Nikon D5100 Review

Using the Nikon D5100

Record Mode

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:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 4GB SD card (optional)
4928 x 3264
RAW + Fine JPEG 23.9 MB 122
RAW 20.8 MB 172
Fine 7.1 MB 422
Normal 3.9 MB 800
Basic 1.8 MB 1650
3696 x 2448
Fine 4.4 MB 700
Normal 2.2 MB 1450
Basic 1.1 MB 2850
2464 x 1632
Fine 2.0 MB 1650
Normal 1.0 MB 3100
Basic 500 KB 5700

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:

Playback menu
  • Delete (Selected, select date, all)
  • Playback folder (Current, all)
  • Playback display options - you can select as many of these as you want
    • None (image only)
    • Highlights
    • RGB histogram
    • Shooting data
    • Overview
  • Image review (on/off) - post-shot review
  • Rotate tall (on/off) - automatically rotate images taken in the portrait orientation
  • Slideshow
    • Start
    • Frame interval (2, 3, 5, 10 secs)
  • DPOF print order (Select/set, deselect all) - for printing
Shooting menu
  • Reset shooting options - back to defaults
  • Storage folder (Select folder, new, rename, delete)
  • Image quality (see above chart)
  • Image size (see above chart)
  • White balance (Auto, incandescent, fluorescent x 7, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade, preset manual) - see below
  • Set Picture Control (Standard, neutral, vivid, monochrome, portrait, landscape) - see below
  • Manage Picture Control (Save/edit, rename, delete, load/save) - for working with custom Picture Controls
  • Auto distortion control (on/off) - reduces barrel and pincushion distortion; see photo test section of review for an example
  • Color space (sRGB, Adobe RGB)
  • Active D-Lighting (Off, low, normal, high, extra high, auto) - see below
  • High dynamic range - see below
    • HDR mode (on/off)
    • Exposure differential (Auto, 1, 2, 3 EV)
    • Smoothing (Low, normal, high)
  • Long exposure NR (on/off) - for exposures longer than 1 second
  • High ISO NR (Off, low, normal, high)
  • ISO sensitivity settings
    • ISO sensitivity (Auto, 100 - 6400, Hi 0.3, Hi 0.7, Hi 1 [ISO 12800], Hi 2 [ISO 25600])
    • ISO sensitivity auto control (on/off)
      • Maximum sensitivity (200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, Hi 1, Hi 2) - the highest you want the ISO to go
      • Minimum shutter speed (1 - 1/2000 sec) - minimum shutter speed you'll allow
  • Release mode (Single frame, continuous, self-timer, delayed remote, quick-response remote, quiet shutter release) - see below
  • Multiple exposure - combine two or three exposures into a single image
    • Multiple exposure mode (on/off)
    • Number of shots (2-3)
    • Auto gain (on/off)
  • Movie settings
    • Quality (1080p30 HQ, 1080p30, 1080p24 HQ, 1080p24, 720p30 HQ, 720p30, 720p24 HQ, 720p24, 640 x 424 HQ, 640 x 424)
    • Microphone (Off, low, medium, high, auto sensitivity)
  • Interval timer shooting
    • Start time (Now, set time)
    • Interval (1 sec - 24 hours)
    • Number of intervals (1 - 999) - total number of photos taken

