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Original Question: Is there a D5100 alternative

I was considering my first DSLR Nikon D3000, then saw D3100 and was fixed on it, then saw D5100 and I though yes,this is the one to go for. While browsing here, I came across comments that "Lenses are your first thing and then body", "Spend money on lenses and spend less on body". While I am new (and could be wrong), I don't quite agree with it. I compared images of D3100 Vs D5100, the picture quality is way better (and I believe with same lenses). I do like D3100 for it is lighter (highly desirable), cheaper and a full DSLR, but I am really impressed with D5100, its flip screen, image quality (80) vs (65).

D5100 is perhaps a little bit heavy for me, and does not feel that great in hands. I like the feel of Canon T3i better (a lot better) but then, I do believe D5100 has a far superior image quality (in my view). HDR is a plus for me as well. My question is, should I consider D3100, or a Canon? My price range is below $1000 but can go up if justified.

I like to photograph plants, sceneries in spring, myself, mountains, hiking, take shots of ppl and perhaps historic places and thunderstorms. Please suggest. I am already getting a good deal on Nikon5100. Is there anything I am missing. It is a first time big investment for me on camera.

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The answer to the original question ("Is there a D5100 alternative?") is pretty boring: "Yes, there certainly are many alternatives, but whether they are right for you is subjective and really something only you can answer." –  mattdm Sep 8 '11 at 19:32
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On a separate note, the idea that the D3100 has an image quality of "65" while the D5100 has an image quality of "80" is very misleading. For most purposes, both cameras have image quality in the range of 95-100. –  mattdm Sep 8 '11 at 19:56
    
With good lighting I'd be inclined to agree with @mattdm. –  rfusca Sep 8 '11 at 20:56
    
The always-entertaining DigitalRevTV did a video about this: Pro DSLR + Cheapo Lens vs "Cheapo" DSLR + Pro Lens –  Evan Krall Sep 12 '11 at 5:27
    
But I'd agree with mattdm - The D5100 is about 1 stop better than the D3100 in terms of low-light noise performance, but all the other differences in sensor, like megapixel count, are pretty much moot. And the D3100 with a fast prime like the 35 or 50 f/1.8 will vastly out-perform the D5100 with the kit 18-55 f/5.6. –  Evan Krall Sep 12 '11 at 5:44

8 Answers 8

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Cameras matter too, and at the bottom end there's a considerable difference between models. That advice largely starts to apply for film or more for cameras above the 1k mark, where the basic features are all included and you're differing on the quality of included systems - not simply if they're present. That said - the kit lens included with most of these cameras is not very good and you should consider getting something better as a top priority. The aperture doesn't go wide enough to give you sufficient creative control over depth of field. Consider picking up a cheap 35mm or 50mm f/1.8 and you'll learn more and get better results.

In regards to the specific camera question, if you can stretch a little above the 1000 dollar mark - go for the D7000. Its in a class clearly above the others. 100% viewfinder, in body motor, high IQ, weatherproofing, dual controls - its a much better camera.

If thats not an option, there are certainly features on the D5100 that are attractive vs the D3100 - which you've already listed and are generally correct. But I think you're overstating the difference in IQ in normal situations - the D3100 is certainly no slouch. The D5100 reportedly feels a bit clumsy from a user experience perspective. Notably, it lacks the drive mode switch of the D3100. The easier your camera is to use to you, the more you'll like it than just higher IQ.

I can't tell you which features you'd use more, but I certainly wouldn't base my sole decision on the IQ between the D5100 and D3100 (even though the D5100 is better). If its between the D5100 and the kit lens or the D3100 and a better lens - I'd get the D3100 and a better lens. If you've got the cash, spring for the D7000 and pick up a 50mm or 35mm f/1.8.

Check out this also:

What should I look for when shopping for my first DSLR?

Are there disadvantages to a prosumer camera for a beginner, aside from cost?


Canon, Pentax, and Sony are all viable options too - What are considerations when choosing a DSLR brand? In your price range, they've all got advantages and disadvantages and there's no clear winner - pick one you like and consider the advice in that question.

