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Sony NEX-5

First Impressions

The Sony NEX cameras represent some of the most innovative thinking in camera design since Canon invented the modern SLR with the T90 back in 1986. It is the first digital camera not to owe the bulk of its design gestalt to previous film-based designs, and as we'll see, it points to a future where still and video cameras not only converge, but also share lens mounts.

When the NEX-3 and NEX-5 were introduced in early May, 2010 I published a brief introductory article, and so there's no need to repeat here the basic specs and features of these cameras. A shooting trip in Olympic National Park right after introduction meant that I was unable to do any hands-on testing as soon as I would have liked, but I now have had a couple of weeks working with a NEX-5, the 16mm f/2.8 Pancake lens, and the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS. Not enough time to get the full measure of such a novel new cameras system, but enough to have some initial impressions.

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In Hand

It's easy to mistake the NEX-5 for a small sensor digicam. That's roughly its size, especially when fitted with the 16mm lens. It's hard to credit that the camera has a full APS-C sized sensor, the same as most much larger DSLRs. It's only competitors when it comes to size are the Panasonic and Olympus Micro-Four-Thirds cameras and the new Samsung NX10. While the NEX cameras have a sensor that is 30-40% larger (area) than the M4T cameras, the body is in fact smaller in size and lower in weight. (Measured linearly the difference is about 15-20% in favour of the Sony over Four Thirds, Micro version or otherwise).

Yes – I know that Sigma and Leica both have small APS-C sensor equipped cameras, but these do not have interchangeable lenses, and thus are in a different class.

What really captures ones eye when first encountering the NEX-5, is the size of the lens mount. To handle such a large sensor the mount is in fact larger than the camera, overlapping the camera's top and bottom edges. This tells you how much Sony has tried to reduce the camera's size.

But, it's also worth considering that Sony didn't go nuts in this area and do what some cell phone makers did a few years ago, when they made phones too small to comfortably hold and use. The same can be said for some pocket sized cameras.

Rather, the NEX-5 fits ones hands quite comfortably, offering a good purchase and thumb and index finger positioning for the right hand. The left hand holds the lens from beneath, at least with the two larger lenses. With the 16mm the whole camera cradles nicely in ones palm.

The zoom and focus rings fall nicely to hand when using the 18-55mm (roughly 28–85mm equivalent focal lengths in Full Frame terms). With the small(er) zoom the body is somewhat overshadowed by the lens, but only when seen at first. After a while it seems quite natural, though different than any other camera seen before, to be sure.

The NEX-5 comes in both silver and black, and the lenses in silver finish only. The body is magnesium, which makes it solid feeling despite its light weight and small size. As for colour choice, I think that the chrome body and lens combo, though a bit bling, has a really nice retro look to it and would be my choice.

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Ergonomics

The NEX-5 has one of the most button free designs ever seen on a digital camera, and as will be discussed shortly, this may not be all to the good.

There is a scroll wheel with four surrounding touch positions, as is the common design practice, a center button, and two unlabeled buttons at the top and bottom right of the LCD screen. Other than that there's a dedicated video button and a playback button on the top panel, as well as a large firmly detented power switch. That's it.

The screen is of very high resolution, and at its brightest setting is the brightest camera screen that I've ever seen. Wonderfully visible in bright sunlight. It also is articulated, though only on one axis. This makes waist level and overhead shots possible.

I have average sized hands and have found the NEX-5 to be comfortable to hold, as already mentioned. A couple of my colleagues with larger hands think that Sony has gone a bit too far in downsizing, and that the NEX-5 is simply too small for constant use. You owe it to yourself to visit a dealer and try one on for size before making a purchasing decision.

Though the NEX-5 comes with a neck strap I wouldn't use it. Even with the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, let alone the Pancake lens, the camera is more of a hand camera than a shoulder camera, and I would simply equip it with a wrist strap for safety and carry it around in-hand or in a small bag.

