camcorders

Nikon D5100 DSLR Camera Review

The D5100 is the first Nikon to come packaged with 1080/30p and full-time autofocus. Is it worth the price?

$799.00 MSRP
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Introduction

Since the introduction of the Nikon D90, DSLR video as a feature has been elevated from "interesting" to "essential." While the lack of smooth, quiet autofocus still limits the utility of DSLR video for most consumers, the D5100 builds upon the foundation laid down by previous video-capable DSLRs. It is the first Nikon DSLR to feature 1080/30p video and full-time autofocus, with a side-swinging articulated LCD monitor to aid in framing. While we'd like to have seen better color accuracy and noise results, the D5100 does offer quite a value for a camera under $1000.

Color & Noise

The Nikon D5100 had a color error of 4.37 on average in our bright light video testing, with the largest errors being seen in the greens. Saturation was somewhat muted, at just 88.65% of the ideal, with the camera also tending to favor underexposure. We tested using the camera's neutral color mode, as we found it to be the most accurate available without impacting sharpness. See our full color performance review, including color swatches and crops.

We found a startling amount of noise in bright light testing for a DSLR, with the D5100 returning a noise percentage of 1.41%. Most of the DSLRs we have tested returned less than 1% of noise, so this caught us off guard quite a bit. One of the main culprits seems to be the lack of ISO control in video recording, as the camera seemed to be amplifying the signal quite a bit compared to other cameras we have tested. See our full noise performance review, including crops and comparative analysis.

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Motion & Sharpness

We found the Nikon D5100 motion to be very similar to what we saw with the D7000, with a little less trailing owing to the bump in frame rate from 24p to 30p. We saw almost no artifacting and very little color bleeding in the RGB pinwheel, with some ghosting visible in the monochrome pinwheel. See our full motion performance review, including video clips.

With the standard 18-55mm kit lens the Nikon D5100 was able to render 650 lw/ph of sharpness vertically and horizontally. This is right in line with what we have seen from other DSLR kit lenses. Dedicated camcorders in this price range tend to produce sharper results, but a DSLR obviously offers more benefit as a still camera, with the ability to shoot with a far more shallow depth of field than most traditional camcorders. Read our full sharpness performance review.

Comparable Products

Before you buy the Nikon D5100, take a look at these other interchangeable lens cameras.

Low Light

In our low light testing, we found that the Nikon D5100 required just five lux to produce an image that hit 50 IRE on a waveform monitor. The image is quite dark at that point, but some detail and contrast is still visible. The D5100 also comes with a "Night Vision" effect under its effects dial, which can be used for still and video. In this mode, the ISO is ramped all the way up to over 102000, but the camera will only shoot a monochrome image. These videos are quite noisy, but the choice to keep them monochrome keeps color channel noise from being as much of a distraction as it is when shooting at the camera's highest regular ISO speeds. Read our full low light sensitivity performance review.

We found the D5100 to have slightly more accurate color results in low light than we found in bright light, returning an average color error of 3.82 and a saturation level that was 88.1% of the ideal. These lag somewhat behind the competition, but are good results nonetheless. Again, we tested using the neutral color mode, as it was the most accurate available. See our full low light color performance review, including comparative images and analysis.

A higher amount of noise than normal was visible in the D5100's videos shot under low light conditions, with our testing showing a total noise percentage of 1.28%. This was an improvement over the bright light testing results, but we still found it disconcerting considering this is usually an area where DSLRs excel. See our full low light noise performance review, including crops and comparative images.

Conclusion

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While the D5000 represented a big leap forward for Nikon's video-capable DSLRs, it left us a bit underwhelmed with a lack of control or full-time autofocus, and a tilting LCD that tended to interfere with tripod designs. The D5100 still doesn't offer much manual control for video, but it corrects some of those flaws and continues the improvement in video quality seen in the D7000.

Motion rendering is attractive and fluid with the 1080/30p mode—the first Nikon DSLR to offer it—with little artifacting or ghosting. As with other DSLRs, focus is still an issue. While the D5100 has full-time autofocus, the motor's whirring is too distracting and, as a contrast-based system, the camera must move beyond peak focus before correcting itself. The shallow depth of field and rich dynamic range are worth the price of having to manually focus for best results, though, making the D5100 a great option for those looking for quality video capability under $1000—while also offering superlative still image quality, to boot.

To read our full conclusions for the Nikon D5100 including analysis of the camera's video handling and audio options, plus see sample videos and photos, visit the full review at DigitalCameraInfo.com.

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