Originally Posted: May 31, 2011
Last Updated: June 4, 2011
The Nikon D5100 ($899 with lens) is a "premium" entry-level digital SLR, if there is even such a category. It's a step above the D3100, but not nearly as fancy as the D7000. (It's quite a bit like the Canon EOS Rebel T3i, which sits between the Rebel T3 and EOS-60D.) Anyhow, the D5100 took the formula that made the D5000 a hit and added a new CMOS sensor, a flip-out, rotating LCD (instead of the flip-down type on the D5000), new HDR and effects modes, and Full HD movie recording.
Here's a chart which compares the D5000 and D5100:
There are also a few cosmetic changes that I'll touch on later.
So what hasn't changed? The D5100 retains the same dust reduction system, optical viewfinder, and lens limitations (autofocus only with AF-S lenses) as its predecessor. Most of the D5000's accessories are compatible with the D5100, as well.
Ready to learn more about Nikon's latest digital SLR? Keep reading -- our review starts right now!
What's in the Box?
Officially, the D5100 is available in two kits. You can get it in a body-only configuration ($799), or with the venerable Nikkor F3.5-5.6, 18 - 55 mm VR lens ($899). If history is any indication, stores like Costco will probably sell a two lens kit (usually with a bag and memory card thrown in) at some point in the near future, as well. Here's what you'll find in the box for the two official kits:
- The 16.2 effective Megapixel Nikon D5100 camera body
- F3.5 - 5.6, 18 - 55 mm AF-S Nikkor VR lens [lens kit only]
- EN-EL14 lithium-ion rechargeable battery
- Battery charger
- Body cap
- Eyepiece cap
- Shoulder strap
- USB cable
- A/V cable
- CD-ROMs featuring Nikon ViewNX 2 and camera reference guide
- 81 page User's Manual (printed) + camera reference guide (on CD-ROM)
I figure that most people will be purchasing the camera and lens kit, so if that's the case, you'll be just about ready to start taking photos (you'll just need a memory card, described below). This lens is well built, though I'm not a huge fan of the location of the manual focus ring. The lens has minimal corner blurring and purple fringing, though photos are on the soft side. If you want to use other lenses, the D5100 supports all Nikkor F-mount glass, though like its predecessor, only AF-S lenses will support autofocus. Thankfully, Nikon has been releasing quite a few of those lately, so odds are that any new lens you buy will support AF. If you have an older lens, you'll have to focus it manually. Whatever lens you attach to the camera, there's a 1.5X crop factor, so that 18 - 55 mm kit lens has a field-of-view equivalent to 27 - 82.5 mm.
Like all D-SLRs, there's no memory card in the D5100's box, so you'll need to pick one up if you don't have one already. The D5100 supports SD, SDHC, plus super high-capacity SDXC cards, and I'd recommend picking up a 4GB card (and perhaps large if you'll be taking a lot of movies). Nikon recommends cards rated at Class 6 or higher for best movie recording performance.
The D5100 uses the same EN-EL14 lithium-ion battery as the D3100 and D7000. This battery packs 7.6 Wh of energy, which is about average for a digital SLR. Here's how that translates into battery life:
The first thing to point out is much better battery life on the D5100 when compared to the D5000. In the group as a whole, the D5100's battery life is second only to the Sony DSLR-A580, which posts truly incredible numbers. Nikon doesn't publish battery life numbers for full-time live view use, but expect them to be at least 50% less than what's listed above. If that's the case, it'll still be quite competitive with the live-view only interchangeable lens cameras in the above table.
With the exception of the Pentax K-r, all of the cameras on the above list use proprietary li-ion batteries. These batteries tend to be pricey (a spare EN-EL14 will set you back around $36), and you can't use off-the-shelf batteries in an emergency, as you could with a camera that uses AAs. Some cameras support AA batteries via their optional battery grips, but since the D5100 doesn't support a grip in the first place, it's kind of a moot point.
When it's time to charge the battery, just pop it into the included charger. It takes the charger roughly 90 minutes to fully charge the EN-EL14 battery. The charger plugs directly into the wall (at least in the U.S.) -- my favorite.
