The Sony NEX-5 is the smallest interchangeable lens system camera on the market, using a new APS HD CMOS sensor. Is the NEX-5 the new king of 'hybrid' cameras? The What Digital Camera Sony NEX-5 full review takes a look...
Sony NEX-5 review – Features
The very first Sony camera to employ the company’s brand new APS HD CMOS sensor, the 14.2 megapixel NEX-5 looks to be a stills and HD movie powerhouse. Small in size, yet big in features, its compact appearance may confound expectation – with full manual control amidst its Scene and Intelligent Auto shooting modes and Full HD 1080/60i movie capture, it ensures a top-spec of creative control whatever your photographic capability.
A new E-mount, that differs from Sony’s Alpha DSLR range fitting, sees a new range of lenses launched – an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, 16mm f/2.8 and 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 and others expected in the future. Via the LA-EA1 adaptor, sold separately, it will be possible to use Alpha and Konica-Minolta lenses in manual focus only, which could considerably open up the potential for those sat on a range of existing glass.
On the rear is a 3in tilt-angle TruBlack LCD screen, with a high resolution of 921k-dots that sits snugly to the body, most inconspicuous to the fact it can be pulled out for vertical angles facing up for waist-level shots or downwards. A viewfinder, electronic or otherwise, does not feature, though there is the option to purchase a fixed 16mm optical viewfinder as an additional accessory.
The new sensor and Bionz processor are capable of shooting an equivalent ISO from 200-12,800 at full resolution, meaning low-light shooting should be a breeze. Hand-held Twilight mode is another mode to elevate the NEX-5’s low-light prowess that works by snapping six frames in quick succession, combining the various elements for a resulting low-noise image or, for a variety of conditions, there is an Auto HDR mode that combines two frames into one to expose for both shadow and highlights. And strong on the features front the Sweep Panorama – a mode that allows for a panoramic shot to be taken by simply moving the camera in real time – also features.
Sony NEX-5 review – Design
Unlike its peers, which tend to opt for a ‘miniaturised DSLR’ style, the NEX-5 firmly aligns itself with a more compact-like appearance. The body is akin to a small-medium compact with a chunky grip to the right hand side, while the lens at the front adds the most considerable size. Although the pancake lens will keep the overall size down, the current 18-55mm is quite a significant size in order to provide coverage for the large APS HD sensor – so much so that it protrudes ever so slightly above the top side of the body (yet sits flush to the bottom side). The design is likely to divide opinion and, indeed, it’s questionable whether the body ought to be produced at such a small given the upward size of the lenses.
Instead of a standardised hotshoe fitting, Sony has a particular fitting for its flash unit (which is included in the box). Having the attachable flash is certainly a nice option, though the fuss of screwing it into place is a nuisance, can takes excess time and, with a guide number of 7, it’s not a particularly bright offering either.
In terms of button layout there’s a d-pad to the rear which seconds as a rotational wheel for skipping between options and settings. Two menu buttons sit above and below this, with a one-touch movie button and playback button to the top. Apart from the shutter and on/off switch that’s as far as it goes – much like a compact camera the majority of control depends on accessing interior menu settings. To add yet more settings would on the one hand make quick operation much easier, but on the other ‘undo’ some of the simplicity of use. The general impression is very much that of point and shoot for those looking for significant resulting quality; yet whether seasoned photographer, step-up user or first timer there’s something here for everyone – though the former may perhaps find menu digging for detailed manual control a frustration. One useful menu feature however is the on-screen help which offers descriptive offerings thanks to the NEX’s Help Guide.
Sony NEX-5 review – Performance
The NEX-5 is likely to split opinion in terms of day to day use: it’s a cinch to pick up, point and shoot with great results; however, those hoping for easy-access menus to quickly change settings (as per a DSLR layout) may be disappointed due to the elongated process of changing some options. For example: to change the ISO requires menu access, selecting the correct menu from the six available, scrolling down the ‘Brightness/Color’ listings, selecting the ISO option and then dialing in the value using the rear rotational wheel – this might not be such an issue if the setting would stay ‘in play’ on the rotational wheel for quick adjustment, but it doesn’t, so to continue changing settings requires the repeat lengthy process of menu digging. It’s also not possible to assign options to any sort of function button – a grand omission considering the Help Guide uses up one of the few buttons on the camera’s rear. Yes the Help Guide is useful and yet, once read, digested and understood, any user may then want to re-assign the button for a better use. However, in saying that, should there be the addition of numerous additional buttons and controls the NEX-5 would lose part of its charm – perhaps then a hypothetical ‘NEX-15′ or some such design will fill the gap in the future for those looking to take greater control with more ease.
