Originally Posted: July 8, 2010
Last Updated: December 2, 2011
If anyone thought that the other camera manufacturers were going to let Olympus and Panasonic dominate the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera market, I have bad news for you: they're not. Sony is the first big player to join the fray, offering two models: the NEX-3 and NEX-5 (starting at $549 and $649, respectively). These very similar cameras are so small that they can be mistaken for point-and-shoots, especially when you're using the pancake lens. I'll be covering the NEX-5 in this review, though 99% of what you read here applies to the NEX-3, as well.
| Comparison of flange back distance between a typical Sony D-SLR and the NEX-5
Illustration courtesy of Sony Electronics
How did Sony make such a small camera? They basically did what Panasonic and Olympus did: removed the mirror box and reduced the flange back distance (measured from the lens mount to the sensor) to just 18 mm, which is a bit shorter than on Micro Four Thirds cameras, which have a distance of 20 mm. Since there's no mirror box, there's no viewfinder, so shooting with the NEX cameras is a live view only experience, unless you pick up the available optical viewfinder (which only works with the 16 mm lens). Something else that's not built-in is a flash, though Sony includes a small flash that screws onto a special connector on the top of the camera.
While their bodies are small, the NEX's APS-C-sized CMOS sensors are considerably larger than what you'll find in Micro Four Thirds cameras -- 60%, to be exact. In theory, that'll allow for better high ISO performance and dynamic range. At the same time, it also means that the NEX system lenses are going to be larger than their MFT counterparts.
Both cameras look and operate like point-and-shoot cameras (not necessarily a good thing), and they have a feature set to match. Most of the features found on Sony's point-and-shoot cameras are here, such as face and smile detection, Sweep Panorama (the NEX cameras can even do it in 3D), high speed continuous shooting, and more.
The NEX-3 and NEX-5 can also record HD video (720p for the former, and 1080/60i for the latter), with continuous autofocus and stereo sound recording.
Besides the movie mode, the only other differences between the NEX-3 and NEX-5 are the body (plastic vs. metal), support for a wireless remote (NEX-5 only), and the price (the NEX-5 carries a $100 premium).
Is the NEX-5 the ultimate compact interchangeable lens camera? Find out now in our review!
|This review was updated in January 2011 to reflect the important changes that were made to the NEX-5 via a firmware update (version 03). Since the firmware update addressed many of the issues in my original review (mainly related to the user interface), I thought it was only fair to give the NEX-5 a second chance. I've also freshened up various parts of the review, and have reshot the night test photos with the 18 - 200 mm lens. You can read more about the firmware updates here -- for now, read on!|
What's in the Box?
The NEX-5 is available in two different kits, at least for now. You can get the camera with an F2.8, 16 mm pancake lens ($649), or a much larger F3.5-5.6, 18 - 55 mm lens ($699). Here's what you'll find in the box for the two kits you can buy right now:
- The 14.2 effective Megapixel NEX-5 camera body
- F2.8, 16 mm Sony lens [NEX-5A kit only]
- F3.5 - 5.6, 18 - 55 mm Sony zoom lens w/image stabilization [NEX-5K kit only]
- NP-FW50 lithium-ion rechargeable battery
- Battery charger
- Flash w/case
- Body cap
- Shoulder strap
- USB cable
- CD-ROM featuring Picture Motion Browser, Image Data Converter, and Image Data Lightbox software
- 82 page Instruction Manual (printed) + 159 page Cyber-shot Handbook (on CD-ROM)
The first three Sony E-mount lenses
Image courtesy of Sony
Since you can't buy the NEX-5 without a lens, you can start taking photos as soon as you take it out of the box (assuming that you have a memory card). Sony calls the NEX's lens mount the "E-mount", and right now there are only three lenses available: the two that come with the camera, plus the giant F3.5-6.3, 18 - 200 zoom lens with image stabilization (which will sell for $799). As you may have gathered, the NEX cameras do not have image stabilization built into their bodies -- it'll be up to the lens to provide shake reduction. The lenses are built quite well, especially for kits lenses -- they're all metal and feel much more solid than the plastic lenses included with most cameras. The 18 - 200 mm kit lens is the size of a grande coffee at Starbucks, but is built very well. I will say that I wish the pancake lens wasn't so wide -- something closer to 35 mm (equivalent) would've been more useful, in my opinion. I'll share my thoughts on the image quality of each lens later in the review.
NEX-5 + 16 mm pancake lens + conversion lens
Image courtesy of Sony
The 16 mm pancake lens is quite unique in that it actually supports conversion lenses, just like some on point-and-shoot cameras. You can get the VCL-ECF1 10 mm fisheye adapter, or the VCL-ECU1 12 mm wide-angle adapter, which are equivalent to 15 and 18 mm, respectively. Hopefully Sony will offer dedicated lenses with focal ranges like this!
The NEX-5 is dwarfed by the Sony G F4.5-5.6, 70 - 300 mm lens and A-mount adapter
Owners of Minolta or Sony Alpha-mount lenses will be pleased to hear that they can use them on the NEX cameras, as well. First you'll need to pick up the LA-EA1 A-mount adapter, which sells for around $200. You can then attach almost any A-mount lens that you wish, though autofocus will only work on SAM or SSM lenses (support for this was added by firmware update 03). Sony says that continuous shooting may be slower, as well. The adapter comes with a secondary tripod mount that you'll undoubtedly want to use when a large lens is attached to the camera.
Whichever lens you end up using there will be a 1.5X focal length conversion ratio to keep in mind. Thus, that 16 mm pancake lens has a field-of-view of 24 mm.
The NEX-5 does not come with a memory card, which means that unless you already have one, you'll need to pick one up if you plan on actually saving any of your photos. The camera has one slot that supports several memory card formats, including Sony's proprietary Memory Stick Pro Duo as well as the industry standard SD/SDHC/SDXC cards. If you'll be taking mostly still images, then a 4GB SDHC card is probably fine. If you think you'll be taking a lot of HD videos, then I'd be looking at a high speed (Class 6 or higher) 8GB or 16GB SDHC card.
The NEX cameras use an all new battery, known as the NP-FW50. This battery contains a lot of juice (7.7 Wh, to be exact), which is necessary on a camera with full-time live view. Here's how that translates into battery life:
Compared to other interchangeable lens cameras, the NEX-5 finds itself in second position. While a regular D-SLR will take way more shots using its optical viewfinder, the NEX-5 holds its own when you compare live view battery life numbers.
Like all of the cameras in the table above, the NEX-5 uses a proprietary lithium-ion battery. These batteries tend to be pricey, with an extra NP-FW50 battery setting you back at least $60. And, should that battery run out of juice, you can't pick something off the shelf at the corner store that will get you through the rest of the day.
When it's time to charge the NP-FW50, just pop it into the included charger, which plugs directly into the wall. Sony seems to have the slowest battery chargers on the planet, with this one taking 250 minutes to fully charge the NP-FW50. I don't see that a faster charger is available.
The NEX-5 with the 18 - 55 mm lens and external flash attached
As most of you know by now, the NEX-5 does not have a flash built in to its body. However, Sony does included a compact external flash in the box with the camera. This flash screws onto a proprietary connector on the top of the camera, and has a guide number (GN) of 7 meters at ISO 100. To turn off the flash, you simply lower it. While the flash is comparable in strength to what you'll find on the Olympus E-PL1 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1, both of those cameras have the flash built-in, and they support more powerful external flashes via a standard hot shoe. I should add that if you're using the upcoming Sony 18 - 200 mm lens, you'll have to buy a $63 adapter (!) that will raise the flash higher, so it can clear this rather large lens.
|The NEX-3 with the optional optical viewfinder attached||The NEX-5 with the optional stereo external microphone|
Right now, there aren't too many accessories available for the NEX-3 and NEX-5, but as the system matures, I expect this list to grow. Here's what you can buy for it right now:
So there you have the accessories that you'll be able to pick up for the NEX-3 and NEX-5! Let's talk about software now.
Picture Motion Browser for Windows
Sony includes several software products with the NEX-5. The first one is Picture Motion Browser 5.2, and it's for Windows only. PMB can be used for acquiring photos from the camera, organizing them, e-mailing or printing, and performing basic editing tasks.
Photos can be viewed in the traditional thumbnail view, or you can jump to photos taken on a certain day in calendar view. With either view, you can rotate images, display a slide show, print or e-mail images, burn photos to a DVD, or upload stills and movies to photo sharing and social networking sites.
Editing photos in Picture Motion Browser
Editing tools in PMB include Autocorrect, redeye reduction, brightness/color/sharpness adjustment, and the ability to play with the tone curve. While PMB can display RAW images, it can't actually edit them. More on that in a second.
In terms of video editing, the only things you can do are trim unwanted footage from your clip, or turn a frame into a still image. You can export videos to Windows Media format, but only at VGA or QVGA format. Since the camera uses the standard AVCHD format (instead of AVCHD Lite found on many Panasonic cameras, you should be able to edit these videos on your Mac or PC with a modern software suite. Do note that AVCHD files are buried deep inside your memory card: /AVCHD/BDMV/STREAM/ is the likely path, and the file names such as 00001.MTS aren't terribly helpful, either. If you're using the MP4 format, they'll be found somewhere beneath the MP_ROOT directory. If you just want to convert the videos without editing them, you might want to consider using VLC or Handbrake. Roxio's Toast Titanium 10 for the Mac works well, too.
Image Data Converter SR in Mac OS X
Now, back those RAW images. Sony's RAW editing product is known as Image Data Converter SR, and it's for both Mac and Windows. If you can think of a RAW property to edit, chances are that IDC can do it. Some of the highlights include D-Range Optimizer adjustment, noise reduction, tone curves, peripheral illumination (vignetting), and staples like white balance and exposure. A "version stack" option lets you go back in time through your various adjustments. Users can also save processing formulas, which can be applied to other images with the click of your mouse. Finally, there's a one-push "send to Photoshop" button, which exports the file to TIFF format and opens it up in Adobe's photo editor.
If you want to use Adobe Photoshop to edit the NEX's RAW images, just make sure that you're using a recent version of the Camera Raw plugin.
Image Data Lightbox SR
A related program is known as Image Data Lightbox SR. This application that lets you select up to four images (RAW or JPEG) and view them zoomed in and side-by-side so you can compare details. The "synchronous" option moves the images you're comparing at the same time, which can be quite handy.
Oh, and if you have no idea what RAW is, I'll tell you. In a nutshell, RAW files contain unprocessed image data direct from the camera's sensor. You'll need to process them on your computer before you can do anything else with them, but this allows you to adjust things like white balance, exposure, and noise reduction, without reducing the quality of the original image. In other words, it's almost like taking the photo again. The downsides to RAW include the much larger file sizes (which means longer write times, and fewer shots in a row in burst mode) and the need to process each and every image on your computer in order to save them in more commonly used formats.
