Nikon D5100 Gordon Laing, May 2011

Nikon D5100 design and controls

The Nikon D5100 is a shorter and curvier looking DSLR than its predecessor. Details and sweeps around the grip and 'shoulders' are less boxy than before, but it's the height which really makes the difference. The D5100 may be essentially the same width and depth as the earlier D5000, but by implementing a side-hinged screen and repositioning the disproportionately tall viewfinder head of the earlier model, Nikon's shaved-off a considerable 7mm in height. It all makes for quite a different-looking camera when viewed from the front. Design is of course subjective, but I much prefer the look of the new model.


[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Nikon's also managed to reduce the body plus battery weight from 611g to 558g. Revealingly this makes it fractionally lighter than its big rival, the Canon EOS 600D / Rebel T3i, and measuring 128x97x79mm, it's also a little smaller in every dimension; the Canon measures 133x100x80mm and weighs 570g including battery. Both the D5100 and EOS 600D / T3i remain slightly larger and heavier than the Sony Alpha SLT-A55 though, which measures 124x92x85mm and weighs just 500g with battery.


During my tests with the Nikon D5100, I always had the Canon EOS 600D / T3i on hand for comparisons. In terms of weight and build quality, there's essentially nothing in it, and while the D5100 does look a fraction smaller overall, it's not a sufficient difference to let it squeeze into smaller bags or pockets. In your hands though the two bodies do however feel quite different.

Support me by
shopping below


Like previous Nikon DSLRs, the D5100 employs a subtly indented groove on the inside of its grip, which provides a satisfyingly secure feel. Neither camera is sufficiently tall for a grip to accommodate all four fingers, but a few mm extra on the Canon means your little finger is left dangling a little less than the Nikon; note both feature IR sensors in their grips, although the Canon lacks the D5100's rear IR sensor. Round the back, both cameras feature a corner bulge to push your thumb against, but this time it's the Canon with the more pronounced and effective design. Each camera clads their grips and thumb rests with textured rubber surfaces, although Nikon's is much finer than the Canon. Which feels better is down to personal preference, but the coarser surface of the Canon's coating, along with its slightly taller grip and more pronounced thumb rest felt better to me overall. As always I'd recommend you pick up both cameras for yourself before buying.


The D5100's new side-hinged screen has unsurprisingly resulted in a rearrangement of some controls from its predecessor, most notably the five buttons which were previously on the left side of the screen are now relocated across the body. The Menu and 'i' buttons now flank the viewfinder. The Play button is repositioned where the old Live View button was, to the right of the screen, while the magnify in and out buttons can now be found under the rocker pad.

The earlier Live View button has been swapped for a new spring-loaded lever around the mode dial, and a new dedicated record button positioned by the shutter release. The mode dial itself is identical to the D5000, but one of the scene presets has been switched for a new EFFECTS position, which as its name suggests allows you to access a variety of special effects, more of which later.

Of the new controls, the Live View lever enjoys a satisfying flick operation, although arguably the drive mode lever of the cheaper D3100 would have been a better choice for the target audience - lest we forget, the D3100 also sported a spring-loaded lever to enter Live View, but on the back instead of the top.

For me though, the most important omission is the continued lack of dedicated buttons to adjust common settings like the ISO, White Balance and AF mode. In contrast, the Canon EOS 600D / T3i offers direct access to all of these without actually having any more buttons on its top and rear. I understand Nikon's desire to keep the D5100 simple, but the number of buttons on both cameras is equally intimidating to beginners, and the only real difference between them is labelling and function. I'll forgive it on the entry-level D3100, but by the time you're dealing with the D5100, I'd say the typical buyer would appreciate direct access.


Instead owners of the D5100 are still forced to go through an on-screen interface which can be infuriatingly slow to make multiple adjustments. This involves first pressing the i button by the side of the viewfinder which allows you to then move a yellow highlighter over the various settings running down the right side and along the bottom of the screen. Once the desired item is highlighted, you then press the OK button to present a dedicated menu from which you can choose the required setting. As before, these are accompanied by a thumbnail photo showing a typical use for that setting – such as an indoor shot for a high ISO setting.

So far, so friendly, but like the models before it, this system can prove infuriatingly slow to navigate. While the different settings are arranged in a backwards L shape, they're effectively navigated like a single long line, so if you have the release mode highlighted, it'll take you several clicks to move along to, say, the bracketing option. This is in contrast to the on-screen navigation systems of Canon and Olympus where the items are arranged as a grid with only a couple of clicks between any of them. And unlike those models, once the desired item is highlighted, there's no shortcut where you can simply turn the thumb dial to adjust it quickly – instead you need to press OK and do it from the menu.

