Cameras

Nikon D5100 Digital Camera Review

A rock solid performer, and more than a match for most other cameras in its class.

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Introduction

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, Nikon D7000, and Pentax K-5, and a host of new, creative image effects, this is a camera that, quite simply, blows past most of the sub-$1000 competition.

Front

Front Tour Image

Back

Back Tour Image

Sides

Sides Tour Image

Bottom

Bottom Tour Image

Top

Top Tour Image

Size Comparisons

In the Box

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

Color Accuracy

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.

Click here for 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.

The D5100 posted the best color accuracy score that we have given out yet, as it had a color error of just 2.18 in the neutral mode.

Color Modes

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.

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.

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Long Exposure

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.

Click here for 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.

Noise

The D5100 comes with an ISO range that stretches from 100-25600, when you include the HI1 and HI2 options. In truth, 6400 is the highest usable ISO that we can recommend before picture quality begins to degrade, as noise spikes above 2% of the total image at any higher setting.

Click here for more on how we test noise.

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 luminence 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.

The Pentax K-5 ended up sporting the best noise score in this comparison group, though there is more noise at low ISOs than with the other cameras. The Sony A55V was just a bit worse overall, with more noise at its highest ISO settings. All of our comparison cameras performed well, however. At this level of DSLR, you'd expect good results and all these cameras deliver. We'd recommend sticking with the noise reduction on auto or normal for most of these cameras, as they're getting fairly aggressive in limiting noise as an expansive—if only occasionally useful—high ISO range fast becomes the marketing point of focus.

ISO

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.

NOTE: The images above are not used in our testing or scoring, but are included here to show real-world examples of the differences between cameras at the various ISO settings.

Resolution

The D5100 exhibited good resolution with the 18-55mm kit lens, with average sharpness and little distortion or chromatic aberration. The lens isn't incredibly sharp, but it's a serviceable kit option. There is some blooming near the edges of the frame in some of our sample photos, but that's the sensor struggling, not the lens.

Click here for more on how we test resolution.

Distortion

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

Chromatic Aberration ()

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.

Sharpness ()

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.

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.

The middle zoom range of this kit lens is not particularly sharp, and at these focal lengths the aperture can shrink down even further to f/32, though we definitely do not recommend it. At that small of an aperture, there is very little detail left, with contrast really disappearing.

While the maximum focal length of 55mm isn't exactly much of a telephoto, it does provide an angle of view roughly equivalent to what you normally see. At this focal length the D5100 managed average sharpness for a kit lens, though again the smaller apertures (which at this focal length can drop down to a minimum of f/36) really do a number on contrast, with little sharpness in the resulting images.

The D5100 took a bit of a slide from the D7000's resolution scoring, due to its slightly softer lens. There was little distortion present, but we do not score for that. The Sony and Pentax lenses both produced sharper images on the A55 and K-5, respectively. The Canon T3i, which was burdened by a particularly poor 18-135mm lens, had the worst scores in this comparison group. While the sensor can drastically impact sharpness, all of these cameras were tested with kit lenses and would benefit from being shot with higher quality glass—something we'd absolutely recommend, regardless of brand.

Picture Quality & Size Options

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.

Dynamic Range

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.

Click here for 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.

Image Stabilization

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. Click here for more on how we test image stabilization.

We found only minimal improvement at best in low shake testing with vibration reduction turned on. At faster shutter speeds the system tended to overcorrect, resulting in images that were less sharp than if the feature was turned off. At shutter speeds slower than 1/60th of a second, the system had little to no effect on average sharpness.

In high shake testing, the results were the same. At 1/125th of a second, the system showed an 11% improvement in sharpness, but it was otherwise ineffective in producing sharper images on average. At the faster shutter speeds, the system overcorrected, reducing sharpness by about 25% on average.


Image Stabilization
/r:render

We found the scores right in line with the other in-lens stabilization systems of the D7000's 18-105mm lens and the Canon T3i's 18-135mm. The Sony A55 showed a marked improvement overall, but it features an in-body stabilization system, which tends to do better in our testing.

