No matter which stage you are into the world of DSLR photography, often the big question comes. Which camera do you buy to start or progress your photography journey and get those creative juices flowing?
In this article, I will compare three widely popular Nikon cameras (the Nikon D750 24 MP FX body – $1499, Nikon D7100 24 MP DX body – $724, and the Nikon D5100 16 MP DX body – $189) of different capability levels and price points. It will give you practical insight into their image quality by using them in real-world shooting scenarios (landscape/social events/sports) that you may want to cover in your photography.
According to statistics from explorecams.com, these three cameras (as of 11 September 2017) rank in Nikon photo-count: D7100 first, D750 second, D5100 sixth. So indeed these are cameras trusted and used by Nikon shooters the world over.
This article is not a photography theory, camera specs, best settings, lenses, or camera technical reviews. There are excellent web resources for that and I do fully encourage you to check these out, both here on dPS and other sites. This comparison will give you real-life examples to see which camera may suit your needs, expectations, and wallet better.
All scenarios will have the following structure:
- A description of the scene
- Gear and settings used to ensure comparability
- The output photographs
Most probably you will find yourself at some point outside, camera at hand, wanting to capture the beauty that you see around you. In southern Greece, the picturesque village of Planiteros, with its flowing streams and huge sycamore trees, is the perfect setting for our first scenario.
Gear and Settings
Reasonable companions to this type of photography are a wide angle lens, a tripod, and a remote. The Tokina 12-28 f/4 lens, the Sirui T-025X carbon fiber tripod and the Nikon ML-L3 remote were used. Using the Tokina, which is compatible with both full frame or FX (D750) and crop sensor or DX cameras (D7100 / D5100) allowed photographs of very similar focal lengths to be taken for comparison.
Aiming to give a slightly softer flow rendition of the stream, while maintaining ample depth of field, a longer exposure time and a narrower aperture were desirable. For all three cameras, sensible vibration reducing technique was applied for this type of shooting vision. Mounting the camera on a tripod, using a remote to trigger the shutter, and activating mirror lockup (available on D750 and D7100) or exposure delay (on the D5100, as mirror lockup is not available) are solid steps to getting a good quality landscape photo.
Aperture Priority mode (set at f/8), Matrix Metering, Auto WB, single autofocus mode (AF-S), single point focus, autofocusing on the same point using live view and using the base ISO for each camera (100 for the D750 and D7100, and ISO 200 for the D5100), were the settings applied to extract the best possible quality files from each sensor. Raw files were processed in Lightroom (LR) to produce similar JPGs.
The Landscape Photographs
Look at the photographs below and try to guess which camera produced which picture. The answer comes right after the photographs.
Answer: 1) D750 (top), 2) D5100 (middle), 3) D7100 (bottom).
If you could not find an edge between one photo over another that makes two of us. I would be glad to hang 12×16″ print from any of them on my wall. Proper technique in this scenario is more important than the camera used and it creates a level playing field for all sensors.
Social Events Scenario
Gatherings with friends and family are occasions where you want to grab a candid moment or the ambiance shot that will serve as a memento for many years. Good friends Nikos and Athina were kind enough to invite me and my wife over to their place for a glass of wine. This was the perfect occasion to compare the three cameras in a usual social setting.
Gear and Settings
Contrary to the landscape scenario’s contemplative and slower pace of shooting, social gatherings usually lend themselves more to a handheld, run and gun shooting style. So no particular gear other than the Tokina 12-28 f/4 lens was used here. While this is not a usual focal length for shooting indoors with people, when used from a sensible distance and towards the wider end it can serve the comparison between the three cameras.
Aperture Priority mode (at f/4), Matrix Metering, Auto WB, single autofocus mode (AF-S), single point focus, focusing through the viewfinder and using Auto ISO with no High ISO Noise Reduction applied, were the settings used to extract the best possible quality files from each camera.
Using Auto ISO has to do with my individual shooting style. In this scenario, it is actually the same as using ISO 1600 for D5100 and D7100 and ISO 3200 for D750. These are, in my experience, the highest ISO levels that each camera can handle (especially for straight out of camera JPGs) before noise becomes too obtrusive.
Both the out of camera JPGs and those made following similar processing of raw files in Lightroom are provided in the next section.
The Social Event Photographs
Let’s start with the camera JPGs. Which camera produced which photo will come right after both sets of pictures (camera JPGs and LR processed JPGs).
And here are the LR processed counterparts in the same order.
Answer: 1) D7100 (top), 2) D750 (middle), 3) D5100 (bottom).
Summary Social Events
Again, as in the landscape scenario, you would be hard-pressed to find a winner here. Less than perfect focusing (front or back focus) or camera shake (due to a slow shutter speed) have a lot more impact than the camera model in such shooting environments (e.g. the domestic indoor lighting here).
Photographing movements, be it your loved ones playing in the backyard or shooting any sport, can generate highly dynamic, catchy, and memorable photographs. Usually, I play football with my friends once a week. For the sake of this article, I put my football gear aside and grabbed my photo kit to shoot the sports scenario.
