PDN Camera Review: SONY NEX-5
Aug 2, 2010
By Dan Havlik
However, the NEX-5 attached to its other kit lens option—a 16mm f/2.8—is a different animal altogether. That snub-nosed, fixed-focal lens with its fast aperture is well suited for this high-end compact camera that made a splash when it debuted in prototype form at the PMA show earlier this year.
But let me back up for a sec. Maybe you haven’t heard of the 14.2-megpixel Sony NEX-5? If not, here’s the main highlight of this little camera: It uses an APS-C sized (24x16mm) CMOS sensor, similar to those you’d find in a true digital SLR. Instead of a mirror, the NEX-5 has an electronic shutter like those in most compacts but, unlike traditional point-and-shoots, the Sony accepts interchangeable lenses, giving it more versatility.
Yes, if you read the tech blogs, the NEX-5 is what you would call an EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) camera. Though EVIL is an unfortunate moniker for these types of cameras, it seems to have stuck and currently Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony are all offering EVIL-type models.
The advantage of ditching the mirror of a DSLR is that it allows the camera to be slimmer and lighter. Up until now, the quality of these pseudo-DSLRs has been hit-or-miss; I found some to be too slow to focus, while others offer only so-so images quality in low light. For the most part, I think pros will be disappointed in the performance so, as a general rule, I avoid recommending them.
Though the Sony NEX-5 certainly has some quirks that will likely turn serious photographers off, its image quality is the best I’ve seen for this type of camera and it’s performance is positively snappy. (Sony seems to have solved the problem of the glacial autofocus speeds associated with the contrast-based AF systems used in these types of compact cameras.)
So while the NEX-5 may look bizarre, if you avoid the 18-55mm lens and go with the 16mm f/2.8, this camera is a lot of fun to use and easily stows away in a camera bag or coat pocket for on-the-go photo ops. It’ll also produce still images and HD video quality on par with what you’ll find with some entry-level HD-DSLRs.
EVIL IS AS EVIL DOES?
Unfortunately, for all its pluses, the Sony NEX-5 is not designed for pros. For starters, its interface is almost completely menu-driven and finding basic settings such as adjusting ISO takes several clicks and scrolls. Not good. I haven’t been able to talk to any consumers who’ve used the NEX-5 (or its stablemate, the lower-priced NEX-3) but I wonder if they like beginner-focused features such as the menu prompt that tells you how to “defocus” the background or make it “crisp”—rather than suggesting f/stops.
More experienced photographers will have to dig through the menus to find Aperture Priority to set the lens to f/2.8. That’s kind of annoying but once it’s done it’s done, and image quality was surprisingly good with the 16mm capturing sharp photos in dim available light with tasty background blurring.
The Achilles’ heel of some EVIL cameras is that they use smaller Micro Four Thirds sensors which, while bigger than the chips in most compact cameras, are smaller than those you’d find in most DSLRs. Consequently, when shooting in low light at anything above ISO 800, you’re going to get gobs of ugly image noise.
The NEX-5 with its larger APS-C sized CMOS sensor, however, did remarkably well in capturing clean images up to ISO 1600. I only wish Sony had resisted putting a 14.2MP sensor in the camera and had instead gone for a 10MP chip. The difference in resolution between 14MP and 10MP is negligible but putting fewer pixels on even an APS-C sized sensor can greatly reduce image noise at high ISOs. (Had Sony done this, the camera would likely be as good at ISO 3200 as it is now at 1600.)
I also hope Sony will offer more prime lenses with fast apertures. While I liked the 16mm (which converts to roughly a 25.6mm lens with the APS-C 1.6x magnification factor), how about an ultra-wide “pancake” prime with an f/2.0 aperture? With companion glass like that, the NEX-5 would be the ultimate digital camera for street photography, while selling for over $6,000 dollars less than the Leica M9 which is the current street champ.
Whether Sony decides to go that route with future lenses for these NEX models—or the super zoom route—will determine the target audience for the camera. As it is, I see the NEX-5 as a great first step.
The camera also impressed me with its excellent HD movie mode. I brought the NEX-5 on a helicopter trip over New York City as research for an article on aerial photography (see that story here) and the camera’s lightweight and crisp HD footage (full 1080p HD in the AVCHD format; 720p in the MP4 format) gave me the right combination of portability and quality. Plus, the NEX-5 offers stereo recording in video mode—though during the helicopter trip it only captured the furious “chop-chop” of the rotor blades. Also helpful were the continuous autofocus and autoexposure.
And while the NEX-5’s nifty little attachable flash (included) gave me great fill while shooting photographer Vincent Laforet as he leaned out of the helicopter to take a picture, I wish the camera had some kind of optical viewfinder, even as an attachable accessory. Though the tilting 3-inch LCD screen is gorgeous, it still partially washes out in bright light, adding some guesswork to framing a photo.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Last month in these pages I gave Canon’s SD4000 IS with its built-in f/2.0 lens a thumbs up as the perfect little pocket shooter. Though the Sony NEX-5 is too big to fit in your pants or shirt pocket, it’s quite portable when using it with the 16mm f/2.8 lens and bests the SD4000 IS when it comes to image quality. When matched up against similar EVIL-style cameras such as the Panasonic GF-1 or Olympus E-PL1 (an Object of Desire in last month’s issue) the NEX-5 comes out on top when shooting in low light. The NEX-5 was also the fastest focusing camera I’ve tested in the mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera category. So what’s not to like? Well, for starters, while consumers might enjoy the camera’s menu-based interface which includes lots of photographic handholding, pros likely won’t. (Any camera that takes more than one click to change the ISO is bound to cause some frustration.) Secondly, though the 16mm f/2.8 lens was a joy to use, the obtrusive 18-55mm was not. (Sony, please give this camera a few more fast primes.) In the end, you have a camera that seems to straddle two groups of photographers: newbies and serious shooters. And for that reason, I can only give the NEX-5 a mixed though positive recommendation.
Pros: Best in class in the “EVIL” camera category with excellent image quality and fast focusing; top-notch HD video with crisp stereo sound; relatively low noise at high ISOs; fine 16mm f/2.8 kit lens.
Cons: Menu-based interface is designed for consumers not professionals; 18-55mm kit lens adds significant size to camera while offering only so-so image quality; no optical viewfinder even as an accessory.
Price: $649 with a 16mm f/2.8 lens; $699 with a 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens.