Sony Alpha NEX-5 review, firmware ver.04

Sony Alpha NEX-5 with SEL1855 lens

Please note: this is a review of the Sony Alpha NEX-5, released in 2010. This is not a review of the Sony Alpha NEX-5N, the 2011 model. Just saying.

July 31, 2010 - Sony has rapidly become one of the 'Big Three' single lens reflex camera companies when it took over Konica Minolta's A-mount system in 2006. They released no less than 15 DSLRs in just over 4 years, broke the $2000 line for a full frame camera, and released a professional line of lenses as a Carl Zeiss licensee along with the existing glass inherited from Minolta. While there's still a few miles to go when it comes to product range compared to their two main competitors, and people are still not convinced Sony is taking the camera business seriously, they have some fairly unique selling points. For me, personally, the in-body stabilisation built into every Konica Minolta and Sony SLR was the decisive factor to choose the A-mount. In case you missed it, I shoot metal concerts in small, dark venues, and stabilised fast primes, unavailable on both other "big brands", are an incredibly valuable asset, as well as the fact that I have stabilisation with every lens I put on either SLR. But that's not why we're here, right?

Click thumbnails to zoom in. Click again to zoom out, or use cursor keys to walk through all images.

The Sony Alpha NEX-5

Sony Alpha NEX-5 in male hand
Sony Alpha NEX-5 bottom and tripod mount

The first two things you notice when you unpack the camera and hold it in your hands are its size (tiny) and the build (like an industrial precision tool). The front, lens mount, shutter button and screen hinges are metal, the back side and screen's frame, unfortunately, are not. Then again, even the Alpha 700's back side is plastic. So to say it's identical in build quality to the Alpha 700 would be an accurate description. It's good looking, too, if you can get past the comparatively huge lens mount that dominates the front. Then there are less attractive physical features. First: the weight. With the 18-55 lens, battery, memory card, lens cap, flare hood, and screen protector it tips the scale at just over 500 grams. Second: the tripod mount. Although the socket itself is metal and feels very sturdy, the camera base is just tiny at barely 17 by 19 mm.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 with screen tilted down

With a live-view-only camera like this one, the hand grip isn't as crucial as with an SLR. You can hold the camera in a position that is comfortable to your hands, unlike with an SLR, where the handgrip must be comfortable to hold at eye level. That's exactly the reason why I use a vertical grip on my Alpha 700. I don't think I've ever held a camera other than a large SLR that is really comfortable to grip. It's simply a measure of camera size vs. hand size. But for its size, the NEX-5 does a good job. The metal hinged, 3", 920,000 subpixel Trublack screen tilts down 45° and up 80° and deserves a special mention, because I really hate to admit it: it's better than the already excellent VGA screen on the A700. In the situations I've been in since I've had my NEX-5, I haven't once wished it had a viewfinder. Quite the opposite actually: I wish my A700 had live view! Unfortunately, being an up/down tilt screen only, using it tilted for portrait orientation is impossible.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 APS-C size sensor

Then there's the most prominent feature of the NEXes: the comparatively huge APS-C sized imaging sensor. What's the deal with large sensors? First of all, a larger sensor has larger pixels that catch more light, increasing sensitivity. Higher sensitivity means you can use less amplification to enable higher ISO values and this reduces noise. This, combined with better control over the noise that does occur, gives you pretty clean JPGs up to ISO 6400. The NEXes are capable of ISO 12800, but in my opinion, this is pushing it too far. ISO 12800 is usable, but definitely not clean. A side effect of a clean high ISO is the better live view image, especially when you're using small apertures (large f-number) and, of course, in low light situations. When the amount of light hitting the sensor for live view is very low, the NEXes show a very clear, bright view with a high frame rate.

The second advantage of a large sensor is the control you gain over depth of field, and combined with a large lens aperture will nicely separate your subject from the foreground and/or background. Sony calls it background defocus, which is a translation for the common word to describe the out-of-focus parts in an image: bokeh.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 with SEL1855 lens, screen protector and flash attached
Sony Alpha NEX-5 front view with flash raised

On a camera this small and with such great high ISO capability, a built-in flash would just add dead weight. That must have been the idea behind the (separate, included) mini flash gun. Personally, I hate the look of on-camera flash. A cold, harsh, direct blast of light takes away all depth and smoothness in a photo. I only use it when I have no other options. And that's exactly why making the flash a pop-on option and not a pop-up one is so incredibly well though out. It takes a bit of fiddling to pop it onto the camera, having to screw it down, but the thumb screw does make for a very secure fit. It's not in the manual, but attaching it in the raised position allows you to turn the screw with two fingers, which I find much more convenient. Even when you have it on the camera, you can switch it off by just lowering it, like a pop-up. In both positions, the well designed flash shoe cover on the NEX-5 (not the NEX-3) simply makes it look as if the flash was just a part of the camera. Too bad it can't act as a wireless commander like every other Alpha pop-up, I'm hoping a firmware update will bring wireless flash. The flash has a guide number of only 7 meters, which is not exactly a lot, but should suffice at ISO 400 and up. Shutter sync is 1/160 second and there's no HSS, so it's not very useful for lighting up shadows in bright settings.

