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Nikon D5100 SLR digital camera 16 MP: A great SLR camera for the money

Pros Interchangeable lens, easy to use, lots of features, takes movies and photos, works  in darkness.
Cons Price, only 16 mega-pixels, no internal motor, only one control wheel instead of 2.
Recommended it? Yes
The Bottom Line:  An awesome SLR camera that allows you to take great pictures in almost any environment.  It takes crisp and colorful pictures with some editing and artistic options.
This is a 16 mega pixel SLR camera. You have the option to change lens, customize many setting, and you get higher quality pictures as an end product. It is also a faster camera than most point and shoot’s available. I do not have the lag between pressing the picture button and the camera actually taking the picture. No lag means a better chance of catching the action when it happens.

You have higher quality pictures for two reasons. First the sensor is a larger sensor with more surface area than a normal point and shoot digital camera. And secondly you have some awesome lens available. These lens allow more light to come in because they are just bigger. Sure my WX-9 has the same 16 MP rating; but it cannot handle low light conditions, zoom much, and has more noise. Since the lens is inferior, you can get some distortions with it. But one cool thing the WX-9 does which this camera does not is take 3D pictures.

I have wanted a digital SLR camera for a long time. I just told myself that I wouldn’t buy one until they reached 16 MP. Well this camera finally met that requirement. And man am I pleased. While the quality is not as good as 25 ISO slide film, it is a high enough quality for 11 x 14 photos on a desk (slightly larger photos if you like to hang your pictures and look at it from a distance). I would be happy to make an inexpensive poster out of a picture from this camera, just understand that it will have a lot of pixilation or noise up close. And while I wouldn’t be happy with much more than an 11x14 photo on my desk, I would be happy with a photo that is 33x42 on a wall in a bigger room.

The first things I did when I first turned on the camera was to set the time, date, and time zone.

After that you have the options to set up a ton of features to customize how you want to shoot. The very first thing I assigned the wheel to control the ISO when the function button is pressed. I also turned off the flash in program mode (each mode has some presets you can control just for that mode). I left the flash on in auto mode so I can turn on the flash quickly when needed. The camera also has an automatic flash mode on the turn dial that also helps you get to flash quickly.

One bad thing about this camera is it does not have an internal motor. You have to buy lenses that have the auto focus motor installed. You can use other lenses, but you have to manually control them.

Not a perfect flash but good enough for most situations. I highly recommend getting a Nikon Speed flash. I used my old one and had some issue, but it seems to be working properly now. It is a higher up lens so you can get a little bit of shadow from your subject.

View finder and LED screen.
The view finder is your standard SLR viewfinder.
The screen is a good quality LED screen. While not perfect, it works just fine and is detailed enough to see your results well. You can also zoom in on your taken photo to get a better view of a small part of the picture.

Screen quality
The screen is ok. It is not a touch screen which can be looked at as good and bad. Good because you don’t have oily fingers on it constantly like I do with my Panasonic camcorder. So some people may miss a touch screen but once you get used to the buttons and set up of the button, you won’t miss the touch screen at all. I find it a lot easier to move through screens with the manual controls than with a touch screen. You move through the screens with the cross key and middle enter button. You also control some features with the right side wheel. I like physical buttons because I can manipulate those buttons without looking at them. With the touch screen you have to look at it and you have to press it correctly (there is no feel). With a physical button you feel it depressing and you don’t have to look at the button because it never moves. No looking back at the screen to double check that you triggered the button.

The “nose” piece (attachment for the eye piece) comes off and you can put on a piece that blocks all light from getting in. This is good for longer timed shots. You can also take the supplied nose piece if you wear glasses, similar to the feature found on many binoculars.

If you are not using glasses but need them; then you can adjust the eye piece so you do not have to have your glasses on. I don’t think it works for those people that have really bad eyesight though. I have minor eye sight issues so it works well for me.

For video mode you have to use the LCD screen. The viewfinder will not work. To get to video you pull back a lever below the shutter release button. Then hit the record button to start recording. Very simple to use. Just keep in mind that autofocus is a little funky at times. But having a 300 mm Zoom lens while filming is awesome.

