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Raw

Supplied software

The D5100 comes with several pieces of software but the key one is ViewNX 2 - a generally capable raw conversion platform. ViewNX 2 is not as sophisticated as Nikon's Capture NX 2 (available separately for �160/$180), but it offers most of the key functionality that a beginner will require when starting out on the DSLR road, including the ability to crop and straighten images, and change white balance and exposure in NEF files. More advanced tools include D-Lighting and highlight/shadow recovery sliders, plus lateral and axial chromatic aberration correction. Basic video editing functionality is also available. In a nice touch, many of these parameters can be built into presets using the Picture Control Utility, meaning that presets you find yourself regularly applying can be uploaded to the camera. Inexplicably absent, however, are any noise reduction options.

As well as being free, ViewNX 2 has another advantage over Capture NX 2 in that it is a small program that does not require a huge amount of computing power to run. It's far from being as slick as Adobe's Camera Raw plug in for Photoshop, but much more forgiving of older, slower computers than Capture NX 2. As well as raw conversion, ViewNX 2 also allows you to geotag photographs using Google Maps (automatically if you use the optional GP-1 GPS unit), and to rate and label images with stars or colors for ease of organization. You can even modify the names of the color tags so that they show up as 'Work,' 'Holiday,' 'Portraits' or whatever best suits your needs.

Although it doesn't give anything like the flexibility or functionality offered by Nikon's Capture NX 2, the bundled ViewNX 2 software is a huge improvement over the earlier generation Picture Project, and it easy to make basic adjustments to both raw and JPEG files from the D5100. The thumbnail view does exactly what it says on the tin - it arranges all of the images in a particular folder as thumbnails, for easy navigation.
When adjusting raw files, you can either apply an existing Picture Control preset (Standard, Vivid, etc.) or create and modify your own, which can be uploaded onto the camera for JPEG shots. ViewNX 2 allows you to geotag your images by using Google Maps to find and record where you took your your photos. If you use Nikon's GP-1 external GPS unit with the D5100, geotagging is automatic.
Creating video projects is a simple matter of opening the new video editor program, and importing clips into a playlist. From here you can add transitions between clips, and audio files. When you're ready to export your video project you can name it and specify the precise type of output that you want.

RAW conversion

As is normal in our digital SLR reviews we like to compare the supplied RAW conversion software, any optional manufacturer RAW conversion software and some third party RAW converter. In the case of the D5100 we used the supplied ViewNX 2, and a Beta version of Adobe Camera RAW 6.4.

  • JPEG - Large/Fine, Default settings
  • VNX - ViewNX 2.0.3
  • ACR - Adobe Camera RAW 6.4 (at default 'Adobe Standard' setting)

Sharpness and Detail

As we often see, careful raw conversion can bring out a much more convincing rendition of ultra-fine detail that the slightly unsubtle sharpening of the camera's JPEGs. In the crops below, ACR is able to describe the finest feather detail with more finesse than either ViewNX or the camera JPEG (which are near-identical to each other). Of course this only really matters if you regularly view your images at 100% on-screen or print really large - these crops are roughly equivalent to looking at a print that 48" across.

Adobe ACR 6.4 (beta) RAW -> TIFF (Default output settings)
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crops
Nikon View NX 2 RAW -> TIFF (Default output settings)
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crops
JPEG out of camera, High quality setting, manual WB (all other settings default)
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crop

Resolution

The differences between ACR and Nikon's ViewNX 2 are minimal when resolution shots are compared, as you can see. We'd stick our necks out and say that ACR gives fractionally better detail rendition than ViewNX 2 as the lines on our chart approach Nyquist, but there's very little in it. Both raw conversion engines have produced slightly better resolution than is possible from in-camera JPEGs, and both describe some lines up to and after Nyquist (although this is not 'genuine' detail).

Adobe Camera RAW 6.4 (beta) ViewNX 2
 
JPEG Large/Fine

Real-world advantages

The example below illustrates the kind of real-world advantages you can get from shooting in raw. The 'straight from camera' JPEG lacks a bit of contrast, and at default sharpening settings, fine detail is slightly hazy when the image is viewed at 100%. The true potential of the D5100's 16MP CMOS sensor is revealed when the camera is switched to RAW capture. With a little careful adjustment in Adobe Camera Raw, much more detail can be drawn out of the image. This is especially noticeable in areas like the stars on this flag, and in the sand towards the bottom of the image, where the extra definition in the processed raw file is clear.

Camera JPEG RAW + ACR 6.4, then USM*
100% crops

Of course, there is more to raw adjustment than simply sharpening. Shooting in raw mode also allows you to take control over white balance and noise reduction. This scene was shot at night, at ISO 6400. The D5100's metering system has done a very good job of delivering a balanced exposure, the white balance is acceptable, and noise levels are impressively low.

Naturally though, there is some room for improvement. I'd prefer some more detail in midtone areas, and I want to take a little warmth out of the scene. I also want to get as much detail out of the foreground as possible, without exaggerating noise.

Camera JPEG (default settings, ISO 6400) 100% crops
RAW file (after adjustment in ACR)* 100% crops

*Sharpening in ACR: Amount 58, Radius 1.4, Threshold Detail 10. Exposure: Fill light 20, Blacks 10. Noise reduction: Luminance 30, Color 40.

In a matter of moments, I was able to get a much better result from the simultaneously-captured NEF file than the in-camera JPEG. I increased the amount of sharpening, and the radius, and dialed in some luminance noise reduction to take the edge off the enhanced 'grittiness' that resulted. Finally, I lifted the midtones slightly using ACR's 'fill light' slider and adjusted the white balance to give the people in this shot a more natural skintone.

RAW files for download

Here we provide RAW files from the sample shots we take, to allow you to apply your own workflow techniques and see

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Comments

BobFoster

Curious. I’ve noticed before that Pentax, not being one of your sponsors, gets consistently downgraded reviews compared to comparable Nikon products. So, the 5100 has ‘outstanding’ image quality, while that of the superlative Pentax K5 is merely ‘excellent’. Are you really claiming that the image quality of the Nikon is superior to a camera that uses the same sensor as (and even gets slightly more out of it than) the D7000?

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