Sony Alpha NEX-5 Review

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:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon EOS Rebel T2i 5.1 x 3.8 x 3.0 in. 58.1 cu in. 475 g
Nikon D5000 5.0 x 4.1 x 3.1 in. 63.6 cu in. 560 g
Olympus E-PL2 4.5 x 2.9 x 1.7 in. 22.2 cu in. 317 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 4.4 x 2.7 x 1.3 in. 15.4 cu in. 265 g
Pentax K-r 4.9 x 3.8 x 2.7 in. 50.3 cu in. 544 g
Samsung NX100 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 in. 18.4 cu in. 282 g
Sony Alpha NEX-3 4.6 x 2.5 x 1.4 in. 16.1 cu in. 239 g
Sony Alpha NEX-5 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6 in. 16.9 cu in. 229 g

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?

Front of the Sony Alpha NEX-5

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.

Back angled view of the Sony Alpha NEX-5

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.

Back of the Sony Alpha NEX-5

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:

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene selection. Most menu options locked up, which includes exposure compensation!
Program Auto mode Still point-and-shoot, but with full menu access. No Program Shift feature is available.
Aperture priority mode You choose aperture, camera picks appropriate shutter speed. Range depends on lens used. For the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, the range is F3.5 - 32. For the 16 mm pancake, it's F2.8 - F22.
Shutter priority mode You choose shutter speed, and the camera selects the aperture. Shutter speed range is 30 - 1/4000 sec.
Manual mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself (same ranges as above). A bulb mode will keep the shutter open for as long as the shutter release is pressed.
3D Sweep Panorama Create panoramic images by "sweeping" the camera from side-to-side; the 3D mode requires one of those fancy new 3D televisions, or a similar setup on your computer.
Sweep Panorama
Anti-motion blur Combines six exposures into a single photo with the goal of reducing blur.
Scene selection You pick the situation, and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Choose from portrait, landscape, macro, sports action, sunset, night portrait, night view, handheld night shot).

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.

Anti-motion blur example (ISO 5000)

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!

Top of the Sony Alpha 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.

Side of the Sony Alpha NEX-5

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.

Side of the Sony Alpha NEX-5

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.

Bottom of the Sony Alpha NEX-5

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.