DCRP

Sony Alpha NEX-5 Review

Using the Sony Alpha NEX-5

Record Mode

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:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 4GB SDHC card (optional)
Large (14 MP, 3:2)
4592 x 3056
RAW+JPEG 26.8 MB 149
RAW 15.7 MB 254
Fine 6.4 MB 626
Standard 4.5 MB 885
Large (12 MP, 16:9)
4592 x 2576
RAW+JPEG 21.7 MB 184
RAW 15.9 MB 252
Fine 5.6 MB 709
Standard 4.1 MB 980
Medium (7.4 MP, 3:2)
3344 x 2224
Fine 4.0 MB 997
Standard 2.9 MB 1366

Medium (6.3 MP, 16:9)
3334 x 1872

Fine 3.6 MB 1099
Standard 2.7 MB 1467
Small (3.5 MP, 3:2)
2288 x 1520
Fine 2.6 MB 1564
Standard 2.1 MB 1950
Small (2.9 MP, 16:9)
2288 x 1280
Fine 2.4 MB 1651
Standard 2.0 MB 2016

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:

Shoot Mode
  • This is the virtual mode dial that I told you about earlier
Camera
  • Drive mode (Single-shot, continuous, speed priority continuous, self-timer, continuous self-timer, bracketing, remote control)
  • Flash mode (Flash off, auto, fill flash, slow sync, rear sync)
  • AF/MF select (Autofocus, direct manual focus, manual focus)
  • Autofocus area (Multi, center, flexible spot)
  • Autofocus mode (Single, continuous)
  • Precision digital zoom (1X - 10X) - this is a "lossy" digital zoom that, strangely enough, only works with fixed focal length lenses
  • Face detection (Off, auto, child priority, adult priority)
  • Smile Shutter (on/off)
  • Smile Detection (Slight, normal, big smile) - how much of a smile is required to get the camera to take a photo
  • 3D panorama direction (Right, left) - no up and down in 3D
  • Panorama direction (Right, left, up, down)
  • Shooting tip list - allows you to see all 85 of them
  • Display contents (Display info, display basic info, don't display info) - what's shown on the LCD when composing photos
Image Size
  • Image size (Large, medium, small)
  • Aspect ratio (3:2, 16:9)
  • Quality (RAW, RAW & JPEG, fine, standard)
  • 3D panorama size (Standard, wide, 16:9) - not sure what the official sizes are for these, since they're new
  • Panorama size (Standard, wide) - the former is 8192 x 1856, while the latter is 12416 x 1856 when shot horizontally
  • Movie
    • File format (AVCHD, MP4)
    • Image size (1920 x 1080, 1440 x 1080, 640 x 480) - the first option is for AVCHD, while the second and third are for MP4

Brightness/Color

  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, in 1/3EV increments)
  • ISO sensitivity (Auto, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, 12800)
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, shade, cloudy, incandescent, fluorescent, flash, color temperature/filter, custom)
  • Metering mode (Multi, center, spot)
  • Flash compensation (-2EV to +2EV, in 1/3EV increments)
  • DRO/Auto HDR (Off, D-Range Optimizer, Auto HDR)
  • Creative Style (Standard, vivid, portrait, landscape, sunset, black and white)

Playback

  • Delete (Multiple images, all in folder, all in date range)
  • Slide show
    • Interval (1, 3, 5, 10, 30 secs)
    • Movie type (All, AVCHD, MP4)
    • Repeat (on/off)
  • Still/movie select (Still, movie) - this option shouldn't exist -- why can't you see your stills and movies at the same time?
  • Image index (6, 12 images) - how many photos fit on the thumbnail screen
  • Select folder
  • Select date [of movies]
  • Rotate
  • Protect
  • 3D viewing - if I had a 3D TV, then I'd tell you what this does
  • Enlarge image - you can do this by pressing the center button in the four-way controller, as well
  • Volume settings (0 -7)
  • Specify printing (Multiple images, cancel all) - for DPOF
  • Display contents (Display info, histogram, don't display info)
Setup
  • Shooting settings
    • AF illuminator (Auto, off)
    • Redeye reduction (on/off) - a preflash system for reducing redeye
    • Grid line (on/off)
    • Histogram (on/off)
    • MF assist (Off, 2 or 5 secs, no limit) - for frame enlargement when focusing manually; time options were added in firmware v. 03
    • Color space (sRGB, Adobe RGB)
    • SteadyShot (on/off) - if your lens supports it
    • Release w/o lens (enable/disable)
    • Long exposure NR (on/off) - for exposures longer that a second
    • High ISO NR (Auto, weak)
    • Movie audio recording (on/off)
  • Soft Key settings - these were added in firmware v. 03
    • Soft key B setting (Shooting mode, shooting tips, precision digital zoom, ISO, white balance, metering mode, flash exposure compensation, DRO/Auto HDR, Creative Style, MF assist) - this is for the bottom soft button
    • Soft key C setting (Shooting mode, custom) - here's where you activate the shortcut menu, which you'll get at by pressing the center button in the four-way controller
    • Custom 1/2/3 (AF area, ISO, white balance, metering mode, flash exposure compensation, DRO/Auto HDR, Creative Style, not set) - choose which items go into the custom menu
  • Main settings
    • Menu start (Top, previous) - whether the camera returns to the last menu item you used; added in the v. 03 firmware update
    • Beep (AF sound, high, low, off)
    • Language
    • Date/time setup
    • Area [time zone] setup
    • Help guide display (on/off)
    • Power save (1, 5, 10, 30 mins)
    • LCD brightness (Auto, manual [-2 to +2], sunny weather)
    • Display color (Black, white, blue, pink) - customize the color of the menus
    • Wide image (Full screen, normal)
    • Playback display (Auto rotate, manual rotate)
    • CTRL for HDMI (on/off) - allows you to control the camera with your TV remote when connected via HDMI
    • USB connection (Mass Storage, PTP)
    • Cleaning mode - runs the dust reduction system
    • Version - shows the current firmware version for the camera and lens
    • Demo mode
    • Reset default
  • Memory card tool
    • Format
    • File number (Series, reset)
    • Folder name (Standard, date)
    • Select shooting folder
    • New folder
    • Recover image DB - "repairs the image database file of movies when inconsistences are found"
    • Display card space - shows the remaining recording time for movies and the number of stills that can be taken
  • Eye-Fi setup
    • Upload settings (on/off) - turns the transmit function on and off

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:

Quality setting Continuous advance Speed priority cont.
RAW+JPEG 8 shots @ 2.5 fps 7 shots @ 7.5 fps
RAW 9 shots @ 2.6 fps 7 shots @ 7.5 fps
JPEG (Large/Fine) Unlimited at 2.6 fps 15 shots @ 7.9 fps
Tested using a Panasonic Class 10 SDHC card

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!


F3.5-5.6, 18 - 55 mm IS Lens

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.


F3.5-6.3, 18 - 200 mm IS lens

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:


ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

ISO 12800

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:

ISO 3200

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
 
ISO 6400

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

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.


ISO 200


ISO 400


ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

ISO 12,800

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:

ISO 6400

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Sony IDC)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
 
ISO 12800

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Sony IDC)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

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!

Movie Mode

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!


Click to play movie (1920 x 1080, 30 fps, 23.7 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Click to download original MTS file (28.4 MB)


Click to play movie (1920 x 1080, 30 fps, 15.6 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Click to download original MTS file (22 MB)


Click to play movie (1440 x 1080, 30 fps, 11.1 MB, MPEG-4 format)

Playback Mode

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.

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