Nikon D5100 £779
21st Jun 2012 | 11:10
16.2 megapixels, articulated screen, fun Special Effects modes and intuitive controls
Although there has been some overlap, digital SLR development has gone through some quite distinct phases.
Initially the battle was to produce affordable models, and once this was achieved manufacturers turned their attention to producing cameras with higher pixel counts. This was followed by a push in sensitivity levels and improved low-light performance.
During these development phases camera functionality has also expanded, with manufacturers capitalising upon the benefits of digital technology and introducing features such as Live View, video and dynamic range optimisation systems. Now, there's a drive to make these increasingly complex and versatile SLRs easier to use, while at the same time helping photographers be more creative.
The Nikon D5100, which serves as the Nikon D5000 replacement, typifies this era in DSLR evolution.
It may not have the 24 million pixels of the Nikon D3200, but for many the D5100's 16.2 million pixels is enough. In addition, the D5100 has an articulated 3-inch LCD screen, Special Effects and fully automated Scene modes, along with the more advanced PSAM exposure modes.
So on paper, it seems to offer pretty much everything the aspiring photographer could wish for, with plenty of opportunity to take creative images. Let's see.
Yet the Nikon D5100 features the same 16.2-million-pixel CMOS sensor and EXPEED 2 processor as the Nikon D7000. This means raw images are saved as 14-bit files and users can expect similar quality results with the two cameras.
However, like the Nikon D5000 it replaces, the D5100's white balance and metering systems use information from a 420-pixel RGB sensor (the D7000 uses a 2,016 pixel RGB device) and its autofocus (AF) system has 11 points.
While it may not have the 39 points of the D7000's AF system, the D5100's Multi-CAM 1000 AF module performed well in the D5000 and Nikon D90 (which has not been discontinued; read our Nikon D90 review).
Like the D7000, the D5100's native sensitivity can be set from ISO 100 to 6400, and there are four expansion settings topping out at the equivalent of ISO 25,600 (Hi 2). On those rare occasions when this is not high enough, Nikon D5100 users can select the Night Vision Special Effect mode, which pushes the sensitivity to ISO 102,400.
This value is only matched by top-end DSLRs such as Nikon's full-frame D3s. However, while the D3s can shoot in colour at ISO 102,400, the D5100 can only record monochrome images.
In manual exposure or shutter priority mode when the shutter speed is 1/250sec or faster, the Nikon D5100 can shoot continuously at a maximum rate of 4fps for around 100 highest quality JPEGs or 20 raw images or 12 simultaneous raw and JPEG files when a class 6 SD card such as a SanDisk Extreme III is installed.
While this is impressive for a camera of this level, keen action photographers may look enviously at the 6fps shooting offered by the D7000. It's also worth bearing in mind that it takes around 1 min 50 sec for the D5100 to write 100 Fine JPEGs to the SD card.
Perhaps the most noticeable upgrade that the Nikon D5100 makes on the D5000 is with the LCD, which goes from being a 2.7-inch 230,000 dot display to a 3-inch 920,000 dot screen. This matches the size and resolution of the D7000's screen and it should make a significant difference when using Live View and focusing manually.
It was something of a disappointment that the D7000 doesn't have an articulated screen, but Nikon has not made this mistake with the Nikon D5100. Unlike the D5000, however, which had the articulation join at the bottom on the screen, the D5100's screen is hinged on the left. This makes the screen easier to use when the camera is on a tripod.
In addition to the Active D-Lighting (ADL) dynamic range optimisation system that we now expect with Nikon SLRs, the Nikon D5100 has an HDR (high dynamic range) mode. When this is selected the camera takes two exposures, one over and one under the 'correct' exposure and merges them automatically into a single image with more shadow and highlight detail than normal. It could prove useful in high contrast conditions if the effect is subtle and not overtly 'HDR'.
Although there's a lot packed into the D5100, including full HD (1080p) video and multiple exposure capability, Nikon seems proudest of its Effects modes. These allow the user to apply special effects (Night Vision, Color Sketch, Miniature, Selective Color, Silhouette, High Key and Low Key) to images as they are captured – rather than post capture as with the Nikon D3100 and D7000.
Furthermore, the impact of these effects can be seen on the screen when the camera is in Live View mode. While these are fun and allow the user to create some interesting images, it's disappointing that its not possible to save raw files at the same time as the JPEGs when these effect options are selected.
Build and handling
When gripping and squeezing the Nikon D5100 a little harder than strictly necessary it becomes clear that it is, on the whole, very well built. It feels nicely put together and designed to last.
The question mark is over the SD card port cover that, when closed, still moves under a tapping finger. It's not a major point, but it doesn't quite match the high quality feel of the rest of the camera.
One knock-on effect of the success of compact system cameras appears to be that SLR manufacturers are making smaller cameras. Hence, at 128 x 97 x 79mm and weighing in at around 560g (with battery and card) the D5100 is approximately 10% smaller and lighter than the D5000 it replaces and the articulated screen is 17% thinner.