Offering small relief is the self-timer button on the side of the body, which can be reprogrammed to offer direct access to release mode, image quality, sensitivity, white balance, Active D-Lighting, HDR mode, RAW and Auto Bracketing. But once you reconfigure this button you'll find yourself wishing Nikon had fitted the D3100's release mode lever. It's also worth mentioning there's still no optical depth-of-field preview button, unlike the Canon EOS 600D / T3i.

Support me by
shopping below


The Nikon D5100 is equipped with both a popup flash with a Guide number of 12 and a hotshoe for external flashguns; the maximum sync speed is 1/200. Flash compensation and power level is adjustable, and you can also choose from red-eye, slow-sync and rear-curtain options. The built-in flash Guide number increases to 13 with manual control, which matches that of the Canon EOS 600D / T3i. The D5100's built-in flash can either popup automatically or by pressing a button on the side of the head, and once you're finished with it, just push it back into place.

If you mount a compatible flashgun like the SB-400, SB-600, SB-700, SB-800 or SB-900, the D5100 can support the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) which offers iTTL control. The D5100 is however lacking the wireless flash control of the Canon EOS 600D / T3i.

On the right side of the body (as it's held for shooting) you'll find an SD memory card slot that's now compatible with the latest SDXC standard in addition to SD and SDHC. Cards rated as Class 6 or faster are recommended for the HD movie mode.

On the left side of the body you'll find four ports behind a large flap. Like its predecessor you'll find a combined USB and analogue AV output, a Mini HDMI port and a proprietary connector for the optional MC-DC2 wired remote control or GP-1 GPS unit. New to the D5100 over its predecessor is the addition of a 3.5mm jack to connect an external microphone, such as Nikon's own ME-1 or a third party model like the Rode Video Mic Pro. This is a significant improvement over the D5000, although brings it in line with Canon's EOS 600D / T3i. Returning to the HDMI port, it outputs a maximum of 720p during Live View, although we couldn't detect a signal once you start recording video (not even through the standard AV port either), which eliminates the possibility of driving an external HD monitor while filming. The EOS 600D / T3i's HDMI port outputs up to 1080i during Live View, and degrades it to 480p while filming, while also always keeping the AV output active.

In a compartment underneath the body you'll find the rechargeable EN-EL14 Lithium Ion battery pack first introduced with the D3100, rated at 1030mAh and good for around 660 shots under CIPA conditions, up from the 510 of the D5000. These figures don't however take Live View, movie recording, continuous AF, VR lenses or even RAW recording into consideration, and in general-use I found I could easily deplete the battery after a good day's shooting; heavy use of video in particular drained the battery, although to be fair, the D5100 is no different to most in this regard, other than perhaps greater use of continuous AF. Battery life is shown on-screen using a three segment indicator, but unlike higher-end models in the range, there's no menu showing a precise percentage of remaining charge.


Nikon D5100 viewfinder


The Nikon D5100 employs a penta-mirror optical viewfinder with the same specification as its predecessor: 95% coverage with a relatively small 0.78x magnification. The Canon EOS 600D / T3i shares the same coverage, although a larger 0.85x magnification. This sounds like a clear win for the Canon, although thanks to its fractionally smaller sensor, the difference isn't as great as it at first sounds. With both cameras side-by-side you will notice the EOS 600D / T3i's optical viewfinder delivers a slightly bigger image area, but not sufficiently so to make a significant difference in use.

The D5100 also shares the same 11-point AF system as its predecessor, with the same arrangement through the viewfinder, although in a disappointing downgrade, the on-demand LCD grid lines and AF markers are no longer present. Instead, like the D3100 and Canon EOS 600D / T3i, the D5100 employs fixed AF markings on its AF screen and no opportunity for an alignment grid - through the viewfinder anyway. I understand Nikon's desire to distance the D5100 from the next model up, but it's always a shame for a new model to be a downgrade in some respect from its predecessor, and the on-demand viewfinder graphics were always a neat advantage Nikon had over the competition.

The LCD graphics may have gone, but the information running below the viewfinder image hasn't changed. This means the D5100 still doesn't show the ISO sensitivity at all times. It is possible to switch the shots remaining for the ISO from a custom menu, but you can't have both displayed at the same time. This may not be a big issue for the D5100's target audience, but it's revealing Canon shows the ISO value at all times, albeit alongside a buffer figure rather than the total shots remaining.


