The long-awaited Sony NEX-5 and NEX-3 have finally arrived! Sony has announced 3 E-mount lenses to fit the bodies: 16 mm f/2.8, 18-55 mm f3.5-5.6, and 18-200 mm f3.5-6.3.
The subject of this review is the NEX-5 which we received along with the 18-55 mm lens.
When Olympus and Panasonic opted for the Micro Four Thirds System in their ILCCs, Sony decided to use an APS-C size sensor. This has forced them to use comparatively larger lenses that tend to defeat the very purpose of interchangeable lens compact cameras. Well, the NEX-3 and NEX-5 bodies are compact, no doubt, just that the lenses are not as compact. Let’s see if the larger APS-C sensor is able to produce image quality that is much superior to the Micro Four Thirds System.
HOW DID ILCC’S EVOLVE?
Three factors were responsible for the evolution of interchangeable lens compact cameras.
1.The advent of digital. Digital replacing film was the single biggest factor. With digital, there was no need for a mirror, a prism or even an optical viewfinder, thus liberating space to make cameras even smaller.
2.With digital came sensors of different sizes. The smaller sensors (like the Four Thirds sensor) meant that cameras and lenses could be designed to be much smaller and cheaper.
3.Again with digital, large consumer electronic companies like Sony and Panasonic decided to enter the field of imaging. Sony bought out the Minolta SLR production line; Panasonic started from scratch. Both Sony and Panasonic made little impact with their D-SLRs. A solution had to be found and it had to come from a newcomer and not from veterans like Canon or Nikon who had heavy and deeply entrenched interests in maintaining the status quo. The first move came from Panasonic. The Lumix G1 from Panasonic was diminutive by D-SLR standards, was well built and produced very good results. The G1 also introduced the new Micro Four Thirds Standard whereby Panasonic could make even smaller lenses to couple with their already smaller bodies. The G1 was an immediate success and was the Smart Photography (as well as Popular Photography U S A) Camera of the Year 2009. Olympus followed Panasonic with the E-P1, EP-2 and E-PL 1. Samsung also followed and introduced the NX-100 and NX-10. Samsung however, used the larger APS-C sensor and also introduced a brand new mount. Sony soon realized that entering this segment was the only way it could counter Canon and Nikon. Accordingly, the N-EX 3 and N-EX 5 were launched. Like Samsung, Sony used the APS-C sensor. Sony also introduced a brand new mount.
The battle lines are now clearly drawn. Which is the better version – APS-C or Micro Four Thirds? Well, Micro Four Thirds was first off the block. Panasonic now has the G-2, the G-10, the GH-2, the GF-1 and the GF-2. It has already launched 9 system-lenses and we all know how good the Panny lenses are. By using the same Micro Four Thirds Standard and arousing nostalgia (by using the PEN name), Olympus has made some inroads. Sigma and Cosina have signed to make lenses for the Micro Four Thirds Standard. Fans of the Micro Four Thirds System are quick to point out limitations of the systems using the APS-C sensor. The size of the lenses, they claim, will be the main drawback as the APS-C sensor will not allow lenses to go below a certain size. All the so-called benefits of a ‘compact’ camera would get diluted. Again, both Samsung and Sony have bravely (or irrationally) introduced brand new lens mounts.
Let us not forget, however, that both Samsung and Sony are aggressive companies with superb marketing skills and history has shown that the best product does not necessarily win the race.
DESIGN AND BUILD QUALITY
By design, the Sony Alpha NEX-5 is an Interchangeable Lens Compact Camera (ILCC). The body is made from magnesium alloy and engineering plastic. And it appears quite robust. The lens is off-center and tilts the balance to the left, but it has a nice finger grip to counter the off-balance. The lettering on the body is screen printed and is likely to wear off with use. The tiny flash on the NEX-5 can be detached if required, but is a bit troublesome to attach/detach.
The NEX-5 is a 14.2 megapixel ILCC incorporating a Exmor APS HD CMOS Sensor. Sony claim that using the CMOS sensor with the Enhanced Imaging Processor (Sony’s original processing circuit), the NEX-5 will have a wider dynamic range with lesser noise. The NEX uses E-mount lenses but by using an optional mount adapter, you can use the full range of Alpha system A-mount lenses. The camera also sports a 3-inch 921,000-dot tiltable (but no swiveling movements) LCD monitor.
A fantastic feature of the Sony Alpha NEX-5 is the Sweep Panorama feature. Just activate the feature, and move the camera in a smooth horizontal or vertical arc, while keeping the shutter release button depressed. The camera will shoot continuously and automatically join the frames to form a seamless panorama. Good work Sony! This is a great way to to enjoy stunning panoramas. What’s more, if you own a 3D-capable Sony Bravia HD TV (firmware update required for the camera), you can enjoy your panoramas on the large TV screen in 3D! Another touted feature of the NEX-5 is the Background Defocus Control. This works only in the Intelligent Auto mode though. Like most digital cameras today, the NEX-5 also supports full HD movie recording. You can record in MP4 (1440 x 1080) or AVCHD format (1920 x 1080).
