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Review: Nikon D5100

by Chris Gampat on 12/12/2011

Not long ago, I gave in and purchased a Nikon D5100 for the reasons of wanting to expand coverage on this site a bit more. Why this over the D7000? Cost, for one (it’s refurbished); and similar results in terms of image quality were both very appealing to me. Additionally, I don’t own an entry level DSLR at all though I’ve used many of them. So this is also my experience with trying to upgrade and move up along the line with a new camera system.

Since purchasing the camera, I haven’t regretted it. But it hasn’t been such a joy either.

Gear Used

Nikon D5100 with Kit Lens

Nikon SB-600 (kindly loaned to me by Gevon)

Vello Freewave Fusion Wireless Triggers (kindly loaned to me by the Gradus Group)

Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 G ED AF-S (kindly loaned to me by Gabe Biderman)

Tech Specs

Specs borrowed from B&H Photo’s listing of the camera

Imaging
Camera Type Digital SLR with Interchangeable lenses
Lens Mount Nikon F
Camera Format DX / (1.5x Crop Factor)
Resolution Effective Pixels: 16.2 Megapixels
File Formats Still Images: JPEG, RAW
Movies: MPEG-4 AVC/H.264
Audio: Linear PCM
Memory Card Type SD
SDHC
SDXC
AV Recording
Video Recording Yes, NTSC/PAL
Aspect Ratio 4:3, 16:9
Audio Recording With Video, Mono
Focus Control
Focus Type Auto & Manual
Viewfinder/Display
Viewfinder Type Pentamirror
Viewfinder Coverage 95%
Display Screen 3″ Rear Screen   LCD (921000)
Screen Coverage 100%
Exposure Control
ISO Sensitivity 100-25600
Shutter 30 – 1/4000 sec
Metering Method Spot metering, Center-weighted average metering, 3D Color Matrix Metering
Exposure Modes Modes: Aperture Priority, Auto, Manual, Program, Shutter Priority
White Balance Modes Auto, Cloudy, Flash, Fluorescent, Fluorescent (Day White), Fluorescent (Natural White), Fluorescent (White), Fluorescent H, Incandescent, Manual, Shade
Flash
Max Sync Speed 1 / 200 sec
Continuous Shooting Up to 4 fps
External Flash Connection Hot Shoe
Performance
Self Timer 2 sec, 5 sec, 10 sec, 20 sec
Connectivity 1/8″ Microphone, AV Output, HDMI C (Mini), USB 2.0
Power
Battery 1x EN-EL14  Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Battery Pack
AC Power Adapter EH-5a/5b (Included) 1
Operating/Storage Temperature 32 to 104 °F (0 to 40 °C)
Physical
Dimensions (WxHxD) 5 x 3.8 x 3.1″ / 12.70 x 9.65 x 7.87 cm
Weight 19.7 oz / 558 g Camera body only
Kit Lens
Focal Length 18 – 55 mm
Comparable DX Focal Length: 27 – 82.5 mm
Aperture Maximum: f/3.5 – 5.6
Minimum: f/22 – 22
Angle of View 76° – 28°
Minimum Focus Distance 11″ (27.94 cm)
Magnification 0.31x
Groups/Elements 5/7
Diaphragm Blades 7
Autofocus Yes
Image Stabilization Yes
Filter Thread Front: 52 mm
Dimensions (DxL) Approx. 2.7 x 2.9″ (6.86 x 7.37 cm)
Weight 9.3 oz (264 g)

Ergonomics

The D5100 is the type of Nikon DSLR that I haven’t been totally used to but that I can pick up and understand very quickly. I’m much more used to the D90, D300s and anything above that within Nikon’s line of DSLRs. And they’re all excellent, though I personally find myself to be more of a Canon shooter. Nonetheless, I’ve come to be able to find my way around the cameras with my eyes closed.

At the time of this publication, I’ve spent around a month with the camera and I still haven’t totally gotten used to it. The reason for this though is because I am much more used to looking at a top LCD screen when changing settings or looking through the viewfinder to do all that. Though I can change most settings through the viewfinder, the placement of the buttons is still a bit weird to me and sometimes I hit the info button instead of the button that I need to hit before changing the aperture in manual mode. The ISO function was also remapped to another button.

But the D5100 wasn’t really designed for me. It was designed for the person with not much experience with DSLR cameras, and for that it does a good job of emphasizing simplicity for that person; if anything, it’s too good.

The back of the D5100 features very few buttons. There is a menu button on the top left for control of Nikon’s inner menus. To the right of the viewfinder is an info edit button that bring you to the screen that allows you to edit all of the different settings regarding exposure. Next to that is an Autoexposure/Autofocus locking button (which I’ve never used) and the exposure dial. Below that is a well placed grip for your thumb.

Around the same area is the playback button, the directional controls (which display different information when pressed during playback but otherwise serve as excellent navigational tools) and the magnify and zoom out buttons. The zoom out button doubles as an explanation button of what a function does. To the right of that is the delete button.

The big part of the back of the camera is the LCD screen. It flips out.

The important side of the D5100 is the left. This is where most of the camera’s ports are and also where a user can program a custom function button and use the pop up flash.

The top of the camera features the mode selection dial along with a Live View switch right next to it. Above all that is an info button, exposure value button, and one touch move record button. Then there’s the shutter release/on and off switch.

To the left of this is the hot shoe.

Autofocusing

The camera’s autofocusing is mostly very good. First off, the viewfinder isn’t as bright as the higher end models, so you can’t even tell if you’re in focus at certain times or not though you think you might be. This also may have to do with the camera’s lack of AF Fine Tuning; which for me is always an important feature to correct lenses.

