Nikon D5100 Gordon Laing, May 2011

Click here to find out about the Nikon D5100's Movie Mode

Nikon D5100 lenses, focus, sensor & drive


The Nikon D5100 has an F-mount which can accommodate most Nikkor lenses, with the DX-format sensor resulting in their field of view being reduced by 1.5 times; so the DX 18-55mm VR kit lens delivers an effective focal range of 27-83mm.

As with all Nikon DSLRs, you'll need recent lenses to support the full focusing and metering modes. There's a compatibility chart in the D5100 manual or specification sheets, but just briefly you'll need a Type G or D AF (including AF-S and AF-I) Nikkor to support all functions including the most sophisticated 3D Colour Matrix Metering II system.


Like the D40(x), D60, D3000, D3100 and D5000 before it, the D5100 does not feature a built-in motor required to auto-focus older lenses. These lenses will still work on the D5100, but they become manual-focus only. The D5100 will only auto-focus with AF-S or AF-I CPU lenses from the Nikkor range. If you want autofocus from third party lenses, look for models with built-in focusing motors like Sigma's HSM series.

Like its predecessors, Nikon omitted the AF motor to save size, weight and cost, and while its absence will frustrate enthusiasts who want to use older lenses, it's less of an issue for the D5100's target audience which will mostly buy newer AF-S models.

Nikon's steadily releasing more and more AF-S lenses including a number of new primes. A great complement for a kit zoom is the Nikkor AF-S DX 35mm f1.8 which delivers standard coverage, a bright aperture and very respectable image quality at a low price; see our Nikkor DX 35mm f1.8 lens review for full details. If the lack of a focusing motor really is a deal-breaker for you though, trade-up to the D7000 (or an older D90) instead.

The Nikon D5100 is typically sold in a kit with the Nikkor DX 18-55mm VR lens. The VR stands for Vibration Reduction and provides the lens with anti-shake capabilities which you can see through the viewfinder, although with a longest equivalent focal length of 83mm, any wobbling isn't that obvious. We found the lens stabilisation was good for around three stops of compensation in practice.


Nikon D5100 focusing

Nikon's D5100 inherits the same 11-point AF system as its predecessor, along with the D3100 and D90. This employs the same Multi-CAM 1000 module with a single cross-type sensor, and the options appear to be identical. As such there's three main AF modes: AF-S (Single Servo AF), AF-C (Continuous Servo AF) and AF-A (an Auto mode which selects between them depending on whether the subject is in motion - this is the default option). These are selected from the main information display screen, where you'll also be offered a Manual focusing option.

Unlike many affordable DSLRs which strobe their built-in flashes for AF assistance, the D5100 employs a dedicated lamp - it's pretty bright, but much more discreet than the flickering flashes of Canon's models.

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Like the D5000 before it, there's four AF Area modes: Single Point, Dynamic Area, Auto Area, and 3D Tracking (the latter only available in AF-A and AF-C modes). In Single and Dynamic Area, you can manually adjust the focusing point using the rocker control, with Dynamic Area also considering surrounding focus points if the subject moves. In Auto Area, the D5100 chooses the focus point automatically.

With 3D Tracking, you manually select a focusing point and place it over the desired subject. With the shutter-release half-pressed, the D5100 will then attempt to keep this subject in focus even if you recompose the shot. 3D Tracking also exploits colour information to help track a subject, although obviously if it's the same colour as the background, the system will become confused. Nikon recommends using Dynamic Area for erratically moving subjects, and 3D Tracking when recomposing photos with relatively static subjects.

We've detailed the Live View auto-focusing options on the previous Design page, but just briefly here, the D5100 exclusively relies on contrast-based AF in Live View, with the choice of four modes: Normal Area, Wide Area, Face Priority and Subject Tracking. Inherited from the D3100 and D7000, and new over its predecessor though is the choice of AF-S (Single) or AF-F (Full-time Servo) in Live View, where the latter attempts to continuously autofocus - again we have full details in our Live View section on the previous page.

