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Nikon D5100 Review

How Does it Compare?

The Nikon D5100 is a very nice "premium" entry-level D-SLR, and offers some genuinely useful new features compared to its predecessor (the D5000). Some of the highlights are very good photo quality (with low noise until the very highest sensitivities), solid build quality, a rotating LCD that now flips to the side (instead of down), plenty of manual controls, a fun new Effects mode, and Full HD movie recording. Downsides are few, and include soft photos at default settings, sluggish contrast detect AF in live view, a lack of manual controls in movie mode, and a few misplaced buttons. And, like the D5000, the D5100 only supports autofocus on newer Nikkor lenses. Despite a few flaws, the D5100 is a digital SLR that is well worth considering.

The D5100 is a fairly compact digital SLR with a composite (plastic) body. It feels pretty solid, save for the usual weak spots, namely the doors over the memory card slot and battery compartment. The grip on the camera isn't terribly deep and some controls (such as the live view switch and movie recording button) are poorly placed, so be sure to get your hands on the D5100 before you buy it. There also aren't a lot of direct buttons, save for the customizable (and oddly placed) Function button on the side of the camera. The D5100 supports all Nikkor F-mount lenses (with the usual 1.5X crop factor), though only AF-S and AF-I lenses will support autofocus. One of the biggest changes since the D5000 can be found on the back of the camera. The D5000 had a 2.7", 230k pixel screen which could flip down and rotate. That's nice, except when the camera is on a tripod. Nikon got it right on the D5100, instead having the LCD flip out to the side. The screen size and resolution have also been boosted, to 3.0" and 921,000 pixels, respectively. Other items of note on the camera body include a bright AF-assist lamp, a dust reduction system, support for a GPS, remote shutter release cable (wired or wireless), and an external microphone.

Though it's not quite as user-friendly as the D3100, Nikon has still made the D5100 very accessible to both beginners and enthusiasts. Beginners will find an auto mode with scene auto selection (live view only), tons of scene modes, and help screens for every menu option. The camera's live view mode has all the usual features (save for a live histogram), plus face detection and subject tracking, though the slow autofocus speeds mean that you'll probably want to stick to the optical viewfinder for taking photos of moving subjects. Enthusiasts will find full manual controls, including the usual exposure options, white balance with fine-tuning and bracketing, Active D-Lighting for brightening shadows and reducing highlight clipping, and a good selection of custom functions. There's also an HDR mode, though I think it would produce better results with three exposures, rather than two. Two features that many people will enjoy are the new Effects mode (my favorites are selective color and color sketch) and a elaborate playback mode (complete with RAW editing). Every D-SLR has to take Full HD movies these days, and the D5100 is no exception. You can record up to 20 minutes of video at 1920 x 1080 (30 fps) with monaural sound. The camera can focus continuously, though the AF system responds slowly and the focus changes are obvious -- and the microphone will pick up the AF motor noise. There are no manual controls in movie mode, either, unless you count the microphone level adjustment option.

Camera performance was solid in most respects. The D5100 is ready to start taking photos as soon as you flip the power switch. Autofocus speeds when shooting with the viewfinder were quite good, only crossing the one second mark when the camera had to use its AF-assist lamp in low light situations. Live view AF is another story -- you'll wait for 1 - 3 seconds for the camera to lock focus, and in low light, the D5100 may not lock focus at all. Shutter lag wasn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays were very brief. The D5100 has a nice continuous shooting mode, capable of firing away at 4 frames/second. Battery life is above average, though like many of its competitors, the D5100 does not support a battery grip.

Photo quality was very good. The D5100 takes pictures with generally accurate exposure, and not too much in the line of highlight clipping. Colors were nice and saturated, though I noticed a slight brownish cast in artificial light (WB fine-tuning or bracketing helps you deal with that). The camera keeps noise well under control until the very highest ISOs, and even then, shooting RAW will allow you to use the photos for smaller prints. Image softness was really the only issue I had with regard to photo quality. I think this is caused partly by to the 18 - 55 mm kit lens that I tested, and also by the relatively weak sharpening that Nikon applies to their JPEGs (you can adjust this, thankfully). Redeye wasn't a problem, but if you do run into it, there's a tool in playback mode to remove it. Purple fringing levels were low as well, at least with the kit lens.

All-in-all, the Nikon D5100 offers a lot of bang for the buck, and should be high up on your list of most-wanted D-SLRs. Its closest competitor is Canon's EOS Rebel T3i, and each camera has its own strengths and weaknesses. The T3i has a higher resolution sensor, a sharper LCD, wireless flash support, manual controls in movie mode, included remote camera control software, and support for an optional battery grip. The D5100 has the T3i beat in several areas, namely battery life, continuous shooting performance, and playback mode features. I think the D5100 is slightly better than the Rebel at high ISOs, as well. Ultimately you'll need to head over to a camera or electronics store to compare the two in person and see which you prefer using.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality, with impressive high ISO performance
  • Compact, solid, and generally well designed body
  • 3-inch LCD with 921k pixels can flip to the side and rotate
  • Plenty of manual controls, with RAW image format support (of course)
  • Snappy performance in most areas, with good continuous shooting mode
  • Full HD movie mode with continuous autofocus
  • Active D-Lighting reduces highlight clipping, brightens shadows
  • Redeye not a problem
  • Fun effects mode
  • Tons of retouching features in playback mode, including in-camera RAW and movie editing
  • Help screens for every menu option
  • Above average battery life
  • External mic input
  • Optional GPS unit, wired/wireless remotes
  • HDMI output

What I didn't care for:

  • Photos tend to be soft
  • Slow focusing in live view mode; poor low light focusing (with LV)
  • Movie mode woes: sluggish and noisy continuous AF, no manual controls
  • Some controls poorly located, namely the live view switch and movie recording button; camera could use more direct buttons
  • Autofocus only available with AF-S and AF-I lenses
  • Wireless flash control would've been nice
  • Full manual on CD-ROM (though the printed basic manual isn't bad)

Some other D-SLRs in this class worth considering include the Canon EOS Rebel T3i, Pentax K-r, and Sony Alpha DSLR-A580. You may also want to check out the Olympus E-PL2, Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3, and Samsung NX11 mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras.

As always, I recommend heading to your local camera or electronics store to try out the D5100 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.