Nikon D5100 16.2Mp DSLR
Making an entry
Review Sitting somewhere in the middle of entry-level scale, Nikon’s D5100 represents a considerable leap from its predecessor the D5000 and can be seen in some respects as a smaller, cheaper-built D7000. From its bigger brother it inherits the 16.2 DX-sized CMOS sensor; the Expeed 2 processor with 14-bit Raw shooting, the extensive ISO range and the higher 920k screen resolution.
Entry-level with all the extras: Nikon's D5100
To avoid in-house competition and market overlaps, Nikon has been careful not to equip the D5100 with some of the more advanced, pro-appeal functions of the D7000. Instead, the D5100 features a trendy HDR mode, new effects for videos and stills including a Night Vision option and enhanced video capabilities. The D5100 currently sells at £580 body-only or at £620 with the 18-55 VR lens kit.
The D5100 has a much-improved design over its predecessor. It is seven per cent smaller and 50g lighter than the D5000 and, crucially, the fully articulated 3in LCD is now hinged on the side rather than on the bottom, making the screen much more useful for video recording. The resolution is also four times higher than the 2.7in display of the D5000, making manual focusing and checking details much easier.
The mode dial includes access to the effects options
Thanks to a more recessed handgrip the camera offers an exceptionally comfortable handling and I appreciated the repositioning of the video record button on the top plate, which now groups all shooting controls in one place. Unfortunately, the record button is no longer paired with the Live View switch, as in the D3100 and D7000, and LV is now activated by a lever on the side of the shooting dial, which I found difficult to reach with my fore finger and awkward to operate.
Compared to other Nikon DSLRs, the D5100 has a slightly different button layout, losing the row of buttons on the left of the screen to make space for the hinges of the vary-angle LCD, but I found the re-design easier to operate with one hand, since most controls are now within reach of the right thumb and index finger. Another significant change to Nikon’s usual design is the addition of an Effects tab in the top shooting mode dial, providing immediate access to the seven different filters on offer.
Information on articulating display takes on some of the function access duties
In line with current trend, the D5100 uses the LCD screen to display camera information but also as a quick menu to change the camera’s main shooting parameters such as ISO, White Balance, Autofocus, Drive and Metering. The only problem I envisage is that the lack of dedicated buttons for essential settings might put off manual and semi-manual users. The full menu is, as all Nikons, comprehensive and easy to navigate but the Menu button has relocated to the left of the viewfinder.
I was quite impressed by the level of customisation offered by the D5100, a clear indication of Nikon wanting to keep a hold on the advanced users market. The many custom settings now get their own menu with separate categories set according to function and easily identifiable through different colours, a simple and effective organisation.
The two most remarkable performance improvements brought by the new Expeed 2 processor are battery life, which in my test even exceeded Nikon’s own reported 660 shots per charge, and Live View autofocus. The Nikon D5100's 11-point AF system offers reliable if not exceptionally fast autofocus coverage across the frame.
With a few exceptions, Nikon DSLRs lack a built-in AF motor so, to a degree, autofocus speed depends on the lens and the 18-55mm provided in the kit is not the fastest zoom. That said, the D5100 does achieve the fastest Live View autofocus I have yet used in a Nikon DSLR – which was a pleasant surprise as my experience of the company’s LV AF systems has found them to be somewhat sluggish.
18-55mm kit lens
Click to download the full-resolution ISO 100-6400 plus pushed shots to 25600 samples zip file (94MB)
Attention to detail
3D tracking performs reasonably well although is not as consistent as the D7000. This is probably due to the D5100 relying on brightness and colour data captured by a 420-pixel RGB sensor as opposed to the 2,016-pixel RGB sensor showed off by the D7000. In other respects, speed results between the D5000 and the D5100 are not much changed, with continuous shooting still at 4fps albeit with an increased buffer capacity of up to 16 frames in RAW or 100 JPEG's in a burst.
Hinged on the side, the display is more versatile for video use
Image quality comes very close to that of the D7000 with pictures showing very good level of detail and wide dynamic range. Colours are natural yet rich, with beautiful saturation and punch. Metering was mostly spot on, although the camera has a tendency to slightly over-expose skies in certain situations, as the prevalently light colours massage-scene test image shows. I found the D5100 exceptionally well-suited to portraits, as skin tone is realistic but retains brightness and warmth. White Balance was consistent and accurate in all situations including fluorescent lighting and indoor scenes.
The D5100 sports a much broader ISO scale than its predecessor, with native sensitivities ranging from ISO 200 to ISO 3200 but expandable to ISO 100 and ISO 6400 equivalent. If you push the EV you even can take shots up to 25600 – see the ISO test downloads in the sample images section. Push shots aside, noise performance is very good throughout the range, even at the highest sensitivities. There is very little colour noise too, which is the most annoying kind. Moreover, the camera does not heavily rely on noise-reduction, and consequently doesn’t suffer much from loss of detail at the far end of the ISO scale.
Nikon seems to have finally acknowledged a fun-hungry crowd among the enthusiast DSLR users and obliged by including fashionable features such as HDR capture and a seven filters that can be applied to both stills and videos when in Effects mode. Apart from the more conventional High-Key, Low-Key, Silhouette, Miniature and Colour Sketch there is a couple of unusual ones. Selective Colour allows you to select the colours you want to highlight in an image while all the others are desaturated.
Lens machinations affect video sound recording, but there is an external mic input too
Night Vision mode instead further extends the sensitivity range to a maximum of ISO 102,400 equivalent, but the top setting is only available in monochromatic capture. HDR works reasonably well, the only drawback being that the function – once enabled through the shooting menu – does not stay on for longer than one shot. So, to shoot in HDR mode, you need go back to the menu every single time you take a shot.
The Nikon D5100 is able to shoot 1080p HD video at 24, 25 or 30fps. Movies are captured as MOV files using MPEG-4 AVCHD/H.264 codec. Uncommonly for an entry-level DSLR it also offers full-time contrast-detection autofocus during video recording, including face detection and 3D tracking, which produces smooth focusing results in static situations but struggles with switching focal planes when subjects or camera are moving.
Not perfect, but not too much to complain about either
Zooming while filming also results into less than smooth moments. Magnification changes are achieved by directly turning the lens barrel, but as this is not as smooth as that of a camcorder, as the zooming action will at times appear twitching or jumpy. The D5100's internal monaural microphone does a good job but the noise caused by the lens autofocus vibration is quite loud. Thankfully the D5100 has been designed with external stereo connectivity with a 3.5mm jack. Nikon also offers its own optional ME-1 stereo mic.
The D5100 is evidence of Nikon fine-tuning its entry-level range for a users that demand increasingly more complex, all-round DSLRs but expect greater ease of use and creative extras too. While I thoroughly enjoyed shooting with the D5100, the camera is by no means perfect. Lack of some of the most useful physical controls such as the a depth of field preview button may disappoint some users. Yet the D5100’s good battery life, versatility and ability to deliver virtually the same image quality of the D7000, adds up to a DSLR that is pretty good value for money. ®
Catherine Monfils is a professional photographer specialising in portraiture, lifestyle and fashion.
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