What's hot: Fantastic photos from a tiny camera, great build quality.
What's not: We want more lenses to choose from, some features not available in auto mode.
Reviewed August 24, 2010 by Lisa Gade, Editor
The war is starting to heat up in the brave new world of ILCs (interchangeable lens cameras). Olympus started it in the fall of 2009 with their PEN camera that looked like the retro PEN range-finder of old but boasted their micro 4/3 sensor that was a sibling to the sensor used in Olympus DSLRs. Panasonic and Samsung have jumped in, and Sony is the first of the big 3 (comprised of Canon, Nikon and Sony) to enter the market. The NEX-5 is a 14.2 megapixel camera that's available with 2 kits lenses. The kit lenses are the fairly common among ILCs: a wide angle pancake lens (Sony’s is wider than most though) and a 3x zoom lens. A more expensive 18-200mm long zoom isn’t bundled and is instead sold solo. The NEX series is a part of the Alpha line of Sony cameras (it joins their DSLRs).
Interchangeable lens cameras marry the large DSLR size sensor with the compact design of a range finder camera. They actually aren't SLR cameras since they use direct view rather than an internal mirror and tradition pentaprism design. That means you'll use the LCD to frame your shots since there's no piece of glass to look through (though an optional electronic viewfinder is available that does basically the same thing).
Who's the NEX-5 for? Someone who's looking for DSLR quality in a much, much lighter and more compact form. It's also ideal for those who are moving up from a point and shoot because it features an LCD-driven control system rather than a lot of dials and buttons. If you’ve used recent Sony Cyber-shot cameras, you’ll likely feel at home with the NEX series. Serious shooters will likely miss the hardware controls, but I've been shooting serious with SLRs for decades and have adapted easily to the NEX-5. Many settings are within easy reach via menus, but a few key ones like ISO take many presses.
Sony, being Sony, had to make the smallest ILC camera body yet. Their new e-mount lenses aren't the smallest since the Sony uses a full APS-C (DSLR size sensor). The larger the sensor, the larger the lens. That's actually a very good thing because a larger sensor means higher quality images. Both NEX models use the Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor (23.4 x 15.6mm) and the Bionz image processor. Sony is among the first to shun micro 4/3 in ILCs, and we've found the NEX-5 to have the best image quality among current ILCs. In fact, it can take some really stunning photos that rival those of an APS-C sensor based DSLR. Should you wish to use Sony Alpha DSLR A-mount lenses you can do so via Sony’s $199 adapter (there are 3rd party adapters for other lens brands). You do lose autofocus with non E-mount lenses.
The camera can also shoot full 1920 x 1080 60i video in AVCHD format (and MPEG4 lower resolutions too). The $100 cheaper NEX-3 shoots MPEG4 video up to 1440 x 1080 at 30fps rather than AVCHD, has a flatter hand grip and it has a plastic rather than metal body. Otherwise it's the same. Video quality in AVCHD is also excellent and the camera continuously focuses for sharp video (DSLRs can't do that). Both kit lenses are quiet when focusing so they don't intrude into recorded audio tracks.
The NEX-5 sells for $649 to $699 depending on which kit lens you go with: the 16mm f2.8 pancake or the 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 zoom. Sony also offers a bundle with both lenses for $799 (you save $150). The same bundle is available for the NEX-3 and it costs $100 less than the NEX-5 bundle. The NEX-5 is available in silver or black though the metal clad lenses are only available in silver. The NEX-3 is available in silver, black and red. Typically the NEX-5 and NEX-3 are sold in one-lens kits; if purchased separately, the 16mm sells for $249 and the 18-55mm zoom for $299. The 18-200mm zoom should sell for approximately $800.
The Sony NEX-5 wearing the 16mm kit lens with the 18-55mm zoom alternate kit lens (and recommended if you're going with just 1 lens).
