Nikon D5100 at a glance:

  • 16.2-million-pixel, DX-format CMOS sensor
  • Expeed 2 processor
  • Nikon F mount
  • Special effects modes
  • 3in, 921,000-dot LCD screen
  • 420-pixel 3D Color Matrix Metering II
  • Full HD (1080p) video capture
  • Street price around £670 (body only)

Nikon D5100 review – Introduction

The position of a mid-range consumer camera can be hard to get excited about; it’s not the cheapest, nor is it the most advanced in its range, and yet it fills a useful role. Rather than just slotting in quietly between the entry-level D3100 and the more advanced D7000, the new Nikon D5100 offers some unique features that make it worthy of extra attention.

Taking over from the D5000, the D5100 remains the only DSLR in Nikon’s range with a vari-angle LCD screen, although this time it is more usefully mounted to the side. It boasts the same impressive 16.2-million-pixel CMOS sensor that we’ve seen in the D7000 and shares this camera’s full HD (1080p) video-shooting capabilities.

As well as the normal array of manual shooting modes and scene modes, the camera includes a new ‘special effects’ series accessed via the mode dial. These are a mixture of easy-to-use creative effects and more advanced, powerful controls such as the night vision mode, which extends the ISO way beyond the normal Hi2 setting (ISO 25,600 equivalent) up to a Hi4 setting (ISO 102,400 equivalent), currently seen only on Nikon’s professional D3S model.

The Nikon D5100 also has a new more compact and curvier shape, making it 10% smaller than the previous D5000 and a serious competitor to the wave of compact system cameras hitting the shelves. The Nikon D5100’s price and specification, however, are more likely to pitch it directly against the Canon EOS 600D, which also offers a high-resolution sensor and a vari-angle screen.

With so much potential in the specification, many owners of more advanced DSLRs should be watching the Nikon D5100 closely, as not only does it offer an improved feature set for those upgrading but it may also make a great second camera for those users looking to lighten their camera bag.


Nikon D5100 topFor the seasoned photographer, it is the internals of the D5100 that make it most impressive. The sensor and processor are the same as those used in the D7000.

The sensor is a 16.2-million-pixel CMOS unit in an APS-C format (or DX as Nikon terms it). It outputs a 4928×3264-pixel image in a 14-bit raw file or compressed JPEG, and combinations of the two. This equates to a 10.9×16.4in print at 300ppi (practically A3).

The image processor is Nikon’s Expeed 2 unit and various teardowns of the camera posted on the internet have revealed 3GB of SDRAM alongside it to ensure fast processing, although this is less than the 4GB believed to be in the D7000.

The combination of sensor and processor has shown impressive noise performance in the D7000, and in the D5100 it offers the same ISO 100-6400 standard range with extended settings up to ISO 25,600 (Hi2).

Video is captured in 1920×1080-pixel HD at 30fps, 25fps or 24fps, saved in a MOV format with H.264 compression, as on the D7000. Operation in video is completely automatic, regardless of the shooting mode set on the dial.

The lens mount is the standard Nikon F fit and is fully compatible with AF-S and AF-I optics. As the camera doesn’t contain a built-in AF motor, other G- and D-type lenses will not provide autofocus but will work with manual focusing. Stabilisation remains an optical process and is performed in the VR lenses rather than in the body, including on the standard kit lens, the Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 VR. The body does contain a sensor-cleaning system, though, which vibrates the low-pass filter and uses an airflow system to remove particles of dust.

The 3D Color Matrix Metering II system operates via a 420-pixel RGB sensor. As well as full matrix metering, it offers centreweighted and spot options, with the latter covering 2.5% of the frame. Exposure compensation is available in 1/2 and 1/3 stops to a wide ±5EV. Bracketing can be performed for exposure and white balance in three frames, and two frames for Active D-Lighting. The focusing is care of Nikon’s Multi-CAM 1000 system, sporting 11 focus points, including a central cross-type point, and features the impressive 3D-tracking system seen on previous models like the D7000 and D3100. There is a choice of auto, single and continuous servo modes for the focusing, while in live view mode there is a full-time servo that works to continually focus even when shooting video, as well as face priority and subject tracking area modes. The contrast-detection focusing in live view now has improved algorithms to improve the focusing speed.

Image: The night vision effects mode uses an auto ISO of up to Hi4 (equivalent to 102,400) and automatically turns the image to monochrome to reduce signs of noise

The choice of exposure modes is vast on the D5100, offering the standard selection on program, manual, shutter and aperture priorities, alongside a full auto, a set of five direct scene modes, plus another 11 via a scene submenu.

