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First Look: Nikon D5100
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First Look: Nikon D5100

5:32 /

Though it doesn't rank first based on any individual aspect of the camera, the Nikon D5100 delivers a solid combination of image quality, performance, features, and design that puts it out in front if you're looking for a well-rounded option under $1,000.

-Hi, I'm Lori Grunin, Senior Editor for CNET, and this is the Nikon D5100. We're used to Canon and Nikon leapfrogging each other, you know, vis-� -vis product announcement timing and technology updates. But this year, they're finally going head-to-head in the budget DSLR market. Nikon's D5100, a replacement for the 2-year-old D5000, directly takes on the Canon EOS Rebel T3i with an evenly-matched competitor. An improvement over the D5000 in almost all respects, the D5100 acquits itself enough on all counts to make it a formidable sub-$1000 DSLR. Despite its higher resolution sensor, the D5100 delivers visibly better image quality at all ISO sensitivities than the D5000, although the D5000 does have slightly better white balance. It has an excellent JPEG noise profile, very clean up to ISO 400, and despite some detail degradation from color noise, it's quite usable up to ISO 1600 as well. Beyond that really depends upon the content that you're seeing, though I really wouldn't recommend the ISO 6400 or higher. There's far more color noise in the high ISO JPEGs than I'd like, but there's still enough detail, color saturation, and tonality to make the photos usable. Colors in its default, standard picture style seem to have the saturation pushed just a little, which produces attractive, relatively accurate results. Though it's still probably not up to the standards of videographers, the video's better than Nikon's previous consumer efforts. Video is sharp and decently exposed, though it lacks the subtle tonal gradations that Canon manages to produce. However, if you just want a video mode that you can easily jump to without interrupting your still shooting, the D5100's design inherits the D7000's intelligence. The switch on the side of the mode dial toggles between regular and Live View video mode, so you don't have to use an awkwardly-placed mode on the dial, and the record button is in a great spot by the shutter. It's easily reachable with your forefinger but it's not in a spot where you're likely to accidentally hit it. 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. 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 a little plasticky but solid. One of the most notable updates to the camera is the larger higher resolution display. Nikon changed the movement of the articulated LCD from a 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 view finder looks like that of most of the other low-end models. It's dim with tiny autofocus points that are difficult to see without lighting them up during pre-focus. However, there are larger AF area markers and, overall, I like it better than Canon's. The back controls are laid out in a typical fashion. The information edit button, which is 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 ended up moving the AF point by accidentally pressing the switch. Shooting effects are now on the mode dial and a handful of decent options include a very clever night vision mode, which is a useful way to take advantage of the sensor's capability of gaining up to ISO 102400. In color, the results would be useless. But by converting the results to black and white, you get the ability to shoot near darkness and obtain usable, though not optimal for high-resolution printing, results. All the effects operate in movie capture mode as well. There's also a new two-shot HDR auto-combine capability, but I found it kind of underwhelming. The implementation is annoying. You have to go into the menus and re-enable it after every shot, unless you assign it to the function button. But there are other things I'd like to assign to the function button instead. 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, like you're shooting indoors. It works okay for opening up some shadow detail but does nothing to bring down the highlights. If you wanna do HDR the old-fashioned way, you may not be thrilled with the D5100's options either. 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 9 custom picture style 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. Class lagging performance holds the D5100 back from getting an unequivocal recommendation, but it's certainly fast enough to handle most situations that general purpose shooters will find themselves in. So, if you're okay with compromising just a little on shooting speed, it should please on all other accounts. I'm Lori Grunin and this is the Nikon D5100.

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