I was disappointed to see that Sony doesn't include the full, printed manual in the box with the camera. Instead, you get an 82 page instruction manual, which is enough to get you up and running. If you want more information, you'll have to load up the "handbook", which is on an included CD-ROM. This offers descriptions of every menu item and feature on the camera, though not in much detail. Neither manual is terribly user-friendly, though. The documentation for the included software is installed onto your PC.
Look and Feel
The NEX-3 and NEX-5 are the smallest interchangeable lens cameras in the world, by far. If you didn't give it a close inspection, it could easily pass for a compact point-and-shoot camera, but yes, those lenses do come off. The body is sleek and stylish, and made mostly of metal (the NEX-3 is mostly plastic). The camera is generally easy-to-hold, though the right hand grip could be, well, grippier.
Ergonomics are mixed. While holding the camera is easy, I found that my right thumb ended up sitting on either the LCD or the upper "soft button". Your left hand can easily cover one of the microphones on the top of the camera, as well. The camera becomes quite "front heavy" when a decent-sized lens is attached.
Much has been written about the menus and controls on the NEX-5, and I'll cover the former in detail later. In short, the camera's reliance on soft (rather than direct) buttons makes adjusting most settings a very frustrating experience.
Image courtesy of Sony Electronics
The NEX-5 is available in black and silver. For those interested in the NEX-3, it comes in silver, red, and black.
The NEX-5 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 side-by-side. While you cannot tell from this photo, the GF2 is actually a bit smaller in terms of volume.
Okay, now let's see how the NEX-5 compares to other interchangeable lens cameras (which includes D-SLRs) in terms of size and weight:
Back when I originally wrote this review, the NEX twins were the smallest interchangeable lens cameras on the market. As you can see, the new Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 now holds that title (in terms of volume, at least -- the NEX feels smaller in your hand). You can also see their huge size advantage they have over traditional, compact D-SLRs.
If you've got the NEX-5 with the pancake lens on, then you can easily stuff it into your smaller pockets. However, the NEX-5 gets a lot larger once you attach the 18-55 mm lens, so it'll have to go in a jacket pocket or carrying case.
Alright, let's begin our tour of the NEX-5 now, shall we?
Here's the front of the NEX-5, without a lens attached. As you can see, the new E-mount is giant. A large mount means big lenses, which diminishes the benefit of having such a small camera body in the first place. Sony could've put a smaller mount on the NEX cameras while retaining the APS-C sensor -- after all, Samsung did it with their NX10.
Anyhow, the E-mount supports the three lenses that are currently available (16 mm, 18 - 55 mm, and 18 - 200 mm) and, if you get the $200 adapter, classic A-mount lenses can be used as well (though autofocus is only supported only SAM and SSM lenses). Unlike Sony's regular D-SLRs, the NEX-5 does not have sensor-shift image stabilization, instead relying on the lens to provide shake reduction. The focal length conversion ratio remains the same, at 1.5X. You can release the attached lens by pressing the button below and to the left of the mount.
Looking through the lens mount, you can see the camera's 14.2 Megapixel Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor. This sensor is capable of both high speed continuous shooting (which Sony uses in a number of ways) and Full HD (1080/60i) video recording. Since there's no mirror to protect the sensor from the elements, a capable dust reduction system is a requirement on the NEX-5. The camera has a "charge protection coating" on the low-pass filter, and also uses ultrasonic vibrations to literally shake whatever dust does collect on the sensor away when the camera is powered off. Now this is strictly anecdotal, but I did have some trouble with dust on my NEX-5 and had to reshoot several photos, so you may want to invest in an air blower.
The only other items of note on the front of the camera are located to the left of the lens mount. On the grip you can see the receiver for the optional remote control, with the AF-assist lamp to its right. The AF-assist lamp helps the camera focus in low light situations, and it also lights up when Smile Shutter or the self-timer are in use.
One of the nice features on the NEX cameras is their high resolution, articulating LCD display. This 3-inch display can be pulled away from the camera, and tilted up 80 degrees, or down 45 degrees. This type of LCD isn't quite as handy as one that flips to the side and rotates, but it still allows for much easier shooting when the camera is above or below you.
Here's the LCD in a more traditional position. The screen has 921,600 pixels, so everything is super-sharp. The display uses a new technology that Sony calls TruBlack, which improves contrast and reduces reflections and glare. The TruBlack system delivers on its promises, offering excellent outdoor visibility, with the auto brightness adjustment helping quite a bit, as well. In low light, the screen "gains up" quite a bit, so you still see your subject. I should point out that since this is a widescreen LCD, the image you're composing does not fill the screen (there will be a black margin on the right side), unless you're using a 16:9 aspect ratio.
The "view" in live view
Being an interchangeable lens camera, you'll compose all your photos using the LCD on the NEX-5 (unless you spring for the optical viewfinder, which is meant to be used with the pancake lens). Sony has done an excellent job implementing "live view" on the NEX-5, with all the usual features represented. They include a real-time preview of exposure and white balance, a live histogram, grid lines, and a responsive 25-point contrast detect autofocus system. Sony's also thrown in their very good face and smile detection features for good measure (more on those later). In Intelligent Auto mode you can also use a "background defocus" feature to play with the depth-of-field, without having to know what "aperture" is.
