Nikon D5100 Review
- Part 1 – This page
- Part 2 – AFS 55-300mm VR, AFS 18-200mm and 52 ISO shots with 7 bodies
- Part 3 – AFS 18-55mm, AFS 18-105mm VR, The joys and limitations of night photography
- Part 4 – Battery life, low light performance of the autofocus, dynamic continous night shots
Let me first start with a disclaimer.
You won’t find a real review here, its rather a very personal way of looking at Nikon’s most recent camera – the Nikon D5100. I’ve got mine just yesterday, so bear with me that this cannot be a full review, potentially it will never be one. It is rather a journey and if you are willing to join me on the walk, I’ll enjoy your company.
A little background on why and how you will find some Nikon related information on my blog. I enjoy photography as a hobby since many years and it happened that my first serious camera was one with a F-mount. Being what it is, all further investments in camera gear centered around this mount. While finding many used lenses and bodies I could never convince myself to sell any gear and so the collection grew over time.
I am not a professional photographer, I have no special relationship with Nikon beyond buying their stuff via my dealer. All gear reviewed at this site is my personal stuff and I do not intend to change this personal site to become a revenue generating advertorial eldorado “to feed my growing family” or the like. I am no scientist either, so please forgive, if some test procedures are wrong or some datapoints are potentially erroneous. I welcome constructive and polite input and feedback what is wrong and will do my best to fix it when I have time doing so. Ahh, before I forget: as said I am not and do not pretend to be a professional photographer with centuries of experience and basically a holistic knowledge about everything related to photgraphy and photographic gear.
I’ll leave tables about functions and detailed specifications to other groups which are more specialized in this effort. What I think readers will be interested in, is a comparison of newly introduced cameras and lenses with other existing Nikon bodies. I am not sure, but don’t think that many reviewers (I am not one) have access to all bodies and a solid number of different Nikkor lenses to seamlessly and concurrently compare either indivdual components or the interaction between different combinations.
With that: Welcome to this story about the Nikon D5100
Whenever there is new major technological evolution I am interested in its real merits beyond what marketing claims are out there. Last November I started a similar review on the Nikon D7000 as it had 2 important new components. First a new DX sensor and second a new AF/Exposure subsystem (CAM 4800). The D7000 broke new ground in many areas with advanced capabilities unheard of in this segment before. Needless to say, it got also its fair share of thumbs down in some internet forums (AF accuracy, image softness), but overall it seems to be a commercial success.
When the D5100 was still in the rumor mill, it wasn’t clear which sensor it will get. Much to the surprise and joy of many, the 16,2 MP sensor of the D7000 found its way into the new upper entry level body. Leading to the interesting questions:
- Has Nikon used the 6months since the D7000 was introduced to improve some image quality aspects? Traditionally, later modells based on the same sensor design dispaly better IQ (D90 vs. D300)
- How will the small body with it somewhat crippled AF system be able to leverage the inherent quality of the new 16 MP sensor? Most of the D7000 complaints centered around AF inaccuracy impacting picture quality.
- How will the new hinge and the higher resolution monitor facilitate new shooting styles ? (at least for Nikon DSLR owners)
As expected and not surprisingly a shipping box. A couple of slight changes versus the previous model – the Nikon D5000. It seems that not only the engineers of the D5100 tried to shrink the camera vs. its predecessor, but the box department as well . The new box is slightly smaller then the D5000 box. Guess, with shipments in the hundred of thousands, every inch counts to the bean counters.
The second difference is the handbook. The D5000 box contained a full handbook with 250+ pages. With the D5100, Nikon changed to a more cost effective method to let customers print their own copy. Only a 80 page introductory doc is in the shipping box, the full version of the reference manual (260 pages) need to be printed at home. Yesterday, I asked Nikon support to get a copy of the handbook.(paid or free), but this won’t be available. You have to print it at home if you want a paper version. Needless to say, I would expect that a printed copy would be available from the manufacturer for a 600$ gadget – even at (reasonable) cost.
There is a change with the battery and charger. The new battery EN-EL14 with basically the same dimension and capacity like the EN-EL9a of the D5000 was necessary to comply with flight regulations. The old design *might* short circuit in your luggage and FAA/IATA wanted to address this by the industry. Shall it be.
