initial review: 7/19/2011
minor fixes: 7/28/2011
update: 10/12/2012



  Nikon D5100 Review

The "Just Right" Model?

  Add a comment or send Thom feedback on this article.

 

Update: we're more than halfway through the D5100's expected life, with a new version likely in spring 2013. With the recent appearance of the 24mp sensor in the D3200, I suspect Nikon will update the D5100 sooner rather than later, as the D3200/D5100 are basically the same body, with the D5200 getting a swivel LCD and a few additional features.

So do you really want 24mp instead of 16mp? It's not as big of a change as you might think (about a 22% resolution gain, which is just barely above the level that most people can see). With the kit lenses, I'm not sure a jump to the D3200 is all that warranted, so you should buy on price and features between the D3200 and D5100. If you're going to put high quality glass on the camera, then the nod tends to go to the 24mp D3200, especially if you're going to avoid diffraction limited apertures.

Thing is, the D5100 is being discounting more aggressively than the D3200 by Nikon right now. Here in the US the D3200 costs out at US$650 and the D5100 at US$600 as I write this. That's probably about right; the older camera is a bit lower priced but has more features, the newer camera has more resolution and fewer features. Indeed, at no time before have the two low end Nikon DSLRs been quite as evenly matched in "value" as they are right now, making the choice a bit difficult.

Everyone knows the Goldilocks story. Bears. Porridge. Beds. The little girl looking for "just right."

I'll cut to the chase: for a lot of people, the D5100 might be their "just right." It certainly is in the middle position of Nikon's consumer lineup:

  • low-end consumer body: D3100 (14mp, reduced feature set, lots of novice hand holding)
  • middle consumer body: D5100 (16mp, extended feature set, some novice hand holding features)
  • high-end consumer body: D7000 (16mp, very extended feature set, higher performance)

Yep. Being in the middle sometimes is the right place to be. But just how right? I'll try to answer that in this review.

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan
D5100 with 35mm f/1.8DX and ME-1 microphone attached.

The Basics

Take a D5000, change the swivel point on the LCD and use a better display, add the D7000's sensor and electronics, and you've got a D5100. Well, not quite, but it does come quite close to that.

The D5100 is a 16mp DSLR with a moderate amount of advanced and useful features. The full feature set can be found in my Current DSLR listing, but I'll deal with some of the major components here:

  • Sensor. Once again Nikon is using the Sony 16mp sensor, basically the same one that the D7000, A55, and K-5 use. As far as DX-crop sensors go, this is the best of the bunch to date, so the D5100 starts with a healthy engine at its core. Nikon has added the second (named) generation of their imaging ASIC, now EXPEED2. From the image quality standpoint, one would expect something very similar to what the D7000 produces (and as you'll see, that wouldn't be a wrong guess).
  • Body. Nikon has trimmed down the D5000 body slightly. The D5100 is lower in overall height and noticeably lighter than the D5000 it replaces. The body itself is a bit curvier and the right hand position has been tweaked. In terms of overall controls, the D5100 continues the D5000's mid-pack selection. There are no dedicated white balance, ISO, or image quality buttons but rather the now somewhat standard Information Shooting Display shortcuts. Like the other low-end and mid-range consumer bodies before it, the D5000 does not have a top LCD but relies upon the color LCD to display shooting information.
  • Power. The D5100 uses a new battery, the EN-EL14, which is the same battery as the Coolpix P7000 and D3100. While it's about the same overall rating as the D5000 battery it is compliant with the new standard to not have exposed terminals and, in the D5100, seems to outlast the older battery in the D5000 by a bit.
  • Lenses. The bad news is that the D5100 does not have a screw-drive focus motor built into it. That means that it requires AF-I or AF-S (Nikon), HSM (Sigma), USD (Tamron), or IF-S (Tokina) type lens in order to autofocus. Most of Nikon's current lineup is AF-S (as are all but one of Nikon's DX lenses), but older D-type Nikkors often do not have the required motor in them to focus, so if you're thinking about putting older lenses you have from the film days on this camera, be aware. Lenses without a CPU (data chip) will mount on the D5100, even old pre-AI ones, but they will not meter. This includes pretty much all manual focus lenses (other than the few marked AI-P). Virtually all autofocus lenses do have the CPU in them, though. For more clarity on this, see the table in my article on lens acronyms.
  • Viewfinder and LCD. The viewfinder is unchanged from the D5000, basically a pentamirror system that provides the same 95% view and eyepoint as before. The color LCD on the back has changed in several different ways: the swivel position has moved to the side, allowing for forward-facing use when the camera is on a tripod, but more importantly it's now a 3" 920k dot display (the D5000's was 2.7" 230k dot). It's a bigger display that presents more detail.
  • Features. To the D5000's already strong set of features the D5100 adds an multiple exposure, special effects while shooting (as opposed to retouching), a built-in HDR function (JPEG only), plus some additional retouch features.
  • Flash. There are no differences to the pop-up internal flash from previous models. Same output, same features, same controls (e.g. no Commander mode, but full Manual flash control).

