Nikon D5100 Review

 
Camera Reviews / Nikon Cameras / Nikon D i Full Review
Basic Specifications
Full model name: Nikon D5100
Resolution: 16.20 Megapixels
Sensor size: APS-C
Kit Lens: 3.00x zoom
18-55mm
(27-83mm eq.)
Viewfinder: Optical / LCD
ISO: 100-25600
Shutter: 30-1/4000
Max Aperture: 3.5
Dimensions: 5.0 x 3.8 x 3.1 in.
(128 x 97 x 79 mm)
Weight: 29.2 oz (829 g)
includes batteries, kit lens
MSRP: $900
Availability: 04/2011
Manufacturer: Nikon
Full specs: Nikon D5100 specifications
16.20
Megapixels
Nikon F mount APS-C
size sensor
image of Nikon D5100
Front side of Nikon D5100 digital camera Back side of Nikon D5100 digital camera Top side of Nikon D5100 digital camera Left side of Nikon D5100 digital camera Right side of Nikon D5100 digital camera

D5100 Summary

Nikon's followup to the D5000 digital SLR brings a higher-resolution image sensor with improved noise performance and dynamic range, as well as the company's latest-generation image processing algorithms. It also replaces the earlier camera's bottom-mounted LCD articulation mechanism with a side-mounted design that's much more versatile, and brings an expanded selection of consumer-friendly in-camera filter effects, plus a two-shot HDR mode--a first for Nikon's DSLR lineup.

Pros

Side-mounted tilt / swivel LCD screen; same sensor and processing as the Nikon D7000; good speed and battery life; in-camera HDR and filter effects; Full HD video capture with aperture control; audio levels control and external microphone jack.

Cons

AF-S lens mount doesn't offer autofocus with screw-drive lenses; popup flash isn't the greatest; no built-in wireless flash control; HDR function doesn't microalign source images.

Price and availability

The Nikon D5100 shipped in the US market from mid-April 2011, priced at around $800 body-only, or $900 in a bundle with the AF-S DX Zoom-NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens.

Imaging Resource rating

5.0 out of 5.0

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Nikon D5100 Review

Reviewed by Shawn Barnett, , and Zig Weidelich
Hands-on Preview Posted: 4/5/2011
Initial Test: 05/30/2011
Full Review Posted:

Based around the same 16.2-megapixel DX-format CMOS image sensor and EXPEED 2 image processing as featured in the prosumer D7000, the D5100 offers similarly good image quality in a more affordable, approachable body. ISO sensitivity ranges from 100 to 6,400 equivalents by default, but can be extended as high as 25,600 equivalent if desired.

Compared to its predecessor, the Nikon D5100 makes a number of important changes, and it also includes several features which are unique among the company's DSLR lineup. Despite being the company's first SLR to feature a side-swiveling LCD display, the D5100 has a smaller overall body design than that of the D5000. Unlike the earlier camera's bottom-swivel display, the side-swivel is a versatile design that allows the live view feed to be seen when framing self-portraits.

The  D5100 is also Nikon's first SLR to include in-camera high dynamic range (HDR) imaging capability. A single press of the shutter release captures two shots, with the first intentionally underexposed, and the second overexposed. The two are then combined in-camera to yield a final exposure with much wider dynamic range than is possible in a single exposure.

Also new for the D5100 is a Special Effects mode applicable to both still and movie capture. The selection of effects available includes what Nikon is calling Night Vision mode, which allows shooting at ISO sensitivities up to 102,400 equivalent, with a limitation that the resulting image or movie is monochromatic.

As well as capturing still images at a rate of four frames per second, the Nikon D5100 can record high definition video at resolutions up to 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, using MPEG-4 AVCHD / H.264 compression. Full-time autofocus is available in the D5100's live view and video modes, including a face detection function which can locate up to 35 faces in a scene simultaneously. Note, though, that the D5100 features an AF-S lens mount, and hence can't autofocus with screw-drive lenses.

Nikon D5100 Overview

by Shawn Barnett and Mike Tomkins

The Nikon D5100 is a little late to the market, but it's quite welcome. While we liked the preceding D5000 model, its larger size and especially the bottom-hinged swivel screen didn't make it our favorite, among an overwhelming number of recent Nikon digital SLRs that fairly knocked our socks off. That's changed with the Nikon D5100, as it pushes most all the right buttons. It's also better aimed at the Canon T3i, its major competitor.

Walkaround. Unlike the T3i, the Nikon D5100 is smaller than its predecessor, about the same width and thickness, but noticeably shorter, which makes a nice, tight package, reminiscent of the Nikon D40, one of our favorite digital SLRs. Measuring 5.0 x 3.8 x 3.1 inches (127 x 97 x 79mm), the Nikon D5100 is larger than the D3100's 4.9 x 3.8 x 2.9 inches (125 x 97 x 74mm), and smaller than the D5000's 5.0 x 4.1 x 3.1 inches (127 x 104 x 80mm). Weight is slightly reduced compared to the D5000: 19.9 ounces (565g) for the new camera, 20.7 ounces (588g) for the old (with battery and card, without lens).

The grip, while nicely sculpted inside for the pads of the fingers, isn't quite as deep as we'd like, causing our fingers to bottom out before they have a good hold on the camera. I can normally adjust my grip by wrapping the heel of my thumb around the back, but the 3-inch articulating screen makes that more difficult, as it's pushed most of the controls far to the right on the back, leaving little room for that maneuver. As a result, I hold it more loosely than most SLRs. The Nikon D5100's grip is made for smaller hands, as my medium hands are generally able to adjust to almost any size grip.

Notice also in the three-quarter shot above the placement of the Function (Fn) button just left of the D5100 logo, the mic and speaker holes just above the logo, and the large rubber port door on the right. This door covers the Accessory, AV Out/USB, HDMI, and Microphone ports, and opens as easily as it closes snugly.

Nestled in the grip of the Nikon D5100 is the infrared port, for use with a wireless remote control. Just right of the shutter button is the AF-assist lamp, which also serves as a Self-timer lamp. Our kit lens was the Nikkor AF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR.