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I agree there has to be some compromise with any camera. In this case may be not the best of the feel in hands and a bit heavy for my needs but otherwise good enough (D5100). –  photo101 Sep 8 '11 at 16:44
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For a beginner I'm not sure I'd recommend the D7000+35 or 50. That combination is about $1400. For that, you could get the D3100‌​, the 35, and a 3rd party stabilized 17-50 f/2.8. –  Evan Krall Sep 12 '11 at 5:35
    
Or maybe the D3100, the 50, and a Sigma 10-20 f/3.5 –  Evan Krall Sep 12 '11 at 5:39
    
@Evan Krall you could make that point with many camera though...why would anybody ever buy a D3x, do you know how many lenses you could buy for that....I do understand some of your point though. –  rfusca Sep 12 '11 at 6:26
    
You buy a D3x when the D3x gets you more of what you need than $8k of lenses, lights, etc. would, or if you really need 24MP. –  Evan Krall Sep 12 '11 at 10:07

Yes, it matters, a lot.

There is little difference in image quality between cropped-sensor bodies these days and certainly a lot less compared to the difference in quality between a poor and a quality lens. Even between a D5100 and D7000 which costs much more, the quality difference is small. The same is true in Canon's line-up.

Even more important, the lenses you choose affect your photography far more than image quality. Depth-of-field, focal-length and perspective change your photos dramatically, giving you much more creative power with the right lenses. If your photos are not compelling, no one will care about their image quality.

As others have said, cameras matter too. They do, but for less important reasons. With digital cameras, bodies evolve rapidly and are constantly improving. Lenses change very little and quickly form a large part of photographic investment, so it is a good idea to buy the right ones for the longer run. Lenses other than the cheapest ones tend to increase in value as all manufacturers periodically raise their prices. This rarely happens to cameras.

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There's huge difference in camera when in the low range though - certain things are just missing from some models. I'm never going to argue that lenses are less important, but there's a considerable difference among non-IQ related features in the lower-medium end of the camera market. Things that may make it easier to 'get the shot'. The quality difference between a D5100 and D7000 is small - but is the usability difference? –  rfusca Sep 8 '11 at 16:24
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Oh yes, for non-IQ issues there are enormous differences. Those differences will slow you down (due to the lack of dials and buttons), make framing frustrating (partial viewfinder coverage) but really when the artwork is produced, no one will see or know that. They will see the shallow the DOF, the interesting perspective and the quality difference (in terms of contrast, flare control, even illumination, lack of distortion and - on a medium or large print - sharpness). –  Itai Sep 8 '11 at 16:41
    
I would like to add, I am not talking about professional type photographs (of course lense would matter in that case). Just need good quality photographs that can be a good memory and some advance features like photos in low light etc + I would rather not carry a heavy camera but a lighter one. –  photo101 Sep 8 '11 at 16:42
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+1, my first dSLR was a used entry-level camera with kit lens, and I've mostly been craving for better glass. Now, several lenses later, it's a 5 years old model and I'm starting to see enough advantages in recent models to justify throwing some money at them too. Still, no hurry, I might fall for a nice macro prime lens first. –  Imre Sep 8 '11 at 17:35
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@SF - I believe it is more the shutter than the sensor, but the recommendation still holds. –  ysap Sep 9 '11 at 14:21

Firstly, the classic advice 'invest in lenses not bodies' is somewhat out of date these days; it's really a leftover from the days of film. With film cameras, the body is little more than a light-proof box holding the film, so you were better off investing in really good glass.

Nowadays, however, the body has much more to do with the final image - the sensor, AF, metering and other functions are all important factors. That's not to say that you shouldn't invest in good lenses, just that the lens/body balance is more even these days.

So, if you can afford a better camera than the D3100, go for it. Whether that's a D5100 or a Canon is up to you. Personally I prefer the sturdier feel of the Nikons. Image quality is the most important factor in my opinion, so if you feel the Nikon does better in that regard, and you are getting a good deal on a 5100, it seems a no-brainer.

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Bodies come and go, lenses are forever. Wait a couple of years and the top-of-the-line camera body you bought yesterday will be worthless. They go off as fast as mackerel. Wait a couple of decades and the top-of-the-line lens you bought yesterday will still be a very good lens.

Besides, there is a much bigger difference in the image quality you get with a poor lens versus a good lens than there is between a cheapo DSLR body and an expensive one. Unless you actively need top of the line autofocus, which tends to be available only in the upper tier of camera bodies, or you need weather-sealing (ditto), or you actively hate the ergonomics of the entry-levels (which I do, frankly; I dislike the weight of my 1Ds II but it feels soooo right in my hands), the entry-level DSLRs are more than good enough. Spend the money on glass instead.

Alternative: Pick up a second-hand, previous generation, mid-tier camera body. Not the el cheapo stuff, not the big heavy pro stuff, but one of the ones in the middle. You will save a bundle of cash versus buying a new one and still get most of the goodies of the current generation mid-tier bodies. DSLRs reached the level of "good enough" quite some time ago.

