Nikon D5100 Review
Performance - How well does it take pictures?
Ultimately, it is image quality that makes a camera worth buying. For an SLR, image quality greatly depends on the lens. While color, noise, exposure and dynamic-range are properties of a camera, distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberrations are properties of the lens. Sharpness and contrast depend on the weakest link. That is, the camera cannot capture more details than the lens lets through. Conversely, it is quite possible for a lens to transmit more details than the sensor can capture.
Note that the Nikon D5100 is often sold with a kit-lens, specifically the Nikkor AF-S DX 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6G VR
Nikkor AF-S DX 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6G VR. As this lens is of poor quality, we highly recommend to skip it buy a higher-quality one instead. The difference is clearly visible in both tests and real-world photography. Towards the long end, things are very soft until stopped down to F/11. This is dangerously close to the diffraction limit of this camera.
The D5100 has a reliable and generally accurate exposure system. With most scenes, exposure compensation is not required and burnt highlights are rare. The metering system is not entirely conservative, so negative EC is sometimes needed to avoid blown out areas in backgrounds.
There are 6 Picture Control styles, each can be modified in terms of sharpness, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue. The Standard setting provides the most realistic rendition but some colors are visibly off. Setting Hue to +1 improves things. A +1 adjustment in Saturation slants results towards more punch while reducing visible undersaturation. The Neutral mode provides slightly a softer and less contrasty look, while both Landscape and Vivid modes show over-the-top-colors not suitable to represent reality. The default Sharpness of 2 is a seriously soft, increasing it to 6 delivers much better results without visible sharpening artifacts.
The white-balance system performs inline with modern DSLRs. Automatic white-balance is very often spot-on. Even artificial light is handled extremely well. Preset and custom white-balance are very accurate. While there is a high degree of WB options, including 7 types of Fluorescent lighting and 13 steps of WB fine-tuning along 2 axis, setting them is tedious and not entirely accurate since display colors cannot be adjusted. If you do know the exact type of lighting used or simply want consistency, the presets are quite useful though.
Noise levels are very low until ISO 1600 and becomes noticeable at ISO 3200. At ISO 6400, noise is evident but medium-sized prints of relatively bright subjects are possible given the available resolution. The expanded range settings of 12800 and 25600 are much noisier but can produce small print with a recognizable subject. One thing to note is that NR starts softening details starting at ISO 800, so the largest are only truly possible below that sensitivity.
The D5100 is the first digital SLR camera to have a NightVision mode. This is a fully automatic mode which produces B&W images at ISO 6400 to 102400. Results at 6400 are usable but the highest sensitivities are not.
This DSLR is generally fast and remains responsive after most operations. Its performance is characterized by the following measurements:
- Power On: Instant
- Power Off: Instant
- Autofocus: As little as ½s, up to 1s with a slow lens such as the kit lens
- Focus Confirm: Nearly instant for both autofocus and manual focus
- Shutter-lag: Nearly instant followed by noticeable black-out
- Shot-to-Shot Speed: About 1/3s
- Instant Review: Just over ½s
- Playback Mode: ½s
- Shooting Mode: Instant
- Shot-to-Shot Review: ½s
The slowest and probably only area of concern with the D5100 is its autofocus speed. The 11-point autofocus system moves at a leisurely pace in moderate light. Indoors and in low-light, it sometimes takes over 1s to lock focus. In bright daylight, autofocus speed is better though. Focus speed is affected by the lens used and the kit lens does not fare well.
The continuous drive runs constantly at 4 FPS for up to 100 JPEG images or 16 RAW files before pausing, but a fast card is needed to reach those limits. At 660 shots-per-charge according to the CIPA standard, battery-life is average for an entry-level DSLR. The supplied charger recharges the battery quite quickly.
Performance - How well does it shoot video?
The Nikon D5100 records video at 1920x1080 @ 30 or 24 FPS, which is knows as 1080p or Full HD. Zoom and Manual Focus are usable while filming, which is normal since these are mechanically-controlled on virtually all DSLR cameras. The D5100 can also use contrast-detect autofocus during video recording.