On top of this there is also the set of seven new special effects modes, as detailed in the Features in use panel.

The retouch menu provides an extensive list of post-capture adjustments that can be made in-camera to both raw and JPEG files, including D-Lighting, distortion control and filter effects.

There is also raw processing, which allows various adjustments to be made to raw files before converting the file to a JPEG, and edit movie, which allows you to trim your video clips on the move.

The built-in flash is spring-loaded and, when the flash button is pressed or it is required in an auto mode, it springs up and sits nice and high above the camera body. It has a guide number of 13m @ ISO 100, although this is falls to 12m when used in auto settings (auto, portrait, child, close-up and night portrait). It uses iTTL controls for standard and fill-flash abilities, which also extend to flashguns controlled via the hotshoe. Wireless flash is supported, but the camera doesn’t include a wireless controller so an SB-700, SB-800 or SB-900 flashgun must be mounted, or an SU-800 controller used.

The camera uses SD cards for storage and is fully compatible with SDHC and the new SDXC cards. In burst mode, the D5100 will shoot at up to 4fps. Using a SanDisk 8GB Extreme Pro SDHC card, it will maintain burst shooting for up to 16 raw files, ten combined raw+JPEG files, or an impressive 100 JPEGs. Individual write times for files take around 1sec for a JPEG, 1.5secs for raw and 2secs for a combined raw and Fine JPEG.

Features in use: Special effects

The special effects are a series of seven creative looks that are selected via an effects submenu on the shooting mode dial. They work much like scene modes, in that the camera takes control over the main camera controls for you, but each offers a degree of processing or effect to give them a distinct look.

The effects include colour sketch, miniature, selective colour, silhouette, high key, low key and night vision. There is some control within the settings: colour sketch, which produces an almost posterised effect, allows control over vividness and outlines; miniature mode, which produces a tilt-shift effect, allows you to vary the width of the in-focus area and swap between horizontal and vertical planes; selective colour allows the user to pick a total of three colours and vary their vibrancy individually.

Night vision is perhaps the most interesting, though, as it uses a specially extended Hi4 ISO setting to allow shooting at up to ISO 102,400. The ISO and exposure are automatic, so control is limited, and images are saved in b&w to minimise the effect of noise at higher settings, although it is still an impressive feature for extreme low-light shooting.

Build and Handling

Nikon D5100 backWhat is immediately noticeable about the D5100 is its size, or at least the lack of it. Its 10% reduction from the D5000 is really noticeable and in both width and height it is comparable to compact system cameras such as the Samsung NX11.

It does have more depth, however, due to the mirror box, making it less pocket-friendly, but with a short prime lens there’s not a great deal in it. The body is made of a tough plastic and feels solid in the hand, weighing in at a fairly hefty 510g (without battery and memory card). The grip remains just long enough to get three fingers around it and, although it is not the deepest, it still allows a good sturdy hold.

The button layout has changed quite considerably from the D5000, partly due to the new position of the vari-angle screen mount. This means that the buttons that would normally run along the left side of the screen have had to be repositioned.

This has been achieved by placing most of the buttons to the right-hand side and moving the live view control to the top plate. The live view activation is now a switch that sits next to the shooting mode dial and is easy to access using your shutter finger.

A direct movie-record button also now sits on the top plate next to the shutter, although the camera must already be in live view before it can be used. Generally, the buttons are now smaller than on the D5000, but are still well spaced enough and easy to press.

Unlike on more advanced models, few functions have their own direct access button. In fact, only exposure compensation and exposure/focus lock retain this. Most of the shooting functions can be accessed through a quick menu (the i button), however, which gives control of all the main shooting functions displayed on the rear screen, and is much easier than scrolling through the main menu.

The rear LCD screen displays all the shooting information, including a handy aperture and speed diagram that represents the size of the aperture as the value changes. All the main settings from file type to Active D-Lighting and picture control are displayed along the right and bottom sides.

The question mark button can be pressed at any time to reveal more about the currently selected mode, to help new users learn more about their camera. The main menu is similar to that of previous models, with icon-based submenus along the left-hand side, including a recent settings option displaying the most used items, and a retouch menu for post-capture control.

The battery included in the D5100 is the same slim EN-EL14 as featured in the D3100, providing 1,030mAh of charge, which lasts for roughly 300 shots with standard use. This seems slightly low compared to previous models and the battery warning often flashed after just a day’s use, but this is probably due in part to the added abilities of this camera, such as live view, movie record and the processing required for the special effects modes.

