Sony NEX-5N 16.1Mp APS-C compact system camera
Review Sony's NEX range of compact system cameras have continued expand with the NEX-C3, reviewed recently, appealing to entry-level users keen to get to grips with Alpha optics and a DSLR-sized APS-C sensor. Adding to those niceties at the top end, if you've a grand to spare, there's the 24Mp NEX-7. Yet in the middle, away from the headline grabbers, is the NEX-5N – pretty much the same body as before, but with revamped specs.
Sony's revamped NEX-5N is now its mid-range E-mount model
The NEX-5N’s most obvious improvements over its predecessor are a new 16.1Mp CMOS sensor and the implementation of touchscreen technology. It also benefits from extended ISO sensitivity – between 100 and 25,600 – and an improved continuous shooting speed of 10fps. Sony has also included lens aberration correction that is active by default and an optional electronic viewfinder.
What's more, if you're a Minolta/Konica user of old or have a Sony Alpha DSLR – or translucent mirror model – then the NEX range can now make the most of those optics with the LA-EA2 accessory adaptor that allows full phase-detection autofocus compatibility with all A-mount lenses. The NEX-5N also improves its specs in other areas such as colour depth, dynamic range and battery life.
The body of the NEX-5N is virtually unchanged from the NEX-5 but it is worth mentioning that the magnesium alloy construction now extends to the top as well as the front plate, giving this new upgrade a slightly more luxurious and sleek look. The minor revamp also makes the 5N 18g lighter and 0.9mm slimmer than its older brother.
In terms of design the NEX-5N is still an odd fish. The body itself is tiny and despite its blocky, slightly uneven shape, it does have its charms. The problem is that Sony optics are very large and when mounted on the NEX-5N’s diminutive body they completely alter the look, feel and ergonomics of the camera.
Even with a pancake lens the instinctive grip is to hold the lens barrel
The front grip is deep and large enough to allow a firm handling but since the weight of the camera is mostly on the left of the body, where the lens is, I found I was mostly handling the camera by the lens barrel of the 18-55mm kit lens, despite their being a rubberised front grip. Not exactly the most ergonomic grasp if you want to make swift use of the lens zoom and focusing rings.
Not so flash
Another annoying design flaw is caused by the accessory flash unit mounted on the hotshoe. When not in use it folds flat but gets in the way of turning the zoom ring. The result is quite frustrating – if you want to travel the whole focal length of the zoom with the flash attached, you have to do it in several progressive movements.
And if you force your hand past the flash unit in one sweeping movement, as you naturally would, you inevitably hit the flash and make it unfold and engage. Shame, as a retractable or fixed flash unit would have solved this problem.
I encountered other issues that prevented me from fully enjoying using the Sony NEX-5N. For instance, the on/off switch is extremely stiff while feeling rather plasticky – an altogether unpleasant combination. Also, the flash unit is rather tricky to screw on and off, as the screw dial is buried so deep within the base of the unit that your fore finger struggles to reach it. And I certainly don’t have large fingers.
Minimal controls will suit some, but not all
The Sony NEX-5N is quite devoid of physical buttons. All that's on offer are the shutter release, on/off switch, playback and direct video recording buttons on the top plate and a four-way control dial plus two unmarked flat buttons on the right of the screen. Take a moment to customise those two buttons and the camera can be fully operated from these sparse physical controls.
The NEX-5N now utilises an intuitive and well-organised touchscreen interface. On the right of the LCD screen there is a menu option with large icons that gives you access to all camera settings organised in scroll-down lists that are very fast to browse, if a little long. There is also a cute virtual PASM dial to replace the lack of a physical one with its own scene sub-menus easily accessible.
The two plain buttons on the back are user assignable
All in all, this entire dual control solution works really well, as the screen is responsive and the menu layout intuitive enough. At least once you get used to Sony’s odd naming of some of the menu folders. The brightness/colour menu, for example, does not actually deal with either brightness nor colour per se, but instead with settings such as ISO, Exposure Compensation, WB, Metering Mode, Picture effects and Creative Styles.