Zoomed in 7X using frame enlargement and manual focus
Something that live view makes easy is manual focusing. When you have manual focus turned on, the camera will enlarge the image by 7X (or 14X, if you wish), and you can scroll around the image to reach the right spot. This allows you to make sure that your subject is properly focused. I don't like how quickly the camera leaves the enlarged view, and the fact that it doesn't store the location that you're enlarging, so if you enlarge things again, you're back to the center.
|Two of the eighty-five shooting tips on the NEX-5|
Getting back to the tour, there's isn't a whole lot left to see on the back of the NEX-5. You've got two "soft buttons" to the upper and lower right of the LCD, whose function varies depending on the situation. When you're in the Auto shooting modes, the top one usually opens up the menu system while the bottom one activates the "shooting tips" feature. There are 85 shooting tips in total, though the camera only shows those that it things are relevant when you press the soft button. The bottom soft button is now customizable (as of firmware 03), and I'll tell you more about that momentarily.
Virtual mode dial
The last thing to see on the back of the camera is a combination scroll dial and four-way controller. You'll use this for navigating the camera's menu system, adjusting manual settings, replaying photos, and more. The center button's function varies; it can open up the virtual mode dial (pictured above), activate the background defocus feature, or jump into a shortcut menu (more on that below). But first, here are the shooting modes found on the camera's virtual mode dial:
Most of those items should be self-explanatory, but I should point out that you can't adjust the exposure compensation in iAuto mode, which seems a bit too restrictive.
The scene menu is beautiful to look at, and has some useful options to boot
Now onto the more exciting things found via the mode dial. Let's start with the sweep panorama feature, which recently had a 3D option added via a firmware update. Sweep panorama likes you create huge panoramic images simply by "sweeping" the camera from left-to-right, above-to-below, and vice versa. You can select from standard or wide views, with the 3D option offering an additional 16:9 option.
Above is a sample that I had to crop out a bit on the right side since I stopped the panorama early (which you can do by pressing the shutter release button). The results are really nice, save for a few people that got cut in half (though that's forgivable). These panoramas are made up of roughly 100 slices that are combined into a single image. I obviously can't show you a 3D sample, but those I have seen at Sony's presentations are impressive.
The anti-motion blur option is designed for shooting in low light situations, or when using a telephoto lens. The camera quickly takes six photos and merges them magically into a single photo. You can see an example of this feature in action above (the photo came out blurry in Program mode at both ISO 200 and 400). A similar feature, handheld night shot, is designed to work when light levels are really low -- you know, like the night scene I include in every review. I tried taking the night shot with this feature several times, and they all came out blurry, even if I braced myself against a wall.
The four-way controller also has some direct control over camera features, which include:
- Up - Display (toggles info shown on LCD)
- Down - Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV) / aperture adjustment / delete photo
- Left - Drive (described later)
- Right - Flash mode (Flash off, auto, fill flash, slow sync, rear sync) - only if the external flash is attached, of course
- Center - Mode dial / Background defocus (blurs background using a simple slider tool)
|The shortcut menu, accessed by pressing the center button on the four-way controller||Customizing the two soft keys and the shortcut menu in the Setup menu|
Probably the biggest complaint about the two NEX cameras when they first came out was regarding their user interface. Changing settings required way too much button-pressing, which was very frustrating to enthusiasts. Thankfully, Sony listened, and firmware update version 03 added the ability to customize the lower soft button, as well as turning the center button of the four-way controller. The soft button can now be used to quickly access commonly used camera settings (I'll tell you which later), while the center button can either open the virtual mode dial (the default) or act as a shortcut to the three menu options of your choice. By default, the three shortcut options are ISO, white balance, and DRO/Auto HDR, but there are plenty more to choose from (which I'll, again, list later). This seemingly minor change has made the NEX-5 a much more pleasurable camera to use.
That'll do it for the back of the NEX-5!
There's more to see on the top of the camera. Straddling the covered accessory port are the camera's stereo microphones, which record in Dolby Digital Stereo. As you can see, it's quite easy to block the left mic with your hand, if you're not careful. Continuing to the right, you can see the three holes that make up the NEX-5's speaker.
Next we have the button for entering playback mode, the dedicated movie recording button (press once to start, again to stop), the power switch, and the shutter release button.
Let's pop the plastic cover off of the accessory port (which Sony calls the Smart Accessory Terminal) for a closer look:
At the bottom is the actual connector, with a screw mount above that to keep the flash (or microphone) locked in place. While I'm not counting on it, it would be nice if Sony someday offers an adapter for flashes that use a traditional hot shoe.
On this side of the camera, under a pair of plastic covers, are the NEX-5's two I/O ports. The one at the top is for USB, while the bottom port is for HDMI output (cable not included). Do note that HDMI is your only option for connecting to a television, so if your TV doesn't support it, you're out of luck.
This photo really shows off how large the lens mount is relative the rest of the body.
There's nothing to see on the opposite side of the NEX-5. That's the 16 mm pancake lens attached, in case you were wondering.
On the bottom of the camera you'll find the battery/memory card compartment and a metal tripod mount. The door that covers this compartment is sturdy, and features a locking mechanism. Accessing the compartment while the camera is on a tripod is not an issue.
The included NP-FW50 lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.
Using the Sony Alpha NEX-5
Flip the power switch and the NEX-5 is ready to start taking photos in just 1.1 seconds.
Sony has done an excellent job with the NEX's autofocus system, with speeds rivaling those of Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds cameras, not to mention traditional D-SLRs. With the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, focus times ranged from 0.2 - 0.4 seconds at wide-angle, and 0.5 - 1.0 seconds at telephoto. Low light focusing performance was solid, with focus times hovering around the one second mark in most situations.
