Sony NEX-5n Field Review
What a Difference an "n" Makes
In addition to "What a difference an "n" makes", the subtitle of this report should also read "What a difference a year makes". In my First Impressions Review of the Sony NEX-5 I was impressed with the technology of reducing an APS-C sensor camera to Lilliputian dimensions. But I was less than impressed with the NEX-5's user interface. In fact I thought it was dreadful.
The back story on this is simply that Sony originally conceived the NEX series as step-up cameras for the point-and-shoot crowd. This meant a dumbed-down user interface, though I never really understood why they saw this as necessary. But then a funny thing happened. Serious photographers discovered that the image quality was very good, that the size was really appealing, and so sales to the enthusiast market subsequently took off.
Sony's NEX cameras were also borne along by the whole mirrorless tide, with Panasonic and Olympus also making strong head-way with Micro Four Thirds. But the NEX cameras were hobbled by more than just a poor user interface. Though the cameras had a so-called "smart accessory shoe", it wasn't smart enough to accept an eye level electronic viewfinder, because – "Hey, snapshooters don't need no stink'n EVF." But the more advanced photographer simply isn't satisfied with doing photography at arms length. The MFT brigade gets this, and has models with accessory or built-in EVFs, while Sony, because they didn't anticipate the NEX's appeal to this segment, didn't plan for it.
But, if nothing else Sony is quick on their feet. It wasn't too many months before Sony announced a firmware upgrade for the NEX-3 and NEX-5, and this went a long way toward addressing the issue of the hobbled user interface. Focus peaking was also added at this time, which really made working with manual focus lenses much superior to with any other mirrorless camera. This gave Sony's NEX cameras a real leg-up over MFT among users of legacy lenses.
Before Nightfall – Clearview, Ontario. October, 2011
Sony NEX 5n with 18-200mm E @ ISO 200
Feature by Feature
Though the NEX-5n looks like the previous NEX-5, it is virtually a new camera in most respects. The sensor, processing engine, rear LCD, and ability to accept accessories such as the LA-EA2 "A" mount lens adaptor and FDA-EV1 high resolution electronic viewfinder are new as well.
I'm not going to list all of the NEX-5n's features and specs. These are available on Sony's product web site in considerable depth. Rather, what I will do is look at the camera's features, and examine how well they function. I've now been using the 5n for several weeks on my home turf, after working with it at a Sony press preview event in August, so I have become quite familiar with both the camera's pluses and foibles.
The NEX-7 (shipping soon – see my preliminary review here) shows that a "photographer's" camera simply has to have a minimum number of physical controls. The NEX-5, being made as small as possible, turns out not to have had enough. The NEX-5n gets around this problem by adding access to multiple fuctions via a series of button and rocker presses, based on how one has customized them.
This works surprisingly well after you've spent some time discovering which ones you need, and how best to access them when doing different types of shooting. With my style of shooting I now rarely need to venture into the NEX's dreaded confusing multi-icon multi-screen scrolling menu system. Even then, having the ability to rapidly scroll by stroking the screen helps ease of access.
One thing that would really help make the camera friendlier though is a "MY" menu option, where different camera configurations could be memorized and then accessed quickly when shooting conditions or needs change.
The NEX-5n's battery is the same as the previous generation and several other Sony cameras, including the A55. Good on Sony for not forcing yet another new battery in consumers.
Battery life is not as good as Sony claims, though all such manufacturer claims are always much higher than reality. Over three weeks and more than a thousand frames I averaged between 250 and 300 shots per battery. This included a lot of chimping, video, and menu settings as I became increasingly familiar with the customized that I wanted. Ambient temperatures ranged from indoors to 5C – 25C.
Electronic First Shutter / Vibration / Shutter Lag
Sony proudly claims the fastest shutter response (0.02 sec) of any cameras for the NEX-5n and its recent siblings. This is made possible in part because the NEX 5n is a mirrorless camera; no rapid return-mirror to swing out of the way before the first shutter curtain can open. There isn't even an auto-diaphragm mechanism to stop the lens down, because you can work at shooting aperture, previewing DOF, and with no diaphragm delay.
But there's another new feature that makes the shutter release as fast as it is and which also virtually eliminates vibration. This is an electronic first shutter. On all Live View cameras the first shutter curtain is open for viewing, and then has to close before re-opening again a moment later to take the shot. These new Sony cameras avoid both the delay and potential vibration of the shutter by using an electronic first curtain shutter. So, not only are the NEX-5n and its recent brethren among the fastest responding cameras yet, but they are also the most vibration free – no mirror, no auto-diaphragm, no first curtain shutter. This will be huge for some photographers. I know that I really appreciate it when doing long lens work.
