Nikon D5100 review: Nikon D5100

All the cameras in this class deliver performance that's more than capable of handling typical consumer shooting, though the D5100 generally ranks at the slower end of a fast group. It powers on and shoots quickly, in just under 0.3 second. On average, it focuses and shoots under good light in 0.3 second--it occasionally went much faster--and a decent 0.6 second under dim conditions. It gets a little pokier than the crowd with relatively high shot-to-shot times: 0.6 second for JPEG and 0.8 second for raw (and 1 second with flash enabled). That's a little slower than the D5000 and a lot slower than the T3i, though it's still quite good. Its burst rate of 3.8fps, like the T3i's 3.6fps, isn't bad but they are among the slowest in their class. Most important, however, shooting with the camera feels fast and fluid; I never felt like the autofocus or processing overhead got in the way of getting the shot.

Like many in its price class, the D5100 feels plasticky, but solid. One of the design changes from the D5000 is the more prominent slope on the left shoulder, which I'm not crazy about--I think it makes the camera look lopsided--but which really doesn't affect the shooting experience. One of the most notable updates to the camera is the larger, higher-resolution display. Nikon changed the movement of the articulated LCD from drop-down-and-twist to a more traditional flip-out-and-twist. Unfortunately, I found the display a little too contrasty, misleading me into thinking my exposures were off. Plus, it's difficult to see in direct sunlight, even if you change the angle.

Similarly, the viewfinder looks like most of the low-end models: dim, with tiny autofocus points that are difficult to see without lighting them up during prefocus. However, there are larger AF area markers and overall I like it better than Canon's.

  Canon EOS Rebel T3i Nikon D5100 Pentax K-r Sony Alpha SLT-A55V Sony Alpha DSLR-A580
Sensor (effective resolution) 18-megapixel CMOS 16.2-megapixel CMOS 12.4-megapixel CMOS 16.2-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS 16.2-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS
22.3x14.9mm 23.6x15.6mm 23.6 x15.8mm 23.5 x15.6mm 23.5 x15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.6x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 6400/12,800 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 6400/25,600 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 6400/25,600 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 1600/12,800 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 12,800/25,600 (expanded)
Continuous shooting 3.7 fps
6 raw/34 JPEG
4 fps
n/a raw/100 JPEG
6 fps
n/a raw/25 JPEG
6 fps (10fps with auto exposure)
20 raw/35 JPEG
5 fps (7fps with auto exposure)
22 raw/45 JPEG
Viewfinder (magnification/ effective magnification) Optical
95% coverage
0.85x/0.53x
95% coverage
0.78x/0.63x
Optical
96% coverage
0.85x/0.57x
Electronic
0.46 inches/1.2 million dots
100% coverage
1.1x/0.73x
Optical
n/a
95% coverage
0.80x/0.53x
Autofocus 9-pt AF
center cross-type to f2.8
11-pt AF
center cross-type to f5.6
11-pt AF
9 cross-type
(SAFOX IX)
15-pt phase-detection AF
3 cross-type
15-pt phase-detection AF
3 cross-type
Shutter speed 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 x-sync 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/6000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/180 sec x-sync 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/160 x-sync 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/160 x-sync
Metering 63-zone iFCL 420-pixel 3D color matrix metering II 16 segment 1200 zone 1200 zone
Video H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/24p/25p/30p; 720/50p/60p 1080/30p/24p; 720/30p/25p/24p H.264 QuickTime MOV 720/25p Motion JPEG AVI
AVCHD 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1440x1080/30p @ 12Mbps AVCHD 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1440x1080/30p @ 12Mbps
Audio Mono; mic input Mono; mic input Mono Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input
Manual aperture and shutter in video Yes Yes n/a Yes Yes
Maximum best-quality recording time 4GB/12 minutes 20 minutes 4GB/25 minutes 2GB/9 minutes 2GB/14 minutes
Image stabilization Optical Optical Sensor shift Sensor shift Sensor shift
LCD size 3 inches articulated
1.04 megapixels
3 inches articulated
921,000 dots
3 inches fixed
921,000 dots
3 inches articulated
921,600 dots
3 inches articulated
921,600 dots
Memory slots 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC/SDHC
(SDXC requires firmware upgrade)
1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC
Wireless flash Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 470 shots 660 shots 560 shots (NiMH batteries) 330 shots 1,050 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 5.1x3.8x3.0 5.0x3.8x3.1 4.8x3.6x2.7 4.9x3.6x3.3 5.4x4.1x3.3
Body operating weight (ounces) 20 19.6 20.4 (est) 17.8 24 (est)
Mfr. price $799.99 (body only) $799.95 (body only) n/a $749.99 (body only) $799.99 (body only)
$899.99 (with 18-55mm IS II lens)
$899.95 (with 18-55mm VR lens) $749.95 (with 18-55mm lens) $849.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $899.99 (with 18-55mm lens)
$1,099.99 (with 18-135mm IS lens) n/a n/a n/a n/a
Release date March 2011 April 2011 October 2010 September 2010 November 2010

