Nikon Digital SLRs > D5100 Review

Nikon D5100 Review

nikon d5100
Release Date: April 2011
List Price: $650 USD

When I received the camera for this Nikon D5100 review, the first thing I did was take a picture just above the ground.

Then, I took some shots with the camera way above my head.

Such photos are possible with the D5100 thanks to its completely flexible LCD screen. It's predecessor - the Nikon D5000 - also had a flexible LCD screen, but that one flipped DOWN from the bottom of the camera.

That LCD configuration made the D5000 hard to hold at times, and it didn't work at all if you wanted to use the camera on a tripod.

By contrast, the flexible LCD on the D5100 flips out to the left side of the camera body and rotates, allowing for high and low angle shots as well as self-portraits.

Like the D5000 and the entry-level D3200, the D5100 does not include an autofocus motor in the camera body. This means that any lens without its own focus motor will be manual focus only when used on the D5100.

Nikon lenses with focus motors are labeled AF-S and here's the good news: there are plenty to choose from.

Put another way: if you have a collection of old Nikon lenses then this might not be the best camera for you, but if you're just starting out this is not cause for concern.

Table of Contents

Nikon D5100 Sample Photo

Flexible LCD

Nikon D5100 Sample Photo

Once you've used a flexible LCD screen, it's pretty hard to go back to the traditional ones that are fixed in place.

Since the LCD on the Nikon D5100 is fully articulated — meaning that it flips out from to the side of the camera and rotates all around — there are many different ways you can take advantage of it.

First, you can use it for high and low-angle shots that would not otherwise be possible.

Yes, you can of course take photos "blind" with an LCD that is fixed in place (without your eye to the viewfinder), but getting the right composition is very difficult and more luck than anything else.

With the flexible LCD, you can hold the camera mere inches/millimeters above the ground and yet still compose the elements in your photo precisely.

Unless you always want to take your photos from odd angles, you may not use the flexible LCD for stills all that much. However, it's a rare day that I shoot video from eye level.

This is advantage #2 of a flexible LCD.

Most of the movies that you'll see in this Nikon D5100 review were shot from chest or waist level. For these, the flexible LCD was invaluable.

It allowed me to keep my subjects in the frame, even when I was walking with the camera.

A third and final benefit to a flexible LCD is a subtle one: when the camera is not in use, you can face the screen in toward the camera body. This ensures that the LCD remains scratch-free for a very long time.


Nikon D5100 Sample Photo

There are two different ways to leverage autofocus using the Nikon D5100: through the viewfinder or live view.

The autofocus through the viewfinder is what you'd expect from any DSLR: ultra-fast and capable of locking onto and tracking fast-moving subjects.

This type of autofocus is best used for action photography, where you need to capture a moment that only lasts a fraction of a second.

Live view autofocus is definitely a different experience.

Rather than using specific focus points, the focus area covers a large part of the LCD screen.

Compared to the viewfinder autofocus, live view autofocus is quite slow — more the speed of the autofocus on a compact digital camera.

It's also not entirely accurate, sometimes focusing on the background if your primary subject isn't large enough. There were several instances where I had to switch to manual focus to set it correctly in live view.

The live view autofocus is also used to capture movies, and it comes with an unfortunate side effect.

To capture a moving subject, the autofocus makes constant small adjustments to the lens focus. Unless you have a lens that is dead quiet when the focus motor engages, you can hear the lens focusing in the movie's audio.

For this Nikon D5100 review, I used the Nikon 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6 ED AF-S VR lens and you can hear it in the video above.

There are two solutions to this issue:

  1. Focus Manually — manual focus makes no noise, but it's challenging to keep up with a moving subject
  2. Use a Microphone — instead of relying on the built-in microphone, you can purchase an accessory microphone like the Rode VideoMic which should reduce the volume of lens noise

Movie Mode

The Nikon D5100 is equipped with a Full HD 1080p video mode (1920 x 1080).

Of course, if you're not planning on screening your home movies on gigantic TV sets you can also choose between regular HD size (1280 x 720) or standard definition (640 x 424).

In Full HD and regular HD mode, you can choose between 2 different "film speeds" if you're using the camera in NTSC mode: 30 frames per second (typical of most home video) and 24 frames per second (used by most cinematic movie cameras).

The D5100 can also take video in the PAL format, where you're limited to one film speed: 25 frames per second.

