Nikon’s New D5100 SLR – A Hands on Reveiw

Posted May. 19th, 2011 by Daniel J. Cox

Nikon D5100 – click on image for Nikon PDF brochure

I recently had a chance to spend some time shooting with the new Nikon D5100. One of the reasons I requested this camera from Nikon was my desire to get my hands on one of the smallest, lightest bodies they are currently making. Also, I do get people that travel with us on our Invitational Photo Tours who come with less than professional cameras. I feel it’s always good for me to be familiar with less expensive equipment for those who use this kind of gear.

This will be the first review I’ve ever attempted, and I have to say that I’m not planning to get super technical. There are lots of reviews available on the Internet that will provide many nitty gritty graphs, studio shots, etc. The best place I’ve found for getting super technical camera reviews is DPReview. In fact, you can see a very in-depth critique on the D5100 that just came out on DPReview.  My review will be more in line with real world examples and subject matter that I come in contact with in actual shooting situations. I’ll also be doing some tests for specific features, quality assessment, etc. that I’m most likely to use.

Follow this link to see more photos from the new Nikon D5100.

Unfortunately I was only able to use the D5100 for about a week before having to return it, so I wasn’t able to really get a good feel for the plusses and minuses in that short period of time. However, the time I did have was worthwhile, and that’s what I’ll be discussing in this post.  Here’s a link for those of you who are interested in seeing the official Nikon brochure on the D5100.

Size Matters

The D5100 looks pretty small attached to my 200-400mm lens and Manfrotto Fluid video head 504HD.

First of all, the most notable difference in the D5100 and my other Nikons is size. It is very small in comparison. In fact you barely notice it when attached to a 200-400mm lens. Some will dislike the miniature form factor but quite frankly getting something more compact than the other Nikon’s I’ve been shooting is one of the reasons I wanted to see this camera. It’s tiny and very light, approximately 1 pound 2 ounces.  It’s very easy on the shoulders. When used with the standard 15-55 kit lens it’s exceptionally  portable. Unfortunately, it’s still considerably larger than the Panasonic Micro 4/3’s system I’ve been playing with over the past two years. I’m still hopeful Nikon will be joining the mirror free group at some point. Mirror boxes add a lot of size and weight to cameras that use them. To accomplish the weight reduction the D5100 uses a great deal of plastic but they didn’t cut that corner for the bodies lens mount. Here they’ve stuck with the highly durable stainless steel. The mounting flange on the 18-55 is plastic however. Even with all the plastic the body still feels relatively durable. I’m not sure how Nikon does it but when they build plastic bodies they don’t creek like ones I’ve tried from Canon. The low end, cheaper Canon bodies will actually creek/squeak when you pick them up if they have a heavy lens attached such as a 70-200mm f/2.8. This is just one of the many reasons I tell people who are looking for quality cameras that Nikon gives more bang for the buck. Durability is just one feature Nikon excels at even in their less costly, beginners cameras.

Here are a few technical specs:

  • Weight approximately 1lbs. 2 ounces
  • Effective Pixels = 16.2 million
  • Image Sensor- APS sized CMOS
  • Takes all Nikon lenses but will AF with only AF-S ad AF-I lenses
  • Viewfinder coverage approximately 95%
  • ISO options from 100-6400 in steps of 1/3 stops.
  • 8 Frame Buffer

Auto Focus

200-400mm lens shot wide open at F/4

Nikon 200-400mm lens shot wide open at F/4

The auto focus system in the D5100 is Nikon’s Multi-CAM 1000 auto-focus sensor module with TTL phase detection. Phase detection is superior to the smaller Micro 4/3’s cameras that are using  Contrast Detection as far as speed is concerned.  I wasn’t able to do as much testing with this as I would have liked but I did shoot a series of photos of my godson riding a jet ski in Florida. The camera tracked him fairly accurately. It also focused quickly and precisely when I was shooting a series of images for the High ISO test that took place in very low light. Overall the auto-focus system seems to work very well but I wouldn’t expect to see it out perform the D7000 I  recently acquired. The Nikon D7000 has a more sophisticated AF system based on what Nikon’s technical specs outline as well as my own personal experience. The D7000 has fabulous AF capabilities. The D5100 was very impressive and quite possibly better than my D300. I would have liked to test them head to head but as I mentioned earlier I wasn’t able to keep the D5100 long enough. I’ve uploaded 35 images to my web site for you to review. The header on the web page explains how to review the images on the page. I’ve also uploaded full sized jpegs of these same images to my Mobile Me account so you can download each image and review sharpness at full size for yourself. Just remember that I retain all rights to these photographs and that my permission to download them is for your own personal use for the review process only.