Approaching Storm. Clearview, Ontario. October, 2011
Sony NEX 5n with Leica 135mm APO Telyt @ ISO 100
Focus Peaking & Leica M Lenses
Probably the most important feature added to the NEX line, beginning with the 2010 firmware update and now available in all new NEX cameras, is Focus Peaking. It can be used with any lens, including Sony's own autofocus E mount line. In fact it can be very useful in visually ensuring that the correct subject in being focused on, right out to the edges of the frame.
Sony's NEX implementation of Focus Peaking allows three levels of sensativity, as well as OFF, and three different colours for the shimmer outline – red, white and yellow. A shimmering outline is displayed (both on the rear LCD and the EVF) around areas of the image which have the greatest contrast, which in most cases means the points of sharpest focus. This isn't always the same thing, but seems to be about 98% of the time.
Focus Peaking comes into its own when the NEX-5n is used with manual focus lenses. Between the Ricoh GXR-M, which I reviewed here recently, and the NEX-5n, I have been working a great deal recently with my Leica M lenses, and frankly I am finding focusing these to be quicker and at times more accurate than with my M9's rangefinder. One real advantage being that focus can be confirmed anywhere in the frame area, rather than just the rangefinder patch, which when used then requires recomposition.
I know the Leica faithful will regard this statement as heresy but it's how I now feel after some 40 years of M Leica use. If I want to use hyperfocal or zone focusing, I can, just as with an M. If I want critical focusing, especially at wide aperture and with longer lenses, the Peaking function in combination with the camera's excellent 2.3MP viewfinder and dual level magnification makes it quick and pleasurable.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but though the Sony "E" lenses are of decent consumer grade quality I found I really couldn't get the measure of the NEX-5n's resolving capability until I did some shooting with my Leica M lenses. The 5n's small size mates very well with the compact size of M optics, and when using the EVF along with Peaking the combination become very pleasurable, and image quality is exemplary.
Sony NEX-5n with 12mm f/5.6 Ultra-Wide Heliar @ ISO 2500
Shading and Vignetting with M Mount Lenses
In my recent Ricoh GXR-M review I discussed the issue of retrofocus vs. symetrical lens design, and how the latter can show vignetting and especially lens cast issues (cyan / magenta) issues when used with a sensor that is not designed specially for them. (Even then, this can be the case).
This is not as big a deal as one might think, since there are solutions. One can create a mask in Photoshop, or use the lens cast correction tool in Capture One. My recommendation though is to use a free utility for both Mac and Windows called Cornerfix. Simply take your NEX raw file, convert it to a DNG, then process it in Cornerfix. Here is a brief tutorial on Cornerfix by Jeff Hapeman.
My experience is that this works very well. I have tried it on the NEX-5n with the Voigtlander 12mm f/5.6 Heliar (though it mostly isn't needed) with excellent results. The 12mm Heliar is a very attractive option for NEX users since the widest lenses available from Sony are 16mm, which on a 1.5X APS-C sensor translates to 24mm in terms of coverage. The 12mm Heliar provides 18mm equivalent coverage, which is as wide as most people usually need, making it the widest lens available for use on a Sony NEX camera. (An M lens adaptor is required, of course).
I reviewed the original 12mm Heliar on these pages ten years ago (on an M6 using film, of course). I'll have a review of the new M mount version here shortly.
Some Additional Thoughts on Manual Focusing
In my Ricoh GXR-M review I commented that it was a good idea to focus with the lens aperture wide open, and then close down to shooting aperture afterward. This made sense with the Ricoh because it was not as adept as the NEX-5 in keeping the image bright and visible at small apertures. The problem with that technique though is that there is the possability of focus shift as one closes the aperture.
With the NEX-5n what I do is focus at shooting aperture, and hit the magnification button (bottom soft key) to confirm focus on the most important part of the image. This way I am able to get precise focus at shooting aperture and preview depth of field simultaneously.
Note that focus shift happens with some lenses, but not with others. There is therefore a trade-off to be made between the precision of focusing with a lens wide open, risking focus shift, and focusing closed down to shooting aperture, but with less accuracy due to increased DOF.
LA-EA2 Lens Adapter
When the NEX-5 was announced in 2010 so was the LA-EA1. This was an adaptor that allowed Sony A series lenses to be used fully automatically on a NEX body. The only real downside of using the EA1 was that it only allowed Contrast Detection autofocus. This meant quite slow autofocusing, because these lenses were not designed the way E lenses are, with light weight elements that make fast Contrast Detection AF possible. Only SAM and SSM lenses would autofocus.
