How well does the Nikon D5100 walk the line between beginner and mid-level enthusiasts? The What Digital Camera Nikon D5100 review finds out…
Nikon D5100 review – Features
The Nikon D5100 has a number of modes and features that Nikon is keen to shout about: First of all it’s got an LCD screen mounted on a bracket for 360 degree
positioning at more unusual angles – an ideal accomplice for videographers looking to use the 1080p Full HD movie mode to best effect.
Secondly is the new Effects mode that opens up seven specific options for immediate in-camera results: Night Vision; Color Sketch; Miniature; Selective Color; Silhouette; High Key and Low Key.
Their appeal is leaned more towards the mass market, where companies such as Olympus have seen some success, though the balance of such ‘fun’ options inside a rather well-specified piece of kit may cause some more serious photographers to question the camera’s main focus.
Fear not, then, that the Nikon D5100 is rather like a head-on collision between the current D7000 and D3100 models. The same 16.2MP APS-C CMOS sensor as found in the D7000 makes its way into the D5100 body alongside the EXPEED 2 image processing engine for top-flight image quality. Metering is taken care of by the same 420-pixel RGB sensor as found in the D3100, where the same 11-point AF system and Li-ion battery are also imported to the D5100’s spec.
But it’s far from copy and paste: The Nikon D5100’s left-side mounted vari-angle LCD screen is certainly a new approach from Nikon, while other features such as live view get a makeover for faster focusing than any other Nikon DSLR. The 1080p movie mode also sees the inclusion of 30/25/24fps adjustable frame rates.
Nikon D5100 review – Movie/Video Mode
With the updated and faster live view update in mind, the Nikon D5100’s 1080p HD movie mode takes an immediate benefit. Focusing is improved, that’s fair to say, though the common over- and under-focusing inherent in many DSLRs’ capture hasn’t been eradicated in full.
While many DSLRs offer fixed focus (i.e. no autofocus at all) or a basic AF-S (single autofocus) option, the D5100 does bolster its movie arsenal with the inclusion of an AF-F (Full Time Servo) focusing option.
This is close to a continuous autofocus mode in some respects and is useful for some situations – but it can’t overcome slight mis-focusing when the camera moves from different focal planes or even from subject to subject.
Where the camera is held very steadily and moved between two stationary and prominent subjects the results can be very good indeed by smoothly and accurately sliding between focus points. The only way there could be a marked improvement in autofocus is for the contrast-detect focus type to see significant work – something Compact System Camera manufacturers are finding an essential to offer a fast, relevant competitive product.
The movie mode is reasonably comprehensive for a camera at this level thanks to the inclusion of a 3.5mm mic jack for external recording and selectable 30/25/24fps capture options – all of which are progressive capture, not the inferior interlaced form.
However there’s no full manual control within the movie mode, as the camera automatically overrides any live shutter or aperture adjustment in the Manual setting. In other priority modes it is possible to use the AE-L (for focus and/or exposure lock) and exposure compensation buttons that both help to enhance control to some degree. It’s even possible to utilise the Effects modes during recording, though the sheer reduction in the preview frame rate on the LCD screen can be rather painful to use to great effect.
Nikon D5100 review – Design
The fundamental difference between the D5100 and any other Nikon DSLR is that the vari-angle screen depends on a left-aligned bracket that renders it impossible for the usual four or five button array featured in other Nikon models to rest in its usual place. The result is more or less for the control buttons to be staggered towards the right hand side, but this does make for a busier layout that will seem less immediate to existing Nikon users – though nothing to worry about for those new to the system.
Unlike the D90, the D5100, as per its D5000 predecessor, has no top LCD panel for reviewing settings. Instead you’ll need to toggle the rear LCD’s display on using the ‘Info’ button and access the Quick Menu using the ‘i’ button. A better naming system could have been employed here to avoid two apparent ‘Info’ buttons in close proximity (though the design and naming is the same as in other Nikon models).
The Quick Menu itself is easy to navigate to change options and includes a short worded prompt to the top of the screen to detail what each mode is for.
When outside of this Quick Menu the d-pad adjusts the single-point AF position (if this mode is selected) to target any of the 11 AF-points. It’s easy to use, but if the rear display isn’t on and the d-pad is knocked then the AF-point can be accidentally adjusted as there’s no lock or visual prompt.
Also lacking is a Depth of Field Preview button to the front of the camera, something competitor models such as the Canon EOS 600D feature.
Nikon D5100 review – Performance
The D5100 is great to use for a variety of tasks. We tested it with the 18-55mm kit, 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 and 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VRII lenses and this was testament to how well the 11-point AF system coped for a variety of situations. Although not a professional body, pop a pro-spec lens on the front and the two team up very well indeed. The continuous autofocus is successful at residing on the single AF point setting for accurate subject focusing. There’s not the same degree of predictive 3D tracking that’s found higher up the range, but we were pleased as punch with the results throughout and the two most horizontally (landscape) set AF points add that extra degree of reach to the system for Wide AF usage too.
Flip into live view mode using the new Lv switch that surrounds the main mode dial and there’s an immediate change: although focusing isn’t nearly as quick as when using the viewfinder, it’s a darn sight quicker than any other Nikon DSLR live view system we’ve ever used. The focusing box can also be positioned anywhere across the entirety of the screen using the d-pad to allocate the focusing position. It’s not faster than Sony’s Quick AF Live View system and doesn’t outdo the likes of Panasonic’s ‘Light Speed’ contrast-detection system as seen in the GH2 – but the D5100 does give a strong push forward here that’s been much needed from Nikon.