Nikon D5100 screen and menus

Nikon may have removed the LCD grid from the D5100's viewfinder, but has more than made up for it with the new screen. First the panel itself, which at 3in and 921k pixels, is both larger and considerably more detailed than the 2.7in / 230k monitor on the D5000. This brings the D5100 in-line with models like the D90 and D7000 and is a very welcome upgrade.


Like its predecessor, the screen is fully articulated - indeed the D5100 remains the only Nikon DSLR in the current range to feature an articulated screen. There has however been an important change with the screen on the D5100 now hinged at the side rather than the bottom. This sounds like a minor point, but I found the bottom-mounted hinge on the earlier D5000 very inconvenient at times, especially when mounted on a tripod or resting on any platform where the screen couldn't be turned to face the subject. This arguably defeated much of the flexibility of having an articulated screen in the first place, so I'm now very pleased to find the D5100's screen hinged at the side - just like Canon and Panasonic, so now it's only Sony which needs convincing to make the change. Hinging the screen at the side has also allowed Nikon to significantly reduce the height of the camera body, and few will miss the relocation of the buttons which previously ran down the left side of the screen.


In use the D5100's screen can be flipped and twisted to any angle, allowing you to easily and comfortably compose at very low angles, waist-height or over the heads of crowds and fences. It's also easy to flip it around to face the subject for self-portraits, and of course fold it back on itself for protection. Of course the benefit only applies to shooting stills in Live View or filming movies, so if you're strictly a stills photographer with the viewfinder, you'll wonder what all the fuss is about - but for those who shoot in Live View even occasionally, or more importantly, film video, the articulated screen is a boon to productivity and creativity.

So far so good, but it's important to compare with the competition. Canon's EOS 600D / T3i also features a side-mounted, fully articulated 3in high resolution screen, but there's an important difference with the panel. Nikon uses a 4:3 shaped 921k monitor, which means photos taken at the camera's native 3:2 aspect ratio won't fill the vertical height of the screen. In playback, they're positioned centrally with thin black bars above and below, while in Live View the image is pushed up to the top with a thicker black bar running below for shooting information. This means of the screen's 640x480 pixel resolution, 3:2 images in Live View or playback will only measure 640x426 pixels and 2.8in on their diagonal. Meanwhile 16:9 video will measure 640x360 pixels and 2.7in on the diagonal.

In contrast the Canon EOS 600D / T3i (along with the 550D / T2i before it), features a slightly wider 3:2 shaped screen which matches the native shape of the still images. It's also slightly higher resolution at 720x480 pixels. So when you're dealing with 3:2 shaped photos, either in playback or Live View, they'll exploit the full 720x480 pixel resolution and fill the entire 3in screen without borders. This makes for a bigger and more detailed image, and the wider shape also benefits movies, where 16:9 footage has thinner black bars than on a 4:3 screen, measuring 720x405 pixels and 2.9in on their diagonal. In use I'd say this gives the EOS 600D / T3i a small advantage over the D5100, as not only is the larger image nicer to look at, but combined with the finer resolution, it's also a little easier to manually focus.

To enter Live View on the D5100, you flick the spring-loaded lever around the mode dial - this control has a classy and satisfyingly tactile feel to it compared to a plain button. A second flick of the lever will exit Live View unless the built-in timer does it for you first.

When first entering Live View you may notice the timer in the upper left corner counting down from 30 seconds. Pressing any button will effectively reset the counter back to 30, but once it hits zero, the camera will exit Live View. Nikon doesn't state whether this is to save power or prevent overheating, but the manual does say it may not appear straightaway. I'm not sure when it wouldn't appear though, as it started counting down almost every single time I entered Live View throughout my testing period during Queenstown's brisk Autumnal weather. When attempting fine adjustments on a tripod, I frequently found the D5100's 30 second Live View timer a little hasty and somewhat off-putting. A half-press of the shutter release may have reset it, but it did feel like the camera was constantly telling me to 'hurry up!'


Pressing the Info button by the shutter release cycles through three display options: the default view shows basic shooting information in a black bar below the live image, with additional details super-imposed at the top. The second view removes the super-imposed details for a clean view of the image with basic exposure details below. Finally, the third view super-imposes a four-by-four alignment grid. Like other non-pro Nikon bodies, there's still no live histogram, which seems a daft ommission when Canon offers it across its range including on the entry-level EOS 1100D / T3.

If you're shooting in Auto, the D5100 exploits Live View to offer scene detection, picking from Portrait, Landscape, Close-up and Night Portrait presets, or reverting to plain Auto for subjects which aren't recognised.


