Nikon D7000 vs D5100 vs D90 Comparison

June 19, 2011

Nikon D7000, D90, D5100 cameras side by side

When the Nikon D90 announced back in the 4Q of 2008, photographers were very excited. It seems that the Nikon D90 was the camera that many enthusiast photographers have been waiting for.  It replaced the D80 that was a classic camera on its own. Even so, the D90 signifies a big step forwards and an important milestone in terms of technology achievements for Nikon.  It’s no wonder that after the big success of the D90, many people had high expectations for the D7000 replacement. When Nikon introduced the D7000 on September 15 2010, we had no doubt that Nikon has done it again.

Just by examining the D7000 sample images in low light we could see how the D7000 improved upon the D90.  The D7000 also improved upon the video functionality. The D80 didn’t support video recording. The D90 has support for 720p, but the D7000 now have 1080p Full HD video recording. In this article, I want to compare the Nikon D7000 vs D90 vs D5100 and try to answer one of the most popular questions these days: “Should I buy the D7000, D5100 or the D90?”.  Many people want to get an answer for this question, those who want to upgrade from the D90 and those who want to purchase a new dSLR camera. I hope that after you finish reading this article you will be able to decide which camera is right for you.

The Nikon D7000 is a camera that stands in between Nikon’s entry-level cameras and the semi-pro level cameras. It’s a mid-range dSLR that stands closer to the Nikon’s upper level cameras than those at the bottom. Above it, you can find the D300s and below it, you can find the current D90 model and the latest D5100 camera. For enthusiast photographers the selection is quite large. You have the option to choose between three excellent cameras.

Build Quality

In terms of design and build quality, the D7000 feels great in the hand. It has a partial magnesium alloy body. This gives the camera a good professional feel and at the same time makes the camera more durable. The D7000 built quality is as good if not better than the D90. The D5100 body chassis is made of plastic. Some people think that it might feel like a toy camera, but I can reassure you that it’s not. I have the Nikon D3100, and it’s build quality is very good. Yes, It’s plasticy, but it doesn’t feel like a tool toy at all. In fact, it’s very well-made The Nikon D700 is both weather and dust resistant, while the other two cameras are not.

I certainly can say that if you intend to shoot pictures in bad weather conditions or harsh environments, for this justification alone you should consider buying the D7000.  Of course don’t forget the lens should be weather sealed too. Without it, only the body will be protected and the lens won’t. So overall the build quality of the D7000 is better than the other two cameras.

D90 – Metal reinforced polycarbonate cover
D7000 – Partially magnesium alloy with enhanced weather seals and environmental protection
D5100 – polycarbonate cover

Size and Weight

The size and weight of a dSLR play a crucial role for some photographers. Some people might be intimidated from buying a large and heavy SLR camera, while others will prefer a more bulky and heavy camera. There are a few reasons why you should consider a heavier and larger camera. First, a bigger camera can fits perfectly for large hands. I have large hands and I’ve found that the D3100 is too small for me. I don’t have a good grip on the camera.

Better ergonomics means that you will be more comfortable holding the camera for a long period of time. A heavier camera can help stabilize long and heavy telephoto-zoom lenses. This will make it easier to stabilize the lens and minimize camera shake.

Sometimes it’s just about how well the camera feels in your hand. There are consumers who don’t care about lens stabilization or worry too much about ergonomics. They go to the photo store, hold the camera in their hands and see if it feels good in the hand. My father is an enthusiast photographer. He has chosen to pick up the Nikon D70 over the Canon 350D because it just felt better holding it.

Note that I have something against Canon entry-level cameras, but Nikon makes some of the best quality camera bodies out there. As I told you before, even my Nikon D3100 (entry-level) feels like a little pro.

The D5100 is the smallest camera of the three but not that much.  The D5100 is significantly lighter (220 grams less) than the D7000 and the D90 (143 grams less). If you want the lightest and smallest camera of the three, the D5100 is the one to look at. I can tell you that I personally held all three cameras in the store. They are all pretty compact if you compare them toe the D300s or the D700. Even so, for those of you who come from Point-and-shoot compact cameras, they will look and feel pretty big, but you will get used to it in no time.

The D5100 is an upper entry-level camera. That’s why it was designed to be more compact in the first place – to attract new photographers coming from P&S cameras. A large and heavy camera doesn’t have to be a bad thing as you can see. It depends on your type of shooting habits, hands size, available lenses, etc.