The top deck better shows the speaker holes left of the pop-up flash. Just left and behind the Power switch and Shutter button is the new Movie Record button. The Info button moves a little further back, and serves to turn the rear LCD off and on. Where there was a Drive mode switch on the D5000, the D5100 has a new Live view activation momentary switch. It's disappointing that they couldn't put it in the same place it is on the Nikon D7000 and D3100, but the articulating LCD is worth the sacrifice. Incidentally, if you're used to using the power switch on a Rebel, the Lv switch may initially confuse you.

The Mode dial has a few new items, namely the Scene and Effects menu items. Unlike the D3100, there is no Guide mode on the Nikon D5100.

The left-mounted hinge on the Nikon D5100's Vari-angle LCD has moved the left-side buttons most Nikon shooters are used to above and right of the display. I'm not sure they got all the placements right. I'm fine with the Menu button upper left, but the i-Menu button could be better placed for easier thumb access, perhaps where the Playback button is now. I'm fond of the quick menu that it launches, which is superior to the one on the D7000, by the way, with a good set of commonly changed items. The zoom buttons are probably better placed than any of the other buttons, as you generally drop your hold on the right side of the camera anyway to allow others to see your images, leaving your thumb ideally placed to actuate these buttons, as well as the trash button. A double-press on this button deletes any image you like.

The left-articulating LCD is better than the bottom-mounted hinge in several ways. First, you can use it while the Nikon D5100 is mounted on a tripod, whereas the D5000's hinge was often blocked by elements of the tripod's mounting plate, if not the plate itself. You can also face this LCD forward to better monitor your self-portraits, whereas the old design was usually blocked by the tripod head. The 3-inch LCD itself has 921,000 dots, and is said to have a 1,000:1 contrast ratio.

One more thing, just lower left of the Menu button you can see a slightly darker dot: That's the rear infrared sensor, a feature that is also found on the Nikon D7000 and P7000. It's excellent for macro and studio shooting, because you no longer have to reach around with your ML-L3 infrared remote to activate the grip-mounted infrared sensor. Bravo, Nikon. If you've a preference for cabled remotes, note that the D5100 also accepts an MC-DC2 remote via its Accessory port.

See below for our Shooter's Report, and check out our full suite of Test Shots and Gallery images!

Nikon D5100 Shooter's Report

by Shawn Barnett

We've been treated to so many excellent SLRs in the past few years that when we see something like the Nikon D5100 it's easy to miss its value. In fact, the Nikon D5100 integrates so many of the stand-out features we've enjoyed in other cameras that while I argue we shouldn't say "So what?" we should indeed say, "It's about time!" Not only was it high time for a more advanced and affordable Nikon with a greater-than-12-megapixel sensor, we've also needed a Nikon with a left-mounted swivel screen and features like integrated HDR and Full HD movie capability.

While the D300S (still at 12-megapixels) is the serious photographer's camera, and the D7000 is for the advanced amateur, it's hard to know where to place the Nikon D5100. If you recall the days when everyone had a Swiss Army knife, there was one called a Tinker, which had just the right elements for most needs (two blades, two screwdrivers, an awl, bottle and can openers, and even a toothpick and tweezers) and took up very little space. That's about where the D5100 fits. It's not just an SLR, it's a digital camera with extra capabilities, capabilities that go beyond just interchangeable lenses. I'm not saying other cameras don't fit into the same category, I'm just saying the D5100 really serves the purposes of its target audience well, and all in a reasonably small package.

Grip. Though we've already mentioned that the grip is a little small for perfect comfort, it's still not bad, and when I go out to take pictures, I don't think about it much. The grip is nice and tacky, which is very good. I appreciate the Nikon D5100's small size, noticeably smaller than the new Canon T3i, and would love to try it with a few small primes. The 18-55mm lens seems a little long, physically, and is a little softer than I'd like at telephoto, but it serves for general purpose photography.

I like the new control layout, all but the position of the i-Menu button, which requires me to adjust my grip to reach it. Some of the buttons click very loudly, others more quietly. The OK button in particular clacks rather than clicks, and the AE-L/AF-L button makes no noise at all. I've noticed other cameras with different button sounds, but this is the loudest I recall hearing, so I couldn't help but mention it. The shutter sound doesn't seem as quiet as other Nikon models, but it's quieter than Rebels and manages to still make a slight winding sound quite typical of how cameras sound in movies--which is how it seems people expect cameras to sound.

HDR. Above is the shot without HDR, then with high smoothing and low smoothing. I like the increased shadow detail in both shots, but the low smoothing leaves quite a bit of glow around some elements, and both modes transform a blue sky into a dingy, gray, rather foreboding sky.

For consumers, I really preferred the Nikon D40's limited control set, but I find the Nikon D5100's greater number of buttons and controls makes me want to grab the camera and go out to play. It's not quite as inspiring to photography as the Nikon D7000, but it's still enticing. As one who's used to shooting Rebels, I kept flipping the camera into Live view mode when I thought I was done shooting, because of its location right next to the Mode dial, which is where the power switch is located on Rebels. But I really prefer the power switch where it is on the Nikon design: right around the shutter button. It's so much easier to flip on and shoot.

Function. I was also pleased to see Nikon integrate a Function (Fn) button, even if it is oddly placed. By default, it activates the Self-timer, but it can also set the Release mode, set Image quality, ISO sensitivity, White Balance, Active D-Lighting, turn on HDR mode for the next shot, add RAW to the next shot, or activate an Auto Bracketing sequence.

HDR. I was really happy to find I could set the Function button to activate the Nikon D5100's HDR mode, because I was otherwise going to complain about how the camera turns off HDR mode after each shot. It's a nuisance. You have to drill back down through the menu system to re-activate it, too. Not fun. I get why they'd do that, to prevent newbies from taking all their shots as HDRs, but making auto-deactivation an option would have made sense. So long as you don't mind dedicating your Fn button to it, HDR mode can be very handy indeed.

HDR to the max. Here's a sample of the most dramatic effect with low smoothing.