Recording video is a two-step process: first use the lever surrounding the mode dial to put the camera into live view mode, then press the record button to start and stop recording.

As I mentioned above, you'll probably hear your lens focusing on the movie soundtrack if you keep the autofocus engaged.

Part of the reason when the lens focus motor is so audible may have to do with the placement of the camera's built-in microphone: on the left front side of the camera, RIGHT a next to the lens.

In addition to lens noise, I found that this microphone placement also tends to pick up a lot of wind noise.

You have to pay some attention to which the direction the wind is coming from. If it's hitting the side of the camera with the microphone, you'll get a lot of wind noise in your movie.

ISO Performance / Auto ISO

The D5100 does an exceptionally good job of keeping high ISO noise and speckling to a minimum. At lower ISO settings (100 to 400) it's almost impossible to see unless you know what you're looking for.

It becomes more apparent right around ISO 3200, but only if you have the image greatly magnified - if you reduce its size or print it as a regular 4x6 you'll have a tough time seeing any reduction in image quality.

At the higher ISOs (6400 to 25600) the image looks very speckled, so you'd only use these settings if you absolutely had to or if you were trying to get a grainy look to your photos.

The gallery below shows the same subject taken at different ISO levels - judge for yourself how well the Nikon D5100 handles high ISO noise.

ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800
ISO 25600

Camera Controls

Like other Nikon digital SLRs, the D5100 is covered with buttons. Some you will use a lot and some you may never touch at all.

Access to the primary shooting modes is provided via the main control dial. This lets you choose between manual modes like Program, Aperture Priority, etc. and the Automatic Scene modes like Portrait, Landscape and Action.

Clustered around the shutter release button are the power switch, video recording button and exposure compensation button.

  • Video Recording — this is the button you press to start recording video. The "trick" to it though is that FIRST the camera must be in live view mode: pressing the record button does nothing if live view isn't activated
  • Exposure Compensation — there will come a time where the D5100 can't quite tell how dark or bright the scene is: in this case you'll have to fine-tune the exposure to either make it brighter or darker depending on your taste
Nikon D5100 Sample Photo

While you may think "I'll rarely use exposure compensation" I found myself using quite a bit while shooting with the Nikon D5100.

The D5100 tends to expose a bit on the dark side. This is good for very bright scenes but makes anything in shade or shadow look flat. By adjusting exposure compensation to +0.3 or even +1.0 I was able to capture brighter images in the shade.

On the back of the camera, the two buttons you'll probably use the most are the "info" (i) button and the "help" (?) button.

The info button is used for quick access to the most commonly changed camera settings like ISO, white balance, autofocus mode, image quality, exposure compensation (again), flash exposure compensation, and color modes.

If you tend to lean toward fully automatic camera operation the you'll never use this feature – simple as that.

Nikon D5100 Sample Photo

However, if you want to tweak your camera settings to match your subject, then having this quick access is much better than having to dig through separate menus.

I'll explain more about the help button in just a moment.

The last button worth noting is the FUNCTION button, located on the left front side of the camera, right below the flash.

Using a menu option, you can customise which camer feature this button changes: self-timer, release mode, image quality, ISO, white balance, Active D-Lighting, HDR mode, RAW, or auto bracketing.

I found it most useful to use it to change ISO. Without taking my eye from the viewfinder, I could press the function button with my thumb, change the ISO value and go right back to taking pictures.

Camera Help Display

Even if you've firmly made up your mind that you will never fiddle with the camera's "white balance" you can take advantage of the help button.

Nikon has included explanations of many camera features that display on the LCD when you press the help button. Not sure what white balance is? Just select it, press help, and the camera will explain it to you.

The help mode is especially nice if you're a beginning photographer keen to learn some new skills but who has a tough time remembering exactly what ISO is and why you'd even want to fiddle with it.

Special Effects / Image Retouching

If you don't fancy spending a lot of time in front of your computer editing your photos, then you can do a lot with the Nikon D5100.

There are two ways that you can approach image editing:

  1. At the time of capture
  2. After the photo has been taken

If you want to give your images a unique "look" when you take them, then you can use the EFFECTS mode on the D5100.

Important note: when you take pictures in EFFECTS mode, the image alteration is applied to your photo at the time of capture. If you decide later that you're not happy with the look, there's no going back.

The image effects available on the D5100 include: Selective Color, Silhouette, High Key, Low Key, Night Vision, Color Sketch and Miniature Effect.

