Sony Alpha NEX-5 Review

 

‘Mirrorless’ or ‘Compact System’ cameras are an emerging market segment, popularised by the Micro-Four Thirds systems such as the Olympus Pen. The thinking goes like this: if you remove the optical viewfinder from an SLR, you don’t need the prism or mirror box and the resulting camera will combine the slim body of a compact with the image quality and flexibility of an DSLR. The NEX-3 and NEX-5 are Sony’s initial foray into this market segment and are based on an entirely new lens mount: The E-mount. Both cameras are very similar and most of this review applies equally to the NEX-3. The main differences are in build quality (the NEX-3 has a plastic body), size (the NEX-3 has a smaller grip) and video resolution (the NEX-3 only shoots 720p).

Features

I think of the NEX-5 as my photographic Swiss Army knife: a small package with lots of tools, which will tackle 90% of the tasks you throw at it. Here are some aspects of the NEX which I’ve found the most useful or interesting over the past few weeks:

Size and Handling

There is no escaping the diminutive nature of the NEX-5. The actual body is smaller than many compact cameras and with the 16mm f/2.8 ‘pancake’ lens attached it is the smallest APS-C camera in the world. Although other lenses will significantly increase this size, I still find the NEX-5 + 18-55mm lens to be pocket-able in a jacket. With such a small body you might think that ergonomics are a problem but I find that the NEX sits comfortably in the right hand with my thumb ideally positioned near the power switch and buttons and index finger on the shutter (as a 6ft male with big hands who has modified the grip of his Sony a200, I’d be the first to complain about ergonomics!). Also, a large SLR-like grip isn’t required because the body itself only weighs 300g (with battery). Unlike compact cameras, you are required to use your left hand to operate the zoom but this creates a natural and stable two-handed grip.

Sensor and Processing

The heart of any camera is the imaging sensor and the NEX-5 doesn’t disappoint: Sony has fitted them with its latest Exmor APS HD CMOS 14.2 megapixel sensor. As you’d expect from an DSLR, you can shoot in JPEG, RAW or RAW+JPEG modes. But it isn’t the technical specs of the sensor which are the most interesting, it’s the size. Most compact cameras have tiny sensors which makes it very difficult to achieve the shallow depth-of-field which helps to differentiate subject and background. Since the NEX uses the same size sensor as most DSLRs, you have full creative control over the depth-of-field from blurred backgrounds in portraits to sharp landscapes. The larger sensor also gives better ISO performance and dynamic range.

Shallow depth-of-field produced by the larger APS-C size sensor
Or of course you can use a smaller aperture to keep both the foreground and background in focus

The NEX uses an autofocus system called ‘contrast detection’. It seems faster than a compact camera but doesn’t quite have the response of the ‘phase-detection’ systems found in DSLRs. On the plus side: the NEX has face recognition, Sony’s ‘smile shutter’ (which automatically takes a picture when the subject is smiling) and a free-form spot-focusing mode. When in manual focus mode, the NEX will also display a useful 7x or 14x live preview so you can fine tune your focusing — perfect for landscapes or macros.

Screen

Without an optical viewfinder the NEX relies on a live-view system so all composition is done using the large LCD screen, which is large, crisp, bright, and vibrant even outdoors. The screen tilts out from the top or bottom which enables you to easily get down to a low-viewpoint or shoot over the heads of a crowd. I’ve found the liveview to be very useful for composition and focusing when shooting at night or in infrared, when it would have have otherwise been very difficult. My main complaint about the screen is that it attracts grease (and holds on to it!), which could have easily been solved if Sony has applied a more suitable coating. I’d recommend investing in a good quality LCD protector to help mitigate against this.

Getting down low...
...or getting a higher viewpoint, are both made easier with the tilting screen

One immediate impact of the liveview control system is that the battery life is drastically reduced when compared to a traditional SLR: I managed 136 images & 5mins of HD video with 50% of the battery. A spare battery is a must-have accessory.

Menus

No review of the Sony NEX-5 would be complete without mentioning the camera’s user interface. The main menu consists of six large icons representing Shooting Modes, Camera, Image, Brightness/Colours, Playback, Settings - which each leads to a scrolling list of options. These menus are navigated using the combined scroll wheel  / directional buttons. Sony has added a few elements to help new users including a pictorial indication of the effects of shutter speed vs aperture, renaming the aperture control in Intelligent Auto mode to ‘Background defocusing’, popup help on the menu options and, perhaps most controversially, a dedicated context-sensitive ‘shooting tips’ button. These tips are actually pretty useful for a novice and are context sensitive so if it detects you’re shooting landscapes, it will just present tips for landscape images.