Shutter lag isn't an issue, nor would I expect it to be. Shot-to-shot delays are minimal -- you can keep firing away, even when shooting RAW+JPEG. Adding the external flash into the mix doesn't change things very much.
You can delete a photo that you just took by pressing the lower soft button.
Now, let's take a look at the image size and quality choices on the NEX-5:
While I only included the RAW+JPEG option for the large size, the truth is that you can take a RAW image with any size JPEG. I described the benefits of the RAW format earlier in this review.
As I mentioned earlier, firmware update 03 made the NEX-5 much easier to work with. While you will still need to do a lot of button-pressing to navigate the menu system, at least you can get 4 of your favorite settings to a spot where you can quickly access them. The firmware update also added a "menu memory" feature that remembers the last item you were at, and menus now "wrap around", as well. The menu system is divided into six sections: shoot mode (the virtual mode dial), camera, image size, brightness/color, playback, and setup. Here are the options that you'll find in the menu system:
Lots to talk about before we can continue to the photo tests. I'll start with the drive options, specifically the continuous shooting feature. There are two burst modes to choose from: regular and speed priority. The former adjusts the focus and metering for each shot, while the latter does it on the first shot only. Here's how they both performed:
While it's burst rate is fairly average in normal continuous mode, the NEX-5 can really tear it up in speed priority mode. The camera doesn't stop after it reaches the limits shown in the above table -- it just slows down. I found that the LCD keeps up nicely with the shooting (in both modes), so tracking a moving subject shouldn't be a problem.
Also in the drive menu are options are the self-timer (2 or 10 sec, plus a continuous mode that takes either 3 or 5 photos after a ten second delay), and exposure bracketing. The latter takes three shots in a row, each with a different exposure. The exposure interval can be ±0.3 or ±0.7 EV, and that's it.
What are all the focus options all about? The camera has two types of manual focus: regular, and "direct". The difference is that direct manual focus (DMF) uses the autofocus system first, then allowing you to make precise adjustments manually. In addition to 25-point and center-point modes, the NEX-5 also has a flexible spot option, which lets you select which of the 187 possible spots in the frame that you want the camera to focus on. Lastly, we have single and continuous AF. While the camera is always trying to focus, single AF stops the process when you halfway-press the shutter release button. Continuous AF keeps on focusing even with the button pressed, which is handy for tracking a moving subject.
The camera locked on to all six faces in our test scene
The NEX-5 supports both face and smile detection, two features which were really pioneered by Sony. The face detection feature will look for up to eight faces in the scene, and make sure they're properly exposed. It's even smart enough to give priority to adults or children. The Smile Shutter feature waits for one of your subjects to smile, and then takes a picture. It'll keep doing that until you turn Smile Shutter off, or when your memory card is full. Both features work very well, with the face detection system detecting all of the faces in our test scene with ease.
The camera has a full set of manual white balance controls. You've got the usual presets (sunlight, cloudy, etc), a custom function (which lets you use a white or gray card), and the ability to set the color temperature. All of those can be fine-tuned, as well -- the presets and custom mode in the red or blue direction, and the color temperature in the green or magenta direction.
The next two things to mention are the Dynamic ("D-Range") Optimizer and Auto HDR features. The Dynamic Range Optimizer is essentially an intelligent contrast control that can be automatic, adjusted manually, or turned off altogether. If you're adjusting it manually, there are five levels to choose from, though be warned that higher DRO levels can be a little noisy. Here's the feature in action:
|DRO Off||Auto DRO||DRO Lv1||DRO Lv2||DRO Lv3||DRO Lv4||DRO Lv5|
There isn't a huge difference between Auto DRO and having it turned off. You will see a difference between Auto and the manual settings, with even level 1 having brighter shadows. If you are going to adjust this manually, I'd probably keep it at level 3 or less, as the others are a little too bright.
A feature that I really like is Auto HDR (high dynamic range). This combines three exposures into one, providing much better contrast when a scene is heavily backlit. As with the DRO feature, you can let the HDR feature do its thing manually, or you can adjust the exposure difference from 1 to 6 EV. Here are two examples -- click on the links to see difference between a regular and HDR photo:
|Regular photo||Auto HDR photo|
|Regular photo||Auto HDR photo|
I don't think anyone would argue with the fact that the HDR photos are a lot nicer looking than the regular ones! The whole thing happens seamlessly, too -- there are just a few extra clicks of the shutter. While you don't necessarily need to use a tripod, you do need to keep the camera pretty stable in order for this feature to work. Also, you can't use it in RAW or RAW+JPEG mode.
Adjusting a Creative Style
The last menu option I want to tell you about is Creative Styles, which has been on Sony's regular D-SLRs for a few years now. Simply put, a Creative Style contains a set of three image parameters: contrast, saturation, and sharpness. There are several presets such as standard, vivid, and black and white, but strangely, no custom preset. You can adjust each of those parameters from -3 to +3. Something that annoys me a little is that the values are zero for each style, even though the vivid setting has increased contrast and saturation (Sony isn't the only one guilty of this).
Okay, it's photo test time. I used a variety of lenses for these, so look under the image to see which one I used. Here we go!
The NEX-5 turned in a buttery-smooth photo of our macro test subject. The colors are nice and saturated, and if you're looking for noise, you won't find any.