D90 -  132 x 103 x 77 mm (5.2 x 4.06 x 3.03″) /703 g (1.55 lb / 24.80 oz)
D7000 – 132 x 105 x 77 mm (5.2 x 4.13 x 3.03″) / 780 g (1.72 lb / 27.51 oz)
D5100 – 128 x 97 x 79 mm (5.04 x 3.82 x 3.11″) / 560 g (1.23 lb / 19.75 oz)

*weight including batteries

LCD Screen

Let’s keep it short. The Nikon D5100 has a fully articulated 3-inch LCD with 921K-dots vs a Fixed 3-inch screen 920K/921K-dots on the D90 and the D7000 respectively.  Don’t mind the small advantage of 1000K-dots that the D7000 and the D5100 has over the D90. An articulated (swivel/tilt) screen is one of them most wanted features in digital SLR cameras nowadays. This is especially true for the enthusiast crowd and videographers. Thisfeature was implemented in order to attract P&S shooters that are making their first steps into dSLR photography. Furthermore, it is very useful for shooting videos. In this category, the D5100 wins hands-down.

Nikon D5100 articulated screen image

Nikon D5100 articulated screen (Image credit: Nikon)

D90 – 3-inch 920K-dots / Fixed
D7000 – 3-inch 921K-dots / Fixed
D5100 – 3-inch 921K-dots / Fully Articulated

Sensor

The sensor is the light sensitive component that receives the light and converts it to analog or digital signals. The D3100 was the first Nikon dSLR to utilize a Nikon brand CMOS sensor, Before that, Sony was the sensor provider for Nikon. The D90 has a Sony sensor, while the D5100 and the D7000 have a Nikon brand sensor. To keep things short, the D90 sensor is an excellent one and provides a big step over previous models. However, the D5100 and the D7100 sensor are a step above it in low light performance.

Both the D5100 and the D7000 have the same 16.2 megapixels (effective) 23×15.7mm sensor, while the D90 has a 12.3 megapixels (effective) 23.6×15.8mm sensor.  The difference in terms of resolution the D5100 and the D7000 have more pixels, 640 pixels in width and 416 pixels in height. That’s not a huge advantage, but you have more room for cropping, as well as more detailed image. The extra resolution actually increases the pixel density, but as you will soon see, it doesn’t have a negative effect on the high ISO performance of those cameras. In fact, they perform better than the D90.

Overall, a 16MP resolution is a good compromise between pixel density and image quality. As digital camera’s sensors keep improving, the negative effect of having more pixels is minimized. It’s all depends on your type of shooting habits. If you mostly share your photos on the web and make small prints, you don’t need anything larger than 12.3MP. For those of you who make large prints and want to have more room for cropping, the D7000 and the D5100 easily provide the goods.

In terms of ISO sensitivity range, both the D700 and the D5100 sensors provide a better range of light sensitivity and a basic ISO 100 option. You can even stress the sensitivity of the sensor up to ISO25600 (for urgent occasions only. Image quality suffers from a large amount of noise).

D90 – 12.3MP / 23.6 x 15.8 mm / ISO 200-3200
D7000 – 16.2MP / 23.6 x 15.7 mm / ISO 100-6400 native (12800 and 25600 with boost)
D5100 – 16.2MP / 23.6 x 15.7 mm / ISO 100-6400 native (12800 and 25600 with boost)

AF Module and Continuous Shooting

The Auto focus sensor is a very important part of any digital SLR camera. I can even say that it’s crucial when you want to shoot fast moving subjects, like in sports photography.  Sports photographers will look deeply into to main areas in the spec sheet: AF Module and the Continuous shooting burst rate. The Nikon D90 and D5100 utilize a Multi-CAM 1000 AF Module with TTL phase detection, 11 focus points (including one cross-type sensor). The D7000, on the other hand, features the more advanced and accurate Multi-CAM 4800 with 29 focus points (9 cross-type sensors).

Theoretically, it should give the Nikon D7000 an advantage when shooting fast moving subjects as it can detect those subjects across the edge of the frame two.  I am not a sports photographer, but I’ve heard some photographers suggesting the difference is not as huge as people think it is. Having said that, enthusiast sports photographers will prefer the D7000 AF over the one found on the other two dSLR cameras.

Another important thing to note is that the D5100 doesn’t have in-camera AF motor because it belongs to Nikon’s entry level camera lineup (including D40, D40x, D60, D3000, D3100, D5000). That means that when you use older Nikkor lenses without a built-in AF motor, the camera won’t auto focus. You will need to use manual focus instead. Should that bother you? – It might. If you currently have older Nikkor lenses that you want to use with your new dSLR camera, you won’t be able to AF with them.  Having said that, if you don’t currently have old Nikkor lenses, I wouldn’t worry about that at all. This is especially true if you are just starting out with SLR photography. There are excellent DX and FX lenses that can serve you well for any type of photography subject.

As I mentioned earlier, the second most important thing for sports photography is the continuous shooting mode.  The faster the FPS the better. Furthermore, you should also take a look at the maximum shutter speed. Faster shutter speed helps stopping the action and prevent blur. The Nikon D7000 is the best of the bunch with 6 frames-per-second continuous shooting. The D90 is second with 4.5 fps and D5100 is third with 4 fps.  in addition, D7000 has a maximum shutter speed of 1/8000 s vs 1/4000 s in the other two cameras. All in all, the D7000 is the best digital SLR camera for sports photography (ie. surfing, racing cars, martial arts, football, basketball, etc.).

