Sony Alpha NEX-5N Review

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:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Nikon 1 J1 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.2 in. 12.7 cu in. 234 g
Olympus E-P3 4.8 x 2.7 x 1.4 in. 18.1 cu in. 321 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 4.6 x 2.7 x 1.6 in. 19.9 cu in. 272 g
Pentax Q 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.2 in. 10.8 cu in. 180 g
Samsung NX200 4.6 x 2.5 x 1.4 in. 16.1 cu in. 220 g
Sony Alpha NEX-5N 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6 in. 16.9 cu in. 210 g

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:

Front of the Sony Alpha NEX-5N

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.

Back angled view of the Sony Alpha NEX-5N

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.

Back of the Sony Alpha NEX-5N

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).

Top of the Sony Alpha NEX-5N

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.

Left side of the Sony Alpha NEX-5N

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.

Right side of the Sony Alpha NEX-5N

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.

Bottom of the Sony Alpha NEX-5N

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:

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot operation, with automatic scene selection and new Photo Creativity controls. Some menu options are locked up.
Program mode Still automatic, but with all menu options unlocked. You can use the scroll dial to move through various aperture/shutter speed combos (Program Shift).
Aperture Priority mode You set the aperture, and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The available apertures will depend on what lens is attached. For the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, the range is F3.5 - F32.
Shutter Priority mode You pick the shutter speed, and the camera selects the proper aperture. The shutter speed range is 30 - 1/4000 sec.
Full manual (M) mode You select both the aperture and the shutter speed. Same ranges as above. A bulb mode is also available, where the shutter is kept open while the release button is held down.
3D sweep panorama Sweep the camera from side-to-side and a single panoramic image (in 2D or 3D) is created.
Sweep panorama
Anti Motion Blur Takes six exposures in rapid succession and combines them into a single photo. Great for low light and telephoto photography.
Scene Selection mode If you'd rather be the one picking the scene mode, here you go. Choose from portrait, landscape, macro, sports action, sunset, night portrait, night scene, and handheld twilight. This last option is like anti motion blur, combining six exposures into one, for blur-free night shots. It tends to user lower ISO settings than anti motion blur.

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.

A sweep panorama of Samsung's CES booth (in hindsight, I probably should've taken one of the Sony booth)

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.

Taken with anti motion blur, ISO 6400

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 Auto
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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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Auto HDR
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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:

Setting Resolution (frame rate) Bit rate
60p 28M (PS) 1920 x 1080 (60p) 28 Mbps
60i 24M (FX) 1920 x 1080 (60i) 24 Mbps
60i 17M (FH) 1920 x 1080 (60i) 17 Mbps
24p 24M (FX) 1920 x 1080 (24p) 24 Mbps
24p 24M (FH) 1920 x 1080 (24p) 17 Mbps

In PAL countries, frame rates will be and 25 or 50 fps.

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.

Click to play converted movie (1920 x 1080, 60 fps, 46.1 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Download original MTS file (47.8 MB)

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.