|Nikon D5100 Review
The "Just Right" Model?
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Update: we're more than halfway through the D5100's expected life, with a new version likely in spring 2013. With the recent appearance of the 24mp sensor in the D3200, I suspect Nikon will update the D5100 sooner rather than later, as the D3200/D5100 are basically the same body, with the D5200 getting a swivel LCD and a few additional features.
So do you really want 24mp instead of 16mp? It's not as big of a change as you might think (about a 22% resolution gain, which is just barely above the level that most people can see). With the kit lenses, I'm not sure a jump to the D3200 is all that warranted, so you should buy on price and features between the D3200 and D5100. If you're going to put high quality glass on the camera, then the nod tends to go to the 24mp D3200, especially if you're going to avoid diffraction limited apertures.
Thing is, the D5100 is being discounting more aggressively than the D3200 by Nikon right now. Here in the US the D3200 costs out at US$650 and the D5100 at US$600 as I write this. That's probably about right; the older camera is a bit lower priced but has more features, the newer camera has more resolution and fewer features. Indeed, at no time before have the two low end Nikon DSLRs been quite as evenly matched in "value" as they are right now, making the choice a bit difficult.
Everyone knows the Goldilocks story. Bears. Porridge. Beds. The little girl looking for "just right."
I'll cut to the chase: for a lot of people, the D5100 might be their "just right." It certainly is in the middle position of Nikon's consumer lineup:
Yep. Being in the middle sometimes is the right place to be. But just how right? I'll try to answer that in this review.
Take a D5000, change the swivel point on the LCD and use a better display, add the D7000's sensor and electronics, and you've got a D5100. Well, not quite, but it does come quite close to that.
The D5100 is a 16mp DSLR with a moderate amount of advanced and useful features. The full feature set can be found in my Current DSLR listing, but I'll deal with some of the major components here:
The D5100 uses SD cards and has one slot (door on the side). You can attach a wired remote or a GPS to it, plus it has both front and back wireless remote sensors, like the D7000 (very handy).
Video is one place where the D5100 actually (temporarily) is at the top of the heap for Nikon DSLRs (at least for the all-automatic crowd). The D5100 supports the following formats: 1080P/24/25/30, 720P/24/25/30, and 424P/30. Each of these formats have a choice of high-quality compression (larger files, better image quality) or a lower-quality compression (smaller files, lesser image quality). A microphone In (mini-jack) connector is available, and the stereo sound can be adjusting automatically or in four user-selected levels. Since Nikon is using a variant of AVCHD now for compression, all the usual AVCHD limits apply (2GB file size, ~12m per clip). Bad news is that manual control of the video exposure isn't present on this camera, though this is partially offset by the best video autofocus Nikon has produced to date.
As you might be able to tell from the above list, this is a compromise camera. Nikon has had three consumer DSLRs in their lineup for awhile now. The low end (D3100) is mostly stripped of advanced features and is a basic camera. The high end (D7000) arguably rivals some of Nikon's prosumer offerings in terms of feature set. The middle camera, which tries to mix the simplicity of the low end with the features of the high end is the D5100. Some people don't like this "buy higher to get more" type of model differentiation. But in the D5100's case, there's an awful lot in the middle model now. It's not so much the feature set that differentiates it from the high-end D7000, but the handling, which is where we're headed next.
The D5100 doesn't knock it out of the park for me, though it can do the job for any serious shooter that doesn't change their settings a lot.
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Review product source: D5100 body purchased from local dealer.
The first thing you notice about the D5100 is that it's small and light. The D5000 wasn't exactly a big DSLR, but the D5100 has trimmed down in noticeable ways (height and weight are obvious). Having the LCD swivel from the side instead of the bottom is a welcome change for the most part. That said, the new style rotation means that to look down or up at the color LCD you'll be positioning it to the side of the camera, making for a wider load, so to speak. This is a subtle thing, and some people won't like that as it makes the "working width" of the camera significantly bigger and offsets the view from the controls. It doesn't bother me, but I can see situations where it would be preferential to have the old style rotation.
But the new swivel opens up monitoring the LCD when the camera is on a tripod and isn't as restrictive in "arms length" use as the older model was. Overall, the new swivel is a big plus for me, but that's topped off by the fact that the LCD itself is bigger (3" instead of 2.7") and much better detailed (921k dot instead of 230k dot). We'll all need different Arca-style plates, though, and they're likely to be a little different than we're used to as the LCD is so close to the rear of the bottom base. It'll be interesting to see how RRS and Kirk decide to "lock" the plate against the back of the camera--there's no longer a clear area away from the LCD to do so. [RRS chose to lock against rotation via the front of the camera: the plate has two "nubs" that stick up at the front to engage the front of the body.]
