Nikon D5100

Bridging the gap between the Gold Award-winning D3100 and the enthusiast D7000 is Nikon’s latest D-SLR, the D5100. Designed to appeal to first-time D-SLR buyers, it has also been made to attract individuals who’d like to get more creative and imaginative with their shooting.

Nikon D5100

Nikon D5100

Every few years we’re used to manufacturers renewing and refreshing their products, so it’s no surprise that the Nikon D5100 arrives 24 months down the line from the launch of the Nikon D5000, which was significant at the time for the way it combined a Vari-angle screen with 1280x720 HD video recording. With some stiff competition in this area of the market, let’s look at the features and build and find out how Nikon plans to stay one step ahead of the rest with the D5100.

Features & Build

Rather than inheriting a 12.3Mp sensor from the D5000, the D5100 features a 16.2Mp CMOS sensor, similar to the one found inside the higher-spec D7000. This DX format chip, with its 1.5x crop factor, has a broad ISO range of 100-6400, which outshines the D5000’s 200-3200 offering, and setting the D5100 to its Hi 1 or Hi 2 setting allows you to expand the ISO even further to an equivalent of 12,800 or 25,600.

The EXPEED 2 processor is another feature that has been carried over from the D7000, however the burst rate remains at 4fps like that of the D5000 and isn’t as quick as the healthy rate of 6fps on the D7000. Employing an 11-point AF system with four AF modes (Single-Point, Dynamic-Area, Auto Area and 3D-Tracking), the AF points are well spread out, though you’ll find there’s only a single cross-type AF point in the centre for more precise AF acquisition.

As we’ve come to expect on Nikon’s entry-level D-SLRs, no internal AF motor is present. This means autofocus is totally reliant on the lens you’re using having its own AF motor, such as the Silent Wave (SWM) type that’s found in Nikon AF-S lenses. Coupling a lens without an AF motor results in it being manual focus only.

For those interested in recording videos, HD video has a maximum resolution of 1920x1080 at 30,25 or 24fps, an improvement on the D5000’s 1280x720@24fps movie capabilities. It also has a 3.5mm external microphone socket – a feature not found on the D3100, and there’s an all-new ME-1 stereo microphone that’s an optional extra (£119) and attaches neatly to the D5100’s hotshoe.

As with the D3100, the D5100 features active autofocus for video recording. This takes away the hassle of having to manually focus when you’re recording and is a feature not offered by theCanon EOS 600D – one of the D5100’s closest rivals.

Our impression of the D5000 was that it had a fairly chunky design for such a small camera, and comparing the size of the D5100 to the D5000, it’s made fractionally smaller and is 10% lighter. These changes haven’t really affected the feel of it in the hand though, and the rubberised grip remains comfortable to hold over sustained periods.

The biggest design difference is found at the rear where a 3in, 921k-dot Vari-angle display replaces the 2.7in, 230k-dot tilt and swivel screen. This is a much-improved design and offers a lot more manoeuvrability when shooting from unusual angles. Live View is activated using a toggle switch that’s positioned off to the side of the mode dial and on either side of the viewfinder are buttons to access the main menu or the Quick menu. With only one command dial, the Exposure Compensation button has to be depressed when you want to adjust the aperture value in Manual mode and although there’s no dedicated Drive mode button, the Function (Fn) button on the side of the body can be assigned to this from the Custom Settings menu. As well as 10 Scene modes, there are 7 new special effect modes that are found via the mode dial. 

One of these is Selective Color, which turns your image mono, but allows you to pick out up to three specific colours you’d like to ‘pop’ out of the scene. Rotating the command dial scrolls through the other effects and you can use these with video too, however it’s worth noting that Effect mode stills are only recorded in JPEG.

