Metering and Exposure
The metering sensor on the D5100 is again the same 420-pixel RGB sensor as on the D90, so no surprises here either. Matrix metering is quite accurate in most situations and I only had to adjust the exposure with the exposure compensation button in very difficult lighting conditions. I personally prefer the 420-pixel RGB sensor on the D5100 to the new 2,016-pixel RGB sensor on the D7000. As I have pointed out in my Nikon D7000 Review, the metering sensor on the D7000 can be tricky to work with, especially when photographing people. Center-weighted and Spot metering modes work as expected with standard, pre-defined settings, so there is no way to change the size of the center-weighted circle like you can do on more advanced DSLRs. The metering range is standard 0-20 EV for Matrix/Center-weighted metering and 2-20 EV for Spot metering.
Although I personally do not shoot much video, I did try to record some videos during my trip to Yellowstone when photographing wildlife. The overall quality of high-definition 1080p video mode on the Nikon D5100 is indeed very impressive, considering how good the camera performs in low light. I normally do not use the Nikon TC-17E or TC-20E teleconverters with my Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR, but since the video resolution is much lower than photo resolution, I used the lens with these teleconverters a few times when I needed the reach. Because it is tough to get anywhere close to grizzly bears and wolves in Yellowstone, the 200-400mm @ 400mm + TC-20E III x 1.5x crop = 1200mm equivalent field of view was nice to get close enough to see some action. While I did manage to lose photos of wolves charging at some elk, I was able to record a little bit of wolf action on the D5100, along with some footage of a grizzly roaming around Yellowstone:
The grizzly and wolves were very far away from me, which is why they appear so small. Don’t forget to switch to 1080p and watch the videos in full screen. I removed the sound from the above video, because there was nothing to listen to besides passing cars.
And here is some footage from a fireworks show on the US Independence Day:
The fireworks show was shot with the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G lens that I recently reviewed.
Video enthusiasts are probably not going to be very happy with the D5100’s inability to manually control the exposure in videos. You can sort of do it, but it is painful. First, you have to go to “Custom Settings” menu, then navigate to “F5 Assign AE-L/AF-L button” and set the value to “AE Lock (Hold)”, which will make the AE-L/AF-L button on the back of the camera hold the exposure. Next, you need to set your exposure in manual mode and press the AE-L/AF-L button (before turning on Live View). This will lock down your exposure for the entire duration of the video. Finally, go into Live View and your exposure should now be locked – move your camera from a dark to a bright spot and the exposure should not change. Now here is where it gets even more painful – if you have an overexposed or underexposed meter reading when you lock down the exposure, the camera might still adjust the exposure in Live View mode for you. Unfortunately, the only workaround is to set your exposure correctly (meter should be in 0 position) before you press the AE-L/AF-L button and go into Live View. Seriously, I do not understand why Nikon cripples its entry-level cameras like this, especially when it tries to compete against entry-level Canon DSLRs like T2i/T3i that have full manual video exposure control. I hope Nikon addresses this issue soon with a firmware update.
The dynamic range on the D5100 is exactly the same as on the D7000, because both have the same sensor. According to DxOMark, the Nikon D5100/D7000 sensor has a better dynamic range than the Nikon D3s (13.6 EVs vs 12 EVs), which is hard to believe. Obviously, I am not going to argue with the DxOMark folks, since they claim to have a lot of science behind their test results. The above just shows that the dynamic range on the D5100 should be remarkable. While I have not performed any scientific tests to measure the dynamic range, I ran a few RAW adjustments to some images and I was able to recover plenty of highlight/shadow detail – you can see some examples in sample shots in this review.
Just like the Nikon D3100 and D7000 DSLRs, the base ISO on the Nikon D5100 is also ISO 100 (looks like Nikon is moving back from base ISO 200 to 100). Why is this important? Because all DSLRs have the highest amount of dynamic range and lowest amount of noise at base ISO, which probably explains why Nikon D7000 scores better than Nikon D3s in dynamic range tests. If you were to shoot a high contrast scene (with dark and bright tones) at base ISO and then shoot the same scene at a higher ISO like 800, you would be able to recover more data from the base ISO shot. Therefore, if you want to recover more details without doing any bracketing or HDR, you should use ISO 100 on the Nikon D5100. This is especially important for architectural and landscape photography.