This and the larger LCD screen has meant that Nikon has had to make a few changes to the D5000's control layout for the D5100. It would certainly be hard to find room for any additional buttons on the rear of the D5100 without seriously limiting space for the photographer's thumb.
Perhaps the most significant difference in the control layout between the two cameras is that the Live View button found on the rear of the D5000 has gone and instead the D5100 has a sprung lever switch underneath the main mode dial.
This switch feels well made and the D5100 responds quickly to its use, but given that using Live View means looking at the screen, it is debatable whether moving its activation control to the top-plate is the best solution. It's easy to mistake it for the camera's power switch.
Similarly, movie recording is now started and stopped by pressing the dedicated button, which is also on the camera's top-plate. Nikon would argue that there is logic to putting the shooting or recording buttons close together.
Also, because the D5100 has an articulated screen, you may find you more often view the camera from above than you would with a camera with a fixed screen, and the top-plate controls are easier to locate when shooting in this way.
Although the screen provides a clear view of the image being composed and the magnified view has enough detail to facilitate manual focus, reflections are an issue in bright sunlight. While it is still possible to compose the image accurately, and the shade of a hand will ensure enough detail is visible for manual focusing, it can sometimes be tricky to make out some of the smaller on-screen icons.
As the viewfinder offers just 95% coverage (standard for a camera of this level), there is scope for a few surprises around the image frame.
On the plus side, however, even with the AF-S Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 G kit lens, the view is bright and clear enough to allow manual focusing – although in many instances it may be better to do this while looking at the magnified Live View image.
When the Color Sketch or Miniature Special Effects modes are activated on the screen the Live View image becomes very jerky, presumably because of the demand on the D5100's processing power.
Nevertheless, the effects are easy to use and generally work well, although a grainy monochrome mode might be preferable to the Color Sketch mode. It would also be nice to have control over the exposure or at least exposure compensation when these modes are selected.
Small niggles aside, the Nikon D5100 is easy to get to grips with, and while there might not be direct control for aspects such as sensitivity, drive mode, white balance and metering, these and more can be accessed quickly via the Information Display.
Chroma noise is much less of an issue in high sensitivity images than it used to be, and it's impressive just how little coloured speckling is visible in images captured with the D5100 in its highest ISO setting, ISO 25,600 (equivalent) when noise reduction is set to the default Normal value.
At 100% on screen (or at actual pixels in Photoshop), there is some fairly subtle false colouring visible, and there's an obvious speckled texture of luminance noise, but the images are still usable and many cases would make decent A3 (23.4 x 16.5-inch) prints.
As we would expect, images improve significantly when the sensitivity settings is kept below the expansions settings and while there is a dip in the level of detail resolved at ISO 6400, the results are still very respectable.
In the past Nikon's auto white balance (AWB) system has been accused of being a little too accurate, so that warm light is rendered neutral and some of the atmosphere of the scene is lost. The Nikon D5100's AWB system seems to fare a little better on this score, but there is a tendency for it to make scenes captured under hazy sunshine look a little too yellow.
This is especially noticeable with landscapes containing lush, green grass, but it is effectively countered by switching from the Standard Picture Control mode to Landscape mode, since this boosts greens and blues.
Nikon has some of the best phase detection AF systems around, and the D5100's doesn't disappoint. Paired with a Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, it proved up to the job of keeping pace with cars moving at 80mph on a race track.
The contrast detection system available in Live View mode is also good, only struggling to find sharp focus in fairly low light or when the subject is very close. That said, the subject tends to glide into sharp register rather than snapping into focus as it does with the phase detection system.
There's very little to say about the D5100's metering system, apart from it works very well. Although the exposure compensation facility still comes in handy occasionally, in its Matrix mode the system usually takes brighter or darker than average subjects in its stride. The camera's dynamic range is also good, so highlight and shadow detail isn't lost earlier than it should be.
All things considered, the Nikon D5100 is a very capable camera.
Image quality and resolution
As part of our image quality testing for the Nikon D5100, we've shot our resolution chart with a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM lens mounted.
If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100 the Nikon D5100 is capable of resolving up to around 26 (line widths per picture height x100) in its raw files and 24 (LWPPH x100)in its highest quality JPEG files.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
ISO 100 JPEG score: 24, full image
ISO 200 JPEG score: 24, full image
ISO 400 JPEG score: 24, full image
ISO 800 JPEG score: 24, full image
ISO 1600 JPEG score: 24, full image
ISO 3200 JPEG score: 22, full image
ISO 6400 JPEG score: 20, full image
Hi 0.3EV over ISO 6400 score: 20, full image
Hi 0.7EV over ISO 6400 score: 20, full image
Hi 1EV over ISO 6400 score: 20, full image
Hi 2EV over ISO 6400 score: 18, full image
ISO 100 raw score: 26, full image
ISO 200 raw score: 26, full image
ISO 400 raw score: 26, full image
ISO 800 raw score: 24, full image
ISO 1600 raw score: 24, full image
ISO 3200 raw score: 22, full image
ISO 6400 raw score: 22, full image
Hi 0.3EV over ISO 6400 raw score: 20, full image
Hi 0.7EV over ISO 6400 raw score: 20, full image
Hi 1EV over ISO 6400 raw score: 20, full image
Hi 2EV over ISO 6400 raw score: 18/20, full image
Noise and dynamic range
We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.
