Today I want to write a few words, not quite a review, on the Nikon D5100, the camera that could. Why? The camera is as of now 5 years old, which means it’s ancient by regular standards of electronics and obsoleted thrice by newer models in its own segment.
Why bother with this camera? People love their higher-end DSLRs with impressive specs. Hereby I want to point out that even entry-level DSLRs are impressively powerful, even if these are a few years old. Most of the things noted hence apply to its direct competitor as well, the Canon EOS 600, another entry/mid-level offering from a strong player in the DSLR market.
What I did with it
- Portraits with natural light
- Studio work with external flashes and lights: both modelling and product shots
- Macro work
- Concerts with Serious™ (pro-level) lenses
- Travel photography (including deserts)
- Sports (on a frozen lake into which I fell in, camera unharmed)
- Shooting outside in rain
- Long time exposures on a tripod (star trails!)
- Smashing against all kinds of things
Number of times the camera gave up on me: 0.
The D5100 packs in a punch. Along with the Auto mode, No-flash auto mode, a set of preset modes and a ton of useless “creative” modes it comes with the most important tools for photography: the Aperture-priority mode, the Speed-priority mode and of course the Manual mode. These three (along with the ISO setting) allow for a big degree of freedom to take pictures at a professional level.
But of course, every other DSLR also comes with those. These aside, the D5100 also has a set of other cool features that might not be obviously useful when you see them at first but might end up useful down the road. I have used just about every feature described below at least once thinking “oh, good thing it’s there”.
It has two infrared receivers (front and back), so it can be triggered via remote or even mobile phone which is useful if you don’t want to introduce vibration. Or want to take a shot from a different place from where your camera is. I use an Amazon brand remote which cost peanuts and works perfectly.
It has a tripod mounting hole so you can put it on a tripod or a strap (and you should, a proper strap makes it so much more convenient). Aside from the seconds exposures, you can also set it to a bulb mode so the exposure can be arbitrary long. It supports mirror-locking so you can avoid the vibration caused by the slap of the mirror when on a tripod. In addition has an intervalometer built-in, so you can create time lapses without having to buy an external trigger (cough Canon), just set the number of exposures and the time between those and off you go. A pretty amazing camera for working on a tripod.
The D5100 has a continous drive where it can take roughly 4 images per second so you don’t miss out on any fast action sequences. Or in fact, just leave it on all the time, so in case your first image is blurry you have a chance to get your second or third image sharp.
It comes with a tilty-flippy screen with live-view so you can see what the camera is seeing, even if you can’t look into the viewfinder (and it is very useful for nailing manual focus). So it can also be used to take selfies, though selfies with a DSLR are a bit silly (also, how are you going to post your selfie on social media now). But it’s nice if you want to film yourself: flip the screen over and you see whether everything is in the shot as you want it to be.
Another nifty feature is the support for a multitude of bracketing modes, most important the exposure bracketing. This allows the creation of good quality HDR images and was one of the reasons I chose this camera over the D3xxx series. I don’t do HDR very often, but it’s nice to have the possibility.
It can use both the “consumer” cheap Nikon lenses (mostly DX) as well as the expensive “pro” lenses (usually FX), so your lens selection is pretty massive, from the crappy kit lens and cheap travel-zooms, affordable primes to professional equipment built like a tank.
Being used to horrible battery lifes from laptops and smartphones I was very satisfied with the battery life of the camera. Usually it works out to at least 500 shots per charge (if you don’t use lenses with image stabilization), so for a long time I didn’t even bother with a second battery (which is ridiculously expensive especially for what little charge it holds).
Despite not being a “pro”-level camera so not being weathersealed and no fancy magnesium-carbon-monocoque-whatever body, it’s robust. I’ve shot in rain, I’ve bumped into things, I threw the camera around: nothing. Works just as new. After owning it for close to three years, I’m currently at roughly 25.000 shutter actuations which is one fourth of the actuations that this camera is rated for (by Nikon), but looking at statistical data there is a decent chance of exceeding that value by far.
Storage-wise I put in 16 GB and 32 GB SDHC cards as well as 64 GB SDXC cards which it handled flawlessly. These are good for roughly 1000 to 2000 pictures in RAW which is — I don’t want to say enough for everyone — decent for most people.
For a camera with 18 megapixels from 2011, the image quality is quite good. I prefer the combination of D5100 with some fast prime lenses to cameras like the 7D with slow zooms: there is far less noise. It comes with the same sensor as the D7000, so Nikon does not cheap out here at all.
It’s also surprisingly small. If that is a feature for you. Though its indirect successor the D5500 is even smaller, it still is surprisingly light for a DSLR.
Being a smaller DSLR it has no internal focus motor, so you can’t autofocus lenses which don’t have a built-in focus motor (but these are usually older lenses). It also does not have autofocus microadjustment facilities. If your lens focuses fine: good, if it back- or front- focuses, bad luck!
It also does not have an aperture preview button, but then you can just take the picture and see the resulting image directly.
Most importantly, it has fewer buttons than more expensive cameras, so you have to go to the quick-menu for some features that you can directly set with buttons on other cameras. These settings usually don’t need to be changed often, so having a short trip to the quick menu does not strike me terribly bad. A tad inconvenient yes (except for the Auto-ISO setting which is completely burried in the mess that the full menu is), but rather no game changer.
I believe Nikon has created a very, very capable camera and maybe even goofed up a little since they made a camera so good it is hard to recommend the more expensive cameras like the D7000-series. The biggest differences between those are of ergonomic values, not of image quality or pure performance.