Sony Alpha NEX-5: The NEX Best Thing?

 
Sony Alpha NEX-5

Sony Alpha NEX-5

The Sony Alpha NEX-5 has a DSLR sensor, pro build, tons of features and is not too costly. Raj Lalwani dissects the hype to see if it is really that good.

The Better Photography team has been observing the growth of mirrorless cameras rather keenly. We have managed to get our hands on some of these interesting products even before they hit the market, and have always been interested to see how different companies approach the concept of a
‘large sensor in a small camera’. A trend we have seen is that all companies have tried to target two kinds of consumers—the pro photographer who wants a competent, light body and the compact camera user who seeks superior image quality. Trying to cater to both, most cameras have ended up being in no man’s land. They are too complex for a basic user, but the ergonomics are not refined enough for professionals.This is why the Sony Alpha NEX cameras were such a breath of fresh air. From the moment the NEX-3 and NEX-5 were announced, the company was clear, almost unabashed about the fact that these cameras are an upgrade option for a compact camera user. Over the past few weeks, we have been using a Sony NEX-5 to see whether this stylish camera delivers what it promises.

Features
If you have used a Sony Cyber-shot compact camera in the past, you will identify the NEX-5 as one of the same family. It is incredibly sleek, and if you only look at the camera body, you may not even realise that the tiny chassis actually houses an APS-C sized sensor. Considering this is even larger than the Micro Four Thirds sensor used in most other mirrorless cameras, our expectations in terms of image quality were quite high

The camera does have some very exciting features. The NEX-5 is the first interchangeable lens camera from Sony that can also shoot video. 1080i Full HD video at 60/50fps sounds great on paper, and as Sony’s legacy in video proves, it looks great too. There are two things we particularly enjoyed with respect to the video functionality. The camera can autofocus during video capture, and though it is not as fast as the Panasonic GH2 or the recently announced Sony Alpha 55, it does a rather decent job. Also, you have the option of applying Creative Styles to video. So while shooting video at the beach, I decided to bump up the saturation and contrast, and then, in the dead of night, captured moody footage in high contrast B&W.

The NEX-5 is the first interchangeable lens camera that can shoot panoramas within seconds. Sony’s proprietary Sweep Panorama technology, which has been so popular in their compact cameras, has been integrated well. Other features that the NEX borrows from compact cameras include modes like Handheld Twilight, Anti Blur Mode, Smile Detection and so on. As we can see, the NEX-5 scores highly when it comes to fun and games. Unfortunately, it does not deliver as efficiently when it comes to pure photographic functions. For example, there is no way in which one can switch off Noise Reduction! Also, the camera allows you to use Exposure Compensation only up to +/- 2EV, which can be problematic in certain shooting situations.The camera can shoot at a blistering speed of 7fps (much faster than any DSLR at this price point), but this comes with a major caveat. The camera locks the focus once, and does not focus in between those seven frames. If you want to actually use AF between frames, the camera crawls at a speed of 2.3fps—which is much slower than the competition.

Handling
Though the interface looks attractive, it is actually quite frustrating. Even if you wish to make some basic adjustments, you need to delve into menus, sub-menus and further sub-menus! For example, while shooting at a friend’s birthday surprise, I wanted to change the ISO and then change the AF mode. It took eight clicks of a button to change the ISO, and then nine further clicks to change the AF mode! In the meantime of course, the cake was cut and I had missed the moment.
This problem has been improved to a certain degree with the latest firmware (v03). You can now customise two buttons and assign a particular setting to them. However, the interface continues to be sluggish and has a prolonged lag. The startup time is also quite slow.The interface has other quirks. In the iAuto mode, you cannot use a value higher than ISO 1600. Considering that the camera performs well beyond this value, we find this restriction completely illogical. Also, Exposure Compensation is disabled while using the automatic mode!Though the camera is tiny, it offers an excellent grip. With a tough magnesium alloy body, its build quality is far better than any mirrorless camera. However, the lenses are large and awkward—APS-C lenses are generally larger than Micro Four Thirds optics, plus Sony have decided to add stabilisation to the lenses rather than the body. To make use of the size advantage, you should get the 16mm f/2.8 lens. The 18–55mm is a little awkward to hold, and the 18–200mm lens seems totally ridiculous on a camera this small.

Performance
The NEX-5 is a mixed bag when it comes to on-field performance. The sensor of the camera is stunning. The quality is similar to the excellent Nikon D3100, so you can shoot usable images even at ISO 6400 and ISO 12,800. However, there are many things that come in the way of this superb sensor.Firstly, the optics of the 18–55mm kit lens are quite poor, especially when compared to the competition. There is acute barrel distortion at the wide end of the zoom—far more than we have seen in any kit lens. It is also susceptible to flare. Corner sharpness while shooting at the telephoto end is poor.Secondly, the camera has excellent dynamic range, but the metering consistently overexposes the image by around 0.7–1EV. This particularly becomes a problem while shooting in the iAuto mode, as Exposure Compensation is disabled in this mode!

Conclusion
We find it very difficult to give a conclusive verdict on the NEX-5. There is no doubting its quality—both stills and video look fantastic, even in difficult shooting situations. However, it loses on two main fronts. For a hobbyist who wishes to get a little creative with camera settings, the NEX-5 can be very frustrating. If you choose to stay within the comfort of automation, the inaccurate metering and restricted high ISO can let you down. Yet, it is a camera that scores really highly in terms of the fun factor, especially for those who enjoy shooting videos and panoramas. We have our share of concerns about this initial model of the NEX series, but if style and fun are high on your priority lists, the Sony Alpha NEX-5 is an option you should look at.

Final Ratings

Features
Full HD video with full-time AF, ISOup to 12,800
28/30

Performance
Class-leading quality for both stills and video
24/30

Build Quality
Sturdy yet lightweight
19/20

Ergonomics
Confusing graphical user interface, no dedicated ISO/WB buttons
6/15

Warranty & Support
Wide service network throughout India
3/5

A Flip LCD: The LCD screen of the Sony NEX-5 does not swivel, but it is tiltable to a certain degree, making it useful for shots like these.

A Flip LCD: The LCD screen of the Sony NEX-5 does not swivel, but it is tiltable to a certain degree, making it useful for shots like these.

Creative Styles: There are many fun Creative Styles and they can be fine tuned to a large degree. You can use them to shoot vivid, oversaturated photos or even black and whites.

Creative Styles: There are many fun Creative Styles and they can be fine tuned to a large degree. You can use them to shoot vivid, oversaturated photos or even black and whites.

The metering is inaccurate. We had to underexpose this picture by a stop to get a proper exposure. Exposure: 1/2000sec at f/8 (ISO 200)

The metering is inaccurate. We had to underexpose this picture by a stop to get a proper exposure. Exposure: 1/2000sec at f/8 (ISO 200)

 

All photographs by Raj Lalwani

Tags: Raj Lalwani, January 2011, Sony, Sony Alpha NEX-5, Alpha