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Nikon D5100 - Performance, Value and Verdict

Audley Jarvis

By Audley Jarvis



Our Score:


As with most DSLRs fitted with a built-in microphone, lens noise can be a bit of an issue while recording movies with the camera picking up the internal whirring of the autofocus system – especially when filming in a quiet location. If you really want to cut this out then your best bet is to use a directional microphone, such as the recently announced Nikon ME-1. Alternatively, you can set the camera to manual focus and adjust it yourself, though this option does take some practice to master.

As mentioned earlier, we found the LCD monitor really good to work with when composing images. Indoors or in the shade outdoors the screen remains immensely sharp, bright and colourful, with generous viewing angles. And while it’s hard to see past your own reflection when shooting directly into sunlight, shooting with the sun on your back isn’t nearly so much of a problem.

While general handling, ease-of-use and AF performance all score valuable points for the D5100, image quality remains the camera’s trump card. With the editable Picture Control settings it’s possible to dial in as much (or as little) saturation, contrast and sharpness as you want to get your images looking exactly how you want them to, with the D5100 proving consistently accurate in its calculations.

Despite using the cheaper metering module of the D3100, the D5100 remains reliable in all lighting conditions, with no tendency to either over- or under-expose. When faced with high-contrast scenes beyond the spectrum of its dynamic range, Nikon’s proprietary Active D-Lighting technology can be engaged to preserve more highlight detail. There are four steps in total from ‘low’ to ‘extra high’, along with ‘automatic’ and ‘off’ options. The technology works well and often proves useful, although some caution is advised with the ‘extra high’ setting as it can produce unrealistic-looking images.

While the 18-55mm VR kit lens isn’t the sturdiest or

sharpest optic ever produced by Nikon, it does provide very good value for money and should prove more than adequate for general use and certainly as a starting point for first-time DSLR users.

Likewise, the 16-megaopixel sensor is able to resolve plenty of detail, even at higher ISO settings. While this might reasonably be expected at low to mid-sensitivity settings of between ISO 100 and 800, we were especially impressed with the mid to high settings of ISO 1600 to 3200, where the D5100 was able to retain plenty of detail without displaying excessive noise. ISO 6400 marks the point at which noise does become more visibly intrusive, especially in shadow areas, although images still look very good. At the higher and extended settings of ISO 12,800 and 25,600 noise proves far more intrusive, with a corresponding loss of fine detail. In fairness, this is to be expected.

Put simply, the D5100 is a hugely adaptable camera that takes excellent pictures, with overall image quality consistently matching that of the more expensive D7000.


The D5100 provides several notable upgrades over the D5000 making it, in our opinion, a far more attractive package than its predecessor was at launch. Significantly smaller and lighter, it’s also easy to use, offers good performance and is capable of delivering consistently good results, both in stills and movie mode.

Our only quibbles, such as they are, are fairly minor and limited to the exclusion of useful advanced entry-level tools such as the ability to the pop-up flash as a wireless commander and the omission of a depth-of-field preview button. Both of these would ultimately prove more useful and give the camera more longevity than any of the Special Effects shooting modes.

Overall though, the D5100 remains a great camera to use that’s capable of delivering stunning images. If you’re in the market for an advanced entry-level DSLR be sure to add it to your shortlist.


May 12, 2011, 3:38 am

I'm confused as to how this sits alongside the D90. Going by the 'best price' given, the D90 with the much more versatile 18-105mm VR lens can be had for less. The D90 also has the missing features you cite.

I can only imagine this has been added to the line-up to compete with competitors' products for those who feel things like HD video and a twisty screen are important. As long as Nikon continue the D*0 range I'll be happy.

I've got an old D70s and the one thing I don't think I could cope without is the front wheel that's missing from the D5100...


May 12, 2011, 2:24 pm

No direct access ISO button... seriously? Given that higher ISO's are so much more usable nowadays, the omission of an ISO button is unforgivable, especially at this pricepoint.


May 12, 2011, 6:44 pm

I've had my D80 for some years now, and just got myself a D5100. In France the D5100 is offered with the 18-105mm lens kit.

The front wheel and the top LCD screen are the 2 things I miss. The missing AF motor makes some old lens "unusable". The slower top shutter speed can be problematic with very fast lens too.
However, if you can live with those short-comings, the D5100 beats the heck out of my D80.

First and foremost, image quality is incredible. MUCH better than the D80; not to mention the much improved high ISO performance. Even 6400 iso is quite usable, better sharpness and noise than 1600 iso on the D80.

Secondly, full HD video. Not everyone's cup of tea, but I appreciate the ability to record video if needed. The main reason I pick the D5100 over Canon 600D is better video AF and better high iso perf.

Thirdly, the small size and light weight really help to carry the camera everywhere with you.

I wouldn't go back to the D80. Top LCD screen and front wheel be damned. I'm not sure if there are enough reasons to get the D90 today. Judging from the better image sensor alone, for me, the D5100 is a clear winner.


May 13, 2011, 2:01 pm

True, there is no dedicated ISO button, although thanks to the 'quick settings menu' (accessed via the 'i' button to the right of the viewfinder) it's only takes a button press or two more to change ISO settings. While I'd certainly agree that a dedicated ISO button is convenient, I'm less inclined to agree that the omission of one is 'unforgivable'.


May 13, 2011, 2:19 pm

Nikon have said that the D5100 sits below the D90 within their range. While the D90 is undoubtedly a fantastic camera (that does indeed offer wireless flash control and a depth-of-field preview button) it's also a couple of years old now, which in digital camera terms means it's close to receiving a free bus pass. Nikon made it clear at the D5100 launch that the D90 was being retained due to "continued demand", which I would take to mean exactly that - continued demand for a great product.


May 16, 2011, 8:18 pm

@Audley Jarvis - Thanks for the review. I'm wondering if you could help me with something..?

I'm looking for a camera with interchangeable lenses, that produces great image quality in both stills and video (full HD), but one where I NEVER have to use the viewfinder. Oh, and it has to have a fully articulated monitor as well.
So the AF needs to be quick and reliable while using Live View mode, and it needs to have Continuous AF when shooting video.

Now, I know that Panasonic's GH2 ticks all these boxes. But I'd like to know if there are any serious alternatives out there, mainly amongst the more traditional DSLRs like this Nikon D5100, or Canon's 600D? Or does their more traditional technology prevent them from being used effectively without the viewfinder??

I'd be grateful to hear a professional opinion from someone who's actually tried using these different models in this way. Cheers!


May 17, 2011, 6:47 pm

Sony Alpha A55 or NEX-5.

Both have great live view systems, great image quality, and video performance is very decent.

The Alpha A55 is a more like a traditional DSLR, but uses a translucent mirror which enables the camera to permanently use phase detect AF, even during video, so it's very fast.

The NEX-5 is a more compact system, but uses an APS-C sensor, so image quality is comparable to DSLRs using the same type of sensor. It uses contrast detect AF though, which is slower than phase detect, but focusing is completely silent.

The A55 is pretty much designed around live view, but the way it combines live view and full-time phase detect AF makes it seem like the ideal camera for you, based on the requirements you've listed.


September 18, 2014, 4:34 am

I bought a D90 shortly after it was introduced as my first serious, if not a fully professional, DSLR. Since then I have been reasonably pleased with the results, particularly for portraits using only natural lighting. However, I've recently seen some shots taken with a D5100 which are extremely good and seem sharper than my D90 even though it seems to be in the same general category as my D90. Is this because the chip in the 5100 is superior, being closer to that in pro Nikon models? Would it even be worth trading the D90 for a D5100?

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