Unfortunately, even if we give Nikon high marks for the positionable LCD, the rest of the camera handling is not as great. Let's start with button positions: most of them have moved. This makes moving from another Nikon DSLR to the D5100 a slightly frustrating endeavor, as many of the controls aren't where you expect them. The usual five or six buttons to the left of the LCD on Nikon designs have all moved. Menu went up, Delete went down and to the right, Zoom In and Zoom Out went right, Playback went down and to the right. The i button moved up and to the right. In other words, they didn't just move from one side of the LCD to the other: they moved in a more scattered fashion. While I can't really fault Nikon's choices of where they put things, it will take some getting used to. This makes considering the D5100 as a backup to another Nikon DSLR a bit questionable, in my mind.
Meanwhile, the Live View lever (introduced with the D7000) has moved to underneath the Mode dial and the Record Movie button (red button) has moved to where the info button used to be (and the info button thus moves back to form a triangle of buttons behind the shutter release on the top of the camera, a first for Nikon in recent history). The disconnection of the Movie Button from the Live View lever is a bit unexpected and another of those cognitive dissonances in the control placements on the D5100. At least the AE-L/AF-L, exposure compensation, and OK buttons didn't move or we'd have a real mess.
The net result of all this control migration is that I move more slowly when handling the D5100 than I do the D7000 (which didn't move things around).
Unfortunately, it doesn't end there. There are no focus controls at the button level. None. So Autofocus Type and Autofocus Area Mode must be controlled in the menus. Oh, wait a second, Autofocus Area Mode isn't even in the menus, it has to be controlled via multiple button pushing on the Information Display Screen (i button). This, to me, is the biggest problem with the D5100 handling: focus controls are buried. This shows the clear intended user for the D5100: novice who lets the camera decide what to do. But it doesn't end there. The D3100 has shooting methods picked via a lever under the Mode dial. The D5100? Buried in the i menu because the Live View lever went into that position.
To me it feels like Nikon took the easy way out in repositioning controls. You can see their logic: got to move five buttons from the left to the right, let's move one of the buttons and a lever on the right to the top to make room, but that knocks out the former function of the lever on the top so...well, let's just punt. I'm sure there was a better solution, but Nikon didn't find it.
The D5100 has enough options that the menu system is fairly D7000-like: three pages of SHOOTING, four of SETUP, and the a-through-f subsectioning of CUSTOM SETTING. We're all used to the depth and breadth of Nikon menus by now, so this isn't be itself a problem. But as I noted, AF Area Mode is conspicuously missing for no good reason. And then we have the new HDR Mode menu item. Turn it On and it works for one shot and turns itself Off. Ditto Multiple Exposure. Nikon seems to be worried that we might forget that we've set these things. I suppose that's a consideration, but this is a camera with a full-time Shooting Information Display. Don't you think they could put a more obvious reminder there?
Live View handling is more problematic than expected, surprising for a camera with a positionable LCD. The first problem is that the D5100 doesn't have dedicated buttons for a number of things, particularly white balance. While you can change white balance while in Live View, this involves invoking the Info button and temporarily leaving Live View. That means you can't see the changes in real time as you can on a D7000 or other advanced Nikon DSLR. (Tip: you can assign one thing to Fn button, and if that's white balance, then you can do live evaluation of different settings. But choose wisely grasshopper, you have lots of things you might want to assign, and really only one button to assign them to.) The second problem is worse: in Single Frame shooting, Live View experiences very long shutter lag. This appears to be because the system is delaying to get further exposure information from the imaging sensor. Unlike Nikon's first iterations of Live View, the mirror does not lower again to take a shot (unless you're using a flash or in Continuous shooting mode, in which case the mirror lowers to collect exposure information). The D7000 doesn't have the same long delay as does the D5100 in Single Frame Live Mode, so something changed between the models. The only good news is that contrast autofocus has improved, so getting autofocus in Live View is faster than in previous generation Nikons. The drawback? The Live View autofocus settings are buried in the Info display and are not settable in the menu system!
