Mirroring the relationship between the older Nikon D5000 and Nikon D90, the new Nikon D5100 takes after the D7000 like a younger sibling. The Nikon D5100 has the same 16MP DX-format CMOS image sensor and EXPEED 2 image-processing engine as the D7000, with the same ISO100-6400 range, and the same sensitivity increases up to ISO 25600.
A brand-new High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode has been added, which takes two shots of varying exposure and combines them in-camera into a single image. The LCD monitor size and resolution has been increased, from 2.7″ and 230k dots to 3.0″ and 921k dots, and the swivel hinge has been moved from the bottom of the LCD lid to the side of the camera. The Nikon D5100 now records in full HD at1920x1080 (30fps, 25fps, 24fps), has subject tracking AF in movie mode and an audio jack for an external microphone. Nikon also introduces a brand new Special Effects mode with the D5100, which includes seven special effects or filters which can be applied to both stills and video.
The D5100 is a shorter and slightly slimmer camera than the D5000, and also slightly lighter. Like the entry-level Nikon D3100 and the Nikon D5000, the D5100 shaves size and weight off by excluding the auto-focus motor found on higher-end models. That means the number of lenses the D5100 can use with auto-focus is limited to those lenses with AF motors built-in.
While the D5000 had an articulating LCD which pivoted from the bottom, the D5100’s screen pivots from the side of the camera. It’s easier to use this way, and it doesn’t get in the way when the camera is mounted on a tripod. As a result of the LCD screen now pivoting from the side, the buttons on the side of the camera have all been shifted.
While the Play and Zoom buttons find easy to reach locations beside the d-pad, the Menu and Info button have now been shifted to odd-to-reach places above the screen The thumb-rest has been widened, and in line with the curvier shapes of the D5100, is more contoured than the D5000’s and more comfortable to grip.
In a confusing move, Nikon has eschewed the easy-to-use design of the Live view cum Record flip seen on the recent Nikon D7000 and D3100 bodies, and created a new LV lever which sits beneath the mode dial. The video Record button has been moved to beside the shutter release on top of the camera. Both new designs don’t work as well as the previously integrated Live View and Record switches, the LV switch is now harder to flip, and the Record button can be troublesome to locate.
The Nikon D5100 improves upon the D5000’s ISO performance, taking after the D7000’s lead in this area. It produces clean images up to ISO1600, and even though ISO3200-5000 produces more noise, the images still look workable. The images return approx. 2000 x 1800 LPH vertical and horizontal on our resolution chart, almost but not quite as sharp as the D7000’S 1800 x 2200 LPH. Above ISO 6400 into the Hi settings, Image noise becomes overwhelming. Elsewhere, auto-focus is fast and accurate, and makes shooting with the camera fun and easy. AF in Live View is still slower than when shooting through the optical viewfinder, but it’s a hair faster than the Live View AF used on the Canon 600D.
Nikon introduces a new Effects mode, with seven effects that are applied as you shoot. They include a miniature effect, which makes your subjects look like toys, high key and low key effects for an over- or under-exposed look, and color sketch for a sketch-like picture. While they may seem like gimmicks, they can actually be quite fun in practice. If you don’t like applying destructive filters to your images, most of the effects are actually available in the Retouch menu.
We had mixed results while playing with the new High Dynamic Range (HDR) function. Depending on the scene, you might even be able to shoot handheld if neither of the two exposures taken is too long. The HDR effect is more subtle than fantastical; unlike the more intense HDR images out there the D5100 produces HDR images which are more realistic.
You can leave the difference in exposures to be set automatically by the camera, or manually set it to a difference of 1,2 or 3EV. Depending on the scene, that might or might not give you a lot of latitude – it certainly won’t give you as much latitude as a larger sequence of HDR images you shoot and combine yourself, and the Nikon D5100 doesn’t manage to expose for all highlights and shadows in an image with a wide difference in brightness levels.
As such, the HDR function is a convenient and automatic supplement to your photography, not a replacement for a more complete (but also more tedious) manually-composed HDR image. With the 3EV limit in exposures, we found that the HDR function produces images that look more like higher dynamic range photos, rather than high dynamic range photos-which isn’t a bad thing at all if you find yourself shooting in difficult lighting conditions.
The Nikon D5100 improves on its predecessor in more than a few ways. The new Effects mode and HDR feature should provide some entertainment to the enthusiast, and that’s whom the D5100 is targeted towards – a beginner or more advanced beginner who’s looking for something more compact and affordable than the D7000. Whereas the Nikon D7000 is a semi-pro/advanced enthusiast camera, and the Nikon D3100 is a simple, beginner’s DSLR, the D5100 falls somewhere in-between, as a solid camera with great image quality that both beginner and advanced users will enjoy.