Nikon offers plenty of accessories for the D5100, just as you'd expect on a D-SLR. Here's a list of the most interesting:
There are a few other accessories out there, mostly related to the optical viewfinder. Let's move onto software now, shall we?
The two main pieces of software included with the D5100 are Nikon Transfer and ViewNX 2. As its name implies, Nikon Transfer is used to copy photos from the camera to your Mac or PC. In addition to copying images to a set location, you can also have it send them to a backup folder.
Nikon ViewNX 2
Once that's done, you'll find yourself in Nikon ViewNX 2, which has finally received some real editing tools. The main screen should look familiar -- it's like every other photo browser these days. Here you can e-mail, print, geotag, or view a slideshow of your photos. You can also upload them to Nikon's My Picturetown service.
Editing in ViewNX 2
On the editing screen you can manipulate both JPEG and (finally) RAW images. You can adjust things like sharpness/contrast/brightness/and color, brighten shadows, straighten a crooked photo, remove redeye, or reduce chromatic aberrations. If it's a RAW file you're working with, you can also adjust the exposure and white balance. The only real complaint I have is that it takes forever for RAW adjustments to take effect, and I have a very fast computer. ViewNX 2 also has a movie editor built in. You can put clips into a timeline, remove unwanted footage, add transitions, and then save the results as a new video.
Something else you can use for RAW editing (and more) is Nikon Capture NX2 (priced from $125). This software lets you edit many common RAW properties, and it's unique "U Point" controls take a different approach toward image retouching than what you might be used to. You can select a spot in the image that you want to retouch, select the radius of the area that will be affected, and then adjust things like brightness, contrast, and saturation for that area. You can do the same for things like D-Lighting, noise reduction, and unsharp mask. You can learn more about this software on Nikon's website.
If you own Adobe Photoshop CS5, you can also use its Camera Raw plug-in (version 6.3 or newer) to edit the D5100's RAW images.
So what is RAW, anyway? The RAW image format (Nikon calls it NEF) stores unprocessed data from the camera's sensor. Thanks to this, you can adjust all kinds of image properties without degrading the quality of the image. The downsides of the RAW format are that 1) the file sizes are significantly larger than JPEGs, 2) camera performance is slower, and 3) you must post-process each image on your computer in order to convert it to a standard image format (though the camera does have a built-in RAW editor).
Camera Control Pro 2
One other optional software product I want to mention is Nikon's Camera Control Pro 2 (priced from $146). As its name implies, this software lets you control the camera right from your Mac or PC, using the USB connection. You can control most of the camera's features, and live view is available, as well. Photos (or movies) can be saved to the computer, memory card, or both. It's worth pointing out that the D5100's closest competitor, the Canon EOS Rebel T3i, has similar software included in the box at no charge.
The D5100's manuals are split into two parts. There's a nearly 80 page User's Manual that should get most people up and running. Should you need more details, you can load up the full Reference Manual, which is in PDF format on an included CD-ROM. The quality of the manuals is above average, with Nikon providing good explanations and not too much find print. Documentation for the included software is installed onto your computer.
Look and Feel
The D5100 is a fairly compact digital SLR. Its body is made of composite materials (read: plastic), though it feels pretty solid for the most part (the door over the battery compartment is the only real weak spot). The D5100 has a fairly small right hand grip -- perhaps too small for my large hands -- so I'd recommend getting my hands on the camera before you buy one (pun intended).
Controls are generally well-placed, though I'm not a fan of the location of the new live view switch or the movie recording button. The camera could use a few more direct buttons, too, for things like ISO and drive. The four-way controller is smaller than it was on the D5000, and it now borders on too small. Speaking of the D5000, here's how the new D5100 compares with its predecessor:
|The D5000 vs the D5100, fairly close to scale
Images courtesy of Nikon USA
There are quite a few design changes between the D5100 and its predecessor. First, the D5100 is a smaller camera. The grip has been redesigned giving the camera a more rounded appearance. And of course, the LCD now flips to the side, instead of downward -- a huge improvement. The buttons on the left side of the D5000's LCD have all been moved (they had to), and the live view button has bee turned into a switch on the top of the D5100.
