Sony's entry into the new and rapidly expanding mirrorless camera sector will provide formidable competition to the current players in this market. The NEX system launches with two feature-packed camera bodies, three lenses and a host of peripheral accessories.
Like Sony's Alpha DSLRs the Sony NEX-5 and Sony NEX-3 both feature DSLR sized (APS-C) 14MP Exmor CMOS sensors and Bionz processors, but with a new E-mount for a range of interchangeable lenses.
The cameras are targeted mainly at those upgrading from compacts, so external buttons are kept to a minimum, and a slick, novice-friendly and colour-customisable interface includes the instruction manual, a pop-up Help Guide explanations of the various functions and a set of illustrated Shooting Tips.
Sony has created, in the flagship magnesium alloy Sony NEX-5, the world's smallest and lightest interchangeable lens digital camera.
Not surprisingly there's no viewfinder but Sony has instead provided an ultra-thin high resolution 3 inch LCD screen featuring Sony's TruBlack technology, which can tilt up 80° and down 45° (though doesn't swivel). An optical viewfinder is also available, matched to the 16mm pancake lens' field of view, but as yet there is no electronic viewfinder for use with the zooms.
Also omitted from the body for space reasons is a built-in flash. Instead, Sony has included a small accessory flashgun (GN7) in the box which, when not needed, can be kept in a dedicated plastic case on the strap. The flash fits into a slot on top of the camera and is switched on by lifting it up to a 45* angle.
NEX-5: Files and Formats
Both cameras produce images up to 4592x3056 pixels in size, which can be saved as JPEGs (fine or standard), Raw files (ARW), or both simultaneously.
Images can be saved to either MemoryStick or SD (including SDHC and SDXC) and the camera automatically detects which type of card has been inserted into the single slot, which is located next to the 350 shot-per-charge Lithium Ion battery.
In addition to stills there is a movie recording capability via a dedicated button on the back - in the case of the NEX-5 it's full 1080p HD at 50 fps, with full AF and unlimited recording times using the AVCHD format. An optional dedicated accessory microphone can be fitted to the accessory port on the top, though sadly there is no input for a third party mic.
NEX-5: Focus, Metering, Exposure
The NEX cameras feature a variety of exposure modes, including Intelligent Auto (iAuto) and eight scene modes, as well as the creative Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual (PASM) modes. The iAuto mode uses scene detection to select the appropriate Scene mode and other parameters such as ISO. In the iAuto and Scene modes the interface is simplified and on screen technical data replaced by a more beginner friendly system.
A clever innovation is the ‘Background De-Focus' control (aka Depth of Field) whereby users simply rotate the input dial to increase or reduce depth of field, without necessarily having to understand what the camera is doing. The aperture adjusts in real time so the viewer can preview the effect, and the cameras use gain control to adjust the exposure as the aperture changes, so the LCD screen doesn't darken, like a DSLR's Depth of Field Preview. The drawback is the visible increase in noise that this produces when selecting small apertures in lower light conditions.
There's a choice of 49-zone multi area, centre-weighted or flexible spot metering, and a sensitivity range from ISO 200 to an impressive 12,800 - the highest in this sector of the market. Sony claims that high-ISO noise levels on the NEX cameras are significantly better than rival systems. I compared a pre-production model with the Panasonic Lumix GH1 (from the rival Micro Four-Thirds system) that I also had with me and the Sony was clearly much better in this regard.
Focusing is via the Contrast Detection method, as used by compacts (rather than the phase detection system used by DSLRs) and there's a choice of three area modes: 25-zone multi-area focus, central area AF or user-selectable spot focusing using any one of the 25 zones. There's a choice of Single, Continuous or Direct Manual Focus (with the option of a magnified viewfinder image) and a Manual Focus assist option lets you manually override the AF by turning the manual focus ring on the lens.
NEX-5: Cutting Edge Features
Sony has poured every high-tech trick in its armoury into the NEX cameras, including an enhanced version of the award-winning Sweep Panorama feature from its recent Cybershots, whereby the user only has to pan the camera with the shutter held down to create 220° panoramic shots. But whereas Sony's compacts use video capture to create its pans the NEX cameras use a high burst of still frames for a much higher resolution result. The mode also has 3D capability, enabling 3D panoramas to be created and played back on 3D Sony Bravia TVs either via the camera or the Playstation 3, though a firmware upgrade to activate this feature won't be available until later in the summer.
The NEX cameras feature several party tricks that take advantage of the cameras' high speed shooting capabilities.In addition to the standard single or continuous (up to 2.3 frames per second) drive modes, Speed Priority mode can shoot a one second burst at 7fps (with the AF disabled). In Twilight mode a six-shot burst is combined to create a single image with reduced image noise and in the Anti-Blur mode they combine to reduce camera shake. An Auto HDR mode combines a burst of three shots at different settings and blends them to create and save an HDR image with greater shadow and highlight detail - along with the single middle exposure in case you don't like the HDR version.
Alternatively the Dynamic Range Optimiser feature automatically (or manually) extends the dynamic range in a single shot by up to five stops using technology similar to Photoshop's Shadow/Highlight feature. Sony's much publicised Smile Shutter mode is also available, whereby the camera take a picture when the subject smiles.