The Nikon D5100 is Nikon’s update of the D5000 that launched in 2009, so has been anticipated for some time. It slots into Nikon’s line of DSLR models above the D3100 and beneath the D7000, both models from the second half of 2010. As such the D5100 falls into a sort of higher entry-level position and sits on a level with Canon’s excellent EOS 600D both in terms of specification and pricing.
Just as the Canon EOS 600D offers a merging of specifications found on it’s neighbouring models, the Nikon D5100 pulls the same trick, offering up the same 16.2-megapixel sensor as the D7000, but using the metering as the D3100. The EXPEED 2 image processing engine is common to all three models.
The size and weight of the new D5100 has been reduced slightly over the D5000, although in the long run, much of the weight will be dictated by the lens you attach to the front. For the purposes of this review we had the 18-55 VR kit lens, although some of the earlier shots we took with it came from a 70-300 zoom lens that Nikon had to hand. The body-only weight is 510g, and with the battery and SD card in their respective slots that hits 560g before you add the weight of the lens. The battery is CIPA measured at 660 shots, but with the mix of live view, video and playback, we’ve come in at closer to 400 shots on the battery cycles we’ve been through.
In terms of design, there are some notable features of the D5100, like the slightly expanded top plate that lends itself to gripping the camera in two ways. The first is conventionally, using the viewfinder, but the second grip we found ourselves using was for low angle shots with the 3-inch vari-angle display unfurled, where an overhand grip lets you hit the shutter or video button with your thumb whilst still holding the camera steady.
The viewfinder offers up 95% field of view, typical for this level of camera. The viewfinder is bright and sharp, reflecting most of the information you typically need when shooting. It will tell you that you are shooting in Auto ISO, but won’t tell you the selected (either manually or automatically) ISO value once you’ve composed the shot by default - the option to turn it on it in the menus.
Controls are liberally spread around the body, generally falling within reach of the thumb or fingers of your right hand. The top plate offers up the mode dial, which incorporates a quirky return switch that activates live view, the power encircling the shutter button and an array of the instant video record button, exposure compensation and finally the info button which will turn the display on and off.
The rear of the camera offers up the thumb dial used to change the settings as appropriate to the shooting mode or feature you’ve selected, with the mainstay of shooting options accessed via the “i” button that pulls up the quick menu on the screen so you can change the likes of image quality, focus and metering modes, ISO or bracketing. The four-way controller and central OK button navigates this menu and makes selections, rather than offering any shortcuts itself. Other buttons offer exposure lock, image playback and the main menu, with self-timer and a manual flash button on lens mount. You get zoom buttons and image delete, with the "zoom out" button doubling as the help button, providing info on the selected shooting mode or providing information when prompted by a flashing question mark on the display or in the viewfinder.
The lack of some direct controls means you’ll need to use the menus more often than not, for example to enable manual focal point selection over the automatic selection. ISO control doesn't get it's own button, but can be assigned to the Fn button on the lens mount. It's nice to have the option, but it isn't very practically placed.
The D5100 doesn’t have an eye sensor, so it won’t turn off the screen when you put the camera to your eye to compose a shot, instead shutting off the screen when you depress the shutter button half-way to focus. In reality this makes little difference in practical terms, unless you find yourself metering a scene looking at the screen before putting it to your eye. Focusing is fast and accurate for the most part, with options for both autofocus modes and autofocus area, with 11-AF points available.
The 3-inch vari-angle display on the rear offers up 921k-dots and is a pleasure to use. It’s versatile nature makes you wonder how you took some of those obscure angle shots without such a screen: it’s certainly more versatile than the D5000’s offering and having been living with the D5100 for 2 weeks we’ll wonder how we’ll cope without such a screen. We also like the fact you can fold it away protected when you stow your camera in a bag.
The shooting dial offers up the normal DSLR options, with the addition of the new Effects mode that we’ve looked at previously, but in brief gives you a number of fun options for shooting: some, like miniature, are more useful than others but the effects don’t really give you as drastic results as you get from the likes of Olympus’ Art Filters on their Micro Four Thirds hybrid cameras. The Effects are perhaps a little reserved and we’d have loved to see Nikon throw in something a little more dramatic, or the option for more settings on those effects.
Effects may look like a nod to the newcomer to DSLR photography, although we’d dare say that more experienced users will appreciate some of the results they offer. At the same time, we’re sure that some will completely ignore the Effects mode and stick to the traditional controls that the camera offers. It’s worth noting that some Effects necessitate use of live view so you can view and change settings - otherwise the viewfinder doesn’t give you the information or present you with the options to change the settings for that mode, where applicable.
We also find it a little strange that HDR shooting - which the D5100 offers - finds itself as a toggle-able option in the main menu, rather than being accessible through the Scenes or Effects. As such, you need to know it is there and hunt it out, or you’ll miss it entirely.