The D5100 looks pretty small next to the Canon EOS Rebel T3i
Now let's see how the D5100 compares to other D-SLR and interchangeable lens cameras in terms of size and weight:
Ignoring the trio of mirrorless cameras, you can see that the D5100 is #3 in terms of bulk in the "premium entry-level" D-SLR class. The mirrorless cameras obviously a lot smaller, which is the whole point of their design.
Ready to tour the D5100 now? I know I am, so let's begin!
Here's the front of the D5100, without a lens attached. This, of course, is the standard Nikon F-mount, supporting countless Nikkor lenses with the 1.5X focal length conversion ratio that I told you about earlier. As with the D5000 (and the D3100 for that matter), there's no lens drive motor built into the camera body, so autofocus is only supported on AF-S and AF-I lenses (which have built-in AF motors). Any other lens will be manual focus only. To release an attached lens, simply press that black button located to the right of the mount. Nikon D-SLRs do not have image stabilization built-in, so you'll need to look for lenses with the Vibration Reduction (VR) feature for that.
Right through the center of the lens mount, behind the mirror, is the D5100's new 16.2 Megapixel CMOS sensor. This sensor is apparently the same (or darn close) to the one used on the D7000, which means good things with regard to image quality. Since dust can be a problem on digital SLRs, Nikon has provided several countermeasures to prevent it. When you turn on the camera, ultrasonic waves are passed through the low-pass filter, which shakes dust away. In addition, there's a "airflow control system" that uses the "breeze" created by the mirror-flipping action to send dust into a special chamber away from the sensor. If that still doesn't work, you can create a "dust off reference photo" which you can use in conjunction with Capture NX2 to remove stubborn dust spots from your photos.
Directly above the Nikon logo is the D5100's pop-up flash, which is released electronically. The flash has a guide number of 12 meters at ISO 100, which is the same as on the D5000. If you switch the flash into manual mode, the strength can go up to GN 13. If you want more flash power, you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe you'll see in a moment. While the D5100 cannot control wireless flashes by itself, you can do so by using the SB-700 or SB-900 flashes, or the SU-800 wireless speedlight commander.
To the lower-left of the Nikon logo is the camera's dedicated AF-assist lamp, which is also used for redeye reduction and counting down the self-timer. Continuing southwest we find the receiver for the optional wireless remote control. Jumping to the opposite side of the photo, just above the D5100 logo, is the camera's monaural microphone.
While the D5000 had an LCD that could flip down and rotate, it was kind of a pain to use when the camera is on a tripod. Thankfully, Nikon listened to their critics, and put the hinge on the side of the D5100, so now the screen flips out to the side instead. The LCD can rotate a total of 270 degrees, from facing your subject, all the way around to facing the floor. These screens make it easy to shoot over people in front of you, take low level photos of kids and pets, or take product photos on a tripod without having to crane your neck to see the results. The LCD can also be put in the traditional position (shown below) or closed entirely.
And here is the LCD in the position most of you will be used to. The screen is 3 inches in size (compared to 2.7 on the D5000) and has a whopping 921,000 pixels (compared to 230,000). As you might imagine, everything is super-sharp. I found the LCD to be fairly easy to see in bright outdoor light.
Live view on the D5100
The D5100 retains the same live view feature as its predecessor. This allows you to preview exposure, white balance, and focus right on the LCD, with 100% frame coverage (but no live histogram). You can also enlarge the frame, for help with manual focusing, and a good face detection system is also available. As I mentioned, outdoor visibility is good, and the same goes for low light situations. The bad news is that the contrast-detect autofocus system used by the camera is quite slow, with photos times of 1, 2, or sometimes even 3 seconds long. In other words, you'll probably want to stick to the viewfinder for photographing subjects in motion. The D5100 can focus continuously while recording movies, but 1) the refocusing is very noticeable and 2) the sound of the AF motor will be picked up by the microphone.
|Graphic view||Classic view|
If you're shooting with the viewfinder, the LCD can show shooting information, and let you quickly change commonly-used settings. When using the "graphic" screen, the camera represents the aperture and shutter speed with an image that's not unlike the DCRP logo. The other "classic" view is similar to what you'll find on the LCD info display of higher-end SLRs. I should add that sometimes that question mark icon at the lower-left of the screen will be blinking. If you press the help (zoom out) button, the camera will tell you what's up (such as "subject is dark, use flash").
