SLRs and DSLRs have been my camera of choice for well over a decade. My trusty Nikon D90 has delivered faithfully with excellent image quality and never a problem, and it’s been around my neck for so long, it’s become another appendage. But as I age, (I’m not afraid to admit it!), that DSLR gets heavier and heavier. So do the lenses.
I’ve considered changing it up, I’ve considered the micro 4/3 cameras, mirrorless cameras, and even some pretty capable bridge cameras, but I always came back to “old faithful”. I was never confident that these new fangled rigs with their typically smaller sensors, could satisfy on image quality, and to me that’s what it’s all about – the image. So I’ve trudged along, happy with the quality of my D90, but wishing I had an alternative. I think I might have found one.
Enter the Sony NEX line of ILC’s. These cameras have a smaller, lighter form factor, but boast an APS-C sensor, the same one Sony delivers to Nikon for many of their DSLR’s, and they deliver outstanding image quality. I first heard about the Sony NEX 5N when Rey reviewed it in this post last year. Google this model, and you’ll find numerous reviews, from venerable sources, that rave about not only the camera, but also the image quality, many saying it rivals a DSLR! Holy Hannah – could this be it?
The Sony NEX 5N, with an 18-55 kit lens, plus the Sony 55-210 zoom arrived a week ago. The 5N is last year’s model and is being heavily discounted, making way for the NEX 5R and 6, which join the 7 which is the flagship of the NEX line. In order to see how it stacks up to a DSLR, I’ve been taking it our for a test drive.
This is not like any camera I’ve seen or handled before. It’s form is not only small (the body is smaller in height and width than my iPhone 4, but it is thicker), it has a minimum number of hard buttons and uses some customizable “soft” buttons, and a touch screen. All of which takes some getting used to.
The 18-55 kit lens looks large on the little body, and the 55-210 zoom looks enormous, especially when extended and with the lens hood. Yet, the ergonomics work, at least for me. Surprisingly, I don’t find the camera “front heavy”, and my hands fit comfortably around the grip and support the whole affair nicely. But it does look like a soup can taped to a smartphone.
The touch screen and soft buttons also take some getting used to and the menus are deep, but you can program 7 of your most used functions to the customizable buttons on the back.
Technology advances at lightning speed these days, and cameras are benefiting with features and functions that were unimaginable just a few years ago. This NEX camera reflects that: in-camera automatic HDR and Dynamic Range Optimization, panorama, handheld twilight, and more. The articulated LCD is helpful for low macros of flowers or overhead crowd shots.
But on the downside, there’s no viewfinder – you can purchase an electronic viewfinder (EVF) but it’s expensive. The EVF attaches to the same topside port as the included flash. But you can only use one or the other at the same time. I found that disappointing. And that port is proprietary; it will accommodate a SONY external mic or a larger Sony flash but that’s it.
Here I was not disappointed. Both lenses are image stabilized and yielded impressive results. And the 16 megapixel sensor allows for some significant cropping without sacrificing IQ. Everything posted here from the 5N is straight out of camera (SOOC), unless I note that it’s been cropped.
Low light is handled very well, and the Handheld Twilight mode works well.
The in-camera panorama stitched this scene together nicely but the exposure is flat. (It was a cloudy day and I had DRO off, which didn’t help).
Macro mode is convenient for a quickly getting up close and personal, as these two demonstrate:
On Thursday I’ll post more results from the Sony NEX 5N as I continue my test drive and try to answer the question: “Can this camera replace my DSLR…?” Continue reading here…
In the mean time, if you’ve shot with a NEX camera, please let me know your thoughts.
Thanks for visiting 2 Guys Photo.
Ed – welcome to the land of smaller, highly capable cameras. I believe they are the future of photography and that it’s only a matter of time before most of us are walking around with mirrorless cams. I agree that the Sony NEX is perhaps the first convincing argument that you can have a similarly sized sensor in a much smaller body and the newer announcements/products (5R and 6) prove that there’s a lot of life in the Sony E mount system.
Your macro shots (especially the second) are impressive. I’m looking forward to seeing more…
I also used a D90 for years, lugging it around Asia, and though I love the quality I did not like the weight and bulk, especially trekking when you are carrying all your gear. I recently went with a micro 4/3 system, specifically the Olympus OM-D E-M5. One of the things that attracted me to this system was the small size, especially with the lenses. And the thing that turned me off to the Sony NEX system was how big the lenses were, which for me sort of defeated the purpose of having such a small body. I have been very happy with the Olympus and m43 lenses. I do not think the quality of my shots has suffered with the smaller sensor size.
Thanks for a nice post, and an excellent blog.
