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 4592×3056 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.
Sony NEX System – Related Videos
Above: WDC’s hands-on preview of the Sony NEX-5
Above: Press Conference at the Sony NEX launch
Sony NEX-5 ? First Impressions
I spent several hours using a pre-production NEX-5 and came away very impressed at just how much Sony has crammed into such a small camera. In fact it’s so small that it looks a little odd with the zoom attached – like an Alpha lens attached to a Cybershot – and with the larger, forthcoming 18-200mm attached I imagine it will look like one of those little Remora fish that cling to the sides of sharks. With the 16mm pancake lens attached the NEX-5 looks more proportional, and more importantly I was able to put it into my Blazer pocket with ease.
It will come as no surprise to learn that the NEX-5 handles more like a compact than a DSLR, so those preferring a more DSLR-like experience, and a viewfinder, may favour the excellent, but larger Samsung NX10 or Panasonic Lumix G2.
Start up is somewhat slow, but once up and running the camera is a smooth performer, with fast and accurate AF that only faltered a couple of times, in very low light. The user interface, especially in the iAuto and Scene modes, takes beginner-friendliness to the next level, with plenty of on-board advice and help available from a single button press to those who need it. The background de-focus control is especially good.
Where the camera falls down, from a usability point of view, is in the cumbersome button pressing and scrolling that more experienced photographers have to go through to change the ISO, White Balance and other image settings. This quickly became incredibly frustrating, and I found myself yearning for some kind of short cut button to these menus. This could possibly be addressed with a firmware upgrade, by adding the option to turn the soft key buttons into custom functions, though more realistically Sony may release a more enthusiast-oriented model (NEX-7?) with a couple more buttons. These are after all, just the first two models in what will grow into a much larger system.
The omission of a viewfinder was not a problem in overcast light, and there is an option to boost the LCD screen brightness and contrast for use in bright sun, but long-sighted users may still yearn for something they can put to their eye, like the rival Samsung NX10 and Lumix G2/G10, and the option of an electronic viewfinder attachment for use with the zooms would be an appealing addition.
Or perhaps Sony will introduce a slightly larger DSLR style model featuring a built-in EVF in the future.
Sony NEX-5 ? Image Quality (with sample images)
Bearing in mind that this is a pre-production model, the image quality from the jpeg files looks impressive. (I haven’t yet been able to assess the raw files yet.) The jpegs are a little flat right out of the camera (at the default settings) but they’re sharp and well detailed and only need a little Levels adjustment to make them pop. Colours are natural in the Standard mode, and even the Vivid mode seems to stay on the right side of garish. The noise in particular is kept well under control. At ISO 1600 it’s barely visible and although the noise is fairly course by the time you top out at ISO12800 the images are still usable. In my ISO comparison with the Panasonic Lumix GH1 that I also had with me the NEX-5 was a good two to three stops better.
To be fair, having a much larger sensor than the micro four thirds system (23.4×15.6mm compared with 17.3×13.0mm) you’d expect the image quality to be better, but how the Sony stacks up against Samsung’s NX10, which has the same size sensor, we have yet to find out. Of course the downside of the larger sensor is that, like Samsung’s Hybrid system, the lenses will always be a bit bulkier than comparable MFT lenses.
On paper then, when compared with existing rivals the Sony NEX-5 has a lot to recommend it: its size, its high res flexi screen, the simple interface, the host of clever but useful high-tech features, the general build quality (which on the NEX-5 is first class) and, from my initial impressions, the image quality. Best of all the aggressive pricing is significantly below what I was expecting from a Sony product.
Image Samples (from a pre-production NEX-5)
Above: Taken using the 18-55mm zoom. Below: a 100% magnification of the image above
Above: Sweep Panorama mode. Unprocessed jpeg (top) and with Levels adjustment (above)
Above: At the Vivid Setting
Above: B&W Setting
Above: Auto HDR Before (top) and After (above)
Above: Auto HDR in B&W mode (before and after)
Above: The shallow depth of field possible using the 18-55mm (@50mm)
Above: Macro Mode
Above: Portrait Mode Below: 100% detail
Above: hand-held in Twilight Mode
Above: Using the accessory flash in Slow-Sync mode
Sony NEX-5 ? ISO comparisons
Taken using a pre-production Sony NEX-5
Sony NEX-5 ? ISO comparison with Lumix GH1
The same subject photographed at ISO 200 through to 3200 on both a pre-production Sony NEX-5 and a Panasonic Lumix GH1 (Micro Four-Thirds camera)
Sony NEX-3 ? The differences
The NEX-3 is the junior of the two new NEX system cameras and is almost identical to the NEX-5 except for a few key areas. The body is made from polycarbonate rather than magnesium alloy and is very slightly larger and heavier, though it has a much shallower handgrip, giving the user a less secure and, in my opinion, less satisfying hold of the camera. The shutter button is positioned further back on the body, giving the camera a more ‘point and shoot’ feel than the NEX-5, even though internally the only difference is that the movie mode is only 720p, rather than full 1080p HD. On the plus side the NEX-3 is around £100 cheaper than the NEX-5.
Sony NEX system – Lenses and Adaptors
Sony has introduced three lenses to kick start the NEX system. These include the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6mm OSS kit lens and a 16mm f/2.8 pancake lens, both of which I was able to use during the press launch, and an 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS which is due out in July.
All the lenses feature the same high quality silver metallic finish and generously wide manual focusing ring. To keep them small, Sony’s sensor based SuperSteady Shot stabilisation has been omitted from the NEX cameras in favour of optical image stabilisation (OSS) in its lenses, and both zooms feature this. Although new in Sony’s still cameras, OSS is used in some of Sony’s camcorders, so it isn’t a new and untested technology. None of the lenses feature an OSS switch ¬ the feature is controlled from the camera’s menu.
Other features of the lenses include a Manual Focus assist option, whereby you can manually override the AF by turning the manual focus ring, and circular apertures for a more attractive bokeh.
In addition to these two lenses Sony has also produced the LA-EA1 Mount Adaptor which enables the attachment of the 30 lenses from Sony’s Alpha range. The adaptor provides full auto aperture control but not AF, so you’ll have to focus manually. Finally an UltraWide converter and Fisheye Converter will be available from the autumn which attach to the front of the 16mm pancake for an even more wideangle field of view.
More lenses are promised but Sony say that they will be listening to user feedback before deciding which focal lengths they will develop next.
Sony NEX system – Packaging, Pricing, Availability
Sony has put together a variety of bundles. You’ll be able to buy either body with any of the three lenses, or combinations of both. Both cameras are available in a choice of Black or Silver, with the NEX-3 additionally being available in Red.
Although Sony don’t give RRPs for its cameras it has provided some guide prices at which it expects the new line up to go on sale from mid June. They are as follows:
NEX-3 with 18-55mm: £450-500
NEX-5 with 18-55mm: £550-600
16mm Pancake: £200-250
Alpha Adaptor: £100
Accessory Kit: £80