Personally, I’ve found the user interface to be quite suitable for the camera. The small body couldn’t support the same number of buttons and manual dials as a typical SLR and, although the menu system can be initially confusing, you ultimately grow to understand it. However, there are a few niggles which I’d like to see rectified: the ISO, HDR and AF modes options should be quicker to access; when the shutter is half-depressed the liveview overlay should display the actual ISO to be used; it should be easier to delete all movies, not just those from a particular date; and, yes, I wouldn’t mind associating that “shooting tips” button to something more useful to me. But these are niggles and don’t seriously detract from the utility of the camera.

Image Modes

High Dynamic Range photography is a technique which involves taking several images at different exposures and merging them together so that you can retain detail in shadows and highlights. This is usually done in post-processing using specialist software but the NEX-5 has a built-in HDR mode which automatically takes three images in quick succession and merges them into a single JPEG image. HDR is a divisive issue and many photographer’s hate the overcooked, cartoon-like images which it can produce and instead prefer to use filters to control the exposure. I’m one of those people. However, the HDR images produced by the NEX cameras are actually quite good and I’ve found the HDR function vital when I’ve left my filter set at home. Shooting a HDR image lets me capture details in the bright sky and shadowed foreground, and I can add back some contrast and saturation in Lightroom during post-processing.

The original version: Note the loss of detail in the bright sky and foreground grass
In-camera HDR version: This retains more detail in the highlights and dark foreground and is very useful when you’ve forgotten your ND grad filters!

Another built-in function is the ability to shoot panoramic images. To do this, you simply change to the Panorama mode, hold down the shutter and sweep the camera across the scene. The NEX will take several images and automatically stitch these together for you. This works surprisingly well in many circumstances, and I’ve had particularly good results with landscapes or interior scenes without any subject movement. However, I’ve encountered some stitching artifacts when shooting wide-angle scenes with straight lines (e.g. an athletics track) or where people are moving about.

In-camera panoramas work very well for landscapes
...but wide-angle scenes with straight lines and/or subject movement can suffer from stitching artifacts

The NEX comes with a full compliment of shooting modes including Intelligent Auto, Program, Aperture, Shutter and Manual. The default Intelligent Auto mode functions well in evaluating the scene and setting the controls appropriately. The “Anti-motion Blur” mode is useful for low-light scenes indoors and (similar to the HDR and panorama modes) takes a succession of images and merges them together to reduce noise and blur in dimly-lit scenes. In my testing, this seemed to work well and even coped with some subject movement in the scene. The “Handheld Twilight” mode functions is a similar way for capturing night scenes with a minimum of noise and motion blur.

The ISO1600 files are clean and nicely captured the detail in the stars during this exposure (unfortunately, I didn’t get any Perseid meteors!)
Handheld twilight mode worked well to allow this shot to be taken without a tripod and with well-controlled noise

One advantage of a larger sensor is the increased ISO performance and that definitely shows through with the NEX. In ‘Auto ISO’, the camera will automatically operate from ISO200 - ISO1600 and I am very comfortable with letting the NEX use ISO1600. At this level, the noise is just starting to become visible but it’s very well controlled and even ISO3200 can be cleaned up easily in Lightroom 3. Overall, these modes and ISO performance make the NEX a very useful camera to have without a tripod and it’s perfect for discrete night-time shooting.

‘Speed Priority’ mode is also worth mentioning as it enables continuous shooting at 7fps, although the focus remains locked after the first exposure.

7fps ’Speed Priority’ mode was essential for capturing this Knight galloping past me

HD Movies

Although I’m not much of a filmmaker, I’ve watched my kids growing-up and realised that there are moments which aren’t suited to capture in a static image. The NEX-5 is capable of shooting HD movies at 1080i with stereo sound (and an external mic is available). Of special note are the 18-55mm and 18-200mm lenses which are designed to focus silently to prevent the noise from being recorded by the microphones. In general, I am very impressed with the movies produced and they’re a huge leap in quality compared to those produced by compact cameras. My only concerns are the choppiness and rolling shutter artifacts when filming fast moving subjects although this appears to be a common problem in all video-capable DSLRs.