Much like Sony's HDR implementation, the Nikon D5100 shoots two photos at different settings, exposing for highlights and shadows, and integrates the two images. HDR is often overdone, but it can be useful for keeping the sky from going totally white while exposing for the foreground, or for maintaining detail in the shadows. Digital cameras just don't have the ability to capture as wide a range as our eyes can see, so we need tricks like this to capture all that we see. Unfortunately, the results often look odd. While your eye is seeing a live image and can adjust as you look around a scene, a photograph is a static image, and has to show it all at once, hence the surreal appearance of truly broad high-dynamic-range images. Fortunately, you can adjust the exposure differential from 1, 2, or 3 EV, or leave it up to the camera by selecting Auto. You can also set how aggressively the camera smooths the boundaries between images. If you want the very radical look, choose low smoothing; if you want a more realistic appearance, choose high smoothing. Since I had a short time, I shot mostly 3EV images with low smoothing for more drama. I made that decision partly because I couldn't really see the effect on the camera's LCD in bright light, so I just cranked it up. That brings up a point when judging photos on the Nikon D5100's LCD that I'll get to shortly.

Night vision. There are two other shots in the gallery, one in Night vision, the other at ISO 6,400, but they were made with a light on in the room; this is barely enough light to frame the shot.

Though I'm not sure why they're split into two separate areas on the Mode dial, Scene and Effects offer a few interesting settings as well. Of the available Effects, only Silhouette and Night vision would be worth running to in a pinch, at least for me. In both positions, though, you just turn the rear Control dial, and a virtual dial appears in the upper left corner of the screen, allowing you to select from among the modes that appear there. The text title appears as well as a sample image to give you the idea of what each mode does.

Night vision is an obvious choice for the photographer dad wanting to get photos of his children when they're at their most wonderful, which is of course when they're sleeping. It's surprising that they didn't emulate the classic green glow of a night vision scope, but it also shows good judgment, because in the end, we all appreciate a black and white photograph. I used it in low light earlier in the week, but gave it more of a test in real "night vision" light. No joy. So I turned on the bathroom light and it was dim enough that I could barely see well enough to frame the image in the viewfinder. The Nikon D5100 didn't autofocus in this mode, so I had to focus on something in better light using another mode at about the same distance, then reframe my shot. It's pretty darn grainy, but it looks decent.

Color sketch. I'm sure others will be able to make better use of this mode than I.

Color sketch. I tried my best to come up with a decent photographic excuse for Color sketch effect, but I came up short. It's just not my thing, and I'd hate to waste a frame on it. I could see trying to apply it to save a boring picture, but why bother saving a boring picture? Just delete it.

Miniature effect. It's hard to see in this thumbnail, but the effect is more noticeable at larger sizes.

Miniature effect. I labored trying to make a convincing Miniature image, but it's critical where the blur lands, and that's not always conducive to good composition if you even find a vantage point. In Live view mode, you do have a chance to frame it with the blur-effect present, but frame rate slows to two or three frames per second, making it harder to compose the image. I did better through the optical viewfinder. In the end I made a shot of kids on a swing that looks okay. The key is to shoot from a high angle to help the illusion that you're looking into a diorama or set of toys. I find the mode useful for demonstrating the feature in camera reviews, but haven't used it beyond that.

Mode dial. I have to take a moment to praise the Mode dial. As I shot with it, paying more attention to my kids than the camera, it was easy to change among the modes I had to try for the review, and returning to Program or Aperture modes was as easy as could be, easier than most cameras I use. The dial has just the right resistance to turn easily, but not accidentally. What's more, it moves into each setting with confidence, not stopping halfway between. When you handle as many cameras as I do, you know that's not the norm.

Shutter lag. Half a second earlier, she was facing the camera for a cute shot.

Swivel screen. I've used several cameras with left-hinged swivel screens lately, but for some reason I've remembered that I could and should use this one more often than I have with others. It's most handy when you have toddlers, or when shooting at events with lots of other people, like school events and sporting events. Again, the Nikon D5100 is ideal for parents in particular. I must say, though, that while having a swivel screen means you can get a good low angle on toddlers, I noticed a significant lag even when prefocused. The lab tests say its about 0.49 second. Nearly half a second is a long time when photographing toddlers, let me tell you. In that time, the mirror goes down, the screen goes blank, and then the mirror goes back up to make the exposure. Sadly what you saw when that screen went blank is too often not what you captured. That's Live view for most SLRs, unfortunately, and you just have to adjust your timing accordingly. It should be noted that most swivel-screen digicams average a half-second shutter lag, so all that's missing is the usual faster shutter lag that we associate with SLRs.

It's not a perfect solution for toddlers, especially very active ones, but for many other situations, it helps you get shots from unusual angles, and even self-portraits, that you wouldn't get otherwise.

Better. The Nikon D5100 actually did do pretty well on this flash shot, especially considering the dark clothes and dark green target.

LCD in bright light. While photographing the kids at a local playground, I frequently saw photo opportunities with the kids faces in shadow. After the exposure, it seemed their faces were way too dark, so I decided to pop up the flash. This seemed to do the trick, brightening their faces. Later, when I viewed the pictures on the computer, though, it was those first shots I made without the flash that were properly exposed, while many of the flash shots were overexposed; exactly the opposite of what the camera's LCD had told me. So the good news is that the Nikon D5100's exposure system got it right. The bad news is that when the flash was employed, the exposure system sometimes overdid it. I think I'd employ flash exposure compensation in the future to dial it back, and look to the histogram more than the LCD in the future. I think the top glass on the LCD is way too reflective, which makes it harder to properly judge exposure in bright sunlit conditions.

Speed. Saw these guys coming up the ramp, switched out of Live view, and crouched down to catch them through the faster viewfinder.

Viewfinder. I found the greatest success using the optical viewfinder to frame my shots, as is usually the case. The viewfinder is more like a Rebel's, to put it simply. AF points are bracketed by slim black lines, with black dots in the center which light up red when focus is achieved. The bright red dots are easier to pick out against most backgrounds, whereas the dim red squares of past designs were harder to see against certain backgrounds, especially in shadow areas. Arrayed in a horizontal diamond pattern, the Nikon D5100's eleven AF points are more plentiful than on the Rebel, which has only nine.

The optical viewfinder also offers a return to framing images at the speed of light, as well as the faster shutter lag. It's a shame it's not a little faster to reacquire focus, taking 0.41 second in wide-area mode, but I found it fast enough in most cases. Switching to single-point AF removes some of the guesswork, and a lot of the lag, which goes down to 0.27 second.

