Nikon D5100 Exposure

Exposure Modes. The Nikon D5100 gives you all the exposure options you'd expect in a consumer SLR, plus a healthy offering of user-friendly Scene modes, and a newly-grouped selection of Effects modes. Available exposure modes include Full Auto, Program AE, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual modes. Shutter speeds from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds are available in 1/3 or 1/2 EV steps, and the Manual mode offers a Bulb setting for longer exposures. Also provided on the Mode dial are five standard Scene modes found on most consumer Nikon SLRs (Portrait, Landscape, Child, Sports, and Macro), a Flash-Off Auto mode, and a Scene position that provides access to 11 further scene modes in concert with the Command dial. New for the Nikon D5100 is an Effects setting on the exposure mode dial, which accesses seven special effect modes, including a black-and-white mode that greatly increases the D5100's upper ISO sensitivity limit. Refer to the Modes and Menus tab for more details on each exposure mode.

A very nice touch that's common to other Nikon DSLRs is that, while in Program AE mode, you can rotate the Command dial to select different combinations of aperture and shutter speed settings than those normally chosen by the autoexposure system. (That is, if the automatic program would have chosen 1/125 second and f/5.6, you could instead direct the camera to use 1/60 at f/8 or 1/30 at f/11, to get greater depth of field.) This is a very handy option for those times when you need some measure of increased control, but still want the camera to do most of the work for you. We personally use this capability more than Aperture- or Shutter-priority metering in our own shooting.

An interesting feature when using Manual exposure mode is the electronic analog exposure display visible in the optical viewfinder data readout. This shows the amount the camera thinks an image will be over- or underexposed, based on the settings you have selected, and helps you find the best exposure for the subject.

Exposure Metering. Nikon has one of the most sophisticated and flexible metering systems on the market today. Like most SLRs, there are three main metering modes on the Nikon D5100: Matrix, Center-Weighted, and Spot metering. Where Nikon's system differs is in the capability of these modes. Nikon's matrix metering is called 3D Color Matrix II, as it takes color as well as distance into account. (Distance requires the use of CPU-equipped lenses.) It covers a wide area of the frame with a 420-pixel RGB sensor. The Nikon D5100's Center-Weighted metering mode gives a weight of 75% to an 8mm diameter circle in center of frame. Spot meters a 3.5mm diameter circle (about 2.5% of the frame) centered on the active focus area. (Most DSLRs only meter the very center of the frame in Spot metering mode.) The 420-pixel RGB sensor also serves to ascertain automatic white-balance, and provides assistance for focus tracking when the subject leaves the AF sensor area. Metering range is specified at 0 to 20 EV in Matrix or Center-Weighted, and 2 to 20 EV in Spot metering mode.

Exposure Lock. The AE-L/AF-L button locks the exposure and/or autofocus, useful for off-center subjects in tricky lighting. It can be programmed for AE lock, AF lock, AE + AF lock, or various other functions via the custom menu. You can also program the button to toggle instead of requiring the button to be held.

Exposure Compensation. Exposure compensation on the Nikon D5100 is adjustable from -5 to +5 exposure equivalents (EV) in 1/3 or 1/2 EV step increments, and is controllable in Program, Aperture-priority, or Shutter-priority modes. Note that in Manual exposure mode, the EV button becomes a shift button that changes the function of the Command dial from controlling the shutter speed to changing the Aperture. The Auto Bracketing feature on the Nikon D5100 takes three shots of the same subject with varying exposure values. Exposure settings for bracketing can vary from -2 to +2 EV (values are added to the already chosen exposure compensation value), with step sizes of 1/3 or 1/2 EV units. Through the Custom Settings menu, you can designate whether the bracketing sequence adjusts the exposure, white balance, or Active D-Lighting (2 frames only).

ISO Sensitivity. ISO ranges from 100 to 6,400 and can be extended up to ISO 25,600 (Hi 2). ISO can only be adjusted in 1/3 EV steps (100, 125, 160, 200, 250, 320, 400, 500, 640, 800, etc.). Nikon's excellent Auto ISO feature is carried over as well, which allows you to set both the upper ISO limit (up to ISO 25,600) as well as the minimum shutter speed (selectable from 1s to 1/2000s) required before ISO is increased automatically.

White Balance. The Nikon D5100 offers the usual white balance settings: Auto, six presets consisting of Incandescent, Fluorescent, Direct Sunlight, Flash, Cloudy, Shade and a manual mode where white-balance is determined from a white or grey card. The Fluorescent preset has seven sub-settings consisting of Sodium Vapor (2,700K), Warm-white (3,000K), White (3,700K), Cool-white (4,200K), Day White (5,000K), Daylight (6,500K), and High Temperature Mercury Vapor (7,200K). The manual setting allows one custom white-balance measurement to be stored. All the presets and manual settings are tweakable via a 2D fine-tuning grid display. The Nikon D5100 also supports White Balance bracketing, where three frames can be bracketed with Blue or Amber white balance bias increments of one unit.

Active D-Lighting. D-Lighting has proven a popular post-processing feature in Nikon's consumer digital SLRs, as well as some of the company's point & shoot models. It's a quick software process that attempts to overcome underexposed images, and bring detail out of shadows. An improved version of Active D-Lighting appeared in the Nikon D3 and D300, including optimization of image contrast, helping to prevent overprocessing of shadows and flattening of overall image contrast. The Nikon D5100 inherits Active D-Lighting from the D90 in that as well as the previous On and Off settings found on earlier cameras, the Nikon D5100 also offers Extra-High, High, Normal, and Low, or the ability to automatically choose the Active D-Lighting strength on the fly.

