The Sony NEX-5 Review and the new NEX-5n
NOTE: Please read my post The Sony NEX-5n Review: The Improvements for a details on the NEX-5n improvements over the NEX-5. I also recommend reading this review even if you are interested in the NEX-5n since my 5n review builds on this post.
I’ve bought my Sony NEX-5 in November of last year and have used it quite a bit ever since. And while I’ve posted many blog entires about my camera, I never ended up doing a formal review. So here it is, maybe a bit late however it is a detailed user view of the camera after many months of real usage and nearly 8,500 photographs. It focuses on the usability of the camera as a photographic tool rather than giving specs and test results. I also talk about the new NEX-5n that has begun to ship and how this new camera differs from the old. You may find it interesting to read my impression of the camera when I first got it. I talk about the NEX-5’s High ISO Performance, using it for street photography and even about using the camera to record a Disney’s Aladdin Show. In some ways, I was more excited about the camera when I first got it. I’ve made some great images and overall I’ve been happy with its performance. However, as I’ve used the camera, I found out that all is not perfect with the Sony. I will go into what I like and dislike about the camera below. I’ll also talk about some of the changes to the Sony NEX-5n that may address some of my issues.
Before I talk about what I don’t like about the camera, I want to make it clear that I still like this camera very much. I’ve taken many photographs that I like including one of favorites at the top of the page. All of the photographs on this post were shot with the Sony (except the one that shows the Sony’s LCD). Please make sure to click on each image to see a larger version. The image quality is great, the camera is well-built and compact and is responsive enough for general purpose use. I know of at least 3 people who have purchased this camera based on my recommendation. One of my main reasons for getting this camera was to have a small, high quality camera that I can bring almost everywhere. While I really like my Canon 7D, it’s kind of big to bring to a family outing at a restaurant or to carry around all day on those family vacations. I was going to Disneyland at the end of December last year and I did not want to carry my 7D all day through the park. Ultimately the camera passed the Disneyland test. I walked for days through packed theme parks without getting tired. As a contrast after a half day at the San Diego Zoo with my Canon 7D and I started feeling it in my back (to be honest, I did have my 70-200 F4 IS lens attached, which is my heaviest lens). With the Sony, I had one small device that takes great photographs and video.
Make sure to click on a photograph to see a larger image
So what’s not to like? Before I talk about the user interface and the usability of the camera, I wanted to start with image quality. Yes, the Sony NEX takes great looking photos and has really outstanding high ISO capability. However, when compared to my Canon 7D, the photographs are not quite as good. The image quality is certainly close and for some who may be less picky than I, they may not notice. For me, I see a great image with the Sony, but I didn’t see the same level of sharpness and detail as I get on my large Canon. In theory, the NEX-5 should be capable of the same level of quality. The sensor size is basically the same as the 7D, actually the Sony sensor is a tad larger. Maybe it is the in camera processing (both JPEG and RAW) or the optics but the results are not the same. I think the biggest thing that bugged me though was not the level of detail but the exposure and color. I find the Sony has a tendency to under expose and the color tends to be cooler than I’m used to. The Canon’s auto white balance tends towards an orange cast but the Sony has more of a blue-green look. The cooler pallet can work great depending the subject. When I first used the Sony to do street shooting or artistic images, the bluish-green and the darker exposure created a neat, moody and artistic feel. However, for my family snaps, I like a different look, one that is bright and warmer in color. So while the Sony’s color and exposure works great for my photowalks, it is less ideal for my family vacation photos. Yes, I usually shoot in RAW so I can change the color temperature however, it is a fair amount of work to change each photograph. And sometimes, despite my best effort, I just can’t seem to adjust the colors to exactly the way I like them.
I got a few really wonky images with the NEX when using fill flash, during the day. When my subject is backlit, I like to brighten their faces with fill flash. On several occasions I got a very yellow, over exposed image. Luckily, I took the photograph in RAW so I was able to fix the photograph in post processing. These were the only times I truly got bad images. The flash, however, seems to work great in darker areas — people came out nicely exposed. During the summer, my wife used my NEX for several days during a 3 day trip to Taiwan with her friends. I told her to keep the camera in Intelligent Auto (the Green mode) and the camera performed fantastically. While I usually shoot in the Aperture priority mode, the Intelligent Auto did so well that I’m tempted to keep the camera in this green dummy photographer mode for my snapshots. Whatever the camera is doing, the Intelligent Auto is in fact quite intelligent. You never know, if I keep the camera in Intelligent Auto, maybe my fill flash would have worked better. My wife took about 130 images and almost all of them came out wonderfully. The great thing was that I can set RAW mode even in Intelligent Auto so with some post processing, I was able to color correct and make the exposure brighter. The Sony’s Taiwan performance really impressed me about the camera and gave me a renewed respect for its ability. On my Disney trip, out of the thousands of photographs that I took, maybe about 1% didn’t turn out the way I expected. While these imaging failures tend to stand out, I guess I really can’t complain.