A small detachable flash unit is provided with the camera and does an adequate job for snap-shooting. It uses a new proprietary Sony fitting, which also accepts an optional stereo mike for video work. There is no PC socket or standard hot shoe for use with other flash units or remote flash triggers.

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What's Not To Like?

NO EFV

I think that Sony has missed the boat by not making an electronic viewfinder available at launch. I have little doubt that one is in the works, but for many photographers the lack of an EVF will not sit well. One can argue that the camera's intended audience, the digicam user stepping up, is mostly used to using just an LCD, but I beg to differ.

Olympus rushed to redesign their E-P1 to take an accessory EVF when it was seen that people wanted this feature, and also as evidenced by Panasonic with their GF1, this is a desirable feature.

If Sony doesn't come out with an EVF before too long it's my take that the more serious photographers will find this to be the straw that breaks the camels back when it comes to accepting the NEX-5.

Slow Turn On / Decent Autofocus

The NEX-5 is an extremely fast camera in almost every aspect of its handling, except turn on. It takes approximately 2 seconds from turn on till the first shot is possible, which is inordinately slow. What's that about?

The camera uses contrast detection autofocus, which while slower than the phase detection system used in DSLRs, is adequate for the needs of the camera's intended user. While I haven't done critical side-by-side comparisons with the Panasonic GH and GF series my sense is that the Sony is a bit slower, though not dramatically so.

No Mode Dial

I am not crazy about the NEX-5's user interface design and I can't say that I care for the fact that the camera does not have a mode dial. The center button on the scroll wheel becomes a mode selector in most situations, with the LCD showing the choices available, but this means that one can't tell what mode the camera is in when it's turned off. When combined with the NEX-5's slow turn-on taking a shot in a rapidly developing moment with the camera starting in the OFF position is an exercise in frustration.

Too Many Presses

Each of the camera's six main menus are one long scrolling list. This means that some important functions and selections are a long way down from the top. For example, the FORMAT menu command under Setup is 28 clicks down from the top, and the camera does not remember where on the list of items you were the last time you were there.

To format a card one must go to Setup and then click the down button 28 times to find it. There are no shortcuts or My Memory settings available. This is a serious design error in my view, and frankly, a pain in the ass. And yes, you can scroll instead of click, but it's still a long way down.

In fact, the entire menu system, while attractive to the newcomer to cameras, with lots of pretty illustrations and colours, does nothing but get in the way of the more experienced used. It's manageable, but frankly accessing such commonly used controls as ISO should not require navigating menus. Sony's minimalist approach to buttons on the NEX-5 has gone much too far for my taste.

In fact, after several more days of use as this was being written I have to say that I find the NEX-5's menu system to be more than a bit of a dog's breakfast. For example, setting Panorama mode is found under the Shoot Mode menu, setting the direction for shooting panoramas is found under the Camera menu, and whether to shoot panoramas in the Normal or Wide mode is found under the Image Size menu. Come on Sony...you can do better than this.

There are other issues. For example, if you have the live histogram displayed on screen, and you then activate exposure compensation, the histogram disappears until you've finished adjusting exposure. Duhh! That's exactly when I want to see the histogram, Sony – while I'm adjusting exposure!

Another annoyance is that while the camera sometimes remembers the last major menu category selected, it never remembers the menu selection made. So if you want to experiment with a setting, getting back to the item that you require means a lot of repetative button presses.

One final thought on the menu system, at least for the more experienced user. There is no quick access to the ISO setting. It is only accessible via menus – Menu / Brightness Color / ISO. The bottom soft button meanwhile is normally labeled Shoot -Tips and is of little use to the experienced user. How about allowing it to be programmed using a custom function so that it can become a direct ISO button or something else useful of the user's choice?

The bottom line on the user interface is that Sony appears to have put a lot of design effort into making the user interface appear pretty, and also simple for the beginner, but in doing so it has crippled usability for the more serious photographer. I feel that with a bit more effort both constituencies might have been better served.