Below you can see 100% crops from the Nikon D5100's image stabilization test shots, shot under high and low shake conditions, with vibration reduction turned on and off.

NOTE: As of May 2010 we have revised our image stabilization testing procedure to consider only horizontal stabilization. The scores shown here are up to date.

White Balance

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.

Click here for more on how we test white balance.

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.

White Balance Settings

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.

Playback Mode

The re-designed button layout has moved most of the controls for playback on the D5100 to around the control pad on the rear of the camera. Zoom in/out, trash, and the button to activate playback itself are all now located right next to the four-way d-pad. This actually works to make playback a little easier overall. These modes are mostly focused on providing relevant photographic information, rather than any sort of fun extra.

Software

The Nikon D5100 is packaged along with Nikon's ViewNX 2 software. It's fairly typical image editing software, mostly usable for processing the camera's 14-bit compressed NEF RAW files. It should be noted, though, that support is already being added in third-party software suites for D5100 files, including Apple's Aperture, iPhoto, and Mac OS X. Adobe Lightroom 3.3 also supports Nikon D5100 files, so your options are plentiful.

Direct Print Options

The D5100 supports DPOF (direct print order form), with support for orders of as many as 99 prints per image file. The camera also makes use of DCF 2.0, which should allow it to be directly compatible with most of your standalone image printers.

Sensor

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.

Viewfinder

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 m¯¹, but Nikon sells nine different adjusters that can be used in place of the stock eyepiece.

LCD

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.

LCD Control Panel

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.

Flash

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.

Lens Mount

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.

Battery

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.

Memory

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.

Jacks, Ports & Plugs

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.

Other Features

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).

Shooting Modes

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.

Live View

Live view on the D5100 is greatly enhanced by the camera's articulated LCD, as now framing can be judged from just about any angle. The one drawback of the live view mode is the autofocus system, which is still slower than when framing through the lens. The D5100 does feature full-time autofocus during live view, though it doesn't seem to track focus so much as it waits for the camera to be trained on a new subject before attempting to re-focus.

Live view is activated by a lever placed next to the mode dial, always within reach of the index finger. In this mode the camera provides basic shooting information at the bottom, just as when looking through the viewfinder itself. Pressing the info button on top of the camera toggles between a somewhat plain view, a view utilizing framing guidelines, and a bar along the top of the screen with more detailed shooting information, such as focus and metering type, and movie record time available. There are some small quirks whereby having the camera in live view limits your menu options, even for things like retouching images on the memory card, though no explanation is given as to why.

Scene Modes

In addition to the five scene modes present on the mode dial itself, within the scene setting, users can toggle between 13 more by turning the rear control dial. This was the same setup on the D5000, and it's not incredibly intuitive if you haven't read the manual, since the control dial does nothing else in all the other automatic modes except for the "Effects" setting. Within the "Scene" mode there are several interesting options, including: candlelight, night portrait, night landscape, pet portrait, party/indoor, autumn colors, blossom, food, beach/snow, sunset, and dusk/dawn.

Picture Effects

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.

Focus

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.

Exposure

The Nikon D5100 has an exposure range of 0-20 EV with 3D Color Matrix Metering II or center-weighted metering, with a limited range of 2-20 EV when using spot metering. We found the camera typically underexposed using its metering system by about half a stop, but this will maintain more detail in the shadows, which is generally harder to rescue than highlight detail. The D5100's exposure compensation button is located just behind the shutter release, and works in concert with the rear control dial. The exposure comp scale is a little backwards from other cameras, with positive compensation on the left, but this can be reversed in the menu.

Speed and Timing

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.

Shot to Shot ()

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.

Drive/Burst Mode ()

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.

Depth of Field Preview

Nikon has, as with their other entry-level options, omitted the depth of field preview button on the D5100. It's an important feature for some users, but we don't consider it a deal breaker. Depth of field is accurately seen in live view mode, but if you're shooting and attempting to be quiet, activating live view does make a fair amount of noise just to preview the effects of depth of field.