Obviously, the minimum focus distance will depend on what lens you're using. For the 16 mm pancake lens, it's 24 cm, while for the 18-55, it's 25 cm. I imagine that Sony will make a dedicated macro lens at some point. though there's nothing to stop you from using one of the A-mount macro lenses that is currently available.
After waiting for several months, I was finally able to get ahold of the NEX-5 with the 18-200 E-mount lens. And what a nice improvement over the night shot that was originally posted in this review! The camera took in plenty of light (maybe a bit too much), as you'd expect given its manual controls. The NEX is smart enough to take long exposures like this when in Auto mode, even detecting when the camera is on a tripod. The buildings are sharp for the most part, save for some softness on the right side of the frame. There is some highlight clipping here, though it's not too bad. You'll also find some minor purple fringing in places. One thing you won't find here is any sign of noise.
Now, let's use that same night scene to see how the NEX-5 performs at higher sensitivities:
The first three crops, covering ISO 200 - 800, are all nice and clean. You can start to see the effects of noise reduction at ISO 1600, but it's still pretty mild at this point, meaning that midsize and large prints are very much in the realm of possibility. Things start to soften up at ISO 3200, as noise reduction starts to eat away fine details. I'd save this setting for small prints, or switch over to RAW for better results (see below). The buildings really start to lose detail at ISO 6400, and they start to vanish into the sky at the ISO 12800 setting.
Now, let's take those ISO 3200 and 6400 photos and see if we can't make them look better by shooting in RAW and doing some easy post-processing. I used Photoshop CS5 to convert the images, NeatImage to reduce the noise, and the Unsharp Mask filter to sharpen things up. Here are the results:
No doubt about it -- you definitely get better detail (and dynamic range) when shooting RAW at high sensitivities. Sure, images have more of the grain-style noise, but that's better than smudged details, if you ask me!
We'll see how the camera fared in normal lighting in a little bit.
F3.5-5.6, 18 - 55 mm IS lens
F2.8, 16 mm pancake lens
I've got two very different distortion charts for you. The first one is for the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, and it shows fairly strong barrel distortion at the wide end of the focal range. Take a look at the building on the right side of this photo to see what barrel distortion does in the real world. Corner blurring was mild with this lens, and vignetting (dark corners) was not an issue.
I would've expected the 16 mm pancake lens to also have a lot of barrel distortion, but instead, it has just the opposite -- pincushion distortion. I saw both corner blurring and mild purple fringing with the lens, but no vignetting.
F3.5-5.6, 18 - 55 mm IS lens
Unfortunately, redeye was a problem with the NEX-5 and it's screw-on external flash. The camera uses a preflash system to prevent redeye, but on cameras where the flash is close to the lens, this rarely works. Since there's no redeye removal tool in playback mode, you'll have to fix this annoyance on your computer.
F3.5-5.6, 18 - 55 mm IS lens
Now it's time to take a look at how the NEX-5 performed across its ISO range, starting at 200 and going all the way up to 12,800. Changing the ISO is a real chore due to the clunky menu system -- let's hope Sony addresses this in a future firmware update. Anyhow, the crops below only tell you part of the story, so be sure to open up the full size images, as well. If you're comparison shopping, now's a good time to open up the Olympus E-PL1, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1, and Samsung NX10 reviews.
The NEX-5 performed extremely well in this test. Images are very clean all the way through ISO 3200. At ISO 6400 there's a little bit of noise and an overall softer appearance, but the photo is still very usable for midsize and large prints (especially with a little post-processing). The photo at ISO 12,800 isn't bad either (all things considered), and is still usable for small prints. The NEX-5 easily has the best high ISO performance of any compact interchangeable lens camera -- well done, Sony.
Can we eliminate the noise in the ISO 6400 and 12,800 photos by shooting RAW and doing some quick post-processing? Let's see:
The RAW conversion process introduces a fair amount of noise, but you definitely get sharper images as a result. Another option, should you not want to bother with RAW, is to setting the high ISO NR option to "weak".
Overall, I found the NEX-5's photo quality to be excellent, with the only real issues being lens-specific (distortion and corner blurring). Exposure was spot-on in my real world photos, though I noticed that I had to crank up the exposure compensation more than normal for my studio test photos. Highlight clipping was only an issue in rare circumstances. Colors were pleasing -- no complaints there. Images are very "smooth", as they are on most D-SLRs and ILCs, and some may find them to be a little soft. If that's you, then you might want to visit the Creative Styles menu and increase the sharpness a notch. As you saw above, the camera handles noise extremely well, all the way to the highest sensitivities. Purple fringing levels were low.
Now, I invite you to have a look at the NEX-5 photo gallery. View the full size images, print a few if you can, and then decide if the photo quality meets your expectations!
One of the big features on the NEX-5 is its ability to record Full HD movies. Translated, that means that it records video at 1920 x 1080 at 60 interlaced fields/second (though the sensor only outputs 30p) with Dolby Digital Stereo sound. The camera uses the AVCHD format (common on HD camcorders), and since it's outputting video at a standard frame rate (unlike many of Panasonic's cameras), it should be fairly easy to edit. The camera keeps on recording until reach 29 minutes, which is about 4GB at the Full HD setting (which has a bit rate of 17 Mbps, by the way). This probably goes without saying, but you'll need a high speed MS Pro Duo or SDHC card if you plan on recording Full HD movies.
|Added comment about 30p sensor output on 3/20/11|
Don't need Full HD video? Then you can downsize to 1440 x 1080 or 1280 x 720. When you do that, you're also switching from the AVCHD codec to MPEG-4, which is a bit easier to work with on a computer.