This generation of NEX cameras feel like they were designed primarily by engineers, without enough feedback and field testing by actual photographers. Slick design isn't enough. Ultimately usability trumps design, and when a company like Apple does it they show how the two can not only work hand-in-hand, but can have the parts make a better whole.

No Blinkies / No Peaking

There does not appear to be any highlight overexposure warning. I may be wrong, because at the time of this review, though the camera tested is described as a production review sample, there is no user manual. But if indeed there isn't such a feature, it's a real oversight.

And while the camera can magnify the image 7X when manually focusing, there is no peaking (a shimmering or colour on the in-focus areas) something that makes LCD or EVF focusing that much more accurate). Sony has this on the video cameras – why not on the NEX-5?

Gotchas

There are several gotchas. Here's just one annoyance that I found hugely frustrating.

There is an auto-ISO capability. Fine; though it's limited to ISO 1600 at the high end while the camera can go to ISO 12800. But when you switch to Manual shooting mode the camera disables Auto-ISO and defaults to ISO 200. OK. Now I set it to what I want, say ISO 800. Later though, when I switch back to another shooting mode, such as Program, the camera doesn't return to Auto-ISO the way it was before, but sticks to the ISO which I set set in Manual mode. Frustrating.

Here's another. You find yourself in a situation where you want to use the camera's remarkable HDR capability (see below). You press Menu / Brightness - Color / scroll five clicks to DRO - Auto HDR, press Select, scroll several clicks (it's a circle) to Auto HDR, press the Option button, scroll the wheel to select the number of stops of compensation needed, and then press Select. Whew.

Got that? OK. Now, when you want to turn HDR off you have to go through most of that again. Oh yes, and if you have the camera set to raw, or raw + JPG, the HDR menu selection will tell you that the function is not available, but won't even hint as to why it isn't.

And if you have the screen display mode set to minimal information you will have no idea of what mode the camera is in (HDR on or off), and if it doesn't do what you expect, you won't know why. And this is claimed to be a camera designed for the newcomer!

May I politely suggest that Sony have their NEX user interface designers be assigned window seats and that the company hire some new ones as quickly as possible?

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Stills Quality

I didn't have enough time with the NEX-5 to generate a body of work worth displaying here. I did do a lot of casual shooting and of course IQ testing, but no eye candy for the site this time.

Overall image quality was quite good. I did see some blooming, fringing and CA, but optically the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 was typical of a lens in this price range.

A curious comparison is one that I did with the much smaller and less expensive Sony HX5. This is seen on the left while the NEX-5 is on the right. Ignoring that one is a 14MP camera and the other has a 10MP sensor, thus explaining the size differences, the blooming on the NEX-5 was a bit disconcerting compared to its complete lack on the HX5.

Resolution seemed more than adequate. I'm sure that the usual technical review sites will have their resolution tests online soon, and I'm also sure that the NEX-5 will requite itself well – on a par with comparable consumer level cameras and lenses in its price range.

ISO

Below are shots taken at each of the NEX-5's available sensitivity settings, from ISO 200 to 12,800.

ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800

Based on this controlled test as well as various images made over a nearly two week period I would judge the camera able to be used at up to ISO 800 without reservation. ISO 1600 shows some noise, but nothing that can't be easily quashed, especially when dealing with raw files that have not be pre-sharpened.

ISO 3200 is usable in a pinch, or when only small prints or online images are needed. As you can see 6400 is pretty noisy and 12800 seems to simply be there for marketing reasons.

I would judge that due to its larger sensor than Micro Four Thirds the NEX-5 enjoys about a one stop ISO / noise advantage over the Panasonic GH1, with which I am quite familiar.

Raw and JPG

I used the NEX-5 in combined JPG and raw mode and evaluated both types. Sony was unable to supply the review camera with raw software, but one of the major software companies was kindly able to provide me with an early sample of their software with support for the NEX-5.

