For the moment, the Nikon D5100 is an absolute steal, reviews say. Simply because it has been on the market for a couple of years, Nikon has discounted this higher-spec digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera to the same price as a more basic model. Although the Best Reviewed Nikon D3200 (*Est. $650 with kit lens) steals the entry-level show with its mega-megapixels and beginner-friendly features, experts suggest checking out the D5100, too. In some ways, if offers higher specs for the same price, at least until Nikon decides to discontinue it.
Swiveling screen comes in handy. Price-wise, the Nikon D5100 now competes against the entry-level D3200. Both cameras are similarly compact and lightweight, with easy-to-navigate buttons and menus, testers say. Yet the D3200 is aimed squarely at beginners, and has a helpful Guide Mode feature that the D5100 doesn't. It walks novices through the process of taking a photograph, with text and photos to illustrate how and why to adjust shutter speed, aperture and more.
Of course, both cameras offer the usual full-auto mode, so you could just let the camera do all of the work. But "if you are a complete beginner and are looking to learn more about photography, the D3200 offers more in terms of development than the D5100," says Amy Davies at TechRadar.com.
Yet the D3200 lacks the D5100's side-hinged, tilt-and-swivel LCD screen; experts say it really does make it easier to shoot photos at odd angles, and you can keep the screen at a viewable angle even as you move around to shoot video. "It actively encourages shooting from unusual angles, which makes for more interesting pictures," TechRadar.com's Angela Nicholson says. "Those who rubbish the idea of such a device on a DSLR should try using one for a few hours while taking macro or still-life images."
Image quality equals or beats the D3200. Critics say the Nikon D5100 packs high-end image quality into a low-priced package, even boasting the same 16.2-megapixel compact image sensor as the pricier D7000 (*Est. $1,000 body only). As a result, the D5100 "offers effectively the same image quality as the higher-end D7000, at a lower cost," concludes DPReview.com after thoroughly testing both cameras.
Sure, the Nikon D3200 boasts 24.2 megapixels on its newer sensor, but reviewers say more isn't always better. "While this means that you can crop into shots and still retain a high-resolution image, it also includes the risk of noise being visible at high sensitivities," says TechRadar.com's Davies. "We found that the D5100's 16.2 million-pixel sensor delivers very well, being on a par or beating the D3200 in low-light situations."
In fact, when TechRadar.com shoots photos with both cameras and then lets a computer judge, the D5100 often delivers better dynamic range and less grainy image "noise," especially when shooting JPEGs in very dim light, at ISO 3,200 and above. Both cameras shoot great-looking video in full 1,080p HD, according to reviews. Each can continuously autofocus while doing so, but experts say it's slow and so noisy that you'll hear it on your movies, a problem with most DSLRs.
Autofocus works perfectly quickly when you look through the optical viewfinder, though. Shooting speed is "plenty fast for most entry-level users," says Eric Reagan at PhotographyBay.com. Both cameras shoot 4 frames per second (fps), although Shawn Barnett at Imaging-Resource.com clocks a half-second shutter lag when framing with the swivel screen; when framing through the viewfinder, it's just a quarter-second.
Battery life is rated at 660 shots per charge, better than the 540-shot Nikon D3200.
Plastic body "feels pretty solid." Like other under-$1,000 DSLRs, the Nikon D5100's body "is made of composite materials (read: plastic)," says Jeff Keller at DCResource.com. Still, he says, "it feels pretty solid for the most part."
TechRadar.com's Nicholson agrees: "It is, on the whole, very well built. It feels nicely put together and designed to last," she says of the D5100. Their only quibbles reference its port doors; Nicholson notices that the Secure Digital (SD) card port cover "when closed, still moves under a tapping finger," and Keller says the battery-compartment door feels a little weak.
One owner at Amazon.com complains that he dropped the D5100 a foot or two in a heavy camera bag and it stopped working. But several other users say theirs survived falls just fine. One says it "SLAMMED on the floor ... It's perfectly fine. No problems." Another dropped his D5100 about 4.5 feet onto a stone floor. "The only damage was a broken card door ... No other damage apart from a slight dent in the lens hood."
Adds exposure bracketing. While the Nikon D3200 appeals to beginners with its take-you-by-the-hand Guide Mode, the D5100 aims at advanced beginners. In addition to its swiveling screen, the D5100 boasts exposure bracketing and an Effects mode. The DSLR can shoot three photos -- one regular exposure, one slightly higher and one slightly lower -- just in case the regular exposure isn't quite right, then you can choose from several Effects options such as Color Sketch, Miniature, Selective Color or Night Vision.
"Choosing between these two cameras is a close-run thing," says Davies at TechRadar.com. "However, if you feel you need the extra pixels and would stand to benefit from the user-friendly Guide Mode, then the D3200 is a great option. On the other hand, if you're a little bit more advanced and the idea of an articulating screen appeals, go for the D5100."
Review Credibility: Very Good If you're trying to decide between the Nikon D5100 and D3200, this thoroughly detailed review offers helpful updates comparing the D5100's image noise and dynamic range with the new D3200. In an easy-to-understand video, Davies outlines their differences and explains what kind of shooter should choose each camera.
Review: Nikon D5100 Review, Angela Nicholson, June 21, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good After shooting thousands of frames and minutely testing every detail of the Nikon D5100, experts here find a lot to like. Most important, it delivers the same image quality as the pricier Nikon D7000. However, the D5100 lacks some of the D7000's important advanced features, and reviewers say it's not quite as easy to use as the cheaper Nikon D3100.
Review: Nikon D5100 In-depth Review, Barnaby Britton, April 2011
Review Credibility: Very Good Terrific image quality and features and an "approachable design," including a useful swiveling LCD screen, make the Nikon D5100 an easy top pick, testers say. They show side-by-side comparisons between the D5100 and several other cameras shoppers might consider, including the Nikon D7000 and Canon EOS Rebel T3i.
Review: Nikon D5100, Shawn Barnett, Mike Tomkins and Zig Weidelich, July 14, 2011
Review Credibility: Very Good The Nikon D5100 "blows away" its under-$1,000 rivals, Donegan concludes after an extensive review. As of October 2012, it still makes the site's list of the top five digital SLRs.
Review: Nikon D5100, TJ Donegan, June 3, 2011
Review Credibility: Very Good Keller recommends both the Nikon D5100 and its rival, the Canon EOS Rebel T3i, after thorough tests. This easy-to-understand review clearly states how the cameras compare.
Review: DCRP Nikon D5100 Review, Jeff Keller, June 4, 2011
Review Credibility: Good Reagan illustrates his review of the Nikon D5100 with a variety of test shots, including several challenging low-light, no-flash photos shot indoors at Disney World. In the end, its "impressive" images boost the easy-to-use, easy-to-carry D5100 to the top of his recommended list of cameras.
Review: Nikon D5100 Review, Eric Reagan, July 18, 2011
7. Ken Rockwell
Review Credibility: Good Plain-spoken camera critic Rockwell calls the Nikon D5100 "the best all-around camera for most people" in his buyer's guide. This full evaluation explains why, comparing it to other Nikon cameras including the D7000.
Review: Nikon D5100, Ken Rockwell, April 2012
Review Credibility: Good With more than 360 owner reviews posted, the Nikon D5100 earns an average rating of 4.4 stars out of 5. Some comments are written by knowledgeable camera enthusiasts, and they're extremely detailed and helpful.
Review: Nikon D5100 16.2MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera, Contributors to Amazon.com, As of November 2012