White balance and Colour

Image: Images appear bright and naturally coloured rather than overly punchy in the standard colour setting, which is much more pleasing for most users

The D5100 offers a range of six main presets for white balance alongside an auto and a manual setting.

The fluorescent setting has a submenu of seven variations to include the differing temperatures of fluorescent lights, from sodium to daylight and mercury vapour.

The manual setting can be defined by taking a picture of a grey or white card, or using data from a previous image.

There is also fine adjustment of each preset using a dual-axis colour chart. Under almost all conditions, however, the auto setting produces accurate results, whether in direct sunlight, shade or even indoors under tungsten lights. Occasionally, images just require a little more warmth to produce more natural results, but always appear neutral.

Colours are bright but natural rather than overly punchy in the standard setting. The picture control settings allow five other colour settings, from vivid to monochrome, should you prefer your images to appear more saturated, more neutral or even devoid of colour completely.

Each mode contains a series of fine adjustment sliders to alter sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue, or in the case of the monochrome mode, filter effects and toning. This allows you to produce images ready to print straight from the camera, should you wish.


Image: The D-Lighting control manages to lift detail in the shadow areas of the image without causing the result to look artificial

The 3D Color Matrix Metering II system employed by the D5100 does an impressive job and, despite having a lower pixel count on its sensor compared to the D7000, appears no less able. Highlights are maintained in all but the most extreme scenes, and in many cases the tone curve will fall into the shadows rather than peak at the highlights, making the retrieval of detail far easier.

This means that for most scenes it is possible to leave the exposure compensation untouched. For extra control the Active D-Lighting system will automatically bring out those shadow details without causing the image to appear fake.

For selective metering, centreweighted places a 75% weighting on the central 8mm circle, making it more suited for portraits or objects with bright backgrounds; for precision use, the spot mode meters from the central 2.5% of the frame.


Image: The selective colour mode is very effective if used in more subtle methods, such as the iris of the model’s eye

The focusing is one distinction that remains between the D5100 and the more advanced D7000, which features Nikon’s superior new Multi-CAM 4800DX with 39 AF points and nine cross-type points. The Multi-CAM 1000 autofocus system used in the D5100 has featured in a range of models from the D200 to the D3100 but, considering it is now more than five years old, it still holds its own. This 11-point system is still more extensive than those featuring on some of the competition, although only the central point is of a cross-type design for added sensitivity.

Like the version on the D5000, the AF system also includes 3D-tracking. This allows the AF selection point to follow the subject across all the available 11 points as it moves around the frame, which makes shooting moving subjects easier. Although the D5100’s system may not be as complex or quite as fast as that of the D7000, it is still accomplished and locks onto subjects with ease using the powerful dedicated AF lamp for illumination of close-range, low-contrast subjects.

The contrast-detection focusing in live view mode has been upgraded from that of the D5000, but in practice this is noticeably slower than phase-detection focusing when using the regular viewfinder and still not up to the focus speeds achieved by Panasonic’s latest compact system cameras, the Lumix DMC-GH2 and G2. The full-time servo mode is useful for video, although with the kit lens attached the noise from the lens motor is very distracting; it makes the recorded sound unusable in regular volume levels unless an external microphone is plugged into the mic port and placed some distance from the camera.

Noise, Resolution and Sensitivity

Image: The camera handles noise very well, even in extreme low-light situations such as this. Taken at 1/50sec at f/4.5, ISO 6400

The combination of this image sensor and processor has already produced impressive results in terms of noise and resolution in the D7000, so expectations are high. On the detail front the results don’t disappoint, reaching 28 on our chart from the raw file, although the JPEG shows that little sharpening is added to the standard file with a maximum of 24.

As the sensitivity increases, the detail is impressively maintained, and even at ISO 1600 the raw file still reaches 26 on our chart, while the JPEG file gives a respectable 22. At the extended Hi2 setting (ISO 25,600 equivalent), despite signs of noise, detail still reaches 22 from the raw file and 20 from the JPEG.

Even at the highest sensitivities the noise levels in the files remain monochromic and unobtrusive. Although signs of luminance noise start to creep in from ISO 800, it merely adds texture to the image, much like film grain. Even images shot at ISO 6400 look crisp and bright, despite the fact that at 100% noise is visible and fine detail is slightly lacking. These results match what we have seen from the D7000 and prove that the D5100 is just as capable of delivering image quality even when using the standard kit lens. With a premium prime lens added, these results would be expected to be even higher.