With that said though, I often haven’t not hit my mark, but the camera will focus back and forth until it hits the mark. Sometimes, I feel like the contrast detection is better in Live View in super dark scenarios. If you’re shooting in bright open spaces, you’ll have nothing to worry about. It’s when low light kicks in that you may have to worry a bit more.

To be frank though, that mostly has to do with the outer focusing points. The inner points all seem very strong; and if you’re stopped down you can focus and recompose. If you’re wide open, you’ll need to use the exact focusing point. This happens even with the illumination of a constant ring light. In the photo above, Katie’s eyes are tack sharp.

In this photo above, Katie’s eyes are also very sharp. For this camera’s market, you’ll need to keep in mind the reciprocal rule of shutter speeds and lens focal lengths in order to ensure that you get a tack sharp photo.

The continuous autofocusing feature (3D tracking) works well too, but I have to say that I find it much better with Nikon’s higher level DSLR cameras. It can be a bit harder to nail a sharp photo with this feature.

Hidden in the menus is Nikon’s electronic rangefinder, which will tell you when something is in focus when you are manually focusing the lens attached. This is visible by a little dot in the bottom left of the viewfinder.

Metering

The metering on this camera is actually quite weird. I’ve often had to find myself overexposing my images in order to get the details I need and the results that I want to work with. Upon doing a Sunny 16 metering test, I found that the camera did indeed underexpose scenes anywhere from 1/3rd to 2/3rds of a stop; which isn’t bad and won’t be noticeable to this camera’s intended audience. But to a trained pro, you’ll see it; I needed to correct the image above quite a bit.

Note that the above statement applies to manual metering methods. Once you throw in artificial strobe lighting, modifiers, etc it becomes even more complicated. Despite how good I am with Olympus and Canon’s systems, I feel I’ll need to work with Nikon’s a bit more.

Otherwise, in aperture priority the camera does exceptionally well in terms of working with its own metering system but not necessarily with conventional metering methods.

Image Quality

The overall image quality of the Nikon D5100 is something that you can’t complain about. Their entry level DSLR cameras have come a long way and I remember playing with them years ago as an intern at PCMag and not warming up to them at all.

Now though, they’re extremely good.

Most users will not find fault at all with the image quality. The dynamic range, color depth and high ISO output all rock. That also translates in editing RAW files that can be tweaked to your hearts content once you learn how to edit Nikon’s files accordingly.

Straight out of the camera, the colors aren’t the greatest but they have a very Nikon look to them. Nikon and Canon users that are experienced will know what I’m talking about. The colors are punchy, the in focus areas are very sharp, and there is a slightly warm tint to everything. I’ve recently come to prefer Sony’s color output more.

For most of the time, I used the camera in aperture priority. That allowed the camera to make the best decisions about exposure in order to get the best colors.

Something that I was very impressed with was just how far the files can be pushed to get the results you want. The above image was heavily edited in order to bring out the details in the disks. Once again, this also has to do with the metering in the camera.

When used with the camera’s kit lens, even professionals will be impressed. The image quality is really quite good and the images are also very sharp.

In fact, this is probably one of the best kit lenses I’ve used. However, the build quality of the lens is quite bad.

The files also convert very nicely over to black and white if needed. For the record, the camera has its own monochrome setting, but I’ve never used it.

Here are a couple more example photos. For the most part, I can’t say it any more: the image quality is absolutely stupendous.

High ISO Performance

I’ve tested this camera against the Canon 7D and 5D Mk II already a couple of times. The Nikon D5100 has extremely tight grain. I find it not very pleasing. However, out of camera the results are cleaner than Canon’s files. To that end though, they are also more difficult to edit.

It’s harder to get details out of Nikon’s files and balancing that with getting rid of high ISO noise than it is with Canon’s files. However, it is possible but you’ll need to really work at it.

Additionally, you’ll need to balance the high ISO noise reduction with sharpness and clarity. That can still also be tough to do. However, that doesn’t mean that you should be turned off by the D5100. The high ISO image quality is still very good.

Here are a couple more High ISO photos.

All colors during High ISO shooting are also very well captured and maintained throughout the editing process.

Video Quality

Though the video quality is overall very good, something I don’t like is the automatic gain in the image. Even if you fix the ISO, aperture and shutter speed, it will still change. My friend Joseph Carey and I spent a long time in the menus and couldn’t find a way to turn it off.

We both became very annoyed in the end.

Conclusion

Now here’s where I become extremely frank:

- The Nikon D5100 is a DSLR with wonderful image quality.

- The RAW files can be tough to work with when it comes to high ISO output. Otherwise, they’re relatively easy.

- The camera itself is an ergonomic nightmare if you come from higher end cameras down to this. The button placement is just so wacky to me.

- For shooting video, it’s a wonderful camera and has excellent ergonomics for this. However, the automatic gain is annoying.

- The focusing is spot on for the most part. With the more professional level lenses though, the camera is very unbalanced and you’ll have to exceed the limitations of the reciprocal rule of shutter speeds and focal lengths in order to achieve images without motion blur or camera shake.

- The build quality isn’t the greatest overall, but it is still quite good.

However, highly professional quality work can still be done with the camera and the right accessories combined with a determined and clear cut vision for your images.

In the end, the D5100 gets my highly rated marks and I can’t help but recommend it.

Gear Used

Nikon D5100 with Kit Lens

Nikon SB-600 (kindly loaned to me by Gevon)

Vello Freewave Fusion Wireless Triggers (kindly loaned to me by the Gradus Group)

Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 G ED AF-S (kindly loaned to me by Gabe Biderman)

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