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The problem is, they make such bloody good cameras.
—Group Captain Lionel Mandrake

Sony NEX-5

I have read a lot of reviews of the Sony NEX-5, and all of them seem to lose the forest for the trees. Every review features a different favorite species of complaint: flash, optical viewfinders, accessory shoes, or something else.  But it would be a serious mistake to see the NEX-5 as anything but a milestone in the development of direct-view cameras. Not only is it better in many ways than a Micro 4/3 (M43) camera; it pretty much eliminates the biggest reasons most people buy full-sized APS-C DSLRs like the Nikon D300s or the Canon EOS 7D.  This discussion is based on firmware 3 (most reviews are based on 1 or 2).  It is also based on a black NEX-5 camera body; results with the silver version (shown in Sony's promotional CAD rendering above) may vary.

Philosophy. Up to a couple of years ago, Sony's photographic philosophy was to license the Carl Zeiss name for its lenses and crank out as many different point-and-shoot cameras per year as it could - all using the Memory Stick (in essence, the Beta of flash memory devices).  Then Sony got serious and purchased Konica-Minolta's camera line (including the former Maxxum/Dynax/Alpha product line).  And not only did Sony keep the same line; it rereleased most of the old optics under its own name.

When you look at the NEX, it looks as if it were designed by a Konica-Minolta engineer who came over with the business to Sony. The camera is small, elegant, high-performing, designed without a built-in flash, and mildly quirky (it is in some ways conceptually but not operationally similar to the Hexar AF). Aside from the lens mount, it does not have any of the usual Sony proprietary quirkiness. The fact that it can fire "without a lens" yet automatically changes one of the soft keys to a 7x/14x magnifying function should tell you that one design intent was serving a platform for other lenses (the Sony Alpha adapter has electronics that would make this move unnecessary). The "platform mode" is similar to what Olympus and Panasonic did with their M43 cameras. And the NEX's "background defocus" setting is 100% old-photographer-in-Shibuya.

Image quality. Let's get this out of the way first. The NEX-5 meets or exceeds most APS-C DSLRs and crushes small-sensor compacts. DxOmark scores this sensor in the same class as a D300s or a Canon 7D. Real-life use bears this out. The sensor has a fairly weak antialiasing filter (not unlike that on the GR Digital II or the Nikon D700), and the sensor is good with grain up to ISO 1600.  It is not a D3s or D700 in low-light performance (what is?), but it is not like shooting a digital Leica that starts getting flaky with noise at 320 ISO.  As against small-sensor compacts, it has an edge at base ISO that only increases as the ISOs go up.

Focusing. With Sony's own lenses, this is very, very fast. There are three focus modes: center, flexible spot (you can move the focus point), and multi. Multi uses face detection (and can automatically fire if you have Smile Shutter turned on).   If there are no human (looking) subjects, multi will look for the closest object (in tests, it considered photos of people to be faces, as well as my old stereo's controls and my son's stuffed bear).  All modes lock on positively and quickly, though as the light level goes down, the speed diminishes. The drive mode can be set to prioritize shooting over locking focusing, and it's pretty shocking to hear a pocket camera machine-gun at 7 frames per second (and it's accentuated by the fact that the camera has a mechanical shutter that blinds the sensor before each shot). A fast frame rate  is not a bad thing with legacy lenses (see below), where you might be focus-bracketing by moving the camera.  It's also not a bad thing for children, since the follow-up shots come very quickly.

Optics. There are two Sony E-mount lenses in wide circulation: a 16mm "pancake" and an 18-55mm zoom. Lenses have polished chrome-plated metal barrels with 49mm filter threads.  Internals definitely contain plastic - and that's very common even on DSLR lenses now.   In some ways, the rise of polycarbonate lens barrels is not a bad thing; they break rather than bend, so impact damage is an all-or-nothing proposition without the mild misalignments that would get into metal.

It's not everyone's taste to stick a silver lens on a black camera, but the design is elegant enough and a step above the ugly EF and "AF-s" lenses that are packaged with most entry-level DSLRs.   I would be facetious to claim that appearance has any effect on performance (and you'd be a fool to believe it), but attention to detail in industrial design is indicative of attention to detail in technical execution.   Nikon, for example, did not have to have Giorgetto Giugaro design the F3 - but having created such an elegant mechanical design, it wanted a suitable exterior.

Focusing with both lenses is dead-silent - important when you use the camera for its 1080p video.  In fact, focusing runs continuously when the camera is on - and that is probably a challenge to the battery.  The camera also takes a few minutes to realize that you have a lens cap on it (for auto shutdown).

The 16mm, approximating a 24mm on an FX/35mm camera, is small, focuses quickly, and is a decent performer. No, it's not a $2,500 Leica 24mm - but since it only currently costs $100 extra if you buy it with the body and 18-55mm, it's a no-brainer. Yes, there is distortion close-up. Don't shoot a wide-angle lens in people's faces or where you have a straight line visible at less than 6 feet. This is an outdoor lens, and it does fine. Sometimes you can see color fringing. It depends on the situation and the shooting aperture, and you can use Lightroom to get rid of that when it is a problem.

The 18-55mm (equivalent to about a 28-80mm) focuses quickly and a bit closer. Contrary to the usual insecure amateur jibes about "kit" lenses, kit lenses are often quite sharp because they use (relatively) undemanding optical designs and have small apertures. They also have to be good performers to prevent neophytes from blaming the equipment for poor results. The Sony 18-55mm lens is a very credible performer, though the live view starts slowing down as you zoom in (because the effective aperture diminishes by two stops). There is barrel distortion from 18 to 28mm, but nothing that cannot be overcome with Lightroom.  The lens has optical stabilization and picks up a couple of stops of stability.  People go off about how in-body stabilization is better, but that is a one-size-fits-all solution that bulks up the body.  Stabilization is not always necessary, and it often makes the viewfinder (or live-view) picture an exercise in motion sickness.