The EA1 continuous to work on the NEX-5n (and NEX-7), but now there's the LA-EA2, which uses the same Translucent Mirror (pellicle) focusing module as used in the A65 and A77 cameras. Put the EA2 on your NEX-5n and enjoy fast Phase Detection autofocus with all your Sony "A" lenses, including those delicious (and heavy) Zeiss lenses.
That of course is what puts some people off – the EA2 adds bulk to the NEX cameras, and then, A series lenses are large and bulky as well. Well, that's the way it is. If you already own some Sony A lenses and want to be able to use them on a NEX body, then the EA2 adaptor is the greatest thing since sliced bread. If you don't, don't. There are thousands of other lenses that one can use, though not with ultra-fast AF speed and full automation.
Pealing Truck Paint – Bruce Penninsula, Ontario. October, 2011
Sony NEX 5n with Leica 50mm Summilux @ ISO 320
I should add that while the EA2 does indeed add some bulk to a NEX camera, some folks on the forums that haven't actually seen one seem to think that it is much bigger than it really is. In fact it's only slightly larger than the EA1, which was not big deal to begin with. I'll have more to say about the EA2 in a separate review.
The EA2 will be compatible with the previous NEX-5 /3 /3C / FS100 and VG10 bodies via an eventual firmware update.
Be aware that regardless of the NEX body used, the EA2 will consume batteries at a pretty fast rate since it is driving much larger AF mechanisms and motors than found in native E mount NEX lenses.
Sensor Resolution and Noise
Above is a shoot taken in the deep woods at ISO 3200, with a 100% crop (slightly reduced to fit this page) shown as well. No noise reduction has been applied. As can be seen there is some noise in the deep shadows, but nothing to get too excited about. Excellent low light performance.
I used to do lab-style reports using DxO Analyzer, but now prefer to do empirical field reports. Using Sony E, Sony A / Zeiss and Leica M lenses over a period of several weeks and many hundreds of frames and large prints made, I am confident that the NEX-5n is capable of very high resolution results. It would appear that the camera has a quite weak AA filter which then allows the best lenses to really show their stuff.
Though testing dynamic range isn't possible without specialized gear, and then has quite a subjective aspect to it, what I am seeing from the NEX-5n are very smooth highlight transitions, which , along with good shadow depth indicate a very good dynamic range. Be aware that, as with all cameras, the highlight clipping warning is based on the internally generated JPG, and I'm seeing as much as 2/3rd of a stop headroom over the indication until true clipping.
Back in 2003 (just eight years ago) I was shooting with a Kodak DCS Pro Back 645, which had 16 Megapixels and was the highest resolution portable single-shot MF back available at the time. It cost $12,000 and one still needed to buy a medium format camera to mount it on, not to mention lenses. Now we have cameras like the NEX-5n that sport a 16MP sensor, have much better noise characteristics, fits in a coat pocket, and costs under $800 including a zoom lens. What a great time to be a photographer.
OLED Electronic Viewfinder
Sony has rocked the industry with several new cameras all using their new 2.4MP OLED Electronic Viewfinder (EVF). I was very impressed with it on the A65, the A77 and the NEX-7. Now its available as the FDA-EV1, an optional accessory for the NEX-5n.
How good is it? It's very good indeed. It is without question the best currently available electronic viewfinder. It is clear, free from flicker and with minimal smearing, is bright, and has excellent contrast. Its Achilles heel is that in some conditions shadow areas can become blocked-up. The trade-off is that in low light it is even brighter than reality through an optical viewfinder, and the availability of an on-screen histogram and optional image review will even make it preferable for some users.
The bad news is that it is expensive, priced at US $350, almost $100 more than the Olympus E-P2, for example. But, along with tiltability and a diopter adjustment it features a built-in eye detect mechanism, something not seen on any other accessory EVF. Very cool and useful.
I do wish though that its tilt had a locking mechanism. With the camera over ones shoulder it's all too easy for the finder to move out of horizontal alignment.
Sumachs and Birch – Clearview, Ontario. October, 2011
Sony NEX-5n with 18-200mm E @ ISO 2000
It wasn't that long ago that most stills camera with video capability disappointed when it came to specs and operability. No longer. With this new generation of Alpha and NEX series cameras Sony has removed all shooting limitations and also equipped these cameras with a new high data-rate codec.
The NEX-5n uses AVCHD 2.0 at up to 28 Mbps. Shooting frame rates of 24P, 30P and 60P are available as well as full manual shutter speed and aperture control. To properly take advantage of this new-found shooting freedom will require though that users be familiar with video proper video shooting technique. Shameless plug.