JPEG Signal to noise ratio
A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.
JPEG images from the Nikon D5100 compare well with the other cameras, even the full-frame Nikon D800. At sensitivities over about ISO 3200, the D5100 beats the new D3200 and the Canon 600D and 60D, indicating that images are cleaner, with less noise.
Raw (after conversion to TIFF) Signal to noise ratio
Though it is considerably older, the Nikon D5100 produces raw files which, after conversion to TIFF, have a signal to noise ratio close to that of images from the D3200 and D800. The two Canon cameras fall some way behind.
JPEG Dynamic range
This chart indicates that the D5100's JPEGs have a at least a 0.5EV higher dynamic range than the Canon EOS 600D's JPEG files across the entire sensitivity range, but they fall some way behind the newer Nikon D3200 and D800 at the lower sensitivity settings.
Raw (after conversion to TIFF) Dynamic range
This chart indicates that the D5100's raw files (after conversion to TIFF) follow a very similar pattern to the JPEGS with regards to dynamic range. In other words, they beat both the Canon EOS 600D and 60D's across the lower sensitivity range, but they fall some way behind the newer Nikon D3200 and D800.
Sensitivity and noise
Full ISO 100 image taken with the Nikon D5100, see the cropped (100%) versions below. The cropped areas are from the darker side of the scene as this is where the cameras struggle the most and more noise is visible.
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 12,800
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 25,600
These images are made from raw files with the noise reduction and sharpening turned off at the processing stage.
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 25,600
Full ISO 100 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 100 JPEG
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 200 JPEG
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 400 JPEG
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 800 JPEG
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 1600 JPEG
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 3200 JPEG
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 6400 JPEG
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 12,800 JPEG
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 25,600 JPEG
These images are made from raw files with the noise reduction and sharpening at their default settings.
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 100 raw
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 200 raw
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 400 raw
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 800 raw
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 1600 raw
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 3200 raw
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 6400 raw
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 12,800 raw
Click here to see the full resolution image ISO 25,600 raw
Shooting with the Nikon D5100's Landscape Picture Control mode boosted the green of the grass and the blue of the hazy sky.
Using Selective Color mode, we selected the colour from the bluebell flower.
Selective Color mode, with colour selected from the primrose yellow
Monochrome Picture control mode set to the highest contrast level (+3)
The Nikon D5100 has an HDR mode that can be activated when it's set to record JPEG files. In this mode the D5100 takes two images with different exposures in quick succession and merges them into one image with more shadow and highlight detail. The exposure differential can be set manually to 1, 2 or 3EV. Alternatively the D5100 can be set to decide the exposure difference automatically.
Although there is some haloing visible around high contrast edges, it's good to see that the HDR effect is fairly subtle. It could prove useful.
Auto HDR (Click here to see the full resolution image)
HDR off and exposure compensation set to -0.7EV (Click here to see the full resolution image)
HDR 3EV and exposure compensation set to -0.7EV (Click here to see the full resolution image)
Nikon is aiming the D5100 at relatively novice photographers who want to take their hobby more seriously and want a versatile camera that will enable them to take more creative images.
The Nikon D5100 is a great choice for these users, but it is worthy of consideration by more experienced photographers as well. There's plenty of control available over the appearance of images and the 16.2MP sensor is a higher performer in average low lighting conditions.
Having a high resolution articulated LCD screen is a bonus, because it actively encourages shooting from unusual angles, which makes for more interesting pictures. Those who rubbish the idea of such a device on a DSLR should try using one for a few hours while taking macro or still life images.
Although the Special Effects are fun, and in some cases very effective, it's a shame that you don't have the opportunity to take some control over the exposure or record simultaneous raw files without the effects.
Read our hands on Canon 650D review
The only real downside for enthusiast photographers is that there are few direct controls over image parameters. However, most features such as the white balance, drive mode and sensitivity settings are just a couple of clicks away via the Information Display system.
Great for both enthusiasts and novices looking to take the next step forward, the Nikon D5100 offers a lot of versatility, opportunity for creativity and quality results. However, the bar appears to have been raised by the Canon 650D which has a touch-sensitive articulated screen, 18-million effective pixels and a new hybrid AF system that enables faster focusing in Live View and Video mode.