Returning to the main 11-point phase-change AF system, the D5100 unsurprisingly performs identically to the D3100, D5000 and D90 before it. Set to the default Auto Area it generally does a good job of recognising the primary subject and locking the lens onto it, with the active AF points highlighted - albeit with red lights as opposed to the LCD graphics of the D5000 and D90. In Dynamic mode with AF-C, subjects placed under the manually chosen focus point are tracked effectively as they move towards or away from the camera.

Finally, the 3D Tracking option was effective at following subjects moving around the frame or as you recomposed with a static subject. This worked particularly well with strongly coloured subjects which stood out from the background, although as Nikon recommended, it's best-suited to more leisurely motion. Technologically it's also fun to watch the active AF point follow the subject around the frame, at least in the area covered by the 11 points, although in this regard Nikon's higher-end models with their 39 and 51-point AF systems are ultimately more impressive.

As with all DSLRs which offer a variety of AF options, it's a case of experimenting to see which works best for your particular application. But if you're shooting a subject in motion and can keep it within the diamond area covered by the 11 AF points, the D5100's Dynamic Area and 3D Tracking modes should keep it sharp. The only caveat is the supplied DX 18-55mm VR kit lens which as we've seen before is neither the quickest nor the quietest focuser in the range. If you demand snappier performance, or something quieter when recording movies, upgrade to a better model.

Is the D5100's 11-point AF system superior to the 9-point AF system of the Canon EOS 600D / T3i? In my time shooting with both cameras side-by-side, there was no perceptible difference in speed or accuracy. If a small subject were to pass between the outer pairs of AF points, the D5100 would have an intermediate point to fall back on, but for most situations I'd rank both as being roughly equivalent in phase-change AF performance. This was certainly the case when shooting the Shotover Jet boats zooming past, and speaking of which, here's a burst of ten frames grabbed from a continuous sequence with the D5100; I also have a full-res action sample in the Gallery.




Finally, an interesting feature inherited from the D5000 is the Rangefinder option, enabled in the Custom Function menu. This uses the exposure compensation scale in the viewfinder (but not on the main screen) to indicate focus distance while manually focusing. As you approach perfect focus, the scale reduces to just two markers either side of zero. As you'd expect for a camera at this price-point though, there's no AF micro-adjustment; the EOS 600D / T3i doesn't offer this either.



Nikon D5100 exposure modes and metering


The Nikon D5100 shares the same exposure modes as its predecessor, with one addition. The main dial offers the traditional PASM modes, along with direct access to five scene presets, flash off, full Auto (with scene detection in Live View, see screenshot right), a SCENE position which presents access to 11 further presets, and new to the D5100, an EFFECTS mode, more of which in a moment. There's no movie mode position on the dial as you can start shooting in any mode by simply entering Live View then pressing the red button by the shutter release.


The D5100 offers shutter speeds between 1/4000 to 30 seconds with a Bulb option in Manual; Program Shift is also available. Exposure compensation is available in a broader than average range of +/-5EV, and basic bracketing is offered with three frames in steps between 0.3 and 2EV, but at least it is available as the D3100 has none. White Balance and Active D-Lighting bracketing is also available. I understand the shutter block is rated to the same 100,000 actuations as its predecessor.

The Nikon D5100 shares the same three metering modes as the D3100 and D5000 before it: Spot, Centre-weighted and 3D Colour Matrix II, the latter employing a 420-segment RGB sensor. Like most settings on the D5100, these are adjusted through the main information screen system. Note you'll need a type G or D lens to deliver distance information for the 3D system, otherwise the D5100 falls back on Colour Matrix Metering II. I found 3D Matrix metering on the D5100 delivered consistently accurate exposures, and refreshingly unlike many Nikon DSLRs I've tested, wasn't fooled by extremely bright scenes like our outdoor resolution test.

Regardless of your shooting mode, the D5100 is a very friendly camera. Like its predecessor, the D5100 has sensibly retained the context-sensitive help system which displays handy hints on the current setting or menu whenever you press the Question mark button. Sometimes you'll see the question mark blinking in the corner of the screen, in which case the D5100 believes something's wrong and wants to make a suggestion, such as to use the flash. If only all cameras were this friendly.