Full HD. 1080p at 30fps. The movie starts out slightly out of focus, but I half-press the shutter a few seconds in so you can hear the focus motor on the kit lens. (Click image to download 31.4MB .MOV file.)

Movie. Capturing movies with the Nikon D5100 is almost as simple as you could make it. You first have to switch to Live view mode, then just press the red Record button just behind and left of the shutter button. The only complication is that when shooting in one of the many HD movie modes, you have to remember that once you start recording, the top and bottom of the display will be cropped off to fit the 16:9 format. Two of the Info displays have small horizontal lines near the corners that show where the 16:9 crop will occur, which is as good a solution as I've seen. You just have to press the Info button once to get to one of these screens.

You can autofocus while recording with a half-press on the shutter button. With the kit lens, you can hear the focus motor adjusting the lens to check focus. You can also turn on AF-F (Full-time servo AF) mode, only available in Live view mode, which offers continuous autofocus while in Live view and Movie modes.

The Nikon D5100 was capable and fun to use. I would not hesitate to take it to any major family event, though I'd probably want to get a more capable small lens, like the Nikkor 18-105mm. The D5100 is Nikon's most versatile offering at this price point and is easy to get good results in a hurry, making it ideal for those new to SLR photography.

Nikon D5100 Tech Info

by Mike Tomkins

Sensor. On the inside, the Nikon D5100 is based around the same 16.2-megapixel, DX-format (23.6 x 15.6mm), CMOS image sensor that previously featured in the D7000. The Nikon D5100's imager has a total pixel count of 16.9 megapixels, a pixel size of 4.78µm, and yields maximum image dimensions of 4,928 x 3,264 pixels. Two lower-resolution options are also available--either 3,696 x 2,448, or 2,464 x 1,632 pixels. The Nikon D5100 can capture still images as .NEF-format compressed RAW files, JPEG compressed files, or as both types simultaneously. Unlike the prosumer D7000 model, the Nikon D5100 doesn't provide an option for uncompressed RAW files.

Processor. The Nikon D5100 uses 14-bit analog/digital conversion, and output from the CMOS sensor is handled by an EXPEED 2 image processor, as featured previously in the D3100 and D7000. Compared to the previous generation EXPEED, the latest generation EXPEED 2 offers improvements in processing speed, image quality, and power consumption. (Note that Nikon repeatedly tells us that EXPEED 2 isn't necessarily the same processor in each camera; it's a processing set that's applied via various configurations of processors, which varies by camera.)

Although the Nikon D5100 features the same sensor and nominally the same EXPEED version as in the D7000, its burst shooting rate of four frames per second is a third slower than the D7000's six frames per second, as you might expect given its more affordable pricing.

Lens mount. Like the D3000 before it, the Nikon D5100 sports an AF-S lens mount that lacks an in-body autofocus motor, which would support older AF lenses whose focus mechanisms were driven from the camera. These lenses have what looks like a little screwdriver slot on their mounting flange that couples with a protruding, screwdriver-looking shaft on the camera body, driven by a motor in the camera body to adjust focus.

More recent Nikkor lenses have motors built into the lens body, which tend to be both faster and quieter than the old-style drive system, as well as allowing the camera body to be lighter, smaller and cheaper. These newer lenses--of which there are now over 40 types--carry an AF-S or AF-I designation in their name, and they are the only types of lenses the D5100 can autofocus with. CPU-equipped lenses lacking built-in focus motors can be used in manual focus mode, and type G or D lens types will also support full 3D color matrix metering for more accurate exposures, particularly when flash is being used. (You can tell CPU-equipped lenses by the set of five electrical contacts arrayed on the top side of the lens flange.)

Helpfully, the Nikon D5100 can automatically correct for lens distortion in-camera.

Viewfinder. The Nikon D5100's pentamirror viewfinder has the same 17.9mm eyepoint as that of the D5000, but mirrors that of the D3100 by dropping the on-demand grid display function of its predecessor, instead opting for a more traditional display with red LED indication of AF points. Magnification is approx. 0.78x and frame coverage is approx. 95% horizontal and vertical. The diopter is adjustable from -1.7 to +0.7m, and the D5100 uses a Type B BriteView Clear Matte Mark VII focusing screen.

Autofocus is unchanged from the system used in the Nikon D5000, although the viewfinder indication differs. The D5100's autofocus system is based around an 11-point Multi-CAM 1000 phase-detection sensor module that's previously appeared in the D3000 and D5000, among others. The Multi-CAM 1000 module offers 11 focusing points, of which the center point is a cross-type sensor. Detection range for the D5100's AF system is -1 to +19 EV (ISO 100, 68°F / 20°C). While the AF sensor itself is unchanged, Nikon has updated the viewfinder point display. In the D5000, the approximate AF point locations were indicated with dense black marks in the viewfinder. For the Nikon D5100, these have been replaced with much fainter markings, each illuminated by red LEDs in the center. Like its predecessor, the Nikon D5100 includes 3D tracking capability that follows moving subjects from point to point as they traverse the frame.

Exposure modes in the Nikon D5100 include Auto, Program, Shutter-priority, Aperture-priority, Manual, Flash Off, Scene, Portrait, Landscape, Child, Sports, Close-Up, and Effects. The Scene mode position on the camera's Mode dial groups the D5100's scene modes together, rather than their meriting individual positions on the dial. Scene mode choices have been pared down just slightly, and now include Night Landscape, Party / Indoor, Beach / Snow, Sunset, Dusk / Dawn, Pet Portrait, Candlelight, Blossom, Autumn Colors, Food, and Night Portrait.

Live view. Note that the above screen shots are captured via HDMI connection; this is not how the display looks on the D5100's LCD.

The D5000's Silhouette, High key and Low key scene modes have now been relocated to the new Effects position on the Mode dial, which applies to both still images and movies. The Effects mode also includes new Night Vision, Color Sketch, Miniature Effect, and Selective Color options. We've seen similar functions to all of these on past DSLRs from Nikon or competitors, other than the Night Vision mode, which in particular bears a little explanation. This unusual mode raises the ISO sensitivity limit from its expanded maximum of 25,600 equivalents, all the way up to a whopping ISO 102,400 equivalent, but with a catch: you can only shoot monochromatic images in Night Vision mode. The Selective Color option is similar to that on Pentax's DSLRs, and desaturates all but selected color ranges. Where Pentax's function allows selection of two colors with a five-step control over how wide a selection around this color should be retained, the Nikon D5100 can select three separate colors, with seven-step selection control. Color Sketch provides a drawing-like effect, while Miniature Effect creates a graduated blur near opposing edges of the image frame, simulating a shallow depth of field and (if used well) creating a perception that the photo is of a model. This last effect slows the recording frame rate on movies, and so causes them to appear sped-up on playback.

