Sony Alpha NEX-5N Review


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

Some other interchangeable lens cameras worth considering include the Nikon 1 J1, Olympus E-P3, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1, Pentax Q (I guess), and the Samsung NX200.

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!

Photo Gallery

Check out our NEX-5N gallery to see how the image quality looks!

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.