Adjusting the drive setting
You can adjust the settings on either of these info screens by pressing the button with the "i" on it (which is located to the right of the viewfinder). From there, you use the four-way controller to select the option you want. Nikon has handy "assist images" that visually describe when you'd want to use each of the options (see screenshot). Settings you can adjust here include:
- Image quality
- Image size
- White balance
- ISO sensitivity
- Release mode
- Focus mode (AF-A, AF-S, AF-C/AF-F, MF)
- AF area mode (Single-point, auto-area -OR- face priority, wide area, normal area, subject tracking)
- Metering (Matrix, center-weighted, spot)
- Active D-Lighting
- Auto bracketing
- Picture Control
- Exposure compensation (-5EV to +5EV)
- Flash exposure compensation (-3EV to +1EV)
- Flash setting (the usual choices, which depend on the shooting mode)
I just want to mention a pair of those options, as the rest are covered in the menu section later in this review. Both of the options I'm going to talk about vary depending on whether you're shooting with the viewfinder or live view. The focus mode choices are single servo AF (focus locks when shutter release is halfway-pressed), continuous servo AF (camera keeps focusing with the shutter release pressed), or automatic AF, which selects between either of those based on what's going on in the scene. If you're using live view, the AF-C option turns into AF-F, which is full-time AF. That means that the camera is always trying to focus, regardless of whether you're pressing the shutter release button. This also allows for continuous AF in movie mode.
The other thing I wanted to mention is the AF area mode. When shooting with the viewfinder, you can choose from single-point or 11-point auto. In live view mode, you've got face priority (which finds up to 35 faces in the scene), wide or normal area (and you can move the focus point around), and 3D subject tracking.
Returning to the tour, let's talk about the D5100's optical viewfinder, which is in the usual spot. This viewfinder has a magnification of 0.78X, which makes it about average-sized in this class. The coverage is 95%, which is also typical in the entry-level D-SLR group. Below the field-of-view is a line of green-colored data which displays current shooting settings, shots remaining, focus lock, and more. One unique feature on the D5100 (that was on its predecessor, as well) is a rangefinder, which is for manual focusing. If the arrows in the viewfinder point to the left, then the focus point is in front of your subject. If they point to the right, then the focus point is behind your subject. When the arrows disappear, then you're properly focused! You can adjust the focus of the viewfinder by using the diopter correction knob located on its top-right.
To the left of the viewfinder is the button for entering the Menu system. On the opposite side you'll find the "i" button (for using the shortcut menu described above), the AE/AF-Lock button, and the camera's one and only command dial.
Moving downward, we find the playback button, followed by the four-way controller, which is smaller than it was on the D5000. You'll use the four-way controller for navigating menus, selecting a focus point, and replaying photos you've taken.
The last three buttons on the back of the camera are for zooming in or out (in live view or playback mode) and deleting a photo. The zoom out button is also what you'll press to display help screens in the menus, or when the question mark is blinking on the LCD.
The first thing to see on the top of the D5100 is its hot shoe, which is normally protected by a plastic cover. For best results, you'll want to use one of the Nikon Speedlights I mentioned earlier in the review, as they'll sync with the camera's i-TTL metering system. If you're using the SB-700, SB-900, or SU-800 (which isn't actually a flash), you can control sets of wireless Speedlights. Not using a Nikon flash? Then you will probably have to set the exposure manually. The D5100 does not support Auto FP high speed flash sync -- you'll need to step up to the D7000 for that. The fastest shutter speed you can use is 1/200 sec.
Moving to the right, you'll see the D5100's mode dial, which has the new live view switch underneath it. I can't say I'm a huge fan of the live view switch's location -- it's not easy to reach. Anyhow, here are the items that you'll find on the mode dial:
The D5100 has a boatload of automatic shooting options, so I'll start with those. First, there's a regular auto mode, which is totally point-and-shoot. If live view is turned on, the camera will automatically select a scene mode for you. If you'd rather manually select your own scene mode, there are plenty to choose from, as the table above illustrates.