Pressing the magnifying glass button allows you to zoom-in on the view using multiple steps up to about 7.7x, which on the 640x480 screen represents a 100% (1:1) view. On the Canon EOS 600D / T3i, there's just two magnification options, 5x and 10x, the latter showing an area that's one tenth the width of the full image as you'd expect, but then scales this 518 pixel wide crop to fill the 720 pixel width of the monitor. So the 10x mode on the Canon actually appears to be operating at greater than 1:1 magnification. Certainly this coupled with a slightly higher sensor resolution results in a tighter view on the Canon when both cameras are fully zoomed-in using Live View. In use then you'd expect the Nikon to deliver the crisper view, but even taking the magnification and sensor resolution into account, it's actually the Canon which shows finer details in its maximum Live View magnification mode. With both cameras side-by-side, the magnified view from the EOS 600D / T3i is ultimately preferred, but the views on both cameras certainly allow precision focusing and confirmation. The D5000 matches the higher-end D7000 in this regard and as such is a big step-up from the D3100, D5000 and D90, which all delivered quite fuzzy views when zoomed-in during Live View.

Support this site by
shopping below

Pressing the 'i' button swaps the live image for the 'classic' information view which is also available when shooting with the viewfinder; note the shutter remains open at this time, but the live image is hidden. As before this shows the basic exposure details in a rectangle with numerous settings running down the right side, and in a strip below. You can then use the rocker control to highlight the desired option before pressing OK to see a dedicated menu for it. Pressing the 'i' button again returns you to the live image.

Autofocus during Live View exclusively employs a contrast-based system to ensure an uninterrupted view - unlike Canon's DSLRs, there's no alternative 'Quick' mode which temporarily interrupts the live image in order to take a reading from the phase-change system. To be honest I don't miss this option, as by the time the mirror has flipped back and forth, it's rarely significantly quicker, and besides, a contrast-based system avoids any focus calibration errors by taking a reading from the sensor itself.

With the D5100 set to AF-S 'Single-servo AF', it will attempt to focus on whatever is within an adjustable rectangle with a half-press of the shutter release. The AF frame starts-off red to indicate it's not in focus, then flashes green as it locks-on, before finally becoming steady once focus has been achieved. Like the D3100 and D5000 before it, this process involves a little searching back and forth by the lens, before locking-on roughly two seconds later. Sometimes it's a little quicker, sometimes a little slower.

New to the D5100 over its predecessor, not to mention most DSLRs to date, is an attempt to offer continuous contrast-based autofocus during Live View. Inherited from the D3100 and D7000, this AF-F 'Full-time Servo AF' mode performs the process described above by itself whenever it believes the subject behind the AF frame is not in focus. Point the camera at a new subject and you'll see the lens automatically search back and forth as it locks-on. Generally speaking it works fairly well too, so long as the subject has sufficient detail for the contrast-based system to lock-onto and stays still long enough for the process to complete. It's technically no quicker than doing it with a half-press of the shutter release in AF-S mode, but could prove faster in practice as the camera's already started the job as you compose. The AF-F mode is also responsible for the continuous AF in the movie mode which we'll describe on the Features page.

In terms of AF targets and areas, the D5100 offers the same four options as the D5000 and D3100 before it: there's Face Priority, Wide Area (the default option), Normal Area, and Subject Tracking. Wide and Normal Area will autofocus on a framed area which you can move around the screen using the multi-selector; the Normal Area mode uses a smaller frame and is better suited to tripod-based work. Face Priority can track faces and focus on the closest; like compact cameras, frames are shown around the active faces. Subject Tracking allows you to place a frame over a subject, and after pushing the OK button, the D5100 will follow it around the frame.


On previous models, Face Priority and Subject Tracking were of limited use, as while the camera could keep a frame over the desired subject, it wouldn't actually focus on it until you half-pressed the shutter release. Now with the new AF-F mode, the camera can at least attempt to stay focused on the subject by itself as it moves closer toward you or further away. Of course the practicality remains restricted by the speed of the AF-F mode, which can take several seconds to make a readjustment and obviously requires the subject to remain fairly static during that time. This rules-out fast action tracking or unpredictable people, but slower motion or people who are willing to hold a pose are within the capabilities of the camera.

Ultimately the AF-F mode is a brave attempt to offer continuous AF with a contrast-based Live View system, but it's too slow for many applications, especially sports or kids who won't stay still for long. Of course both subjects can be successfully captured with the D5100's viewfinder and phase-change AF system, but if you insist on going after them in Live View, you'll be much better off with a hybrid system like those offered on many of Sony's current models. Take the SLT-A33 for instance, which quickly and confidently autofocuses in Live View thanks to a translucent mirror exploiting the phase-change AF system.