The D5100 has a sensitive built-in mono microphone which records sounds from both outside and inside the camera. This unfortunately includes the sound made by the autofocus mechanism. There is, however, provision for an external stereo sound input to avoid this issue and improve audio quality. AF noise probably varies by lens, but the kit-lens makes an annoying screech.
In single-shot (AF-S) mode, the shutter-release activates autofocus either before or during filming. If you must use autofocus, this is the best mode to use it in. Very few digital cameras work this way. There are two advantages to this:
- It is easy to make sure the camera focuses on the desired subject. Each time the subject changes, simply refocus using the shutter-release.
- The lens only makes noise at specific and controlled times. In other words, only when the shutter-release is pressed halfway.
In continuous autofocus (AF-C) mode, the lenses focuses constantly. This causes two problems:
- Continuous noise from the camera lens. Each time there is a slight movement of the subject, the camera refocuses which causes noise to be recorded by the internal microphone.
- Very often the camera will focus at the wrong distance. As the subject moves across the frame, the camera can easily get confused and focus at the background or the wrong subject.
The way contrast-detect autofocus works, it moves the lens back and forth to find the distance at which focus points have the highest contrast. In order to do this, it must focus too close and too far first. This is not a problem for photography since this all happens before taking a picture. During video recording this causes a disturbing back and forth movement in videos. The bottom line is that the advancement of having DSLR cameras record video with autofocus remains close to useless.
The lack a dedicated video mode normally causes two issues:
- The inability to accurately setup framing for video: The D5100 offers small framing guides at all corners of the video frame. To see them, the Info button must be used to swtich display modes. While better than nothing, it is hard to avoid chopping a tall object near the middle of the frame.
- The camera is not ready to record video and some work is needed for that. The D5100 does very well in this respect with a delay of about ½s. Recording stops instantly when the same button is pressed again.
Video quality from the Nikon D5100 is very good. The camera captures plenty of details and motion is recording smoothly. A bright view is usually maintained and the preview is generally accurate. Exposure is automatic with the use of EC being possible while filming. Keep in mind that shutter-speeds during filming are limited by the frame-rate, so EC has limited latitude. Videos are saved in Quicktime format with the efficient H.264 codec.
With class-leading image-quality, the Nikon D5100 provides an excellent choice for new DSLR users who want quality and simplicity. As a added bonus, the D5100 is priced extremely affordably considering its performance is only matched by cameras costing at least 50% more. Plus, it gives access to the second largest lens lineup of the industry.
The performance of the D5100 is well-rounded with low image noise, good dynamic range, excellent white-balance, reliable metering, quick performance and a 4 FPS continuous drive. Color accuracy is not ideal but gets reasonably close for general use. The only limiting situation for the D5100 is action photography which would benefit from the much faster autofocus system of its higher-end sibling, the superb Nikon D7000.
Sharpness is compromised by the kit-lens, but a good Nikkor lens can easily compensate for that. While focus speed, at least with the kit-lens, is on the slow side for a DSLR but users upgrading from a fixed-lens camera well get a dramatic improvement.
While the feature set of the Nikon D5100 is reasonable for an entry-level DSLR, Nikon has adjusted its interface to reduce efficiency when used by advanced users, probably to prevent losing sales of the D7000. Particularly, anyone shooting from a tripod has to buy a remote release to avoid losing their sanity.
In the end, the Nikon D5100 delivers amazing results from an entry-level DSLR thanks it its state-of-the-art 16 megapixels CMOS sensor which also captures full 1080p HD video. This combination makes it ideal for people looking for quality output without complications.
Nikon D5100 Highlights
Sensor-Size: 24 x 16mm
Actual size when viewed at 100 DPI
|16 Megapixels DSLR||ISO 100-25600|
|Nikon F Mount|
|Full manual controls, including Manual Focus|
|Built-in Dust Reduction||Custom white-balance with 2 axis fine-tuning|
|4 FPS Drive, 100 Images||Spot-Metering|
|1920x1080 @ 30 FPS Video Recording||Hot-Shoe|
|3" LCD 920K Pixels||Stereo audio input|
|Secure Digital Extended Capacity|
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