Custom setting menu

  • Reset custom settings
  • Autofocus
    1. AF-C priority selection (Release, focus)
    2. Built-in AF-assist lamp (on/off)
    3. Rangefinder (on/off)
  • Exposure
    1. EV steps for exposure control (1/3, 1/2 step)
  • Timers/AE lock
    1. Shutter release button AE-L (on/off) - whether exposure is locked when you halfway-press the shutter release button
    2. Auto off timers (Short, normal, long, custom) - choose preset of custom auto off timers for playback/menus, image review, live view, and metering
    3. Self-timer
      • Self-timer delay (2, 5, 10, 20 secs)
      • Number of shots (1 - 9)
    4. Remote on duration (1, 5, 10, 15 mins)
  • Shooting/Display
    1. Beep (Off, low, high)
    2. ISO display (on/off) - shows the sensitivity in the viewfinder instead of shots remaining
    3. File number sequence (Off, on, reset)
    4. Exposure delay mode (on/off) - adds a 1 second delay before a photo is taken to reduce the risk of blurry photos
    5. Print date (Off, date, date and time, date counter) - the last option prints the number of days that have elapsed since a chosen date
  • Bracketing/Flash
    1. Flash control for built-in flash (TTL, manual) - the second option lets you select the flash power from Full to 1/32
    2. Auto bracketing set (AE, white balance, Active D-Lighting)
  • Controls
    1. Assign self-timer/Function button (Self-timer, release mode, image quality/size, ISO, white balance, Active D-Lighting, HDR mode, +NEF/RAW, auto bracketing)
    2. Assign AE/AF-Lock button (AE/AF lock, AE lock only, AF lock only, AE lock hold, AF-on)
    3. Reverse dial direction (on/off)
    4. Slow empty release lock (Release locked, enable released) - whether you can take a photo without a memory card installed)
    5. Reverse indicators (+/0/-, -/0/+) - select how the exposure indicators look

Setup menu
  • Format memory card
  • Monitor brightness (-3 to +3)
  • Info display format (Classic, graphic) - choose the style and color of the info screen shown on the LCD
  • Auto info display (on/off) - whether the info display turns on when you halfway-press the shutter release
  • Clean image sensor
    • Clean now
    • Clean at startup/shutdown (Startup, shutdown, both, off)
  • Lock mirror up for cleaning - does just as it sounds
  • Video mode (NTSC, PAL)
  • HDMI
    • Output resolution (Auto, 480p, 576p, 720p, 1080i)
    • Device control (on/off) - whether you can operate the D5100 in playback mode with your TV remote
  • Flicker reduction (50, 60 Hz) - reduces flicker and banding when using live view under certain types of lights
  • Time zone and date
    • Time zone
    • Date and time
    • Date format (Y/M/D, M/D/Y, D/M/Y)
    • Daylight savings (on/off)
  • Language
  • Image comment - attach text comments to your photos
  • Auto image rotation (on/off)
  • Image dust off reference photo - for the dust removal feature in Nikon Capture NX 2
  • GPS
    • Auto meter-off (on/off) - whether the metering system shuts off after a period of time while the optional GPS is attached
    • Position - shows current longitude and latitude, altitude, heading, and time
    • Use GPS to set camera clock (on/off)
  • Eye-Fi upload (Enabled, disabled) - only shown when an Eye-Fi card is inserted
  • Firmware version
Retouch menu - I'll discuss all of these in the playback section
  • D-Lighting
  • Redeye correction
  • Trim
  • Monochrome
  • Filter effects
  • Color balance
  • Image overlay
  • NEF (RAW) processing
  • Resize
  • Quick retouch
  • Straighten
  • Distortion control
  • Fisheye
  • Color outline
  • Color sketch
  • Perspective control
  • Miniature effect
  • Selective color
  • Edit movie

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.

ADL off
View Full Size
ADL auto
View Full Size
ADL low
View Full Size
ADL normal
View Full Size
ADL high
View Full Size
ADL extra high
View Full Size

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.

Regular photo
View Full Size Image
HDR photo (3EV differential)
View Full Size Image

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:

Quality setting Performance
RAW + Large/Fine JPEG 9 shots @ 4.2 frames/sec
RAW 12 shots @ 4.1 frames/sec
Large/Fine JPEG 33 shots @ 4.0 frames/sec

Tested with a Panasonic Class 10 SDHC card

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 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

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 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

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:

ISO 12800

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw 6.4.1)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
ISO 25600

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw 6.4.1)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

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!

Movie Mode

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!

Click to play movie (1920 x 1080, 30 fps, 24.2 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Playback Mode

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
  • Straighten
  • 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.