I’m not happy with the viewing angle. It is listed at 170 degrees but seems to me to be smaller than that.

One of the awesome things about a digital camera is you get to see the picture you took almost instantly. So you get immediate feedback on what you need to tweak. Now the screen is not perfect and you will have to zoom in on the picture to see the little details you need to tweak, but you at least have the option to review your pictures in the field instantly and delete them.

You have two ways to view a picture, the viewfinder or the LCD screen. While the screen is bright enough, there are times you just want to use the viewfinder due to more intuitive control. And the screen can be off to conserve battery power. Or you can use the screen to show you all the setting that are currently on.

Exposure and automatic settings for the Nikon D5100.
I use program mostly for my shots. It is easy yet you still have more options available than the other programs. If I am looking for a specific shot then I will go to manual, like if I am photographing stars. I rarely use aperture but I will use shutter speed a lot. I don’t use the “special” or “dedicated” setting because I like more control of my pictures. But they do have their place. It makes photographing better pictures in specific environment a lot faster and easier. Particularly for a novice photographer. A novice will definitely use these settings and appreciate them more then me. So if you are intimidated, don’t be. These settings make using this camera very easy. And once you learn more you can transition to the user controllable modes.

These settings the you can use are
Up close- (You should get a macro lens for this.)

The spinning wheel also has…
Auto- Does everything for you. The most common setting when you are just shooting for fun or capturing family moments.
No flash- Quick option to turn off flash. Otherwise you have to fumble through the menu to turn it off in the other settings.
Scene- Eleven more scenes to use then help a user get the best picture in a variety of settings.
Effect- (Interesting practical and artistic effects described below)
M (Manual)- You control virtually everything.
A (Aperture)- You set the amount of light that goes in and the camera controls everything else.
S (Shutter Speed)- You set the amount of time that light can go in and the camera controls everything else.
P (Program)- pretty much auto with a few more customizable features.

Effect has a couple of cool artistic and practical options. They are…
Night Vision- This gives you a black and white video option. It gives the camera a better image in low light conditions. Quality sucks at times but you are able to see the image in candle light conditions. I’ve used this feature a lot now and it is a very useful feature.
Color Sketch- Cute effect that makes a real image look like a sketch. Not something you will use a lot but cute to use from time to time.
Miniature effect- Another cute effect but one I don’t see myself using. It makes it look like what you are photographing is in miniature. I have not had much luck with it.
Selective Color- It only shows the color of the selected object. Everything else is black and white.
Silhouette- Just blacks out the foreground. I can do this manually so it is not needed. Plus I haven’t shot any good pictures with this setting.
High key- Just seems to over expose images. I haven’t had much luck with it.
Low key- gives you better highlight and a more somber image.

The included lens
The lens they provide is ok. Nothing great. If it wasn’t a packaged deal then I would have gone with a large diameter lens. I will be replacing this lens shortly a lens that can handle low light situations better.
The lens has two sliding buttons on it. One is for VR, vibration reduction. The vibration reduction works really well, but you still have to hold it steady. I always recommend a tripod. The second slider is for manual or auto focus. Does exactly what it says. Not sure why they are on the lens instead of the camera body. It is a pain to look away from the camera just to slide it to a setting. But I think with time I will be able to use these two buttons without having to look at it.

Putting on a lens
You have the option of putting several different lenses on this camera. Lenses are easy to take off and on. It should only take you 10 seconds. Sure it is a hassle some times, but when you see the photos you too, you will be happy. There is a button on the left (facing away from you) that you press and you twist the lens off.  To put on a new lens you line up the white dots, insert the lens, and twist to lock it in position.  I have never had a SLR lens fall off on any of my three Nikon SLR cameras.

My recommendations on what lens to buy.

The four main lenses I recommend are a good telephoto lens (at least 300mm), a short telephoto lens (like the one that came with this camera), a wide aperture for low light conditions, and a macro lens for taking pictures up close. I have some Tameron lenses for my F100 that I can take macro shots with, but it is manual focus only. For this camera I bought the 2 Nikon lenses, with the body, as a package.

