Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Nikon D5100 good camera with a few reservations

As with any review, a lot is dependent on the reviewer's taste, expectations and understanding of the product. So let me make it clear where I fit in there and then how this camera performed.
I have a lot of photography and video experience but I am not a professional.

What I EXPECT is a camera that is easy to use but powerful in features. I like seeing new technology even when it is sometimes inferior to older technology (I know some of you can relate to that). I expect good build quality and I expect that a camera does what it is advertised to do. This camera basically did not disappoint.

But I will say honestly that I was comparing this to the D7000 even though the latter is a good $400 more expensive. But the D5100 was newer and it had some things the D7000 does not have that I thought were important to me:

1. A swivel screen (I've never had a still camera with that). I am upgrading from a D70.
2. Capable of HDR pictures with in-camera processing.
3. Cheaper and lighter weight.

Order Nikon D5100

Many of you may choose the Nikon D5100 for other reasons but these were mine. In the end, I returned it and bought the D7000 (that review is coming soon). Here is why:
I like the idea of HDR photography and the Nikon D5100 can do it right in the camera! To explain why I gravitated towards this particular feature, I need to step back and mention an in-camera feature I had once on a point-and-shoot. I used to have an HP camera and it helped you frame a panoramic picture. When you were done, it stitched it together. Voila! You had a panoramic picture ready to go. When I upgraded to the next model, it also had a panoramic feature to help you frame it, but it did not do in-camera stitching (as most all cameras do not these days). Instead, you are supposed to stitch it with the software the camera comes with. So guess what happened? Nothing....I stopped doing panoramic pictures, because I was too lazy to take the time to find the right pictures, import them into the software, stitch and then export it back to the right folder - too much hassle.
Well, the idea with in-camera HDR was a real selling point for me on the NikonD5100. As of this writing, I am not aware of any other camera that does this (I'm sure someone will correct me?). So this may be the #1 reason I ended up getting the D5100 and it is the #1 I returned it. If you look at Nikon's website they advertise this feature and show an example of a lighthouse - the result is stunning, just as you would expect from HDR. Let me just say flat-out: this will not be the result you see in the real-world. I took about 100 different high-contrast shots and most of them looked better with the HDR processing but most of them only looked *marginally* better. The shadows had more detail and the bright areas were less blown out. So it works. But I then bracketed +2,0,-2 images and plugged them into Photomatrix and BAM! Now that's HDR! No comparison whatsoever. It turns out, the Nikon D5100's version of HDR is to take just two shots (-3,+3 , or some variation on the stops) and then it combines it into one image. If the (+3) shot was a little blurry, because over-exposed shots tend to be this way, then the final HDR image is blurry too. Now when this happens on a bracketed set, that is OK, because you still have the normal (0) exposure to take back with you at the end of your vacation. But if the D5100 made a bunch of blurry shots, you are hosed. There is no way to recover from that. You would have to analyze every shot closely on that little 3" screen to verify you got the shot or you would need to take duplicates with normal exposure just to make sure. Also, the HDR feature is not even written in the instruction manual - go ahead and look...no where to be found! I had to look it up in the longer online pdf manual to see how to use the feature, and it turns out you have to press about 6 buttons pretty deep in the menu just to get the camera to take an HDR. Once you depress the shutter, you have to go back through the whole menu again. Ridiculous! Finally, I figured out you can assign the "Fn" button to handle this, which was really a very good workaround. So all in all, I was really excited about in-camera HDR and in reality, it was a big disappointment. Now on to the other stuff:

The swivel screen: You either love it or hate it. I hated it, but that has nothing to do with the actual camera, just the concept. Basically I think it's mechanically the weakest point of the camera. That little swivel is just asking to snap off the next time I chase my son around the house and back into a corner or cabinet. I can guess it would cost a fortune to have Nikon fix that. Also, I am not into swiveling the screen closed so the screen faces the camera when I am done shooting. I am simply not that meticulous. I want to have a spontaneous camera that I can pick up and shoot whenever I want. So what's the point if I have to un-swivel the screen every time I want to use it and then swivel it closed when I am done. Also, think of all that wear-and-tear. So if you don't close it properly then it is liable to get scratched over time. The D7000 and all the other fixed LCD DSLRs have a plastic screen protector that costs a few bucks to replace - you can't really use a screen protector on the D5100. So either you swivel it closed every time or you risk scratching the screen. In the end, I felt the swivel screen took away from my spontaneity and made me think about not scratching the screen all the time.

