Nikon D5100 vs Sony A35 Camera Comparison

September 26, 2011

two beginners dslr cameras
Two of my favorite cameras for beginner photographers are the Nikon D5100 and Sony SLT-A35.  Both DSLR cameras are about the same price range and aimed towards the same market segment of serious photographers. Both the Nikon D5100 and the Sony A35 have gotten very positive ratings from various leading camera review’s websites.  The Nikon D5100 replaced the D5000 and the Sony A35 is the replacement for the A33. Those two entry-level DSLR cameras are among the top  in their category. In this article I want to compare those two beginner’s DSLR cameras one versus the other, and help you decide which one to buy. Like in other reviews, I will talk about each camera individually, compare them side by side and talk about the differences. I hope that after reading this review, you’ll be able to finally decide which camera you should buy this year. Let’s start!

Affordable DSLR Cameras for Beginners

I remember when I bought mu Nikon D3100. I was reading a lot of reviews and user opinions before I bought it. At that time, the Nikon D5100 didn’t exist, neither the Sony A35.  Nikon D3100 represents Nikon’s most basic DSLR camera, and for the more advanced photographer, it sometimes isn’t enough. For example, I wanted to shoot videos with an external mic, have AE Bracketing, etc. I didn’t have it with the D3100, just because it is the most basic model. Of course those things are after-thoughts and I didn’t realize that I need those features just a month after I’ve got the camera.

In fact, this is what those upper entry-level DSLRs are all about, giving you that extra, for those photographers who demand a bit more. In fact, that what makes those cameras so popular among both beginners and enthusiasts alike. For the enthusiast photographer, the Nikon D5100 and Sony A35 are both affordable and packed with all the needed features. Stepping up to a more advanced camera means spend relatively much more. Enthusiast photographers have learned to appreciate the importance of lens quality, and they are ready to shell quite a lot of bucks to get a good glass, instead of a cheap one. So buying an upper-level DSLR instead of a mid-range one, certainly adds up to the computation of the expenses, taking into consideration the high-quality glass that they intend to purchase.

For the beginner photographer, both the Nikon D5100 and Sony A35 are among the top choices. Beginners learn to understand that its worth paying a few bucks more to get a more advanced camera, and one that will stay with you for at least two years (maybe more).  The reason I bought the Nikon D3100 is that it just was a better camera compared to the D5000 in my opinion and for my needs. If I had to choose between the D5100 and the D3100, I would probably spend a bit more and get the D5100 for the reasons I’ve stated above.

So there we are. We have two of the most interesting and popular upper entry-level DSLRs. The question is which one should you buy? – I will leave my appreciation for my Nikon gear aside. After all, it’s not me buying the camera, it’s you. Although I can give you some general tips when it comes to buying a new DSLR camera and from my own experience as an enthusiast photographer. OK, let’s begin..


Nikon D5100

The Nikon D5100 is among the most popular DSLR cameras from Nikon. The fact that it utilizes the same sensor as the Nikon D7000 say something about this digital camera and who is it for. It targeted for a market segment of photographers who don’t want to pay the price of the D7000 or couldn’t afford it, and they want a very good camera that will serve them for a long time. This is what the Nikon D5100 is all about, as it’s a great blend of price and performance.

Nikon D5100 camera

The Nikon D5100 was announced earlier this year in April 26 2011. It packs a 16.2-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, EXPEED 2 image processor, a high-resolution 921K-dot full articulated LCD screen, 1080p video recording (3.5mm jack for external mic) and 4 fps burst speed. So just in comparison, the D3100 features a 14.2-megapixel sensor, EXPEED C2 image processor, a fixed 3-inch 230K-dots LCD, 1080p movies (without 3.5mm jack for external mic) and 3fps continuous drive. So doing a flat comparison, you can see that the D5100 is certainly a more equipped camera. The D5100 have AE bracketing and the D3100 doesn’t (shooting HDR maybe?).

Anyway, the D5100 inherits many of the D7000 goodies (sensor, image processor, high-res LCD, etc.) and all in a compact and more affordable body. The fact that Nikon has decided to use a fully articulated display on the D5100 and not on the D7000 say something about the market segment that these cameras is aimed for.

The D5100 is a high-performance entry-level camera, that boast high image quality, fast performance, inherits the D7000 sensor and comes with 1080p and fully articulated screen. Without getting into specific details, the D5100 in fact has the most-wanted features that many enthusiast photographers wished for in a digital camera. It’s really a great combination of the most-wanted features for many of us.


Sony A35

The Sony SLT-A35 (α35) is Sony’s entry-level SLT camera. It was announced in June 8 2011, and it replaced the A33 model that was announced back in August 24, 2010. SLT cameras are different from DSLR cameras in a way ways but a have many things in common. SLT cameras utilizes what’s called a ‘Translucent Mirror technology’. In SLT cameras, you’ll find a mirror like in DSLR cameras, but the mirror doesn’t articulate when you press the shutter button. In DSLR cameras, the mirror has to collapse in order for the light to reach the sensor. In SLT cameras like the A35, the mirror transmit 30% of the light towards the AF sensor (at the top of the camera) and 70% to the CMOS sensor at the back of the camera.

Sony A35 camera

There are few big advantages of this technology, the most important ones are very fast AF during movie recording and continuous shooting. Second, the camera offers a relatively very fast burst speed compared to what you get on an equivalent priced DSLR camera. This technology has two main disadvantages: No optical viewfinder, so the camera utilizes an electronic viewfinder instead (might not be a disadvantage, depends on how you look at it), and the fact that up to half a stop of light is lost and doesn’t get to the sensor.