Obviously, if you've got a zoom lens attached, then you can zoom in and out to your heart's content. If it's a Sony E-mount lens, then it can continuously adjust the focus and exposure (the lenses were designed to do so quietly). If the lens has image stabilization, then you can use that as well. If you're using an old A-mount lens with the adapter, then it will be manual focus only (just like with still shooting).
The NEX-5 does not offer any manual controls in movie mode. You can adjust the exposure compensation, but that's it.
I have a pair of videos taken at the Full HD setting, plus a third recorded at 1440 x 1080. I've recompressed all three of them to make them a bit easier to download. I've also made the original AVCHD (MTS) files available for the first two movies. Here you go -- and I hope you like cable cars!
The NEX-5 has a very basic playback mode. You get slideshows, DPOF print marking, image protection, image rotation, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll. This last feature lets you enlarge the image by as much as 13X, and then move around in the enlarged area -- perfect for verifying focus or sharpness. One thing you can't do is jump from photo to photo, while retaining the same zoom and location.
Photos can be viewed one at a time, or on thumbnail pages containing either six or twelve pictures. One mind-numbingly dumb thing on the NEX-5 is that you can't view stills and movies at the same time -- you have to go to the menu to switch between the two.
There are no editing features on the camera, unless you count image rotating. That's disappointing, seeing how most consumers (the NEX's target audience) would appreciate them. I did notice (on several occasions) that the camera automatically rotated photos that it shouldn't have. I'm not sure if it's just my camera, or an actual bug.
By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but press "up" on the four-way controller and you'll get a lot more, including multiple histograms.
The NEX-5 moves from photo to photo instantly in playback mode. You can either press the four-way controller left or right, or turn the control wheel.
How Does it Compare?
The Sony Alpha NEX-5, along with its little brother (the NEX-3), marks Sony's entry into the compact interchangeable lens camera market. Most of these cameras have been geared toward the enthusiast, with exception of the Olympus E-PL1. Sony's two NEX cameras are clearly designed for people who are familiar with point-and-shoot cameras: they have attractive menus and screens, shooting tips, and lots of automatic features. While that's great for the entry-level crowd, enthusiasts like things like shortcut menus and direct buttons. The initial release of the camera had a very frustrating, totally menu-driven interface, but the new customizable soft buttons added via a firmware update has made things a lot easier (though I still want that shortcut menu). Now that the interface has been taken care of, I can recommend the NEX-5, thanks to its combination of compact size (until you attach a lens, that is), very good photo quality, impressive feature set, snappy performance, and Full HD movie mode.
The NEX-5 is a super-compact interchangeable lens camera that could easily be mistaken for a $300 point-and-shoot, especially if it has its 16 mm pancake lens attached. The body is so small that the NEX-5 looks a little awkward when you put a larger lens on it, reminiscent of the DSC-F707/F717 from years ago. The camera's small size also compromises its usability: there's no mode dial, the grip is small (and slipper), buttons are scarce, and there's little room for your fingers (which can block the microphone or smudge the LCD with ease). This minimalist design also forces you to use the NEX's attractive, but somewhat clunky menu system for nearly everything. The NEX cameras use the new Sony E-mount, for which three lenses are currently available: a 16 mm pancake lens (I wish it was more like 20 mm), a standard 18 - 55 IS, and a huge 18 - 200 mm IS travel zoom. The pancake lens has the ability to accept optional wide-angle and fisheye conversion lenses. If you want to use classic Alpha-mount lenses, you can do so after purchasing a $200 adapter, though note that only lenses with SAM or SSM motors will support autofocus. Unlike Sony's digital SLRs, the NEX cameras do not have sensor-shift image stabilization, instead relying on the lens to supply that feature.
On the back of the camera is an absolutely gorgeous 3-inch, articulating LCD display, with which you'll be composing all of your photos. The screen has over 921,000 pixels, so everything is razor-sharp. The screen uses Sony's new TruBlack technology, which allows for excellent outdoor visibility. The camera does not have an electronic viewfinder, though an optical viewfinder (that is designed to work with the pancake lens) can be attached to the Smart Accessory Terminal on the top of the camera. Speaking of this terminal, this is where you'll attach a small flash that Sony throws in the box with the camera. The flash isn't terribly powerful (it has a guide number of 7 meters at ISO 100) and redeye was a problem. If you're not going to built a flash into the camera, at least put on a standard hot shoe! This accessory shoe is also where you'll attach the optional external microphone, which will dramatically improve the audio quality in your movies.
Sony has totally done an excellent job of recreating the point-and-shoot experience on an interchangeable lens camera, so people upgrading from a Cyber-shot to a NEX can do so with ease. The camera has an Intelligent Auto mode which can select a scene mode for you, well-implemented face and smile detection, descriptions of every menu item, and context-sensitive Shooting Tips that help you take better photos. Apparently Sony doesn't think that people using iAuto mode want to adjust the exposure compensation, as that feature is locked out. The cool Sweep Panorama feature lets you create a huge panoramic image simply by panning the camera from one side to another -- and it can even create 3D panoramas, if you have one of those fancy new TVs. A feature I really grew to like is Auto HDR, which combines a trio of exposures into a photo with greatly improved dynamic range. There's also the "old" D-Range Optimizer feature, which can brighten shadows when there's a strong backlight. The camera's CMOS sensor allows for many more tricks, including the anti-motion blur and handheld twilight features, both of which combine six exposures into one, with the aim of getting a sharp photo. While the first one works, the second one isn't as great as it sounds in the marketing material. The playback mode is very basic, with no editing features at all, which is surprising on this consumer-targeted camera.