I don't have a video project on the go at the moment, so only have done some brief technical tests with the NEX-5n. But even these make clear that the video quality possible from this new camera will more than satisfy even the demanding videographer.
As do all Sony cameras, from their top pro models down to their point-and-shoots, the NEX-5n is loaded with some quite cool, interesting, and often useful shooting modes and special features. Their Sweep Panorama mode is the best in the business, and there are also low light shooting modes that take up to six frame in rapid succession, blending them together to generate JPGs with much lower noise than would be achieved with a single exposure. There is also an Auto HDR mode that will take separate exposures up to six stops apart.
But, inexplicably, the camera's autobracketing mode is limited to +/- .6EV. This may be OK for ordinary safety bracketing but it is woefully inadequate for those who wish to take their own HDR shots in raw. I mentioned this to Sony engineers when I was in San Diego in August and it was noted. Hopefully a future firmware update will address this down the road.
A major omission is the lack of an AE and AF lock control. Obviously this is being reserved for the upcoming and upmarket NEX-7. The lack of these two controls isn't the end of the world though, since manual focusing is always available, as is manual exposure.
I could only find one real bug in the firmware. If you attach a lens adaptor without electrical contacts the 5n sometimes will still report in the EXIF data that the previous E mount lens was still attached. This is fairly minor, and these files can be detected because the EXIF only shows the lens name, not the focal length used, which it would normally do if the E mount lens had actually been attached. Turning the camera on and off between lens changes solves this for the time being.
Clearview Fall Colour. Ontario. October, 2011
Sony NEX 5n with Leica 135mm APO Telyt @ ISO 100
100% crop of Clearview Fall Colour
The Bottom Line
The NEX-5n is a highly capable camera, able to meet the needs and interests of a broad swath of the "enthusiast" camera community. The user interface is much improved over its predecessor, and once customized by the user should present little difficulty for most photographers. The accessory OLED EVF is nothing short of exceptional. No Virginia, it isn't as good as a full frame reflex optical prism / viewfinder. But it's streets better than the "tiny window at the end of a tunnel" that passes for reflex finders on most consumer DSLRs. Being able to superimpose a histogram when shooting at eye level is a big win for serious workers.
The NEX-5n's rear touch-screen LCD is convenient and of high quality. Turn on the "Bright Daylight" viewing mode and you can use the LCD as a searchlight on a dull day. Scrolling through menus and reviewing images with the flick of a finger will also appeal to those conditioned by the now ubiquitous smartphone interface. I only wish that it had a touch-to-shoot capability.
The shutter release is as fast as any camera in the world, and with frame rates up to 10 FPS even someone shooting occasional sports (or fast moving rug-rats) will rejoice.
Add an EA2 Sony Alpha mount lens adaptor, a third party adaptor for Leica M or other lens systems, and there are now literally thousands of current and legacy lenses available. Of course the NEX-5n's brilliant "focus peaking" capability makes using manual focus lenses a breeze.
All of this would simply be icing on the cake if the image quality wasn't first rate – but it is. The camera's 16 Megapixel sensor has some of the lowest noise of any APS-C sensor currently on the market. RAW files processed in Lightroom 3.5, when printed in sizes up to 16X24", need no noise reduction up to about ISO 1600 (well, maybe a little at 1600). ISO 3200 is quite usable with a bit of Luminance NR, and higher than this is, well, higher. If you really need to use it it can be made to work. (Just buy a faster lens if you think you really need ISO 25,000).
With its very weak AA filter, and the vibration resistance of an electronic first shutter, resolution with really good lenses is quite excellent.
My bottom line observation is that until the NEX-7 ships, the NEX-5n has taken the prime spot in my gear bag. Big camera quality and features in something that fits in a coat pocket and that can take literally a thousand or more different lenses. What's not to like?
Michael has raised an interesting point about the potential advantages of EVF cameras for rangefinder lenses that show focus shift. I've been thinking about the same thing as I've been testing Ricoh's recent M-A12 module. Please note that when I write "EVF" I'm referring literally to cameras that use electronic viewfinders (whether those are rear LCD screens or eye level screens).