Lenses

When you buy a NEX you’re also buying into the E-mount lens system, which currently consists of: a 16mm f/2.8 pancake, 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 standard zoom and an 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 super zoom. Of these lenses, the 18-55mm and 18-200mm have in-lens optical stabilisation, while the 16mm lens can be fitted with a wide-angle or fisheye adapter. My personal preference is for the 18-55mm lens as it represents the best balance between size and flexibility. It is a solidly constructed metal lens, quite unusual for a ‘kit lens’ and overall the quality is pretty good - although there’s some noticeable distortion at the wide end.

So is that it for lenses? No, the E-mount has a secret weapon: the small distance between the sensor and lens mount makes it possible to use adapters for other lenses. Naturally, Sony have produced an A-mount adapter (currently manual focus only but hopefully autofocus in the future) -- but the real action can be seen in the third-party adapters for Leica, Nikon, Canon, Minolta MD, M42, micro-4/3s or just about any lens mount you can think of. This makes the NEX cameras a very interesting platform for resurrecting older lenses or experimenting with other systems. There is also Sony’s long-standing relationship with Zeiss which is hoped will bring some impressive lenses to the E-mount.

A small flash is provided in the box and this clips into a proprietary accessory port at the top of the camera. It’s a little fiddly to attach but with the good ISO performance I haven’t needed to use it often. It is unfortunate that Sony didn’t include a method of bouncing or diffusing the flash though.

What is the Sony NEX for?

Who should buy a NEX-5, and more importantly, why?

The small size will be a major advantage for holidaymakers (particularly those travelling around the world) and hikers looking for a camera which packs a huge punch without weighing down the bag. Street photographers will appreciate the size, high ISO performance and range of adapters for other lenses. New parents are often talked into buying an SLR-system but never move beyond the auto modes and kit lens — the NEX is a far better solution that is much easier to use but gives great image quality in a small package, with familiar features from compact cameras such as face recognition. Gardeners will enjoy the shallow depth-of-field possible for flower portraits and the back-saving articulated LCD screen (in fact, this is such a strong use case for the NEX that I expect Sony to bring out a dedicated E-mount macro lens). Estate agents will appreciate the built-in panorama and HDR modes, and the wide-angle adapters available for the 16mm lens. I personally now reach for the NEX before the SLR, usually because it’s with me more often and the image quality will be just as good (if not better).

A poppy with a shallow depth-of-field — ideal for garden photographers
The NEX is handy enough for parents to carry everywhere (this was in a restaurant) and captures some beautiful images

So what isn’t the NEX-5 good for?

In short, I can’t imagine shooting wildlife or sports with the NEX. The small body is unsuitable for use with long lenses and the autofocus system is simply not fast enough to reliably track that type of moving subject. Having said that, if I’m using the telephoto lens on the SLR I’ll carry the NEX so I can easily switch to shooting in-context or wider shots. I think it makes a powerful second camera.

Won’t smartphones kill these small camera systems?

I must admit I was slightly worried about this but after living with the NEX-5 and Apple iPhone 4 for the past few weeks, there really is no overlap. Although there is no denying the convenience of the iPhone, its photos and videos will still be confined to the casual snaps. Each time I use the iPhone’s camera it’s purely because the NEX is out-of-reach and the moment would otherwise have passed.

Conclusion

Overall I am extremely pleased with the Sony NEX-5. It delivers the quality and flexibility I look for in a DSLR but in an easily portable package. My main quibble would be the price: for the same money, a salesman might talk you into buying an entry-level SLR, but that would miss the point of the NEX cameras. The NEX doesn’t have the lens selection of established SLRs but they have quality, functionality and convenience on their side... and they’re exceptional fun!

Ratings

Features 9/10
Handling 8/10
Performance 9/10
Value 7/10

Overall score: 8

Jamie Lawrence is an enthusiast photographer who runs NEXtended, a blog for Sony NEX users providing news, reviews, information and guides. His principle subjects are landscapes, seascapes, wildlife and his 2 kids. He’s a strong believer in the importance of skills development instead of equipment acquisition, believing that hard-work and practice is more valuable than the latest camera. You can find his personal site at http://ideasasylum.com