A Viewfinder Darkly

Photography tips and tutorials

Nikon D5100 Digital SLR

June 5 2011

by Philip Northeast

Nikon’s newest Digital SLR, the D5100, has a new 16.2 megapixel APS-C size sensor that according to DxOMark tests has excellent image quality.

Nikon’s extensive range of DSLRs makes choosing a new camera difficult. From the bottom to middle of the Nikon range there is not a large difference in quality.

 D5100 front

Nikon D5100 front view

There are three main models in Nikons range of  Digital SLRs  with APS-C (or DX) sensors. Nikon juggle the camera specifications over the range to make some real difference between the models and justify the price differences. Nikon sometimes confuse the issue even more when their superseded models are still readily available alongside their newer cameras.

Photographers with little experience with DSLRs may not know what is really important to them in a DSLR. One problem is that the relative importance of different aspects of a DSLR vary depending on the photographer’s style and favourite photographic genres.  These will develop with experience gained from using their new DSLR, but it does make the initial choice problematic.

Sensor Comparison

DxOMark provides an independent source of test data for sensor performance comparisons.

The DxOMark test results suggest the D5100‘s sensor is very similar, if not the same as the excellent item in the D7000,  so image quality is not an issue. While the D5100 shares its sensor with the more expensive D7000, the D3100 is cheaper with a slightly lower performance digital sensor according to DxOMark.

Comparison table

Nikon DxOMark Overview

The minor differences in the DxOMark overall sensor scores between the D5100 and the D7000 are probably due to production tolerances in the samples DxOMark used for their testing.

The price leading D3100 uses a different sensor and, as expected by the price difference, has a lower DxOMark overall score of 67. This DxOMark score is comparable with the lower priced Canon DSLRs.

DxOMark Nikon Noise Comparison

DxOMark Noise Comparison for Nikon D5100, D7000 and D3100

The image noise performance is very close for all three and is  excellent, and the D5100 only falls slightly behind the class leading Pentax K-5 when the ISO goes over 1600.

dxo 3 way dynamic range comparison

DxOMark 3 way dynamic range comparison

The dynamic range test results show the D5100 has a significant advantage over the D3100 in dynamic range for low ISO settings. Landscape photographers in particular prefer to use the lowest ISO possible to minimize noise. This difference justifies the extra price for the D5100 for photographers looking for a good landscape DSLR.

While the D5100 shares its sensor with D7000 many of its other features are similar to the cheaper D3100.

Lens Compatibility

This is one issue as the D5100 doesn’t have an autofocus motor in the camera body. While the D5100 can use a wide range of Nikkor lenses, only AF-S lenses with a focus motor built in the lens body will focus automatically.


Here the price difference between the D5100 and the D7000 starts to show. The D5100 lacks the weather sealing of the D7000.  The body of the D5100 is all composite plastic compared to the metal alloy half body of the D7000.

 D5100 with Vari-angle LCD

Nikon D5100 with Vari-angle LCD


Underlying the minor differences in specifications between the three cameras their fundamentals are excellent. All the Nikon DLSRs use the range of lenses from Nikon and specialist lens manufacturers. There is a vast array of lenses ranging in reasonable quality lenses for the budget conscious through to excellent premium quality lenses for professionals and advanced photographers.

The D5100 is a compromise between the price of the D3100 and the ancillary features of the D7000. It offers excellent image potential at a reasonable price but without some of the bells and whistles of the D7000.

The D5100 is available from Adorama for $US 799.95



Nikon  Specification Comparison Summary

D3100 D5100 D7000
Price approx at B&H in New York $US680 $US800 $US1200
Viewfinder Pentamirror Pentamirror Pentaprism
Viewfinder magnification 0.80 0.78 0.95
Diopter adjustment -1.7 to +0.5 -1.7 to +0.7 -3 to 1
autofocus motor in camera body no no yes
Shutter Speed 1/4000   to 30 sec in 1/3 EV steps 1/4000   to 30 sec in 1/3 EV steps 1/8000 to 30 sec in 1/3 EV steps
Flash sync speed 1/200 sec 1/200 sec 1/250 sec
Frame rate maximum 4 4 6
SD cards SD, SDHC SD, SDHC, SDXC Two card slotsSD, SDHC, SDXC
Metering sensor
  • TTL exposure metering using 420-pixel RGB sensor
  • TTL exposure metering using 420-pixel RGB sensor
TTL exposure metering using 2,016-pixel RGB sensor
ISO normal range 100-3200 100-6400 100-6400
AF points 11 11 39
Battery life – Shots per charge 550 660 660




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