Originally Posted: January 27, 2012
Last Updated: July 17, 2012
The Sony Alpha NEX-5N (from $599) is a midrange mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. The 5N sits in-between the entry-level NEX-C3 and almost over-the-top NEX-7. It's also the replacement to the NEX-5, a camera I had very mixed feelings about, though firmware upgrades addressed some of the issues I raised.
So what's changed between the NEX-5 and NEX-5N? It's chart time!
So there are the major changes -- there a few cosmetic and feature set differences, as well.
The NEX-5N has garnered a lot of buzz in the photo world due to its performance, features, and photo quality. How does it hold up in our tests? Find out now in our review!
Due to their similarities, content from the NEX-7 review will be reused here.
What's in the Box?
The NEX-5N is available in two kits: body only for $599, or with an 18-55 mm zoom lens for $699. While the body only model is black, you can get the lens kit in silver or white, as well. Here's what you'll find in the box for each of those:
- The 16.1 effective Megapixel Alpha NEX-5N camera body
- F3.5-5.6, 18 - 55 mm Sony zoom IS lens [lens kit only]
- NP-FW50 lithium-ion battery
- HVL-F7S flash w/carrying case
- Battery charger
- Body cap
- Shoulder strap
- USB cable
- CD-ROM featuring Sony Image Data Suite
- 94 page basic manual (printed) + full manual on CD-ROM
Should you choose the lens kit, then you'll be find the F3.5-5.6, 18 - 55 mm OSS (Sony's term for image stabilization) lens that came with the original NEX models. This lens offers solid build quality, good sharpness, and minimal purple fringing. It also makes the NEX-5N a lot more of a handful. There are now a total of seven E-mount lenses available, including the kit lens. Some notable lenses include the F2.8, 16 mm pancake lens (which use accept conversion lenses), an F3.5, 30 mm macro lens, and a pricey F1.8, 24mm Carl Zeiss lens. Whichever lens you choose, there's a 1.5X crop factor to keep in mind, so that 18-55 has a field-of-view of 27 - 82.5 mm.
NEX-5N with LA-EA2 adapter and giant A-mount Zeiss lens
Image courtesy of Sony Electronics
If you want to use old Alpha (A-mount) lenses, you have two options. You can pick up the original LA-EA1 adapter (priced from $129), which offers sluggish autofocus on select Sony lenses. A much better solution is to use the new LA-EA2 adapter (priced from $336), which has the same translucent mirror technology as Sony's D-SLRs and allows for super-fast AF with any A-mount lens. If you want to use lenses from other manufacturers (Nikon, Canon, etc.), there are adapters for that, as well.
Interchangeable lens cameras like the NEX-5N never come with memory cards. So, if you don't have one already, you'll need to pick one up. The NEX-5N is still a Sony camera, so it supports Memory Stick Pro Duo cards, but that slot can also accept SD, SDHC, and SDXC media. I would suggest a 4 or 8 GB card if you're mostly taking stills, and a 16 or 32 GB card if you'll be recording movies, as well.
The NEX-5N uses the same NP-FW50 lithium-ion battery as many other Sony cameras. This battery can hold 7.7 Wh of energy, which is on the upper end of the spectrum for interchangeable lens cameras. Here's how that translates into battery life, with a look at the competition:
The NEX-5N easily wins the battery life competition, coming in a full 100 shots higher than the Samsung NX200. Should you need an extra battery, it'll set you back at least $50.
When it's time to charge the NP-FW50, just pop it into the included charger, which plugs right into the wall. Unlike the charger included with the NEX-7, this one is quite slow, taking a whopping 250 minutes to charge the battery.
NEX-5N with optional articulating electronic viewfinder
There's a decent set of accessories available for the NEX-5N. Here's a list of the most interesting ones:
In case you skipped all that, I just want to again give praise to the optional electronic viewfinder. It's the same one found on the NEX-7, and it blows away anything you've ever used. The only real downside is that you can't use the EVF and the flash at the same time.
Moving onto the bundled software now. Sony includes two products with the NEX-5N: Picture Motion Browser (Windows only) and Image Data Converter (Mac and Windows). Picture Motion Browser is a pretty standard photo organizing/sharing suite. In addition to importing photos from the camera, it can also share them via e-mail, prints, and on photo/video sharing websites. Editing tools include redeye reduction, brightness/saturation/tone curve, and sharpness. There's also an Auto Correct function which attempts to fix things with a single click. While PMB can view RAW files, it cannot edit them. For that, you'll need to use the next product.
