Although there has been some overlap, digital SLR development has gone through some quite distinct phases.
Initially, the battle was to produce affordable models, and once this was achieved manufacturers turned their attention to producing cameras with higher pixel counts. This was followed by a push in sensitivity levels and improved low-light performance. During these development phases, camera functionality has also expanded, with manufacturers capitalising upon the benefits of digital technology and introducing features such as Live View, video and dynamic range optimisation systems. Now, there’s a drive to make these increasingly complex and versatile SLRs easier to use, while at the same time helping photographers be more creative.
The Nikon D5100, which serves as the Nikon D5000 replacement, typifies this era in DSLR evolution.
|1||Nikon D5100 16.2MP Digital SLR Camera & 18-55mm VR Lens||Check Price|
It may not have the 24 million pixels of the Nikon D3200, but for many, the D5100’s 16.2 million pixels is enough. In addition, the D5100 has an articulated 3-inch LCD screen, Special Effects and fully automated Scene modes, along with the more advanced PSAM exposure settings.
So on paper, it seems to offer pretty much everything the aspiring photographer could wish for, with plenty of opportunities to take creative images. Let’s see.
Yet the Nikon D5100 features the same 16.2-million-pixel CMOS sensor and EXPEED 2 processor as the Nikon D7000. This means raw images are saved as 14-bit files and users can expect similar quality results with the two cameras.
However, like the Nikon D5000 it replaces, the D5100’s white balance and metering systems use information from a 420-pixel RGB sensor (the D7000 uses a 2,016-pixel RGB device) and its autofocus (AF) system has 11 points. While it may not have the 39 factors of the D7000’s AF program, the D5100’s Multi-CAM 1000 AF module performed well in the D5000 and Nikon D90 (which has not been discontinued; read our Nikon D90 review).
Like the D7000, the D5100’s native sensitivity can be set from ISO 100 to 6400, and there are four expansion settings topping out at the equivalent of ISO 25,600 (Hi 2). On those rare occasions when this is not high enough, Nikon D5100 users can select the Night Vision Special Effect mode, which pushes the sensitivity to ISO 102,400.
This value is only matched by top-end DSLRs such as Nikon’s full-frame D3s. However, while the D3s can shoot in colour at ISO 102,400, the D5100 can only record monochrome images. In manual exposure or shutter priority mode when the shutter speed is 1/250sec or faster, the Nikon D5100 can shoot continuously at a maximum rate of 4fps for around 100 highest quality JPEGs or 20 raw pictures or 12 simultaneous raw and JPEG documents when a class 6 SD card such as a SanDisk Extreme III is installed.
While this is impressive for a camera of this level, keen action photographers may look enviously at the 6fps shooting offered by the D7000. It’s also worth bearing in mind that it takes around 1 min 50 sec for the D5100 to write 100 Fine JPEGs to the Sdcard.
Perhaps the most noticeable upgrade that the Nikon D5100 makes on the D5000 is with the LCD, which goes from being a 2.7-inch 230,000 dot display to a 3-inch 920,000 dot screen. This matches the size and resolution of the D7000’s display and it should make a significant difference when using Live View and focusing manually. It was something of a disappointment that the D7000 doesn’t have an articulated display screen, but Nikon has not made this mistake with the Nikon D5100. Unlike the D5000, however, which had the articulation join at the bottom on the screen, the D5100’s screen is hinged on the left. This makes the screen easier to use once the camera is on a tripod.
In addition to the Active D-Lighting (ADL) dynamic range optimisation system that we now expect with Nikon SLRs, the Nikon D5100 has an HDR (high dynamic variety) mode. When that is selected the camera takes two exposures, one over and one under the ‘correct’ publicity and merges them automatically into a single image with more shadow and highlight detail than normal. It could prove useful in high contrast conditions if the effect is subtle and not overtly ‘HDR’.
Although there’s a lot packed into the D5100, including full HD (1080p) video and multiple exposure capability, Nikon seems proudest of its Effects modes. These allow the user to apply special effects (Night Vision, Color Sketch, Miniature, Selective Color, Silhouette, High Key and Low Key) to images as they are captured – rather than post-capture as with the Nikon D3100 and D7000.
Furthermore, the impact of these effects can be seen about the screen when the camera is in Live See mode. While these are fun and allow the user to create some interesting pictures, it’s disappointing that it’s not possible to save raw files at the same time because the JPEGs when these effect options are selected.
Chroma noise is much less of an issue in high sensitivity images than it used to be, and it’s impressive just how little coloured speckling is visible in pictures captured with the D5100 in its highest ISO setting, ISO 25,600 (equivalent) when noise reduction is set to the default Normal value.
At 100% on the screen (or at actual pixels in Photoshop), there is some fairly subtle false colouring visible, and there’s an obvious speckled texture of luminance noise, but the images are still usable and many cases would make decent A3 (23.4 x 16.5-inch) prints.
As we would expect, images improve significantly when the sensitivity settings are kept below the expansions settings and while there is a dip in the level of detail resolved at ISO 6400, the results are still very respectable. In the past, Nikon’s auto white balance (AWB) system has been accused of being a little too accurate, so that warm light is rendered neutral and some of the atmospheres of the scene is lost. The Nikon D5100’s AWB program seems to fare a little better on this score, but there exists a tendency for it to make scenes captured under hazy sunshine look a touch too yellow. This is especially noticeable with landscapes containing lush, green grass, but it is effectively countered by switching from the Standard Picture Control mode to Landscape setting since this boosts greens and blues.
Nikon has some of the best phase-detection AF systems around, and the D5100’s doesn’t disappoint. Paired with a Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, it proved up to the job of keeping pace with cars moving at 80mph on a race track. The contrast recognition system available in Live View mode is also good, only struggling to find sharp focus in fairly low light or once the subject is very close. That said, the subject tends to glide into sharp register rather than snapping into concentrate as it does with the phase-detection system.
There’s very little to say about the D5100’s metering system, apart from it works very well. Although the exposure compensation facility still comes in handy occasionally, in its Matrix mode the system usually takes brighter or darker than average subjects in its stride. The camera’s dynamic range can be good, so highlight and shadow fine detail aren’t dropped earlier than it should be.
Check Out: Best Nikon D5100 Lenses
The only real downside for enthusiast photographers is that there are few direct controls over image parameters. However, most features such as the white balance, drive mode and sensitivity settings are just a couple of clicks away via the Information Display system. Great for both enthusiasts and novices looking to take the next step forward, the Nikon D5100 offers a lot of versatility, opportunity for creativity and quality results. However, the bar appears to have been raised by the Canon 650D which has a touch-sensitive articulated screen, 18-million effective pixels and a new hybrid AF system that enables faster focusing in Live View and Video mode.