Gear and Settings
Depending on the sport and the venue, different lenses can be employed in your gear arsenal. The consensus seems to be that a telephoto zoom is an invaluable piece of kit for sports in general. A Tamron 70-300 f/4-5.6 lens was used for this test, as it is compatible with both FX and DX cameras. A Sirui P-224SR Carbon Fiber Monopod and a Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Tripod Head were used to create the support platform.
Hand holding a DSLR camera with a lens attached is achievable for periods of time. However, when shooting sports, perhaps for hours, and consistently following the action as it unfolds requires more support. This monopod and head combination is working very well for me.
Usually, sports photography lends its self to shutter priority mode. Select at least a 1/500th of a second. Then take it up from there to freeze action as needed (unless panning is used, where perhaps even 1/60th or slower may be sufficient).
Unfortunately, in the available light conditions of this scenario, not even 1/20th was attainable with any of the three camera-lens combinations, while using reasonable ISOs as discussed before. To somewhat combat this, a minimum of ISO 3200 was used for all cameras. This pushed the limits of acceptable noise, but bought a few more precious tenths of seconds of speed.
With this important point in mind, Aperture Priority mode (varying between f/4 and f/5.6 across the zoom range), Matrix Metering, Auto WB, continuous autofocus mode (AF-C), Dynamic-area AF mode (d9 for comparability), autofocusing through the viewfinder and no High ISO Noise Reduction, were the settings used to extract the best possible quality files from each camera.
Both out of camera JPGs and JPGs following similar processing of raw files in Lightroom are shared in the next section.
Finally, to showcase how high ISO performance has evolved over the years, I will include a bonus JPG with Hi-2 (ISO 51,200) straight out of camera from the D750 (only cropped and lens profiled in Lightroom).
First up the camera JPGs, then the LR processed ones. Which is which is shown at the end after both sets:
And here are the LR processed counterparts in the same order.
Answer: 1) D7100 (top), 2) D5100 (middle), 3) D750 (bottom).
The bonus ISO 51,200 file from the D750.
Shooting sports is indeed a completely different animal. Gear that will get perfectly adequate photos in normal situations (e.g. nature and social situations as above) simply will not be enough for sports. It is not an accident that you see big glass and pro bodies used in sporting venues the world over.
Having said that, it is possible with any of the three cameras discussed here to get some usable shots by capturing the peak of the athletes’ movement. My learning is also that increasing ISO even well above 3200 may be sensible for all these cameras. The higher shutter speed benefit offsets the increased noise.
The key differentiator between the three Nikon cameras is not the quality of the keeper photos. It is the vast superiority of the D750’s autofocus system, frame rate and ISO performance that will allow you to create a lot more keepers, long after the other two bodies have given up trying.
Conclusion and proposals
You went through a lot of info here. Now it is time to make some sense of it. I will hopefully help by offering my insights following this Nikon camera comparison and my few years of trying to decipher photography principles and gear choices.
Newest and biggest isn’t always necessary
The latest most expensive camera, with more Megapixels, is neither necessary nor is it a guarantor of getting good photographs. The 4/2011 launched DX D5100 coupled with a suitable (i.e. with built-in focus motor) lens, can create the same quality photographs in many situations as its more capable 2/2013 launched DX D7100 or the 9/2014 launched (and much more expensive) FX D750 siblings.
Solid shooting technique and basic gear (e.g. a tripod) is essential no matter which camera body is used.
In some cases, bigger is better
Higher spec bodies do offer tangible shooting benefits other than image quality. This was apparent in the sports scenario. Be it superior focus performance, internal focus motor, larger viewfinder, commander flash capability, AF fine tune, physical buttons for more functions at hand, prosumer (D7100) or semipro (D750) bodies can help you get your photography to that next level of refinement.
Consider carefully your lens purchases. Ensure the best possible compatibility in case you ever decide to move from DX to FX. A few clever purchases can give you great value-for-money FX and DX compatible lenses (hint: Tokina).
However, do rent or try out gear from friends before you commit. I cannot overstate the real-life ease-of-use factor versus any specs’ sheet excellence.
So here are my proposals to you depending on your stage in the photo journey
Just starting out. Don’t feel pressured to get an expensive high-spec body. A sensible approach may very well be to grab a dirt cheap used D5100 and an 18-200mm inexpensive used lens. See if DSLR photography suits you and your lifestyle and take it from there. Give it time and do not splash out immediately on many different lenses. Plus the D5100 can also act as a great video camera thanks to its rotating screen.
The bug has bitten you. It takes an honest discussion with yourself to see if you really need all the bells and whistles of that new body versus an early D5xxx or a D7000 model. If the answer is yes, then my proposal is to hang in there. Skip the D7100 and save the cash to spring for the D750 (new or used), unless the more recent D7xxx series have similar autofocus and ISO performance for a lower price.
You are ready to make money from your photography and turn semi-pro or even full-time pro. Congratulations! By now you have probably outgrown even the D750 for the sake of other pro FX and DX bodies. There’s not much I can offer in terms of advice here, other than a D750 can always be a light backup body, great for both stills and video.
Thank you for the time reading this article and see where your photography passion takes you next!
Do you have and use any of these Nikon cameras? What types of photograph do you shoot? Please share your experience in the comments below.