Nikon D5100 sensor and processing

In a major upgrade over its predecessor, the D5100 employs the same 16.2 Megapixel CMOS sensor as the higher-end D7000. This gives the D5100 four extra Megapixels over its predecessor. The DX-format sensor measures 23.6x15.6mm, so all lenses effectively have their field-of-view reduced by 1.5 times. The D5100 delivers 3:2 shaped images with a maximum size of 4928x3264 pixels, giving it 640 pixels more horizontally and 416 more vertically than its predecessor - this in turn allows you to make prints measuring 16.4x10.9in at 300dpi, or around a couple of inches bigger than the D5000.


Images can be saved with Basic, Normal or Fine JPEG compression, or recorded as a 14-bit compressed RAW file either by itself or accompanied with a JPEG, again at any of the three compression levels. It's a welcome upgrade to have 14-bit tonal range on RAW files over the 12-bits of its predecessor. Best quality Large Fine JPEGs typically measure around 7MB each, while RAW files measure around 17MB each.

Like Nikon's other consumer DSLRs, there's only basic software supplied for converting RAW files - you'll need to invest in Capture NX 2 or third party software to perform more sophisticated processing. On the upside, the D5100 allows processing of RAW files in-camera, allowing you to adjust the resolution, compression, white balance, exposure compensation and, via the Picture Control, the sharpness, contrast, saturation, brightness and hue.

Unsurprisingly, sharing the same sensor as the D7000 means the D5100 also shares the same sensitivity range, from 100 to 6400 ISO with Hi 1 and Hi 2 options delivering equivalents of 12,800 and 25,600 ISO; new to the D5100 over any previous Nikon DSLR is the Night Vision EFFECT mode which can operate at up to Hi 4, or 102,400 ISO.

An Auto ISO option allows you to enter a maximum sensitivity and minimum shutter speed, and if enabled, will kick-in for PASM modes when the selected sensitivity fails to allow the desired shutter speed. Auto ISO is the fixed option for the Auto exposure modes. It's worth keeping an eye on the ISOs selected in Auto mode as the D5100 can often opt for higher values than you'd prefer; a quick reduction in the maximum sensitivity can fix that if desired.

High ISO Noise reduction is available in the choice of four settings: Low, Normal (the default), High, and Off, although even when 'Off', there's some noise reduction applied at 1600 ISO and above. You can see how the same image looks at all sensitivities in the Nikon D5100 High ISO Noise results pages.


Image processing duties are carried out by Nikon's EXPEED 2 processor. White Balance can be set to Auto, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Direct Sunlight, Flash, Cloudy, Shade or a custom preset. The D7000's manual entry of colour temperature is not available here, but the impressive choice of seven Fluorescent sub-categories remains present, as do the fine tuning facilities for the other presets.

Like other recent Nikon DSLRs, EXPEED 2 automatically removes - or at least greatly reduces - the effect of lateral chromatic aberrations, also known as purple fringing. This correction is applied automatically to all JPEG files whether you like it or not, but not to RAW files; it's very effective in practice as you can see by the absence of fringing in our samples and results images. This really gives the D5100 an edge over any of Canon's DSLRs, none of which offer automatic corrections of fringing in-camera; the higher-end EOS 60D's option to do so when processing RAW files is a step in the right direction, but it really needs to be done automatically on JPEGs.

The Vignette control of higher-end models is still not available in-camera (although it can be applied using Capture NX 2), but the D5100 inherits the D5000's Auto Distortion Control. This applies digital correction for barrel and pincushion geometric distortion, where straight lines can appear to bend outwards or inwards towards the edge of the frame. It would appear to be the same option offered in the Playback Retouch menu, but applied automatically to JPEGs as they're generated. It's visually impressive at reduced sizes, but remember such adjustments involve significant pixel-wrangling with potential loss of quality or a slightly cropped image. It's sensibly disabled by default.

The D5100's Retouch section also offers Perspective control to straighten the converging edges of subjects when the camera's pointed upwards - although again like Distortion control, this will stretch portions of the image with quality artefacts as a result.


The headline processing feature remains Active D-Lighting which adjusts the tonal curve of images in an attempt to boost darker areas without blowing highlights. Unlike Nikon’s earlier D-Lighting system, the Active version applies the adjustments to JPEG files as they’re being processed, although normal D-Lighting is still offered in the Retouch menu for existing images.