Available shutter speeds range from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds in 1/3 or 1/2EV steps, plus a bulb position for longer exposures. The Nikon D5100's shutter mechanism has a rated lifetime of some 100,000 cycles. Exposure compensation is available within a +/-5.0 EV range, in 1/3 or 1/2 EV steps. The Nikon D5100 also offers three frame exposure bracketing, with a step size between exposures of up to 2 EV.

Metering. Nikon's 3D Color Matrix Metering system employs a 420-pixel RGB light meter that covers most of the Nikon D5100's image area. By way of comparison, higher-end Nikon models use a 1,005-pixel RGB sensor that just slightly more than doubles the metering sensor resolution, so the Nikon D5100's less sophisticated sensor can't always provide the same level of exposure metering accuracy as in the D7000 and other models using the newer 1,005 pixel sensor.

As well as Matrix metering, the Nikon D5100 provides center weighted (75% weight for circle) and spot modes. The center-weighted circle defaults to 8mm. The spot metering circle is 3.5mm, or about 2.5% of the image frame, and meters at the center of the frame when the focus point is automatically selected, or from the manually selected focus point otherwise. Working range for the D5100's metering system is from 0 to 20 EV for matrix and center-weighted metering, or 2 to 20 EV for spot metering (ISO 100, f/1.4 lens, 68°F / 20°C).

Scene Recognition System. With the same AF and metering arrangement as the Nikon D5000, the D5100 likewise retains Nikon's Scene Recognition System, which uses information from the 3D Color Matrix Metering system to compare what it sees in the image to a database of 30,000 photos. Details on similar images in the database are then used when determining focus, exposure, i-TTL flash exposure, and white balance, allowing the Nikon D5100 to make better decisions overall.

The autofocus sensors are another piece of the Nikon D5100's SRS puzzle, each aspect informing and tuning the other. Finding and focusing on eyes rather than foreground objects, or even foreheads and noses, is one particular benefit of the overall integration. Another is improved 3D tracking of objects as they move across the image area. The RGB sensor may not be able to help focus on an object, but it can add a set of data for the Nikon D5100 to use while tracking a subject with the autofocus system. For example, if a red object is traversing the frame from left to right, and growing in size as it does so, the Nikon D5100's SRS would add this information to the AF-sensor data to help it tune the focus more quickly.

Sensitivity. The Nikon D5100's sensitivity range is greatly expanded since its predecessor, with standard limits of ISO 100 to 6,400 equivalents, while ISO 12,800 and 25,600 equivalents are available when ISO expansion is enabled. By comparison, the Nikon D5000 offers a standard range of ISO 200 to 3,200, while its expanded range was ISO 100 to 6,400. As mentioned previously, this upper limit can be extended even further to ISO 102,400 equivalent in Night Vision mode, but with a catch: this mode is limited only to monochromatic capture, so if you want to shoot in color, you'll need to stay at ISO 25,600 or below. An Auto ISO option is also available, if you prefer to leave the decisions up to the camera.

White balance. The Nikon D5100 provides no less than 14 white balance modes, including an Auto mode, 12 presets, and a manual position. Presets include Incandescent, Fluorescent (Sodium-vapor, Warm-white, White, Cool-white, Day White, Daylight, and High Temp. Mercury-vapor), Direct Sunlight, Flash, Cloudy, and Shade. In addition, the D5100 can bracket white balance when shooting in JPEG mode. With bracketing enabled, the camera saves three copies of each image--the default, plus one with a warmer tint, and one with a cooler tint.

Picture Control. As you'd expect, Nikon has included its standardized Picture Control system in the D5100, so that camera settings for sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation, and hue can be finely adjusted and ported to other Nikon digital SLRs that support the system. The D3 was the first camera compatible with the option, and all Nikon SLRs since, including the D5100 follow the standard. The Nikon D5100 has six presets called Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, and Landscape, and up to nine custom presets can be defined, named, saved, and copied. Sharpness can be adjusted in ten steps, along with an Auto setting; contrast, saturation, and hue can be adjusted in seven steps, while hue is adjustable in three steps. There is also a five-step "Quick Adjust" setting, which exaggerates or mutes the effect without having to adjust each slider individually. When Monochrome Picture Control is selected, Hue and Saturation are replaced by Filter Effects and Toning respectively. Filter Effects offers Off, Yellow, Orange, Red, and Green settings, while Toning offers B&W, Sepia, Cyanotype, Red, Yellow, Green, Blue Green, Blue, Purple Blue and Red Purple settings. Note that Picture Controls are only active in Program, Aperture-priority or Shutter-priority and Manual exposure modes, as the Scene modes already apply preset image adjustments. Of course, the Nikon D5100 also offers sRGB and Adobe RGB settings, in a separate Color Space menu.

HDR Imaging. The Nikon D5100 marks a first for the company by offering an in-camera high dynamic range imaging function, something we've seen in several DSLRs from rivals, starting with Pentax's flagship K-7 back in early 2009. The Nikon D5100's HDR mode automatically captures two shots, with the first intentionally underexposed by anywhere from 0.5 to 1.5 stops, and the second overexposed by the same amount, for a total difference between shots of 1 to 3 EV. Mid-tone information is used from both images, while highlight information is taken from the underexposed shot, and shadow information from the overexposed shot. The result is saved as a single image with increased dynamic range, at which point the individual source images are discarded. The D5100's HDR mode doesn't appear to include any microalignment capability, although it does perform what the company terms as "smoothing" of the two shots, which can be set to operate at low, normal, or high levels. Nikon notes that it recommends shooting on a tripod, and like any multi-shot mode, it's only suitable for use with relatively static subjects (just like similar functions from competitors).

