HandlingWe found the D5100 a pleasant camera to handle. Build quality is sound and the rubber-coated thumb rest on the grip handle helps you keep firm hold of the camera. That said, the D5100 is a compact SLR with a grip handle that's actually quite small, which means you may end up with a couple of fingers resting underneath the camera.
The new screen has changed the SLR's handling a fair bit, as the controls have been rearranged to make way for it. The buttons usually found to the left of the screen have been moved either above or to the right of the LCD, with some controls being pushed up onto the camera's upper edge. The layout has therefore changed quite a bit, and the new design isn't necessarily any more practical. The Menu button is now in the top left corner of the camera's rear face, while the zoom controls have been relegated to the bottom right of the screen alongside the delete button. The 'I' button has a new location between the viewfinder and the AE-L/AF-L button. Finally, the playback button, which is usually in the top left corner, is now located just above the four-way controller. A regular Nikon user therefore won't be able to find their way around instinctively, but it's just a question of getting used to things—we soon got the hang of the D5100's new layout. It's just a shame that you can't easily access options such as white balance, ISO and zoom speed via the four-way controller.
What's even more strange is that the Live View switch has now been moved next to the exposure mode-selection dial, while the video record button is now found on the upper edge of the grip handle. This is much less practical than the all-in-one switch and video button we saw in the D3100.
Although small, the optical viewfinder is actually fairly pleasant to use, even if it doesn't have some of the handy features seen elsewhere like a grid or an electronic level. The menus are as dense as ever and beginners may have trouble finding their way around. This SLR takes pictures very quietly, although it's still no match for the super-quiet Pentax K-5.
ResponsivenessThe D5100 is a small and speedy SLR, starting up and taking its first picture in under 0.3 seconds. The autofocus isn't as fast as in expert SLRs, but it performs at a consistent 0.6 seconds at all focal lengths (from wide angle to telephoto). The 3D tracking mode also gives excellent results when following a moving subject.
In Live View mode, the new 'Full Time' AF system is certainly a bit quicker than in previous models, but with a focusing time of around 1.5 seconds, the D5100 still isn't particularly responsive. In video mode, the continuous autofocus works well, even if it's still a touch on the slow side ... and a bit loud!
This SLR keeps its promises in burst mode, shooting 4 frames per second. That's decent enough, but it wouldn't be suitable for fast-action sports photography.
Picture QualityWe tested the Nikon D5100 with the 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 stabilised kit lens supplied—a lens that already has a proven track record for being excellent value for money. The 16-Megapixel CMOS sensor has also been seen before in Nikon's higher-end D7000 SLR.
The electronic noise handling system works pretty much as expected, with speckles and granularity well controlled up to 1600 ISO and pictures that are still perfectly usable at 3200 ISO or even 6400 ISO. That's really quite good for an entry-level consumer SLR!
Surprisingly, JPEG shots are a little 'soft' with the camera's default settings, but you can always accentuate the pictures more by changing the camera's manual settings. RAW files, however, contain more data, and users who have the patience to post-edit shots will find it very much worth their while, especially for capturing and enhancing finer detail.
Colour reproduction is clearly playing to the tastes of the general consumer market since all the tones are highly saturated. However, exposure is usually well handled and the automatic white balance does a good job in outdoor conditions. Note that under tungsten light, you'll be better off using one of the camera's pre-set modes for a more neutral result.
VideoThe D5100 video mode sets a new standard in Nikon's SLR cameras with quality and functions that have never before been seen in this camera range. For example, you can now film 1080p HD video at 30, 25 or 24 full frames per second, with files compressed to H.264 format in the .MOV container. Sound is recorded in mono and is of passable quality, but you can always hook up an external stereo mic such as the Nikon ME-1 (see inset). In Full HD mode, the 20 Mbps bitrate ensures good picture quality with moving subjects. However, in Auto mode, videos seem to have a fairly limited dynamic range with bright areas that are soon overexposed. The continuous autofocus does its job, but it's still too slow and noisy for regular use. You can't change many settings while filming either, and a simple exposure correction of +/- 5 IL is all that's available.
- Noise handled very well up to 3200 ISO
- Good general responsiveness (on/off, photo saving)
- Good build quality and swivel screen
- 1080p HD video mode
- Fun creative filters
- Autofocus too slow in Live View and video modes
- Automatic white balance doesn't work very well under tungsten light
- Controls and menus could be better
- Mono sound in video mode
- Built-in flash isn't compatible with wireless slave flash units
The Nikon D5100 has plenty of great features, including excellent picture quality, a swivel screen, good general responsiveness and a Full HD video mode. However, the controls and menus are just too complicated for an entry-level model, which is why the D5100 misses out on a fifth star.