Selective Color
High Key
Low Key
Color Sketch
Miniature Effect

In addition to these artistic "effects" you can also edit any image that is stored on the camera's memory card.

Some of the editing tools are merely designed to improve the "natural" look of your photos while others are more like the changes available in effects mode.

Some of the retouching tools that won't affect the look of your photos include red-eye correction, trim, resize and straighten.

The retouching options that can make your photo look radically different include fisheye, color outline, color sketch, miniature effect, image overlay and the filter effects (red, green and blue intensifiers).

The extent to which you use either the effects mode or retouch options depend on how much you want to tweak the look of your photos vs. how much you want to represent the scene exactly as captured

I personally find it pretty difficult to make fine-tuned image adjustments using the small 3 inch LCD screen, preferring instead to edit photos on my 24 inch computer monitor.

All of the image effects that you can apply using the Nikon D5100 can easily be replicated with a program like Adobe Elements, if that's something you want to do.


Nikon D5100 Sample Photo

The Nikon D5100 includes a built-in flash and is also compatible with external flash units like the Nikon SB-400, SB-700 and SB-910.

As I was using the camera for this D5100 review, I found that the built-in flash is very good for one thing: filling in shadows on sunny days.

When you're dealing with high-contrast situations and dark shadows, the pop-up flash adds just enough light to brighten the shadows.

Used as a primary light source, the pop-up flash has the same issues as other small light sources: it can't light a large area, and portrait subjects get a deer-in-the-headlights look.

A typical way to get better flash results is to use the on-camera flash with one that is off-camera. Unfortunately this is not as easy to do with the D5100 as with some other DSLRs like the Canon Rebel T4i 650D, because the pop-up flash cannot act as a wireless trigger for other off-camera flash units.

While you can certainly have off-camera flash with the D5100 it requires more gear and is ultimately quite a bit more expensive.

Lens Options

nikon 24-85mm lens

As I mentioned at the very beginning of this Nikon D5100 review, the best lenses for this camera are ones that bear the Nikon AF-S label.

There are also a handful of third-party lenses with their own focus motors made by Sigma, Tokina and Tamron.

Picking the best lens for the Nikon D5100 really depends a lot on what you want to photograph. Put another way, a lot depends on how far away you want to be from your subject.

For example, if you love photographing bugs and flowers, then you're going to spend a lot of time up close and personal with your subjects. However, if you want to take pictures of lions in the wild, you probably won't want to get that close.

With that in mind, here are a variety of lens suggestions for different types of subjects:

LandscapesSigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM $480 USD
PortraitsNikon 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR AF-S $600 USD
WildlifeNikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S VR $590 USD
Closeup (Macro)Nikon 60mm f/2.8G ED AF-S Micro-Nikkor $560 USD
Multi-PurposeNikon 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX VR $1,000 USD


The Nikon D5100 provides photographers with a tool that can capture a wide range of photographic opportunities.

The flexible LCD in particular helps to capture shots from unique points of view that would be quite challenging with a fixed LCD. The LCD also helps to frame events when capturing movies.

The big drawback to using the LCD is that it slows down the autofocus considerably. If you're trying to capture a fleeting moment, you really can't use live view mode unless you're willing to focus manually, which presents its own challenges.

If you want to use the D5100 for videos, then there are two things to be aware of about the placement of the microphone:

  1. It picks up a lot of wind noise, since it is placed vertically rather than horizontally
  2. It can pick up the sound of the lens adjusting focus to track a moving subject

The simple solution to all these audio issues is to purchase a separate microphone, but this is extra expense to add to your DSLR investment.

Audio issues aside, how does the D5100 fare as an image-capturing device? Exceptionally well.

Nikon D5100 Sample Photo

Images have rich colors, and the camera is especially adept at handling high-contrast scenes and preserving lots of detail in both shadows and highlights.

High ISO noise is kept to an absolute minimum, providing you with lots of options when shooting in low-light situations.

A variety of special image effects can be applied to your photos at the moment of capture or after the fact, giving each image a unique "look".

While not quite as fast as the more advanced Nikon D7000, the D5100 fares quite well when it comes to action photography. It's able to freeze the motion of even fast-moving subjects, and the 11-point autofocus locks on instantly, provided you're not using live view.

Nikon D5100 Packages, Pricing and Accessories

Nikon D5100 Photo Samples

See more of the photos that I captured for this Nikon D5100 review.

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