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Box Photo

The Nikon D5100 comes packaged with:

  • EN-EL14 Rechargeable Li-ion Battery
  • MH-24 Quick Charger
  • DK-20 Rubber Eyecup;
  • UC-E6 USB Cable
  • EG-CP14 Audio Video Cable
  • AN-DC3 Camera Strap
  • DK-5 Eyepiece Cap
  • BF-1B Body Cap
  • BS-1 Accessory Shoe Cover
  • Nikon ViewNX 2 CD-ROM

The Nikon D5100 makes use of the same bayonet Nikon F mount that Nikon has been employing, in one for or another, for decades. Like most entry-level Nikons from the last few years, the major factor limiting lens selection is not the mount, but the lack of a drive motor for autofocus. There are dozens of Nikon lenses that will mount successfully on the D5100, but many will not autofocus or meter properly. AF-S and AF-I lenses will work fine, AF-P lenses will not be able to use 3D Matrix Metering II, non-CPU lenses will not meter at all, and type G and D AF lenses will not autofocus on the D5100.

Lens Mount Photo

Classic Pentax lenses can be mounted with readily available adapters.

The D5100’s 16.2-megapixel sensor has been rumored to be the same as the D7000, and all our testing bears out that conclusion. This Sony-designed APS-C image sensor is among the best we have tested for a camera of this type, and it makes the D5100 an incredibly compelling purchase at a price point under $1000, combining superb color accuracy with great low light results.

Convergence areas of different sensor sizes compared

There are always a ton of considerations that come into play when comparing cameras, and a sensor is merely one of them. That being said, the D5100 benefits greatly from having what plenty of people are calling the best APS-C sensor to hit the market yet. Sure, it will certainly be beaten out in the next year or two, but getting this kind of image performance out of a camera that costs less than $1000 certainly demands attention.

There are few surprises with the viewfinder on the D5100, as it is a fairly typical eye-level pentamirror viewfinder, with 95% coverage and a 0.78x magnification. It’s got a very comfortable rubber eyecup and is pleasant to shoot with. The main drawback of the viewfinder is its relatively limited diopter adjustment range of -1.7 to +0.7 m1, but Nikon sells nine different adjusters that can be used in place of the stock eyepiece.

When quickly listing the difference between the D5100 and the previous D5000, the LCD is top of the list. While the D5000 featured an articulating LCD, it swung away from the body vertically, interfering with most tripod designs. The D5100 remedies this by borrowing inspiration from the Canon 60D/T3i and having the LCD swing to the side of the body. This not only prevents the screen from hitting the tripod, it also allows the screen to face forward, toward the subject.

The display itself is a 3-inch LCD display with a 921k-dot resolution. With the screen’s ability to swing away from the body, the screen’s 170-degree angle of view really allows users to get a shot from just about any angle. This is especially a boon to the camera’s video functionality, as it allows framing from some rather extreme angles.

Whether clicking the LCD into the body or into its fully-out position, the screen clicks confidently into place. The hinge does not feel cheap or loose in any way. There are tabs on the top and bottom of the LCD to provide a finger-hold for when drawing the screen away from the body.

The D5100 features a built-in flash with a guide number of 39 feet, or 12 meters. This can be extended somewhat with the manual flash. The D5100 has a flash sync speed of just 1/200s, same as the D5000 and D90, but slightly slower than the D7000.

The D5100 allows for the flash to fire in front-curtain, rear-curtain, red-eye reduction, slow sync, and red-eye reduction with slow sync modes. There is also a flash compensation setting of -3 to +1 EV, which can be altered in either 1/3 or 1/2 stops.

Flash Photo

The flash emitter pops up from the top of the body via a mechanical release.

The D5100 sports a variety of inputs and outputs on its body. For videographers, the D5100 has both an HDMI output and 3.5mm stereo mic input, though it cannot output HDMI video while recording 1080/30p or 1080/25p video. It also features a GPS input and a combined AV/USB port, using a proprietary connection. These are all hidden behind a thicker rubber flap than on previous SLRs, which satisfyingly clicks into place, out of the way of the articulating LCD.

The Nikon D5100 uses the EN-EL14 battery from Nikon, with a CIPA rating of approximately 660 shots. This is the same battery as the lower-end D3100, though it was only rated for 550 shots on that camera. There does not seem to be any plans for a first-party battery grip—holding with recent Nikon tradition for consumer-level DSLRs—though we would assume the market will correct this eventually.

