A step-up camera that offers something for everyone
In the field
The D5100 is comfortable to hold for such a compact DSLR. The contours of the grip provide plenty of leverage to maneuver the camera as needed and textured rubber on front and back keep your fingers from slipping.
Like most DSLRs of this class, it relies heavily on the LCD for controls. Press the “i” button on the back twice and you get to an on-screen control panel that makes changing most settings fairly quick. Still, we preferred the various dedicated buttons on Canon’s T3i to the D5100’s scarcity of hard buttons. Example? At first we searched in vain to find a button for ISO, until we figured out that you can assign that to the function button on the left side of the front of the camera.
Given that the D5100 should be made to appeal to shooters stepping up from compacts or superzooms, we were surprised that Nikon didn’t let the four-way control pad access various functions the way it would on a compact and does on the T3i. Once you get the hang of the controls though, shooting is easy.
If you like live view or video shooting, the D5100 is great. A flip switch next to the mode dial lets you enter live view very fast. Though we initially thought we’d trigger it accidentally, this didn’t happen once during field testing.
Canon’s T3i forces you to turn the mode dial to the movie setting to record video, and we found switching between still and video recording cumbersome. Not so with the Nikon D5100. Once in live view, you can start recording video by pressing the button marked with a red dot, conveniently located near the shutter button. This makes for a seamless switch between the still and video shooting experience.
The articulated LCD makes off-angle shooting significantly easier. You’ll also find it easier to get a viewing angle with less glare on sunny days. As with the T3i, the screen leaves no room for a sensor to automatically turn the LCD off when looking through the optical finder.
The two-frame auto HDR setting in the D5100 does a good job of expanding the dynamic range you can capture by combining two frames at varying exposures. You can select up to a 3-EV difference between the shots and set a control called “smoothing” to choose the look you want. Low gives a harsher look, while High is a finer transition between tones. It does a decent job of aligning the two images, but it’s always best to use a tripod for HDR.
Video captured by the D5100 looked quite nice, with well-saturated colors and little in the way of artifacts. AF is still a tad sluggish compared to a good camcorder and isn’t continuous, but there is a stereo mic input and the built-in mono mic has basic level controls.Bottom Line
If you are stepping up from an older Nikon DSLR, or have film-era Nikon lenses and don’t mind focusing manually with them, the D5100 should please you. Its resolution boost over the D5000, better video capture, and articulated LCD screen make it a great imaging tool well adapted to a wide array of shooting situations.
If you’re trying to choose between the D5100 and Canon’s T3i, it’s a harder decision. We preferred the Canon’s buttons, but liked the Nikon’s video experience more. The Canon focused faster in our test, but the Nikon gets more RAW shots per burst. And they cost nearly the same. Ultimately, we’d call it a toss up.
Imaging: 16.2MP effective, APS-C sized CMOS sensor captures images at 4928x3264 pixels with 14 bits/color in raw mode.
Storage: SD/SDHC/SDXC stores jpeg, NEF raw, and raw + jpeg files.
Burst Rate: Full-sized jpegs (Fine mode), up to 100 shots at 4 fps; raw, up to 16 shots at 4 fps; raw + jpeg, up to 10 shots at 4fps.
AF System: TTL phase detection with 11 illuminated focus points (single center cross-type); single-shot and continuous AF. Tested sensitivity down to eV –1 (at iSO 100, f/1.4).
Live View: TTL contrast detection.
Shutter Speeds: 1/4000 to 30 sec, plus B (in 1/3-EV increments); 100,000--cycle rating.
Metering: 420-pixel RGB sensor TTL metering, evaluative, centerweighted, and spot (approx. 2.5% of viewfinder), eV 0–20 (iSO 100); EV 2–20 (in spot mode).
ISO Range: iSO 100–25,600 (in 1/3-EV increments).
fLash: built-in pop-up with i-TTl autoflash, gn 39 (iSO 100, feet); flash sync to 1/200 sec.
Viewfinder: Fixed eye-level pentamirror.
LCD: 3-in. articulated TFT with 921,000-dot resolution.
Output: Hi-Speed uSb 2.0, mini-HDmi video, gPS terminal (for use with nikon gP-1 optional gPS unit).
Battery: rechargeable en-el14 li-ion, ciPa rating 660 shots (with optical viewfinder).
Size/Weight: 5.0x3.8x3.1 in., 1.4 lb with an SD card and battery.
Street Price: $800, body only; $900, with aF-S DX nikkor 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6g Vr lens.
Viewfinder Test: accuracy, 95% (excellent); magnification, 0.8X (Very good)