Nikon D5100, the best camera under $1,000?

12 Apr

The Nikon D5100 electronic gadgets deliver a solid combination of image quality, performance, features, and design that puts it out in front if you’re looking for a well-rounded option under $1,000.

 

The good: Excellent photo quality with a good noise profile, a streamlined shooting design for both photo and video, and a broad, practical feature set contribute to the Nikon D5100’s strengths.

The bad: While it’s fast, some aspects of the D5100’s performance still lag behind its class.

The bottom line: Though it doesn’t rank first based on any individual aspect of the camera, the Nikon D5100 delivers a solid combination of image quality, performance, features, and design that puts it out in front if you’re looking for a well-rounded option under $1,000.

 

We’re used to Canon and Nikon leapfrogging each other in terms of product announcement timing and technology updates, but this year they’re finally going head-to-head in the budget dSLR market. Nikon’s D5100, a replacement for the 2-year-old D5000, directly takes on the Canon EOS Rebel T3i as an evenly matched competitor. An improvement over the D5000 electronic gadgets in almost all respects, the D5100 acquits itself well enough on enough counts to make it a formidable sub-$1,000 dSLR.

Despite the higher-resolution sensor, the D5100 delivers visibly better image quality at all ISO sensitivities than the D5000, although the D5000 has slightly better white balance. It has an excellent JPEG noise profile, very clean up to ISO 400 and, despite some detail degradation from color noise, quite usable up through ISO 1600. Beyond that depends upon the content of your scene, though I wouldn’t recommend ISO 6400 or higher. Though there’s far more color noise in the high ISO JPEGs than I’d like, there’s still enough detail, color saturation, and tonality to make the photo usable.

Canon leans just a touch more on the color noise suppression than Nikon, which I think produces slightly better results. It also helps that at equal settings the T3i delivers brighter exposures, with slightly better white balance, than the D5100. (Until Adobe delivers a D5100 codec for Camera Raw I can’t do any raw-processing comparisons.)

Colors in the default Standard Picture Style seem to have the saturation pushed just a little, which produces attractive, relatively accurate results. I prefer the Neutral picture style; the others are too contrasty, which results in loss of shadow and dark midtone detail. (You can always increase the contrast later, but getting that detail back is hard.) However, the Standard doesn’t shift the colors excessively as on some consumer dSLRs.

Though it’s still probably not up to the standards of videographers, the video is better than Nikon’s previous consumer efforts, and the camera itself is more consumer video-friendly than the T3i. Video is sharp and decently exposed, though it lacks the subtle tonal gradation Canon manages to produce (in part due to the lower, 18Mbps bit rate) and there’s quite a bit of aliasing and what looks like rolling shutter that it’s attempting to aggressively suppress (resulting in a stutter).

However, if you just want a video mode that you can easily jump to without interrupting your still shooting, the D5100’s design inherits the D7000’s intelligence. The switch on the side of the mode dial toggles between regular and Live View/Video mode, so you don’t have to use an awkwardly placed mode on the dial. And the record button is in a great spot by the shutter; it’s easily reachable with your forefinger, but not in a spot where you’re likely to hit it by accident.

The kit lens/D5100 combination produces some very sharp images, though there’s more fringing than I like. By default distortion control is off, and the lens’ slight barrelling is symmetrical; overall, it’s not bad. The corrected image, though, isn’t quite rectilinear in the upper left quadrant. Though there’s no fringing/aberration in unusual or unexpected spots, there’s quite a bit on blown-out, high-contrast edges of electronic gadgets.

All the cameras in this class deliver performance that’s more than capable of handling typical consumer shooting, though the D5100 generally ranks at the slower end of a fast group. It powers on and shoots quickly, in just under 0.3 second. On average, it focuses and shoots under good light in 0.3 second–it occasionally went much faster–and a decent 0.6 second under dim conditions. It gets a little pokier than the crowd with relatively high shot-to-shot times: 0.6 second for JPEG and 0.8 second for raw (and 1 second with flash enabled). That’s a little slower than the D5000 and a lot slower than the T3i, though it’s still quite good. Its burst rate of 3.8fps, like the T3i’s 3.6fps, isn’t bad but they are among the slowest in their class. Most important, however, shooting with the camera feels fast and fluid; I never felt like the autofocus or processing overhead got in the way of getting the shot.

Like many in its price class, the D5100 feels plasticky, but solid. One of the design changes from the D5000 is the more prominent slope on the left shoulder, which I’m not crazy about–I think it makes the camera look lopsided–but which really doesn’t affect the shooting experience. One of the most notable updates to the camera is the larger, higher-resolution display. Nikon changed the movement of the articulated LCD from drop-down-and-twist to a more traditional flip-out-and-twist. Unfortunately, I found the display a little too contrasty, misleading me into thinking my exposures were off. Plus, it’s difficult to see in direct sunlight, even if you change the angle.

Similarly, the viewfinder looks like most of the low-end models: dim, with tiny autofocus points that are difficult to see without lighting them up during prefocus. However, there are larger AF area markers and overall I like it better than Canon’s.

The back controls are laid out in a typical fashion. The information edit button–not to be confused with the info button on the top–brings up the interactive information display where you adjust most of your shooting settings. My only gripe: there’s no way to lock the navigation switch. Since I shoot in single-point area AF mode, I frequently moved the AF point by accidentally pressing the switch.

Nikon offers a well-rounded feature set as well. Shooting effects are now on the mode dial, and the handful of decent options includes the clever Night Vision mode, a very useful way to take advantage of the sensor’s capability of increasing gain up to ISO 102,400. In color, the results would be useless. But by converting the results to black and white, you get the ability to shoot in near darkness and obtain usable–though not optimal for high-resolution printing–results. Autofocus only works in Live View mode. All operate in movie capture as well as still.

There’s a new two-shot HDR autocombine capability on these electronic gadgets, but, well, meh. The implementation is annoying–you have to go into the menus and re-enable it after every shot unless you assign it to Fn. But there are other things I want to assign to Fn. In either case, Nikon obviously views it as a one-shot override feature rather than a setting you’ll need to use repeatedly for a short time. Furthermore, two shots don’t really provide a “high” dynamic range, just a slightly extended one. It works OK for opening up some shadow detail, but does little to bring down the highlights. If you want to do HDR the old-fashioned way, you may not be thrilled with the D5100’s options. It offers three-shot bracketing up to two stops.

On the other hand, Nikon’s always been there for time-lapse shooters, and the built-in intervalometer remains a key advantage. There are also nine custom Picture Style settings slots, and you can define up to 99 in software and share them among multiple cameras. As with the T3i, though, there’s no way to save and recall custom settings.

Conclusions
Class-lagging performance holds the D5100 back from getting an unequivocal recommendation. But it’s certainly fast enough to handle most situations general-purpose shooters will find themselves in. So if you’re OK with compromising just a little on shooting speed, the Nikon D5100 electronic gadgets should please on all other counts.

 

Source from CNET

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