Digital SLR Photography

Nikon D5100 DSLR test

Digital SLR Photography test: July 2011

Daniel Lezano finds out just how good Nikon's latest entry-level DSLR really is

Body only: £670 (Guide) / £670 (Street) with 18-55mm VR: £780 (Guide) / £780 (Street)
IMAGE sensor: APS-C CMOS (23.6x15.6mm)
IMAGE RESOLUTION: 16.2-megapixels
LCD: 3in vari-angle TFT (921,000 dots)
WEIGHT: 560g (without battery and card)
PHONE: 08705 143723

Quite simply, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing a new camera. Regardless of how much we want to spend, we have several excellent models to choose from. In fact, hardly a month goes by without one of the big brands putting forward their latest temptation. This month it’s the turn of Nikon, which has updated its popular 12.3-megapixel D5000 with the D5100. This new entry-level model not only offers a higher resolution, but also promises lots of extras for the creative photographer, many borrowed from the more expensive enthusiast-level D7000. The D5100 has its work cut out, as Sony, Canon and Pentax all offer decent DSLRs, while Panasonic, Olympus, Sony and Samsung have all updated their range of hybrid cameras. With camera sales slowing due to a combination of factors, including the economy and a saturation of the market, every new model faces ever more challenging conditions. Our test aims to discover if the Nikon has what it takes to stand out from the competition.

top plate

Handling & ease of use:  22/25
The D5100 is a small and well-formed DSLR, which boasts smooth lines and a very clean control layout. Despite its size, it’s very comfortable to hold, which is much to do with the chunky handgrip that affords a very firm support. And, as with all Nikon DSLRs, it feels well made. The most noticeable difference between the D5100 and its predecessor is the 3in vari-angle LCD monitor, which uses a side-hinge to allow for a fully articulated screen. As well as proving a real bonus for taking still images at awkward angles, it will also be very useful for shooting movies. With its 921,000-dot screen, it provides clean, bright colours and a sharp info screen. The menu screen is good too, although be prepared to scroll through various sub-menus, such is the depth of the camera’s specification.

The layout of the controls in general follows Nikon’s tried and tested set-up, although the rear controls have been moved to accommodate the hinged LCD. On the top-plate is the main dial for setting the exposure mode, with a lever beneath it for switching LiveView on and off. The main on/off switch surrounds the shutter release, with three buttons behind it controlling the LCD’s info screen, exposure compensation and the movie record button. This latter button is positioned close to the shutter release to make it easy to press should you decide to shoot video rather than stills. It’s worth noting that to do this, LiveView must first be set. While this two stage operation may seem a little slow at first, it does make accidental movie recording less likely.

There aren’t too many buttons on the rear, which will appeal to buyers looking for a camera with a simple operation. Much of this has to do with the i button located beside the viewfinder, which works with the four-way control to allow fast access to the majority of key features. Two further buttons worth noting are the flash button and the programmable Function (Fn) on the front left side of the D5100. Sadly lacking is an ISO button, although the Fn button can be set for this option. There is little to say about the viewfinder, other than it’s no better or worse than its rivals, providing a reasonably bright and sharp image.

Overall, the Nikon is a neat, compact and well put together camera. It’s easy to use (although a rearrangement of some controls would make it easier still), benefits from the addition of the vari-angle LCD and lacks any major problems of note.


Features  23/25:
The Nikon D5100 matches the D7000’s 16.2-million pixel resolution, which is the highest in the Nikon range with the exception of the flagship D3x. It is also the highest pixel count of any sub-£1,000 DSLR with the exception of Canon’s 18-megapixel EOS 550D and EOS 600D. Movie makers will be pleased to note that Full HD (1080p) video can be recorded at 24, 25 or 30fps, with the option to improve audio recording by using an external microphone (the £120 ME-1 was released along with the D5100).
Image processing is handled by the EXPEED 2 imaging engine, which allows continuous shooting at up to four frames-per-second. The sensitivity range has been widened compared to the D5000, with the standard ISO 100-6400 range allowing expansion up to 25,600.
As with its predecessor, the D5100 features an 11-point AF system that offers three AF modes: Auto-servo AF (AF-A); Single-servo AF (AF-S) and continuous-servo AF (AF-C), with the option to choose a single AF point or have all active. The LiveView focusing system has been overhauled and now offers a choice of focus modes: Face-priority AF; Wide-area AF, Normal-area AF and subject-tracking AF. As well as AF-S and manual focus modes, the Full-time-servo AF (AF-F) mode introduced on the D3100 is available too. It’s worth noting there is no body-integral AF motor, so autofocus isn’t possible with older ‘screw-drive’ lenses.