In a review at Steve Huff Photo, Steve mentions that the color on the NEX5n is significantly better. He did not elaborate on what he meant by better color but maybe, hopefully, the color is more vibrant and less green. I’ve also looked at some other test shots and the high ISO performance of the 5n seems to be better than the original 5 and with sharper details. While I haven’t been able to test this myself, maybe the 5n has corrected some of my image quality gripes with my NEX-5.
I had some high hopes of the video capability on the NEX. I, like many others, am looking for the holy grail of still and video camera fusion. One device that takes excellent photographs while capturing great cinematic video. The Sony NEX-5, unlike my Canon 7D, has autofocusing video. Something that I considered a must for a family vacation movie camera. If I were making a Indy film where I can control and pull focus, the manual focusing video on my Canon 7D would be fine. However, children tend to be more difficult to direct than a professional actor, especially when they are very excited at a theme park. The Sony’s video did not live up to my expectations for a couple of reasons. First, the autofocus tends to lock on to the most contrasty object in the frame. So when I was filming my son, who took up about half the frame, the camera would, at times, focus on the action behind my son. The focus area, in video mode, is so large that I could not pre-focus and recompose like I can do in still photography. It would be great if I can set a smaller focus area in video mode but the NEX-5 does not allow for this. The Sony did work great for action that takes place further away. I was able to shoot great looking video of Disney’s Main Street Parades, for example, as well as scenes from the Aladdin stage performance.
The second thing that was frustrating was not being able to set the shutter speed or ISO in movie mode. While Sony added the ability to control aperture in a subsequent firmware update, the other two key parameters were set automatically. When I used a regular camcorder, I never worried about setting the aperture or shutter speed, things just seem to work decently. With the Sony, I noticed that at times I got a strange stuttery video. It seemed like the camera was picking the wrong shutter speed, probably too fast. So the action looked choppy instead of smooth. When I film my son’s concert in a dark room, I’d like to drop my shutter speed down to 1/60 second and decrease the ISO to increase the video quality, however, since the Sony lacks the manual controls, this is not possible. This lack of control is frustrating since, I’m sure, Sony can easily added it to the camera via a firmware update. It just seems like they didn’t want to have their NEX-5 compete with their higher end video camera line. The good news with the NEX-5n, from what I read, is that it has a lot more manual video controls.
Design and Build Quality
I really like the design and build quality of the Sony NEX-5. With the solid magnesium alloy body, the camera has enough heft to feel solid and give a high quality impression but still light enough to be carried around all day. The lenses are made of metal which also give a higher quality feel than most cameras, even the more expensive SLRs. The zoom lens is smooth, especially for a kit lens. About the only slightly cheap feeling plastic part was the small cover that conceals that accessory port where you can attach a flash or microphone. The lens of the NEX looks fairly large since the camera uses a APS-C sensor. Generally the larger the sensor the larger the lens. The big lens on a small body does make the NEX look unique. While the camera does not draw as much attention as an SLR, people do notice that it is not a regular point and shoot. I really like the tilt up LCD on the camera. I find it to be a very useful feature for creative compositions and I’ve mentioned my like for this tilt-up LCD on previous posts. One gripe about the LCD, however is that the coating on the anti-glare screen is starting to rub off along the edges of the LCD. This unfortunately diminishes the solid and beautiful look of the camera (see the photo below). The NEX does not have a built-in flash but comes with a small external flash that attaches to the accessory port. Since this is a proprietary connection and there is no hot shoe, you can not attach standard strobes or radio triggers. This is not a big deal for me but it does limit functionality for some. Having the small external flash also doesn’t bother me. I usually don’t have it attached when I’m on photowalks but I keep it on when I’m in family snapshooting mode.
The new 5n looks very similar to my 5 so they left the basic design alone. The accessory port does use the same small external flash but also supports a new EVF (electronic view finder). This EVF will not work on the older NEX models but only the new version that have extra pins on the accessory port that support this feature. Some people love EVFs and they are particularly effective during the bright midday sun, when LCDs become washed out. EVFs also allow for tighter and more accurate framing. So an EVF is important to you, definitely consider the 5n model.