What I saw was that the in-camera JPGs turned in very fine performance, consistently producing well balanced colourful images without too much saturation. The JPGs were sharpened a bit more than I would have liked, but not to a fault. This is all with the camera in so-called Standard mode.

If one of the other Creative Styles was chosen varying levels of saturation or other effects were applied to the JPGs, but none of them allow you direct control of things like sharpening level. Again, this is in keeping with Sony's somewhat dubious decision to make the camera beginner friendly – to a fault. There are many Sony point and shoots that allow greater customization than what the NEX-5 allows.

Overall though I found image quality from the NEX-5 to be right in the ballpark for a camera with this sized sensor and in this price range.

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Sweep Panorama

One of the capabilities of the Sony HX5 which I enjoyed using was its sweep panorama mode. Simply pan the camera at a moderate speed and the camera automatically stitches together a wide aspect ratio image. What I was disappointed with on the HX5 was that it only worked with the lens at its widest focal length.

The NEX-5 removes that limitation, allowing for shooting at any available focal length. The above shot shows a home interior, done hand-held. This is simply a terrific feature, and for someone without access to Photoshop, or some third party stitching software, and the $$$ and patience to learn their use, this is a fantastic feature.

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Auto HDR

Normal Exposure
Auto HDR 6 Stop

Previous Sony cameras, as well as others, have had some form of in-camera multi-frame shooting and blending capability. With the NEX-5 Sony brings this to a new level of efficiency. The camera can be set to take three frames; from between one and six stops under and over exposure as well as a "normal" frame.

These are then HDR blended in camera and a new frame is produced and saved to the card along with the normal exposure. The high and low exposures are discarded. This only works in JPG mode and is subject to camera movement if the long exposure is long enough so as to engender camera shake. Similarly there should be no subject motion in the frame.

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Video Quality

There's good news and there's bad news when it comes to video on the NEX-5. From an operational perspective video is implemented in an even simpler manner than on the HX5 that I reviewed here recently. The NEX-5 doesn't even have a video mode on its mode selector setting. The only way to shoot video is to press the dedicated Video button, regardless of what stills shooting mode you might be in at the moment.

On the surface this makes video easily accessible to the neophyte, but for the somewhat more sophisticated user it means that there are essentially no controls available. One can zoom manually, use manual or autofocus, and also have access to exposure compensation, but that's it. Shutter speed and aperture controls are simply not available when shooting video.

The camera shoots 1080i/60. That's it. No 30P, no 720 anything. It is AVCHD at a modest 17Mbps, which means that most people will not have difficulty editing it with a decent NLE program. For those that want life to be simpler, and can accept lower quality, the NEX-5 can also be set to shoot MP4: 1440 x 1080i @12Mbps. Ugg.

As for video quality, I was pleased but not impressed. For the family oriented user that wants to do home and vacation movies it is fine. But the lack of any adjustment capability means that the more demanding user is going to feel a serious lack of control.

My colleague Chris Sanderson and I spent a morning shooting side by side comparisons against the Canon 7D. Chris is a life-long director / cameraman / videographer, and has a professional's eye. What our tests of the NEX-5 showed were lower video resolution, saturation and contrast than from the 7D, and a softer all-around appearance to the footage.

The real problem is that the NEX-5 shoots at any aperture or shutter speed that it feels like, producing some unpleasant and definitely unfilmlike motion effects. We did some frame-by-frame comparisons of cars driving past at a 45 degree angle and the 7D showed typical 1/60 sec frames. From their appearance the NEX-5's frames appeared to have been shot at at least 1/250 sec. Not pretty.

One area where Sony seems to have the Canon licked was in terms of "jello" or the rolling shutter effect. Rapidly moving subjects or camera motion produced hardly any bending, while the Canon had quite a bit. But, on the other hand, we saw quite a bit of moire on the Sony files, while almost none from the Canon.