Resolution charts: These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the 18-55mm VR kit lens. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.

Dynamic range records the maximum dynamic range of the D5100 at 13.6EV, just 0.3EV behind the D7000, and a consistent range from the two cameras throughout the ISO range to 25,600.

These results tally with our findings, that there is very little between the image performance of the D5100 and its bigger brother, while it also places the D5100 as one of the best performers in its class.

Viewfinder, LCD, Live View and Video

Nikon D5100 LCDThe D5100’s viewfinder is bright and functional, with a large removable eyepiece and dioptre correction. With coverage of just 95% of the full image, however, it places the camera firmly towards the entry-level camp (the D7000 offers 100% coverage). Coupled with a magnification of just 0.78x, the viewfinder image appears rather small with a tunnel-like view down the eyepiece.

The alternative is to use the live view functionality of the 3in, 921,000-dot LCD. Not only is it large and resolute, but it is also mounted on a vari-angle bracket to the side so it can be tilted through 180° horizontally and 270° vertically. The benefit of having the mount to the side is that the LCD can be angled for viewing in front of the camera and used when the camera is mounted on a tripod. A downside is that having the screen not in line with the lens makes adjusting the composition trickier. Live view provides 100% coverage for framing and the single-point AF can be taken right to the edges of the frame. The face priority and full-time servo options are also handy, especially for video.

The move to QuickTime format video was the right one for Nikon and the quality of the clips on the D5100 is testament to that. Recorded in full HD (1920×1080 pixels) at a choice of 30, 25 or 24fps, the recordings are smooth and detailed, and provide high-quality playback even on large HD screens. For creative users, the only downside is that the exposure controls are fully automatic.

Our verdict

As technology filters down from professional models, some pretty stunning features can appear in a consumer-level camera. This seems to be the case with the D5100, and although on the outside it appears to be a camera for the less-advanced snapper, it possesses some of the technology seen in higher models and is capable of matching the results of these models too.

The Expeed 2 processor and 16.2-million-pixel sensor perform just as well in the D5100 as they do in the D7000. The D5100 might not be the fastest focusing or have such an array of focus points, but it still performs well in low light.

The viewfinder may be small and not offer full coverage, but the live view display is available for critical framing and the vari-angle screen makes low angle and tripod work more pleasant.

As a second camera, the D5100 makes sense, especially for existing Nikon users with a range of lenses; even if it is not as pocketable as a compact system camera. Those looking to upgrade their current model should seriously consider the D5100, and for many users it offers enough without spending the extra money on the D7000.

Nikon D5100: Focal points

The hotshoe allows the attachment of the full range of Nikon flashguns and compatible models. It also allows wireless flash, if a control module is fitted, such as the SB-700 or SU-800

LCD screen
The high-resolution, 3in, 921,000-dot screen is mounted on a side bracket, allowing it to be angled both vertically and horizontally

Live view/movie button
Switching to live view is now achieved via a switch on the top of the camera and the movie record is started with a button next to the shutter

Quick menu
This button is used to gain access to all the functions displayed on the shooting menu

Guide mode
The guide mode works like a built-in instruction manual. By pressing the question mark button at any time, it will give you info on the current setting

Battery life
The EN-EL14 battery is the same slim rechargeable Li-Ion unit as featured on the D3100. This lasts for roughly 300 shots, which can be a little short for heavy users

With a coverage of just 95% of the image and a magnification of 0.78x, the viewfinder isn’t the largest on the market but is more than adequate for most people

Camera Raw support
The D5100 comes with View NX software for basic conversion. Alternatively, Nikon Capture NX2 can be bought separately and files can be converted with ACR 6.4.

The competition

Canon 600DThe D5100’s positioning and current pricing gives it two main competitors: the Canon EOS 600D and the Sony Alpha 55.

Canon’s EOS 600D currently sells for around £50 less than the D5100 and has a very similar specification, even offering a 3in vari-angle screen.

Its sensor is a more populated 18-million-pixel unit, but it offers a slightly slower 3.7fps burst rate and just nine AF points.

It also misses out on the top Hi2 ISO setting of 25,600.

Sony A55Sony’s Alpha 55 is just £20 less than the D5100 and uses the same 16-million-pixel sensor as the Nikon model.

However it features a translucent mirror and electronic viewfinder that allow fast burst rates of up to 10fps, plus 15 AF points with three cross-type points.