Active D-Lighting. The Nikon D5100 retains its predecessor's optional Active D-Lighting mode, which offers an auto mode plus four preset levels that add progressively more punch to shadow detail. Note that JPEG files are modified as they are captured with Active D-Lighting, so there's no unaltered "original" to refer back to: consider whether you want to shoot RAW + JPEG to back up those files, or perhaps use D-Lighting after capture if you're not sure whether an image would benefit from the help. Interestingly, the Active D-Lighting function can be used in concert with high-dynamic-range imaging.

Flash. For shooting in difficult lighting conditions, the Nikon D5100 includes both a built-in popup flash strobe, and an ISO 518 intelligent hot shoe for external strobes. Flash X-sync is at 1/200 second. There's no built-in PC sync connector, but Nikon offers an optional hot-shoe-mounted sync connector adapter for use with studio strobes. The built-in flash has at least 18mm coverage, and will pop up automatically as needed in Auto and most Scene modes, while in other modes it can be deployed manually. The Guide number is 12 meters / 39 feet at ISO 100, 68°F / 20°C, which increases to 13 meters / 43 feet when controlled manually. Flash metering modes include i-TTL, auto-aperture, non-TTL auto, and distance-priority manual, with availability of these modes depending on the flash model. -3 to +1 EV of flash exposure compensation is available in 1/3 or 1/2 EV increments. The Nikon D5100's internal flash offers support for the Nikon Creative Lighting System, but can't act as a wireless commander.

Live view shooting. There's a new method of activating Live view on the Nikon D5100: a dedicated Live view lever on the top panel, jutting out from beneath the right of the Mode dial, and easily reached with the flick of a fingertip. Upon tapping the Lv lever, the mirror flips up and Live-view framing begins. As with Nikon's other recent DSLRs, you can only focus in Contrast-detect mode, as Phase-detect AF isn't available. Phase-detect AF in Live View-capable SLRs is always a noisy affair, as it involves dropping and raising the mirror twice (once to focus and once to take the shot), but it's generally faster than contrast-detect focusing.

Live view focus modes in the Nikon D5100 include Normal, Wide area, Face Priority, Subject Tracking, AF-S (single servo), AF-F (full-time), and manual focus. If face detection is activated, the Nikon D5100 quickly begins tracking faces, placing a yellow box around each one, up to 35 at a time. Once focus is achieved, the box turns green at the point where the focus lock was achieved.

D-Movie mode. Recording movies on the Nikon D5100 is easy: While in Live view mode, just press the dedicated, top-panel Movie button to start recording. Movies can be captured at resolutions up to 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, or what's commonly known as 1080p / "Full HD" video, as well as 1,280 x 720 pixels (720p), and standard definition 640 x 424 pixels (a non-standard resolution). There's a choice of 25 or 30 frames per second, regardless of resolution, and for high-def capture you can also opt for a 24 frames per second mode.

The Nikon D5100's movies are captured using MPEG-4 AVCHD / H.264 compression, with the file format being .MOV. Each video clip has a maximum length of twenty minutes, and the Nikon D5100 does provide for basic in-camera editing of videos, with the ability to trim unwanted content from both the start and end of each clip. You can also save a JPEG from a frame of video. The Nikon D5100's internal microphone is monaural, and it includes connectivity for an external stereo microphone.

Significantly for consumer videographers, the Nikon D5100 offers full-time contrast-detection autofocus during movie capture, including support for the face detection and tracking functionality, though the number of faces that can be tracked simultaneously is reduced compared to the 35 face limit in still capture mode. With Nikon F-mount lenses having been designed for still image shooting, it's likely that autofocus drive noise will be picked up on the audio track when using the Nikon D5100's internal microphone, but this is likely a worthwhile tradeoff for many consumers, given the difficulty of learning to pull focus manually.

Shutter speed and ISO sensitivity are always automatically controlled while recording movies, however lens aperture can be chosen before entering Live view mode in Aperture Priority or Manual exposure mode. Exposure Compensation and AE Lock are available in PASM modes, but Matrix metering is always used regardless of the metering mode selected.

In-Camera Editing. The Nikon D5100 offers not only in-camera RAW file processing, but also provides Nikon's extensive in-camera image retouching capabilities. These include resizing, cropping, post-capture D-Lighting, redeye correction, monochrome and other filter effects, color balance, image overlay, quick retouch, straighten, distortion control, perspective control, miniature effect, fisheye, color outline, color sketch, and selective color.

Ports. The Nikon D5100 includes a range of connectivity options. For data transfer to a computer, there's a standard USB 2.0 High Speed port. Videos can be shown on standard or high-definition displays using either the NTSC / PAL switchable composite port, or Type-C Mini HDMI port, respectively. While in use, the standard-def composite port allows the camera's LCD to remain active, but the HDMI port overrides the camera's LCD display. It also supports the Consumer Electronics Control (HDMI-CEC) standard, allowing remote control of certain playback functionality through the HDMI cable, from an attached display's remote control unit. There's also an accessory terminal on the Nikon D5100 that's compatible with the MC-DC2 remote cable release, and the GP-1 GPS unit, both available as optional extras. The Nikon D5100 has the aforementioned 3.5mm stereo microphone input jack, and they even offer a new accessory microphone, the ME-1 Stereo Microphone, that attaches to the camera via the hot shoe. Finally, the Nikon D5100 has two infrared remote release ports, front and back, for use with the ML-L3 infrared remote control.

Storage and battery. The Nikon D5100 stores images on an SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card, and is compatible with Eye-Fi cards for wireless connectivity via WiFi. It uses an EN-EL14 lithium-ion battery pack, rated for 660 shots on a charge with 50% of shots using the flash (CIPA rating). No vertical battery grip is available for the Nikon D5100.

Pricing. Available from mid-April 2011, the Nikon D5100 retails for a suggested price of US$799.95 body only, or US$899.95 for the body and 18-55mm VR lens.

Nikon D5100 Image Quality Comparison

Most digital SLRs will produce a reasonable ISO 100 shot, so we like to push them and see what they can do at ISO 1,600, at their default noise reduction settings. Recent advances in sensor technology have made ISO 1,600 look a lot more like ISO 100, but there are still cameras whose quality starts to fall apart at this setting. I also choose 1,600 because I like to be able to shoot at or above this level when indoors and at night. We also explore ISO 3,200, and look at the high-contrast detail of ISO 100 vs 3,200 and 6,400. Be sure to check our Thumbnails page for more image quality samples.

