Nikon D5100 Review

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:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon EOS Rebel T3i 5.2 x 3.9 x 3.1 in. 62.9 cu in. 515 g
Nikon D5100 5.0 x 3.8 x 3.1 in. 58.9 cu in. 510 g
Olympus E-PL2 4.5 x 2.9 x 1.7 in. 22.2 cu in. 317 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 4.5 x 3.3 x 1.8 in. 26.7 cu in. 336 g
Pentax K-r 4.9 x 3.8 x 2.7 in. 50.3 cu in. 544 g
Samsung NX11 4.8 x 3.4 x 1.6 in. 26.1 cu in. 353 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A580 5.4 x 4.1 x 3.3 in. 73.1 cu in. 599 g

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!

Front of the Nikon D5100

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.

Back of the Nikon D5100

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.

Top of the Nikon D5100

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:

Option Function
Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene selection when live view is activated. Some menu options are locked up.
Program mode Still automatic, but with access to all menu options. The Flexible Program feature lets you scroll through several shutter speed / aperture combinations by using the command dial.
Shutter priority mode You choose the shutter speed, and the camera picks the appropriate aperture. Shutter speed range is 30 - 1/4000 sec.
Aperture priority mode You choose the aperture, and camera picks the correct shutter speed. Range depends on lens used. For the kit lens, it's F3.5 - F36.
Full manual (M) mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself, with the same ranges as above. A bulb mode will keep the shutter open for as long as the shutter release is pressed. A "time" option lets you hit the shutter release once to start the exposure and again to stop. The optional shutter release button is strongly recommended.
Effects mode New to the D5100, these special effects can spice up your photos: night vision, color sketch, miniature effect, selective color, silhouette, high key, and low key.
Close-up The most commonly used scene modes have their own spots on the mode dial
Scene mode More obscure scene modes can be found here. They include night portrait, night landscape, party/indoor, beach/snow, sunset, dusk/dawn, pet portrait, candlelight, blossom, autumn colors, and food.
Flash off Disables the flash entirely, for natural light photos. If you're in live view mode, the camera will automatically select a scene mode for you.

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.

Side of the Nikon D5100

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
  • HDMI

Side of the Nikon D5100

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.

Bottom of the Nikon D5100

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.