18-55mm kit lens (35mm equivalent: 27-83mm)
The self-cleaning could be better, notice the grey spots on the right above the horizon
Click for a full-resolution image
Touch and go
The one massive benefit of the NEX-5N’s interactive screen is its ability to set the focus at the touch of a finger, which is always handy and its responsiveness is good for such things. However, the display's sensitivity sometimes caused settings to be inadvertedly changed either while shooting or carrying the camera, and on occasion even images were deleted. Another issue is the lack of a user-defined menu in the on-screen interface.
The new 16.1Mp APS-C sensor offers improved sensitivity
Aside from its capacitive touchscreen technology, the 3in 922k-dot resolution LCD screen can also be tilted 80 degrees upward and 45 degrees downwards to facilitate framing from different shooting positions. The screen itself is bright and crisp with good detail and anti-reflective technology.
The NEX-5N sports a revised and improved version of the Exmor APS HD CMOS DSLR-sized 16.1 MP sensor first introduced with the NEX-C3, which coupled with an ad hoc optimisation of Sony’s BIONZ processing engine, produces beautifully detailed and colour-rich images.
With the latest adapters NEX E-mount cameras can fully utilise A-mount lenses too
Besides larger images, the sensor upgrade also features sensitivity improvements, now pushed from ISO 100 to ISO 25,600 with good noise characteristics across the entire range. Dynamic range is also surprisingly wide and balanced for this class of camera, while the 49 multi-segment metering system does an excellent job at getting the right exposure first time around in virtually all shooting conditions.
The 18-55mm zoom lens, with a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at wide angle and f/5.6 at full telephoto, might be large but is solidly built and has a pleasingly smooth zoom and focusing ring operation. It is not the sharpest zoom around but certainly a very decent kit lens. The choice of NEX E-mount lenses is increasingly along with improved compatibility with all Sony, Minolta and Konica-Minolta A-lenses.
The NEX-5N has a wide range of finely crafted effects that will surely appeal to the enthusiast photographer. From the clever Defocus Background, which lets you produce professional-looking and user-defined shallow depth-of-field images, to the smooth Sweep Panorama mode that allows you to create perfectly stitched panoramas just by panning the camera, although for some reason the camera tends to overexpose in this mode.
Besides tilting, the display features touchscreen focusing
Additionally the NEX-5N offers a choice of 11 Photo Creativity modes, including High Contrast Monochrome, Partial Colour, Retro Photo and Soft High-Key, and another 11 art effects available in PASM mode and including Toy Camera, Pop Colour, Soft Focus, HDR Painting, Rich-Tone Monochrome and Miniature.
Image quality is not the only outstanding feature of this camera. If you want a fast CSC shooter the NEX-5N is up your street. With a shutter lag of mere 0.02secs and continuous shooting speed of 10fps at full resolution, the NEX-5N is as fast as it gets. Although the 25-points contrast-detection AF system performed well both in daylight and available light, it was not as fast as I’d expected it from the general performance of the camera. Having said that, the system is reliable and accurate in all situations.
The NEX-5N captures Full HD 1920 x 1080 pixels videos in AVCHD or MPEG-4 file formats at a maximum frame rate of 60fps. Video quality is smooth and sharp with very good sound reproduction. Video recording also benefits from full exposure control in PASM modes and excellent AF performance.
Eye spy: the FDA-EV1S optical viewfinder
Battery power has increased to 410 shots and the availability of optional accessories such as ECM-SST1 microphone and crucially Sony's new FDA-EV1S electronic viewfinder (EVF) make this camera a very versatile and customisable tool, although at extra cost. The NEX-5N has a sensor cleaning system but judging from the dust specs I found on some of my photos it does not work perfectly and I had to resort to manual cleaning several times.
The niggles I mentioned earlier might not be major sticky points for all users but they did put me off from recommending this camera wholeheartedly. It is quite unfortunate because in all other respects this revamped NEX model is very much the business, improving on its predecessor in sensible and efficient ways. ®
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