 

Web page of AF samples without download capabilities

Web page of AF samples with full size JPEG downland capabilities

Sequential Shooting
The D5100 shoots at up to 4fps which is much slower than my other cameras but not bad for such an inexpensive tool. The buffer is 16 frames for RAW and JPEGs. Not as large as I would like but you get what you pay for. This would preclude this camera from being any sort of true action machine but for around the house with kids, horses, dogs etc. it would most likely work for most people. It wasn’t very long ago that the fastest film camera we could get our hands on would shoot at 6 frames per second and that was as fast as it got.  If you shoot JPEGs they actually come off the buffer quite fast but RAW is a different story. Ideally whether shooting RAW or JPEG you will want the fastest card you can get. Or at least I would, since there is nothing more frustrating than shooting action photos and running up against the buffer wall. Thankfully cards are pretty inexpensive any more so get the quickest one you can get such as the SanDisk 30mb/sec SD Card. Speedy cards help move photos off the buffer more quickly so you can in turn take more photos.

Special Settings and Custom Functions

 

The Must Have Back of the Camera AF Start Button is part of this very inexpensive camera.
I’m continually amazed at how Nikon offers some of their most professional Custom Functions in even their lowest priced cameras. Again this falls under the category of more bang for your buck with Nikon. Take for example my number one, must have feature on any camera I shoot; the back of the camera AF Start button. They have it even on this diminutive, inexpensive camera.

Palm trees and the colors of The Ron Jon Surf shop building in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Many people are not familiar with this option and on our Invitational Photo Tours this is always the number one tip people are excited to learn about. On the D5100 this custom Function is changed by going into the Menu, selecting Custom Functions and moving the highlighted bar down to f/Controls. From there you will scroll to f2 that reads Assign AE-L/AF-L Button. Scroll one more page to the right and select the bottom option of AF ON Only. This takes the Auto Focus off of the front Shutter Release button and puts onto the  back of the camera on the button listed as the AE-L/AF-L. It’s just to the left of the Main Control Wheel. This feature removes the need for using the shutter button pushed half way down to lock focus. It take a bit of getting used to but it’s a miraculous feature that makes AF shooting much., much more productive.

HD 1080P Movie Capabilities
Another driving factor for me wanting to test this camera was the HD 1080P Movie capabilities. Many of you know that I’m really enjoying the ability of the new cameras to capture video footage. I now shoot nearly as much video as I do still photos. My main reason for including moving pictures in my projects is the simple fact that with video you have the ability to tell a much more interesting, complete and compelling story. Sound, music and narration can make all the difference in the world in trying to get your point across. That being the case I was excited to see how the D5100 performed in the video realm. the sample below is a short clip I shot as a sample.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/23962029[/vimeo]

Frame Rates for Video Capture
Similar to still photography, you can select frame rates on most DSLR’s in video capture mode.  However, the Frames Per Second (FPS) option you choose can have an effect on what the video looks like in the finished product. The Frames Per Second option is a Custom Functions feature and not what most still shooters think of as the motor drive Frames Per Second setting we typically find on the top deck of the camera.  Most video cameras have at least a couple of different frame rates as a minimum and the D5100 has just that, a minimal number of video frame rates. I had the choice  to select 24, 25 and 30 Frames Per Second. In he video world 24fps helps to create  video with a much more film like appearance. 25fps is for European Standards and 30fps is typical video capture in today’s video cameras. Follow this link to a great article that describes in more detail Frame Rates in Video and Film. For the smoothest looking video  you should always use a Shutter Speed equal to, or as close as possible to, the frame rate you have selected in the camera. So on the D5100 I chose 1/30th of a second since I had set the the Frame Rate to 30fps for the video sample above.

Other New Features
In the D5100 Nikon made a huge improvement by switching to a higher quality video compression method than what we saw in some of their first video capable cameras. The D5100 now uses what is referred to as H.264/MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding. In simple terms this is a compression technology for video that is similar to what happens to a still image when it is shot as a JPEG. The new H.264 options produces spectacular video! Along with higher quality images Nikon also added the swivel, Vari-Angle screen. Very nice feature when shooting both stills and video. This is one feature still shooters don’t use enough. It really allows you to get down into unique positions to get more interesting angles either as a still image or movie image. When I started shooting video I came to really appreciate this option  and the interesting perspectives such a tool provides.

Another change has been the ability to shoot longer video clips. Gone are the days of only being able to capture a maximum five minutes as was the case in Nikon’s first DSLR/Video camera the D90. The D5100 can now shoot for 20 minutes in video capture mode with out the need to stop.

A Few Things That Could Be Improved
One of the issues all the Nikon cameras have had since they incorporated video is  the exposure can change ever so slightly while capturing a moving image.  What happens is the camera is actually being effected by the changing colors/tones being recorded by the sensor as you pan or your subject moves through or within the viewfinder. When this happens you can actually see  flickering in the finished product. The answer to such a problem is the ability to set the camera in manual exposure mode for video but unfortunately that is not possible on the D5100. There is a fairly simple and fool proof answer however that I found way back on the D90 that works quite well. To lock your exposure and eliminate flickering in the video you need to set  the AE-L/AF-L lock button to AE-L lock via the Custom Functions menu.  Before capturing video you set your exposure via one of the Auto modes. I typically use the Flexible Program-P setting. Then push the AE/L button to lock the exposure in place and begin shooting. If the subject moves in and out of drastic light changes you will have to reset the exposure depending on the scene. The one downside to this method is it’s easy to forget.

