PDN Gear Review: Nikon D5100

June 15, 2011

By Dan Havlik

When I wrote a Photokina 2010 show report from Germany last year entitled “The Incredible Shrinking Pro Camera Market,” I didn’t have in mind a camera like the 16.5-megapixel Nikon D5100. This DSLR is small, very small but it’s designed more for prosumers or the enthusiast crowd than pros.

The D5100 also happens to be, at the time of this writing, one of only three DSLRs releases in 2011. (The other two being the Canon Rebel T3i and T3, both of which are also designed for the prosumer/consumer crowd.)

It’s been a tough year for cameras and photography gear in general. With the still flagging global economy; the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear scare in Japan; and the increasing popularity of smart phones for shooting photos and HD video, camera introductions have been slow and largely unimpressive so far.

The Nikon D5100 (5.0 x 3.8 x 3.1 inches) is even smaller than its predecessor, the D5000, and most pros will find its build just too flimsy and toy-like to use as a main camera. This is really a DSLR for an aspiring photographer, a student, or your mom and dad if they’ve suddenly decided to become more than just the family shutterbug.

Having said that, I’m still impressed with the technology behind the D5100 and would love to see its bells and whistles move up the ladder into Nikon’s more professional models. My only major complaint about the Nikon D7000, which we named Camera of the Year in 2010, was that it didn’t include a vari-angle screen. Instead Nikon has put an excellent, 3-inch, 921,000-dot, LCD side-articulating screen on the less expensive D5100 (the LCD on the D5000 annoyingly folded out from the bottom) to help with composing over the head or down low shots.

Nikon’s also packed this camera with an impressive full 1080p HD video mode at 24 or 30p with full-time autofocus and stereo sound. Or in other words, this little DSLR, is a dynamite movie camera as well. Add on the optional ME-1 Stereo Microphone ($179) and all you need is a stabilizing camera rig to start your own video production company. Meanwhile, Nikon’s professional grade, full-frame sensored D700, which doesn’t shoot video at all, had still not been replaced at the time of this writing.

Does it sound like I’m complaining? Maybe a bit, but I understand Nikon and other camera companies have to go where the money is and right now that’s with consumers, prosumers, enthusiasts, and soccer moms and dads. The professional crowd, meanwhile, needs to sit tight and stay happy with our Nikon D700s and Canon 5D Mark IIs etc until the next product launches happen which, we all hope, are before the end of the year.

In the interim, let’s consider the Nikon D5100. It’s a sophisticated little DSLR for shooting stills and HD movies that looks snazzy but is so small I had trouble holding it steady in my hand. On the other hand, it fit nicely into my PBS tote bag along with my lunch, a copy of The New York Times, and one of the Steig Larsson thrillers.

In the end, the Nikon D5100 is a nice camera with some helpful features it would be great to find on higher end models but it’s really more for strolling through the park with than taking on assignment.

Pros: High-end features on a prosumer camera including a side-swiveling 3-inch LCD screen and 1080p HD video at 24/30p with full-time AF and stereo sound.

Cons: Too small and flimsy to use on a real assignment.