The D5100’s graphical interface does offer a lot of easy-to-consume information. Nikon haven chosen to use a graphical representation of the shutter to reflect the aperture opening and closing as you pick settings on the camera. It looks nice, but doesn’t necessarily tell you very much that the F number doesn’t already, so long as you’re familiar with these things. More useful is the image of the rotating dial, so you don’t actually have to look at the dial as you move it - the dial rotates through 360 degrees.
Another useful novice feature is that the D5100 will alert you to whether the scene is too dark or light. This is one area where the camera seems a little keen to deploy the flash in Auto mode and we often found ourselves being advised to use the flash at odd moments. Sometimes this is understandable - when the subject is something dark and the camera gets confused, but when it was unexpected in some landscape shots we took in good light far beyond the range of the flash’s effectiveness.
Help isn’t far away if the Auto mode irks you with requests for the flash when you don’t think it is necessary, you can flip up to the P (program) mode or down to the no flash mode which will side step the problem easily enough.
Live view continues to be a useful feature given the screen on offer on the D5100, although focusing is still a little on the slow side and live view isn’t great for capturing shots quickly as it is noticeably slower to take the first shot when the button is fully depressed, although this doesn’t affect continuous shooting beyond the first image.
In continuous shooting the D5100 will offer you 4fps, buffering the files to memory in the background. If you are shooting JPEG and RAW you’ll only get about 12 shots before the camera noticeably begins to struggle, but that’s fairy typical for this level of camera. The viewfinder display well let you know the number of shots you can take until the buffer is full, for high quality JPEGs the buffer will take 17 images at a time and we found we could snap off around 60 shots in succession before the buffer couldn’t keep up any more (using a class 6 card).
The 18-55 kit lens on test here offers Nikon’s vibration reduction, which is for the most part fairly quiet and effective, although on occasions you can hear it chirping around in the background, which could affect your video, but is otherwise a welcome standard addition. The max aperture of F/3.5 at the widest angle is average for a kit lens, as is the touch of distortion, but you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to looking to upgrade in the future.
The step-up to 1080p video capture is welcomed and the results are very impressive. Video capture is triggered using the instant record button and in-video focusing can be achieved by a half press of the shutter button, with refocusing being relatively fast and for the most part avoiding excessive seeking. The video will pick up the settings you have in the camera, so you can take advantage of a wide aperture for example for a shallow depth of field. The mini HDMI means video can be played back on the big screen, and as you’d expect it is rich in detail so looks fantastic on the big screen. There is an external mic jack present, designed for use with Nikon’s new ME-1 mic. The built-in mic did a good job in our tests, but it will pick up those focusing whirrs. You can change the exposure compensation to lighten or darken your video as you record, and shoot in some of the Effects modes.
The ISO settings run from 100-6400, followed by “Hi” settings which will see you up to ISO 25,600. There is an option for high ISO noise reduction in the menu. There is a fair difference between Off and High HR, but ultimately the smoothing does remove some detail from your shot and at the highest levels noise is still very obvious. Auto ISO is in place for Auto, no flash and the Night vision effect and we didn’t see it rise above ISO 3200 in our tests. It can be limited in the main menu if you decided you want to keep Auto ISO under tight control, say to a max ISO 800.
In other shooting modes you’ll have to select the ISO you want as you balance out the aperture and shutter speed. After playing around with the various ISO levels, you’ll find what is acceptable in terms of noise: noise appears around ISO 800, but unless very fine detail is important or you are looking for full sized prints you might find that shots up to ISO 3200 are acceptable, even ISO 4000 or 5000 at a push in daylight shooting.
In terms of colour and sharpness, the D5100 kit produces fantastic quality image in everyday shooting, making it difficult to snap off a bad shot. We found the metering and white balance to be accurate, with plenty of options to adjust the likes of metering modes and autofocus control. As such the Nikon D5100 hits its mark as a camera for those who are interested in moving to a DSLR or who want a camera that will let them explore some of the more creative aspects of photography.
The Nikon D5100 is a excellent camera, updating it’s predecessor and offering a competitive alternative to the Canon rival at a similar price and spec. The Canon offers, we feel, more direct control (including on-board wireless flash control), but the Nikon on-screen information is excellently presented. The Canon trumps the Nikon’s screen too, however both are excellent quality and we couldn’t push the minor differences in resolution as a reason to pick one over the other.
There are some minor quibbles however, with controls especially, and it can take some time fiddling in the menus to get the best approach to some features. We can't help feeling that some newcomers will miss some features entirely, whilst more experienced photographers might feel the D5100 has been pitched too low, not giving them all the controls they want quickly and easily. As such the D5100 sort of falls into the middle, literally, offering a blend of entry- and higher-specs that aren't always immediately cohesive.
But the results should do the talking and it’s in terms of image quality that the Nikon excels. Low light performance, control over ISO noise and focusing is impressive for this level of camera. Overall the D5100 presents a reasonable upgrade for D5000 users and will get novices and more experienced photographers great results.