The D5100 uses SD cards and has one slot (door on the side). You can attach a wired remote or a GPS to it, plus it has both front and back wireless remote sensors, like the D7000 (very handy).

Video is one place where the D5100 actually (temporarily) is at the top of the heap for Nikon DSLRs (at least for the all-automatic crowd). The D5100 supports the following formats: 1080P/24/25/30, 720P/24/25/30, and 424P/30. Each of these formats have a choice of high-quality compression (larger files, better image quality) or a lower-quality compression (smaller files, lesser image quality). A microphone In (mini-jack) connector is available, and the stereo sound can be adjusting automatically or in four user-selected levels. Since Nikon is using a variant of AVCHD now for compression, all the usual AVCHD limits apply (2GB file size, ~12m per clip). Bad news is that manual control of the video exposure isn't present on this camera, though this is partially offset by the best video autofocus Nikon has produced to date.

As you might be able to tell from the above list, this is a compromise camera. Nikon has had three consumer DSLRs in their lineup for awhile now. The low end (D3100) is mostly stripped of advanced features and is a basic camera. The high end (D7000) arguably rivals some of Nikon's prosumer offerings in terms of feature set. The middle camera, which tries to mix the simplicity of the low end with the features of the high end is the D5100. Some people don't like this "buy higher to get more" type of model differentiation. But in the D5100's case, there's an awful lot in the middle model now. It's not so much the feature set that differentiates it from the high-end D7000, but the handling, which is where we're headed next.

D5100 D7000
16mp Sony sensor 16mp Sony sensor
Mostly plastic structure, little weatherization Magnesium alloy frame, lots of weatherization
no grip option New weatherized MB-D11
11-point CAM1000 autofocus, 1 cross sensor 39-point CAM4800 autofocus, 9 cross sensors
1080P/30 video (plus other formats), H.264/MPEG-4 compression, high audio sample rate, external mic jack 1080P/24 video (plus other formats), H.264/MPEG-4 compression, high audio sample rate, external mic jack
Single SD card slot (SD, SDHC, SDXC) Dual SD card slots (SD, SDHC, SDXC)
420-pixel metering sensor with focus integration 2016-pixel metering sensor with new integrations (focus, more patterns)
4 fps max frame rate

6 fps max frame rate

Mode dial with some scene modes, dedicated Scene and Effects positions Mode dial now has user setting positions, Scene modes de-emphasized
Menus control shooting method, quiet shooting New sub-dial controls shooting method, adds mirror lockup and quiet shooting mode
95% viewfinder 100% viewfinder
Shutter tested to 100k iterations, max at 1/4000, sync at 1/200 Shutter tested to 150k iterations, max at 1/8000, sync at 1/250 (or 1/320)
Doesn't meter with AI and AI-S lenses Meters with AI and AI-S lenses
EN-EL14 battery EN-EL15 battery
Added features: intervalometer, multiple exposure, full-time AF in Live View and Movie modes, 14-bit only, Auto Distortion Control, Flicker reduction, HDR function, GPS support, dual IR release detectors Added features: intervalometer, multiple exposure, virtual horizon, full-time AF in Live View and Movie modes, file renaming, 14-bit and lossless NEF choices, new warm position for Auto White Balance, Auto Distortion Control, Flicker reduction, Copyright Info, WT-4 wireless support, AF Fine Tune, GPS support, dual IR release detectors, depth of field preview button, ISO/WB/Qual buttons
TTL and Manual flash TTL, Repeating, Manual, and Commander flash
3" swivel LCD 3" fixed LCD

 

Recommended

features:

performance:

build:

value:

The D5100 doesn't knock it out of the park for me, though it can do the job for any serious shooter that doesn't change their settings a lot.
.