The magnesium alloy body on the NEX-5 speaks of quality and durability. It looks classy, modern and unique. The design is minimalist and there are few buttons and no knobs. The NEX-5 (and even NEX-3) look like quality pieces, though they’re not as cool looking as the PEN with its retro-rangefinder look that camera buffs adore. The metal lenses are gorgeous and feel great in hand. The focus and zoom rings move with just the right amount of resistance and the zoom never slides down under gravity’s influence. The lens mount is metal on the NEX-5. The lenses are very light and the body weighs only 10 ounces, and that means no aching neck.
The large 3” LCD dominates the back and it’s a stunning piece of display technology that employs Sony’s TruBlack technology and has 921,000 dots (3x more than the PEN cameras and at least 2x more than other competitors in this space). That’s important since the LCD is your only means of framing a shot unless you purchase the pricey optical viewfinder. The display is clearly viewable outdoors, even in our Texas summer sun, thanks to outdoor mode. If you’re manual focusing, the camera will automatically switch to a zoomed in view so you can more clearly check focus.
The articulated LCD works well for waist level shooting and above-the-head shooting.
Image quality is simply amazing for a camera whose body is barely larger than a point and shoot. In fact, it competes well with consumer DSLRs equipped with kit lens (in some cases it does better). I usually use a Canon EOS 50D, a DSLR that Canon groups into their professional line (though at the low end since it lacks a full frame 35mm film sized sensor and uses an APS-C sensor). I use a Canon EF-S f2.8 EPS 60mm macro lens as my daily driver, and a mid-range Canon EF-S 17-85mm zoom for landscapes. The Sony and its kit lenses manage to capture more landscape detail at 100% view! The Canon, in part thanks to the f2.8 macro lens, takes better shots indoors of objects and people. I’d love to see Sony expand their line of E-mount lenses to include a 30 or 50mm macro film equivalent prime and a pro quality zoom lens; the photos would likely be incredible. The NEX series has only been out a few months, and as we’ve seen with other manufacturers' ILC lenses, the lineup is lacking. Hopefully that will change, and Sony will roll out the 18-200mm zoom in September of 2010.
Direct view cameras are champs with low light and the Sony does particularly well (better than our Nikon D70s DSLR with its decent Nikkor 18-70mm f3.5-4.5G kit lens). Unlike the Olympus PEN EP-1 and EP-2, an accessory flash is included. There’s no room for a hot shoe and the tiny flash mounts to the NEX’s proprietary accessory port that can also accommodate an external stereo mic ($129) and electronic viewfinder ($199). The drawback is that you can’t use more than one accessory at a time. The flash has a guide number of 7 at ISO 100, which is typical of ILCs and is low compared to the pop-up flash on a DSLR. The flash happens to work wonderfully as a fill flash (its lack of umph is a good thing here). Given how little light the NEX needs to take a good photo, the flash is adequate for a dark room if your subject is centered in the frame. I’ve found that I so seldom need the flash (other than for work that requires a fill flash), that I rarely leave it attached. The flash attaches via a thumbscrew that’s hard to get at (annoying).
The tiny flash is included as is the carry case that mounts on the strap.
The kit lenses are what you’d expect from kits lenses: a huge step up from point and shoot optics and decent performance by consumer DSLR standards. They aren’t up to pro lens standards (and cost a fraction of the price). We noted chromatic aberration typical of a kit lens on both the 16mm pancake and 18-55mm zoom, and distortion at each end of the zoom range on the zoom. The pancake shows some distortion (not the classic barrel distortion either, making it harder to fix manually), though it has less distortion than the zoom at the wide angle end and is faster for better low light shots. For the casual shooter the distortion will be hard to notice but serious photographers will spot it. These are automatically fixed in Adobe Lightroom 3, and Photoshop CS5 promises lens correction via the latest camera RAW plugin.
Sony’s own desktop software for Windows and Mac OS X is also included for those who don’t own decent image conversion and editing software. It’s fast, easy to use and can handle RAW conversion as well as burning movies to Blu-ray. Note that you must shoot in RAW to use lens correction in apps that offer this feature. We always recommend RAW if you want the sharpest possible images, though novices might prefer to go with JPEGs, and the Sony does turn out excellent JPEGs with sharp colors and good exposure (though there’s less detail since JPEG is a compressed format). The only place where the Sony falls down is in indoor shots under incandescent lighting: these are too warm. We loaded the latest 2.0 firmware and noted that this problem wasn’t fixed, rather it was more pronounced.