Some people will agree that the pros outweigh the cons and other people might think otherwise. The fact is that it all depends on your type of shooting habits and special needs. I’ve read a few of user opinions, comments and negative and positive posts about the A35. However, at the end of the day, many people find the A35 a very compelling camera due to its advanced technology and not the other way around.

The A35 improved on some other features as well. You can shoot 29-minute videos compared to the 9 minutes on the A55 (due to heating). You can shoot at burst speed up to 7 fps, enjoy a full-time live view with phase-detection AF, shoot 1080i60 full HD videos, 3-inch 921,600 pixel LCD and enjoy a built-in sensor-shift image stabilization.

The SteadyShot INSIDE™ is Sony’s in-camera image stabilization. An image stabilization mechanism is used to reduce blurring in images caused by camera shake when shooting handheld. That means that SteadyShot will work with any lens that you attach to the α35. This is why A-mount lenses don’t need a lens-shift image stabilization. This can reduce the price of the lens and make the lens lighter.

Side by side Comparison

question mark in red circle with magnifying glassSo there you have it. Two excellent entry-level digital SLR cameras which are both affordable and combines the bucket load of technology innovation and useful features. Making a decision which camera to buy is not easy. Every camera has its cons and pros. I usually get a better understanding about the advantages and disadvantages when I look at a side by side comparison table. In this section will compare the Sony Alpha SLT-A35 versus Nikon D5100.  Go over the specifications and try to spot some features that you see yourself using.  Making a smart camera buying decision is based on how you understand the specs and how they can reflect on your shooting habits. Even if you are not an experience photographer, you can find some features that are matters most and some that you can leave without.

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As you can see, there are some similarities between those two cameras, but in fact, they are both quite different.

Sony A35 Advantages

  1. In camera image stabilization (D5100 doesn’t offer this feature)
  2. More AF points (D5100 has 11 points, A35 has 15)
  3. Faster continuous shooting speed rate (5.5 vs 4 fps)
  4. EVF with 100% coverage and 1.1x magnification (D5100 optical viewfinder 95% coverage, 0.78x magnification)
  5. In-camera Panorama stitching
  6. Can shoot 3D photos
  7. Phase detection video autofocus

Nikon D5100 Advantages

  1. Fully articulating LCD screen
  2. Optical viewfinder (vs EVF on the A35 – if you see this as an advantage)
  3. Longer battery life (660 vs 440)
  4. More lenses available
  5. Can shoot 24p

Which one has Better Image Quality?

magnifying glass on imageEven if you are locked on an entry-level camera, some cameras perform better than the others, and I’m talking about performance in high-ISO. If you find yourself shooting many photos in low light and without a flash, you certainly want to check out the low-light performance of each camera. A better camera in this terms means lower noise and the ability to maintain contrast and color accuracy across the ISO scale. We are living in days that the sensor technology has become very advanced and the performance of all entry-level cameras are very good.  So it depends how critical the low-light performance is do your type of photography habits.
In order to see how the A35 compared to D5100 in terms low-light performance, I’ve went to dpreview to check things out. Here are my observation results:

  • ISO 800/1600 – Both the A35 and D5100 perform equally well, but the A35 a slight advantage with a bit more cleaner image and better sharpness
  • ISO3200/6400 – split decision. The A35 certainly applies stronger NR and we can see that fine details are no longer tack sharp. The D5100 on the other hand has done a great job maintaining fine details

I think that the difference is not big at all, but we can see that each camera approaches NR differently. The Sony Alpha SLT-A35 utilize stronger NR in ISO3200 and above, while the Nikon D5100 is more preservative.

So in terms of image quality, I can say that its a tie. I wouldn’t give one camera the credit of having a better image over the other, although some people might like how the D5100 combats noise, others will prefer the Sony’s.

D5100 and A35 Video Samples

I usually don’t analyze the video quality because I really don’t see a huge difference between with cameras in the same category. I’ve heard many people saying that Canon has the best video quality among DSLR cameras. It might be true, but maybe I need a new number for my glasses. Anyways, here are two videos, one shot with the Sony alpha SLT-A35 and the other one with the Nikon D5100.  I think that both videos represents the qualtiy that you can expect when shooting videos with those cameras.

Sony A35 video sample

Nikon D5100 video sample (with background music)


Which one Should you Buy – D5100 or A35?

Both of those two beginners DSLR cameras has their cons and pros and I think both are excellent entry-level cameras. Although I didn’t give it enough stage in this review, I think that the continuous AF in much better on the A35 than the D5100, due to the translucent mirror technology. It’s not just against the D5100, but any DSLR camera that is not SLT. So for a relatively low price you can enjoy this technology with the A35, which is very useful for both stills and videos.

Another thing to consider is the lens availability. Some countries don’t have a large collection of A-mount lenses and that can limit you as a photographer. You can import it, but that quite a mass considering the warranty and extra price that you pay for importing them. So if you are after the A35, just make sure that you have some lenses available in local stores, or whether you can order them online in your country.

I truly think that the A35 is a remarkable camera and provides one of the best value for your money. On the other hand, the Nikon D5100 is very attractive for enthusiast that want to jump deeper into photography, due to the lens availability and upgrade options.

If you are a hobbyist photographer, the A35 certainly has some added value due to the very fast AF, in-camera image stabilization but doesn’t come with a var-angle screen for those who want it.  It’s also important to consider the available accessories for each camera if you intend to do some stock photography or use the camera in a more professional way.

All in all, two excellent entry-level cameras that can really help you jump right in into learning photography and capture beautiful pictures with minimum effort. I recommend going over the spec again and make sure that you understand what each camera offer. You can’t go wrong choosing either, and both are among the best entry-level SLR cameras right now.

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