Enthusiasts will find the NEX-5's manual controls to be a bit limited. The basic manual controls are all here; you can adjust the aperture, shutter speed, white balance, and focus. However, there's no Program Shift or WB bracketing, and custom functions are very limited. Thankfully you can now change the function of two of the cameras "soft buttons", with one of them letting you quickly access three of your favorite options (ISO, white balance, etc). The NEX-5 supports the RAW format (though it's not available with some of the cool features I just mentioned), and decent editing software is included.
The NEX-5 has a pretty nice movie mode, though keeping with the camera's theme, it's mostly point-and-shoot. The NEX-5 can record Full HD video (1080/60i) with digital stereo sound for up to 29 minutes, using the AVCHD codec. Lower resolutions (1440 x 1080 and 1280 x 720) use the easier-to-edit MPEG-4 format. The camera can focusing continuously without making a sound, and if you're using a lens with image stabilization, that's active as well. The bad news is that there are no manual controls in movie mode, unless you count exposure compensation.
Camera performance is excellent in nearly all respects. The NEX-5 starts up in just over a second (if yours does not, make sure you're running the newest firmware), and the camera focuses very quickly, with respectable low light performance. Shutter lag wasn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays were very brief, even if you're shooting RAW or using the flash. The NEX-5 has two continuous shooting modes: a regular one that can take nine RAW or an unlimited number of JPEGs at around 2.6 frames/sec, or a "speed priority" mode that takes seven and fifteen shots (respectively) at over 7.5 frames/sec. Live view cameras love to drink batteries, and the NEX-5 will last for 330 shots per charge, which is below average for this class. On a related note, the charger included with the camera is very slow, taking over four hours to charge the NP-FW50 battery.
If there's one area in which the NEX-5 really exceeded my expectations, it's photo quality. It arguably has the best photo quality of any interchangeable lens camera, especially at high ISOs. It has an accurate metering system, though there will occasionally be some highlight clipping. Colors were pleasing, and images had a very smooth (some may say soft) appearance. The camera does not show visible noise until the highest ISOs, and even then, it's not that bad. While I wouldn't recommend it for everyday shooting, you can take a photo at ISO 12,800 and get away with it on the NEX-5 (though I'd shoot RAW to get the best possible quality). The only real issues regarding image quality are related to things that you attach to the camera. Both of the lenses I tested have corner blurriness and pretty strong distortion (of two different types). The small external flash that comes with the camera stays close to the lens, which results in moderate redeye (and there's no removal tool in playback mode to fix it). Something else, that's purely anecdotal, is that I had more problems with dust getting on the sensor on the NEX-5 than on other ILCs that I've tested (and owned).
Now that Sony has worked out a lot of the initial quibbles that reviewers (this one included) had with the NEX-5, it's become a camera that's much more pleasant to use. It offers a compact body (though the lenses are giant), great photo quality, a ton of fun features, full manual controls, a beautiful LCD, and a Full HD movie mode, all with an attractive (though sometimes tedious) user interface. While I'd still recommend trying one in person to see what you think about its user interface, Sony's efforts to improve the NEX-5 have paid off, with the camera now earning my recommendation.
What I liked:
- Excellent image quality, especially at high sensitivities
- Ultra-compact body with interchangeable lenses (though see below)
- Beautiful, high resolution, articulating 3" LCD; very good outdoor visibility
- Well-implemented live view with fast 25-point AF system
- Decent set of manual controls; RAW format supported, good editor included
- Responsive performance in all areas; fast "speed priority" continuous mode
- Beginners will enjoy auto scene selection, menu help, shooting tips, and attractive menus
- Handy Auto HDR feature dramatically improves dynamic range
- Super-cool Sweep Panorama feature will impress your friends, works in 3D
- Nice face and smile detection
- Records Full HD video (1080/60i) with digital stereo sound, continuous AF, and image stabilization if you have it
- Optional external mic, optical viewfinder, and conversion lenses (the last two are only for the pancake lens)
- HDMI port
What I didn't care for:
- Ultra-compact body means no mode dial, few buttons, and lots of things to block with your fingers
- No built-in flash; included external flash not powerful, has redeye issues; no support for standard external flashes
- Not as many manual controls (e.g. Program Shift, WB bracketing, exposure control in movie mode) or customizable features as other cameras in this class and price range
- While user interface has improved with firmware updates, a real shortcut menu would've been nice
- Dust on sensor was a problem with my camera
- Kit lenses have strong distortion; wish 16 mm pancake lens wasn't quite so wide
- Bare bones playback mode; no redeye correction tool; photos and movies cannot be viewed at the same time
- Limited lens selection (though this will improve over time)
- No composite video output (HDMI only)
- Slow battery charger included
- Full manual on CD-ROM, not terribly detailed
If it's a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera you're after, then you should also look at the Olympus E-PL2, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2, and Samsung NX10. If you want your optical viewfinder back, you may want to look at these three compact D-SLRs: the Canon EOS Rebel T2i, Nikon D5000, and Pentax K-r.
As always, I recommend a trip down to your local camera or electronics store to try out the NEX-5 and its competitors before you buy.
Check out the NEX-5's photo quality in our gallery!