera. On most models at this level this button is simply a catch that releases the flash - instead the D5100's allows you to configure its behavior too. Hold the button and spin the control dial and you can switch flash modes (including second-curtain sync), hold it and the exposure compensation button as well and you can apply flash exposure compensation - all without taking your hands out of the shooting position. It's easy to overlook nice touches like this because they all mean the camera's operation is unobtrusive.

Unlike all the more expensive models, though, the D5100 cannot act as a controller for Nikon's wireless 'Creative Lighting System' flash setup - for this you need a high-end external unit such as the SB-900. The white dot just beneath the Fn/self-timer button is the alignment indicator which is used when mounting compatible lenses.