Sony NEX-5 interchangeable lens camera
Review I have to admit upon opening the box and finding a silver-bodied version of the Sony NEX-5 with the 18-55 zoom, my first thoughts were: this is the coolest camera ever.
Sony's NEX-5 with the new E-mount 18-55mm zoom lens
Why? Well, Sony has applied some rather simple notions here: put a load of decent glass in front of a good-sized sensor, tack on a operating system that gives you basic control and great auto programs, make the flashgun a pocket add-on and finish it all in brushed metal. The upshot of it all is a camera that looks and feels the business.
With a crowd-pleasing 14.2Mp APS-C CMOS sensor, when married to its E18-55mm F3.5-5.6 lens – which is deadly silent when in AF mode – the NEX-5 produces images to rival DSLRs, much further up the food chain.
Unlike the NEX-3 (its 720p sibling), the NEX-5 records 1080i AVCHD HD movies and, with quality lenses, produces footage to rival devices with even larger sensors. Currently, there are only a handful of E-mount Alpha lenses available, but there’s an official adapter for Sony Alpha and Minolta optics, as well as third party offerings for other makes.
With no viewfinder, the 921k dot, 3in articulating LCD screen takes care of business and gives a very high contrast image preview. The panel feels solid with a great finish round the edges. I grew to like the Background Defocus Control – being able to adjust depth of focus with a scale on-screen live, instead of using f/stops. Thankfully, this mode’s starting point is at the best extreme for this effect.
The articulating LCD panel reveals most of the controls, as buttons kept to a minimum,
Choosing not to have a dial for the shooting mode is inspired. Many never move that dial anyway and it is the first function of the NEX-5’s jog wheel, by default. The menu system is very simple and easy to navigate, once you’re on Sony’s wavelength. When you’ve determined that the ISO would probably fall under Brightness and Colour, rather than say Camera settings, then it all starts to make sense. We are in a RGB/YUV world, after all.
For beginners, it has sensible explanations for all functions, especially the Scene modes, with nice graphics, so you can navigate quickly. If you prefer to switch to manual, in this mode the display indicates how your settings are to an acceptable shot. Shutter and aperture are displayed and when selected are altered then with the parameter wheel.
No PASM dial here, as many users will stick with auto anyway
In fixed AF mode it can rapid burst up to 7fps. If there is a criticism, it is that the more you get into using this device the quicker you want it to work and a lack of buttons does hamper this. Given that it hits the mark so fast from start up, it would be great to be able to alter the ISO from a dedicated key. Even so, using the autofocus, with a manual finishing touch, gets it in the ballpark swiftly and then you can simply override to track someone, or really concentrate on a feature on that object.
Capturing video in AVCHD 1920x1080 or MP4 1440x1080 format delivers top-notch quality with no obvious artefacts, at a reasonable data rate too. Its continuous autofocus and aperture control, coupled with good image stabilisation, makes this an ideal go anywhere video camera. By contrast, you can put it on a tripod, and shoot everything manual, if desired.
I like too, how it mixed with two Canon cams without blowing out highlights or being too muddy in the browns of tungsten light. It really does do a good job of mimicking those larger body systems. So for once, here is a compact camera with an emphasis on the lens and the sensor, rather than how many bells and whistles there are on the outside. There are some nice 'program modes' but this is a system where they have put quality of the optics first.
Lenses? We've heard of them. The 18-200mm zoom is due out soon
With the larger 18-200mm zoom attached the NEX-5 is undoubtedly bulky, but tethered to the 18-55mm lens, it just fits in your hand. Dangling from the strap, it feels like it could live with a few knocks on the outside of your jacket. This camera truly can go anywhere and with its weighted focus and zoom rings, it actually screams pick me up and take something.
Give us a flash
Another space saver, and a throw back to film cameras, is the NEX-5’s detachable flash. Given that, unaided, it takes rather lovely images up to ISO 3200, and really excels up to 1600 ISO, if you can't find a light source or tripod to put it on, well shame on you. Still, the pocket-friendly flash, which is about the size of a car key fob, can punch some light onto a scene, admittedly a close scene, if needs must. And if you're keen to experiment, the NEX-5 goes up to ISO 12800, but don't expect miracles at this range.
Having a detachable flash helps to keep the body size down
The flashgun slot also doubles up for use with the accessory microphone, which looks like a decent piece of kit from Sony Pro Audio. The camera’s tiny internal microphone does a good job too, though.
The rapid-fire panorama is fun and delivers the goods. It takes multiple shots and stitches them up in-camera. From the first go you have something that you are hard pushed to improve, unless you swivel too fast. The Handheld Twilight mode – taking three images to produce a sharp shot when there is hardly any light – works a treat too.
I would love to have tried the 16mm pancake prime f/2.8 as I think that would be a super lens for most quirky wide stuff you need to shoot. And if you want things wider still, there’s even a fisheye adapter for it. At the other end of the scale, the 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 due in September should satisfy those who only want to own one lens.
If you do opt for a Sony adaptor for Alpha/Minolta lenses or others with adapters from Rayqual and Novoflex, you will lose the autofocus feature – which is a selling point here. Still if you already own some decent glass and want a smaller form factor, then sacrificing the autofocus to consider these options may well be worth it. Talking of options, the card slot takes both SD cards and Sony's Memory Stick, but accommodating both form factors does make inserting a card a little fiddly.
An external microphone is available that also utilises the flash slot
Battery life is rated at around 330 shots, but I was keen to see how long it would survive for video work. Overall, it lasted around 40mins with on-screen monitoring and video recording.
What’s the charge?
The battery does take an age to get recharge fully up to 100 per cent. In fact, a couple of times I just couldn't wait any longer and just took what I could get with the available charge. Incidentally, when filming, I wanted to check the duration for continuous video capture and it notched up a 25-minute recording.
Compact and recently updated to take 3D images for playback on flagship Sony Bravia TVs
Once battery life does start to dip, you do have plenty of warning. And not every user is going to capture video for such intensive periods. Now, if the screen could be switched off when the camera is mounted and being left to record, that would save power. But nah, it’s unlikely to ever be configured for anything so specialised.
The NEX-5 is a quality compact camera with the most important feature sticking out the front. Compared to a DSLR, Sony has given us the bare bones out the back and a good, but currently narrow choice of three lenses. Admittedly, this isn't a very big range but that will surely change and there are adapter options too.
Among camera enthusiasts, the NEX-5 is a real talking point as it shines by being so different, and well put together. Indeed, Sony has taken the compact somewhere else, and with the NEX-VG10 camcorder due in a matter of weeks, the company has finally launched a range that changes everything. About time, I say. ®
James Cumpsty is a professional photographer and videographer working in the music industry.
Thanks to Jessops for the loan of the review sample.
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