The world of photography is like so many others: A vast gulf separates the amateurs and enthusiasts, from equipment to nomenclature to skills. I am decidedly in the amateur camp when it comes to photography, but I recently upgraded to a new compact interchangeable-lense camera, the Sony alpha NEX-5. It is an excellent match for my needs, allowing me to expand my skills and explore more advanced photographic techniques without sacrificing portability and ease of use.
Exploring Photography, Exploring the World
I have become increasingly dissatisfied with the photographs I’ve taken. Much of the blame rests on my meagre skills as a photographer, of course, but these have been improving to the point that I’ve touched some limits of point-and-shoot digital cameras. They lack the image processing, customizability, and shot-to-shot performance of larger cameras, but it was poor low-light capability that really hampered my photos.
A photographer friend explains that a camera is like a funnel in the rain, only collecting light (photons) instead of raindrops (water). The skill of photography is matching the size of the opening to the varying conditions encountered while exploring the world. Compact point-and-shoot cameras use tiny sensors and poor optics: Skill and trickery can extract decent photos from them, but the bigger sensors and better optics found on larger cameras make them far more flexible and adaptable.
The art of photography is another matter entirely. The world we live in is full of beauty, leading to the wonderful truism that the best camera is the one you have at hand. Some people are happy to carry a large camera and a variety of lenses and accessories wherever they go, others are content with snapshots from a pocket camera or cell phone, and many don’t care to take photographs at all. The unfortunate remainder regret not having an appropriate camera whenever and wherever they find themselves.
In my travels for work and pleasure, I have always tried to capture what I see using whatever camera I had at hand. I progressed from a cheap but tiny HP Photosmart camera to a Nikon PowerShot E4300, a Canon SD850, and a Canon SD1100 over the past decade. I carefully researched and selected the Canons based on their usability, optical image stabilization, and above-average sensors and optics, but portability was critical. I am not a camera bag guy, and a camera I can’t slip into a jacket pocket would sit at home.
I am proud of a few of the tens thousands of photos that resulted, but too many are grainy, dim, blurry, or washed out. The tiny sensors and basic lenses of these cameras simply couldn’t match my growing aspirations. This left me in a quandry: I wanted a larger sensor and better optics but knew I wouldn’t lug a huge D-SLR wherever I went.
Sony alpha NEX: Portablility and Quality
I was introduced to the nascent world of prosumer cameras by my friends Simon Seagrave and Greg Ferro. Simon’s Canon PowerShot G11 impressed me with its build quality, flexible manual controls, and fine optics, though the tiny sensor lacks low-light sensitivity. Greg’g Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 opened my eyes to the possibility of large SLR-like sensors and interchangeable lenses in a compact camera. I strongly considered the Olympus PEN E-PL1 before hearing about Sony’s NEX-3 and NEX-5.
The Sony NEX, like the Panasonic/Olympus Micro Four-Thirds system and the Samsung NX10, omit the mirror and pentaprism viewfinder of a true SLR in favor of compact dimensions. The resulting cameras can be as small as some point-and-shoot models when equipped with a reasonably-sized lense, and fitting one with a non-zoom lense (a prime or “pancake” in the vernacular) results in an eminently-pocketable camera without sacrificing image quality. Some call these “Mirrorless Interchangeable Lense Cameras“, but there are many other names besides.
Sony went one step further than their competitors, designing a compact digital camera from the ground up. The DSLR-standard APS-C image sensor is the only holdover. It’s 50% larger than a Micro Four/Thirds sensor and an amazing 13 times larger than the sensors used in typical point-and-shoot cameras like my Canons. Although 14.2 megapixels is impressive, Sony’s latest “Exmor” sensor is more about quality and sensitivity than pixel count. The rest of the camera was designed around this sensor, with an emphasis placed on minimizing the physical size of the camera while preserving the critical lense-to-sensor corridor.
The NEX-3 is small and light, but the NEX-5 is even more compact. Its magnesium body seems shrink-wrapped around the optics, with bulk chisled out around the standard tripod nut and lense mount. The NEX-5 would be almost as tiny as my old SD1100 without the lense and flash, but a realistic configuration is larger. Attach the 16 mm pancake and flash and it matches the E4300 – pocketable for jacket if not trousers. It is amazingly light as well, though quite a bit heavier than most compacts. Equipped with the 18-55 mm zoom, a NEX camera is much smaller than an equivalent SLR, but solidly in the “camera bag” class.
Purchasing the NEX-5
My first hands-on experience with the NEX line came in early September at Microcenter in Sunnyvale, CA. Although the staff wasn’t much help, they let me take my time exploring their NEX-5 demo unit. I was immediately taken buy the little camera, and was surprised by how small it was relative to the Nikon and Canon D-SLRs and even the Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras.
They had just received their initial shipment, and I purchased their sole NEX-5 kit: A silver body with the 18-55 mm zoom lense. I also picked up the 16 mm “pancake” lense, happy for a $150 package discount, though I skipped the shotgun microphone, optical viewfinder, and weird Sony “body wrap” cases. The total cost was $798 plus tax, matching just about every online retailer I could find. I’m using a 16 GB Class-6 SDHC card I purchased previously.