Burst rate and max. shutter speed:

D90 – 4.5 fps, 1/4000 sec
D7000 – 6 fps, 1/8000 sec
D5100 – 4 fps, 1/4000 sec

Video Recording

Movie clip recording became an integral part of today’s latest digital SLR cameras. Being able to shoot HD videos open a whole new world for dSLR photographers. Some are so excited with it that they start exploring all its possibilities and even use it professionally. The Nikon D90 only had 720p and the video quality wasn’t that impressive at all. In that time, Canon had a tremendous edge over Nikon, but those days are long gone. Both the Nikon D5100 and D7000 now features 1080p (progressive) Full HD video recording.

There is a difference between those two cameras. The D5100 supports 1080p @ 30,25,24 fps, the D7000 only 1080p @ 24 fps.  The video is recorded in MPEG4 and in Mono sound using the internal mic. Both cameras have a 3.5mm stereo microphone input jack where you can connect an external stereo microphone. This improves the sound’s quality of your videos by a large margin.  For videos, it’s a no brainer, both the D7000 and D5100 have the edge in both image quality, resolution and sound quality.

Let’s take a look at a video sample shot with the Nikon D5100 in daylight:

Gorgeous video quality, just utterly amazing!
The image quality on the D7000 is as good as on the D5100

Maximum video resolution and frame-rate:

D90 – 720p @ 24 fps
D7000 – 1080p  @ 24 fps
D5100 – 1080p @ 30, 35, 24 fps

Battery Life

Having long battery life means that we can take more photos and videos on a single charge. Although you can carry a second battery or attach a camera grip, still, many people will find themselves buying a vertical grip later and not in the first purchase. Note that only the D7000 and the D90 have an official vertical battery grip. The D5100 only has a 3rd party one.  The D7000 has the longest battery life with 1050 shots, D90 second with 850 shots and D5100 thirds with 660 shots on a single battery charge.  Considering that the D7000 is a mid-range DSLR that many sports photographers will purchase, a good battery life is very important. There isn’t anything extraordinary to talk about here, the numbers speak for themselves.

Battery life (CIPA):

D90 – 850 shots
D7000 -  1050 shots
D5100 – 660 shots

Image Quality (High ISO)

Probably the most interesting subject to talk about when we compare the D90 vs D7000 vs D5100.  Because I don’t have a lab to test those cameras, I went to my favorite site, dpreview, in order to see how those three cameras compare. Coming back from the image comparison application on dpreview, here is my observation opinion.  Without being too dramatic here, the image quality in high ISO is better on the D7000 and D5100 than on the D90, by quite a lot.

There isn’t any difference between the D7000 and the D5100 in high ISO OK, maybe the D7000 has a slight edge, but nothing that makes me recommend the D7000 over the D5100. I just want to add that the D7000 and the D5100 performed much better than the Canon 60D in ISO 3200 and above. Not that many of you will shoot at that high ISO setting, still, it’s nice to see that Nikon has done a great job with the new sensor and imaging processor. Well done!

D90 – Very Good Result
D7000 – Excellent Result
D5100 – Excellent Result

Conclusion

I’m sure that you already went through all the specs of those excellent cameras. If you need the final push for making a buying decision, let me help you out a bit.  Although the Nikon D90 sells for under $650, I would definitely add $200 and get the D5100 instead of the D90. The image quality of both stills and video has been improved, especially in high ISO. I would go with the D7000 instead of the D5100 if I care about the following: better build quality, more AF points, fast continuous shooting,  a 100% viewfinder coverage, bracketing (important for HDR photography) and the optional official Nikon grip.

Other than that, the Nikon D5100 is an amazing camera. Had Nikon announced that camera a month earlier, I would certainly get it instead of my Nikon D3100.  The problem that people have is whether they should spend more on lenses and save money on the body. If you can afford yourself buying good lenses and one of the D5100 or the D7000, grab them over the D90. The D90 is a very good camera, a classic one from Nikon, but it’s time to move on. Moreover, don’t forget the articulated LCD screen that only exists on the D5100. My Recommendation: I think although the D90 costs less than the D5100, the D5100 provides a better value for the money, it’s just a better camera (especially when it comes to video).


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Major Zahid June 15, 2012 at 1:52 am

I am planning to buy a dslr . So , reading comparisons in various sites . Than kyou very much for sharing your personal experiences and comments . It is obvious that people may have differences in opinion , but I believe your comparison will enrich our knowledge ( al least extremely novices like me ) . Thank you once again . I have planned to buy D5100 .

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