Speed and Responsiveness
Shooting everyday events with the NEX-5 is more than fast enough. I have not been frustrated with a lack of responsiveness taking photographs of the family and even street photography in less than optimal light. It does not compare with an DSLR for speed so sports is not its forte. That said, if you prefocus on a spot, the 7 frame per second burst speed can capture unexpectedly good results. I once captured my son doing a flying kick in Karate class. I prefocused on the target and the burst mode was able capture a couple of sharp frames with the framing I desired. The new generation of mirror-less cameras are even faster. The NEX-5n and even the new Olympus EP3 and E-PL3 have speeds that are now rivaling lower end DSLRs
For all its speed in shooting, the Sony NEX seems a bit sluggish in the playback and user interface. I push the play button and it takes what seems like a second for the photograph to appear on-screen. It’s probably sub-second response in reality but it feels slow. It is not an instantaneous response I have come to expect for my Canon 7D, for example. Previewing the shots that I have taken works fine but the whole pace is a bit leisurely. Clicking the menu button also has a bit of a lag. In the end, the lack of snap is not a deal breaker and it is not really frustrating — I’m more puzzled by its lack of speed. It almost seems like Sony put all its effort in focusing, shutter response and image processing and there was no reserve processor power left for the support functions of the camera.
The LCD quality is fantastic. It has the new 920k, high-resolution display so photographs as well as any menu text appear sharp. It has a three-inch screen but it has a wide 16:9 aspect ratio so the 3×2 photos don’t take up the entire screen – there are black bars on the left and right edges. I find that the text used in status display is a bit small and cluttered. The information is there but there is a lot data I need to hunt through to look at the ISO setting. A quick quiz, what are the 3 most important settings that affect exposure? I think it is aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Yet on the most basic Sony LCD display, I don’t see these 3 key values. Sony chose shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation. There is, conveniently, a large open area on the bottom right of the LCD to display aperture but I guess none of Sony’s photographers thought ISO was important enough. The ISO display is relegated to a more detailed display that looks too cluttered for me. I am happy to report that in the NEX-5n, Sony has added ISO to the main, simplified display. The main menu and its graphics are attractive with professional looking icons and nicely rendered fonts. In actual use, however, I find that interface cumbersome. There is a fair bit of spinning the scroll wheel and hitting a button which makes it a bit tedious to navigate the options. The initial menu display with its nice icons really cries out for a touch screen. In fact, the interface looks similar to my Sony TX-5 point and shoot which does have a touch screen. With a touch screen I can directly select the icon without spinning the scroll wheel. Luckily the NEX5n now has a touch screen which should make the user interface more enjoyable.
Navigating the sub-menus is also tedious. When I am in the “Image Size” sub-menu, there is no quick way to jump to another sub-menu. I need to click the Back button again and scroll to another icon and click a button to get into another sub-menu. It is slow and gets old pretty quickly. For the most part, I don’t have to travel through the sub-menus too frequently. A firmware update allowed programmable quick access buttons to bypass much of the cumbersome menu structure. The programmable buttons and other interface tweaks made the Sony tolerable but all is not perfect. There are inexplicably bad interface remnants that jump out and frustrate. I programmed the “DRO/Auto HDR” option to one of my quick access buttons so that I can quickly enable the HDR mode. However, when I have the image quality set to RAW, the HDR option is disabled. The little helper screen says the function has been disabled but does not say anything about why it’s disabled (I didn’t disable it, the camera did). No mention of the fact that HDR mode only works in JPEG. If there is a limitation of the HDR mode only working in JPEG, why not auto-switch to JPEG from RAW when I select HDR mode? Then when I get out of HDR mode, the camera should go back to RAW automatically. Makes sense right? Instead, to enable HDR, I need to first hit the menu button. Scroll to the Image Size Icon. Click a button to enter this sub-menu. Then scroll down to Still Quality, click the button to select one of the JPEG settings such as FINE. I then use a work around to get out of this mode by half-pressing the shutter button. Finally, I can select the HDR mode from my pre-programmed custom button. I then have to reverse these steps to get out of HDR mode and set my camera back to RAW quality again. This is completely silly and basically makes me under use the HDR function since it such a pain in the neck to switch back and forth. I wonder if the Sony actually gets photographers to use their products before releasing them. Here is another silly interface “feature”. If I’m in a sub-menu and get out of the menu system, the next time I click the menu button, it takes me back the the top menu with all the icons. It does not remember where in the sub-menu I was previously.