My telephoto lens is 70mm to 300mm. It is an awesome lens. Nice wide front lens to capture light. It has manual and auto focus on the lens. It also has a vibration reduction slider. I really am not totally happy with the VR function on this lens. It just does not work as well as my camcorder. But it is better than nothing and will help with small vibrations. It will not help eliminate vibrations while driving, riding, or shaky hands. You will still want to prop the camera on a stable object or put yourself in a stable position. (Ya, I get in some weird body/arm positions at times. I’m used to the strange looks from other people).

My other lens came with the camera. It is an 18mm to 55mm. I highly recommend getting a mid level telephoto that goes up to around 70mm, but that is just my preference. I’m sure there are some drawbacks to this though. So while a professional will want multiple specialized lens, a casual photography will be very happy with a multipurpose lens.
Does it have a motor inside the body?
This body does not have a motor inside the body. I may find that this is a mistake in the long run. I hope not. But it does limit my choice of lenses. If I am looking for auto focus, I have to buy a lens with a motor in it. My Nikon F100 has a motor in it so I don’t have that problem with my old film camera. If you want a motor in the body then I recommend the Nikon D7000.

ISO options
ISO for this camera starts at 100 and ends at 6400. It does go to a 25,600 equivalent but I think that is done digitally. ISO basically means how much light you need for a given area of a picture. The higher the ISO the less light needed per square mm to get the same exposure brightness. So why don’t we always use high ISO? Because it is grainy, or has a lot of “visual noise”. You lose fine detail and you start to see larger circles the more you zoom on the taken photo. These grains are found on all analog photographs. Most people call this “noise” when dealing with a digital camera. If you shoot at ISO 100 you will get pixilation before you see the grains/noise. I assume that’s the reason why you don’t have a lower ISO. At 6400 you can shoot in a candle lit room but you will not have good color and poor detail. I was able to get a good exposure of a picture in my room where the only light source was reflected off a wall, off another wall, then off my bedroom door. I got a picture with only a 2 second exposure time (and a better one at 10 seconds exposure), but the quality was bad. The only reason I would use an ISO rating that high would be to document an event, not view it as a piece of art.

Shots per second and file format.
It can take up to 4 pictures a second. Definitely not fast enough for a sports photographer. But just fine for the casual person.

It can take a ton of pictures in a row at 4 pictures a second because of some on board memory in the camera body. It is around 100 before it starts to slow down.

You can save your photos in 2 formats. They are JPEG and NEF. NEF is a raw format that you can take to your computer and edit more than the JPEG. If you take a NEF format on your camera, your camera can also do some editing of its own. I have not messed with NEF editing but it is comforting knowing you have the option. You can also save both formats at the same time. I read online that NEF is the initial photo taken by the camera then the camera converts it into a JPEG. You can do the same thing on your computer but it is not automatic. I just choose to do JPEG at this time because of convenience.
Some more expensive cameras have 2 memory ports (this only has one). This can allow you to save both a NEF file on one card and a JPEG file on the other. Another feature some professionals may prefer. I know I don’t need it. JPEG is fine for me at this point in my life.

Video mode
The movie mode is 1080p, so this is basically a 1080p video camera with a telephoto lens. This is the best HD video you can get currently in the general consumer market. Having a video function with this camera is also awesome in that you can use your zoom lens in movie mode. I can be in the back row of a stadium in Sea World and I was able to zoom all the way in to get a human to almost fill the screen (300mm lens). The problem is auto focus does not work quickly in movie mode so you may feel the need to do the focusing yourself. Also using a tripod will make your life a whole lot easier. I cannot imagine using a 300mm lens in video mode without some sort of stand (tri-pod or mono-pod).

The video is great but the sound is what I consider average. Now I have no problems with the sound, but if you are looking for perfection then you either want a camera that has hardware/software dedicated to sound or you get an external mic for this camera which I have not bought. But for the casual person the internal microphone is just fine.