What I don’t like at all is the recent change with chargers. It used to be a nice, sometimes small, box fitted with a cable to connect to the power outlet. With some recent cameras like the Nikon P7000, Nikon changed this to a direct plug in the charger. This connection is so stiff that you won’t easily separate it to get it in your bag. This design is weird and unneccessary.
- It is awkward to pack it in your bag.
- You have to plug it in the wall outlet (inconvenient) and it is so big, that other outlets are covered by the charger itself, rendering other wall outlets useless .
Nikon, please change this change back to the original method to charger with a cable. This is pretty cumbersome.
According to Nikon’s marketing machinery the D5100 shrinked a bit – which is fine for me. How much did it shrink? To visualize the different sizes, I’ve put 6 cameras on the table. From left to right: D60, D5000, D3100, D5100, D7000 and D90. (Klick on the 2 images for a larger version. The smaller version is nice for keeping the format here, but you can’t really see anything? Here is a solution.)
As you can see, the D5100 is virtually identical in size to the D3100 and visually smaller than the D5000. In case people think that the dimensional loss in height and width forced Nikon to increase its depth, there is good news. It didn’t.. In the next photo you can see that the D5100 is somewhere in thickness between the D3100 and D5000. This can be attributed to slimmer monitor vs. the D5000.
From a usability perspective, I had no issue carrying the camera like all cameras when a lens was mounted on it – with the tips of 2 fingers. The surface, rubber and ergonomics shows clearly the Nikon design philosophy – which I got used to since the F5 and D1 were introduced ages ago.
The microphone ME-1 was delivered this week as well. I am wondering, how this will evolve going forward? With flashes, GPS and microphones competing for the flash hot shoe, some innovative solutions are overdue in this space. Either a 3-rd party hotshoe multiplier or potentially a next generation Nikon camera with 3 hot shoes built in. W’ll see.
Turning the D5100 on for the first time, a small tidbit happened. It seems that in this early setup phase only empty SD cards can be inserted. My reasonably full sandisk card was rejected with “card error”. Putting another empty card in the camera during setup solved this issue. After the setup process, the half full card was perferctly usable. Just that you know.
One ask to Nikon in this area: While the semipro and pro bodies allow to change the filename with a camera specific prefix (i.e. D3x or D7k) this pure software based option is not available in the entry level camera line. All bodies in this area have to use “DSC_xxxxx”. Would be nice to be able to change it with every entry level camera as well to facilitate later processing on the PC.
What lens? What lens?
Shall I buy a body only or a kit? If a kit, which one? I do have lenses, do I need a new one? What lens shall I take for my trip to Portugal?
Lenses are the reason-d-etre for DSLRS. Why bother with the size, price and complexity of a Dslr cameras, when you will never ever change any lens? Anyway, this is not the place to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different lens types for each purpose. Instead of this, I’ve put some very typical lens settings together, so that the interested reader can check for the dimensions. Needless to say, there are countless other combinations possible.
Option 1: The compact D5100
The AFS 35mm/1.8G is the most compact lens, which fits from an IQ perspective quite well to the D5100. For those who prefer available light shooting. A compact companion, a typical film body with a 50mm and 70ties feeling – this is it. Nice thing about this combo – it fits in very small bags. Here the LowePro.
Option 2: The universal D5100
Not sure about your preferences? Looking for a singe universal lens? Don’t want to change lenses? The AFS 18-200mm VR II might satisfy our requirements. Its a bit bigger than option 1, but can still be considered compact.
Option 3: The standard D5100
Potentially most customers will go in this direction. With the 18-55mm kit lens, the natural extension is the AFS 55-200mm tele zoom. Like hundred of thousands customer in the past, many will take this combination and like its performance for the initial phase of their D-SLR photography.
Option 4: the versatile D5100
Another well received kit lens – the AFS 18-105mm. For those who would like to keep one lens on the body but more reach then the other kit lense. With built-in distortion correction in the D5100 one of its major flaws will vanish.