Shooting modes

Sony Alpha NEX-5 mode dial with iAuto highlighted

There's a wealth of shooting modes to choose from. If you can't decide or can't be bothered with all the gizmos, you pick iAuto mode. Most other cameras have a prominent mode dial that most users really don't know what to do with. I suspect (as does Sony) most NEX owners will use iAuto, thus a dedicated mode dial was omitted, reducing confusion with novice users, while still offering all the options with one extra button press. Besides the must-have stuff like face recognition, which works remarkably well, and smile shutter (not tested thusfar), the iAuto mode also recognizes a backlit situation, switches to macro or night mode if needed, indicates whether the use of a tripod is recommended, etc. etc.

The mode dial is a virtual one, and just a few weeks after introduction, its only advantage became clear when Sony simply added a whole new 3D panorama shooting mode to the dial, and later added picture effects as well. Dealbreaker for me was the inclusion of the good old P-A-S-M modes; the P and A modes are my preferred ways of auto exposure.

Control and user interface

Sony Alpha NEX-5 main menu

The first two firmware versions for the NEX platform only had half a user interface. Most settings needed by more advanced photographers were buried deep in the menus, and it was not uncommon to need 5 to 10 keypresses to change a setting. With firmware version 03 everything changed for the better. Exposure compensation, flash mode, display control and drive mode are on each of the the four directional buttons on the dial, and that used to be it as far as direct access buttons went. But now with Ver.03 you can assign any one of 10 functions to the lower button (button B), and up to 3 out of 7 to the center button (button C). In use, most of the new button functionality won't take you out of live view and you can even see the changes take effect, if any, immediately. You can now organize the buttons so you have access to the ISO setting with one keypress. Or white balance, or DRO in just two keypresses. Or shoot mode, metering modes, AF area selection, pretty much whatever you want. If you organize it to reflect your shooting style, you will hardly ever have to reach for the menu. When you do need the menu, the new firmware version also takes you back directly to the last item you were accessing in the menu. This all makes for a huge leap in usability. I applaud Sony for listening to what the critics and users had to say and for setting these things straight in a way that keeps everyone happy.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 body backside shows very few controls

With all this talk about user interface improvements and fast access to settings, one could easily forget about "that other" user base, namely the point-and-shooters. For them, this is how a camera is supposed to be. As few buttons as possible, while still getting almost every advantage of a large imaging sensor. You don't need a degree to understand there are far more novice type users than enthusiasts. Guess which type Sony had in mind when designing the NEX platform? I guess it's often overlooked: this is a consumer product. The NEX system does not claim to be a DSLR or camcorder nor does it even slightly want to be a photographic or cinematographic tool. It wants to be a fun point-and-click compact camera without most of the drawbacks other compact cameras suffer from: too many buttons and noisy images that lack detail. It's this line of thought that made Sony decide to just put one single button on it that records a movie clip. Luckily the Ver.03 firmware update added a lot of appeal to the camera for enthousiasts, without bothering novice type users.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 could easily have had QuickNav

Having said all that, and even after a much welcomed update, I still find it incomprehensible that Sony did not put the A700's remarkable QuickNav system into the NEXes. My proposal: the NEXes have a display format that shows most settings as icons to the left of the live view screen (the display mode that comes after the "bar graph" style screen). I'd say insert a menu option that lets the user pick a function for the B or C soft button, and let one of the options be "Quicknav". Then, when you press Quicknav, change to the aforementioned display mode (or one with even larger icons), use the directional buttons to highlight the needed setting's icon and let the user change it on the spot with the wheel controller while showing the available options on a dial to the right of the screen. Then remember what setting was changed last, and return to that setting as soon as Quicknav is pressed again. This can all be done in a firmware update.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 disabled menu item gives no clue about why it's disabled

One other gripe I have with the menu system is this: in some shooting modes, menu items are greyed out. When you try to select the item you get this insightful message: This function is currently disabled. The NEXes have 85 pages full of shooting tips and popups, but when some menu item is unavailable, you get no help at all. For example: if you're using the iAuto mode, all items in the Brightness/color menu are greyed out (why it even lets you enter a page where none of the items can be adjusted is a mystery, but that's another story). It's up to the user to find out why none of the items can be changed. If the camera would say something like This function is currently disabled. Please select a different shooting mode. That would save quite a bit of head scratching.