 

The Definitive Book about the Nikon D5100 can be found by clicking on the cover, below:

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan

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Handling

The first thing you notice about the D5100 is that it's small and light. The D5000 wasn't exactly a big DSLR, but the D5100 has trimmed down in noticeable ways (height and weight are obvious). Having the LCD swivel from the side instead of the bottom is a welcome change for the most part. That said, the new style rotation means that to look down or up at the color LCD you'll be positioning it to the side of the camera, making for a wider load, so to speak. This is a subtle thing, and some people won't like that as it makes the "working width" of the camera significantly bigger and offsets the view from the controls. It doesn't bother me, but I can see situations where it would be preferential to have the old style rotation.

But the new swivel opens up monitoring the LCD when the camera is on a tripod and isn't as restrictive in "arms length" use as the older model was. Overall, the new swivel is a big plus for me, but that's topped off by the fact that the LCD itself is bigger (3" instead of 2.7") and much better detailed (921k dot instead of 230k dot). We'll all need different Arca-style plates, though, and they're likely to be a little different than we're used to as the LCD is so close to the rear of the bottom base. It'll be interesting to see how RRS and Kirk decide to "lock" the plate against the back of the camera--there's no longer a clear area away from the LCD to do so. [RRS chose to lock against rotation via the front of the camera: the plate has two "nubs" that stick up at the front to engage the front of the body.]

Unfortunately, even if we give Nikon high marks for the positionable LCD, the rest of the camera handling is not as great. Let's start with button positions: most of them have moved. This makes moving from another Nikon DSLR to the D5100 a slightly frustrating endeavor, as many of the controls aren't where you expect them. The usual five or six buttons to the left of the LCD on Nikon designs have all moved. Menu went up, Delete went down and to the right, Zoom In and Zoom Out went right, Playback went down and to the right. The i button moved up and to the right. In other words, they didn't just move from one side of the LCD to the other: they moved in a more scattered fashion. While I can't really fault Nikon's choices of where they put things, it will take some getting used to. This makes considering the D5100 as a backup to another Nikon DSLR a bit questionable, in my mind.

Meanwhile, the Live View lever (introduced with the D7000) has moved to underneath the Mode dial and the Record Movie button (red button) has moved to where the info button used to be (and the info button thus moves back to form a triangle of buttons behind the shutter release on the top of the camera, a first for Nikon in recent history). The disconnection of the Movie Button from the Live View lever is a bit unexpected and another of those cognitive dissonances in the control placements on the D5100. At least the AE-L/AF-L, exposure compensation, and OK buttons didn't move or we'd have a real mess.

The net result of all this control migration is that I move more slowly when handling the D5100 than I do the D7000 (which didn't move things around).

Unfortunately, it doesn't end there. There are no focus controls at the button level. None. So Autofocus Type and Autofocus Area Mode must be controlled in the menus. Oh, wait a second, Autofocus Area Mode isn't even in the menus, it has to be controlled via multiple button pushing on the Information Display Screen (i button). This, to me, is the biggest problem with the D5100 handling: focus controls are buried. This shows the clear intended user for the D5100: novice who lets the camera decide what to do. But it doesn't end there. The D3100 has shooting methods picked via a lever under the Mode dial. The D5100? Buried in the i menu because the Live View lever went into that position.

To me it feels like Nikon took the easy way out in repositioning controls. You can see their logic: got to move five buttons from the left to the right, let's move one of the buttons and a lever on the right to the top to make room, but that knocks out the former function of the lever on the top so...well, let's just punt. I'm sure there was a better solution, but Nikon didn't find it.