Metering

There are three types of metering available on the Nikon D5100: matrix metering, spot metering, and center-weighted average. These are fairly typical, with spot metering using data from one focal point to assess proper exposure while center-weighted average places an emphasis on maintaining detail in the center of the scene. The D5100 also benefits from Nikon's 3D Color Matrix Metering II system, which uses a 480-pixel RGB light meter to properly weight a scene based on its database of images, as well as color, distance, and brightness information attained from the sensor.

Shutter Speed

The Nikon D5100 features shutter speed control ranging from 30 seconds up to 1/4000 of a second, with a bulb mode thrown in for good measure in manual mode. This setting is controlled primarily through the rear control dial when in shutter-priority and manual mode, but is otherwise adjusted by the camera depending on the mode the camera is in and the brightness of the scene.

Self-Timer

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.

Other Features

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.

Handling

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 Front Image
Handling Back Image

Controls

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 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.

Main Menu Picture

The menu on the Nikon is organized into several tabs. There are no sub tabs, so you have to scroll to see some options.

Manual & Learning

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.

Video: Color Performance

We found the Nikon D5100 to offer average color accuracy in bright light video recording, with an average color error of 4.37. The videos were undersaturated, however, with a rate of just 88.65% of the ideal. These aren't bad results, but they do lag behind some of the competition—even those making use of the exact same sensor.

Click here for more on how CamcorderInfo.com tests color performance.

The Nikon D5100 allows for all the same color profiles, picture effects, and scene modes to be applied during video recording, simply by pressing the record button located just behind the shutter button. Most of these settings are also adjustable, so users can fine-tune performance to their liking. We used the Neutral color mode in our video testing and found its colors to be quite accurate, but also very undersaturated.

In comparing the Nikon D5100 to its closest competition, we found both the Sony A55V and the Canon T3i produced less color error with more accurate saturation levels. The Sony was clearly the best of the group, with a near-perfect saturation level and a color error less than 3, just ahead of the Canon.

We tested the Nikon using the "Neutral" color mode, as we found that was the most accurate mode overall for both stills and videos. Unlike some other modes, neutral also does not impact sharpness, which we also score for video. We found it left images more muted than we like to see, but preserved as much accuracy as possible.

The Sony scored best in our testing, owing to its very accurate colors in bright light video recording. The D7000 and D5100 scored very similarly, suggesting Nikon hasn't done much to update their video capabilities other than add a 1080/30p frame rate. The Canon T3i pulled in just behind the Sony, and with more manual control during video, it may be a better option for budding videographers despite its lack of full-time autofocus during video recording.

Video: Noise Performance

Compared to the other SLRs in our comparison group, the D5100 struggled with noise in its videos. The main culprit ended up being color channel noise, as luma noise was heavily suppressed. This was similar to what we found in recording stills, so it's not much of a surprise.

Click here for more on how CamcorderInfo.com tests noise performance.

The D5100 struggled with noise, even in bright light video testing. We found the camera produced videos with more than 1.4% noise, surprisingly high for a DSLR. Most other DSLRs produce less than 1%, as all our comparison models did. As a result, they scored much better here, though noise totals are only a small part of what makes for good video.

Video: Motion Performance

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.

Click here for more on how CamcorderInfo.com tests motion.

Video: Sharpness

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.

Click here for more on how CamcorderInfo.com tests video sharpness.

Video: Low Light Sensitivity

We found the Nikon D5100 was able to gather a 50 IRE image with just five lux of avaialble light. This is the least amount of light required, same as the Nikon D700, which employs the same image sensor. It was less than half the light required by the Sony A55V, and slightly less than the Pentax K-5 and Canon T3i. Given the D5000's solid performance in low light, we're not surprised to see the D5100 continue to perform well here.

Click here for more on how CamcorderInfo.com tests low light sensitivity.