Built in Pop-up Flash
For me this is another must have option on any camera I use today. Many people can’t believe I don’t even own one of Nikon’s top of the line pro cameras and one of the main reasons is due to none of the pro bodies employing a built in flash. I can’t tell you how many pro reps I’ve talked to that explain, “Nikon has no built in flash in their pro bodies because pros don’t want it.” Well……… newsflash! I can’t live without it! Thankfully the D5100 has a flash built in. I use fill flash extensively. It’s  one of the most productive features any camera can have. The quality that fill flash adds to people photos is spectacular and allows you to shoot in light conditions you would have never even tried before fill flash came on the scene. Admittedly, it is possible to put an external flash onto all of Nikon’s bodies but the convenience of having a miniature, little flash, always at hand via the pop-up module is what I consider an absolute necessity. Hooray for built in flash in the low end cameras. Now if we could just get a Nikon D3s with this feature.

Extremely Positive High ISO Capabilities

Nikon D5100 produced this image at ISO 4000

Ok this was a show stopper for me. I shot a series of images at numerous ISO’s including all the way up to ISO 25,600 which is actually the Hi2 setting. When I loaded these images into Aperture I could not believe what I was seeing. ISO 6400 was extremely good and even ISO 8000 was totally acceptable. ISO 10,000 was a bit sketchy, 12,800 getting worse and 25,600 was pretty bad but for a smaller APS sized sensor the quality of these ISO settings was completely unexpected! I still can’t believe what I saw. Take a look for yourself. Remember, please don’t use any of these images for anything other than your own personal use.

Web page of ISO samples without download capabilities

Web page of ISO samples with full size JPEG downland capabilities

Additional Options the brochure explains in detail

  • Effects Mode- Special effects for creative stills and movies built into the camera
  • HDR (High Dynamic Range) built into the camera
  • Built in Pop-up Flash.
  • Advanced Scene Modes-Autumn colors, Beach and Snow, Blossom, Candlelight to name just a few.
  • In camera image editing
  • GPS capable
  • External Mic for Movies
  • 660 Shots per battery charge
  • And the list goes on and on.

So that’s about it. I may actually think of other things I’ve not covered and if and when I do I’ll add them to this post. In conclusion I’m guessing you’re possibly asking if I would buy this camera? Quite frankly I would if I hadn’t already purchased the D7000. I really like the Vari-Angle screen on the D5100 and it may be enough to make me spring for this low cost model. The D7000 doesn’t have this feature. It’s getting closer to being a must have option as some of the other things I’ve mentioned. Let me know if you have any questions and I’m happy to answer them if I can.

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There are 6 comments on this post…
  1. Terresa SciandraOn Apr. 19th, 2012

    Great service, great camera. Included lots of additional items for the investment, making it immediately usable. The photos are crisp and clear, the transfer software programs are user friendly. I really like it all!

  2. Ian PopovecOn Apr. 19th, 2012

    That is my first SLR and I am most pleased. It’s set-up is smart along with the electronic menu is easy to navigate.

  3. Tim DavidOn May. 22nd, 2011

    Great review, thank you for doing this.
    In the article, you mentioned an 8 frame buffer, but in the comment above you said 16 frame buffer. I’m hoping it’s the higher number but wanted to double check. Even if it’s 8 for RAW and 16 for JPEG’s.
    Thanks for the video comments as well. That’s one of the key reasons I’m thinking of adding this camera to my bag.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn May. 22nd, 2011

      Tim, glad you enjoyed the review. You are correct, I made a mistake on the original post of the number of RAW images the buffer will hold before filling. The actual number should have been 16 as I mentioned in the other Corkboard/Blog response to Dave Glatz. I had to track this down from a Nikon web site since I no longer have the camera. Sorry about that confusion. Another option I did not mention in the info about shooting movies is the added bonus of a new external mic connection. Nikon released the ME-1 External Mic and that should be a great new feature for getting quality video. Hope this helps.

  4. Portrait of David and Shiela Glatz

    Dave GlatzOn May. 19th, 2011

    Hi Dan. Thanks for this review. I like the style and real world application. Would appreciate your thoughts on D7000 buffer compared to D300 and the new D5100. Shiela seems to run into buffer wall when she’s burst shooting action. Maybe she’s just jamming on that D7000 shutter too hard.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn May. 20th, 2011

      Dave, glad you enjoyed the post. D7000 buffer is less than spectacular to say the least. And though I know from experience that Shiela likes to stomp on the shutter button, I can promise you it’s not her fault! We only get 10 RAW files from this camera before the buffer is full and that is minimal by anybodies standards. Amazingly they gave the D5100 a 16 frame buffer. The D300 has 17 frames but I would expect the D300 replacement, whenever that comes out, to have considerably more. I’ve been using the D7000 and I feel it’s one of the best cameras Nikon has ever released. The Auto Focus is fantastic as well as the video capture capabilities. I’m hoping to get a review of the D7000 up in not too long but I can only dream of the possibilities we will have in the next version of the D400 or whatever it will be called if Nikon gives us some of the great new features they have added to the D7000 and D5100. Thanks for commenting and spread the word if you fell so inclined.

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