The new Effects modes are a bit of a mixed bag. When previewing some of the modes in real time on the LCD screen, such as Color Sketch (that outlines subjects in a posterised, outlined, cartoon-like form – unlikely to be a common use for many serious photographers), the screen lag can become frustrating. While it’s possible to use the viewfinder, there are options such as Selective Color whereby making those pin-point selections to isolate colour will require a live view preview. Miniature mode works well for fake tilt-shift effects and Night Vision (black and white at ISO 102,400) is a unique touch. But the fact an original Raw file cannot be shot in tandem with any of the modes and the overall lack of customisation renders these point-and-shoot options as less impressive then they could be. Certainly not the biggest draw for everyone, yet other companies such as Olympus and Panasonic have shown some success in this area that it seems Nikon wants a piece of.
More advanced modes such as the 4fps continuous shooting option are able to snap away at up to 10 frames when in Raw + JPEG mode (using a Panasonic Class 10 Gold Card). It’s areas like this that the D5100 outshines the likes of the Canon EOS 600D with its smaller buffer and ever so slightly slower 3.7fps burst.
However, where the 600D excels is by offering a built-in wireless commander for controlling external flashguns – Nikon’s D5100 can only do so with the inclusion of the SU-800 commander (sold separately for around £215 or more). Also consider the lack of a Depth of Field Preview button and there are some omissions from Nikon’s offering that would have further strengthened its overall offering for the more demanding user.
Nikon D5100 review – Image Quality
Nikon D5100: Tone & Exposure
Although the D5100 shares the same 16.2MP CMOS sensor as the D7000, it adopts the 420-pixel RGB metering sensor as found in the D3100. We found the combination of these two to be a more successful pairing than the D7000’s 2,016-pixel metering sensor – the latter overexposed in a number of scenarios. The D5100, on the other hand, produces more accurate exposures that are therefore tonally richer. However it wasn’t perfect as some scenes with bright skylines would cause overexposure.
Nikon D5100: Colour & White Balance
Nikon DSLRs can tend to lean towards the warmer red/yellow cast, but not to an overstated degree. With the D5100 the Auto White Balance system was consistent between shots and different ISO settings, though fluorescent studio lights produced an ever so slight yellow cast (easily adjustable using the manual white balance or white balance bracketing settings).
Nikon D5100: ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
The D5100’s 16.2MP sensor is the very same as that in the D7000 and, as such, we found our studio lab shots to carry the same degree of image noise. In short: image quality is very impressive for this mid-level market.
Image noise lacks throughout much of the ISO range and there’s a clarity to images from ISO 100-800 that causes very little quality issues. Shooting at ISO 800 in daylight in order to up the shutter to 1/2000thsec for crisp action shots posed no worry in the knowledge that results would be top drawer.
ISO 800 does begin to show some grain, but it’s not particularly diminishing to overall quality. Even ISO 1600-3200 are of considerable use, though this is where colour noise and softness due to processing start to come into play. ISO 6400 is still more than useable, although at a push as colour noise reveals itself more in the shadow areas. The top-sensitivity ‘Hi1′ and ‘Hi2′ options (ISO 12,800 and 25,600 respectively) should be strictly used for emergencies only as softness through noise reduction can be problematic – but their presence is something that would have been unheard of in DSLR cameras a few years ago. The ‘Hi2′ setting in particular loses the quality to blacks where colour noise is significant.
The Night Vision mode also utilises a black and white only ISO 102,400 shot that’s rather impressive, with a granular quality adding a certain aesthetic.
Nikon D5100: Sharpness & Detail
The 16.2MP sensor avoids being overly populated and images remain detailed. The 18-55mm lens isn’t going to set the world alight in terms of sharpness, but its good enough as a starting point, plus there are so many other Nikon F-mount options out there that can deliver exceptional results.
Resolved detail on our resolution charts was very impressive indeed, even utilising the basic kit lens. Only above ISO 800 is there some breakdown in detail due to image noise.
Value & Verdict
Nikon D5100 review – Value
With a £780 launch price, the D5100’s basic kit lens option is pitched squarely at taking on the Canon EOS 600D. The two models are very similar in specification, with particular focus on each of the vari-angle screens and 1080p HD movie modes. However Nikon seems to be playing the more user-accessible and ‘fun’ hand due to its Effects modes. The 600D on the other hand does offer a wireless flash commander built into the body which may appeal to those more advanced users, plus the 1040k-dot LCD is the current highest resolution 3in LCD on the market. On the flip side though the Nikon D5100 does offer a wider 11-point AF system, faster live view and a larger-buffer-capacity 4fps burst rate for a similar price. Picking between the two will depend on exactly which feature is most vital to you – but there’s no doubting the extremely competitive head-to-head pricing.
Nikon D5100 review – Verdict
The D5100 succeeds in delivering top image quality from an affordable mid-level body, married with ease of use and a series of improvements over other Nikon DSLR cameras. Nikon D7000-like quality for less cash and a more advanced live view focusing mode than seen before from the brand are big plus points, as is the high quality movie mode.
It’s tricky to pick holes as to where the camera comes up short, but it’s in what’s missing that more advanced users may feel let down: no remote commander in the body holds the camera just shy of its full potential; no Depth of Field Preview button and an LCD screen that doesn’t top the competition are all relatively minor quibbles depending on what’s most important to your photography. The Effects modes certainly have a place, but they’re not entirely unique and lack a fully-adjustable series of options that would set them apart from the competition.
As a D5000 upgrade the D5100 is on the money – just don’t misplace it as a D90 replacement as that it isn’t.
All in all the D5100 is well-priced, strongly-specified and decent performing bit of kit that delivers great quality pictures.