The user interface on the NEX-5 can take some time to get used to. On the camera back there are 3 “soft keys” and a Control Wheel. The soft keys have different roles, depending on the context. The top key controls the Menu; the one at the center controls the Shooting Mode, while the lower soft key shows the Shooting Tips. Once you press the required soft key, you can turn the Control Wheel to select the desired control or setting.
The Shooting Mode permits you to opt for either Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Manual exposure mode. You could also select 3D Sweep Panorama, Sweep Panorama, Anti Motion Blur, SCN (Scene modes), or Intelligent Auto. (Scene modes include Portrait, Hand-held twilight, Night View, Night Portrait, Sunset, Sports Action, Macro, and Landscape. The Alpha NEX-5 offers Steady Shot option (image stabilization).
The NEX-5 lets you select the desired Drive Mode: you can opt for Single-shot, Continuous, Speed Priority Continuous, Self-timer, Self-timer Continuous, Bracket Continuous, or Remote Commander mode (the remote is sold separately). You can also select various Image Sizes; JPEG Fine/Standard, RAW, or RAW+JPEG; Aspect ratio of 3:2 or 16:9; and Movie File Format (MP4 or AVCHD).
For exposure metering, the user has a choice between Multi, Center-weighted or Spot. Exposure can be compensated up to +/- 2 EV in 0.3 EV steps. White Balance can be set to Auto, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Flash, Kelvin Temperature, Filter, or Custom.
Images can be recorded on Memory Stick Pro Duo or SD card. The camera body weighs approximately 287 g with the battery and Memory Pro Duo card. It is powered by a rechargeable battery pack NP-FW50.
Our review sample came with the 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. We did feel it lop-sided but again, this is a matter of getting used to. According to us the user interface could have been designed for quicker operation. Reading the focal length settings on the lens was difficult as the lettering are very faint. Attaching the provided flash was a fiddly affair. The Control Wheel at the camera back can be inadvertently pressed if one is not careful.
Pictures shot through the Sony NEX 5 displayed saturated colors. We felt that JPEG images were slightly soft, especially at the corners, but sharpened well in Photoshop. The camera produced 10.187 x 15.307-inch images at 300ppi. At 12.5-percent screen size, noise appears very well controlled throughout the ISO range. At 25-percent screen size, noise can be noticed from ISO 3200 onwards (though in all fairness, only if you are searching for noise!). At 50-percent, you can see noise at ISO 800 onwards, though this amount of noise would not bother me at ISO 800. Overall, the noise control is good.
Though flare can be noticed in strong against-the-light shots, chromatic aberration is very well controlled. Corner darkening was evident with the lens wide open at the widest focal length. The 18-55 mm equivalent kit lens produced barrel distortion at 18 mm, mustache distortion at 24 and 28 mm, and pin cushion distortion at 35 and 55 mm. In the White Balance department, the Sony NEX 5 did not perform as well as we had expected. Other than WB Sun and AWB Sun, all other settings produced minor color casts.
We were impressed with its image stabilizer (Steady Shot) which allowed us to shoot at low shutter speeds without jitter. Another feature that impressed us was the Sweep Panorama, which shoots several pictures and automatically joins them to make a panoramic image. Incidentally, Sony won the ‘Innovation of the Year Award’ for this feature at Smart Photography’s Annual Awards Night. Yet another feature we loved was the Auto HDR wherein the camera fires off 3 frames at different exposures and combines them to create a High Dynamic Range image.
The sample handed over to us suddenly froze when in use and continued to remain ‘on’ even after the camera was switched off. Sony India attributed this to a possible firmware problem.
VALUE FOR MONEY
The Sony NEX 5 is available at an MRP of Rs.34,990. Considering the camera’s features, the APS-C size sensor, and the image quality it provides, we feel the price is justified.
+ Good control over noise
+ Compact body of good build quality
+ Tiltable LCD monitor (though not swiveling)
+ Good video performance
+ Sweep Panorama feature (won an award from Smart Photography)
+ Good control over chromatic aberration.
– Shooting mode selection is a 2-step operation
– Camera balance not that great
– Viewing focal length settings on the lens is difficult.
– Lenses disproportionate to compact body
Design and Build Quality 17/20
Key Features 17.5/20
Value for Money 18/20
The Sony NEX 5 is a good performer. By using the larger APS-C size sensor, Sony has managed to control noise level quite well. The larger sensor also offers better dynamic range. But the APS-C size sensor also means that Sony has to provide larger lenses that defeat the fundamental idea behind ILCCs. Maybe in future, Sony, with their enormous technological skills, will be able to produce a radically new design of smaller lenses for this format. Sony’s innovative features, like the Auto HDR and Sweep Panorama will definitely benefit their sales. In spite of the hiccup that our test camera faced, Best Buy!