Note that we've reshot our Nikon D5100 Still Life images with the Sigma 70mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro, which is our reference lens for most camera bodies. While the Nikkor AF-S 60mm f/2.8G ED Micro we used previously is a very sharp lens, it doesn't have quite as much resolving power and contrast as the Sigma, which made a slight but noticeable difference when coupled with the D5100's high-resolution sensor. The Nikon D5100 crops below have been updated.

Nikon D5100 versus Canon T3i at ISO 1,600

Nikon D5100 at ISO 1,600
Canon T3i at ISO 1,600

Resolution has improved noticeably from the D5000, but it's still slightly lower than the Canon T3i's 18 megapixels; the image size difference shows the relative difference in resolution. The T3i's default contrast and sharpening look a touch higher than the D5100's, but the Canon still captures a bit more detail and nuance (hence the larger objects when cropped at 100% onscreen). But its noise-suppression engine is a little too aggressive with the red leaf swatch, obscuring most detail, while the Nikon D5100 does much better with the reds.


Nikon D5100 versus Nikon D5000 at ISO 1,600

Nikon D5100 at ISO 1,600
Nikon D5000 at ISO 1,600

The resolution difference between the Nikon D5100 and D5000 is apparent, dropping from 16 megapixels to 12. Not surprisingly, noise processing is very similar between the two Nikons, though the D5100's looks slightly less aggressive, leaving more detail in the red leaf swatch as well as more noise in flat areas.


Nikon D5100 versus Nikon D7000 at ISO 1,600

Nikon D5100 at ISO 1,600
Nikon D7000 at ISO 1,600

The Nikon D5100 and D7000 theoretically use the same sensor, so it's no surprise to see very similar results when shot with the same lens. The D5100 seems ever so slightly softer, but that wouldn't be a surprise given the consumer market, where more noise reduction is desirable.


Nikon D5100 versus Panasonic GH2 at ISO 1,600

Nikon D5100 at ISO 1,600
Panasonic GH2 at ISO 1,600

The Panasonic GH2 is quite a bit more expensive than the D5100, but it also has an articulating LCD, shoots 1080p video and has similar resolution, so we included it here. Note the tendency toward green in the GH2's files, which is unfortunate. I call it a near draw in resolution, except where the red leaf swatch is concerned, which looks better from the D5100. The Nikon has an advantage in color, however.


Nikon D5100 versus Sony A580 at ISO 1,600

Nikon D5100 at ISO 1,600
Sony A580 at ISO 1,600

The Sony A580 looks pretty good, in theory sporting the same sensor again. Its noise suppression is more aggressive, however, smoothing away some of the fine detail in the mosaic pattern as well as the red leaf swatch.



Today's ISO 3,200 is yesterday's ISO 1,600 (well, almost), so below are the same crops at ISO 3,200.

Nikon D5100 versus Canon T3i at ISO 3,200

Nikon D5100 at ISO 3,200
Canon T3i at ISO 3,200

At ISO 3,200 the Nikon D5100 seems to jump ahead of the T3i, making fewer corrections to low-contrast detail, made most dramatically apparent when looking at the red leaf swatch. The Canon's resolution advantage seems to dissolve in stronger noise suppression, but you get lower noise (especially chroma) in the tradeoff.


Nikon D5100 versus Nikon D5000 at ISO 3,200

Nikon D5100 at ISO 3,200
Nikon D5000 at ISO 3,200

Again, the D5100 captures more detail than its lower resolution predecessor, but its noise reduction also leaves a touch more noise behind. It also doesn't render the edge of the yellow bottle as well as the D5000 or T3i.


Nikon D5100 versus Nikon D7000 at ISO 3,200

Nikon D5100 at ISO 3,200
Nikon D7000 at ISO 3,200

Almost identical results here with the same lens, as expected.


Nikon D5100 versus Panasonic GH2 at ISO 3,200

Nikon D5100 at ISO 3,200
Panasonic GH2 at ISO 3,200

Detail loss in the mosaic and red leaf images shows the Nikon D5100 is better able to resolve detail at ISO 3,200 than the Panasonic GH2 here.


Nikon D5100 versus Sony A580 at ISO 3,200

Nikon D5100 at ISO 3,200
Sony A580 at ISO 3,200

The Nikon D5100 gains a bit more on the Sony A580, which uses stronger noise suppression in the shadowed background, and more sharpening on the letters in the top crop. Meanwhile, the Nikon D5100's more even-handed approach creates an image that's more detailed, but a bit noisier.



Detail: Nikon D5100 vs. Canon T3i, Nikon D5000, Nikon D7000, Panasonic GH2 and Sony A580

Nikon
D5100
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Canon
T3i
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Nikon
D5000
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Nikon
D7000
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Panasonic
GH2
ISO 160
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Sony
A580
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Detail comparison. High-contrast details are often sharper as ISO rises, so they're worth a look as well. As expected, the Nikon D5100's performance is very similar to the D7000's with the same Sigma reference lens, though contrast is a touch lower while white balance is cooler. The Canon T3i's higher resolution puts it ahead at ISO 100, but the D5100 holds its own at ISO 3,200 and 6,400. The D5100 outresolves the D5000 as expected, but the later may also be at a slight disadvantage optically, as it was shot with a Nikkor AF-S 60mm f/2.8G ED Micro instead of the sharper Sigma 70mm. The Panasonic GH2 does surprisingly well with a high contrast subject, outresolving the D5100 at all ISOs, albeit noise is higher. The GH2 struggles a bit more than the others with the red text, though. The Sony A580 also performs well, perhaps a hair better than the D5100 at all ISOs, though the Sony along with the Canon show a tendency toward more visible sharpening halos. For more picky photographers, this is worthy of note, as the D5100's lower level of processing is easier to tweak more carefully after capture. There are so many variables to consider, though, including exposure, tone curve, and others, it's too much to get into. Let your eyes do most of the work.

Nikon D5100 Print Quality

Makes excellent 24 x 36 inch prints from ISO 100-400; ISO 3,200 shots still have great detail at 11 x 14; ISO 12,800 shots make a good 4 x 6.