Nikon D5100 shooting information and menus

Like other budget DSLRs, the D5100's screen is used to display all shooting information, and like its predecessor, there's the choice of two presentation styles: the default Graphic format accompanies the figures with a graphical representation of the aperture iris surrounded by marks for the shutter speed, while the optional Classic format emulates the LCD status screens which adorn the top panels of higher-end DSLRs. It's nice to have the choice of styles and you can even customise the colour scheme: Blue, Black or Orange for the Classic view, or Green, Black or Brown for the Graphic view.


Like all DSLRs which use their main colour screens to show information, there's a wealth of details, with the layout essentially unchanged since the D3000. The shutter speed and aperture sensibly take centre stage with shooting mode, battery life and a number of other icons running along the top, while AF area, flash, exposure and flash compensation run along the bottom. The shots remaining figure has been relocated to the very lower right corner in a light strip, and like all Nikon DSLRs, numbers above 1000 are abbreviated with a k - so 1100 shots is displayed as 1.1k, whereas Canon continues to stop at 999.


Running down the right side of the screen are the current quality, white balance, ISO, release mode, AF mode, AF area, metering mode, bracketing and Active D-Lighting settings. To adjust any of the settings, simply press the ‘i' button in the bottom left corner. This highlights one of the settings in yellow after which you can use the four-way rocker to highlight the desired option before clicking OK to see a screen of relevant options; each option is accompanied by a thumbnail image illustrating how or where you might use that setting.

The thumbnails are certainly helpful, but the number of button presses to access each setting can be a little laborious to say the least. For example, if the last setting you changed was the compression level, you'll need three clicks to reach ISO or seven for metering. This could have been so much easier by either assigning double-functions to the rocker control or simply rearranging the settings into a grid rather than a long straight line. The latter, employed by almost every other DSLR, would have transformed the speed at which the D5100 could be operated and adjusted. To be fair, its target audience may rarely change any of these settings, or be happy to do so at a leisurely pace, but enthusiasts or those familiar with the camera will find quickly find this frustrating. Nikon clearly believes its approach is perfectly adequate though as it's been in place for some years now, essentially unchanged.


Some relief can be found with the programmable Self-timer / Fn button on the side of the viewfinder head, which can be set to offer direct access to the Self-timer, release mode, Image quality, ISO sensitivity, White Balance, Active D-Lighting, HDR mode, +RAW option and Auto bracketing, but the D5100 could still be improved by leaps and bounds with a grid-based user interface on the screen.

In a nice feature originally borrowed from Sony's Alpha DSLRs though (and from Konica Minolta before that), the D5100 rotates its shooting information as you turn the camera on its sides for portrait aspect shots – this way the text always remains upright on the screen. The graphical representation of the aperture may disappear as the screen rotates, and as soon as you press the 'i' button to change anything you'll also be returned to the landscape orientation, but it's still a nice touch. In these respects, it's the same as models dating back to the D3000.

Like its predecessor, the D5100 has also 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.

Pressing the Menu button presents the full array of options, arranged into six categories tabbed along the left side of the screen; the six menu categories, not to mention most of their contents, remain similar to the D5000, although they enjoy a redesigned appearance. The six sections cover options for Playback, Shooting, Custom Settings, Setup, Retouch, and Recent Settings.

The D5100 may be aimed at beginners, but there’s still a wealth of options to adjust if desired, with 20 custom settings including flash control, assignment of the Fn button and whether ISO should take the place of shots remaining in the viewfinder. Again, any questions, just press the question mark button for help at any time.


During playback you can cycle through a number of pages which match the detail of Nikon's higher-end bodies. As such with all Display options ticked, you can view three pages of shooting information, a thumbnail with either brightness or RGB histograms, or the main image by itself, presented either clean or with blinking highlights.


The Retouch menu offers a variety of in-camera adjustments which include D-Lighting, red-eye correction, crop, various filter effects, colour balance, image overlay, RAW processing, distortion control, an outlining effect and a Miniature option which throws everything other than a narrow strip out of focus for a tilt and shift effect. You'll also find the new Colour Outline, Colour Sketch and Selective Colour options here.


Now let's move onto the camera's other features, including the kit lens, focusing, exposure and drive modes, the sensor and of course the new movie mode in our Nikon D5100 Features page.

If you found this review useful, please support us by shopping below!
All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2017 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

/ Best Cameras / Camera reviews / Supporting Camera Labs