Battery Photo

The D5100 can make use of SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards, with a single memory card slot on the right side of the body. There is little special here, as this is the same configuration used on just about all of Nikon’s non-CF consumer-level bodies for the past few years.

Memory Photo

The K2000 accepts inexpensive, easy to find SD cards.

Media Photo

We found the D5100, with the 18-55mm kit lens, to produce fairly sharp images. It lagged slightly behind the 18-135mm lens we tested on the D7000, but was generally good across the zoom range. It was sharpest around apertures from f/8-14, and particularly soft at the smallest apertures. These are fairly typical results for a kit lens, and we’d recommend definitely upgrading to a better lens if you want to get the most out of this camera. More on how we test sharpness.

As with other Nikon DSLRs, the D5100 does not feature any optical stabilization in the body. Instead, Nikon uses its Vibration Reduction technology in some of its lenses, including the 18-55mm kit lens available with the D5100. VR works by altering the position of a lens element in order to counteract any camera shake.

The Nikon D5100 inherits the same 16.2-megapixel image sensor as the D7000, improving on the superb color accuracy results that we saw in that camera’s tests. This gives the D5100 the best color results we have seen from an APS-C camera so far, especially those under $1000. More on how we test color.

In our test, we found that the D5100 produced the least amount of color error in the neutral picture style, with a color error of just 2.18 and a very accurate 103.6% saturation value.

NOTE: Because of the way computer monitors reproduce colors, the images above do not exactly match the originals found on the chart or in the captured images. The chart should be used to judge the relative color shift, not the absolute captured colors.

Even compared to the Pentax K-5 and Nikon D7000, which share the same sensor, the D5100 came out top in this group. It was substantially superior to the Canon T3i, and was even better than the Canon 60D. This sensor has already been lauded as perhaps the best APS-C sensor the market has seen yet, and the D5100 (with the D7000 and K-5 just behind, to be fair) lived up to that praise in this test.

The Nikon D5100 provides six color modes to choose from: neutral, standard, vivid, monochrome, landscape, and portrait. Each applies a default amount of correction to the image, with the user able to make subtle changes in the menu from there. We found the neutral mode to be the most accurate, as explained above. The D5100 was only slightly less accurate in the standard and portrait modes, favoring slightly more vibrant colors. As expected, the landscape and vivid modes were much less accurate, as both modes oversaturate by quite a bit to produce more compelling images.

The white balance settings on the D5100 are available in both the quick menu and the full menu, with the ability to set a new custom white balance only available through the full menu. There are no savable custom white balance presets, but the camera does come with many standard ones. The camera’s auto mode was generally pretty accurate, though it had trouble re-metering accurately when changing light sources.

Automatic White Balance ()

The D5100, like other consumer-level cameras, doesn’t provide the easiest method of setting a custom white balance. Many users will rely then on the automatic settings with the camera. While there are quite a few automatic preset white balance settings, we tested the plain old automatic mode and found it to be generally accurate, but struggling under incandescent light.

We found the automatic white balance setting to be fairly accurate in daylight, though it can occasionally produce a harsh blue color cast. We found the easiest way to correct this was just to turn the camera completely off and then back on, then re-meter the scene. In general, the D5100’s automatic white balance produced shots with a very low color error (under 2) and a color temperature error of just 143 kelvin.

The automatic setting did not handle incandescent light well, although this light type gives just about every camera trouble. We found the D5100 managed an average color temperature error of 1745 kelvin under incandescent light when using the automatic setting. This is far worse than the other lighting conditions we tested, but well within the norm for even cameras of this type.

While the camera provides a boatload of fluorescent presets to choose from, though we can’t imagine why when the normal automatic mode did so well. Using just auto white balance, we found an average color temperature error of just 97.67 kelvin in compact white fluorescent light. This was exceptionally accurate, and actually better than the camera managed under the same conditions with a custom white balance setting.

Custom White Balance ()

The D5100 produced more accurate results with a custom setting in every lighting condition except compact white fluorescent, where the camera produced a relatively large error of 269 kelvin. Under tungsten light the custom setting was just 152 kelvin off, and it was 111 kelvin off under daytime lighting conditions. Setting a custom white balance does involve actually going into the camera’s menu, which can be a bit of a hassle, but the automatic should suffice for most people in most lighting conditions.