Selective color effect
New to the D5100 is the "effects mode", a feature similar to the Art Filters found on Olympus cameras. The most interesting effects include:
- Night vision: takes grainy black and white photos in low light, tripod recommended
- Color sketch: turns photos into something resembling a color drawing; you can adjust the vividness and outline levels while you're composing the photo
- Miniature effect: blurs the majority of a photo, except for a designated areas, making objects look tiny
- Selective color: pick up to three colors to "save", while the rest of the image turns into black and white; only works with live view
You can record movies with many of these effects, as well. There will be a delay of several seconds while the camera processes the effects and saves the results to your memory card. I should add that several of the effects can be applied in playback mode to photos you've already taken.
Naturally, the D5100 has a full suite of manual exposure controls, as well, including two types of bulb mode. You'll learn about more of the camera's other manual controls later in this review.
Other items on the top of the camera include a dedicated movie recording button, plus two more for exposure compensation (or aperture when in "M" mode) and toggling the info shown on the LCD. Above those three buttons is the shutter release button, which has the power switch wrapped around it.
Before I tell you what can be found on this side of the D5100, I want to mention those two switches on the 18 - 55 mm kit lens. The top one toggles between auto and manual focus, while the button one turns Vibration Reduction (image stabilization) on and off.
Over on the camera body we find a button for popping up the flash and adjusting the flash exposure compensation, plus a customizable Function button (which handles the self-timer by default) below that. If you're looking for a depth-of-field preview button, keep looking, as there isn't one.
Moving to the right, we find the D5100's four I/O ports, which are kept underneath a rubber cover. Let's open it up for a closer look:
And here they are! The I/O ports include:
- Accessory terminal (for GPS and remote control)
- USB + A/V output
- External mic input
On the other side of the D5100 you'll find its SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card slot. The door covering the memory card slot is a little bit flimsy.
Our tour ends with a look at the bottom of the D5100. Here you can see the metal tripod mount (in line with the lens, of course) and the battery compartment. The plastic door that covers the battery compartment comes off very easily, though it snaps back on.
The EL-EL14 lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.
Using the Nikon D5100
Flip the power switch and the D5100 is ready to start taking photos almost instantly (even with the dust reduction feature turned on).
Autofocus speeds depend on several factors, but mainly 1) whether you're using live view or the viewfinder and 2) what lens is attached. When shooting with the viewfinder and the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, you can expect very good focus times, ranging from 0.1 - 0.3 seconds at wide-angle to around 0.4 - 0.8 seconds at telephoto. Low light focus speeds are pretty good when using the optical viewfinder, thanks to the camera's super-bright AF-assist lamp. Expect focus times to be around one full second in those situations.
As I mentioned earlier, things are a lot slower when using live view. It will take the camera one, two, or even three seconds to lock focus in good light. Low light focusing ranges from slow to nonexistent. If there's enough ambient light on your subject, it'll probably lock focus in a few seconds. If not, then the camera will give you the dreaded "red box of focus failure". This is mostly due to the fact that the D5100 cannot use its AF-assist lamp in live view mode.
Shutter lag isn't an issue on the D5100, and shot-to-shot delays are minimal, except if you're using Effects mode, which will lock up the camera for several seconds.
After you take a photo, you can hit the delete button to review and/or delete the shot you just took.
Now, let's take a look at the image size and quality choices on the D5100:
The D5100 can take a RAW image alone, or with a JPEG of the size of your choosing (to simplify the chart I only chose one combination). I explained the virtues of the RAW format earlier in the review.
A typical help screen in the menus
The D5100's menu system is a bit snazzier than the one on the D5000, but it works in the same way. It's easy to navigate, and Nikon kindly made help screens available for nearly every option (see above). The menu is divided into six tabs, covering playback, shooting, custom settings, setup, retouch, and My Menu/Recent items. Keeping in mind that not all of these options are available in every shooting mode, here's the full list of menu options:
Custom setting menu
|Retouch menu - I'll discuss all of these in the playback section
Recent Settings / My Menu
Shows the last twenty menu options you accessed, or you can create your own custom menu with up to twenty menu options
While I'll get to the playback and retouch items later, I want to tell you more about some of those shooting and custom settings now.