ISO 100 images make excellent 24 x 36 inch prints with great detail and color. This is true at ISO 200 and 400 as well. Good wall display prints are possible up to 30 x 40 inches.

ISO 800 shots look good at 16 x 20, with very slight luminance noise in the shadows, but not bad at all.

ISO 1,600 prints look quite good at 13 x 19 inches.

ISO 3,200 makes a nice 11 x 14, with minor apparent noise in some shadowy areas.

ISO 6,400 shots are pretty good at 8 x 10, better than usable. There's a little luminance noise in the shadows, but overall it's a good performance.

ISO 12,800 prints a respectable 4 x 6.

ISO 25,600 images are too muted and noisy to be called good.

Overall a very impressive performance from the Nikon D5100, on par with the Nikon D7000 to a large extent.

See below for our conclusion; be sure to check the other tabs for detail test results.

 

In the Box

The Nikon D5100 kit contains the following items:

  • Nikon D5100 digital camera
  • AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR lens
  • Front and rear lens caps
  • Body mount cap BF-1B
  • Neck Strap AN-DC3
  • Rechargeable lithium-ion battery EN-EL14
  • Battery charger MH-24
  • USB cable UC-E6
  • Audio / Video Cable EG-CP14
  • Eyecup DK-20
  • Eyepiece cap DK-5
  • Accessory shoe cover BS-1
  • Nikon ViewNX 2 CD-ROM
  • User manuals

 

Recommended Accessories

  • Extra battery pack for extended outings
  • Large capacity SDHC/SDXC memory card. These days, 8GB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity, but if you plan to capture HD movie clips, look for larger cards with Class 6 or faster ratings.
  • SB-900, SB-800, SB-700, SB-600, or SB-400 flash strobe, SU-800 wireless flash commander
  • Wireless Remote ML-L3 if you like infrared remotes, or Remote Release MC-DC2 if you prefer a tethered remote
  • Power Supply Connector kit EP-5A if you do much studio shooting
  • GPS unit GP-1 for geotagging
  • Stereo microphone ME-1 to reduce untoward noise pickup during video capture
  • Camera case

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Nikon D5100 Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Excellent image quality and high ISO performance, very similar to the D7000
  • Excellent dynamic range, especially from RAW
  • Compact body
  • Versatile left-hinged swivel LCD with high resolution
  • Records 1080p movies at up to 30fps
  • Dedicated movie record button
  • Chromatic aberration automatically reduced in JPEGs
  • Optional Auto Distortion Control
  • In-camera HDR function with adjustable step size
  • Active D-Lighting (can be combined with HDR)
  • Interesting filter effects
  • Good battery life for a compact SLR
  • Good burst speed and buffer depths for consumer model
  • External stereo mic jack
  • Adjustable mic sensitivity
  • Supports GP-1 GPS unit
  • Dual IR remote receivers, plus support for wired remote
  • Supports new UHS-I cards
  • Impressive print quality
  • HDMI output
  • No support for screw-drive autofocus
  • Somewhat weak flash with narrow coverage
  • Built-in flash does not support wireless operation
  • No dedicated ISO button
  • No control over shutter speed or ISO for movies, though aperture can be set before recording begins
  • Warm Auto and Incandescent WB in tungsten lighting
  • No on-demand grid option in viewfinder
  • Slightly soft images at default settings
  • HDR function doesn't auto-align images
  • HDR only takes two image instead of three or more from competing implementations
  • No eye detection to automatically turn-off LCD

When we reviewed the preceding D5000 model two years ago, we found a lot to like, with a combination of great image quality and a fairly rich feature set, but we found ourselves questioning Nikon's choice of a bottom-mounted LCD articulation mechanism for several reasons. While it made shooting over your head or low to the ground much more feasible than in SLRs with a fixed screen (even those with wide viewing angles), it was unfortunately of relatively little use for self-portraits--and that's something of a common need for consumers. Whether you had the camera mounted on a tripod, or simply placed on a conveniently located flat surface, the LCD couldn't be flipped for viewing from in front of the camera. The bottom-mounted mechanism probably also contributed, at least in part, to the D5000's increased body size relative to Nikon's entry-level SLRs.

The switch to a side-mounted articulation mechanism has made the Nikon D5100 a significantly more versatile camera than its predecessor. It retains the previous mechanism's main advantages, including the ability to close the LCD facing inwards for added protection (or just to help keep it smudge-free when not in use), but adds to the range of shooting situations in which live view, instant review and movie capture can prove useful. It's also allowed Nikon to make a worthwhile savings in the D5100's height, and as we've often pointed out, the smaller and lighter a camera is, the more likely you'll have it on-hand when an unexpected photo opportunity arises. Cameras left at home don't get the photo, no matter how great their features and image quality.

While the new tilt/swivel screen assembly is probably more of an attention-grabber, many consumers will also appreciate the D5100's new creative options. Pros and enthusiasts may prefer to tweak images to their tastes in post-processing, but not everybody wants to be chained to their desk, and indeed, it can help get your creative juices flowing since you can preview some of the effects in the field. While the Nikon D5100's array of pre- and post-capture filters and HDR mode aren't unique, with similar capabilities found on other recent SLRs from the company's competitors, the greater variety of options available to Nikon shooters are nonetheless welcome. It's a shame that the multi-shot HDR mode doesn't microalign images, however: as is, it's really only useful for static subjects with the camera mounted on a tripod.

When compared to its predecessor, the Nikon D5100 also makes a very worthwhile step forwards in image quality. That's perhaps not surprising; the SLR market as a whole has made quite an improvement in the last couple of years. It bears noting, though, that the D5100 is based around the same image sensor and EXPEED 2 image processing algorithms that featured in the popular D7000 prosumer SLR. Of course, there are many other points that differentiate the two cameras, but it's great to see very similar levels of image quality on offer at a much more affordable price point, one that's easily within reach of many consumers.

Of course, this is a camera aimed at consumers, with the design choices that brings. Notably, Nikon hasn't included a screw-drive autofocus motor, or in-camera wireless flash commander functionality in the D5100, and for some photographers, that may cause them to look elsewhere. For its target market, though, the Nikon D5100 offers an approachable design that couples a great feature set with excellent image quality, and that combination makes it an easy choice for a Dave's Pick.

 

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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.

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