At the level of cameras we are comparing the D5100 with, it’s no surprise that all our comparison group cameras performed well. The D5100 and D7000 were about average, falling just behind the Sony A55V and Canon T3i, but coming in ahead of the Pentax K-5.

There are quite a few preset white balance modes on the D5100: incandescent, fluorescent, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, and shade. The fluorescent setting also has seven different variations to choose from, depending on what type of fluorescents are being used, from sodium-vapor lamps to high temperature mercury-vapor. Each automatic white balance setting can even be tuned to almost any degree, if you find your particular setup shades to one color or another.

In our long exposure testing, we found that the Nikon D5100 produced slightly less accurate colors in longer exposures, though it did have a tougher time getting a correct custom white balance under the much lower lighting conditions (20 lux in this test versus 3000 lux in our bright light color test). In general, we found that the longer the shutter speed, the more accurate the colors ultimately were. More on how we test long exposure.

The D5100 produced an uncorrected color error of around 3.5 in long exposure testing, regardless of whether noise reduction was on or off. The colors were slightly more accurate in 30 second exposures compared to those of just one second, but by less than 10 percent.

Just as in our bright light testing, there was very little in the way of noise present in our long exposure color testing. We found no more than 0.76% noise, even in exposures as long as 30 seconds with an ambient temperature of 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Noise was most apparent in the red channel, but was low enough that it was hardly an issue. Long exposure noise reduction did not seem to have that great of an effect in our testing, but it might have at higher ISO values.

The D5100 was beat out only by the D7000 here, with a score of 11.66 against 11.96. The score difference is negligible, though, and both cameras beat the rest of the comparison group by a solid margin. The T3i did show a fairly large improvement here over the T2i, but not by enough to match the Nikon models.

With the D5100, users can select from noise reduction levels of low, normal, and high, or turn the feature off altogether. There is also a long exposure noise reduction feature, but we found it ineffective and do not count it here. We found that Nikon has been able to reduce the total amount of noise produced by this particular sensor compared to the D7000, even with noise reduction turned off.

Surprisingly, we found the D5100 had even better noise performance than the D7000, which shares the same excellent Sony sensor. Nikon has managed to reduce the noise overall, while also being more aggressive with its noise reduction. We found slightly higher luma noise than color noise, but it only crossed the 2% mark at ISO 6400, and is not a distraction at lower ISOs speeds.

Even taking noise reduction out of the equation, we found that the D5100 improved the sensor’s noise performance slightly overall compared to the D7000.

With noise reduction dialed all the way up, we found the Nikon D5100 did very well in suppressing both channel and luminance noise, with both kept under 1% all the way up to ISO 6400. The effect of using this much noise reduction is a loss of some super-fine detail, but if you’re shooting in low light, it’s a nice extra to have in your camera’s back pocket. More on how we test noise.

Nikon has pushed this sensor just about to the brink with the D5100, with an ISO range that extends to 25600 when using the HI 2 setting. The D5100 actually pushes beyond even that speed with its night shooting mode. In that mode the D5100 will shoot a monochrome image with an ISO speed of 102400. With noise already creeping up around 2% at ISO 6400, any setting beyond that speed is mostly there just for emergencies.


The Nikon D5100 preserved dynamic range very well across the ISO range, with a maximum of 8.4 stops at ISO 100, only falling to 4.65 stops at ISO 6400. This are superb results, as the Canon T3i, for example, fell to 2.48 stops at the same sensitivity. More on how we test dynamic range.

We tested without utilizing any of Nikon’s D-range optimization or D-lighting features, though generally found they merely shifted exposure to better preserve detail in the darker parts of images, losing some from the highlighted areas.

With three other cameras in this comparison group that share the same image sensor, we expected to see similar results. Instead, we found that the D7000, Pentax K-5, and Sony A55 all performed with slight variations, depending on how they processed images. The Pentax preserved dynamic range very well, maintaining around three stops through ISO 51200. The Sony A55 and Nikon D7000 both performed well, but lagged behind the D5100 at both the high and low end overall.