We have decided not to show any video comparison examples here now, for two reasons. Firstly, I didn't have the camera long enough to shoot anything more than boring looking technical tests. Secondly, there are the expected slight differences between the NEX-5 and 7D due to minor focal length discrepancies, white balance, exposure differences and the like. These would simply be a red herring for pixel peepers, and so we've demurred and won't be showing side-by-side comparisons. You'll simply have to take our word for what we see and report above.

If the NEX-5 had any manual video controls we'd have been able to try and match the cameras and thus feel better about showing comparison samples. As is was, this simply wasn't possible.

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The Future!

To my mind the most important thing about the NEX camera system is not what it is today, but what it will become tomorrow. There's a lot of "future" in NEX.

The day after the NEX-3 and NEX-5 were announced Sony issued a press release that they were developing a video camera that uses the identical APS-C sized sensor as the NEX cameras and also the same new E series lenses.

Fascinating.

This makes the NEX still and video cameras the first to share a lens line between the formats, and the first of its size to have interchangeable lenses.

The NEX video camera is also the first (along with one also announced by Panasonic at NAB this past spring) to feature such a large sensor. This means very shallow DOF shooting – something much in demand by film and video makers.

There is one fascinating aspect to Sony's forthcoming video camera that I have seen no commentary on thus far, and that is electronic zooming capability with E series lenses. It's hard not to imagine that these lenses will not provide for motorized zooming when used on a NEX video camera, and so the implications for future still and hybrid cameras are enormous. (If you look at the number of electrical contacts on the lenses you find ten of them – more than just about any other camera that I can recall. Wonder what they're all for? :-)

The ability to use Sony G series and especially Zeiss A mount lenses on both the still and video NEX cameras via an available adaptor is also fascinating to consider.

Indeed the reason that the NEX-5 has such limited video recording capability is likely because Sony has decided to put video goodness into its upcoming E mount video camera(s) rather than the still versions. This is short sighted, because Canon, Panasonic, and even Nikon are constantly improving the video on the still cameras, and Sony could well end up being seen as an also-ran in this area.

This could be because of "turf wars" within Sony. You now have a situation where for the first time anywhere the still camera division and the video division share a lens mount and a sensor, and the sensor in Sony's upcoming consumer video camera is larger than the sensors in their pro cameras. The group division meetings at Sony must be a lot of fun these days.

Time will tell how this all plays out.

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The M.A.R.V.I.L Wars

We don't really yet have a name for the new generation of cameras represented by the Sony NEX series, Panasonic and Olympus Micro Four Thirds, and the Samsung NX10. I'm suggesting here today the name MARVIL, which stands for Mirrorless Reflex Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens.

So with that settled, lets look at the upcoming MARVIL wars and see if we can figure out how things might shake out.

Panasonic and Olympus have now had their offerings on the market since late 2008, nearly two years. In that brief time this category has grown to represent nearly 10% of the non-DSLR camera market in some countries. Nothing to sneeze at and still growing.

Sony and Samsung have risen to the bait early this summer. Samsung's NX10 is still something of a question mark, but we now can see where Sony is heading. And that is?

It seems to me that Sony's product planners have definitively identified the person switching from a point and shoot to something with interchangeable lenses as their target market. With the NEX they have eschewed much in the way of manual controls and opted for a dumbed down user interface in an attempt to make the mysteries of camera use that much easier to understand.

It's my opinion that in this they have failed. The green Intelligent Auto setting that Sony has on their other cameras is really all that a beginner needs to be able to stay out of trouble and take decent pictures. The NEX-5 has this as well, but then proceeds to cripple the rest of the camera's user interface with roadblocks and complications, just the thing to turn off the budding photographer because in fact it makes climbing the learning curve tougher rather than easier.

There's a saying – If it ain't broke don't fix it – and in the case of Sony's NEX user interface design I'm afraid that it rings all too true.