Another frustration is the start up time which takes over a second to boot the camera up. That may not sound like a long time but, in the order of things, and where many other cameras have ‘immediate’ start up, it feels overly extended. As such leaving the camera ‘on’ but in standby (at the expense of battery power) became preferable to ensure quick shooting was always possible.
On the up side is Sony’s Quick AF Live View system. Employing the same name as the class-leading Alpha DSLR system, the version in the NEX does differ by design, yet it brings the goods. As far as contrast detection systems go, which in general aren’t as nippy as phase detection systems, the NEX’s offering is decent: it feels on par with the current fastest Micro System Camera offering from Panasonic and is far faster than your run-of-the-mill compact camera.
The 3in, 921k-dot LCD on the rear employs Sony’s TruBlack technology and, despite no anti-reflective or fingerprint-resistant coating, handles bright sunlight really well. Fingerprints can become a slight issue though, so carrying a small cleaning cloth may frequently come in handy. The tilt-angle ability is limited to vertical (upward or downward angling), though this can prove considerably useful and the way the screen sits so flush and snugly to the body means there are no unnecessary hinges protruding out.
In-keeping with its small size the NEX series doesn’t provide an electronic viewfinder, instead a fixed-length 16mm optical viewfinder accessory can be purchased separately for around £150. With the overall compact-like feeling, its not surprising that a viewfinder lacks, though for those looking for one this may quickly rule out Sony’s offering from your shopping list in favour of a more equipped competitor model.
One of the other big sells offered by the new APS HD CMOS sensor is the ability to capture Full HD movie. Now, while of the 1920 x 1080 resolution, capture is interlaced (not progressive) and at 60 fields (not, technically, frames) per second. For those in the know about HD display, there are differing opinions about 1080i – some rate the lower resolution 720p as a better quality due to it not suffering from potential interlaced tearing, which can be problematic when shooting fast-moving subjects. Sony’s played a fairly clever hand here by ensuring that its NEX grabs the Full HD headline, yet it doesn’t technically surpass Panasonic’s GH1 in terms of capture (which is the same 1080/60i), bar the added bonus of a larger sensor size and lower price point, which, of course, certainly add to the NEX’s winning strength. And, theory and technicality put to one side, the movie mode is certainly a fine one, captured using AVCHD or, at a slightly lower resolution (1440 x 1080) which is then upscaled, in Motion-JPEG format if preferred. A 720p capture option is also available alongside standard VGA capture. Sound-wise there is a small microphone on the body, or an external Sony stereo microphone can be purchased and attached to the top of the camera – though sadly there is no external mic jack for third party use. As the NEX-5 does not have a standardised hotshoe fitting, its brand-specific replacement will limit the accessories which can be used with the device. The included flash unit, for example, has to be screwed on which proves to be unnecessarily fiddly and time consuming.
An abundance of modes also make an appearance, including the new Background Defocus Control which provides a live on screen depth of field preview. As well as the more proven standard ‘portrait’, ‘landscape’ and similar modes, the is the inclusion of Auto HDR, Hand-held Twilight and Sweep Panorama are the three more attention-grabbing modes:
The Sweep Panorama allows a live rotation through 226 to capture a large 23MP panoramic scene in real time. With previous compacts this was achieved silently, though the NEX, due to its design, needs to snap a significant number of images by repeatedly firing off the shutter. Once this process begins there’s no stopping it, so be prepared for a fair bit of noise that may attract unnecessary attention. It works very well in the right conditions, though varying exposure areas and moving subjects can cause issues with exposure and object duplication or stretching at times. As of July this year there’s also the promise of 3D panoramas though, as per all 3D capture, you will require the necessary 3D HDTV kit to display it and, as it’s not release yet, we’re unable to comment of its success.
Auto HDR quickly snaps two frames to expose for shadows and highlights, then automatically combining them in camera for a wider dynamic range image that can even be used hand held. As per previous incarnations it’s still not perfect, can fall into issues in some situations (namely low light), and still doesn’t provide user-defineable options to tweak the results.
