Nikon D5100 Review

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor

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:

Feature D5000 D5100
Street price (with 18-55 lens) $749 $899
Sensor resolution (effective) 12.3 MP 16.2 MP
Image processor Expeed Expeed 2
LCD size / resolution 2.7" / 230,000 px 3.0" / 921,000 px
LCD style Flip-down, rotating Flip-out, rotating
ISO range (fully expanded) 100 - 6400 100 - 25600
Full-time servo AF No Yes
Effects mode No Yes
HD video recording 1280 x 720 (24p) 1920 x 1080 (30p)
Stereo mic input No Yes
Memory cards supported SD, SDHC SD, SDHC, SDXC
Battery used EN-EL9a EN-EL14
Battery life (CIPA standard) 510 shots 660 shots
Dimensions (W x H x D) 5.0 x 4.1 x 3.1 in. 5.0 x 3.8 x 3.1 in.
Weight (body only) 560 g 560 g

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:

Camera Battery life, live view off
(CIPA standard)
Battery used
Canon EOS Rebel T3i 440 shots LP-E8
Nikon D5000 510 shots EN-EL9a
Nikon D5100 660 shots EN-EL14
Olympus E-PL2 * 280 shots BLS-1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 * 270 shots DMW-BLD10
Pentax K-r ** 470 shots D-LI109
Samsung NX11 * 400 shots BP1310
Sony Alpha DSLR-A580 1050 shots NP-FM500H

* Mirrorless interchangeable lens camera is live view only
** Also supports AA batteries

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

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:

Accessory Model # Price * Description
Lenses Varies Varies The D5100 supports nearly all Nikon F-mount lenses, though autofocus is only available on AF-S and AF-I models.
External flash


From $130
From $330
From $500
Get more flash power and less of a chance of redeye with these Speedlights. The SB-700 and SB-900 can be used to control wireless flashes.
Wireless Speedlight Commander SU-800 From $250 While not a flash itself, this can be used to control other flashes wirelessly.
Sync terminal adapter AS-15 From $20 Attaches to the hot shoe and provides a standard PC sync terminal.
Stereo microphone ME-1 From $179 Record high quality stereo sound when recording movies.
Wired remote control MC-DC2 From $23 A shutter release button on a 3.3 foot long cord.
Wireless remote ML-L3 From $14 Another way to remotely release the shutter.
GPS unit GP-1 From $198 Add location data to your photos, automatically.
AC adapter EH-5a

From $77
From $35

Power your camera without draining the battery. You need BOTH of these parts! The newer EH-5b is the "official" AC adapter of the D5100, but the listed (and readily available) EH-5A works too.
Semi-soft case CF-DC2 From $37 Holds the D5100 with a lens attached.
* Prices were accurate at time of publication

There are a few other accessories out there, mostly related to the optical viewfinder. Let's move onto software now, shall we?

Nikon Transfer

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.