Nikon D5100 Review

The Nikon D5100 is a 16.2-megapixel DSLR that also has the ability to capture 1080p HD video.  It resides in Nikon’s line-up between the base-model D3100 and the advanced amateur D7000.

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


Nikon D5100The 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.

Nikon D5100

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

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.

Nikon 50mm

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

Nikon D5100

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…”

Nikon D5100 Sample Image

ISO 6400 - f/4.8 - 1/50s - Shot with Nikon 18-200mm VR lens.

Nikon D5100 Sample Image

ISO 800 - f/1.8 - 1/60s - Shot with Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.8 lens.

Nikon D5100 Sample Image

ISO 1250 - f/1.8 - 1/125s - Shot with Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.8 lens.

Nikon D5100 Sample Image

ISO 400 - f/4.8 - 1/50s - Shot with Nikon AF-S 18-200mm VR lens.

Nikon D5100 Sample Image

ISO 6400 - f/1.8 - 1/125s - Shot with Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.8 lens.

Nikon D5100 Sample Image

ISO 560 - f/5.3 - 1/640s - Shot with Nikon AF-S 18-200mm VR lens.

Nikon D5100 Sample Image

ISO 450 - f/5.6 - 1/640s - Shot with Nikon AF-S 18-200mm VR lens. Heavily cropped, but still usable thanks to the high resolution sensor on the D5100.

Nikon D5100 Sample Image

ISO 640 - f/5.6 - 1/200s - Shot with Nikon AF-S 18-200mm VR lens.

Nikon D5100 Sample Image

ISO 100 - f/22 - 1/80s - Shot with Nikon AF-S 18-200mm VR lens.

Nikon D5100 Sample Image

ISO 100 - f/5.6 - 1/320s - Shot with Nikon AF-S 18-200mm VR lens.

Nikon D5100 Sample Image

ISO 100 - f/5.6 - 1/500s - Shot with Nikon AF-S 18-200mm VR lens.

Nikon D5100 Sample Image

ISO 100 - f/2.8 - 1/125s - Shot with Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.8 lens and flash to camera right.

Nikon D5100 Sample Image

ISO 100 - f/2.5 - 1/160s - Shot with Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.8 lens and flash at camera right.

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.

Nikon D5100 Sample Image

ISO 3200 - f/8 - 1/30s - Raw File Conversion

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.

Nikon D5100 ISO Range Comparison

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…”

Nikon D5100 Accessories

Nikon D5100

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.


Nikon D5100

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.

Highly recommended.

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  1. says

    I’ve been considering a Nikon D5100 purchase; based on this report and sample photos, there’s no way! I have the Nikon Coolpix P100, which is great in many aspects… but having disappointments with that camera (photo quality, video that fails the job often… and a guide book that boggles the mind!), I’m seeing the same problems with the D5100. BUT the biggest jaw-dropper to me is the TERRIBLE sample photos! They’re overexposed, the color is so bad as to make one queasy, and the detail/sharpness is terrible! The last two of the kids indicates they should be hospitalized for anemia! Seriously, I suspect this is not a fair representation of the quality of photos. Before I give-up I’ll try to see some other sample photos. I complain, but thanks for this VERY INFORMATIVE evaluation!

    WTF?? The technology exists to build a camera that will match my ability to compose a great shot… equip it so I don’t have to be a camera geek, give me a 300mm lens and a standard lens for around #3500. BUT it seems no one wants to do it right. And why even put a “2nd quality” video in a camera if it doesn’t perform like a separate videocamera??

    • Brandon says

      I suspect Greg is unaware of post-processing photos. While not always appropriate for a camera review, the photos that were post-processed showed variety.

      • says

        I would tend to agree. As of yet I have never gotten a picture out of the camera that didn’t require some sort of adjustment. Not even an Auto shot JPEG :)

      • says

        You suspect wrong. I must do some post-processing in most of my photos from my Nikon. I would have rather seen photos that I would be happy with SOOC.

  2. says

    While I would agree that some of the images in this review are extremely poor, I would disagree that they represent the image quality of the D5100. I recently purchased a D5100–to hold me over until I save up the 8 grand for a full frame unit–and have been nothing but pleased with it. In addition to the two kit lenses, I purchased the 85mm f/3.5G Macro lens and so far I am enjoying this camera very much. It is a huge leap over the Sony Alpha 100 I shot with the past four years.

    The video capture qualities may be lacking, but, fortunately for me, my JVC HD video camera takes care of any video duties I may have. Still have mixed feelings about video cameras jammed into still cameras–what features/quality are we losing because of this?

    All in all, and considering that the D5100 cost the same as the Sony 100–with one more lens in the kit–I can only recommend this camera.

    Please email me if you are interested in some other images that can be gathered with this camera that do it justice.

    Thank you for the review!!


    • Karolyn says

      I would love to see your images from the Nikon D5100.
      I haven’t seen many good images.
      I look forward to seeing your images.