Responsiveness, autofocus and shooting speed

One of the most important performance benchmarks of a camera is its ability to be ready when you are. If a camera is slow to turn on, focus and shoot, you might miss important moments regardless of how many frames per second it can fire off once it's actually ready to do so.

Turning on the NEX-5 is quite fast at just over a second. If you flick the switch first and then take off the lens cap, the camera has booted by the time you've tucked away the cap. I've seen far worse from cameras that need to extend a lens first and take up to 4 seconds to boot. It's no DSLR, though, where you can compose a shot even when there's no battery in it smiley. Pressing any button on the camera also gets you instant response. User interface design 101, really. One observation I feel worth mentioning is: if you leave the NEX-5 switched off for an extended period of time (say, 24 hours), it seems it's waking up from a much deeper sleep, taking considerably longer to start up. I've seen this in Sony's Walkman series, where the device is never really off, just in a low power state from which it wakes up literally instantly, but leave it alone for more than 24 hours, and powering up takes considerably longer. The NEX-5 seems to do the same.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 spot focus defaults to wide area focus in very low light

Autofocus is decent and accurate, as well as silent. The very useful spot focus mode deserves special mention. Once selected, you can quickly (one keypress to activate) move around the focus spot to anywhere in the viewfinder. Only a high end Canon or Nikon DSLR will give you the same freedom to move around the focus spot - but I digress. In very low light levels, where pretty much every compact digicam struggles, the NEX will focus. Unfortunately, in spot focus mode, the NEX will default to the wide area setting when the light level falls below a certain value. Even with the focus spot in the center of the AF assist lamp, it will not use spot focus. Manual focus is available, and, if enabled, turning the focus ring on the lens will automatically magnify the chosen hotspot in the live preview for very fine tuning. The implementation is quite impressive, especially in combination with Direct Manual Focus (DMF). With DMF selected, the camera autofocuses to its best ability, then releases the autofocus to the user, again automatically magnifying the view as you turn the focus ring. Impressive stuff.

Shooting speed is, once again, decent. Focusing is done in live view without freezing, then it just takes the picture and immediately returns to live view - unless you have autoreview enabled of course, which I never have. There is a swiftness about this routine that approaches an entry level DSLR, and is unlike any other live view camera I've held. Shooting in continuous advance is also quite decent with just enough live view in between shots to track a slowly moving subject. If you don't need to track a subject and you are unable to exactly time the shutter release, you can use the speed priority (machine gun) mode, which bursts at an impressive 7 frames per second, and you'll stand a better chance of capturing that decisive moment. The catch? The screen only shows the captured frames, and no live view, so your view lags by, and is updated every .15 seconds, and autofocus and exposure are locked. Useless for moving subjects. Using the machine gun mode fills up the internal frame buffer very rapidly, especially with RAW format (I shoot RAW only), and you'll soon find yourself waiting for about 10 seconds for the images to be written to the memory card. The memory access light is (WHY?!?) behind the battery lid, which to me is a bit inconvenient. On several occasions I resorted to opening the lid to see if the camera was done. Seriously.

As soon as you take the first shot, you'll notice the shutter mechanism is quite loud. Almost as loud as an SLR. You'll probably ask yourself if it's the internal speaker that's blurting out some fake shutter sound, but it's not. Forget about silent candid shots with the NEXes. You'll also notice there are two distinct sounds to be heard when you take a shot, making it sound like you just took two shots. It's because the NEXes are live view cameras, and the shutter needs to be cocked twice: once to take the actual shot, and again to reopen the shutter for live view.

Strange as it may seem, drive modes are accessible by a single keypress, after which you'll see seven modes, some with extra options, on offer. To me, this doesn't sit well with how non-photographers use a camera. Luckily, the NEX provides its pop-up help texts. Not that they're all a big help for a novice. And who uses bracketing when you've got an automatic HDR mode available? But I digress. What strikes me most in the list of drive modes (NEX-5 only) is the inclusion of the Remote Cdr. item. The manual is very scant about it, but apparently you can release the NEX-5 shutter with a remote, like most Alpha DSLRs. This separately available RMT-DSLR1 remote (cheaper Hong Kong knock-offs do exist) will allow you to focus and release the shutter either immediately or with a 2 second delay, so you can hide the remote from view in case of a self portrait. Power saving is disabled in this drive mode.