Fine-tuning white balance
The D5100 has a pretty standard set of white balance controls for an entry-level D-SLR. Naturally, it has the usual presets, like incandescent and cloudy, each of which can be fine-tuned (see above). You can also use a white or gray card as reference with the "preset manual" mode. One thing you cannot do is set the color temperature -- you'll need to set up to the D7000 for that.
|Adjusting a Picture Control||This "grid" shows you how the Picture Controls compare|
Next up are Picture Controls, which have been on Nikon SLRs for a while now. The camera has six preset Controls (standard, neutral, vivid, monochrome, portrait, landscape), and you can customize them to your heart's content. You can save your adjusted settings into nine custom Picture Control slots. The following properties can be adjusted in a Picture Control:
- Quick adjust - lets you adjust the items below by ±2 step at one time
- Sharpening (Auto, 0 to 9)
- Contrast (Auto, -3 to +3) - not available when Active D-Lighting is on
- Brightness (-1 to +1) - not available when Active D-Lighting in on
- Saturation (Auto, -3 to +3)
- Hue (-3 to +3)
- Filter effects (Off, yellow, orange, red, green) - only for monochrome controls
- Toning (Black & white, sepia, cyanotype, red, yellow, green, blue green, blue, purple blue, red purple) - each of these can be fine-tuned; only for monochrome
The camera retains the same Active D-Lighting feature as its predecessor. Quite simply, this feature improves the overall contrast of an image, reducing highlight clipping while brightening shadows. There are several settings available for ADL, including auto (the default), low, normal, high, and extra high. You can also turn the whole thing off, though I've found that highlights clip easily at that setting.
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|ADL extra high
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While you can see the shadows getting brighter as you increase the Active D-Lighting setting (though it levels off after a while), you can't see the improvement in highlight detail unless you view the full size images. Thus, I suggest that you do that, and look at the lights just outside of the tunnel -- they get detail back as the ADL setting goes up. For most situations, I think that leaving the ADL setting at "auto" is just fine. If you're shooting RAW, you can adjust this property later, when you're editing an image with ViewNX or Capture NX.
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|HDR photo (3EV differential)
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The high dynamic range (HDR) feature is new to the D5100. This option will combine two exposures -- one dark and one bright -- into a single image (usually HDR involves three exposures, which yields better results). The result is a photo with improved contrast compared to what you'd get from a single exposure, and you can see an example above. You can adjust the exposure differential (or let the camera choose it) as well as how much "smoothing" is applied to the finished product. Do note that this only works for JPEGs, and that a tripod is recommended for best results.
That brings us to the release modes on the camera, of which there are six. The only two that I want to discuss are the continuous and quiet shutter release options, and I'll start with the latter. This option turns off all the camera beeps, and also doesn't flip the mirror back into position until you take your finger off of the shutter release button. This allows you to move the camera out of sensitive areas before the mirror makes its distinctive "click".
Now let's go over the D5100's burst mode, which shoots at the same rate as on the D5000: 4 frames/second. The table below breaks it down by image quality setting:
The D5100 turned in a pretty nice performance in its continuous shooting mode. When the camera reaches the limits shown in the table, it doesn't stop shooting -- it just slows down. If you're shooting in live view mode, the screen will go black when the burst sequence begins.
The next menu option that I want to mention is multiple exposure. As its name implies, you can combine two or three exposures into a single image. Another handy feature is interval timer, more commonly known as time-lapse. Just set the start time, the interval between each shot, and how many photos you want to take, and you're set. The optional AC adapter is strongly recommended for this feature.
The final menu option to menu is a custom function which sets the bracketing option. The D5100 lets you bracket for exposure, white balance, and Active D-Lighting. The first two of those both take three photos, adjusting the exposure compensation and color tone for each shot, respectively. The Active D-Lighting bracketing feature takes a pair of photos -- one with ADL disabled, and the other at the current setting. If you already have ADL turned off, the second shot will be taken at the "auto" setting.
It's time for our photo tests! All of these were taken with the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, except for the night shots, for which I used the Nikon F4.5-5.6, 55 - 300 mm VR lens.
