DCRP

Sony Alpha NEX-5N Review

Performance & Photo Quality

As with the the other cameras in Sony's NEX series, the NEX-5N is a top performer. The only time you'll ever have to wait a few seconds is when the camera is processing HDR or anti motion blur images. Otherwise, you can just fire away! Here's a summary of the NEX-5N's performance:

Timing Measured Performance How it Compares
Startup 0.7 sec Above average
Autofocus *
(Normal light)
0.1 - 0.4 secs Above average
Autofocus *
(Low light)
~ 1.0 secs Average
Shutter lag Not noticeable Above average
Shot-to-shot
(JPEG, no flash)
~ 1 sec Above average
Shot-to-shot
(RAW, no flash)
~ 1.sec Above Average
Shot-to-shot
(With incl. flash)
~ 1.5 sec Above average
* With 18 - 55 mm kit lens, wide-angle

As you can see, very snappy! Autofocus speeds aren't quite as fast when you're at the telephoto end of the 18 - 55 mm kit lens -- expect focus times of 0.7 - 1.0 seconds in those situations.

After all of the multi-shot features that I've covered in this review, you can probably guess that the NEX-5N is going to be pretty quick when you put it in burst mode. There are two speeds to choose from in burst mode: continuous and speed priority. The difference between the two is that regular continuous mode meters and focuses before each shot, while speed priority locks both of those with the first photo. Here's what kind of performance you'll get in both of those modes:

Image quality Continuous Speed priority
RAW + Large/Fine JPEG 5 shots @ 3.3 fps 5 shots @ 10.0 fps
RAW 8 shots @ 3.3 fps 7 shots @ 10.0 fps
Large/Fine JPEG 14 shots @ 3.3 fps 10 shots @ 10.0 fps
Tested with a SanDisk Class 10 SDHC card

The good news here is that the NEX-5N is capable of shooting at very high burst rates. The bad news is that the buffer fills up very quickly -- surprisingly quickly for JPEGs -- so the burst will only last for a few shots. When you reach the limits listed in the above table, the camera doesn't stop shooting, it just slows down. A lot.

Let's talk about photo quality now. With the exception of the night shot, all of these photos were taken with the 18 - 55 mm kit lens.

The NEX-5N did a great job with our macro test. Colors look great, without the color casts that often show up in our studio. The subject is nice and sharp, yet still retains the "smooth" look commonly found on large-sensored cameras. I looked far and wide for any signs of noise in this photo, but there was none to be found.

The minimum distance to your subject depends on the lens you're using. For the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, that distance is 25 cm. If you're interested in a dedicated macro lens, Sony has a F3.5, 30 mm lens available, which has a minimum distance of just 9.5 cm.

I took our night test scene with the 55 - 210 mm zoom lens. As with the NEX-7, my first lens was defective (they may have been the same one for all I know), with the second one being much better. Things look very good overall, with just a few issues of note. Exposure was not one of them, with the camera bringing in plenty of light, while keeping highlight clipping to a minimum. The photo is slightly soft, which seems to be a function of the lens rather than noise reduction, as the RAW image doesn't look any sharper. There's no noise or noise reduction artifacting to be found here, which shouldn't come as a surprise. There's mild purple fringing in a couple of places, but nothing horrible.

Now let's use this same night scene to see how the NEX-5N performed at higher sensitivities:


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

ISO 12800

ISO 25600

I have no complaints about the ISO 100 - 400 shots. At ISO 800 we start to see a bit of noise and detail loss, but it shouldn't prevent you from making a large print at that sensitivity. The ISO 1600 is still usable -- just for smaller output sizes. Detail loss becomes pretty obvious at ISO 3200, so this is where you'll either want to stop, or switch to RAW. As the ISO continues upward, the images get darker, and noise goes from tolerable at ISO 6400 to "insane" at the top two sensitivities.

Can we improve the quality of some of those high ISO shots by shooting RAW and doing some easy post-processing? Let's take the ISO 3200 and 6400 samples from above and find out!

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

The answer is a definitive "yes". Sure, you've got more noise in the post-processed RAW files, but they also have more detail and less "mush". If you're using sensitivities this high (and not using anti motion blur or handheld twilight), then I highly recommend shooting RAW. We'll do this example again for our studio test scene in a moment.

Sometimes, I can just look at a camera and say "yeah, it's going to have redeye problems". The NEX-5N is one of those cameras. Its small external flash is not far from the lens, which makes this annoyance quite likely. Sure enough, all of my people photos had redeye. Unfortunately, Sony doesn't have any digital redeye removal system on their NEX cameras, so you'll need to fix it on your computer.

Distortion correction off (default) Auto distortion correction

The NEX-5N has a lens distortion correction feature, and strangely enough, it's off by default. That leads to quite a bit of barrel distortion with the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, as you can see in the chart above. Turning on the distortion correction flattens things out nicely, so you'll probably want to use this (unless, of course, you like barrel distortion). While the test chart shows some vignetting on the right side, it was rarely an issue in the real world.

Now it's time to see how the NEX-5N performed in our studio ISO test. Since these photos are taken under consistent lighting, you can compare the results with those from other cameras I've reviewed over the years. Keep in mind that since the photos are so large, only a small portion of the scene is visible below -- so be sure to look at the full size images too. And with that, let's travel from ISO 100 to 25600!


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

ISO 12800

ISO 25600

Everything looks splendid through ISO 1600. There's a very slight increase in noise at ISO 3200, but it's still totally usable for large prints. Noise is a bit more obvious at ISO 6400, so you'll want to reduce your print sizes here. You'll also notice that the images start getting progressively darker at this point, so you'll want to keep an eye on that. ISO 12800 is fairly noisy, and I'd pass on the top sensitivity altogether.

ISO 6400

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)

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

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

Once again, there is improvement to be had by shooting RAW, running the results through noise reduction software, and then sharpening things up. Plus, using RAW will let you compensate for the drop in exposure that seems to occur as the NEX-5N's sensitivity goes up.

Overall, the NEX-5N's photo quality is very good. The only issue I ran into is a very consistent tendency for the camera to underexpose by 1/3 or 2/3 of a stop. Thankfully, that issues is pretty easy to get around (use exposure compensation or bracket). One exposure-related problem that often comes up on mirrorless cameras is highlight clipping, but thankfully the NEX-5N and its APS-C sensor keep this to a minimum. Colors look good, both outdoors and under artificial lighting. As I mentioned earlier, photos have the smooth appearance that is common on D-SLRs and most mirrorless cameras. There was some minor detail smudging from noise reduction, but it's not enough to concern me. As the previous tests illustrated, noise levels are low through ISO 1600 in low light, and ISO 3200 in good light. If you shoot RAW or use the 5N's multi-shot layering features (anti motion blur or handheld twilight), you can get even better results at those sensitivities. Purple fringing levels were low.

As I always say, don't just take my word for all of this. Have a look at our photo gallery, and judge the NEX-5N's image quality with your own eyes!

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