Active D-Lighting and HDR
Similar to all modern Nikon DSLRs, the Nikon D5100 is equipped with the Active D-Lighting feature that allows the camera to restore the shadow and highlight details in high contrast areas of an image. This detail restoration process is very similar to Photoshop’s “Curve” and Lightroom’s “Tone Curve” tools. It is permanent in JPEG files, which means that you cannot “undo” Active D-Lighting on JPEG images once the image is taken. However, if you shoot in RAW, you would have to use Nikon’s Capture NX2 software in order to see the effects of Active D-Lighting. If you import your images into Photoshop or Lightroom, those proprietary settings will be lost upon import. You would have to keep the original NEF/RAW file in order to be able to get the Active D-Lighting data in the future. Unless you shoot in JPEG or use Capture NX2, I would turn Active D-Lighting off, because it will only slightly decrease your exposure/darken your images. Nikon gives plenty of options for Active D-Lighting to choose from: Low, Normal, High, Extra High and Auto. For those who shoot in JPEG, leaving Active D-Lighting in “Auto” mode works great for most situations. In high contrast scenes, try using High and Extra High to recover more details.
Here is an example with Active D-Lighting turned on (Extra High) and off:
As you can see, the amount of shadow details Active D-Lighting can recover is significant when set to “Extra High”.
Due to high popularity of High Dynamic Range Photography (HDR), more and more HDR tools are now becoming available to make it easier for photographers to capture HDR images with less effort. The Nikon D5100 is the first Nikon DSLR to incorporate in-camera HDR processing, which is an indication that we will most likely be seeing in-camera HDR processing in future DSLR models as well. When HDR is activated through the camera menu (can only be activated in JPEG capture mode), the D5100 will fire two consecutive shots of the same scene (up to 3 EV apart) and then combine them together to create a single image with more dynamic range. While HDR processing on the D5100 is very limited, I was pleasantly surprised to see how well it performed in high contrast scenes. The nice thing about in-camera HDR, is that you can combine it with Active D-Lighting to recover even more details. You can choose from three different methods of “smoothing” the HDR images – low, normal and high. High and Normal look good, while Low can make your images look a little “cartoonish”, so I would be careful when using it.
I tested the HDR feature on the D5100 and here are some image samples with in-camera HDR processing:
HDR can recover more shadow details and you can eve couple it with Active D-Lighting. Be careful when doing that though – your images might end up looking flat as a result.
Since the HDR mode does not have any complex alignment algorithms, images might not get perfectly aligned if you shoot handheld, so I recommend using a tripod. While the camera did a pretty good job with the above shots that I captured handheld, any major movements will result in a ghost-like misalignment as seen below:
I hope Nikon continues to work on this useful feature and provide more customization options in their upcoming DSLR cameras.
Scene and Effect Modes
Nikon also for the first time introduced different “special effects” modes that you can surprisingly use while recording videos. You can choose from Night Vision, Color Sketch, Miniature Effect, and Selective Color modes and you can use most of these while recording videos, so the in-camera changes happen as the movie is being recorded. Some of the effects such as Color Sketch can be very processor-intensive, which significantly bring down the video recording frame rate. This processing lag is not very noticeable when capturing images though.
As for different exposure scene modes, the Nikon D5100 comes with a big number of scene modes to choose from: Night Landscape, Party / Indoor, Beach / Snow, Sunset, Dusk / Dawn, Pet Portrait, Candlelight, Blossom, Autumn Colors, Food, and Night Portrait. These scene “presets” or “auto modes” are for point-and-shoot situations, where the photographer wants to quickly take a picture without messing with camera settings. I recommend to stay away from these auto modes and learn how to manually control your camera instead.
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