There are no surprises in the metering department, with the choice of Matrix, spot or centre-weighted patterns, supported by exposure compensation and AE-Lock. Also available is Active D-Lighting, which helps pull detail from the shadows and highlights.
As you’d expect from a camera aimed at a wide variance of experience, the D5100 boasts an extensive range of exposure modes ranging from manual to semi- and fully automatic Scene mode options. With creative users in mind, the mode dial also features an Effects setting, which is a first for a Nikon DSLR. Select this mode and you’re able to choose from one of a number of effects that range from selective colour to colour sketch or night vision. With the camera in LiveView, you’re able to see the potential results of these effects in real-time and should you wish to, you can apply further effects using the Retouch Menu (see panel Creative Control for more details).
The D5100 also offers HDR (High Dynamic Range) that automatically merges an under- and over exposed image to give an HDR effect. The integral flash is powerful enough for fill-in or party shots, while the flash modes (for integral/hotshoe-mounted flash) are extensive and include slow-sync, anti red-eye, rear-curtain sync and flash exposure compensation (+/-3 stops). 
There is no wireless flash option though.
Other features of note include two infrared sensors (one on the front, one on the rear) for users of a wireless remote and an interval timer, but there’s no depth-of-field preview.

Performance 23/25:
The Nikon takes great pictures and it does it with ease. Autofocus and metering are both consistently successful, which is to be expected as the D5100 uses the highly reliable Scene Recognition System that uses exposure and AF information together to ensure sharp, well-exposed results. Noise was very well controlled and the Nikon can be used at ISO ratings up to 800 without any major concerns. In fact, even at ISO 1600-6400 noise is better than expected and at ISO 12,800 a printable result is still possible.
Colour reproduction and tonal 
rendition is excellent and in-camera JPEGs show a good level of sharpness, with conversion from NEF (Raw) files being slightly sharper. In general, there is little to fault in terms of image quality. AF in LiveView is better than the likes of the Canon but still isn’t perfect, and while much better than the D5000, it’s still behind the excellent performance of Sony’s DSLRs and Panasonic’s GH2. The quality of the HD video is excellent too.
Results from the creative effects are hit and miss but these facilities shouldn’t be disregarded as they can be used to give impressive results when used in the right situation. You’ll find using effects like selective color with movies can prove very eye-catching too. Overall, performance from the D5100 is impressive.

Overall verdict:
The Nikon is another well-specified DSLR that, while classed as entry-level, could easily be termed an intermediate model. Its small size and light weight, along with its ease to use and vari-angle LCD is sure to find favour with DSLR newcomers. Its range of features will keep most users happy too and while there may be some who turn their nose up at the creative functions, the wealth of in-camera effects is a real selling point and fun to try. It’s right up there among the best in its price range and deserves success. But it faces strong competition, in particular from the Canon EOS 600D, which has the advantage of a higher pixel count and a slightly easier control set-up. Overall, it’s a fantastic little number that is unlikely to disappoint. Deserving of a Best Buy.

Handling & ease of use: 22/25
Features: 23/25
Performance: 23/25
Value For Money: 23/25
Overall: 91/100

Nikon is pushing the D5100 as having a wealth of features for the creative photographer and movie maker. So what are the key creative functions?
Want to shoot still images and HD Video with a difference? Then the D5100’s Effects setting may be worth a try. You can choose from the following:
1) Selective Color: Choose a colour to retain in the picture and the rest of the scene is recorded in black & white – with the exception of your chosen colour!
2) Color sketch: Outlines of subjects in a scene are detected and a sketch-type image is created.

colour sketch

3) High key: Get a very clean, bright image by intentional overexposing the results.
4) Low key: Shoot dark, moody images due to intentional underexposure.
5) Silhouette: Shoot subjects against a bright background and the D5100 looks to turn them into a silhouette.
6) Miniature effect: Make street scenes look like scale models with this mode. Shoot from a high viewpoint for the best effect!
7) Night vision: Records mono images at very high ISO.

HDR mode:
HDR isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but it’s worth a try when you’re shooting high contrast scenes and need to retain as much detail as possible. Press the shutter and it takes two exposures in a single shutter release and combines them to give extended dynamic range. Results aren’t as dramatic as you’d get from shooting HDR in the normal fashion with software like Photomatix, but it’s worth trying out.
  Retouch Menu
This feature is a regular on Nikon DSLRs and is well worth trying out. You’re able to choose existing images to add effects to, with a new copy being saved. The options range from the likes of Straighten and Distortion control that aim to improve results, to artistic choices like Color sketch, Color outline images and Miniature effect. The effects are a little hit and miss but good results are possible and as the originals are unaltered, it’s a fun and quick way to try something different. It’s worth noting that stills and images can be retouched.

Supplied accessories:
The Nikon D5100 is supplied with the battery charger (MH-24), Li-ion battery (EN-EL14), wide strap, USB/AV cables, body cap, eyepiece cap, software CD, instructions and Quick Guide.



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