The D5100 took home the top score for this section of our test, as it was able to preserve the most range of any of our comparison groups at both low sensitivity (ISO 100) and high sensitivity (ISO 6400). The Pentax K-5 and Sony A55 both offer higher ISO speeds without resorting to extended ISO options, but these do not preserve the same level of detail as the Nikon D5100.

With the D5100, users can select from noise reduction levels of low, normal, and high, or turn the feature off altogether. There is also a long exposure noise reduction feature, but we found it ineffective and do not count it here. We found that Nikon has been able to reduce the total amount of noise produced by this particular sensor compared to the D7000, even with noise reduction turned off.

Surprisingly, we found the D5100 had even better noise performance than the D7000, which shares the same excellent Sony sensor. Nikon has managed to reduce the noise overall, while also being more aggressive with its noise reduction. We found slightly higher luma noise than color noise, but it only crossed the 2% mark at ISO 6400, and is not a distraction at lower ISOs speeds.

Even taking noise reduction out of the equation, we found that the D5100 improved the sensor’s noise performance slightly overall compared to the D7000.

With noise reduction dialed all the way up, we found the Nikon D5100 did very well in suppressing both channel and luminance noise, with both kept under 1% all the way up to ISO 6400. The effect of using this much noise reduction is a loss of some super-fine detail, but if you’re shooting in low light, it’s a nice extra to have in your camera’s back pocket. More on how we test noise.

Nikon has pushed this sensor just about to the brink with the D5100, with an ISO range that extends to 25600 when using the HI 2 setting. The D5100 actually pushes beyond even that speed with its night shooting mode. In that mode the D5100 will shoot a monochrome image with an ISO speed of 102400. With noise already creeping up around 2% at ISO 6400, any setting beyond that speed is mostly there just for emergencies.

The D5100 does trail its big brother, the D7000, in one key area for Nikon enthusiasts: the lack of an internal focus motor. As a result, the D5100 will have to make use of AF-I or AF-S lenses if users wish to take advantage of autofocus. Nikon has continued this trend with their entry-level cameras since the D40, and it looks to continue. The lack of a motor helps reduce weight, of course, but it does limit the number of fully-functional Nikkor lenses available. When an AF-S lens is attached, however, the focus is quite snappy, with full-time autofocus during video recording a welcome addition from older models.

The D5100 allows users to select from a number of focus area settings. There are options for single-point autofocus, dynamic-area autofocus, 3D-tracking using all 11 AF points, and auto-area AF. Single point focuses on one point in the frame, while dynamic area will use information surrounding that point should the subject leave that era. 3D tracking will actually choose a new focus point should the subject move, and auto area chooses an area where the camera believes the subject is. When in live view, these options are limited to face-priority AF, wide-area AF, subject tracking, and normal-area AF.

In our long exposure testing, we found that the Nikon D5100 produced slightly less accurate colors in longer exposures, though it did have a tougher time getting a correct custom white balance under the much lower lighting conditions (20 lux in this test versus 3000 lux in our bright light color test). In general, we found that the longer the shutter speed, the more accurate the colors ultimately were. More on how we test long exposure.

The D5100 produced an uncorrected color error of around 3.5 in long exposure testing, regardless of whether noise reduction was on or off. The colors were slightly more accurate in 30 second exposures compared to those of just one second, but by less than 10 percent.

Just as in our bright light testing, there was very little in the way of noise present in our long exposure color testing. We found no more than 0.76% noise, even in exposures as long as 30 seconds with an ambient temperature of 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Noise was most apparent in the red channel, but was low enough that it was hardly an issue. Long exposure noise reduction did not seem to have that great of an effect in our testing, but it might have at higher ISO values.

The D5100 was beat out only by the D7000 here, with a score of 11.66 against 11.96. The score difference is negligible, though, and both cameras beat the rest of the comparison group by a solid margin. The T3i did show a fairly large improvement here over the T2i, but not by enough to match the Nikon models.

We found the Nikon D5100 was able to gather a 50 IRE image with just five lux of available light. This is the least amount of light required, tying the Sony A55V. It was less than half the light required by the Nikon D7000, though the resulting image was far noisier.

We found minimal chromatic aberration with the 18-55mm kit lens. The most egregious examples seemed to be moderate blue fringing in high-contrast scenes. Again, a better lens will largely reduce this effect, and it only shows up in extreme examples, generally near the edge of the lens.