Video: Low Light Color Performance

The Nikon D5100 produced solid color accuracy in low light video testing, with a color error of just 3.82 in low light, which was actually better than the camera performed when light was plentiful. We found that the videos were slightly undersaturated, however, at just 84.3% of the ideal. This was in line with the way the camera performed in bright light, however.

Click here for more on how CamcorderInfo.com tests low light color performance.

Video: Low Light Noise Performance

The D5100 did suffer from 1.28% of noise in low light shooting, which was slightly visible. With no real ISO control available in video recording, it's tough to rein this amount of noise in, despite the fact that the camera is already very sensitive in low light. Generally noise wasn't too distracting, though it was worse than some of our comparison cameras.

Click here for more on how CamcorderInfo.com tests low light noise performance.

Among all our comparison cameras, the D7000 suffered from the worst amount of low light noise, with nearly 1.5%. The rest of our cameras, besides the D5100, came in at under 1% total. This is somewhat surprising, given that the D5000 performed so well in this area. The Sony A55V had the lowest amount of noise, with less than 0.7%. The D5100 and Sony both require just five lux of light to get a useable image, but the Sony does so with half the noise.

Video: Compression

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.

Video: Manual Controls

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 Mode

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 Controls and Zoom Ratio

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, Aperture and Shutter Speed

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.

ISO and 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).

Audio Features

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.

Video: Handling

The articulated LCD on the D5100 makes it much easier to use when video recording, as it is viewable from nearly any angle. The full-time autofocus works, but mostly in fits and starts, with audible whirring by the focus motor. The biggest obstacle keeping the D5100 from being a serious video shooter's tool is the inability to output live from the HDMI port while video recording at its max setting of 1080/30p. For you amateur videographers, though, the D5100 is the first consumer Nikon option that handles as well as the counterparts from other manufacturers, and while it doesn't have the manual control we would like, it does shoot some wonderful shallow depth of field video.

Handling Front Image
Handling Back Image

Sony Alpha SLT-A55V Comparison

In general, the Canon T3i's performance and scores are hampered with an image sensor that looks decided old—at least in the face of the sensor the D7000, Pentax K-5, Sony A55 and now the Nikon D5100 all have. The Canon benefits from a slight bump in resolution (18 megapixels against 16.2), but in all the still image performance categories except white balance accuracy, it falls behind the Nikon D5100.

Performance:

Between the D5100 and T3i, there's really little contest. The Nikon D5100, with the same sensor of cameras that cost nearly twice as much, has the horses to win this race with ease. The D5100 offered far superior dynamic range, better noise suppression, and more accurate color rendition. The Canon offered better video controls, with slightly better motion results, though the D5100 had the superior autofocus during live view and video.

Components:

Choosing between Canon and Nikon is often a matter of deciding what lens system offers better choices for the type of photography you wish to do. If you're purchasing this level of camera, you're likely looking for something middle of the road, with the potential to upgrade down the line. Both systems have great 50mm f/1.8 lenses, solid yet affordable mid-range zooms, and a great deal of quality high end lens options—if you ever get more serious. We'd say the Canon system is easier to understand for absolute beginners, as Nikon's autofocus choices can get confusing. The D5100 will require lenses that have an internal focusing motor to be able to autofocus properly.

Handling:

Both the Nikon D5100 and Canon T3i handle confidently without feeling overly heavy. They both weight in at a hair over a pound, with the T3i slightly lighter. Both cameras also feature a high resolution side-swiveling LCD that is great for odd-angle shots, video shooting, or shooting in tough lighting conditions. There's really very little to choose between the two cameras. Their grips provide the greatest contrast here, with the Canon offering a more pronounced area to hold the camera by.

Controls:

These are two cameras that are designed to be used by an entry-level shooter looking to get more serious about their photography, with a small dose of videography thrown in. To that end, the user experience is just as important as the raw performance. Both have a good set of automatic settings, though the Canon menu is designed slightly better, with more custom options. The D5100 does have the benefit of a more robust collection of effects and scene modes, which can help you be more creative without having to invest time in overcoming a steep learning curve.