Here is a big, potentially disastrous interface issue. If you are taking a photograph and want to review them, you hit the play button. No problem, this makes sense. Then let assume you take a video. To see the video, you can again hit the play button, still makes sense. However, when you are reviewing the video, you can not see any still photographs that you took. The playback is in “video mode” so that you can not view your stills. When playback is in “Still photo mode”, you can not see any videos. I once got a frantic call from my son because he thought that somehow he accidentally erased all the still photos. No the only mistake he made was he too a video and didn’t realize that play back was in video mode only. What kind of crazy interface is this? So here is the really bad part. I always review my SD card contents on the camera before erasing the card. It is, of course, always good check to make sure I’ve download the photos (and videos) to my computer, (and making extra backups) before easing the photographs. Now what if I took a bunch of videos, got into “Still playback mode” when I shot a single photo. When I review the images before reformatting the card, I’ll see only one photo come up on my display. if I didn’t remember to switch to “video mode” I might end up erasing all the videos that I have not downloaded. A situation like almost occurred and I just happened to remember to check the “video mode” before erasing the card. If I didn’t, I would have lost some great footage. By the way, there is a way to switch between the playback modes that some Sony NEX reviews have not mentioned. When in one of the play back modes, click down on the scroll wheel. This will display a menu on the left side where you can switch between still and video modes.
The physical controls, for the most part, work well on the camera. The NEX has a minimal number of buttons but they can be re-programmed to make the camera more usable and flexible. The grip and button placement works well for my medium size hands. While I can “one hand” many of the controls, the camera seems to work best with two hands. The right hand for hitting buttons and the left hand to support and stabilize the camera and for operating the zoom ring. I find the scroll wheel to be a bit small and works well in general but gets to be tedious when scrolling though long list of menu options. The scroll wheel can also be clicked at the top, bottom, left and right to access more options. Sometimes, when I’m in a hurry, I feel like the relatively small scroll wheel is trying to do too much. I accidentally click down when scrolling and end up in an unintended location. While I’m sure some people would like to have more direct access buttons. I think Sony has crafted a simple physical layout that gets the job done.
Battery life is a bit short but understandable given that I’m using a high-resolution LCD for all my shooting and playback. It’s rated at about 330 shots which sounds about what I’m getting. However, add some video snippets, and the battery meter goes does quickly. During my all day Disneyland outings I found that I still rationed my power with two fully charged batteries. I realized that I really need 3 batteries to feel completely comfortable with my power situation — where I can shoot stills and video clips without worrying about running out of battery power. The NEX-5 battery charger is the type that plugs directly into the wall, my favorite. It’s just like the Canon power chargers that I like but a bit smaller. I really dislike chargers that require a separate cable. The two piece chargers take up so much extra room when traveling and it’s one more cord that potentially can be misplaced.
One of may favorite trick features in my Sony waterproof point and shoot, the TX-5, is iSweep Panorama. It creates a panorama automatically by sweeping the camera from left to right. It works amazingly well on the Sony point and shoot. I was expecting some great things with the sweep panorama built into the NEX-5. With the higher quality sensor the quality of the panoramas are greatly improved over the point and shoot. However, disappointingly, the panorama feature is not quite as intelligent as in the point and shoot model. Amazingly in the TX-5 point and shoot, the panorama would automatically eliminate ghosting and multiple exposures of a person that may walk through the frame. The NEX does not do this. If a person walks though your panorama, you end up with multiple copies of that person. Because of this, basically, you can not make good panoramas of scenes that contain movement.
The shutter noise of the NEX is surprisingly loud. More than one person have noticed this. When used with the Sweep Panorama, it makes such a racket that it is bound to attract attention unless you are outside in loud place. The NEX5n apparently has a quieter or less annoying shutter sound so this is yet another annoyance that has been addressed in the new model.
Despite my pet peeve of getting into the built-in HDR mode, the auto-HDR performance is quite good. The Exposure value between the 3 HDR photographs can be set between 1EV and 6EV or set to automatic. Images come out life-like for the most part, which is the way I like my HDRs. I do some minor post processing on the HDRs such as increasing contrast but I don’t have to mess with the images to any great extent. The image above of the Driskill Statue is an example of the NEX-5’s built-in HDR mode with a minor bit of post-processing. I like how it captured that details of the stained glass while still getting good exposure on the dark statue.
