Benefitting from some of the technology developed for Nikon's high-end D7000, this more affordable camera employs a similar 16.2MP sensor and EXPEED 2 processor, but gains a new articulated LCD screen. The D5100 is well equipped with an 11-point AF sensor with a single cross-type point, Full HD 1080p movie mode, numerous features and overrides, plus a wealth of image-modification options in playback mode.
The D5100 is compatible with all Nikon AF lenses, but provides autofocus only with the AF-S and older AF-I series. The AF system is very versatile, with 3D focus tracking, Dynamic Area, Auto Area and single-point AF options. The D5100 provides a choice of six picture styles with overrides, as do many other cameras. It's the first Nikon DSLR to offer special-effects features in capture mode; try these in Live View where you can preview the effect that each will produce.
The Nikon D5100 targets serious shooters with its numerous advanced modes and features such as wireless remote flash control. However, the latter requires at least two optional flash units, one of them as the on-camera "control" unit and the other off-camera.
But this DSLR is fine for novices too. They'll appreciate the auto mode with its intelligent scene-recognition system; or they can select one of the 17 scene modes. Each is optimized for a specific type of subject, making it easy to get nice shots without complexity.
Design and Features
This compact model handles well, thanks to its ergonomic (though small) grip, rear input dial and fully-articulated three-inch 921,000-dot LCD with superior anti-glare coating.
The articulating LCD on the Nikon D5100 allowed the author to shoot over the heads of the crowd in Istanbul's Hagia Sofia. Photo by Peter Burian
Because the new screen is side-hinged, there's less space on the camera back. Hence, many controls have been moved to new locations. Some buttons once considered essential were omitted entirely. Frankly, I did not find that to be a problem. The [Fn] button can be programmed to provide any favourite function, and a full 14 can be accessed quickly with a touch of the [i] button.
The D5100 includes the familiar menu tabs and items, including 20 custom functions. The setup menu allows for selecting the desired display format: Graphic (intended for novices) or Classic (for experienced shooters), with a choice of three colour schemes.
Serious shooters will appreciate Active D-Lighting (with full level control) for more shadow detail, especially when combined with the new in-camera HDR (high-dynamic-range) feature. The latter fires two JPEGs at varying exposure levels, merging them into one with great highlight/shadow detail. A smoothing level control enables you to specify a very natural-looking effect or a dramatic HDR effect for an entirely different look.
The new effects capture mode is a bonus for creative types. It allows for shooting still photos or videos, with any of several special effects such as Night Vision (grainy b&w at ultra-high ISO), Colour Sketch (resembling artwork), Selective Colour (monochrome but retaining one colour) and Miniature Effect. Granted, some of these extend the processing time after a shot is taken. Nikon also provides a full 20 image "retouching" options in playback mode to add special effects, improve technical aspects or to modify/convert RAW photos. No direct competitor provides as many functions for image modification.
With the Nikon D5100, even photos taken at ISO 400, like this one of Italy's Amalfi coast, make stunning 16x24-inch prints. Photo by Peter Burian
Live and Movie Modes
Switch to Live View, and contrast-detection AF is employed, providing reliable but slow autofocus response. Options include face-priority and tracking AF, but neither is intended for subjects moving quickly. Continuous autofocus (AF-F) is also available in movie mode. It is slow, so I preferred to set focus (manually or with single-shot AF) before recording a video clip. The internal mic is mono and provides acceptable audio; an optional external stereo mic (like Nikon's new ME-1) is preferable for serious video shooting.
Movie mode can be fully automatic, adjusting exposure as scene brightness changes. In Effects mode, you can pre-set a desired special effect. Or a switch to A or M mode; you can then pre-set a desired picture style, exposure compensation and aperture. Some DSLRs provide more user control, of course. You can get stunning full HD movies without overrides, but it's worth experimenting with the available features for more pleasing video clips.
The Nikon D5100's flexible autofocus system and 4fps frame rate make it a great choice for action and sports. Photo by Peter Burian
Speed and Quality
The D5100 is very fast when shooting stills using the optical viewfinder. It starts up almost instantly and responds to a touch of the shutter button without any hesitation. Even at the full 4fps speed, the camera can fire over 100 Large/Fine JPEGs or 16 RAW photos in a series; processing is fast so it's usually ready to for more shots. Autofocus does slow a bit in dark locations; but in daylight, this DSLR is very effective in action photography. For the best results, review the owner's manual as to the purpose of each of the autofocus options.
At default settings, this Nikon camera generated JPEGs with accurate and moderately rich colours, slightly low sharpness and moderate contrast. Entirely different effects are available with other picture styles. Most users will want to set in-camera sharpening to 1 in standard style. The 3D Matrix metering system was quite effective. A bit of plus compensation was necessary with some light-toned subjects, as with any camera. In high-contrast light, Active D-Lighting was very useful for retaining detail in highlight and shadow areas.
The D5100 provided stunning quality at low ISO, suitable for making 16x24-inch prints. My best ISO 800 JPEGs are suitable for very nice 13x19-inch prints. Digital noise is visible in shadow areas at ISO 1600 when viewed on a monitor, but 11x15-inch prints still look great. By ISO 3200, more graininess is apparent, but fine details are very well defined in 8x10-inch prints. Because noise-reduction processing is not overly aggressive, even ISO 6400 shots made nice 5x7-inch prints; this is impressive performance for an affordable DSLR.
The Nikon's D5100's autofocus system is fast and reliable even in low light. As this image taken at ISO 3200 attests, its high-ISO performance is excellent. Photo by Peter Burian
While traveling in Europe, I found the camera to be fast, versatile and reliable under most circumstances, including autofocus in dark locations at the Vatican. (In such cases, I used the viewfinder to get faster autofocus than in Live View.) After a couple of days, I was fully proficient with the new controls and operating method. Considering the affordable price, the D5100 offers excellent value. And because Nikon's EXPEED 2 processor is very sophisticated, this 16.2MP DSLR is competitive with 18MP cameras in image quality, especially at high ISO levels.
Superb articulated LCD screen
Many effects and image-modification options
Fast/versatile AF; continuous AF in movie mode
AF is slow in Live and movie mode
Few external controls, some not well placed
Effects modes would benefit from more overrides
NUTS & BOLTS
Lens mount: AF; autofocus with AF-S and AF-I lenses only; 1.5x factor
Sensor/processor: 16.2MP CMOS (4,928 x 3,264 pixels); EXPEED 2
LCD/viewfinder: Articulated 3" 921,000-dot screen with Live View; 95% viewfinder
Recording options: RAW, JPEG, RAW JPEG; MOV to 1080p
Operating modes: AUTO, Flash Off, P, A, S, M, 6 Effects modes, 16 Scene modes, Movie
Overrides: WB, Exposure, Active D-Lighting and HDR, ISO (100-6400, to 25,600 with boost), 5 creative styles with parameter adjustments, adjustable NR level
Other: Built-in flash and mono mic, 4fps continuous drive, 11-point AF (1 cross-type), many AF options, continuous AF in movie mode, 3 metering patterns, sensor cleaner, 20 image modification options in playback mode; HDMI output and mic jack
Power: Rechargeable lithium-ion battery for 660 shots (per CIPA rating)
Storage: Two slots for SD/SDHC/SDXC
Size: 128 x 97 x 79 mm (w/h/d, body only)
Weight: 510g (without battery)
Price: $720 (body only); $88\50 (with AF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 VR standard-zoom lenses); other camera-lens packages also available