NOTE: The images above are not used in our testing or scoring, but are included here to show real-world examples of the differences between cameras at the various ISO settings.

Nikon D7000 Comparison

The different designs of the two cameras also yielded some fairly substantial differences in scoring. Both cameras performed well in low light, but the Sony kept noise to an absolute minimum, especially at high ISO speeds where the Nikon suffered from quite a lot of color channel noise. The Sony also managed more accurate white balance, had a sharper kit lens, and a more effective in-body image stabilization system. The Nikon was still tops for color accuracy, however, as Nikon appeared to have a more refined demosaicing system that favored accuracy over vibrance.

Performance:

In general, choosing between these two cameras is a matter of speed against accuracy. The Nikon D5100 clearly offered more accurate colors and maintained more detail in both shadows and highlights. The Sony A55V blew away the Nikon for speed, though, with a much faster shot-to-shot time and more accurate, quick autofocus in video recording and live view. Both marks are owed to the Sony A55V's translucent mirror, which allows for faster shooting and phase detection autofocus.

Components:

The Sony lens system is actually quite underrated by most consumers, with Canon and Nikon both owning somewhat more prestigious photography legacies. Sony literally owns Minolta's legacy, but for an entry-level consumer Canon and Nikon are better known for photography. That being said, the Sony lens system—like the Canon one—provides both affordable, quality mid-range zooms and high end options without the consumer needing to worry about whether it will autofocus (or stabilize, for that matter) on their camera.

Handling:

Generally speaking, we found the Nikon D5100 to handle better than the Sony A55V, for a few reasons. We prefer both the D5100's optical viewfinder and the side-swivel LCD. The D5000 featured an LCD that rotated out vertically, like the Sony A55V, and Nikon changed it specifically because it interfered with tripod designs. We found the same problem with the A55V, and generally found the Nikon to handle more confidently, with slightly better button placement.

Controls:

Both the Nikon D5100 and Sony A55V feature a variety of manual and automatic controls that allow an entry-level photographer to get great photos while learning the finer points of the camera. Sony's menus have been generally hit-or-miss, but the A55V is easier to navigate. We'd have really liked to see more custom options on both cameras, and a second control dial, but these are both cameras that match any entry-level DSLR for control.

NOTE: The images above are not used in our testing or scoring, but are included here to show real-world examples of the differences between cameras at the various ISO settings.

Pentax K-5 Comparison

While the D5100 has the same 16.2-megapixel Sony image sensor as the D7000, it's clear Nikon hasn't been sitting on their hands this entire time. The D5100 showed dramatic improvement in dynamic range over the D7000 (and other cameras employing this sensor) with more aggressive noise reduction and more accurate, true-to-life colors. The D7000 shoots faster, wins points for durability, and produced sharper still images with its 18-105mm kit lens against the 18-55mm on the D5100. It should be noted that we test using the .JPEG compression, not the RAW files, so the differences in scoring could be reduced if you plan on utilizing a workflow that involves shooting in RAW.

Performance:

We generally found the D5100 to show steady improvement over the D7000 in the majority of our image performance tests. The D7000 does shoot faster, and comes with a better kit lens, but this is still the same image sensor and Nikon's had a few extra months to tweak its image output. Make no mistake about it: this is still the best APS-C sensor on the market that we've tested, and it's no surprise that Nikon's been able to squeeze a little extra performance out of it with the D5100. The biggest difference absolutely came in our dynamic range testing, though, where the D5100 managed 8.4 stops at ISO 100, with that falling barely below 4.5 stops all the way up to ISO 6400.

Components:

Here's where the differences start piling up: the D7000 is a more durable, heavier camera, with a battery that lasts roughly 40% longer (and OEM battery grip accessories available), a 39-point autofocus system (against the D5100's 11 points), and an internal focus motor that makes using non AF-S Nikkor lenses a much more appealing proposition. The D5100 is much easier to carry around all day due to its size and weight, and its vari-angle LCD makes odd-angle shots and video shooting much easier overall.