Performance & Handling

Featuring Nikon’s F-mount, the Nikon D5100 accepts DX format lenses and with a 1.5x crop factor, the 18-55mm VR kit lens turns into a film equivalent of 27-82.5mm. The new 3in screen offers a crystal clear image when used in combination with Live View, but because it’s larger and hinged on the corner of the body, more buttons have been positioned elsewhere, mainly above and below the D-Pad. The D-Pad itself is smaller than the D3100’s and for this reason it’s more fiddly to use when navigating through the menu and switching between focus points. The Live View toggle switch on the top-plate is another control that takes some getting used to and it doesn’t feel as quick to locate as the D3100’s Live View switch that’s just off to the side of the thumb rest.

Testing the AF system, we found the D5100 locked onto most of our subjects with ease. Anyone upgrading from a D5000 will be familiar with the arrangement of 11 AF points in a broad diamond shape, and although the AF speed wasn’t rapid in Live View mode (partly because it’s based on a contrast detect AF system), it found focus within 1.5secs. HDR mode is activated from the shooting menu and it can also be set to the Function button, but after each capture it’s switched off and it only permits JPEG recording. 

The 420-pixel RGB sensor metering system stood up well in demanding lighting conditions, helping produce well-balanced exposures with no noticeable signs of detail loss or burnt-out highlights. With an 8GB SanDisk Extreme Pro SDHC card loaded in the D5100’s single-slot, it captured 16 consecutive RAW files at 4fps before the buffer kicked in and prevented us taking any more. This number reduced to 10 frames when RAW+JPEG (Fine) was selected and both of these frame-counts are more than that offered by the Canon EOS 600D in a similar test. With the quality set to Fine JPEG, it also let us rattle out 100 frames while continuously shooting at 4fps. 

To activate HD video in Live View, you use the dedicated video record button that’s found just behind the shutter on the top -plate. Movie recording is limited to a maximum time of 20mins and playing back our MOV video files revealed clear and smooth footage, although the internal mic picked up a fair amount of noise from the wind. The main menu is clear and concise for both beginners and avid enthusiasts, and an area that’s fun to explore is the Retouch menu, which lets you apply any one of the special effects directly to your image after it has been taken. You can then save the new version as a separate JPEG on the card.

Value & Verdict

If you’re thinking of upgrading from a Nikon D5000, one thing to consider is that the Nikon D5100 uses a completely new battery so you won’t be able to interchange the old with the new. The EN-EL 14 Li-ion battery it uses is exactly the same as the one used to power the D3100, so if you’re a D3100 user looking for a second body, there is some correlation.

The good news is that it’s competitively priced against its closest rival, the Canon EOS 600D, which costs £649 for the body. If you’re upgrading and would like a body-only D5100 it’ll cost £670. If you’d like it with the 18-55mm VR kit lens, the price increases to £780. Two other telephoto configurations are also on their way in the form of the 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6 G AF-S DX VR or the 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G AF-S DX VR lens.

Overall, the NikonD5100 is a well put together D-SLR, but it doesn’t quite match the refined quality of the D7000, with its lack of a magnesium alloy construction. If you can afford the extra £230 for the D7000, go for that, but for the price and the entry-level market the D5100 is aimed at, it’s one of the best D-SLRs we’ve seen so far. Good job Nikon!


  • Street price: £249 (Secondhand price as of July 2016)
  • Resolution: 16.2Mp (4928x3264 pixels)
  • Lens Mount: Nikon F mount
  • Focal Length Magnification: 1.5x
  • Focusing: 11-point selectable
  • Burst rate: 4fps
  • Write times: 1.6secs (RAW), 1.3secs (JPEG)
  • ISO range: 100-6400, expandable to 25,600 in the Hi2 setting
  • Shutter range: 30secs-1/4000secs, bulb
  • Monitor: 3in Vari-angle,921k dots
  • Live View: Yes
  • Video: 1920x1080@30,25,24fps
  • Storage: SD/SDHC/SDXC
  • Weight: 510g (body only)
  • Dimensions: 128x97x79mm
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This review was first published in the June 2011 issue of Digital Photo - download back issues here.