The 18-55mm kit lens was sharpest at the wide angle when its aperture was stopped down between f/8-11. We found it sharpest in the center, with some fairly significant falloff in contrast as you approach the edge of the lens.

We found little distortion overall, but it was most noticeable at the extreme ends of the zoom range.

There wasn’t much in the way of compression artifacts or signal interference with the motion video on the D5100. We did notice a bit of rolling shutter when the camera is being panned, but not as much as previous-era DSLRs. The motion rendering was generally good overall, though perhaps lagging slightly behind the Canon T3i. More on how CamcorderInfo tests motion.

As you can see, the shallow depth of field of the D5100, even at an aperture of f/8, does keep a good chunk of our motion rig out of focus. Motion otherwise is rendered fairly accurately, with little signal interference. There is some ghosting and trailing, and the lack of shutter speed control is an unnecessary hassle, but otherwise motion is quite nice, as it is on all the cameras with this sensor.

We found the Sony A55V to offer superior video quality across the board compared to the D5100. It had better color accuracy, with more attractive motion rendering. Neither camera really had much of an issue with artifacting out of the camera, and there was only minor color bleeding and trailing.

The D5100 didn't offer much in the way of an improvement over the D7000's video in our eyes, as they share the same sensor. The D5100 does offer 1080/30p, as opposed to 1080/24p on the D7000, and it makes a slight difference, as the train seems to suffer less from trailing on the newer Nikon.

The Canon T3i and D5100 both produced good video results, but lagged behind the Sony A55V for quality. The Canon had slightly more accurate colors, while the Nikon favored underexposure, even in bright light testing.

Sharpness is good overall with the D5100, about on par with what we have seen from other similar D-SLRs. There’s about 600-650 lw/ph of resolution both vertically and horizontally. This doesn’t match high-end video cameras, but sharpness does extend a bit higher when shooting a subjects that are moving less. More on how CamcorderInfo tests video sharpness.

We found the Nikon D5100 was able to gather a 50 IRE image with just five lux of available light. This is the least amount of light required, tying the Sony A55V. It was less than half the light required by the Nikon D7000, though the resulting image was far noisier.

With an LCD screen that now swivels out to the side of the body, Nikon has had to redesign the button layout to accommodate the necessary hinge. As a result things have been moved about a bit, with the playback, zoom in/out, and menu button moved to the right side of the camera back. Live view is now activated with a lever on the mode dial, and the redesign now puts most controls conveniently within a thumb’s reach.

The Nikon D5100 includes a picture effects setting right on the mode dial. Effects are chosen by rotating the thumb dial, as an on-screen graphic shows the various effects available. If in live view mode, the D5100 will process the effect even when not recording, though this produces an obvious hitch in the screen’s responsiveness as the processor is taxed.

The effects are fairly standard, but work even in 1080/30p recording, allowing for some very simple, creative opportunities for users. We had the most fun with the miniature effects mode for videos, but there are also effects for easy silhouettes, night vision, high and low key, as well as a color sketch mode.

Within each picture style, users are able to make subtle changes that enhance or reduce sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation, and hue. These settings can then be saved for later use from within the menu.

There are several picture filters that can be applied through the retouch menu on the Nikon D5100: skylight, warm filter, red intensifier, green intensifier, blue intensifier, cross screen, and soft. Each filter is applied and a new image is saved, preserving the original. Each can also be adjusted for intensity, with a preview of the effect shown before application.

The menu on the D5100 is divided into several sections, with separate screens for playback, shooting, custom, system, and retouch settings. This does place some settings off screen, so you occasionally have to dig to find what you’re looking for. The first option in most of the menu sections resets everything to default. It’s a beginner-friendly touch and a clear sign that the menu is designed to encourage users to experiment without feeling like they may change something and forget how to turn it off.

The D5100 comes packaged with a fairly standard owner’s manual that runs through the settings of the cameras, touching on a few more advanced items. There isn’t much in the way of general photography tips or other learning material provided, but Nikon does sell their Nikon School DVDs separately that are generally camera-specific and fairly informative.