That product is Image Data Converter, which can edit a number of RAW properties, including white balance, Creative Style, D-Range Optimizer, noise reduction, and exposure. IDC has a "version stack" that lets jump back in time to older iterations of the photo you're working on. My only real complaint is that it's a bit slow to process adjustments. If you'd rather use Photoshop for editing RAW files, just make sure that your Camera Raw plug-in is up-to-date!
Sony uses two different codecs for video recording on the NEX-5N: AVCHD and MPEG-4. Picture Motion Browser can be used to view all videos produced by the camera, and it can remove unwanted footage from your clip, or save a frame as a still image. While it can convert videos to WMV format, they'll be VGA quality. PMB can also burn videos to Blu-ray or DVD discs. If you want to use a commercial product to edit your videos and plan on using the AVCHD Progressive (1080/60p) mode, check with your software manufacturer to make sure you can actually edit the video.
Mac users can edit MPEG-4 and most AVCHD videos with ease, using iMovie or Final Cut Pro X. You will not be able to open the AVCHD Progressive videos however, unless you run them through Media Converter first (be sure to download the AVCHD rewrap plug-in, as well).
Unfortunately, Sony splits the documentation into two parts on the NEX-5N. There's a decent-sized basic manual to get you up and running, but if you want more information, you'll have to open up the full manual, which is in PDF format on the included CD-ROM. The manuals themselves are good enough for beginners, but enthusiasts will find themselves wanting a bit more depth. Instructions for the bundled software is installed in the form of help files.
Design & Features
The Alpha NEX-5N's design is nearly identical to that of its predecessor. The only change I noticed is that the playback button has moved closer to the power switch. The NEX is an extremely compact interchangeable lens camera, though it loses its size advantage as soon as you attach a lens (aside from the pancake). It then becomes a front-heavy camera that's the same size or slightly larger than other ILCs.
The NEX-5N is fairly well built, made mostly of magnesium alloy. While it can easily be held and operated with one hand, you'll need to support the lens (assuming it's something other than the pancake) with your other hand. Control placement is a bit tight in places (as there's not a lot of space for them), but most things are easy to access. I will say that I hate, hate, hate the location of the movie recording button. I can't tell you how many times I accidentally recorded a movie, just while trying to get a solid grip on the camera.
I'll save my comments for the NEX's mediocre user interface for later.
Images courtesy of Sony Electronics
You'll be able to pick up the NEX-5N in three colors: black, white, and silver. Remember that you need to buy the lens kit in order to pick a color!
The NEX-5N in the hand, with the kit lens; this photo is more impressive with the 16mm pancake
Now, here's a look at how the NEX-5N compares to other interchangeable lens cameras in terms of size and weight:
The NEX-5N is about average in terms of both bulk and weight. Like I said, it's a very pocketable camera -- until you put a lens on. With the 18-55 attached, I struggled to get it into a pretty large coat pocket -- so you may want to use the shoulder strap instead.
Let's tour the NEX-5N now, using our new tabbed interface:
Here's the front of the NEX-5N, without a lens attached. NEX cameras use Sony's E-mount, which has a relatively small lens selection at this point. Sony doesn't build image stabilization into the NEX bodies, so you'll want to look for a lens with "OSS" if you want this feature (the kit lens has it). All lenses have a 1.5X crop factor, so the 18 - 55 kit lens is equivalent to 27 - 82.5 mm. To release an attached lens, simply press the button to the lower-left of the mount.
Right in the center of the mount is the NEX-5N's new 16 Megapixel "Exmor" CMOS sensor. This sensor is APS-C size, which is as large as you'll find on a mirrorless camera. APS-C sensors are 58% larger than Micro Four Thirds and gigantic compared to what you'll find inside the Nikon V1 or Pentax Q. In general, the larger the sensor, the higher the sensitivity and lower the noise.
All mirrorless cameras have a high likelihood of having dust collect on its sensor, as there's something in-between it and the elements. Sony uses an ultrasonic dust removal system to literally shake dust away. That said, I had more trouble with dust on the NEX cameras than on ILCs made by other manufacturers.