Lateral Chromatic Aberration Correction. While other cameras have had lens distortion processing built-in, notably the Olympus E-1, none until Nikon's D3 and D300 did the processing based on the distortion detected in the image. Past cameras (and most distortion-correction software) simply looked at which lens was mounted and perhaps the focal length if it was a zoom lens, and then applied a pre-set amount of correction; no image analysis actually took place. Nikon's Lateral Chromatic Aberration correction offered a more sophisticated approach, thanks to the power of the camera's EXPEED processor, by actually analyzing each image after capture and fixing the chromatic aberration detected therein before saving the JPEG file. Cameras with high-resolution sensors place a greater demand on lenses, and hence Lateral Chromatic Aberration correction proves a useful feature on the Nikon D5100. There are no settings for this feature; it's always enabled for JPEGs.

Auto Distortion Control. Another interesting feature is Automatic Distortion Control, carried over from its debut in the D5000. Enabled via the Shooting menu, this option automatically corrects for barrel and pincushion distortion in JPEGfiles when using most Nikkor D- and G-type lenses (PC, Fisheye and certain other lenses excluded). We've tried it with the Nikkor 18-55mm VRlens that ships with the Nikon D5100, and found it to work very well.

The Nikon D5100 also offers distortion correction as a post-processing function, available from the Retouch menu. There, you can create a copy of an image after applying either an automatic amount of correction, or manually adjusting the amount on a preview display.

Picture Control. Nikon has standardized its Picture Control system 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, plus 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.

Noise Reduction. The Nikon D5100 offers four levels of high ISO noise reduction: Off, Low, Normal, and High. For Low, Normal, and High settings, noise reduction is performed with varied strength. Even when set to Off, some noise reduction is still performed at ISOs above 1,600 equivalent. No high ISO noise reduction is performed on RAW files (other than the embedded JPEG thumbnail).

The Nikon D5100 also offers long-exposure noise reduction. When set to On, the camera takes a second exposure for the same duration with the shutter closed, and subtracts the "dark frame" from the first, to reduce hot-pixel and amp noise for exposures longer than 1 second. The time taken to capture the dark frame varies from shot to shot, but is typically somewhere between half as long as or the same length as the actual image exposure.

Release Modes. The Nikon D5100's release modes are selected via the menu system. Release modes consist of Single Frame, Continuous, Self-timer, Delayed Remote (two second delay), Quick-response Remote, and Quiet Shutter-release (Q) mode takes one shot each time the shutter-release is pressed. The Nikon D5100's Continuous mode is rated by Nikon for up to 4 frames per second (we got 3.94 frames per second in our testing), for a total of 100 Large/Fine JPEGs before the buffer fills and the camera slows. Of course, the number of consecutive shots could be limited by memory card space, if your memory card(s) are nearly full. Also, when shooting JPEGs of a very complex scene with a lot of sharp, fine detail may also compress less and result in lower buffer capacities.

Self-Timer mode opens the shutter with a delay of ten seconds after the shutter button is pressed. The Remote release modes are for use with the optional ML-L3 wireless remote. The 2-second delay option is useful for hiding the remote when taking photos that include the operator.

Quiet Shutter-release is similar to Single Frame; however, the camera automatically disables the beep sound when it focuses, something which can be achieved in other modes through the Beep option in the Setup menu. It also delays lowering of the mirror until the shutter button is released, separating the noise of this operation from that of the mirror being raised and the shutter fired. It also reduces actuation speed of the mirror mechanism, and of the shutter recocking mechanism. The result is, indeed, a much quieter shutter sound.

Interval Timer Mode. Another useful feature on the Nikon D5100 that first appeared on more expensive models is Interval Timer mode, which facilitates time-lapse photography by taking a series of images at preset intervals. You can set the starting time for the series, as well as the amount of time between shots and the total number of shots to be captured. You can set hours, minutes, and seconds between each shot, and you can set a start time up to 23 hours, 59 minutes from the current time. This is a good way to capture a timeline of slower events, such as clouds passing across the sky, tidal changes, a flower opening, etc.

Retouch Menu. The Nikon D5100 has an extensive Retouch menu, replicating almost all the options from the D5000, and adding a basic movie editing function. The amount of image alteration that can be performed in-camera is starting to rival what basic image editing software packages can do on a computer, so much so that many users may not feel the need to use a computer for Nikon D5100 image editing at all. Retouch options include adjusting D-Lighting, red-eye correction, image cropping (trim), converting to monochrome, applying seven different filter effects, adjusting color balance, resizing to small images (for TV, Web or email), image overlay for combining two RAW images into one JPEG, NEF (RAW) processing, "Quick Retouch" for fast adjustments to saturation and contrast, straightening crooked images, distortion (barrel / pincushion) correction, a fisheye effect, color outline, color sketch, perspective control (correcting diverging verticals / horizontals), miniature effect (graduated blur at top and bottom of the frame to emulate reduced depth of field), selective color, basic movie editing, and side-by-side comparison.


The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Nikon D5100 Photo Gallery .

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Nikon D5100 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

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