The D5100 has enough options that the menu system is fairly D7000-like: three pages of SHOOTING, four of SETUP, and the a-through-f subsectioning of CUSTOM SETTING. We're all used to the depth and breadth of Nikon menus by now, so this isn't be itself a problem. But as I noted, AF Area Mode is conspicuously missing for no good reason. And then we have the new HDR Mode menu item. Turn it On and it works for one shot and turns itself Off. Ditto Multiple Exposure. Nikon seems to be worried that we might forget that we've set these things. I suppose that's a consideration, but this is a camera with a full-time Shooting Information Display. Don't you think they could put a more obvious reminder there?

Live View handling is more problematic than expected, surprising for a camera with a positionable LCD. The first problem is that the D5100 doesn't have dedicated buttons for a number of things, particularly white balance. While you can change white balance while in Live View, this involves invoking the Info button and temporarily leaving Live View. That means you can't see the changes in real time as you can on a D7000 or other advanced Nikon DSLR. (Tip: you can assign one thing to Fn button, and if that's white balance, then you can do live evaluation of different settings. But choose wisely grasshopper, you have lots of things you might want to assign, and really only one button to assign them to.) The second problem is worse: in Single Frame shooting, Live View experiences very long shutter lag. This appears to be because the system is delaying to get further exposure information from the imaging sensor. Unlike Nikon's first iterations of Live View, the mirror does not lower again to take a shot (unless you're using a flash or in Continuous shooting mode, in which case the mirror lowers to collect exposure information). The D7000 doesn't have the same long delay as does the D5100 in Single Frame Live Mode, so something changed between the models. The only good news is that contrast autofocus has improved, so getting autofocus in Live View is faster than in previous generation Nikons. The drawback? The Live View autofocus settings are buried in the Info display and are not settable in the menu system!

While it seems like I'm piling up a lot of handling complaints, for basic shooting the D5100 is not much different than any other modern Nikon DSLR. If you're not constantly changing things like white balance, ISO, metering system, shooting method, and focus settings, then the D5100 shoots like any other Nikon. If you do need to drop down and change those things, it's a little slower to use than the camera models above it and about the same as a D3100. On the other hand, if you want to get to Silhouette or Miniature or Color Sketch, just spin the Mode dial to EFFECTS and the Command dial to the one you want. So this tells us that the D5100, like the D3100 is more optimized for the novice shooter than the advanced. If you can't deal with that, you need to move up a model to the D7000.

Note: Nikon does not fully support the D5100 with Camera Control Pro the way they do with higher-end cameras. Custom Settings, for instance, can't be set from Camera Control Pro. This is just another one of those Nikon software annoyances. Not only is CCP still 32-bit, but now we're getting fewer features updated to support new cameras. Did I mention somewhere that "Nikon is not a software company"? They keep finding ways to prove it.

 

 

 

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Performance

Time for the rubber to meet the road (okay, the photons to meet the electronics). Since so many things have changed internally from the D5000 there must be some differences, right? You bet your sweet bippy there are.

Battery Life
Nikon says 660 to 2200 shots per charge, and I won't quibble with that at all. Even with heavy use of the LCD I've been able to get nearly a 1000 shots per charge in my first several outings with the D5100, and I'm pretty sure with some judicious changes to my shooting I could push that up higher. This level is in line with other recent Nikon and competitive DSLRs, so there's not much to say about it. However, video consumes battery quickly, as do things such as using the optional Nikon GP-1 GPS unit. At a street price of US$35 with third-party knockoffs even lower, there really isn't any reason to not have an extra battery (for stills) or two (for video). Video users shooting indoors might want to look at getting an EH-5 AC Adapter and the necessary EP-5 connector for the D5100. One thing to note if you're trying to choose between Nikon bodies: the D5100 gets about half the battery life the D7000 does. In other words, if in your shooting you can get about 800 shots from the D5100 on a charge, you'd be able to get 1600 shots on a D7000. This is mostly due to the higher capacity of the D7000 battery, but it's also partly due to the constant use of the color LCD for information display. This is worth noting if you're one of those on the fence trying to choose.