If you’ve held a D5000, D3100, or D3000 from Nikon, then you’ve basically held the Nikon D5100. The weight is slightly different, and the improved hinge for the LCD screen definitely provides more balance to the back of the camera, but it’s largely the same design. The camera is just small enough to feel compact compared to a larger prosumer DSLR, but big enough to feel very substantial when shooting by hand.

Handling Photo 1
Handling Photo 2
Handling Photo 3

With an LCD screen that now swivels out to the side of the body, Nikon has had to redesign the button layout to accommodate the necessary hinge. As a result things have been moved about a bit, with the playback, zoom in/out, and menu button moved to the right side of the camera back. Live view is now activated with a lever on the mode dial, and the redesign now puts most controls conveniently within a thumb’s reach.

Buttons Photo 1
Buttons Photo 2

When quickly listing the difference between the D5100 and the previous D5000, the LCD is top of the list. While the D5000 featured an articulating LCD, it swung away from the body vertically, interfering with most tripod designs. The D5100 remedies this by borrowing inspiration from the Canon 60D/T3i and having the LCD swing to the side of the body. This not only prevents the screen from hitting the tripod, it also allows the screen to face forward, toward the subject.

The display itself is a 3-inch LCD display with a 921k-dot resolution. With the screen’s ability to swing away from the body, the screen’s 170-degree angle of view really allows users to get a shot from just about any angle. This is especially a boon to the camera’s video functionality, as it allows framing from some rather extreme angles.

Whether clicking the LCD into the body or into its fully-out position, the screen clicks confidently into place. The hinge does not feel cheap or loose in any way. There are tabs on the top and bottom of the LCD to provide a finger-hold for when drawing the screen away from the body.

There are few surprises with the viewfinder on the D5100, as it is a fairly typical eye-level pentamirror viewfinder, with 95% coverage and a 0.78x magnification. It’s got a very comfortable rubber eyecup and is pleasant to shoot with. The main drawback of the viewfinder is its relatively limited diopter adjustment range of -1.7 to +0.7 m1, but Nikon sells nine different adjusters that can be used in place of the stock eyepiece.

As with other Nikon DSLRs, the D5100 does not feature any optical stabilization in the body. Instead, Nikon uses its Vibration Reduction technology in some of its lenses, including the 18-55mm kit lens available with the D5100. VR works by altering the position of a lens element in order to counteract any camera shake.

There are 13 shooting modes on the dial of the D5100, with many of the usual suspects: manual, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, program auto, full auto, auto without flash, scene, portrait, landscape, kids and pets, sports, macro, and the new effects mode. The effects mode is the most interesting, as it allows easy access to a number of picture effects explained below.

The D5100 does trail its big brother, the D7000, in one key area for Nikon enthusiasts: the lack of an internal focus motor. As a result, the D5100 will have to make use of AF-I or AF-S lenses if users wish to take advantage of autofocus. Nikon has continued this trend with their entry-level cameras since the D40, and it looks to continue. The lack of a motor helps reduce weight, of course, but it does limit the number of fully-functional Nikkor lenses available. When an AF-S lens is attached, however, the focus is quite snappy, with full-time autofocus during video recording a welcome addition from older models.

The D5100 allows users to select from a number of focus area settings. There are options for single-point autofocus, dynamic-area autofocus, 3D-tracking using all 11 AF points, and auto-area AF. Single point focuses on one point in the frame, while dynamic area will use information surrounding that point should the subject leave that era. 3D tracking will actually choose a new focus point should the subject move, and auto area chooses an area where the camera believes the subject is. When in live view, these options are limited to face-priority AF, wide-area AF, subject tracking, and normal-area AF.

The D5100 features many quality and size options, topping out at its maximum of 16.2 megapixels. The camera has three JPEG quality settings (fine, normal, and basic) as well as the ability to record in NEF RAW image files. Those can be converted through a number of programs, or with the included software. One thing to especially note: whenever the shooting settings are reset to default, the JPEG quality will be reduced from fine to normal, which can impact picture quality.

The D5100 features a hardware auto reset function that will allow users to quickly set all the camera’s shooting settings back to default. This is accomplished by holding down the information button and menu buttons down for about two seconds. This does not affect any changes made in the custom settings menu, just shooting settings.

The D5100 has a shutter speed range of 30 seconds up to 1/4000 second, in 1/3 EV stops. There is also a bulb mode that can be activated when in manual shooting mode. When in manual mode the rear control dial controls shutter speed. In order to adjust aperture, users must hold down the exposure compensation button while turning the wheel.