The D5100 inherits the six settings of its predecessor: Off, Low, Normal, High, Extra High or Auto. Auto is the default option, so the one I used in the main Results and Gallery pages, however since it can introduce noise to dark areas, I disabled it for the High ISO Noise results page.

Active D-Lighting preserves highlight areas by first reducing the exposure slightly, then boosting the darker areas with a tone curve. You can see two examples of this below taken with the D5100 in Aperture Priority at f8 and 100 ISO. The first image, on the left side is a normal exposure without Active D-Lighting, where the camera metered a shutter speed of 1.6 seconds. To the right is an image taken with Active D-Lighting set to its maximum setting of Extra High, which with the same aperture and sensitivity resulted in a faster exposure of 1/1.6 of a second.

Nikon D5100
Active D-Lighting: Disabled
Nikon D5100
Active D-Lighting: Extra High
1.6 seconds, f8, 100 ISO
1/1.6, f8, 100 ISO


In this example, the most obvious difference is in the windows, where the shorter exposure of the version with Extra High Active D-Lighting has clearly retained more highlight detail, which was washed-out on the version without. There's also a small boost in mid and shadow tones, but not sufficiently so to reveal much extra detail in the darker areas. Boosting shadow areas, especially in conjunction with a shorter exposure, inevitably increases noise though, and this has become more apparent in the dark areas.


Making its debut on the D5100 is a new HDR option. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, a technique which stacks multiple exposures of the same subject in an attempt to preserve both shadow and highlight details. The D5100's HDR mode takes just two exposures (JPEGs only, RAW not allowed), but allows you to choose from either an Auto adjustment of exposure, or a set value of 1, 2 or 3EV apart; you can additionally choose from Low, Normal or High Smoothing. Unlike Sony's handheld HDR option, the D5100's HDR is best-performed on a tripod. Note Canon's EOS 600D / T3i does not offer an in-camera HDR option.

The shots below were taken moments after those above for Active D-Lighting, so are absolutely comparable. The version with +1EV difference between the two exposures shows a boost in mid tones, lightening the overall image, but with little benefit to the dark shadow and bright highlight areas. The version with the maximum 3EV difference is much more dramatic, with noticeably brightened mid-tone and shadow areas; indeed the histogram looks completely different. Revealingly neither of the HDR samples has retrieved as much highlight detail as the single exposure with Extra High Active D-Lighting. This suggests one of the two HDR exposures is simply normal and the other is with positive compensation to lift shadows - so there's little or no highlight protection by default.

In order to better preserve highlight detail with this HDR mode, you'll need to expose to protect the brighter regions, say, by applying a little negative exposure compensation. That will take care of the saturated highlights, leaving the HDR double exposure to boost the darker areas. So with a little practice and experimentation, the HDR mode can certainly broaden the dynamic range of a shot, although like all auto HDR modes, it's no substitute for taking multiple frames and assembling them manually with masking later.


Nikon D5100
HDR mode: +1EV with Normal Smoothing
Nikon D5100
HDR mode: +3EV with Normal Smoothing
1.6 seconds, f8, 100 ISO
1.6 seconds, f8, 100 ISO


In a first for any Nikon DSLR, the D5100 now offers an EFFECTS position on the mode dial. This gives access to the choice of seven special effects which can be applied to still photos, and in some cases to video too.

I'll start with Night Vision, a grainy black and white effect which can boost the sensitivity of the D5100 to a massive Hi 4.0, equivalent to 102,400 ISO. This allows you to shoot under extremely dim conditions, albeit with a very grainy black and white image. The Night Vision mode operates with auto exposures and tries to keep shutter speed hand-holdable, so in cases where you have a tripod or somewhere steady to rest your camera, you'll be better-off choosing a lower ISO and a longer exposure. Note the light levels under which Night Vision was designed are below the sensitivity of the phase-change AF system, so autofocus is only offered in Live View. That said, if it's truly dim, such as in my example below, the contrast-based AF system will also fail to lock-on, forcing you to manually focus.