As with the NEX-5, the 5N does not have a built-in flash. Instead, Sony bundles a small external flash that attaches to the camera's proprietary Smart Accessory Shoe. This flash has a guide number of 7, which is comparable to what you'll find on other interchangeable lens cameras. The flash draws power from the camera, and is activated when you pop it up. When you're done with flash photos, just lower it and it'll shut off. If you want more flash power, then the only other option is the HVL-F20S that I mentioned in the accessory section.
The only other things to see here are the receiver for the optional remote control (on the grip) and the AF-assist lamp.
As with the NEX-5 before it, the 5N has a 3-inch, articulating LCD display that you'll use for composing and reviewing your photos. The screen pulls away from the back of the camera and can then tilt upward 80 degrees, or downward 45 degrees. While that's not as good as an LCD that flips to the side and rotates, it's still better than a fixed display, especially for shooting over crowds or when the camera is on a tripod.
Here's the LCD in the "normal" position. The screen is 3 inches in size, and has an aspect ratio of 16:9. While this is lovely for shooting movies, it's not-so-great for stills, as you end up with margins on one or both sides of the image you're composing. The screen has 921,600 pixels, so everything is incredibly sharp. I found outdoor visibility to be quite good, and in low light, the image on the screen brightens up nicely, so you can still see your subject.
One thing this LCD offers that the one on the NEX-5 did not is touchscreen functionality. You can "touch focus", navigate the menu system, and swipe your way through photos you've taken using your finger. It's not as elaborate as the touch system on Panasonic's interchangeable lens cameras, but it works well enough.
There are just three buttons and scroll wheel on the back of the NEX-5N. The two buttons adjacent to the LCD are "soft buttons", whose function depends on the current situation.
The scroll wheel lets you adjust all of the manual settings on the camera, and it can be used for menu navigation, as well. It's also a four-way controller, with the ability to adjust the drive mode, exposure compensation, and what's shown on the LCD. The center button's function is also variable. I'll have more on the UI after the tour.
I suppose I'll mention two additional buttons here, since they're placed in-between the top and back of the NEX-5N. Those buttons are for entering playback mode, and recording a movie. To be honest, I'm not fond of the placement of either, especially the movie mode button (which I ranted about earlier).
On the top of the NEX-5N we find its stereo microphones, with the covered Smart Accessory Terminal in-between them. The Smart Accessory Terminal is where you'll screw-in the included flash, as well as the optional HVL-F20S flash or ECM-SST1 stereo microphone. Keep in mind that the NEX-5N only supports the two Sony flashes that I just mentioned -- if you want to use a traditional flash, you're out of luck.
Continuing to the right, we find the speaker, power switch, and shutter release button. Below the power switch are the playback and movie recording buttons that I covered on the previous tabs.
This photo also illustrates how the NEX-5N's body becomes a lot less compact when a zoom lens is attached.
On this side of the NEX-5N you'll find its I/O ports, which are protected by a pair of plastic doors. The ports here are USB on the top, and mini-HDMI on the bottom. The NEX-5N does not have an external mic input -- you'll need the NEX-7 for that.
The 18 - 55 mm kit lens is at its wide-angle position in this photo. The included flash is also in the "on" position here.
There's nothing to see on the other side of the camera. The kit lens is at the full telephoto position here. The flash is down in this shot, which disables it.
Our tour ends with a look at the bottom of the NEX-5N. Here you'll find a metal tripod mount (in-line with the lens) and the battery/memory card compartment. This compartment is protected by a plastic door of decent quality. As I mentioned earlier, the memory card slot supports both MS Pro Duo and SD cards of various flavors.
The included NP-FW50 battery can be seen at right.
Before I get into the features found on the NEX-5N, I want to talk about its user interface. As with the NEX-5 before it, the interface on the 5N is totally menu-driven. There are very few direct buttons and no mode dial, meaning that you'll be diving into the menus to change just about every setting. Thankfully, Sony lets you assign a shortcut menu (which can hold up to five settings) to the center button on the four-way controller, which will save you a little time. Even with that, using the NEX-5N can be an exercise in frustration.
|Changing the ISO using the custom menu||Switching the focus mode using the main menu|
If you're using the shortcut menu, then you can adjust five settings of your choice relatively easily. In my example above, I've assigned ISO, white balance, and dynamic range to the menu. For some of those, you'll see that the button soft button becomes active, allowing me to further tweak settings. Now let's change the focus from Auto to Manual -- something not in my shortcut menu. I first have to visit the gateway screen, then go to the Camera submenu, then scroll down and select the Focus Mode item, and finally select Manual Focus. It's that way for virtually every other setting on the NEX-5N. You can navigate these menus with either the four-way controller/scroll wheel or your finger. In most cases, using your finger can be faster.