      • says

        It is not my intention by providing these images to advertise my site or my photographs in any way, shape, or form. I merely provide these links so that others may get a better look at what can be done with what I feel is one of the best entry level cameras on the market.

        Click on each image for a larger version.

        Image One–Blue Damselfly.

        Image acquired in Programmed auto mode with camera set to NEF (RAW) using 85mm f/3.5G lens. Post processing done with Adobe Photoshop CS5.

        I was in the field and these active insects do not lend themselves well to tripod use. Well done on the Nikkor lens with built in stabilization.

        Image Two–Panorama.

        This is a composite image stitched together with the aid of Photomerge in Photoshop CS5. I was using the 18-55 mm kit lens that shipped with the camera. Once again, the image stabilization system built into the lens is in clear evidence as every shot in this panorama was taken handheld and no images had to be removed from the final stitched image. Camera set to acquire in NEF (RAW) format, Programmed auto mode.

        Image Three–HDR Sunrise

        In this image, I set the exposure bracketing to +2/-2/0 and used continuous release mode to acquire the images in rapid succession. Tripod is a must for HDR–well, at least for me!! I might add that the Nikon D5100 has an HDR mode built in but that mode will only acquire two images of differing exposure and I like to use at least three, preferably five, for the final composite. Once again the images were taken in NEF (RAW).

        Image Four–Select color feature

        One of the neatest features of the camera–in my opinion–is the ability to take a photo and then selectively remove all but a certain color from an image, in this case, blue. Very cool feature. The resulting image is in the JPEG format and if I am not mistaken there was very little, if any, post processing of this image.

        Image Five–Close up of my cat

        When I was deciding on which camera to buy, one of the factors I considered was the addition of the 55-200 mm lens that was included in addition to the 18-55 mm lens. This is a picture of my cat taken in Programmed auto mode with just a smidge of post processing.

        As I mentioned above, it is not my intention in any way, shape, or form to advertise my photography and I assure you I do not work for Nikon. However, before the purchase of this camera I read dozens of reviews of all sorts of cameras and looked at sharpness charts–for example–until my eyes fell out. And, honestly, at times, I couldn’t tell the difference between a thousand dollar camera and an eight thousand dollar camera. Certainly the argument can be made that the photographer is more important than the camera and I would agree with this–put a Nikon D3x or a Canon Mark 1D in the hands of someone who has never taken a picture before and the results are likely to be disappointing.

        Hand a guy like Ansel Adams a Kodak Instamatic and then find a place in the museum to put the resulting images.

        Feel free to have a look around, many of the images were taken with the Sony Alpha 100 DSLR and some are a bit heavy on the processing side but at the end of the day each one represents what I have sought to achieve in terms of ‘real world camera use’, at least from an amateur point of view. In that regard, the Nikon D5100 is exceeding every one of my expectations.

        • STEVE STEINBERG says

          Bob, I very much enjoyed your composition and technique. I was particularly moved by your close up of your cat, as my daughter and son in law, both veterinarians, just left, so you see where our prejudices are. But, Bob, I have the same issue as I did with Eric–post processing. Not all of us want to buy or fiddle with Photoshop or other postprocessors. So the question remains the same–what do the non processed results of the camera you used look like? And by the way, I may be lost, but were you taking all of these series of photos that you attached to your response with the Nikon D5100 or the Sony A100? Could you attach a non processed photo from the camera you used so that we can get an idea of the camera and lens results, not the post processing results? I, for one would appreciate that. Best. Steve

          • says

            Hi Steve,

            Thank you for the kind words.

            The series of photographs I posted in the reply here were all taken with the Nikon D5100. Of that series, the pictures of the pens–with only the blue color shown–was not post processed in any way.

            I just finished up taking some photos of some regular household items that, hopefully, will have colors and features recognizable to us in our everyday experience. None of them will have any post processing whatsoever. As such, since I am ever the amateur, I have left the camera in full Auto mode, in essence taking me completely out of the loop.

            I am now creating an album entitled SOOC and will post the link as soon as the photos are uploaded.

            I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize to Eric for an earlier comment regarding the quality of his photographs–it was harsh and inappropriate and I am sorry for making it.

            I will post again when the photos have uploaded.

          • says

            The following is a link to the SOOC shots. No sign in is required, and I have left the EXIF information available for display–if you hover over the image that results after the first click, an “I” will appear at the top right, hovering over this will give complete information about the camera and exposure parameters. A second click of the image will take one to a larger view. No crops, no Photoshop, straight out of the camera–there is nothing I can do about in-camera JPEG processing.

            I shot various objects of various colors with all three of the lenses that I own. All shots were acquired in the full Auto mode, my reasoning being that if I walked into a camera shop and wanted to know what sorts of images the camera alone could provide, I would put them all on full Auto and take a shot of the same object, with the same lens parameters of course.