Handling:

The Nikon D7000 definitely handles more confidently as a photographer's tool than the D5100, but it does so at the expense of being much heavier. The D5100 is the kind of camera you wouldn't mind having on your shoulder most of the day if you're out at the park with the kids, but the D7000—if you know what each feature and setting is for and want the ability to change them quickly—allows a photographer to simply do his or her thing. If a 7-bladed diaphragm sounds more like a two-week stay in the hospital than a desirable feature for a camera kit, then the D5100 is the better option for you.

Controls:

The D7000 offers far more fine control and custom settings than the D5100—and it's not close. The D5100 tucks one programmable function button away beside the lens release on the front of the camera, and has little in the way of easy control on the back. The D7000 has a front and rear control dial, two savable user-set shooting modes, a top control panel for quickly judging settings, and a dial dedicated to shutter release mode. The D5100 pales in comparison there, but is designed for the shooter who would only find that amount of customization intimidating. Can a semi-pro get great use out of the D5100? Absolutely. It's a wonderful camera that, for a $300 price drop, sacrifices some customization and control, generally preserving image quality.

NOTE: The images above are not used in our testing or scoring, but are included here to show real-world examples of the differences between cameras at the various ISO settings.

COMP 4

The Pentax K-5 and Nikon D5100 both performed very well in the majority of our testing. The Nikon was able to render more accurate colors in stills and video, with better long exposure scores, more accurate white balance, and greater dynamic range. The Pentax had more attractive high ISO shots, though more noise in its low ISO images. The Pentax also had a far sharper kit lens than the 18-55mm Nikkor lens we tested the D5100 with.

Performance:

The Pentax K-5 is built to take a lot of punishment and perform quickly and accurately under a variety of conditions. With full weather sealing, a faster autofocus system, faster shot-to-shot speed, and a control panel for making quick adjustments on the fly without digging through a menu, the K-5 is simply faster for the experienced user to take advantage of. The Nikon is quieter and lighter, but less durable and has more options hidden in menus or absent altogether. The D5100 had better color accuracy and features far more creative modes for the entry-level user, but doesn't make things as easy for the experienced photographer. It performed better in the majority of our tests, however, despite the prosumer-friendly design of the K-5.

Components:

The Pentax K-5 is definitely a more sturdy camera than the D5100, with a fully weather sealed body and a host of weather resistant lenses available from Pentax. The Pentax lens system is actually very robust, but it has terminology that is just as confusing as the Nikon's AF-S/AF-I designations. The Pentax also has access to more first-party accessories such as battery grips, with a higher-capacity standard battery.

Handling:

The Pentax K-5 is a prosumer camera, offering a stainless steel chassis and a fully weather-sealed body. That also increases weight, which will offer more stable shooting, but can be tiresome when hanging around your neck all day. While the K-5 is light for a camera of this quality, it is still heavier than the mostly plastic D5100, though with a far more substantial grip and two control dials. The D5100 also sports a flip-out LCD, which the K-5 does not. The K-5 does have a control panel display on the top of the body, though. This allows for quick adjustments to any the camera's current shooting settings without having to use the menu. If you know what you're doing or will be out in the wild, the K-5 is a treat to shoot with. If you're an entry-level shooter, though, the D5100 is the simpler option.

Controls:

The Pentax K-5 dwarfs the Nikon D5100 for depth of options, allowing greater control over things such as flash power, button behavior, and menu options. The D5100 offers far more in the way of scene modes, with their effects dial also offering a group of creative effects filters to drastically alter the resulting images. If you're stepping up from a point-and-shoot or another entry-level DSLR, the D5100 will feel more familiar than the mostly pro-friendly K-5. If you're ready to get real serious about your photography, though, the K-5 offers great performance and more finely-tuned control.

NOTE: The images above are not used in our testing or scoring, but are included here to show real-world examples of the differences between cameras at the various ISO settings.

Conclusion

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.

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