Now a few general things: The camera is lighter and cheaper than the D7000. That can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. But for how much this camera costs, I don't want it to feel cheap - and it does. I compared both cameras and it was the little things like how the buttons felt and how the grip was shaped that made the D5100 feel a lot cheaper. Also the 18-55mm lens it comes with is really very limiting. I am not interesting in being one of those people that walks around with 3 lenses in a huge 10lb bag that I carry everywhere. The D7000 comes with the 18-105mm which is not amazing, but it is much better for general use. I personally went with the Tamron 18-270mm, but that's another story. Here are some other things to consider: The D5100 has a bunch of "Effects" like "miniature", "fisheye", etc. These can be done much more easily in the D5100 than in the D7000 where you have to apply the effect to a picture after you take it while the D5100 applies it immediately to the picture. But these are just gimmicks for me - you try the effect out once and move on.

After thoroughly playing with the D5100, the D7000 became an easy choice. For $400 (of course, it's $400 when you compare just the cost of the bodies not the kits) you get a lot of manual buttons so you don't have to dive into menus to change things. You get a dedicated screen on the top that gives you critical info. You get a weather-sealed case with the top and back being magnesium alloy. You get 2 custom user settings, faster more precise focusing and a better lens with the kit. So you say, "no duh, you pay more, you get more". That is true, but my logic was that the D5100 is not really all that cheap to begin with. If I'm shelling out serious cash for a DSLR, it better not feel like a toy in my hand - the D5100 feels like a toy. It also has very few buttons which means any time you want to make a change, you need to dive into a menu. Gosh I hate that! I have a Canon G10 which is more capable - at least it has an ISO and exposure dial right there on the top - no menus no nothing, and it is just a fancy point-and-shoot.

As for the video, I appreciated the fact that the D5100 takes 1080p at 30FPS unlike the D7000 which maxes out at 24FPS. I do video with a far more capable dedicated video camera, so I didn't really bother with this. But from the little I saw, the built-in microphone was weak and the auto-focus was sluggish, inaccurate and loud ( you can hear the focusing in your video). I would only use the camera's video if I was desperate. The D7000 performed no better.

As far as picture quality goes, I am not a pro, but I did compare identical pictures to the D7000 at the pixel level and I am convinced they are the same chips. The pictures are simply awesome. Beautiful color, sharp, clean and excellent light sensitivity. You really will have a hard time complaining.

IN CONCLUSION: Although it "feels" like a toy after you hold the D7000, it is a well-built camera that takes excellent pictures and can do most of the same things the D90 and D7000 are capable of - you just have to hunt for the stuff you need. I do not like hunting for things when a photo-opportunity arises. The HDR feature is mostly useless and could potentially ruin some pictures. The swivel LCD may be useful for some but I did not like it. If the camera is used mainly for a family get-together, a European vacation or even to take short videos of your kids and pets, then this is an excellent choice. If you are like me and enjoy HDR photography, astrophotography, macro-shots and have a deeper understanding of how all the features of how cameras work (like why you would change the metering from "Matrix" to "spot" or why it's useful to change ISO settings all the time, etc) then you will be really frustrated by the D5100 - you are better off spending the money and getting the D7000. I give this camera 4 stars because the HDR feature was a big selling point and it is useless by my standard. I would knock off another half-star for not having at least a dedicated button to change ISO and for having weak video capabilities, but I'm feeling generous tonight ;)

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