The bottom line here is that you really need to get your hands on the NEX-5N, to decide if the interface is something you can work with. Personally, it drives me nuts -- other folks may be more comfortable with it.
The "view" in live view, with histogram
Now let's get into actually talking about picture-taking on the NEX-5N. As I mentioned earlier, you compose all of your photos on the 5N's LCD or optional electronic viewfinder. The "live view" implementation on the NEX-5N is excellent, aside from the aforementioned fact that the widescreen LCD isn't really suited to 4:3 photography. What you will get is a bright and fluid view of the scene, super fast autofocus, a live histogram, your choice of grid lines, and the ability to zoom in on your subject for accurate manual focusing. Another handy feature, first introduced to the NEX-3 and NEX-5 via a firmware update, is called peaking. This feature, only available when manually focusing, highlights the area of the photo that's currently in-focus. You can choose the "intensity" of the peaking feature, as well as the color used.
The only mode dial on the NEX-5N is this virtual one
Now I'd like to talk about the various camera features that you'll access via the menu system. All camera features -- plus a virtual mode dial -- are accessed via the "gateway" menu I showed you earlier. I'll say a bit more about the menu options later, but first I want to go over what you'll find on that virtual mode dial:
Photo Creativity mode options
If you want a "set it and forget it" experience, then set the virtual mode dial to the Intelligent Auto position. There, the camera will pick one of eleven scene modes automatically. It can even tell when you're using a tripod, in order to keep noise levels down. Something new in Intelligent Auto mode is Photo Creativity Mode, which lets you easily adjust background blur (aperture), brightness (exposure compensation), color (white balance), and vividness (saturation), without having to know any technical jargon. Another part of the Photo Creativity Mode are Picture Effects, which include toy camera, pop color, posterization, retro photo, soft high-key (dream-like), partial color (red, green, blue, or yellow), and high contrast mono. Picture Effects are available in other shooting modes, as well.
Something else that you'll find in Intelligent Auto mode are shooting tips. When tips are available, the lower soft button will have a question mark next to it. The tips that are shown are contextual, meaning that they depend on the shooting mode the camera chose. Above you can see some of the tips for macro shooting. If the camera does not pick a specific scene mode, then more generic tips will be available (recording movies, composition ideas, etc.). You can access all of the Shooting Tips via the main menu.
Two of my favorite features on the NEX-5N are sweep panorama and anti motion blur, both of which are on the virtual mode dial. For sweep panorama, you just pan the camera from left to right (other directions work too), and the camera instantly stitches together a huge panoramic photo. There are two sizes to choose from: normal and wide, and this feature works in 3D as well as 2D. The results are almost always very impressive.
Anti motion blur (and its related feature, handheld twilight) takes six exposures in less than a second, and combines them into a single image. The resulting image is generally sharp and blur-free, with less noise than if you just took the shot at a high ISO. The above sample is a great example of the kind of shots you can take with this feature. Do note that the camera takes a few seconds to process each photo, so anti motion blur is not a great choice for fast action.
The NEX-5N also has full manual exposure controls, as the mode dial chart illustrates. There's also manual white balance adjustment, bracketing, and support for the RAW format. I'll all of those and more as this section progresses.
A description of each menu item is available, though I wish they didn't cover the middle of the screen
All of the NEX's setting can be found in its main menu, which is accessed from the gateway screen I showed you earlier. The menu is divided up into five categories (not including the virtual mode dial): camera, image size, brightness/color, playback and setup. While the menus are very pretty -- and feature help "tool tips" for most options -- navigating them is a big pain. Each submenu is just one big long list, which means you'll spend a lot of time spinning that rear dial (there's a reason why most cameras have tab-based menus). Something else that bothered me is that, at least for some menu options, the camera kicks you out of the menu entirely after you make a selection, instead of just backing up a step. So, if you were planning on changing more than one setting, you'd have to reenter the menu system.
