I had the opportunity to shoot with a Nikon D5100 recently and to take it on a trip to the United States.

I have been shooting with a higher-end camera – the Nikon D7000 – for a while now. It is a lovely camera, but it weighs 220g (almost half a pound) more than the D5100.

And because I prefer to carry as little weight as possible when I am traveling, I grabbed the chance to take the lighter camera and just one lens – the Nikon 35mm f1.8 AF-S – to the USA.

I have used the D60 and before that the D40, and both of them are very good cameras. So I had some expectation of what the more modern D5100 would be able to deliver.

The D5100 – D7000 Comparison

The D5100 and the D700 use the same sensor, but the image-processing engine within the two cameras is different.

There is no doubt that the D5100 can produce high image quality – as witness this shot and the crop from it:

So this comparison is not about the image quality, but about the handling.

The D5100 In Use

The D5100 is a pleasure to shoot in all but one respect. That one respect is the essential one of being able to see whether the camera has focused on the subject.

I already knew from the D40 and the D60 that there is no lock button for the focus point. So if one catches the rear four-way controller, the focus point will be moved – to the side or up or down, depending on which part of the controller one catches inadvertently.

The Back Of The D5100 Showing The Four-Way Controller And The 'OK' Button

The standard way to deal with this is to get into the habit of hitting the OK button in the center of the four-way controller when one raises the camera to shoot. That centers the focus point.

So, picture the scene: the camera goes to my eye and I look through the viewfinder. Except that in California, the light is bright and contrasty, rather than overcast and cloudy as it had been in Edinburgh.

I have hit the OK button – so I know the focus point is in the center of the frame as I look through the viewfinder.

But exactly where is the center of the frame?

You might think that is easy to answer, but with your eye jammed up against the viewfinder, it is not so straightforward to see.

Now on the D7000, the active focus points are big and bright: When the red light on the active focus point lights up, you can see it.

Not so on the D5100. The focus points are tiny and in bright sunlight against a busy scene, it is very difficult to see the little red light that lights up on the active focus point when the camera achieves focus.

Remember that you would not looking at a blank white background like that shown in these illustrations. You would be looking at a busy and perhaps colourful scene where you have to pick the red focus light out of a confusion of shapes and colours.

Sure, after a second or two of hunting for the illumination of the active focus point and repeatedly half-pressing the shutter, you will see it.

But those are precious seconds when you want to be focusing and shooting. And the feeling of uncertainty that it causes is not conducive to keeping a steady hand and a clear mind while shooting.

D7000 Focus Points

D5100 Focus Points

Conclusion

This is a step backward for Nikon compared to the focus points on the D40 and the D60.

And that is as much as I want to say about the D5100 in the real world: Great camera – pity about the poor illumination of the active focus point.