Hand-held Twilight is for low-light shooting, where the camera snaps away six frames and combines the best exposed elements of each for low-noise shots that wouldn’t be possible to shoot conventionally when hand-holding. The three modes described can only be used to shoot JPEG files (there is no Raw compatibility).
Image Quality & Value
Sony NEX-5 review – Image Quality
Sony NEX-5: Tone & Exposure
Exposure is accurate, with all exposure modes responding correctly and exposing images with fair bias between shadows and highlights. Far from flat images sit well off the LCD screen and more so when looked at on the computer. Turning on Sony’s D-Range Optimiser (DRO) sees shadow and mid-ranges lifted, with the highest setting often proving over-zealous, though is useful in the right circumstances.
Sony NEX-5: RAW/JPEG
The ARW Raw file type is very similar to its JPEG counterpart. Load up in the provided software and it’s possible to process Raw files as TIFF or JPEG with a variety of quality settings. Unprocessed the Raw files retain ever so slightly more sharpness detail, though this is negligible at lower ISO settings. The JPEG files have a slightly more accurate colour rendition and contrast is pushed to a pleasing level, all of which could easily be achieved in post-production from the Raw file. The option of shooting both is certainly a plus point for those serious about processing files for the best results possible.
Sony NEX-5: Colour & White Balance
Colour proved to be well-measured; punchy and bright where needed. Auto White Balance was very consistent throughout varying ISO settings and repeat shots, and there were no particularly over-caste scenes to shout about – the previous Sony DSLR models have tended to drift towards cooler, bluer tones, but this doesn’t seem apparent with the NEX-5.
Sony NEX-5: ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
With a high ISO setting of up to 12,800 it’s impressive just how much clarity the NEX-5 retains throughout its image range. Starting at the ISO 200 mark (would like to see a lower ISO 100 setting too though!) image noise really isn’t an issue at all to around ISO 800 where the slightest traces of colour noise begin to appear in darker areas. However, right up to ISO 3200 images retain very low-noise and have a grain-like quality that lends well to printing. In short, the NEX-5 takes the lead against all the other Micro System Cameras out there in terms of image quality. Even ISO 6400 and 12,800 are entirely useable, though a variety of image noise does begin to limit quality and sharpness.
Sony NEX-5: Sharpness & Detail
Using the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens delivered really exceptional results. Sharpness glistens and detail is exuded throughout, with the large APS HD CMOS sensor providing a pleasing depth of field, even from the relatively modest f/3.5 aperture. Detail will diminish at higher ISO settings due to noise reduction, though this has no bearing on what’s a quality kit lens.
Sony NEX-5 review – Value For Money
Whereas many Sony products may carry a premium price tag, the NEX-5 shrewdly aligns itself against the market competition. At £590 with the 18-55mm lens, it’s a shade less than Panasonic’s touchscreen G2, and around £90 more than both Samsung’s NX10 kit or Olympus’s E-PL1. Different kit formations will see different prices, with the forthcoming 16mm pancake lens kit around the £500-550 mark or the 18-200mm telephoto kit nearer the £1000 mark. At every level, however, the pricetag doesn’t exceed that of a DSLR price, nor is it beyond unreasonable for a considered purchase. The only comeuppance, at present, is the limitation to three lenses and, with Sony waiting for customer feedback and focus groups at a later date, the arrival of newer lenses won’t be especially rapid – an area that Micro Four Thirds currently dominates with its more significant portfolio of lenses that helps attribute greater value to the Olympus and Panasonic camps.
Although compact-like in appearance, don’t let the exterior fool you – the Sony NEX-5 produces class-leading images that outshine some stiff competition in the Micro System Cameras sector. Many will love its pick-up-and-shoot ease of use, though it’s not without its errors – the lack of buttons for control and amount of menu digging required to adjust options may frustrate more advanced users. Otherwise the AF system is relatively fast and accurate and the variety of creative modes are all very accessible. However, for those looking for a more DSLR-like model with an electronic viewfinder and multitude of function buttons then the NEX may not suit; for those looking for the smallest camera of its type with HD movie capture capability and superb image quality then this is where the NEX-5 really hits the nail on the head.