The next effect is Colour Sketch, which as its name suggests, posterises the image and applies defined outlines for a drawn effect. Again you can see a preview in Live View, although the update is understandably slow as the camera applies the effect; similarly you can film video in this mode, but it'll appear like a series of still images in a slideshow thanks to the processing involved.

Next up is the increasingly ubiquitous Miniature, which applies a tilt-shift effect for the impression of a toy-like landscape. Again you can see a preview in Live View, where you can also adjust the point of sharp focus, but again the processing involved means the update will be jerky as you adjust the composition. The Miniature effects is also available for movies, and the camera cleverly works around the processing time by simply recording at a slower frame rate. When played back, this then appears faster than normal, further accentuating the miniature effect - see my D5100 Movie Mode page. 30-45 minutes of captured footage is reduced to about three minutes in playback.

The fourth effect is Selective Colour, which renders everything as black and white apart from the selected colour(s). In use, the D5100 presents a small square as a sampler for you to place over the desired colour. Once sampled, you can add additional colours to pass, or adjust the tolerance. This effect can also be applied in real-time for movies and can be very effective - see my D5100 Movie Mode page.

The final three options are more about exposure control than applying special effects: Silhouette ensures foreground subjects are kept dark against a bright sky, High Key maintains bright subjects, while Low Key ensures dark subjects are kept dark.

The seven effects are both fun and useful, and have an important edge over the Creative Filters on the Canon EOS 600D / T3i as the D5100 lets you apply them in real-time in Live View, and again several on movies too. In contrast, the Canon's effects are only applied after the event in playback. The D5100 doesn't miss out in this respect either, allowing a number of effects to be applied to existing images from the retouch menu.

Below you can see examples of four of the most dramatic effects - click the images to see the originals at flickr. Check out my D5100 movie mode page too as you'll see samples of the Selective Colour and Miniature Effect on video...

Nikon D5100
Colour Sketch Effect
Nikon D5100
Night Vision Effect
Click image to access original at Flickr   Click image to access original at Flickr
Nikon D5100
Selective Colour Effect
Nikon D5100
Miniature Effect
Click image to access original at Flickr
Click image to access original at Flickr


More traditional image processing options are applied using a series of six Picture Controls, matching those on the D5000 and D3100, with the same degree of adjustment too. The Standard, Neutral and Vivid, Portrait and Landscape Picture Controls all offer adjustment of Sharpening (0-9), Contrast (+/-3), Brightness (+/-1), Saturation (+/-3) and Hue (+/-3), while the Monochrome Picture Style swaps Saturation and Hue for nine Toning and four Filter Effects, the former fine-tunable by seven values. If Active D-Lighting is enabled, it takes over the Contrast and Brightness settings, and if you're in a real hurry, a Quick Adjust option can boost or lessen a group of settings in one go. The increments are roughly similar to the EOS 600D / T3i, although there's slightly more filter options in the monochrome setting.


As always I used the default processing option for our test shots - in this instance the Standard Picture Control. As you'll see in the Results and Sample Images Gallery pages, the D5100's default JPEG output, like other recent Nikon DSLRs, is fairly restrained and laid back. This delivers very natural-looking images, but if you prefer something more vibrant and punchy, simply tweak the Picture Controls, select the Vivid preset, or better still, shoot in RAW and make the adjustments later.


Nikon D5100 drive modes and remote control

The D5100 offers six 'release' modes: Single frame, Continuous, Self-timer and Quiet shutter release, along with Delayed Remote and Quick Response Remote, the latter pair working with the optional IR control. Like the D5000 before it, these are all selected through a menu which seems perfectly reasonable until you look at the 'lower-end' D3100 which has a far more tactile release mode lever around the mode dial. I'd certainly much prefer the D3100's control in this regard.

Set the release mode to Continuous and the D5100 can shoot at a quoted speed of 4fps for up to 100 frames, although the manual warns the speed will slow once the buffer is filled, and the buffer figure is normally around 17 shots for best quality JPEGs. This is essentially the same specification as the D500 before it.