Focus shift, and its relationship to spherical aberration, is well described by Paul Van Walree here. I've been testing rangefinder camera lenses fairly intensively for about seven years now and what I've observed is that the lenses which do show this behavior tend to shift focus most strongly in the center region of their coverage. What one sees, of course, is that (at a set focus plane) the resolution of the lens appears to get weaker and weaker as it is stopped down. But what's really happening is that the actual focus is moving away from the intended focus plane. Lenses that show focus shift may deliver strong resolution as they're stopped down but that resolution peak moves to different distances from the camera. That's one reason we don't always notice focus shift: we see strong resolution in certain parts of the frame and - when that is misplaced - may blame ourselves for misfocusing the camera. Or, in some cases, the focus shift just isn't strong enough to get our attention or cause any concern.
Depth of field at smaller lens openings can hide some degree of focus shift but it certainly never compensates for it. Precise focus happens only at one specific distance no matter what aperture one is working at. I find it important to keep that in mind when I'm doing any kind of photography in which focus needs to be precise.
Focus shift can be seen in all kinds of lenses - certainly not only those designed for rangefinder cameras. In fact, at some level at least, it probably exists in most lenses. But I specialize in RF lenses so I'm most familiar with how if affects them. The good news is that many current rangefinder camera lenses do not suffer from problematic focus shift. It's there but it's minor and it is probably not worth being concerned about. For example, the current Leica 50/2.0 Summicron I've been testing on the Leica M9 does show minor focus shift. But the degree is so small that one can barely note it even in controlled resolution tests. So I'd suggest its not worrying about with that particular lens. Leica's prior version of the 35/1.4 Summilux (not the current model) was prone to more noticeable focus shift and that could be problematic for some work.
I'm impressed by many of Cosina Voigtlander's rangefinder camera lenses - so much so that I own several of them and use them often. Some of these models are really exceptional - not only with respect to their modest cost but at any cost. But, to be quite honest, I see focus shift more often in certain more recent CV lens designs than I do in most lenses made by Zeiss and Leica. Many older CV designs like - for example - the CV 28/1.9 Ultron, 35/1.2 Nokton (Version I), 35/1.7 Ultron, 50/1.5 Nokton (all aspherical models, interestingly) have shown almost no visible focus shift in my resolution tests. I haven't yet tested the new version of the CV 35/1.2 Nokton but it is an aspherical design and I wouldn't be surprised if it did not show any problematic focus shift. But I have seen notable focus shift (though in varying degrees) with the CV 28/2.0, 35/1.4 Nokton, 40/1.4 Nokton, 50/1.1 Nokton and 50/2.0 Heliars (both versions). That doesn't mean that these are bad lenses (they certainly are not) but their focus shift is worth knowing about.
Most SLR cameras, since the 1960s at least, have had an auto-aperture feature that holds the lens wide open until the exposure is made (unless one uses a depth of field preview control). That way the viewing depth of field is narrow and less likely to confuse one's focus decisions. It's hard, for example, to focus an SLR lens when it is stopped down to F/8 because so many different distances can *seem* to be in focus. In general, I'd say that viewing the subject at maximum aperture is still the best way to focus most lenses using EVF cameras (even using magnification, peaking, etc.). So, if a lens does not show notable focus shift I recommend focusing it wide open - using the EVF - and then stopping it down to the taking aperture before making the picture. This is the way I focus most rangefinder lenses on EVF cameras.
If (and only if) one is using an EVF camera with a lens that does show notable focus shift then he or she is faced with a balancing act, as Michael mentioned. On the one hand, stopping down the lens to the taking aperture will allow it to shift to its new focus distance. On the other hand, the depth of field then created will make focusing harder. I suggest that photographers try the following.
1) If a lens (which shows notable focus shift) is going to be used at about F/4.0 or a wider aperture then I suggest trying to focus it at the taking aperture.
2) If a lens (which shows notable focus shift) is going to be used at an aperture narrower than F/4.0 then I suggest stopping it down to about F/4.0, setting focus, then moving it to the taking aperture before making the picture.
So let's say one is using a CV 35/1.4, on a NEX 5n, for a picture to be made at F/8. He or she might stop the lens down to about F/4.0 - to focus using peaking and magnification - and then stop it down to F/8 before making the picture.
The trick is to try to focus at an aperture where the lens has already shifted focus quite a bit but where depth of field is still moderate. There's no rule about where that magic point is but it can be worth experimenting with.
Is this a hassle? Yes, it can be. Obviously, life is simpler if one sticks with lenses that are not prone to notable focus shift. But sometimes those lenses have other qualities, that one really likes, so its worth dealing with the focus shift. The CV 28/2.0, for example, is a wonderfully compact and affordable lens that performs well in many respects. But to use it one must accept some focus shift.
Otherwise one can stick with lenses that don't show much focus shift and focus them wide open as we have always done with SLRs.
Addendum by Sean Reid