There are several drive modes available on the Nikon D5100. The default mode is a single release, with options for continuous shooting, quick response remote, quiet shutter release, and a self-timer. The quiet shutter release reduces some of the shutter noise, but still leaves an audible click when the release is pressed.

The D5100 shoots full-resolution still images at up to four frames per second, right in line with Nikon’s claims about the camera. This puts it just above the Canon T3i, though slower than the heavier and more expensive D7000 and Pentax K-5 models.

The D5100 has a variety of self-timer modes, with options that incorporate a two, five, ten, or twenty second delay, as well as the ability for up to 9 shots to be fired off when the initial timer is up. If you need to shoot multiple shots with a set interval between them, that option is also available through the menu, allowing for up to 999 shots taken at an interval as large as 24 hours between shots. So if you’d like to do a timelapse of one shot per day for almost three years, the D5100 can do that with one menu setting. This is an especially good setting to have, as once the self-timer is activated and the shots taken, the camera reverts to whatever previous drive setting it was in.

The D5100 does trail its big brother, the D7000, in one key area for Nikon enthusiasts: the lack of an internal focus motor. As a result, the D5100 will have to make use of AF-I or AF-S lenses if users wish to take advantage of autofocus. Nikon has continued this trend with their entry-level cameras since the D40, and it looks to continue. The lack of a motor helps reduce weight, of course, but it does limit the number of fully-functional Nikkor lenses available. When an AF-S lens is attached, however, the focus is quite snappy, with full-time autofocus during video recording a welcome addition from older models.

The D5100 allows users to select from a number of focus area settings. There are options for single-point autofocus, dynamic-area autofocus, 3D-tracking using all 11 AF points, and auto-area AF. Single point focuses on one point in the frame, while dynamic area will use information surrounding that point should the subject leave that era. 3D tracking will actually choose a new focus point should the subject move, and auto area chooses an area where the camera believes the subject is. When in live view, these options are limited to face-priority AF, wide-area AF, subject tracking, and normal-area AF.

The Nikon D5100 includes a picture effects setting right on the mode dial. Effects are chosen by rotating the thumb dial, as an on-screen graphic shows the various effects available. If in live view mode, the D5100 will process the effect even when not recording, though this produces an obvious hitch in the screen’s responsiveness as the processor is taxed.

The effects are fairly standard, but work even in 1080/30p recording, allowing for some very simple, creative opportunities for users. We had the most fun with the miniature effects mode for videos, but there are also effects for easy silhouettes, night vision, high and low key, as well as a color sketch mode.

Within each picture style, users are able to make subtle changes that enhance or reduce sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation, and hue. These settings can then be saved for later use from within the menu.

There are several picture filters that can be applied through the retouch menu on the Nikon D5100: skylight, warm filter, red intensifier, green intensifier, blue intensifier, cross screen, and soft. Each filter is applied and a new image is saved, preserving the original. Each can also be adjusted for intensity, with a preview of the effect shown before application.

The D5100 is also compatible with the GP-1 GPS unit from Nikon, as well as Eye-Fi SD/SDHC memory cards. The GP-1 attaches to either the hotshoe or to the neck strap and tags each image with with information on timing, latitude, longitude, altitude, and general attitude towards life (just kidding).

The D5100 can shoot full HD 1080/30p, with options for both 25p and 24p, using the H.264 compression in a .MOV container. Depending on the quality mode selected, it will record at either 18 or 10 Mbps at full HD, though it can record as 424/25p at as little as 2 Mbps. Regardless of which resolution is selected, the maximum clip time is 4GB or 20 minutes. Find out how the performed in our video image quality test./r:link_to_content

The D5100 doesn’t provide a terrible amount of controls for video recording in live view. Aperture must be set prior to activating live view, while shutter speed and ISO are adjusted automatically. The camera does allow for exposure compensation in video recording, but only at a range of +/- 3 EV and only in the program, manual, priority, and night vision modes. Also: aperture can be adjusted while recording if using a Nikkor perspective control lens.