Reviewing images is swift and easy. The NEXes never keep you waiting. Press the play button, and the last shot you took is shown. The center button zooms in to 100% (i.e. pixel for pixel) and allows you to check focus. Overlooked by many is the ability to switch from stills to movie playback in the mosaic view. Simply press down, head the cursor to the left side of the screen, and select the movies folder.

Image quality

If you consider the NEXes compact cameras, then image quality is stunning-deluxe. Truly incredible. There's no comparison, at all, with a normal compact camera. Even if you consider them DSLRs, image quality is still very high. I'm not one of those that shoot test charts all day, because frankly, I think test charts are useless. I'm much more interested in what a camera does for my purposes. I'm not a pixel peeper either. If the image retains enough detail after cropping away 50% and still looks sharp at 20x30 cm, then that's enough for me. The NEX-5 does that. Images contain vast amounts of detail. I'd say it's a draw between the NEX and the A700, and the latter is still considered a high-end camera that was ahead of its time. The A700 is let down by its less-than-impressive JPG conversion however, so for JPGs, the NEX is the clear winner here. For RAW images, the differences are not so earth-shaking. The NEX-5 exhibits a bit less noise, but otherwise it's a draw. The fact is: all APS-C imaging sensors of the same generation or one generation behind all perform much alike. The NEX-5 is a much better performer than my old Konica Minolta Dynax 5D, but the Dynax 5D is two generations older.

Recently, I took the NEX-5 with me on a one-week trip to France. I didn't bring any other camera. My Lowepro Inverse 100 bag had room to spare. This is what I took:

  • NEX-5, charger, 8GB card, 4GB card (not used), flash (not used)
  • 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 lens
  • LA-EA1 adapter
  • Sigma 10-20 mm f/4-5.6 EX DC
  • Minolta 135 mm f/2.8
  • Minolta 50 mm f/1.7
  • Kenko Pro-1D slim polarizer 77 mm
  • Kenko auto macro tubes (but didn't use them)

Everything was shot in RAW, and treated in Lightroom. The Sigma 10-20 was used extensively, because we ended up visiting medieval villages and castle ruins. But the 50 and 135 got their share too. Ironically, I only used the 18-55 3 times during the week.

F00938 - Bergheim remparts F00976 - Les trois châteaus de Ribeauvillé F01000 - Mont Donon F01022 - Riquewihr F01079 - Kaysersberg F01178 - Colmar

You can view the entire gallery here: Fuzzphoto.eu | Snapshots | Alsace

Walking around with the NEX-5 and the Sigma 10-20 with its bulging front element got me some odd stares from SLR users, and sometimes a firm nod and smile when they recognised the NEX body. I'm not much of a French speaker, so no conversations were struck up, but sometimes a nod is all one needs.

Video capture is not something I use often. I'm not a stills snapshot kinda guy, so I'm definitely not a video snapshot kinda guy. Shooting video properly requires even more planning and preparation than still images, and requires completely different -continuous- lighting. So I'm not into that. Though from my limited experience with NEX-5 video I must say that it impressed me when viewed on an actual HD TV set. The sharpness and crispness is really something to behold. But there's a downside as well. Video capture crops your view to something considerably smaller than APS-C; the effective crop factor is 1.8 to be more specific. Probably because it's less processing intensive to cut a 3840 by 2160 (2x HD) pixel frame out of a 4592 by 3056 capture and scale it down to exactly 50% to get 1920 by 1080. My oh so wide 10 mm super wide angle, which gives an equivalent angle of view of 15 mm, is reduced to 18 mm equivalent. The 18-55 kit lens gives a 27-83 mm equivalent view for still, but becomes a much less useful 32-100 mm zoom for video, and the 16 mm pancake ends up equivalent to 29 mm.

Sony E 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 (SEL1855)

Sony Alpha NEX-5 with SEL1855 lens, lens fully extended

The NEX kit zoom is as good as kit lenses come. The thing that stands out is the build quality. I've never handled the A-mount 18-55 kit lens Sony offers nowadays, but compared to the older 18-70 kit lens, I'd say it's a draw. The trouble is: it's a relatively expensive lens when you look at it as a stills lens only. The SEL1855 lists for €269, that's a whopping 2-3 times as much as any other kit lens! It's an equal performer, but the metal parts and the silent focus and aperture motors needed for video apparently add a lot to the price. But maybe it's because this is the first interchangable Sony lens which features OSS (Optical Steady Shot).

