Nikon D5100 Key Features
- 16.2MP CMOS APS-C Format Sensor
- 1080p HD Video Capture
- ISO 100-25600
- 4 fps
- 3-inch 921k-dot res Articulating LCD
- Built-in Intervalometer
- SDXC Memory Card Compatible
Nikon D5100 Handing and Features
The D5100 is a compact DSLR that will easily fit small hands. Nikon generally does well on control layouts and overall camera operation, and the D5100 is no exception. While the grip is a bit on the smallish side, I still found that it worked well with the camera’s control scheme.
The D5100’s controls start out, like all other Nikon cameras, will a well-placed on/off switch. It’s located on the front edge of the shutter release and is a quick flip away from your index finger. I’m sure it will never happen, but I wish Canon would adopt this simple switch placement. You can bring the camera to the ready and have it turned on before you even get it to your eye.
Behind the shutter release is a dedicated video record button that allows you to instantly start recording video when in live view mode. Again, this is a simple and intuitive design. There is no need to turn the mode dial to a “video” setting. Just hit the red button when the D5100 is in live view mode (discussed below) and it starts recording.
The exposure compensation button is right next to the video capture button, which gives you quick access to exposure adjustments in conjunction with the scroll wheel.
The mode dial is made up of the typical array of “easy” modes as well as an Effects setting, which gives you access to special in-camera effects like Night Vision, Color Sketch and Miniature Mode. Additionally, the mode dial provides access to the standard PASM modes for more advanced users. You can adjust shutter speeds up to 1/4000s and as slow as 30 seconds – then you can move to bulb for longer settings.
On the right side of the mode dial is the live view switch, which allows you to flip up the mirror and see what the D5100 sees on the LCD rather than looking through the viewfinder.
On the back of the D5100, the manual buttons and controls are rather thin. This is an entry-level camera though, so it makes sense for Nikon to keep it simple.
Pressing the “i” button on the back of the D5100 gets you quick access to most of the settings that you’ll need to adjust. Once pressed, you get a graphical display with settings on the right side and along the bottom. You can then use the 4-way controls and OK button (to the right of the display) to adjust these settings.
If you need to make more detailed adjustments to the D5100’s settings, you can drill down into the menu system by pressing the Menu button to the top left of the LCD screen.
Finally, on the front of the D5100, you will find a flash and function button on the left side of the flash and viewfinder housing. Pressing the flash button forces the built-in flash to pop up. Once up, you can use the flash button to make adjustments to flash modes and, when used with the exposure compensation button, you can adjust flash exposure compensation levels as well. That’s some pretty sexy stuff for an entry-level shooter.
The function button, by default, is mapped to quick access for ISO settings, which is probably what most people need it on. Still, it would have been nice to have dedicated ISO button and the ability to use the Fn button for some other quick access adjustment.
For an entry-level camera, there isn’t really much to complain about with regard to the Nikon D5100’s handling and controls. Kudos to Nikon for a solid overall design.
Shooting with the Nikon D5100
Like the well-designed control scheme, shooting stills with the Nikon D5100 is full of positives. The AF is fast and accurate, which means you are on target more often than not. The frame rate, while not scorching fast at 4 frames-per-second, is still plenty fast for most entry-level users.
While the included 18-55mm VR lens is a respectable kit lens, I enjoyed the D5100 the most when I expanded to using other great lenses in Nikon’s lineup. While I prefer the Nikon AF-S 18-200mm VR lens for a walk-around lens (or vacation lens) on Nikon DX format cameras, that’s probably not a practical consideration for many D5100 purchasers.
What extends the D5100’s appeal, however, are solid little prime lenses, like the AF-S 35mm f/1.8G lens, which I used extensively with the D5100. This is a great second lens for the D5100 thanks to the crop factor on its APS-C sensor that makes it feel more like a 50mm lens on a full frame camera.
Another attractive lens, which I have not had a change to use yet, is the Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G lens. This lens looks to be an excellent portrait lens for the D5100 that will produce an attractive bokeh (out of focus background). Nikon users have been waiting a while for a 50mm lens that will autofocus with cameras like the D5100 and its predecessors. Kudos to Nikon for finally bringing this one out – just in time for the D5100.
Putting on of these prime lenses with a larger aperture on the D5100 lets you shoot in near total darkness. Even it low light, the D5100 gives you solid performance in terms of focus and image quality. This camera is a testament to where we’ve come from in the digital age. Just a few years ago, we were down-right giddy with a camera than pushed anything above ISO 1600 and looked usable. And the D5100 takes us up to ISO 6400 and beyond.
Another great aspect of the D5100 is its size. If you are carrying the D5100 around all day, it’s not going to kill you. It’s a lightweight and easy to grab-and-shoot kind of camera. I carried it around Disneyworld for a week and was so thankful that I had it with me instead of my 5D Mark II.
The D5100 is the kind of camera you want around your neck or in a small bag when you are packing kids, strollers and shopping bags on vacation. It’s definitely a family-friendly camera.
Still, if you want to go all out and do some advanced shooting with it, the D5100 can deliver. Want to shoot some kind of crazy time lapse video? The D5100 lets you do that right out of the box. That’s a big advantage of its Canon competitors, which require extra remotes or computer connections. With the D5100 though, you just hop into the menu to the intervolometer settings and choose how many images you want to shoot and what duration you want between shots. Again, big features in a small camera.
