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Nikon D5100 review: Nikon D5100

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OPPO BDP-93
7.7

Nikon D5100

The Good

Excellent photo quality with a good noise profile, a streamlined shooting design for both photo and video, and a broad, practical feature set contribute to the <b>Nikon D5100</b>'s strengths.

The Bad

While it's fast, some aspects of the D5100's performance still lag behind its class.

The Bottom Line

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.

We're used to Canon and Nikon leapfrogging each other in terms of 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 as an evenly matched competitor. An improvement over the D5000 in almost all respects, the D5100 acquits itself well enough on enough counts to make it a formidable sub-$1,000 dSLR.

Despite the higher-resolution sensor, the D5100 delivers visibly better image quality at all ISO sensitivities than the D5000, although the D5000 has 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, quite usable up through ISO 1600. Beyond that depends upon the content of your scene, though I wouldn't recommend ISO 6400 or higher. Though there's far more color noise in the high ISO JPEGs than I'd like, there's still enough detail, color saturation, and tonality to make the photo usable.

Canon leans just a touch more on the color noise suppression than Nikon, which I think produces slightly better results. It also helps that at equal settings the T3i delivers brighter exposures, with slightly better white balance, than the D5100. (Until Adobe delivers a D5100 codec for Camera Raw I can't do any raw-processing comparisons.)

Colors in the default Standard Picture Style seem to have the saturation pushed just a little, which produces attractive, relatively accurate results. I prefer the Neutral picture style; the others are too contrasty, which results in loss of shadow and dark midtone detail. (You can always increase the contrast later, but getting that detail back is hard.) However, the Standard doesn't shift the colors excessively as on some consumer dSLRs.

  Nikon D3100 Nikon D5000 Nikon D5100 Nikon D90 Nikon D7000
Sensor (effective resolution) 14.2-megapixel CMOS 12.3-megapixel CMOS 16.2-megapixel CMOS 12.3-megapixel CMOS 16.2-megapixel CMOS
23.6x15.8mm 23.6x15.8mm 23.6x15.6mm 23.6x15.8mm 23.6x15.6mm
Color depth 12-bit 12-bit 14-bit 12-bit 14-bit
Sensitivity range ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 3200/12,800 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 1600/3200 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 6400/25,600 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 3200/6400 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 3200/6400 (expanded)
Continuous shooting 3fps
n/a raw/100 JPEG
4 fps
9 raw/100 JPEG
4 fps
n/a raw/100 JPEG
4.5 fps
n/a
7 fps
n/a
Viewfinder
magnification/effective magnification
95% coverage
0.80x/0.53x
95% coverage
0.78x/0.52x
95% coverage
0.78x/0.52x
96% coverage
0.94x/0.63x
100% coverage
0.94x/0.63x
Autofocus 11-pt AF
center cross-type
11-pt AF
center cross-type to f5.6
11-pt AF
center cross-type to f5.6
11-pt AF
center cross-type
51-pt AF
15 cross-type
Shutter speed 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/8000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync
Metering 420-pixel 3D color matrix metering II 420-pixel 3D color matrix metering II 420-pixel 3D color matrix metering II 420-pixel 3D Color Matrix Metering II 1005-pixel 3D color matrix Metering II
LCD size 3 inches fixed
230,000 dots
2.7 inches articulated
230,000 dots
3 inches articulated
921,000 dots
3 inches fixed
921,000 dots
3 inches fixed
921,000 dots
Video 1080/24p; 720/30p/25p/24p H.264 QuickTime MOV 720/24p Motion JPEG AVI 1080/30p/24p; 720/30p/25p/24p H.264 QuickTime MOV 720/24p Motion JPEG AVI
1080/24p/25p;
720/30p/24p/25p H.264 QuickTime MOV
Rated estimated max HD video length 4GB/10 minutes 2GB/5 minutes 20 minutes 2GB/5 min 20 minutes
Audio Mono Mono Mono; mic input Mono Mono; mic input
Manual aperture and shutter in video Aperture only Aperture only Yes No Yes
Wireless flash No No Yes Yes Yes
Memory slots 1 x SDXC 1 x SDHC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDHC 2 x SDXC
Battery life (CIPA rating) 550 shots 510 shots 660 shots 850 shots 1,050 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.9x3.8x2.9 5.0x4.1x3.1 5.0x3.8x3.1 5.2x4.1x3.0 5.2x4.2x3.0
Body operating weight (ounces) 17.7 21.6 19.6 26 27.3
Mfr. price n/a $629.95 (body only) $799.95 (body only) $899.95 (body only) $1,199.95 (body only)
$699.95 (with 18-55mm VR lens) $699.99 (est, with 18-55mm VR lens) $899.95 (with 18-55mm VR lens) $1,049.99 (est, with 18-105mm lens) $1,499.95 (with 18-105mm lens)
Ship date September 2010 April 2009 April 2011 August 2008 October 2010

Though it's still probably not up to the standards of videographers, the video is better than Nikon's previous consumer efforts, and the camera itself is more consumer video-friendly than the T3i. Video is sharp and decently exposed, though it lacks the subtle tonal gradation Canon manages to produce (in part due to the lower, 18Mbps bit rate) and there's quite a bit of aliasing and what looks like rolling shutter that it's attempting to aggressively suppress (resulting in a stutter).

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 not in a spot where you're likely to hit it by accident.

The kit lens/D5100 combination produces some very sharp images, though there's more fringing than I like. By default distortion control is off, and the lens' slight barrelling is symmetrical; overall, it's not bad. The corrected image, though, isn't quite rectilinear in the upper left quadrant. Though there's no fringing/aberration in unusual or unexpected spots, there's quite a bit on blown-out, high-contrast edges.

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)

OPPO BDP-93
7.7

Nikon D5100

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7Image quality 8