Hey Matt – thanks for the comment. I considered the M4/3 format for some time, but in all my research, I couldn’t find anyone willing to say the IQ rivaled a mid-level DSLR, primarily due to the small sensor. So I hesitated, although countless people, such as yourself (and Rey) have praised these systems. So far the IQ of the NEX system is holding up, but the jury is still out.
As for the lens to body ratio – yep, it’s visually out of whack, but honestly, the light weight of the lenses makes it feel a lot more balanced than it looks. The biggest drawback right now for the NEX system, I feel, is the lack of lenses. Sony is working on that, but their offerings are limited and pricey. Lens adapters for non-E mount lenses are also an option, but with a “normal” DSLR lens mounted on a NEX body, you’re really going to start to feel that lopsided size and weight relationship.
Last note – just visited intotheoutdoors.wordpress.com – excellent post on the Wasatch. I’ll be back regularly. Best, Ed
Thanks Rey. I am being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the new age… and I think I like it! Ed
No doubt the world of digital cameras is rapidly changing. But I would be curious to know more about a key function that I believe seems to favor the DSLR. Mirrorless cameras rely on the primary sensor for auto-focusing whereas DSLRs utilize a separate dedicated set of sensors incorporated into the pentaprism. Have the mirrorless cameras been able to approximate the speed and accuracy of focusing enjoyed by DSLR users? This would mostly come into play for fast moving subjects like sports photography and in low light situations. In your experimentation you might comment on what your experience with focusing is for this camera.
Comments: 1: It sure looks funny. 2: I agree that the D90 is getting heavy in my old age. 3: Is that camera really incrementally that much lighter than the D90 with the long lens attached? 4: My D90 now stays home for portrait sessions or goes out for car trips and the Fuji X100 (with its APS-C sensor by the way) is for walkies. 5: I still rebel against having to focus and frame with a camera back LCD vs. an eye level viewfinder (OVF preferred, EVF maybe if it is a good one).
Hi Prentis. I haven’t tested the NEX 5N’s autofocus speed on fast moving subjects, but from what I’ve read – not so hot. For regular about town shooting however, the autofocus speed has been fine. I believe that the 5N uses contrast detection focusing, normally found in point and shoots and many mirrorless cams, versus phase detection, normally found in DSLRs. The latter is faster and that is where a DSLR would prevail. However, the newest NEX, the 6, due out in November, uses a hybrid contrast/phase detection system, so Sony is paying attention.
Re: your comments: 1) agree; 2) my neck agrees; 3) I’ll look up and post the difference in weights but it seems substantially lighter; 4) Ahh, the X100 – nobody doesn’t like that baby!; 5) me too – the LCD is fine for some situations, but the VF, or EVF, makes a world of difference to me, not only in bright light but in providing for the camera a point of stability against my solid as a rock head. 😉 Ed
Prentis – in the world of mirrorless, the Olympus EM5 is in a league all its own (though the new Panasonic GH3 is said to rival it). I’ve shot with all these cameras and the lock on AF of the Oly is unsurpassed. With that said, for subject tracking and erratically moving objects, you can’t yet beat the phase detect systems of DSLRs. If photographing moving subjects was an important objective for me, I’d still be lugging bigger cams. Thankfully, I’m not one to photograph much action these days.
Going back, though, I recall photographing sports as the photo editor of my college newspaper using an all manual Pentax K1000. I look at some of those shots, taken with a fairly narrow DOF with manual focus lenses and getting tack sharp images, and think about how it’s still possible to photograph motion with focus tracking systems that are less than state-of-the-art.
Interesting how most of us (not counting Leica shooters) have happily relegated the job of focusing to the camera itself and then get upset if it doesn’t always nail it. I occasionally pick up my wife’s old Minolta X-700 film camera (shown in my camera collection entry on this site) and marvel at how quickly and accurately you can focus through the lens using the split image in the viewfinder and a twist of the wrist on the focus ring. There is no doubt about what you are focusing on either. It is also interesting that this old Minolta, while a true SLR, still isn’t much bigger than the Fuji X100, it is lighter, and of course it is full frame. If someone would put a digital sensor where the film goes it would be an awesome camera. I don’t suppose a camera manufacturer would ever introduce a manual focus DSLR like this but I would buy on in a microsecond if they did.
I love my D90! I’m not sure I could give it up, but those new smaller cameras do look appealing. Looks like they take some great images too! Keep us posted on how it’s getting along.
I hear you Roy. The D90 is simply a great camera, I never thought I’d find a smaller alternative that matched its IQ. But besides that, the NEX line is so much smaller and lighter. In the next installment (Thursday) I compare the weight of the D90 to the 5N. It’s surprising the difference. Thanks for stopping by. Ed