Since this is an on-the-go portable camera, cases and straps are important. Most camera bags are take-it-all duffels designed with D-SLRs in mind or point-and-shoot slip cases. I wanted something that would protect the camera and both lenses but still fit in my laptop backpack or suitcase. I located the small hard-sided Case Logic MSEC-4 EVA Molded Camcorder Case that just fits, and the NEX-5 and 16 mm pancake will also slip into an old leather pouch I used for the Nikon E4300. I am currently using a Canon hand strap rather than the bulky neck strap included in the box.
Image quality is superb, with reviews gushing about low-light/high-ISO sensitivity, color accuracy, and good (if not pro) optics. I’m not really able to judge these things, but I can definitely state that it’s night-and-day better than any camera I’ve used. The big sensor and optics allow me to skip the flash in most cases, eliminating the too-bright snapshot look of so many of my photos. For the first time I have a camera with real depth of field flexibility and manual focus, and I’m loving my up-close photos.
Sony’s automation really improves my shooting as well, with Intelligent Auto mode adding quality to quick shots. If I want more control I can use Program Auto, or the shutter- or aperature-priority modes. The in-camera high dynamic range (HDR) and bracketing functions are only moderately effective, but the “Hand-held Twilight” feature is really impressive, combining six images to eliminate low-light noise. I’ve only begun to explore the various shooting modes but feel that Sony was wise to include consumer-oriented features and automatic operation with quality components.
The NEX menus leave something to be desired, however. Basic functions like ISO and white balance are buried in menus and seem haphazardly scattered, and button functions change in a way that isn’t always logical. I wish the camera included manual knobs or even consistent shortcuts for basic shooting parameters. Although Sony’s shooting tips are context-sensitive and genuinely helpful, the hard button taken up could be reassigned to a more-useful function.
Battery life is good if not great, and I am not as bothered by some reviewers with the long-ish time it take to power on the camera. Responsiveness is excellent, as is continuous-shot performance, and everything feels solid and ergonomic. I love how the camera body, lense zoom and focus rings, and control buttons fall to hand, and the tilting LCD is sharp and bright.
The NEX-5 has only basic video controls, but it shoots both 1440×1080 MPEG4 and 1920×1080/60i AVCHD. Video quality is remarkable – it’s a different world from my Canon SD1100, Kodak Zi8, or iPhone 4, and better than most consumer camcorders I’ve tried. It is comparable to the Canon Mark II footage shot by the video team hired for Tech Field Day, though their pro three-CCD Panasonic camera leaves it in the dust. Shooting with the 18-55 mm zoom is particularly nice, retaining autofocus and stabilization.
Sony Style Lock-In?
I’m not really a Sony fan, but the NEX cameras are thankfully free of many of their foolish lock-in “ecosystem” hobby horses. I never considered buying a Memory Stick-only camera, and was glad to see Sony (finally) add support for standard SD memory cards. In fact, the dual-purpose slot on the NEX-5 fits an SD card better than Sony’s own Memory Stick PRO Duo media! The NEX cameras use standard Mini USB and HDMI cables, reducing travel weight, and are fully supported by the Apple software I use: iPhoto is compatible with NEX RAW photos, the MPEG4 videos work everywhere, and Final Cut Pro reads the AVCHD video without a plug-in.
The new E-mount lenses are found only on three Sony cameras, but this is to be expected for an entirely new lense/image system. Third-party E-mount lenses are already appearing, and Sony just released an expensive 200 mm zoom. An adapter is available to mount the wide world of Sony/Minolta A-mount lenses, though stabilization and auto-focus are disabled.
My biggest “ecosystem” complaint is the proprietary flash/microphone mount. The included flash is better than that on most compact cameras and small enough to leave attached, but it’s no powerhouse. It would have been nice to have compatibility with the wide world of third-party flash units, but a standard hotshoe just wouldn’t fit in the slim NEX body.
That the same mount also includes a proprietary microphone connector is a much bigger issue for me. Indeed, the lack of a conventional microphone jack was almost deal-breaking. The secret to great video is often the quality of the audio, and even the very good in-body microphones on the NEX-5 leave much to be desired. I am hopeful that the connector will be reverse-engineered and an 8 mm mic adapter accessory will appear.
The NEX-5 is a winner, combining excellent hardware, good (if sometimes-frustrating) software, and amazing portability. I just can’t get over that I can pack the camera and two lenses in a case smaller than an equivalent D-SLR body! Foregoing the zoom in favor of the 16 mm pancake transforms the camera into a pocketable companion for many occasions, relegating the iPhone 4 camera for emergency use only.
I expected to love the 16 mm “pancake” lense and leave the zoom behind, but am finding myself doing the opposite so far. The versatility and quality of the zoom makes it worth its weight and bulk, and I expect the prime will only see “snapshot” and macro use. I also find myself leaving the flash attached “just in case” though I rarely use it.
Overall, the NEX-5 is well worth the money for an enthusiastic amateur like me. Photo and video quality are a world better than any compact camera and rival the D-SLR world. I preferred the Sony’s smaller size and imaging performance to the “mirrorless” competitors from Olympus, Panasonic, and Samsung, though their controls and standard hotshoes are better. Solid construction, better “feel”, and AVCHD video in the NEX-5 was worth the $100 premium over the NEX-3. All things considered, there isn’t a better camera on the market for someone like me.