A gripe
One thing I don’t like about this model, compared to my F100 (or the D7000), is it only has one wheel (for the thumb instead of both the thumb and index finger). I like to be able to control the aperture and exposure at the same time, or customize it to control other things. Here you can only scroll through one at a time. And you usually have to hit a button to set the wheel from aperture or exposure. Why do I like multiple buttons and wheels? For control. Once you get the feel for the camera’s sensors, you can start to manipulate the amount of light coming in and how long the sensor is exposed to the light. Sure you can do this with changing the setting of the exposure lock, but I really like more physical controls and less simultaneous button pushing.

Making a time lapse video with the Nikon D5100
Another cool feature is the automatic timer and interval shooting. I set my camera on a tripod and had it shoot every ten seconds for 2 seconds. I aimed it at the dark nighttime sky when I was camping. This occurred for about an hour. When I got home I used a program called time lapse assembly for the Mac. This turned the pictures into a time lapse video. It was so awesome. I used it to show the rotation of the stars for my first 2 trials but you can pretty much use it for anything.
I also did a trial in my backyard to record a sunset. I ended up not liking that because it automatically changed the settings so the subject (a plant) so the subject was not properly exposed during parts of the video I compiled. But once I modify the setting I am sure I can get it fixed properly.

The autofocus light
There is a light that helps the camera auto focus. It is a bright white light, not the typical red you see. And it is bright. Thankfully you can turn that off through the menu. It will disturb other viewers at the attraction. It is located on the top right side of the lens.

Why you should get a digital SLR?
The question comes up, “should I get a digital SLR?”. If you are asking yourself that question and you have the money to spend, then the answer is a resounding yes. People will say no because if you have to ask then you are ignorant and shouldn’t bother. I disagree. I say yes because as soon as you get a SLR you will see an amazing difference in the quality of your photos. I list 5 reasons why I think you should get a digital SLR camera.

The first reason is you have better optics and a better sensor. I don’t use my Droid X to take pictures because the small lens makes a lot of off colors in the photos and distortion around the edges. Yes it’s a good megapixel rating but the small lens can never compete with the lens of a dedicated digital camera. And I’m just taking about the non-SLR digital cameras. SLR digital cameras make the photos from your phone look like a joke.

The second reason is you have a whole lot more control over your photos. And this control is at your finger tips. You can customize this to do things you have only dreamed of while using a push and shoot digital camera. (or as my mother liked to call them a PHD camera….Push Here Dummy).

The third reason is you have different lens that allow for different environments and distances. You can zoom in really close. Incredibly close. You can also do wide shots. Really really close shots. All depending on what lens you have attached. but you do have to have different lenses to get the best photo possible.

The fourth reason is quality of the lens. You have large lens that let in a lot of light. This allows you to take rich photos in lower light situations than in a cheaper digital camera. It’s just basic physics.

The fifth reason is speed. These cameras take several pictures a second. In this case the D5100 takes 4 photos a second in ideal circumstances. No lag between hitting the shutter button and have the shutter actually work. It is virtually instantaneous (minus the auto focus).

My opinion on the quality of pictures when compared to a film camera.
Now for the big question. Is the Nikon D5100 as good as a film camera? The short answer is no. 25 ISO slide film will blow this camera out of the water. Not only does this slide film have more vibrant color, it also has smaller grains. This means you can scan the slide negative at higher resolution on a scanner and not get the graininess. I have been able to scan some of my slides and got the equivalent of a 30MP picture. With my current scanner I saw pixels before the grains, so a better scanner could increase that rating to about 50MP (my estimate).

Now if you are using average 35mm film or high ISO film, then this camera will be as good or better than that film. Some cheaper 100 speed film will most likely be inferior to what this camera can offer.
What I like about this camera is I can choose any ISO I want, or let the camera select the right ISO. I don’t have to have two cameras with different speed film.

But a note about the color output of this camera. It is awesome. Very vivid and close to real life. Definitely the best digital camera photos I have see first hand. Ya there are 60 MP cameras out there (do you have 60 grand or more?) but I haven’t gotten a hold of this camera for obvious reasons.

The photos from my Nikon D5100 make the photos from my 8 MP Droid X look like them were taken with a defective lens and only worthy of a trash can. They make my Nikon press and shoot camera look like a toy. They are awesome photos and photos I am proud to have.

