The Sony NEX 5N is a great camera. If you’re the type who reads camera reviews and user reports and immediately scrolls to the end to find out the bottom line, then there… I just gave you the bottom line. It’s a great camera. And I didn’t think it would be.
Now, the longer version…
Anytime anybody messes with the standard, defies convention, tries to reinvent all in the name of innovation, then they’re taking a massive risk. If you figure it out as Apple did with the iPod, then they put on the cover of Newsweek and MBA students study you. Fail and you become the butt of every joke and MBA students do study, but not for the reason you’d prefer. Well, for traditionalists (like me), messing with tried and true conventions seems like extra risky business. One of the reasons I love the Fujifilm X100 is that it brings me back to aperture dials and the ability to adjust key settings such as exposure compensation via reassuring and unabashedly physical dials and buttons. No menu surfing here. On DSLRs, the ubiquitous mode dial allows all but the most photographically inexperienced to pick up the beast and start shooting. “A” means Aperture Priority. A little picture of a person’s head means portrait mode, if you stoop so low as to shoot with a camera with scene modes. Conventions. They work… so why tinker?
Simply looking at the NEX 5N, which essentially follows the form established by the earlier NEX 3 and NEX 5, you’ll see that Sony does it all quite differently. Push a button to jump into a customizable interface and you’ll see that mode dial alright, but it will show up on the big and bouncy (i.e., swivel up and down) LCD screen. Turn the multipurpose control wheel and you see that “A”. Aperture Priority. Ah… OK, there it is.
Presumably, this is all done in the name of allowing for a tiny body. You couldn’t possibly cram all the usual suspect dials and buttons on a body this small. So, Sony went back to the drawing board.
I looked at the camera initially and thought, “Uhm… I don’t think so.” But, what I found was a very highly customizable interface. The top of two back facing buttons is set to menu… good. The right most position on the depressible control wheel can be set to… well, lots of things. I set it to the DRO function so that I could turn on the dynamic range optimizer function, which helps bring up bright spots and tone down dark spots, providing more usable detail. There also is the very usable Auto HDR mode (which you can set to +/- 2EV or even more… nice Sony!) which is found within the DRO menu. The bottom button, I declared would be where I set ISO, though in reality, the very nice high ISO capabilities (see below) allowed for quite a bit of ISO range flexing, and so I eventually abandoned this setting in favor or more autofocus control.
The 5N deploys the highly regarded, though constantly being updated, Sony 16mp processor. This may or not be identical to the one used in APS-C leading Nikon D7000 and Pentax K-5 bodies, but I can tell you that it’s just as nice. It shows supreme dynamic range and a great ability to dial up ISO in darker conditions.
The above photo is an example of Auto HDR (+/- 2 EV), nicely stitched in camera… and all made the more practical by virtue of the speedy 10 frames per second. Handheld HDR is very possible here (in all but the most light starved of scenarios).
The photo below (quite the appetizer, with a wonderful sampler of salamis) was shot at ISO 6400. Sure, there’s noise, but this is just not bad. I’ve been recently shooting with my original KM 5D DSLR and this noise level is about what we used to get at 800. Now that’s progress.
Like the X100, the NEX also includes an auto Panorama mode. It works great, though of course if there’s much movement, you’ll get some funky stitching effects. There’s also a 3D pano mode which requires some specialized connections and TV hardware so I couldn’t be bothered. I’m not one for 3D anyways.
I found the AF performance to be hearty and reliable. After shooting with the X100 for so long, I forgot that swift AF on non-DSLRs could be this good. Overall performance, including start-up times and that wonderful frame rate, are all fantastic.
What’s not fantastic? The NEX system. Not yet anyways. At this point, there’s the 16/2.8 which isn’t quite wide enough to be my go-to wide solution… nor long enough to be a good street lens. It’s a tweener and not such a great one at that. All of my shots from this lens required a good dose of contrast boost afterwards. In short, it’s rather flat. The kit 18-55 is pretty adequate… actually it’s more that that. It’s capable. There’s also an 18-200 which looks like a giant on this diminutive body. I didn’t have a chance to test it, but just the appearance of it made me wonder about the whole point of this mirrorless thing. It’s about being smaller and lighter, right?
Sony has announced more lenses, including a 50/1.8, a 30 macro and a moderate tele-zoom. There’s also an expensive Zeiss 24 that’s coming by the end of the year. Now that’s a focal length I’d love to have as it would give you a 36mm equivalent… much like the X100’s 35mm. I want it, but I won’t justify spending the $1,000 they’re asking for it.
At this point, the m4/3 system has it all over the NEX. The lens options are much better. I hope Sony figures out how to fill the pipeline with more lenses, including a fast zoom and more primes… which don’t cost a grand each.
The 5N takes an add on $350 electronic VF which is every bit as nice as the Olympus VF2, which I’ve raved about here. I tend toward being more comfortable using a VF than a back screen, but I became accustomed to tiling the LCD up and using the small camera in a top down, shoot from the hip posture. It worked well for me and I didn’t feel as though the VF was a necessity. The camera ships with a screw in pop up flash which while on the weaker side, actually works quite well. I don’t like that you have to choose whether to use the VF or the flash in the socket. I’d like to use both, thank you.
Where the NEX system tops the smaller sensor equipped m4/3 cameras is in dynamic range and high ISO capabilities. I’ve played around with the m4/3 cameras quite a bit and I’m a fan. But here, the NEX wins. This is made all the more interesting by the fact that Nikon just announced their “1” series of cameras which possess a sensor even smaller than m4/3! I’m sure they don’t want to cannibalize their APS-C line-up, but this move seems rather odd. At least they’ve put a stake in the mirrorless game, leaving Canon as the only major player not yet at the party. I don’t expect that will last for very long.
It’s worth noting also that a “clicking” problem has been identified during video capture. Reportedly, if you move/shake the camera quickly during video shooting, you’ll pick up a noise from the mic that sounds like clicking. I don’t tend to shake a camera in that fashion, so I’m not too worried about it, though it might suggest something’s loose inside or a level ball that’s rolling around too close to the mic. Sony has announced a fix that requires contacting customer service. I’m impressed that Sony recognized and publicly acknowledged the problem so quickly. Nikon has had metering issues and Pentax had a sensor stain snafu and both were MIA on the topic, leaving customers, particularly early adopters, out on the lurch. Good to see Sony taking a different approach.
There’s a Sony NEX 7 coming in November that will possess a 24mp sensor, an in-built electronic VF and a modified “try-navi” interface that provides a couple of extra dials on top for modifying things like aperture and EV. Tri-navi is highly configurable. We’ll test the NEX 7 as we get closer to launch.
Ultimately, I found the shooting experience and image quality to be quite strong and Sony has offered a very compelling APS-C mirrorless option. If they can fill out the system with more and better lenses, I’m sure this is going to be the system to beat.
Finally, you may have seen that 2 Guys Photo is now being sponsored by B&H Photo – see here. Please consider clicking through one of our links to B&H. We’ll get a small financial boost and you won’t pay any more. That will help us expand the site and offer even more content.
Sony NEX 5N body here.
Sony NEX 5N with kit lens here.
Posted by Rey