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To put this to the test we fitted the D5100 with a freshly-formatted 16GB Lexar Professional 133x SDHC card, rated at Class 10. With the D5100 set to 1/500, 400 ISO and Large Fine JPEG, I fired-off 23 frames in 6 seconds before the camera slowed - this corresponds to a rate of 3.8fps for the initial burst of 23 shots, after which the D5100 fired at about 1fps. Set to RAW, I managed 13 frames in 3.4 seconds before the camera stalled, which again corresponds to 3.8fps. Finally in RAW + Fine JPEG I fired-off 10 frames in 2.6 seconds, again corresponding to 3.8fps. I confirmed the speed and burst depth in the field, shooting the Shotover Jet boats zooming past - again typically 18-24 frames depending on the subject complexity at about 3.8fps, then slowing to around 1fps.

As such the D5100 only falls fractionally below its quoted continuous shooting speed of 4fps. In comparison I measured the Canon EOS 600D / T3i (which quotes 3.7fps) delivering 18 JPEGs at 3.6fps or six RAW files at 3.3fps. As such there's minimal difference when it comes to shooting JPEGs, although the D5100 enjoys a small advantage in buffer depth and speed when it comes to RAW. That said, neither camera can exactly be described as being ideal for action and sports photography. Sony's really taken the lead in offering fast continuous shooting speeds at affordable prices, leaving its rivals to reserve their quicker speeds for pricier mid-range and semi-pro bodies.

Set the release menu to Self Timer and you can choose from the same 2, 5 10 or 20 second timers as the D500 before it. Like its predecessor you can also set the D5100 to take multiple shots once the countdown is complete.

The next main position on the D5100's release menu is Quiet shutter release. This takes the photo as normal when you press the shutter release, but doesn't reset the mirror until you let go - so you could press the shutter release to take the shot, but keep the button held until you're somewhere less quiet. Obviously during that time you won't be able to take any more photos.

In practice if you press and let go of the shutter release as normal, you'll notice virtually no difference in this Quiet mode, but by pressing and holding the shutter release, the mechanical sound is slightly reduced - or at least delayed. To be honest though it made very little difference in my tests. Probably the greatest benefit was that Quiet mode automatically switched off any beeps, so it could be a quick fix in discreet situations.

Sticking on the subject of release modes, I'm pleased to report Nikon's retained the built-in Interval Timer of the D5000 and D7000, a feature that's lacking on the D3100 and D90, not to mention every one of Canon's DSLRs. You can set the start time, interval period (from one second to one day) and the number of intervals (up to 999). The option to change the number of shots taken per interval of the D300s may be missing, but it’s still an impressive feature to find on the D5100. Remember if you want Intervalometer facilities on a Canon DSLR, you'll either need to connect it to a laptop and use the supplied EOS Utility, or go for a model which supports the optional TC-80N3 remote control - which sadly is not compatible with the EOS 600D / T3i. So while the EOS 600D / T3i can be interval-timed free-of-charge by the supplied EOS utility, you'll need to have a laptop connected, whereas it's all built-into the D5100 without any accessories required.

The EOS 600D / T3i does however offer a true Mirror-lockup option though, unlike the D5100 which only locks the mirror up for cleaning not exposure purposes. Interestingly the D5100 is also lacking the Stop Motion movie mode of the D5000, although to be fair it does support a variety of new effects while filming if desired.

Like other Nikon DSLRs, the supplied software bundle is also lacking compared to Canon's models. You do get View NX for basic manipulation and RAW processing, but for more powerful features, you'll want the optional Capture NX software, while for remote control using your computer, you'll also have to pay extra for the Camera Control 2 package. In contrast, Canon supplies all of its DSLRs from entry-level to top professional models with its powerful Digital Photo Professional software and the EOS Utility, the latter offering complete remote control, including Intervalometer, AF and Live preview facilities over a USB cable.

What you do now get on the D5100 though is an enhanced HD movie mode, and I've devoted an entire page to it. So to find out the full details, please see the Nikon D5100 Movie Mode page. Alternatively if you're not interested in movies, find out how the D5100 compares against its rivals in terms of image quality in the D5100 quality pages and D5100 sample images gallery. Or if you've already seen enough, head straight to my verdict.

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