Auto Controls

In every shooting mode except manual, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, program auto, and night vision, the camera automatically adjusts exposure and ISO speed for the user. The D5100 will also use matrix metering, regardless of what metering mode is selected prior to entering video recording. Autofocus is also available while recording video, as outlined below.

Zoom

The Nikon D5100, being a DSLR, relies on its lenses to provide zoom range, which are turned manually using the independent zoom ring on the lens to cut down the angle of view and bring subjects closer.

Focus

The D5100 features full-time autofocus during video recording. It works, but the because it is a contrast detection focus system, it has to actually overshoot the correct focus point so that focus can be achieved. Generally, the system is slow, especially when shooting with a shallow depth of field, with the motor working in fits and starts until it achieves focus. The aperture can be stopped down to help make focus more forgiving, but must be done prior to entering live view to record.

Exposure Controls

When you enter live view and begin recording video on the D5100, aperture control is locked in. There is no direct control over shutter speed, regardless of what mode or setting the camera was at when recording began. There is some measure of control over shutter speed via exposure compensation, but it is limited to +/- 3EV and only available in certain modes.

Other Controls

There is no direct ISO control during video recording. There is an exposure compensation option available when recording in manual, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, program, and night vision, but with a maximum range of +/- 3EV and no direct control over ISO (though night vision employs an ISO of 102,000 for a black-and-white grainy image).

The D5100 has a built-in monaural microphone, with a 3.5mm stereo microphone input located on the side of the camera. The D5100 has the option to set three levels of microphone sensitivity, or to turn the audio off entirely.

Mic Photo

In many ways the Nikon D5100 is what the Nikon D5000 should have been: an evolution of the D90, made lighter and cheaper, with video recording capabilities that stretch beyond gimmickry. While the D7000 is more closely the direct replacement for the D90, the D5100 offers the same image sensor, with improved full-time live view autofocus, and a flip out LCD that improves greatly on the design of the D5000's screen. Altogether, the D5100 is arguably the best sub-$1000 DSLR we have tested yet.

Performance

In the last two years, this Sony-designed image sensor has been seen in multiple cameras from Pentax, Sony, and Nikon. It's a 16.2-megapixel powerhouse that has been retooled since Nikon used it in their D7000 model. The result is a camera that can now shoot 1080/30p, with better still image color accuracy than just about any other DSLR we have tested. The biggest addition may just be in the dynamic range department, however, as the D5100 outpointed the prosumer competition we pitted it against.

Video Performance

We found the D5100 to produce videos that were very reminiscent of the D7000. There was little artifacting or signal interference visible, though there was a higher noise percentage than we are used to seeing from DSLRs videos. There is still some issues with motion trailing and ghosting, but Nikon has also reduced the rolling shutter effect that plagued their earlier video-capable DSLRs like the D90 and D5000.

Components

Nikon has continued their trend of omitting the autofocus motor in their entry-level models with the D5100. That means you'll be limited to using AF-S or AF-I Nikkor lenses, should you want to take advantage of autofocus. This isn't a deal-breaker, as there are plenty of options still available. The D5100 also utilizes mostly plastic for the body and internals, resulting in a lightweight but less durable camera. Whether these moves are really done to save weight and cost—rather than simply a bit of clever SKU differentiation—we can't say. We can say that the D5100 feels well-built, though we wouldn't recommend taking it into a warzone.

Handling:

The design changes in the D5100 came at a great benefit to how the camera handles compared to the D5000. The move from buttons on the left side of the LCD to elsewhere on the body has been a positive, as is the inclusion of a live view lever around the mode dial. The camera has a fair amount of heft, offering good stability without feeling overly weighty. The grip has only been altered somewhat from the D3100, with a slightly tapered top that better guides the index finger to the shutter release.

Controls:

The D5100 is decidedly an entry-level camera. Unlike the D7000, it lacks a great deal of customization options. However, it still has a full suite of manual controls to go along with its new "Effects" mode. There is really only one programmable function button, but it has limited utility. It's an easy camera to get the hang of, and its combination of creative modes and manual control will appeal to a wide range of users, from entry-level to prosumer on a budget.

Meet the testers

TJ Donegan

TJ Donegan

Executive Editor

@TJDonegan

TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.

See all of TJ Donegan's reviews
TJ Donegan

TJ Donegan

Executive Editor

@TJDonegan

TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.

See all of TJ Donegan's reviews

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