Writing to Card
I no longer carefully measure write speeds with a range of cards. Modern DSLRs no longer tend to have the issue of outrunning themselves (filling the buffer constantly). The buffer on the D5100 is 100 JPEG or 16 NEF (this drops if you turn on certain features), so what I tend to look at is buffer clearing speeds with cards. I look to see if certain cards clear the buffer faster than others. Indeed, they do. The high-end SanDisk and Lexar cards I tried were just a little faster in doing this than some of the more common cards you find at Big Box stores (PNY, Transcend, lower level SanDisk and Lexar, etc.). But not enough to make me want to pop for more expensive cards. Basically, buy cards that are marked Class 6 (or higher). I found no such cards in my testing of about a dozen different makes that had issues in the D5100. Nikon says you need Class 6 for recording video, and I'd heed that warning, even though I was able to get perfect video on several Class 4 cards I had sitting around. Video compression, like JPEG and NEF compression, is variable in nature. Moreover, AVCHD video compression tends to be a bit delayed (what's being written right this moment to the card can be something a few frames back in time, because the system is running accumulations of changes from key frames and storing a full key frame takes it longer). I've seen situations with long video takes where writing to the card is noticeably lagging, and I'd be afraid that slow cards might not catch up when the next full key frame is written.

I mentioned the buffer: it's fine for JPEG shooters, but a little lean for NEF shooters. If you set certain features to On, it gets very lean, giving you perhaps two seconds of burst at maximum frame rate. For this class of camera, that's actually quite good, but it's not prosumer or pro level.

Autofocus System
Not much new to report here. This is Nikon's older 11-point autofocus system, which has been in production since 2006. As with the D3100 and D90, the implementation in the D5100 is about as fast as it ever got with the 11-point sensor system. Centrally placed subjects (center AF sensor) snap into focus with AF-S lenses.

The Live View autofocus is now almost to the usable level for things other than still life, especially if you're shooting people and are using the Face tracking method. Video use? Better than any of the other Nikon DSLRs, but that's not saying a lot. There's a bit of shuffleupaguss going on just as it locks in focus, where you get that in-out-in effect that's annoying. Speed wise, it's nothing to write home about, but is acceptable in some situations if you can stand that in-out-in pulse.

Metering System
Nothing new here. Nikon's matrix metering continues to be about as good as it gets, and the dreaded AF sensor influence on the matrix is toned down: this is not another D80 fiasco. There are some curious things to watch out for, though. The HDR function, for instance, requires matrix metering to give you the requested range, so Nikon is obviously using the matrix pattern to determine where the brights and darks are. Indeed, they warn that if you use something other than matrix with HDR, it invokes auto and might not give you the full possible range. But overall, the metering system seems more D7000-like than D80-like, which is a good thing.

Image Quality
I'm simply going to point you at my D7000 review for most of what you want to know, because for the most part everything I wrote there is true of the D5100, as well. It uses the same sensor, after all. However, it doesn't quite always produce the same results. For JPEGs I can't find any measurable difference between the D5100 and D7000 that is outside of just the teeny small vagaries of testing methodologies. Put another way, I can shoot JPEG all day with both cameras and not find anything to distinguish one from the other that isn't caused by me. I was actually a little surprised at this, as the delay between the two cameras would have given Nikon a chance to tweak how the EXPEED2 ASIC was being called by the camera firmware, but I see no differences that indicate that they did so. Do note if you pick up a D5100 that Active D-Lighting is On by default, though. At the default settings, the images a D5100 and D7000 produce are slightly different. But that's due to a setting difference.

Raw (NEF) shooters need to be aware that there is also a difference between the D5100 and D7000 in the data that's produced. For some people it could be meaningful. The D7000 can record with lossless compression, the D5100 only records with visually lossless compression (Nikon's skip-tonal-values-in-the-highlights method). For most images that's not going to be a big deal. Many of us have been trying to show a realistic example of where visually lossless compression clearly produces a worse result and haven't really been able to do so. That's not to say that there isn't a difference and it's not meaningful. It's only to say that it's near impossible to show something (especially once we run it through JPEG to show it on the Web) that everyone would agree looks different that occurs on a regular basis. After all, the compression is visually lossless.

That said, if you're constantly tweaking highlight values, especially trying to pull out micro contrast in the highlights, the D5100 is going to be worse at that than the D7000. It's an extremely subtle thing visually, but when you start trying to move data that is posterized (missing values), there's a crudity to the results that you don't get when you have all the original data to work with.