    • says

      I am very interested in seeing some of your images. I hope they might change my mind, because I am ready to make a purchase now. Thanks for the offer!

  3. says

    One comment I would like to make regarding the specs–on my camera at least, the 1080 is not a progressive but, rather, an interlaced mode (1080i). There was no option for me, that I could find, to acquire the video in 1080p. I was a bit surprised looking at my first video test at how poor the quality seemed, then realized it was an interlaced video output.

    I set it to 720p in the menu system and wonder what, if anything, I am doing wrong. And in the true sense of 1080p, it would have to be 60 frames per second at 1920×1080, not 24, not 30.

    I am not too worried about it as I doubt I will use this camera very much for video work, and, on the chance that I do, Sony Vegas will do a fine job of converting to a progressive output. My TV will also do the same with the input.


    I was particularly interested in the rendition of color in Eric’s photo samples of the Nikon D5100. I agree with the criticism, and was wondering whether what I would call the “garrish” “circus” color tones are the camera or the post processing spin that was put on them. If it is the camera, then I agree wholeheartedly with the criticism. I fear it was the camera because Eric’s review samples, for example, from the Canon 60D dont have any of the characteristics that some of us are unhappy with. Since I am buying a new DSLR in the next days (using gift cards from B & H and probably using this site so that Eric gets “credit” ) I would be interested in everyone’s responses. Thanks.

    • says

      Hey Steve. Thanks for the comment and your support.

      The tone differences that I think you are referring to are most likely attributable to my post processing. All of the images other than the ISO comparisons certainly have an alteration to saturation, vibrance and color. To help you judge the color rendition as compared to my edited samples, I uploaded a out-of-the-camera JPEG of one of the above images, as I generally shoot RAW+JPEG when reviewing a camera.

      You can downloaded the original here and compare it to the above:

      I may start providing these out of camera samples in future reviews if others find it useful as well.

      I welcome others to weigh in on Steve’s questions too.

      • parthiban says

        Sir, your image is an wonderful one and i decided to purchase NIKON D5100 . Thanks for your URL.

    • says

      Steve, my experience comes from my $400 Nikon Coolpix P-100. I have some very good photos from this camara. But many times the colors are so bad and off that I can’t even correct them post-processing. So I go into this very wary of the similar problems I’ve read exist with thousand dollar and above Nikons. I’m thinking this is an inadequate review, and if I consider purchasing this camera I’ll first rent one. Frustrated.

  5. Steve Steinberg says

    Bob, thanks for the household items. It appears to me that the results from the Nikon D5100 are “saturated” ( or “colorful” if you wish) without post processing, and that Eric’s original results in his review were the result only in part post processing. (In other words, in addition to your ‘apology’ he now gets mine). So the issue is, in my opinion, does one prefer the Nikon D5100 results or a Canon result. Given that I dont like the Canon Rebel grips, the issue becomes money, as well as “saturation”. There is a difference in price between the Nikon D5100 and the Canon 60D (which ergonomically I like). I will ponder. Thanks, again.

    • says

      You’re welcome, Steve.

      It bears keeping in mind that with the Nikon–and I would imagine the Canon as well–the user has quite a bit of power in terms of how things look from the camera. By that I mean that you can go into the menu system and tweak things here and there to your particular tastes. Sharpness not enough? It is an easy matter to tweak the sharpness settings in the camera, take a few test shots, and dial it in where you like it.

      In some ways, I am not fond of the term ‘entry level’ and all I mean by that is these cameras offer the user a lot of control over many parameters that go into the final output. As mentioned above, given any picture mode–let’s use Standard, for example–you have complete control over Sharpness, contrast, brightness, saturation, hue, filter effects and toning. Probably the average user doesn’t want, or need, to fiddle around with this, but the day may come when they do want to take it to the next level and the power is there if and when they want it.

      My first ‘entry level’ DSLR pales in comparison to this level of control and customization. I may be wrong, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the entry level cameras of today offer more features and better technology than the top level pro cameras of 10 years ago. Maybe not, but you get the picture, so to speak.

      Good luck with your camera purchase, I am sure you will be happy in the end, and, if not–just take it back and get the other one!

  6. Karolyn says

    What do you think about the portraits taken with the Nikon D5100?
    Just don’t see many.

    • says

      Hi Karolyn,

      Other than the portraits in this review–and the JPEG later uploaded by Eric looks pretty good to me–I cannot say. I have personally not taken any myself, yet. It is important to keep in mind that the D5100 is a relatively new to the market and I would imagine as some time passes we will have more examples available to us.

      I am going to be taking some soon, so I will find out before too long.

  7. Elrey says

    Which external flash will work with Nikon D5100? I’m trying to buy one but I dobn’t know what to buy, and also the one that is not too expensive.


  1. […] Nikon D5100 Review 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. July 18, 2011 […]