With that said, here's the list of the most significant menu options related to still shooting:
- Drive mode: here's where you access the burst modes, exposure bracketing, self-timer, and remote control choices; more on burst mode later
- AF/MF: choose from auto, manual, or direct manual focus; the last option uses autofocus first, and then lets you manually adjust things to your liking
- Autofocus area: choose from 25-point auto, center, or flexible spot; the last option lets you select any area in the frame on which to focus, using your finger or the four-way controller
- Object tracking: as its name implies, this is used for keeping a selected subject in focus as they move around the frame
- Face detection: not only can the NEX-5N detect faces (up to eight in a scene), it can register specific ones; when those people show up in the frame, they will be given focus priority
- Smile Shutter: taken from Sony's point-and-shoot cameras, this feature will have the NEX-5N wait until someone in the frame is smiling; the sensitivity is adjustable, so you can really make people smile for the camera
- Shooting Tip List: access all the tips on the camera here
- Image size/quality: choose from large (16), medium (8.4M), or small (4M) resolutions, plus JPEG, RAW, or RAW+JPEG; a RAW image will take up about 19MB, while a Large/Fine JPEG is around 7MB
- ISO sensitivity: the NEX has a range of 100 - 25600; there's also an Auto mode, which tops out at ISO 3200
- White balance: choose from numerous presets, set the color temperature, or use a white or gray card in custom mode; more details below
- DRO/Auto HDR: improves image contrast in two different ways. DRO breaks the scene into small areas and adjusts the contrast for each of them separately; HDR combines three exposures into a single photo; more below
- Picture Effect: seems like every camera has to have these now; notable special effects include toy camera, pop color, partial color, high contrast mono, and miniature effect
- Creative Style: a "style" contains image parameters which include contrast, saturation, and sharpness; there are six presets on the NEX-5N (standard, vivid, portrait, landscape, sunset, black & white), all of which can be fine-tuned to your heart's content
- Peaking level/color: mentioned earlier, this highlights in-focus areas of a photo when manually focusing; choose the intensity and color used
- MF Assist: whether the frame is enlarged when manually focusing, and for how long
- SteadyShot: if you're using a lens with image stabilization, here's where you turn the feature on or off
- Lens compensation: reduces shading (vignetting), chromatic aberrations (purple fringing), and distortion; the first two are on by default, the third is not
- Custom key settings: choose what right key on the four-way controller and the two soft buttons do; if you select "custom" for one of them, you can assign up to five items to that button
- Touch operation: the master switch for all touch functionality on the NEX-5N
- Help guide display: whether "tool tips" describing each option are shown in the menus
I want to illustrate the D-Range Optimizer (DRO) and HDR features for you now. As I mentioned above, the D-Range Optimizer feature handles contrast by breaking the image into smaller segments, and adjusting each section individually. You can leave it on Auto (the default), adjust it manually from level 1 (low) to 5 (high), or shut it off entirely (though I don't know why you'd do so). The test below shows you what happens as you increase the DRO level:
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|DRO Lv 1
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|DRO Lv 2
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|DRO Lv 3
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|DRO Lv 4
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|DRO Lv 5
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As the test shots above illustrate, shadows get a little brighter every time you increase the DRO a notch. One thing that it doesn't help with is highlight clipping. In fact, it gets worse as the DRO level increases. I've found that sticking to Auto DRO is fine for most situations, and when I have a big difference in contrast, I use the feature that I'm going to describe next.
Now, about the HDR feature, which is tied with Anti Motion Blur for my favorite NEX-5N feature. In HDR mode, the camera takes three photos in rapid succession -- each with a different exposure value -- and then combines them into a single image with dramatically improved contrast. A photo taken with DRO turned off is also saved. You can let the camera automatically choose the exposure interval (which is the default setting), or you can adjust it yourself, from 1EV to 6EV. The camera shoots so quickly that no tripod is needed, in most cases. Here's an example of the HDR feature in the real world:
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I took this photo from my room at the Vdara hotel in Las Vegas (during CES). The original image has a lot of really bright areas (like the Bellagio next door), plus lots of shadows in the foreground. The HDR photo, on the other hand, has much more even contrast, and is a whole lot more pleasing, in my opinion. If you find that the Auto HDR mode doesn't do it for you, just adjust the exposure interval manually until you're happy. This feature has turned some very mediocre photos that I've taken with the NEX-5N (as well as the NEX-7) into great ones, and it's so easy to use.
This probably goes without saying, but all of these cool multi-shot features (including sweep panorama) are for JPEGs only - no RAW allowed.
Fine-tuning white balance
White balance options include the usual presets, a custom option (for use with a white or gray card), and the ability to set the color temperature. All of these can be fine-tuned, in the amber-blue and/or green-magenta directions. The only thing missing here is the ability to bracket for white balance.