Option 5: The ambitous D5100
Enjoying the huge and diverse world of photography? Travel, people, macro, night, close ups, telephoto, etc ? Here you will find a potential set up with 5 lenses. Somehow close to the price point of the D5100. It’s the AFS 10-24mm/4 UWW (ok, this one is pricey), the AFS 16-85mm as great standard lens, the new AFS 55-300mm VR telephoto zoom (if you do not intend to switch soon to the FX camp), the AFS 35mm/1.8 as available light lens and the AFS 85mm/3.5 micro for macro photography. Its a great setup, basically covering a very diverse range of opportunites without severely overinvesting into lenses.
Option 6: The companion D5100
Some photographers with heavy and professional gear could look for the D5100 from a kind of sidekick perspective. Even with a very “pro” AFS 35mm/1.4G, the combination is very compact. Sometimes it might even be necessary to avoid the huge pro equipoment show off . Some early tests with this combo showed stunning results.
I have to confess, that until now (ca. 500 images), I’ve never used the monitor other than in its standard position. I’d even rather prefer to turn it with the screen inside, but that’s from a setting perspective not very practical. So it be.
Oh yes, if you someone got experience with FX viewfinders, the D5100 will look differently. Very differently. A narrow tunnel. After some time, I got used to it and it is basically fine. Two things aren’t easy to do though: First, manual focus is hard, very hard (with my eyesight). Second, the LCD display in the viewfinder is quite dim. In bright sunlight, it is alomst impossible to read the values swiftly. The viewfinder of the D7000 is better in this regard.
Buttons: It takes some time to get used to it – too deep is the entrenched behavior after 12 years of DLSRs. The menue button is fine for me. Don’t think that the button sequence to change settings like ISO is optimal. First you have to press “info” and then the “I” button. Which costs so much time, especially when you would like to change quickly some settings, or time is scare. The pro bodies are a class in itself for this. The D5100 shooter will miss more shots due to this slower process.
Another thing for me is the limitation of the 1/4000 sec exposure. On a bright day, this max shutter speed limits you practically to f2.8. All faster f-stops, i.e. with the AFS 35mm/1.8 will be overexposed. Either take ND filters or use this as an argument for your discussion with your spouse why you really need the D7000.
Another thing I missed was, the single (or dual) LCD screens on the body. With bright sunlight, they are so much better to read, vs the monitor. Yes it is a very high resolution monitor, yes you can read the monitor in sunlight, but not easily – again, it takes time vs. the D7000.
All the points above might suggest, that I don’t like the D5100 from a usability perspective. This is not correct, it is fine, but the points above are just some limitations i encountered in the first day.
Wlecome to the Nikon marketing department. For capturing pictures – unusable. But I found something more valuable. When you are shooting in dim lights and the phase AF or contrast AF can’t find contrast spots, switch the mode selector from whatever you have (ie. “A” or “M”) and use nightvision for the AF phase when in contrast AF. The camera was able to focus in a really dark scene remarkably well. After getting the focus right, keep the finger on the shutter and reselect your old program. Cool.
Let me start with this statement – I am impressed, really impressed. This statement is based less on the absolute performance versus the best camera in this regard (ie the D3s in High ISO) but the exceptional price/performance Nikon achieved with this camera. It is even roughly 40% less expensive than the D7000, significantly less expensive then the other models higher up in the Nikon portfolio, yet the D5100 produces images unimaginable just a couple of years ago. Mostly gone are the days of “can’t crop”, or “need more sensitivity” when using the small D5100. Don’t underestimate this camera based on its size and price point. With good lenses the image quality is superb. Haven’t tried the camera with kit lenses yet.
Some photos from my first hours with the camera can be found here.
D5100 & AFS 70-200mm/2.8 VR II
D5100 & AFS 60mm/2.8
High ISO performance
Reading through some internet forums, ISO performance seems to be the new darling aspect, which cameras people should buy. I will not repeat the more formal methods of the established websites, but like to offer you my small test as well.
These photos were taken yesterday around midnight. It was so dark, that I had to use my flashlight to help the AF find its target. A street light was about 30 meters (90 feet) away, with some dim light on the scene. I did a complete run through from ISO 100 to Hi2. Exposure time with ISO 100 was 30 seconds.
Here are the photos. To facilitate viewing, I resized all images to 1920×1200.
This concludes the first day in this review. More to come.
Hope you enjoyed it so far,