Shadows are the same on both cameras shooting raw. That's a good thing, as the D7000 (and now the D5100) has almost the best shadow detail in 14-bit raw files of any of the Nikon DSLRs. Not best. Almost the best. That's still pretty darned good. And yes, the D5100 is surprisingly recording 14-bit raw, not 12-bit. That does help keep the shadow detail clean and useful.

Video
D5100 video has the same basic traits as D7000 video, only it goes to 30 (sorry, couldn't resist).

The files from the D5100 actually look very clean, plus we now have 24, 25, and 30 as frame rate choices at 1080P. That's a nice step forward to...well, what everything should have been in the first place. I see some artifacting in the 720P output, but it's masked in the scaling up to 1080P. Nikon appears to be producing 18Mbps maximum bandwidth, so the output is not quite up to the AVCHD "maximum" (usually stated as 24Mbps due to Blu-Ray and other limitations, though there are ways to go well beyond that with some cameras). Exposure is not manually controlled on the D5100, though, so you need to jump through hoops to keep Auto ISO from kicking in on pans, action, or any change of light. A real shame, actually, as otherwise the D5100 would have some real serious video chops. Nikon's stated 4GB limit on video clips is actually not quite right. The theoretical maximum of a 20 minute clip (longest you can record) is actually just a bit below 3GB according to further Nikon information. Thus, at the maximum resolution you'll chew through about 150MB of card space a minute. You can mitigate that to 85MB a minute by selecting normal as the recording quality, or by using the highest quality 720P setting. If you're coming from a D5000, D90, D300s, or D3s, all these numbers are a big improvement. A D3s chews through 170MB a minute recording an inferior 720P Motion JPEG, for example.

Should You Get a D5100?
Probably:

  • Film SLR owner who hasn't gone digital. The D5100 has some nice aspects that'll make you very happy, but if you've got a lot of older lenses, you won't be happy. The manual focus ones won't meter and the old autofocus lenses won't focus. You really need to step up to the D7000.
  • Consumer DSLR owner that's upgrading (D40, D40x, D50, D60, D70, D70s, D80, D3000). For all these folk the D5100 is a lot more. It's a bit like trading in your old CRT-based TV for a nice new LED backlit LCD HD large screen one. There will be some learning curve shock, but the performance you can obtain puts you in a different league. Moreover, Nikon pushed some higher end features into this camera that will eventually be appreciated as you learn to use them (swivel LCD, HDR, multiple exposure, GPS support, etc.).
  • Consumer DSLR owner that's upgrading (D90, D3100, D5000). Here things get murkier. All of those bodies are relatively recent and very competent in their own right. The upgrade from D5000 to D5100 isn't that dramatic, though it's a clear step, especially in the LCD and shadow areas of images. But most of these folk should look very carefully at the D7000 or just wait for the next generation.
  • Prosumer DSLR owner (D100, D200, D300 user). No, you're downgrading the body quite a bit. Wait for the D400.
  • Older professional DX DSLR owner (e.g. D1x or D2x user). Maybe. You're giving up the pro body build and style, but you're gaining so much in image quality that you'll probably overlook that. Or just wait until the D300s, D700, or D3 series updates.

Bottom line: the D5100 an excellent consumer camera. Nikon has upped the ante over the D5000 and and ironed out a lot of small stuff. It's very hard not to like the camera, though the over reliance on menus is a drag. It takes images that ought to be good enough for just about anyone.

Drawbacks

  • Hot Pixel Mama. Hot pixels are fact of life for extended Live View and video work, and for very long exposures in very hot temperatures. Not as bad as my D7000, but close.
  • New Battery and connectors. Many upgraders will be buying lots more than the camera body. Especially true if you've got lots of old lenses.
  • It's Still DX. The lack of some critical DX lenses becomes more apparent when you start to want to use this camera everywhere for everything.

Positives

  • Nice Feature/Price Balance. Yes, the price is slightly higher than the midrange camera used to be, but the camera's better in most respects, too. The D5100 is a very nice balance of features, performance, and price.
  • Excellent Image Quality. Pixels? Got 'em. Low light capability? Got enough of it. HD Video? Got it. Very little in the image quality realm bothers me. Nikon mostly nailed it.
  • Turns Your Head. That swivel LCD is very practical now.

 


 

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