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Nikon D5100 review: Nikon D5100

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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 Nikon D5100'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.

7.7 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7
  • Image quality 8

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

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
7 fps
magnification/effective magnification
95% coverage
95% coverage
95% coverage
96% coverage
100% coverage
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
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.

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