The macro test turned out quite nicely, though I had to fine-tune the white balance in the blue direction to get rid of a slight brownish cast. Thus, colors look good, with the reds being especially vivid. The figurine has the "smooth" appearance that is common on digital SLRs.
The minimum distance to your subject will depend on what lens you're using. For the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, it's 28 cm. If you think you'll be taking a lot of close-up photos, Nikon makes five dedicated macro lenses, though only three of them support autofocus on the D5100 (the 60, 85, and 105).
The night shot turned out fairly well, though you'd get much better results with a better lens. The camera took in plenty of light, as you'd expect given its manual exposure controls. There is some highlight clipping here, as well as noticeable purple fringing. The image is sharp until you get to the right third of the image, at which point things become quite soft (hey, what do you expect from a $300 lens?). Noise is not a problem at ISO 100, nor would you expect it to be.
Now, let's use that same night scene to see how the D5100 performed across its ISO range in low light:
ISO 12800 (Hi 1)
ISO 25600 (Hi 2)
There's no noise to be found at ISO 100 or 200, and just a tiny bit at ISO 400. Noise becomes a bit more pronounced at ISO 800 and 1600, but it still won't keep you from making large prints at either of those sensitivities. At ISO 3200 details start to disappear, so it's probably a good time to either downsize your prints or consider switching over to RAW. There's quite a bit of noise at ISO 6400 and above, so I'd avoid those (especially the two "Hi" settings) in very low light situations.
Normally I like to have RAW vs JPEG comparisons for the night test shots, but am unable to provide them due to the short amount of time I had with the camera.
We'll take a look at the D5100's high ISO performance in normal lighting in a moment (where I do have RAW vs JPEG comparisons).
The D5100 did very well in our redeye test, with no red to be found. The camera uses its blinding AF-assist lamp to shrink your subject's pupils, and it did the job here. If you do end up with redeye in your photos, there's a tool in playback mode to remove it.
There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, as you can see these in the test above, which I took with the D3100. In the real world, this will make things like buildings appear to curve inward, illustrated in this photo. The good news is that the D5100 has a built-in distortion reduction system (off by default) which works with modern Nikkor lenses. Let's see what the distortion chart looks like with this feature turned on:
That's quite a bit better! You can also correct for distortion with most decent RAW editing software.
As for other lens-related issues, I noticed some very slight corner blurring with the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, but no vignetting (dark corners).
Here's our studio ISO test now. Since this photo is taken under consistent lighting, it's comparable to those taken with other cameras I've reviewed. So, now may be a good time to crack open the EOS Rebel T3i review to do some side-by-side comparisons! Remember that the crops below only cover a very small portion of the scene, so view the full size photos if you can! And with that, let's take a trip from ISO 100 to 25,600:
ISO 12800 (Hi 1)
ISO 25600 (Hi 2)
Everything looks great through ISO 1600, with just a "pinch" of noise at ISO 3200. Noise is a bit more visible at ISO 6400, but it won't keep you from making midsize or large prints. Noise is really only an issue at ISO 12800 and 25600, with only the former being usable for small prints, at least as JPEGs. Overall, it's an impressive performance -- Nikon is definitely producing D-SLRs with very little noise these days!
Can we improve on the ISO 12800 and 25600 photos by shooting RAW and doing some easy post-processing? Let's give it a try:
There's a pretty obvious increase in image quality at the ISO 12800 (Hi 1) setting after converting the images from RAW, running them through noise reduction software, and then sharpening them up a bit. The ISO 25600 image is a bit better, but I'd still pass on this setting unless you're really desperate.
Overall, the Nikon D5100's photo quality is very good, though images are on the soft side. Part of this softness is due to the kit lens (you get what you pay for), and the camera isn't applying much sharpening to its JPEGs, either. If you want sharper images without buying a new lens, try 1) using an aperture around F8 and 2) increasing the in-camera sharpening in the Picture Control menu. Aside from that, the news is good. The D5100's photos are well-exposed, without too much highlight clipping (and if you encounter it, try cranking up the Active D-Lighting). Colors are what I call "consumer-friendly", which means that they're quite saturated. I didn't see much in the line of purple fringing and, as I mentioned earlier, corner blurring was not a major issue.
Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look our photo gallery -- perhaps printing a few of the photos if you can -- and then hopefully you can decide for yourself if the D5100's photo quality meets your expectations!
The D5100 has the ability to record Full HD video with sound for until the file size hits 4GB or the elapsed time reaches 20 minutes. In more technical terms, that means a resolution of 1920 x 1080 (30 frames/sec) with a bit rate of 18 MBps at the highest quality setting. The camera records monaural sound, but you can add a stereo microphone (including the one sold by Nikon) using the port on the side of the camera.
Several other video resolutions and frame rates are available, including 1920 x 1080 (24 or 25 fps), 1280 x 720 (24, 25, or 30 fps), and 640 x 424 (25 or 30 fps). For each of those, you can select from normal or high quality.
Naturally, you can zoom in and out all you want while you're recording a movie. What's more, the D5100 has the ability to continuously autofocus in movie mode which, in theory, should keep things in focus. In reality, though, the autofocus is slow to respond, and the noise of the AF motor will be picked up by the camera's microphone. If you're using a VR lens, you'll be able to take advantage of its shake reduction capabilities.
There are no manual controls in movie mode on the D5100, except for the ability to adjust the microphone level. There's no wind filter, unfortunately. You can change the exposure compensation, but only in the P/A/S modes. There's no way to take a photo in the middle of recording a video.
Movies are saved in QuickTime format, using the H.264 codec.
Below is a sample movie, recorded at the 1080p30 quality setting. Enjoy!
The D5100 has one of the most elaborate playback mode of any digital SLR or interchangeable lens camera. Before we get to the interesting features, let me tell you about the basics. They include slideshows, image protection, DPOF print marking, thumbnail view, and playback zoom. When you're zoomed into an image, you can use the control dial to switch between photos, while keeping the zoom and location intact.
|Calendar view||Mega thumbnail view|
Photos can be viewed one-at-a-time or as thumbnails, with the ability to see as many as 72 on the screen at once. You can also display a calendar view, which allows you to quickly see which photos you took on a specific date.
|D-Lighting brightens shadows||The color sketch effect can be applied in playback mode, as well|
Now onto the good stuff, all of which can be found in the Retouch menu. The items here include:
- D-Lighting - brightens dark areas of a photo; select from low, normal, or high
- Redeye correction
- Trim (crop) - you can select an aspect ratio of 3:2, 4:3, 5:4, 1:1, or 16:9
- Monochrome - changes a color photo to black and white, sepia, or cyanotype
- Filter effects - use virtual skylight, warm, red/green/blue, cross screen, and soft filters
- Color balance - adjust the color of a photo
- Image overlay - combines two RAW images into one
- NEF (RAW) processing - edit RAW images, see below
- Resize - plenty of smaller resolutions to choose from
- Quick retouch - uses D-Lighting and also boosts contrast and saturation
- Distortion control - reduce barrel or pincushion distortion in your photos, automatically or manually
- Fisheye - a special effect, new to the D5100
- Color outline - turns a photo into something suitable for a coloring book
- Color sketch - same as the Effects mode option
- Perspective control - reduce the distortion caused by taking photos from the base of tall objects (like buildings)
- Miniature effect - makes a selected area of the photo appear small, with everything else blurred out
- Selective color - just like in the Effects menu
- Edit movie - trim unwanted footage off of the beginning or end of a clip; you can also grab a frame from a movie and save it as a still image
- Side-by-side comparison - puts an original and retouched image side-by-side
Pretty impressive if you ask me!
RAW processing in playback mode
As with its predecessor, the D5100 lets you edit and convert RAW images right on the camera, and now you can edit even more properties. You can adjust the image size and quality, white balance, exposure compensation, Picture Control setting, and the amount of high ISO noise reduction and D-Lighting applied.
By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but if you press up or down on the four-way controller you can get a lot more, as you can see above. Do note that you may need to turn on some of these screens in the playback menu (display mode option).
The D5100 moves through photos without delay.
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!
Check out our gallery to see how the D5100's photo quality looks!