The NEX-5 with zoom lens, the Nikon D70s and Panasonic Lumix point and shoot.
Reviewers that tend to review high end DSLRs haven’t been keen on the NEX’s menu system. This is not a tiny DSLR for the photography enthusiast who wants a miniature SLR or rangefinder experience. The usual top dial for PASM modes isn’t there (it’s replaced by a clever on-screen virtual dial), and there are few buttons. Nearly everything is done via 6 icons and it’s mostly very intuitive for a point and shooter. In fact, it’s a lot easier to understand Sony’s system than the arcane text-based menus on many current point and shoot cameras. Nikon DSLR menus make my mother weep, but she gets the Sony UI with no problems. But if you’re a Leica guy or a Canon girl who shoots professionally or as a serious hobbyist, you’ll miss the quick access to myriad settings.
Our video review covers the Sony NEX-5 from top to bottom and we do a tour of the on-screen controls so you can see if they’re your cup of tea:
For you point and shooters and those who want great shots without lots of geeking and hassle, the NEX has an excellent iAuto mode that handles everything for you. Unless you’ve got an art shot or an indoor close-up of an object to work with, iAuto will probably do just as good as you (if you’re a camera person) and better if you’re a casual Joe. Sony’s excellent HDR (high dynamic range) option increases your chances of an excellent shot in high contrast settings like silhouetted subjects where you don’t want a stark white subject and black everything else (or vice versa). HDR takes 3 photos at different exposures when you press the shutter button and combines them into one shot with detail in all areas (dark and light). We wish that the HDR option was available in iAuto mode, but strangely it’s not. We’d also like it if you could shoot HDR in RAW mode, but it’s limited to JPEG. Fortunately, the camera turns out excellent JPEGs.
The HDR feature turns dark and muddy trees (left) into an evenly exposed scene with detail in foreground trees aplenty (right shot with HDR).
The camera, like all ILCs, uses 25 point contrast focus and it’s relatively fast among its competitors, though not as fast as a high end DSLR. Focusing is nearly silent and you won’t hear it in video recordings. The camera offers spot, center and multi-mode metering and has the usual plethora of intelligent shooting tools such as face detection, smile detection and scene detection that aid in focus patterns and exposure.
The NEX-5 has a top shutter speed of 1/4000 and it goes down to 30 seconds. There are self-timer, continuous shot (2.3fps standard and 7fps in Speed Priority mode), sweep panorama and 3D panorama modes (3D requires firmware 2.0, update your camera if need be).
The NEX cameras can shoot in JPEG standard and fine, JPEG + RAW and RAW modes. RAW images are 15 megs while fine JPEGs are around 5 megs. The camera can shoot in standard 4:3 and widescreen 16:9 aspect ratios. You can adjust EV +/- 2.0 and work with ISO up to 12800 (ISO that high isn’t available in all modes). The camera has 9 scene modes you can pre-select and it will also select from these when in iAuto. The Handheld Twilight scene mode is particularly interesting: when you press the shutter it takes 6 shots and combines the imagines into one to reduce noise and blur.
Here are a variety of sample photos taken with the Sony NEX-5 and the two kit lenses. The images have been resized and in some cases clarity has been increased with Adobe Lightroom 3, but they are otherwise untouched. Most images were shot as JPEGs.
Interchangeable lens cameras are an exciting technology that brings direct focus, improved low light shooting and miniaturization to the high quality photography space. For years, you had to move up to an SLR to get better images and interchangeable lenses, even if you didn’t want the weight and complexity. ILCs have changed that, and Sony’s on the right track with their large sensor, super-small and lightweight NEX series. The camera is easy enough for a novice or casual photographer (you probably won’t leave the capable iAuto mode), yet it offers the control of a DSLR for advanced photographers. The graphical interface will likely be off-putting to seasoned DSLR users who want hardware controls at their fingertips and rely on muscle memory, but if you’re willing to use LCD menus, the Sony NEX takes the best images among ILCs. Combine that with excellent build quality, metal lenses and the joy (and stealth) of a tiny 10 ounce camera body, and you’ve got the recipe for excellent shooting.