Believe it or not, I'm done talking about the NEX's shooting options, and am ready to move to video recording. As with its big brother (the NEX-7), the NEX-5N can record Full HD video at 60p -- an accomplishment very few cameras can claim. It does this using the AVCHD Progressive format, which may not be supported by all devices or video editing suites. Sound is recorded in Dolby Digital stereo, and you can get higher quality audio by attaching the optional stereo microphone. To simplify all of the video resolutions available on the NEX-5N, I've put together this table:
The maximum recording time for all of those is around 29 minutes. While AVCHD movies look great on your HDTV, editing and sharing them isn't so easy. Heck, just finding them on your memory card is a pain. Thankfully, Sony also supports the MPEG-4 codec, which is much easier to work with. The bad news is that there are two resolutions available with MP4: 1440 x 1080 and 640 x 480 (both at 30 fps).
The NEX-5N gives you access to the same bells and whistles that are available for still shooting. Want to use the Picture Effects (like toy camera or selective color) in movie mode? No problem. The camera can focus continuously, keeping subjects in focus as they move around, or if you adjust the zoom. If your lens has image stabilization, that'll be active as well.
If you want to adjust the shutter speed, aperture, or ISO, that's also available -- even while you're in the midst of recording. What you can adjust depends on the shooting mode. If you want the most manual exposure control, set the virtual mode dial to the "M" position. The NEX-5N also offers a wind filter, which is handy when you're recording videos outdoors. One thing you cannot do on the 5N is take a still image while simultaneously recording video.
Below is a sample movie, taken at the 1080/60p setting. I've converted it from AVCHD to QuickTime format using the Media Converter (Mac) software I mentioned earlier. If you want to play with the original MTS file, it's available for your downloading pleasure, as well.
The NEX-5N has an unremarkable playback mode, with no editing features to speak of, for either stills or videos. Something that drove me nuts on the NEX-5 and remains the same here is that the camera separates stills and movies (even down to the codec level). What that means is that you can't flip through photos and videos at the same time. You have to either go to the playback menu or to the thumbnail screen (and the bar on the left) to switch between stills, AVCHD movies, and MP4 movies.
By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos. However, if you press "up" on the four-way controller, you'll get a lot more, including histograms and a display of over/underexposed areas of your photo.
There's no delay when moving between photos on the NEX-5N. You can use the four-way controller, scroll wheel, or your finger to flip through them. Speaking of fingers, if you tap on the image you're viewing, it'll be enlarged. You can then scroll around with your finger, making reviewing photos a snap.
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:
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:
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:
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!
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!
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.
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!
The Alpha NEX-5N is the midrange camera in Sony's mirrorless interchangeable camera lineup. The 5N has a very compact, well built body, though any size advantage it may have over its competition is lost as soon as you attach a lens (aside from the 16mm pancake). As with its predecessor, Sony has gone minimalist when it comes to physical controls on the camera -- virtually everything is menu-driven. While the custom button is an improvement over the original NEX UI, it still leaves much to be desired. Most of the buttons and controls on the NEX-5N are well placed, except for the movie recording button, which couldn't be in a worse location. I highly encourage you to try the NEX-5N's interface before you buy it. As with its siblings, the 5N supports Sony's small but growing collection of E-mount lenses, with a 1.5X crop factor. If you want to use old Alpha-mount lenses, you have two options: cheap, limited, and slow, or fast, unlimited, and expensive (I'd suggest springing for the latter). On the back of the NEX-5N you'll find what appears to be the same articulating 3-inch LCD that was on the original NEX-5. The big change here is touchscreen functionality, though Sony limits its use to focusing, menu navigation, and image playback. The screen is bright, easy to see outdoors, and very sharp. If you'd prefer a viewfinder, Sony's fantastic XGA EVF is available, for a price. The NEX-5N does not have a built-in flash. Sony includes a small flash (with a guide number of 7) that screws onto the camera's proprietary accessory port. If you want a more powerful flash, you have only one other choice: another Sony model.