The back controls are laid out in a typical fashion. The information edit button--not to be confused with the info button on the top--brings up the interactive information display where you adjust most of your shooting settings. My only gripe: there's no way to lock the navigation switch. Since I shoot in single-point area AF mode, I frequently moved the AF point by accidentally pressing the switch.

Nikon offers a well-rounded feature set as well. Shooting effects are now on the mode dial, and the handful of decent options includes the clever Night Vision mode, a very useful way to take advantage of the sensor's capability of increasing gain up to ISO 102,400. In color, the results would be useless. But by converting the results to black and white, you get the ability to shoot in near darkness and obtain usable--though not optimal for high-resolution printing--results. Autofocus only works in Live View mode. All operate in movie capture as well as still.

There's a new two-shot HDR autocombine capability, but, well, meh. The implementation is annoying--you have to go into the menus and re-enable it after every shot unless you assign it to Fn. But there are other things I want to assign to Fn. In either case, Nikon obviously views it as a one-shot override feature rather than a setting you'll need to use repeatedly for a short time. Furthermore, two shots don't really provide a "high" dynamic range, just a slightly extended one. It works OK for opening up some shadow detail, but does little to bring down the highlights. If you want to do HDR the old-fashioned way, you may not be thrilled with the D5100's options. It offers three-shot bracketing up to two stops.

On the other hand, Nikon's always been there for time-lapse shooters, and the built-in intervalometer remains a key advantage. There are also nine custom Picture Style settings slots, and you can define up to 99 in software and share them among multiple cameras. As with the T3i, though, there's no way to save and recall custom settings.

Conclusions
Class-lagging performance holds the D5100 back from getting an unequivocal recommendation. But it's certainly fast enough to handle most situations general-purpose shooters will find themselves in. So if you're OK with compromising just a little on shooting speed, the Nikon D5100 should please on all other counts.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot  
Raw shot-to-shot time  
Typical shot-to-shot time  
Shutter lag (dim light)  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Pentax K-x
0.7 
0.6 
0.4 
0.5 
0.3 
Canon EOS Rebel T3i
0.3 
0.5 
0.4 
0.6 
0.3 
Nikon D5100
0.3 
0.8 
0.6 
0.6 
0.3 
Nikon D5000
0.2 
0.5 
0.5 
0.7 
0.3 
Sony Alpha SLT-A55V
0.5 
0.7 
0.6 
0.7 
0.3 
Nikon D90
0.2 
0.6 
0.5 
0.9 
0.4 

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

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    Quick Specifications See All

    • Release date Apr. 15, 2011
    • Digital camera type SLR
    • Optical Zoom 3 x
    • Optical Sensor Type CMOS
    • Sensor Resolution 16.2 Megapixel
    • Image Stabilizer optical
    • Lens 27 - 82.5mm F/3.5
    • Optical Sensor Size 15.6 x 23.6mm