Incredibly small and light
Good build quality and looks
3 useful lenses available early in the NEX's life
Fantastic image quality
Easy to use if you're moving up from a point and shoot
Very capable iAuto mode is smarter than many of us
Flash is included
Excellent low light capabilities, even with the slower zoom lens
Impressive AVCHD video quality
Continuous autofocus for video shooting
Top notch, extremely high resolution 3" LCD with good outdoor visibility and zoom that's handy for manual focus
LCD-based menu system may be off-putting to SLR photographers
Few lenses compared to full sized DSLR cameras
ISO setting is buried
Can only use one accessory port item at a time (annoying if you want both the flash and electronic viewfinder)
Price: $649 to $699 for the NEX-5 with 1 lens, $549-$599 for the NEX-3 with 1 lens. Kits available with both kit lenses for $699 (NEX-3) and $799 (NEX-5)
* Flash Bracketing : 3 frames, 1/3, 2/3EV steps selectable
* Flash Compensation : +/-2EV,1/3EV steps
* Flash Coverage : FOV coverage up to 16 mm (in the focal length)
* Flash Metering System : Pre-flash TTL
* Flash Modes : Autoflash, Fill-flash, Rear sync., Slow sync., Red-eye reduction
* Flash Type : Smart accessory terminal (HVL-F7S Flash Supplied)
* Guide Number : 7 (in meters at ISO 100)
* Recycling Time : Approx. 4 sec
* Media Type : Memory Stick PRO Duo/Pro-HG Duo/PRO-HG HX Duo media SD, SDHC and SDXC memory card
* Color Space : sRGB, AdobeRGB
* Still Image Mode : JPEG (Standard, Fine), RAW, RAW+JPEG
* Still Image Size 16:9 : L (12M): 4592 X 2576 M (6.3M): 3344 X 1872 S (2.9M): 2288 X 1280
* Still Image Size 3:2 : L (14M): 4592 X 3056 M (7.4M): 3344 X 2224 S (3.5M): 2288 X 1520
* Video Format : AVCHD / MP4 (MPEG-4 AVC (H.264))
* Video Resolution : AVCHD: 1920 x 1080/ 60i MP4 HD: 1440 x 1080/ 30p MP4 VGA: 640 x 480/ 30p
* Audio Format : Dolby Digital (AC-3) / MPEG-4 AAC-LC
* Focus System : Contrast AF
* Focus Points : 25 points
* AF Modes : Single-shot AF, Continuous AF, Direct Manual Focus, Manual Focus
* Focus Area : Multi Point AF (25 points), Center Weighted AF, Flexible Spot AF
* Focus Sensitivity : 0 EV to 20 EV (at ISO100 conversion with F2.8 lens)
* Manual Focus Assist : Magnified display for precise manual focus
* Focus Features : Predictive Focus Control, Focus Lock
* AF Illuminator : Built-in, LED type
* Auto Exposure Lock : Yes (AE Lock with focus lock)
* Color Temperature : 2500 - 9900 k with 19-step Magenta / Green compensation
* Creative Style : Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, B/W
* D-Range Optimizer : Yes: (Auto, Level 1-5, off)
* Exposure Compensation : +/-2EV (in 1/3 EV steps)
* Exposure Settings : iAUTO, Program Auto (P), Aperture priority (A), Shutter priority (S), Manual (M)
* ISO : Auto, 200 to 12800
* Metering : 49 Segment metering from CMOS image sensor
* Metering Modes : Multi-segment, Center-weighted, Spot
* Metering Sensitivity : 0EV-20EV, (at ISO 100 equivalent w/ f/2.8 lens)
* Noise Reduction : Long exp.NR: (On/Off, available at shutter speeds longer than 1 second) High ISO NR: (Auto/Weak)
* Scene Mode(s) : Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports action, Sunset, Night portrait, Night View, Handheld Twilight
* White Balance Mode : Auto,Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Flash, Setting the color temperature,Custom