The Nikon D5100 is one formidable camera. With full-time autofocus during live view and video recording, the same 16.2-megapixel image sensor as the Sony A55V, the Nikon D7000, and the Pentax K-5, and a host of creative new image effects, this is a camera that, quite simply, blows past most of the sub-$1000 competition. Sprinkle in some fine image quality and you're on a roll.
The D5100 lacks the internal focusing motor of the D7000/D90-level of Nikon cameras, but the articulating LCD is a great addition.
If you’ve held Nikon's D5000, D3100, or D3000, 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 D5100 is just small enough to feel compact compared to a larger prosumer DSLR, but just big enough to feel substantial when shooting by hand.
As for layout, with an LCD screen that now swivels out to the side of the body, Nikon has had to redesign the button format to accommodate the hinge. As a result, the playback, zoom in/out, and menu button moved to the right side of the camera back, unlike the usual layout. Live view is now activated with a lever on the mode dial, and the redesign puts most controls conveniently within a thumb’s reach.
The D5100 features a speedy shutter, as well as some neat extras to fiddle with on a rainy day.
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 in manual shooting mode. In manual mode, the rear control dial controls shutter speed, and in order to adjust aperture, users must hold down the exposure compensation button while turning the wheel.
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.
A picture effects setting sits right on the mode dial. Effects are chosen by rotating the thumb dial while an on-screen graphic displays the various effects. If in live view mode, the D5100 will process the effect even when it is not recording, though this produces an obvious hitch in the screen’s responsiveness as the processor is taxed.
The D5100 performs at a much higher level than its price point would suggest.
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 shoot 1080/30p, with better still image color accuracy than just about any other DSLR we've tested. The biggest addition may just be in the dynamic range department, though, as the D5100 outpointed much of its competition.
With its 18-55mm kit lens, the D5100 produced fairly sharp images. It lagged slightly behind the 18-135mm lens that we tested on the D7000, but the 18-55mm was generally reliable across the zoom range. Next, the D5100 has the best color results we have seen from an APS-C camera so far, especially those under $1000. Even compared to the Pentax K-5 and the Nikon D7000, which share the same sensor, the D5100 came out on top.
Moreover, we even found that the D5100 had better noise performance than the D7000, despite the sensor the two models share in common. Nikon has managed to reduce the noise overall, while also being more aggressive with its noise reduction. 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—and even further with its night shooting mode.
Attention: Learning photographers and prosumer budget buyers
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.
With the D5100, Nikon has continued their trend of omitting the autofocus motor in their entry-level models, though. That's a shame, because you'll be limited to using AF-S or AF-I Nikkor lenses, should you want to take advantage of autofocus. Also, the D5100 is mostly made of plastic, 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, but we wouldn't recommend taking it into a war-zone either.
At the end of the day, the D5100 is decidedly an entry-level camera, lacking the customization of, say, the D7000. However, it still has a full suite of manual controls to go along with its new "Effects" modes, so altogether, the D5100 is arguably the best sub-$1000 DSLR we have tested yet. For entry-level users or prosumer buyers on a budget, this is a solid option.
The Nikon D5100 (MSRP $799) is a very solid performer, with many strengths and few drawbacks, despite its entry-level bent. The science page is here to flesh out the details concerning how it handled our tests—in particular, the somewhat limited abilities of its kit lens.
In general, the 18-55mm kit lens was sharp enough for basic shots, but there are better options to get the most out of this camera.
The D5100 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 definitely recommend upgrading to a better lens if you want to get the most out of this camera.
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 D5100, like other consumer-level cameras, doesn’t provide the easiest method of setting a custom white balance.
Since this Nikon's custom white balance is buried in the menu, many users will rely on the automatic settings instead. 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, though it struggled under incandescent light.
The automatic white balance setting is fairly accurate in daylight, but 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 auto white balance produced shots with a very low color error (under 2) and a color temperature error of just 143 kelvin.
More accurate results were achieved 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 setting should suffice for most people in most lighting conditions.
Meet the tester
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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