Available E-mount lenses

As of this writing, 4 lenses are available for the E-mount:

  • 16 mm f/2.8 (SEL1628)
  • 30 mm f/3.5 macro (SEL30M35)
  • 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS (SEL1855)
  • 18-200 mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS (SEL18200)

These 2 converters can be attached to the 16 mm f/2.8 for more creative options:

  • VCL-ECU1 0.75x ultra wide converter (12 mm)
  • VCL-ECF1 fish-eye converter

A-mount lenses

Sony offers an E-to-A mount adapter (part no. LA-EA1, €165) with which you can use A-mount optics on the NEXes. It increases the mount flange distance to that of an SLR and it has an actuator for the aperture lever to allow full auto-exposure.

A more in-depth review of the Sony LA-EA1 NEX A-mount adapter is also available.

An interesting fact to note is the NEX will use apertures larger than f/2 for auto-exposure. No A-mount (D)SLR does this, to my personal chagrin.

Autofocus is nothing but an electronic pass-through and will only work with lenses with a built-in focus motor, to be more exact: Sony brand SSM and SAM type lenses. I don't own any of those. I do own 3 Sigma A-mount lenses with an internal HSM focus motor. I briefly tested AF on these three lenses and was sorely disappointed. I wasn't expecting fast single pass AF, I was ready to see the NEX make a full sweep and then return to the focus position where contrast is at its highest. But none of that all. With the 50 mm f/1.4 HSM, the lens I was hoping to use extensively on the NEX, the camera simply does not lock focus. Ever. I tried dozens of times on very contrasty subjects, but the NEX keeps sweeping and juddering the focus scale, shooting past the in-focus position several times, and simply gives up after a good 5 seconds. I must conclude AF doesn't work with Sigma HSM lenses.

Autofocus is not and never will be available for screw drive A-mount lenses. Manual focus and the MF assist function are available, and focusing manually is not exactly hard to do for stationary objects, especially if you switch on the extremely useful focus peaking feature (firmware v.04) which highlights parts of the image that the camera deems "in-focus" in a user-selectable colour. The switchover to MF assist magnification is not done automatically, because the camera can't sense movement of the focus ring on an A-mount lens.

These are some shots from the aforementioned gallery, taken with the Minolta 135 mm f/2.8:

Click thumbnails to zoom in. Click again to zoom out, or use cursor keys to walk through all images.

F01095 - Macaques - Montagne des Singes F01099 - Macaques - Montagne des Singes F01112 - Macaques - Montagne des Singes F01118 - Macaques - Montagne des Singes F01122 - Macaques - Montagne des Singes F01125 - Macaques - Montagne des Singes F01129 - Macaques - Montagne des Singes F01131 - Macaques - Montagne des Singes F01141 - Macaques - Montagne des Singes F01149 - Macaques - Montagne des Singes F01151 - Macaques - Montagne des Singes

And next up: some shots in the concert hall, again taken with the Minolta 135 mm f/2.8:

F00735 - Ondskapt at Sathanas in Gloriam IV F00789 - Ondskapt at Sathanas in Gloriam IV F00790 - Ondskapt at Sathanas in Gloriam IV F00805 - Ondskapt at Sathanas in Gloriam IV F00808 - Ondskapt at Sathanas in Gloriam IV F00810 - Ondskapt at Sathanas in Gloriam IV F00823 - Ondskapt at Sathanas in Gloriam IV F00846 - Sargeist at Sathanas in Gloriam IV F00859 - Sargeist at Sathanas in Gloriam IV

The good points

  • Incredibly small
  • Superb build quality
  • Superb image quality rivals most midrange DSLRs
  • Interchangeable lenses, adapter for A-mount available
  • Up/down tiltable, bright, hi-res LCD
  • Responsive, good shot-to-shot time, awesome frame rate

The bad

  • User interface, though improved considerably through a firmware update, is still quirky, and could have been much better
  • 18-55 kit zoom is all right, but steeply priced because it's actually a video lens
  • Video capture crops view to 1.8x
  • Range of available lenses is extremely limited: only 4 as of June 2011, but 6 more lenses are scheduled for 2011 and 2012
  • AF on A-mount lenses is a big disappointment

Conclusion

  • Superb compact camera with a few quirks
  • Worth it? Yes, if you care about unrivaled image quality in a very compact camera.

Comments

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