Conclusion - Pros
- Excellent image quality
- Unintimidating interface, but with plenty of manual control
- Articulated, high-res LCD screen
- Sophisticated AF system for the price
- Easy manual selection of off-center AF points
- Unusually fast Live View AF for a low-end DSLR (but still relatively slow compared to mirrorless competitors)
- Effects modes are fun and beginner-friendly
- Much improved continuous shooting performance with Active D-Lighting turned on
- Lots of in-camera raw conversion and post-processing options
Conclusion - Cons
- Sub-optimal placement of some second-tier controls (like live view switch)
- Movie shooting button 'orphaned' from live view switch
- Buggy Live View / Movie Mode (movies aren't necessarily recorded at set aperture)
- No live histogram in live view
- AF still a little sluggish in live view mode, full-time AF not very effective in live view or movies
- Only direct external ISO control is via slightly inconveniently-placed 'Fn' button
- Auto ISO logic is not well-suited for everyday casual shooting (good for action though)
- Effects modes low on manual control (and customization)
- Will not focus all Nikon lenses (though most popular choices are available)
Conceptually, the D5100 perfectly fills the gap in Nikon's line-up between the entry-level D3100 and the much more enthusiast-orientated D7000 - marrying the ease-of-use of the former with the image quality of the latter. It also throws in a video-friendly articulated high-res screen and gains bracketing and a greater degree of customization to sweeten the deal. So although it makes do with no focus motor, a single control dial and a defiantly plastic body shell, it still offers the super-wide ISO span of 100-25,600 (equivalent) and class-leading image quality of the D7000, especially as regards high ISO noise performance.
Sadly, the reality isn't totally consistent with this concept. The D5100 doesn't have quite the same novice-friendly handling as the D3100 and it lacks so many of the D7000's more advanced features that there is a risk that it ends up not quite being the right camera for anyone. The complete beginner may gravitate towards the slightly simpler D3100 and for their part, the enthusiast might hanker after too many of the features that are offered by the D7000 (whether that be in terms of build quality, sophistication of AF, size of viewfinder or the built-in AF motor).
In general though, judged on its own merits the D5100 is a satisfying camera, and as far as image quality is concerned it is most definitely a wolf in sheep's clothing. Both in still imaging and video, the detail resolution and noise performance are up there with the best of its competition, and the high-resolution, articulated screen makes composition easy in both modes. We're not wholly convinced by the Effects modes, given the restrictions that are inherent in shooting with them, but they're fun enough to play with that they could offer creative inspiration for some users.
Image quality is definitely the D5100's trump card. It offers effectively the same image quality as the higher-end D7000, at a lower cost, and it's hard to argue that this is not a good thing. Since we're comparing the D5100 to the D7000, it is also worth noting that of the thousands of frames that we've shot with the D5100, we haven't seen the same overexposure problem that bothered us with the D7000 in some conditions.
At low ISO settings, the D5100 is on a par with the best of the competition, but at the higher ISO settings, it produces some of the best image quality that we've ever seen from an APS-C camera. Noise levels are impressively low, and default noise reduction does a good job of controlling chroma noise while still preserving detail. The D5100's 16MP sensor is one of a new generation with an impressively low noise floor, and as such, a huge amount can be drawn out of both its JPEG and RAW files. JPEG shooters will love the ability to shoot with Active D-Lighting turned on with little penalty in noise levels (or continuous shooting performance) and more advanced users will enjoy the malleability of its NEF files.
As far as handling is concerned, the D5100 is a curious mixture of the inspired, and the inexplicable. We love the large, high-resolution articulated LCD screen, and the thick rubber that coats the substantial (for its class) hand grip. The D5100's chassis is smaller and lighter than its predecessor, but while it lacks the heft of its 'big brother' the D7000, it feels reassuringly solid in the hand. Nikon's trademark dedication of the four-way controller to AF point selection makes manual selection of off-center autofocus points very easy and this in turn, makes it easy to get the best out of what is one of the most sophisticated AF systems available in this class.
And now on to the inexplicable. Like the D3100, the D5100 lacks an ISO button. This is a control which we think should be easily changeable with the camera to your eye, and one that is ever-more important now that high ISOs are eminently more usable than they were just a few years ago. On the D5100 the only way to do this is via the customizable 'Fn' button, which is slightly awkwardly-placed on the left side of the camera, and easily mixed up with the adjacent flash activation button. Still on the subject of ISO, we're disappointed that its slightly fussy auto ISO system is unchanged from the D3100/D7000. It isn't useless, it just isn't as useful as it could be.
In Live View mode the D5100 is generally a very agreeable companion, but things aren't completely trouble free. The D5100 inherits the D7000's (relatively) fast contrast-detection AF, which goes a long way towards making the mode more generally useful for everyday shooting, but it's still nowhere near as fast and seamless as competitors like the Sony A55 and Panasonic G2 that are designed specifically for compact-camera style live view usage.
There are also a few odd behavioral quirks in live view and movie mode, with aperture control that can only be described as buggy. For example, the camera won't necessarily shoot videos at the aperture that's displayed on the screen when you press 'record', although it will when shooting stills. The lack of any kind of exposure level indication when using manual mode and live view is also a strange omission. What this means is that two of the D5100's key new features simply don't work as well as they should - and crucially not as well as on competing models. We have exactly the same criticisms of the D3100, and it is disappointing to see that they have not been addressed.
Even more disappointing is the fact that two of the best things about the D3100 - the conveniently placed integrated live view and movie control and the physical drive mode switch - are absent in the D5100. The live view switch is now positioned on the camera's top plate, divorced from the movie button, which sits up by the shutter release (and is completely redundant except when the camera is put into live view mode). Not only is this switch more awkwardly placed on the D5100 than the D3100, it takes the place of the drive mode switch that we like so much on the D3100.
The Final Word
The D5100 is without doubt one of the most compelling products in its class, and offers an excellent mixture of straightforward handling, a well-targeted feature set, and excellent video and still image quality. As we'd expect from a camera with such a solid lineage, the D5100 is responsive and reliable in operation, and produces excellent images with a minimum of fuss. It is only the second Nikon DSLR to feature an articulated LCD screen and we much prefer the more conventional side-hinged design to the D5000's more awkward bottom-hinged effort. The side-hinged screen is much more versatile, as well as being considerably easier to use with the camera mounted on a tripod.
We do have some concerns though, mostly as regards the arrangement of the D5100's second-tier controls. Some of the control points appear to have been positioned almost at random and, with the exception of the articulated LCD screen, we're not convinced that the operational and ergonomic changes that Nikon has made compared to the D3100 add any value to the camera. In fact, the contrary might even be true, especially as regards the redesigned live view switch. Judged on its own merits though, the D5100 does its job very well indeed. A novice-friendly feature set and (relatively) wallet-friendly asking price belie an extremely capable sensor and AF system. We are left with a lingering worry, though, that the D5100's entry-level ergonomics might not prove quite so adaptable to the evolving needs of a first-time DSLR buyer as a camera like the Canon EOS 600D/Rebel T3.
Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean.
Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Movie / video mode
Effective and easy-to-use features make the D5100 ideal for everyday photography/videography
Not so good for
Shooting fast action
The D5100 sits just above the D3100 in Nikon's product lineup and as such, it combines its younger sibling's ease of use with a slightly more advanced feature set. The D5100's trump card, however, is it's advanced 16MP sensor - inherited from the D7000. Judged on its own merits the D5100 is a great camera, but we're concerned that an enthusiastic beginner might outgrow it faster than some of the competition.