The Sony supports the 3×2 and 16×9 aspect ratio on-screen. I wish Sony also supported onscreen 4×3 and square formats as well. I’m assuming it would be a relatively easy addition and it would add a nice creative element with the framing. Also on my wish list is auto-bracketting that supports at least 2 stops. This will allow me to take brackets for manually processing my HDRs. While the built-in HDR mode is fine, I still like the creative control I get when I manually post-process my HDR images.
1. Small and portable – One of the smallest interchangeable lens cameras.
2. Great image quality – A large APS-C sensor produced great looking photos.
3. Quality Construction – The magnesium alloy body and metal lens imparts a quality feel.
4. Flip Up LCD – Allows for creative shooting angles, up low and up high.
5. Very Fast Burst Speed – 7 frames per second burst speed for capturing action.
6. Reasonably Fast Focusing – Focusing fast enough for general purpose photography.
7. Autofocusing Video – Video can work well and autofocus in most situations.
8. Built in HDR – A decent and easy to use auto-HDR mode.
9. Sweep Panorama – Great looking panoramas for scenes without movement.
10. Modern Styling – Breaks the mold from typical cameras, has a modern design.
11. Compatible with Old Lenses – Many third-party adapters allow compatibility with old manual focus lenses.
12. Intelligent Auto – The Auto “green mode” is surprisingly smart and makes great pictures.
1. Cool Colors – The slightly bluish-green cast not my favorite for family snapshots.
2. No Manual Video Controls – Only the aperture can be adjusted in video mode.
3. Iffy Video Focusing – Focus may lock on background instead of holding focus on the subject.
4. Cumbersome user interface – Menu organization and user interface not well thought out.
5. Loud Shutter Noise – Unexpectedly loud shutter sound can be distracting in quiet locations.
6. Proprietary Hot shoe – Can not attach a standard flash or remote wireless trigger.
7. Limited Lens Selection – 3 lenses officially available though 3 more have been announced.
There is much to like in the Sony NEX-5 and it has been a very enjoyable camera to use. The small size allows me to bring it to places that I normally will not take my Canon 7D. In addition, even when I take my 7D, I frequently bring my Sony as a small secondary camera. Increasingly I’m finding that I use the Canon 7D for more specialized purposes instead of general purpose photography. I seem to either have my 70-200mm lens for portraits or my 10-20mm super-wide angle lens for landscapes attached to the 7D. For this reason, bringing my NEX works out great since I don’t have to switch lenses on my main Canon to take photographs in the normal 18-55mm range. And certainly, if the NEX-5 did not deliver the image quality, I would not be using it as my secondary camera.
What’s strange is that I really like the Sony’s moody image quality for my “artistic” shots. The exposure is a bit darker and the shadows adds a bit of mystery. The cooler colors also adds to a slightly different look from my Canon. However, what works for my creative photography does not work for my family snapshots. I want bright, colorful and warm images of my family. Of course, color is a matter of personal taste so the colors I don’t like might work well someone else. The high ISO performance is great and ISO 1600 is a breeze. I also feel comfortable using ISO 3200 in a pinch and I have even gotten some decent black and white photos as ISO 6400. Resolution, detail and high ISO quality doesn’t quite match my Canon 7D but it’s pretty close and of course the Sony has the portability advantage.
Ultimately, my biggest disappointment is the video. While video is not nearly as important for me, I wanted a camera that did solid and reliable video in most any situation. For all the reasons outline above, I have not used my Sony much for video. It’s there and probably in most cases, it will work but I don’t feel compelled to use it. The feature has not wowed me enough for me to play and experiment with it, in an artistic sense.
The future for the NEX line looks bright. I understand that Sony has had good sales with the NEX and they have announced the next generation of cameras. The NEX-7 seems like a semi-pro mirrorless monster. It has 24MP and a high quality electronic view finder plus an improved physical interface. The NEX-5n seems like a surprise improvement over the NEX-5. Early reviews seem to indicate that the high ISO JPEG performance has been greatly increased. That and other small improvements have made the new 5 a solid upgrade. I had a chance to play with the camera and the good news is that much of my video frustrations with the 5 seem to be addressed with the 5n. I will have to do a more in-depth comparison but the improvements to the NEX line seem to point to a bright future for this camera.
Finally, I wanted to end with several photographs of Disneyland taken with my NEX-5. Remember to click on the photo to see a larger version. You can also take a look at more NEX-5 photographs that I have published on my mostlyfotos, one photo a day, blog.