Nikon D5100 Movie Mode
The D5100 captures a number of HD video formats, including 1080p at 24 fps or 30 fps. As a casual video camera, the D5100 is better than some other DSLRs. The autofocus is OK; however, it’s not going to be on par with a more traditional camcorder. You will not be able to capture fast action with the D5100 in the same manner as you will using a camcorder.
From a prosumer perspective, the D5100’s movie mode is a failure. It lacks any sense of intuitive controls or true manual exposure control. While there are tricks to get the exposure settings close to where you want it, reliability repeating those settings is an operational nightmare.
For example, the aperture cannot be adjusted while recording or during live view mode. If you are recording a video at f/2.8 and decide you would rather stop down to f/4, you have to back out of live view mode, change the aperture to f/4 and then reactivate live view mode.
While the D5100’s big brother, the D7000, allows you to adjust the video exposure manually, it still suffers from ridiculous aperture control bug mentioned above. Unfortunately, prosumers who are looking for a DSLR to meet their filmmaking needs are going to have to lean on the Canon line of cameras, which offer full manual control over all aspects of exposure.
I cannot understand why Nikon continues to let Canon gain ground in the HDSLR arena – particularly considering such a niggling little bug is what holds the D7000 and D5100 back from being real contenders. It would be nice to see Nikon add proper manual controls for the D5100 and a bug fix for the funky aperture controls in both cameras via a firmware update.
As a consumer use though, the D5100 is certainly competent for delivering acceptable home videos, particularly when equipped with a VR lens. Nikon gets an honorable mention for at least allowing you to attach an external mic to the D5100 so your audio options aren’t that bad. However, if you are looking to sharpen your filmmaking chops with an HDSLR camera, go buy one of the new Canon cameras like the Rebel T3i or Canon 60D with proper manual exposure controls.
Nikon D5100 Image Quality
I am very happy with the Nikon D5100’s still image quality. Sharing the excellent 16-megapixel sensor with the Nikon D7000 is a good start. While the D5100 shows some noise at higher ISOs, it doesn’t really get unpleasant until ISO 6400. And, after that point, it’s more of a novelty – yet still usable for small prints and social sharing online.
I have included several sample shots taken with the Nikon D5100 below. All images were captured in RAW format and processed in Lightroom 3 and/or Photoshop CS5 according to my own personal tastes. I have noted the basic shot info below each image.
In addition to real world samples, I’ve provided a number of images of a color chart captured with the Nikon throughout the ISO range. The RAW files were processed in Lightroom with the default adjustments applied, while the JPEG images came straight out of the camera at default noise settings.
Feel free to download any of these sample images for your personal inspection (not for republication). You can get the original files by right-clicking on any of the images and choosing “Save link as…”
Below you will find a chart that covers the sensitivity range of the Nikon D5100 for both RAW images exported via Lightroom 3 and in-camera JPEG images. Below the chart, you’ll see links for the full resolution images if you want to download them for your own personal inspection (not for republication).
First, here’s a look at the whole scene so you can get a flavor of what we’re looking at in the chart below.
The 100% crops are taken from the top-left corner of the color chart and include a portion of the wind muff on the Zoom H1.
Here are the links to the original files if you want a closer look. To save a file, right-click the link and choose “Save link as…”
- ISO 100: RAW – JPEG
- ISO 200: RAW – JPEG
- ISO 400: RAW – JPEG
- ISO 800: RAW – JPEG
- ISO 1600: RAW – JPEG
- ISO 3200: RAW – JPEG
- ISO 6400: RAW – JPEG
- ISO 12800: RAW – JPEG
- ISO 25600: RAW – JPEG
Nikon D5100 Accessories
Nikon EN-EL14 Battery – The D5100 comes with one of these rechargeable lithium-ion batteries; however, if you’re going to be away from power for an extended period, you can pick up spares.
Memory Cards – The Nikon D5100 uses SD-format cards and can use all current iterations of the format, including SD, SDHC and SDXC. Nikon recommends using at least a Class 6 or higher SD card for recording HD video. I would recommend the SanDisk Extreme series SDHC cards. To learn more about different types of SD cards, check out this article on Demystifying SD Cards.
Nikon ML-L3 Wireless Remote – If you want to take photos that you are in and not make the 10-second timer sprint to get in them, then pick up one of these cheap remotes.
Nikon SB-700 Speedlight or SB-400 Speedlight -While the Nikon D5100 has a built-in flash, if you want more power and the flexibility of a bounce flash, you’ll need to get a Nikon Speedlight like the SB-400 or SB-700.
Nikon ME-1 Stereo Mic – The D5100 has a mini-plug for attaching an external mic like Nikon’s ME-1. If you want to improve the very basic on-camera mic, the ME-1, which mounts on the camera’s hot shoe will do the job.
All in all, I absolutely love the Nikon D5100. It’s an easy-to-carry and easy-to-use entry-level DSLR. The image quality is impressive and Nikon’s growing line of AF-S lenses for use with the D5100 moves it to the top of my recommendation list for new DSLR owners.
The one caveat with the D5100 is the lack of a serious HDSLR control interface for those who are serious about using the camera as a filmmaking tool. For everyone else, the D5100 shines among the entry-level DSLR ranks.
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