While it seems like I'm piling up a lot of handling complaints, for basic shooting the D5100 is not much different than any other modern Nikon DSLR. If you're not constantly changing things like white balance, ISO, metering system, shooting method, and focus settings, then the D5100 shoots like any other Nikon. If you do need to drop down and change those things, it's a little slower to use than the camera models above it and about the same as a D3100. On the other hand, if you want to get to Silhouette or Miniature or Color Sketch, just spin the Mode dial to EFFECTS and the Command dial to the one you want. So this tells us that the D5100, like the D3100 is more optimized for the novice shooter than the advanced. If you can't deal with that, you need to move up a model to the D7000.
Note: Nikon does not fully support the D5100 with Camera Control Pro the way they do with higher-end cameras. Custom Settings, for instance, can't be set from Camera Control Pro. This is just another one of those Nikon software annoyances. Not only is CCP still 32-bit, but now we're getting fewer features updated to support new cameras. Did I mention somewhere that "Nikon is not a software company"? They keep finding ways to prove it.
Looking for useful D5100 accessories and want to help support this site?
Here's a list of accessories that Thom has tried and recommends, and which work with the D5100. Be sure to read my short notes in the wish list for further comments.
Time for the rubber to meet the road (okay, the photons to meet the electronics). Since so many things have changed internally from the D5000 there must be some differences, right? You bet your sweet bippy there are.
Writing to Card
I mentioned the buffer: it's fine for JPEG shooters, but a little lean for NEF shooters. If you set certain features to On, it gets very lean, giving you perhaps two seconds of burst at maximum frame rate. For this class of camera, that's actually quite good, but it's not prosumer or pro level.
The Live View autofocus is now almost to the usable level for things other than still life, especially if you're shooting people and are using the Face tracking method. Video use? Better than any of the other Nikon DSLRs, but that's not saying a lot. There's a bit of shuffleupaguss going on just as it locks in focus, where you get that in-out-in effect that's annoying. Speed wise, it's nothing to write home about, but is acceptable in some situations if you can stand that in-out-in pulse.
Raw (NEF) shooters need to be aware that there is also a difference between the D5100 and D7000 in the data that's produced. For some people it could be meaningful. The D7000 can record with lossless compression, the D5100 only records with visually lossless compression (Nikon's skip-tonal-values-in-the-highlights method). For most images that's not going to be a big deal. Many of us have been trying to show a realistic example of where visually lossless compression clearly produces a worse result and haven't really been able to do so. That's not to say that there isn't a difference and it's not meaningful. It's only to say that it's near impossible to show something (especially once we run it through JPEG to show it on the Web) that everyone would agree looks different that occurs on a regular basis. After all, the compression is visually lossless.
That said, if you're constantly tweaking highlight values, especially trying to pull out micro contrast in the highlights, the D5100 is going to be worse at that than the D7000. It's an extremely subtle thing visually, but when you start trying to move data that is posterized (missing values), there's a crudity to the results that you don't get when you have all the original data to work with.
Shadows are the same on both cameras shooting raw. That's a good thing, as the D7000 (and now the D5100) has almost the best shadow detail in 14-bit raw files of any of the Nikon DSLRs. Not best. Almost the best. That's still pretty darned good. And yes, the D5100 is surprisingly recording 14-bit raw, not 12-bit. That does help keep the shadow detail clean and useful.
The files from the D5100 actually look very clean, plus we now have 24, 25, and 30 as frame rate choices at 1080P. That's a nice step forward to...well, what everything should have been in the first place. I see some artifacting in the 720P output, but it's masked in the scaling up to 1080P. Nikon appears to be producing 18Mbps maximum bandwidth, so the output is not quite up to the AVCHD "maximum" (usually stated as 24Mbps due to Blu-Ray and other limitations, though there are ways to go well beyond that with some cameras). Exposure is not manually controlled on the D5100, though, so you need to jump through hoops to keep Auto ISO from kicking in on pans, action, or any change of light. A real shame, actually, as otherwise the D5100 would have some real serious video chops. Nikon's stated 4GB limit on video clips is actually not quite right. The theoretical maximum of a 20 minute clip (longest you can record) is actually just a bit below 3GB according to further Nikon information. Thus, at the maximum resolution you'll chew through about 150MB of card space a minute. You can mitigate that to 85MB a minute by selecting normal as the recording quality, or by using the highest quality 720P setting. If you're coming from a D5000, D90, D300s, or D3s, all these numbers are a big improvement. A D3s chews through 170MB a minute recording an inferior 720P Motion JPEG, for example.
Should You Get a D5100?
Bottom line: the D5100 an excellent consumer camera. Nikon has upped the ante over the D5000 and and ironed out a lot of small stuff. It's very hard not to like the camera, though the over reliance on menus is a drag. It takes images that ought to be good enough for just about anyone.