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You get different things when you spend your money on a camera body and when you spend it on a lens.

A more expensive body gives you more features, and better results in difficult situations. Generally a more expensive camera handles high ISO settings better.

A more expensive lens gives you things like more light ("fast" lenses), better edge sharpness, faster focus.

As both affect the result, but mainly in different ways, there should be a balance between the cost of the camera and the cost of the lens. A cheap camera doesn't benefit much from an expensive lens, and you don't get nearly as much as you could from an expensive camera with a cheap lens on it.

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Speed and precision of autofocus and high-ISO image quality still vary quite a lot between bodies. However, faster lenses and off-camera flash help with these, and ultimately give you better images than you could get with more expensive body, cheap lens and no extra light.

But your usage patterns also matter here: if you are shooting situations where you can carry stuff like tripod, off-camera flash, fast primes etc with you, things like low-ISO performance matter lot less. If you are a photojournalist or traveler who has tight limits to luggage, or wedding photographer who has to capture non-repeatable moments, the body starts to matter more.

But, if you are shooting for money, then you ultimately want to get them all - good lenses, near-the-top body and proper lighting equipment.

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There are some good answers for you already, and all I could add as an actual answer is "yes." However, are you really sure that you want a DSLR? Two things you've said made me wonder:

I like to photograph plants, sceneries in spring, myself, mountains, hiking, take shots of ppl and perhaps historic places and thunderstorms.

You can do all those things just fine with a good pocket camera.

I am not talking about professional type photographs (of course lense would matter in that case). Just need good quality photographs that can be a good memory and some advance features like photos in low light etc + I would rather not carry a heavy camera but a lighter one.

Pocket cameras make great photos, and modern point and shoot (P&S) cameras should make great prints up to 8x10". Not only that, but even the more advanced P&S cameras (like bridge cameras or superzooms) are much lighter than DSLRs. If you're hiking I'm sure you'll appreciate the lighter weight and ability to fit in a pocket!

There are some things you will lose with a P&S over a DSLR:

  • longer delay between pressing the button and the picture being taken. But for pictures of mountains that's maybe not a big deal.
  • yes, the quality goes down a little. But if you are resizing the pictures to post on the Internet, or printing smallish sizes (8x10" or less), you generally shouldn't notice.
  • no interchangeable lenses! If you are really excited about changing lenses and getting dust on your sensor sometimes [really not a big deal, I change lenses all the time and don't have any real problems], and having the wrong lens on your camera when something exciting happens, then this would be a big deal for you.

In addition to their lighter weight and smaller form factor, the P&S cameras are also less obvious (if you don't want to stand out and have people staring at your camera while you're taking pictures) and of course cost a lot less!

Oh and finally, if you like installing different firmware on your tech toys, you might be interested in getting a Canon P&S that will run CHDK; it has a good motion-detection mode that I used successfully to take pictures of lightning.

The best thing for you might be to borrow or rent a DSLR and take it on a typical trip, and make sure you enjoy carrying it around and using it.

These other questions might also be interesting for you to read:

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Great Answer. I actually bought D5100 and am on my second day. So far I loved the pics and is pretty much outstanding. I would say there is no comparison with P&S with this camera, NOT AT ALL. Or may be I am still caught by my new camera, but I am an unbiased person. Carrying around is not a problem for me, it is not heavy, what I thought it would be. I'll even take it with me on hiking. The low light is where it beats other by miles but general pictures are crisp and feel of the pics is bombastic. –  photo101 Sep 12 '11 at 13:02
    
@enthusiast that is great to hear! I'm glad it is working out for you. Happy photo-taking! –  drewbenn Sep 12 '11 at 15:22

i know this is an old thread but the points are still valid. my take on it is simple tho. a newbie should be getting a newbie camera and going from there you will only get photos as good as you are able to take, whe you start getting real good then invest in more and better quality lenses when you start feeling your on the verge of being a pro upgrade the camera and the lenses will already be there for that upgrade ( provided you stick with brands ofcourse which u will ofcourse ) isnt this the most logical way.

i have a d3100 myself even now in mid 2013 and i can still take photos as good as a newbie with a d7000 im sure of it. a newbie will produce the same pics with a high quality body costing thousands as he/she will with a d3100 this is why they are considered a begginer. i have used higher quality kit for sure and i will be honest i do notice the difference but am i good enough to invest in buying a canon 5d? i dont think so it wasted on me im better off buying some lovely glass for my future investment when i get pro level good. just my take on it.

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