In short, if you are a film nut, then you have probably already gone to a large format film anyways. If you are a casual photographer, then this camera is just fine for you and don’t worry about the 5% difference (my non-professional opinion/observation) when comparing high quality film to this camera.

The picture size settings are limited to three sizes.
4,928 x 3,264 (size averages around 10 MB for JPEG format, NEF is much bigger)
3,696 x 2448
2,464 x 1632

The metering is fine. It is a 420-pixel RGB sensor. You have three setting. Matrix, center weighted, and spot. I use spot a lot for subject photos and matrix for landscapes or large subjects.

They also have three bracketing options. Exposure bracketing, White balance bracketing, and active D-lighting bracketing.

The ports are USB(cable supplied), HDMI output(cable supplied), a composite video output with supplied cable, an accessory terminal for remote cord or GPS unit, and an audio input.

It takes SD card, SDHC card, or SDXC card.

It has the typical tripod socket. The same one I use with my Panasonic camcorder and every push to shoot digital camera.

Ergonomics and ease of use.
Because of all the camera shooting settings, it is easy for anyone to grab this camera and begin shooting right out of the box. You can easily view this as a PHD camera on steroids.

I have messed with the automatic metering and I have found it to be very effective. In the hands of an amateur like myself, I consider the internal metering to be perfect. For a professional I would expect them to want a specialized external light meter.

There are two cleaning features. The first one vibrates something in the camera to clean it. The other lifts the shutter so you can wipe down the internal components. I haven’t done either yet but nice to know you have the option to do it yourself easily.

This is not made like a tank like the Nikon F100 or F5. These cameras will go through a sand storm and still work. This camera is lighter with a bit more plastic then what I like. I’m not happy about that. But I also won’t own this body for 13 years either. Maybe 6 before I buy a new Nikon body. Sooner if I can get away with it. Probably when the get a better low light sensor.

I did have a problem already and exchanged the body with BestBuy (with no hassle I might add). The reflector lens broke and only moved up half way. That meant that half the picture was blocked.

Battery life
Not great. I do recommend a second battery or a way to recharge the battery. If you are actively filming then expect it to last 4 hours. At Seaworld in August, it lasted me the day (barely) and I took about 150 shots. But this also included me messing with the setting to figure out how to customize it. So I would expect 300 plus if I don’t mess with the LED screen. In a recent trip to Disneyland it lasted the whole day with no problems. But I didn’t take a ton of photos either. They do have an accessory boot that holds two batteries at the same time.
One thing I am not happy about is I can not recharge the battery via USB port. I have to have a separate battery charger. I have one that uses a 12 volt car adapter or AC power source.

Brief comment on the software
It also come with some software. This allows your computer to automatically upload your photos into a predetermined folder on your computer. I use it on my iMac with no problems. Just make sure you don’t have it start up whenever you insert a USB device. It gets really annoying on that setting. I prefer to do everything manually. I have also transferred files using my USB SD card reader with no issues.

IR remote
I bought an IR remote by Nikon. This is a one button, wireless controller. You use this to remote control your camera. There are two IR receivers, one on the front and one on the back. You need this to operate your camera for long exposure times. Otherwise you can wiggle the camera and ruin the shot. There are delays you can use that prevent you from wiggling the camera on a tripod but I just find the remote to be so much easier and worth the money.

What I do not like.
It is moderately heavy and not the easiest to lug around. But it isn’t as heavy as a body with a motor. My Panasonic camcorder is smaller and easier to use if you just want video.

Weight and dimensions
Weight of body: 1 lb 3 oz
Weight of supplied lens: 10 oz
Dimensions are about 5 x 3.8 x 3.1 inches

Who is this camera for?
This is the ideal camera for someone that is an amateur photographer that wants a good camera to take good quality pictures with. Anyone can use this easily. While there are cheaper cameras out there, this happens to be the right balance between cost and options. But with this sensor and option of lenses, this is an awesome camera. If the price scares you, then check out the new Nikon 3200.
This is not a camera for a professional. It is not fast enough. The focus speed isn't enough nor is the frames shot per minute fast enough for a professional. It also does not have an internal motor which limits the lenses you can use.
© Alan Lake's Kitchen 2011

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