Correct this and I believe that Sony has a very strong competitor to the rest. Leave it alone and I believe that the NEX series will be ignored by anyone other than those attracted by the pretty cosmetics and the Sony name.

Canon and Nikon haven't thrown their respective hats into the ring yet, and it's unknown if they intended to play in this particular sandbox, or simply concentrate in the high margin DSLR arena. Samsung is coming on strong though, and based on a quick glimpse at the NX10 I think that they've read the marketplace more as Panasonic and Olympus have, rather than agreed with Sony's perspective.

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Postscript – For Now

My initial impression of the NEX-5 was positive, and indeed it remains so if I adopt the perspective of a photographic neophyte. For the newcomer to photography, or someone stepping up from a point-and-shoot, the NEX-5 is a terrific camera, offering small size and weight, very good image quality, and ease of use.

But for the photographer who is already familiar with the basics of their craft, and who wants a tool that they can grow with, the NEX-5 seems to put up too many road blocks.

This is a shame, because the NEX-5 is actually quite a terrific little camera and has much promise. If Sony had created a second level of user interface designed for the photographer used to the flexibility of a more traditional DSLR, or who wants a device that they can grow and learn with, the NEX-5 would be a home run.

For the more experienced photographer the combination of small size, low weight, reasonable costs, elegant style and some terrific features such as Sweep Panorama, AUTO HDR and a decent HD Video capability all scream "Buy Me". For anyone who already owns a Sony A series DSLR and lenses a NEX-5 would make an ideal travel companion.

So – I wish that I could say – "run about and buy a NEX-5 if any of these features appeals to you". But in all good conscience I can't. The NEX-5's user interface may well be one of the most frustrating that I have ever encountered. (A few years ago Olympus wore that crown). I really wanted to like the camera enough to add one and a couple of lenses to my kit, but in the end, after a solid couple of days of shooting with it prior to its return to Sony, I decided that as attractive as many of its features were, it would be too frustrating to use on an everyday basis. Kind of like the beautiful girl who really attracts you, but then when she opens her mouth speaks in a shrill and annoying voice while blowing bubble gum. Ummm, no thanks.

Sony's engineers and marketing people had a mandate when it came to the design of the NEX-5, and unfortunately the needs of the more advanced photographer were not part of that brief. It would only have taken the intent and some few man-weeks of firmware engineering to add a level of controls and interface that did not make a photographer feel as though the camera were fighting them every time they wanted to adjust something.

Panasonic's Micro Four thirds cameras and Samsung's new NX10 show that comparably sized cameras can be small and still have decent control interfaces for the more experienced photographer.

And Apple has shown the world that it is possible to design consumer devices that are both easy to use and beautiful in design, yet powerful in capability. They've done it over and over again. Sony gets the beautiful design part, and even to some extent the easy to use part, but in the case of the NEX-5 still has to figure out the needs of users who have moved or would like to move beyond the beginner stage.

May, 2010

 


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Concepts: Camera, Digital camera, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Cameras, Video, Film speed, Photography, Video camera

Entities: Sony...you, Canon, Samsung, Panasonic, Panasonic, Leica, Apple, Nikon, Olympic National Park, NEX-5, ISO, HDR, LCD screen, user interface, AVCHD, software companies, sec, NAB, Michael Reichmann, Chris Sanderson, Slick, Chris, NX10, CA, NX10, SLR, Panasonic GH1, Photoshop

Tags: cameras, Sony, video, mode, menu, user interface, video camera, nex cameras, button, design, sensors, small, NEX video camera, image, digital camera, lens mount, interchangeable lenses, four thirds, Sony HX5, NEX user interface, Sony NEX cameras, dedicated video button, sweep panorama, focal length, auto hdr, photographer, price range, micro four thirds, image quality, terrific little camera, brightest camera screen, camera cradles, small size, user interface design, mount video camera, fast camera, camera design, NEX-5 Sony, Previous Sony cameras, Camera menu