Sony Alpha NEX-5 Review

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor

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:

Camera Battery life w/live view
(CIPA standard)
Battery used
Olympus E-PL2 280 shots BLS-5
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 300 shots * DMW-BLD10
Samsung NX100 420 shots BP1310
Sony Alpha NEX-5 330 shots NP-FW50

* With the 14 - 42 mm kit lens

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

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:

Accessory Model # Price * Description
Lenses Varies Varies You can use any of the three E-mount lenses I mentioned above, or "classic" A-mount lenses using the adapter below
Fisheye conversion lens VCL-ECF1 From $150 Converts the 16 mm pancake lens into a 10 mm fisheye
Ultra-wide conversion lens VCL-ECU1 From $115 Reduces the focal length of the 16 mm conversion lens to 12 mm
A-mount adapter LA-EA1 From $160 Allows you to use Sony or Minolta A-mount lenses, though only those with SSM or SAM motors will support autofocus.
Optical viewfinder FDA-SV1

From $149

This large optical viewfinder attaches to the proprietary mount on top of the camera and is designed to work with the 16 mm pancake lens
Stereo microphone ECM-SST1 $129 Attaches to the proprietary shoe on the top of the camera and gets power from the camera. Directivity of sound can be selected between 90 or 120 degrees. Includes a windscreen.
Wireless remote control RMT-DSLR1 $27 Control the camera in record and playback mode wirelessly
AC adapter AC-PW20 From $92 Power the camera without using your battery. I'd love to know why these cost so much.
Leather body case LCS-EMB1A/B $45 Fits around the sides and bottom of the camera to protect it (at least somewhat) from scratches
* Prices were accurate at time of publication

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.