The NEX-5N has a really nice mix of features that will please both beginners and enthusiasts like myself. If it's a point-and-shoot experience you're after, look no further than the Intelligent Auto mode. It'll pick a scene mode for you, and also lets you adjust background blur, brightness, color, and saturation, without any confusing terminology. The NEX-5N also features contextual Shooting Tips that'll help you learn about taking better photos. Two scene modes of note are favorites of mine: Anti Motion Blur and Sweep Panorama. The former combines six exposures into one, allowing for sharp high ISO photos with a lot less noise than you'd get otherwise. Sweep Panorama is often imitated, but never duplicated -- it's the best in-camera panorama feature out there, in my opinion. Switch in the manual modes and you'll get full manual exposure control, RAW support, white balance fine-tuning, and more. It also opens up another favorite feature of mine: HDR. The HDR (high dynamic range) feature rapidly takes three photos -- each with a different exposure value -- and merges them into a single image with greatly improved contrast. It's so fast and seamless that I found myself using it frequently. And let's not forget about movies, either. The NEX-5N can record Full HD video at your choice of 24p, 60i, and even 60p -- all with stereo sound, continuous autofocus, and full manual controls.
Camera performance is very good in nearly all areas. The NEX-5N is powered up and ready to roll in just 0.7 seconds. Autofocus speeds are very quick in good light, ranging from 0.1 - 0.3 seconds at wide-angle, to 0.7 - 1.0 seconds at telephoto (with the kit lens). Shutter lag isn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays are minimal, even when shooting RAW or using the flash. The only time the NEX-5N will make you wait is when it's processing photos taken in those multi-shot modes. There are two burst modes, capable of 3.3 or 10 frames/second continuous shooting, though their buffers fill up quickly, so you can only take 5-10 shots, depending on the image quality setting. The NEX-5N's battery life is well above the group average.
Photo quality is very good, as well. The NEX-5N and its new 16 Megapixel CMOS sensor produce photos with vibrant color, good detail, and very little noise. The only frequent issue I ran into was a tendency for the camera to underexpose by 1/3 or 2/3 of a stop. As I mentioned, noise levels are quite low, allowing you to make large prints at sensitivities as high as ISO 1600 in low light, and ISO 3200 in good light. Highlight clipping and purple fringing were both low. You will run into redeye if you use the built-in flash, and unfortunately there's no way to remove this annoyance on the camera itself. This is purely anecdotal but worth a mention: I've had more trouble with dust on the NEX cameras than on any other interchangeable lens camera, so keep that air blower handy!
All things considered, the Sony Alpha NEX-5N is a very good interchangeable lens camera -- as long as you can tolerate its menu-driven user interface. If you find that you can live with its interface, then you'll find a camera that's capable of taking excellent photos and videos, with the added bonus of the HDR and Anti Motion Blur features, for taking great photos in challenging lighting conditions. Even with its quirks, the NEX-5N does the fundamentals very well, which is why it earns my recommendation. Just remember to try one before you drop $600 or $700 on it!
What I liked:
- Very good photo quality; low noise through ISO 1600 in low light, ISO 3200 in good light
- Compact body (until you attach a lens)
- Articulating 3-inch LCD display with 921k pixels, good outdoor/low light visibility; limited (but still useful) touch features
- Snappy performance in most respects
- Full manual controls, including RAW support
- Anti Motion Blur and Handheld Twilight modes produce usable photos in very low light situations
- HDR feature dramatically improves image contrast
- Fun sweep panorama feature, works in 2D and 3D
- Very fast burst mode shoots at 3.3 fps with continuous AF or 10 fps without it (but not for long)
- Helpful Shooting Tips
- Records Full HD video at 60i or 60p, with stereo sound, continuous AF, image stabilization (if available), and manual controls
- Supports Alpha-mount lenses with fast AF, but at a price
- Optional super high resolution electronic viewfinder
- Best-in-class battery life
What I didn't care for:
- Tends to underexpose by 1/3 or 2/3 stop
- Redeye a problem, no removal tool available
- Menu-driven user interface still needs work, even with addition of custom button
- Design annoyances: camera's size advantage lost when a lens is attached; LCD's 16:9 aspect ratio not suited for still shooting; poorly placed movie button
- Lack of built-in flash means that you must carry the small external flash around with you; proprietary accessory shoe limits you to only one other flash
- Buffer fills quickly in burst mode
- Bare bones playback mode; can't view stills and movies at the same time
- Dust can be a problem
- Slow battery charger included
- Full manual on CD-ROM; quality of manuals is not great
As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera or electronics store to try out the NEX-5N and its competitors before you buy!
Check out our NEX-5N gallery to see how the image quality looks!