Is the relatively limited lens selection a problem? Yes and no. If you want small lenses with fast autofocus, then you are stuck with what Sony offers (or might offer - note that the f/stop scale in one of the displays shows f/1.4). If you want bigger lenses with autofocus, you can hook up the SAM and SSM Alpha lenses and get it. If you have an oddball low-light need, you can always dust off that old f/1.4 SLR or rangefinder lens and stick it on using an adapter (see below).

Controls. The camera has a number of shooting modes.  Some are familiar, such as P, A, S and M.  Aside from the basic controls for these modes, firmware 3 allows you to assign particular functions to the soft keys (the one in the middle of the click wheel and the one below it).   The bottom button can be set to a particular function; repeated presses of the click wheel can bring up three different settings (in an arbitrary order that you choose).  The complaints I have seen online are mostly directed to firmware 2, which buried some things like ISO and flash exposure compensation.  No more.    What could use more transparency is the web of what you can and cannot control in various modes.  For example, the Smile Shutter works in iAuto mode but not any other mode.  Certain things are only operative with JPG (like Auto HDR).  These things are somewhat more puzzling.  There's probably a chart in some documentation somewhere - but the camera could at least tell you something other than "this feature is currently disabled."  But for most  normal use, this camera should be easy and controllable enough.

Flash. Hmm. You read a lot of complaints about the small detachable flash that comes with the camera. The first complaint is that it is chintzy. Maybe it is if your frame of reference is a Vivitar 283, and you have never experienced the flimsiness of a built-in flash on a DSLR. The Sony flash is actually quite solid, and its attachment mechanism makes accidental detachment (and loss) almost impossible (compare the Leica Universal Wideangle Finder, a $1,000 viewfinder that loosens up and falls off on its own...). The flash mechanism is solid, and the flash flips up to turn on and flips down to turn off. Easy. Flash exposure compensation is provided via softkey or the "Brightness/color" menu item. The second complaint is that the flash is underpowered. Not so. An NEX flash, at ISO 400, can easily illuminate white walls to white at a distance of at least 5 meters. That's actually quite powerful for any situation where you would use a flash with this camera (party pictures and soccer-mom stuff). The reality is that with the Sony DRO (dynamic range optimizer) available, in all modes, you need fill flash less than you would with, say, an M8. And even for main illumination, the sensor is clean enough at high ISOs that you may only rarely use the flash.

Size. The NEX-5 is about the size of a pack of cigarettes. Actually, it's much thinner. There is also something of a slimming optical illustion created by the silver lens mount (which extends about 1cm from the body), but there can be no question that this camera was designed to be the smallest thing that could accommodate an APS-C sensor and a battery. The battery is about the size of an adult human thumb, and it's barely wider than the SD card that goes alongside it.

Battery Life. The TIPA spec is about right; average seems to be 295 shots per charge, including long shot set ups and some viewing time. Be aware that the Sony charger takes almost five hours to charge, so take a spare battery. It is not clear why the charging time is so long; perhaps it is an attempt to prolong service life.  Lithium ion batteries (like NiMH) don't like to be overheated during charging.  Buy a spare battery.

Solidity. The difference in the feel of an NEX-5 and an Olympus EP camera is like night and day. The NEX is slim, it is light, and there is not a single superfluous button or switch. The metal is well-finished, unlike the glossy (and somewhat cheap-feeling) stainless covers on the EPs. The switchgear is very solid, and Leica could take some lessons with the M8 and M9. The articulating screen  up and up/down) feels solid, as do the thumb-wheel and smart buttons on the back.  This is another example  of attention to detail.  All cameras have similar membrane switches under their buttons, but well-finished metal and feels better than cheap-feeling plastic.  This is not a functional point, but a flimsy camera is not confidence-inspiring.  Score one for Sony.

The missing accessory shoe. The sleekness of the design meant that the top of the camera is too thin to accommodate a standard ISO shoe. Sony's flash connects with a multipin connector indexed by two metal pins that flank a thumbscrew. Once attached, though, it is very elegant. The same is true of the stereo microphone. Sony's optional 16mm viewfinder is a Cosina-Voigtlander 24mm finder grafted to an ISO-to-Sony adapter. You can buy a metal version of the adapter from Jtec for $60 (www.jtec-online.com - and Jtec also sells an L-bracket for the camera). The sheer number of pins in the Sony connector suggests that an electronic viewfinder is possible.

The missing digital level.  More curious (at least to this writer) is the absense of a digital level function.  Granted, the finely "scribed" grid lines that you can display on-screen help (and by "fine," I mean in the sense of old E screens for the Nikon F, not the wide lines of the D700) - but since this camera already has an accelerometer for the Sweep Panorama and orientation detection for shooting and playback, it seems odd that there is no on-screen leveling display.

Scale/hyperfocal focus?   The NEX, like the Olympus and Panasonic M43 cameras, lacks the ability to focus to an arbitrary distance (at least as far as can be ascertained - such capabilities might be in there).  Is this a problem?  Probably not. One, scale focusing is important when you don't have a focusing mechanism or can't predict AF operation with sufficient certainty.   You'll notice that DSLRs now lack any but the most rudimentary focusing and depth-of-field scales - not good for much of anything.  And the inability to scale focus is only a problem if  your AF works poorly (and the NEX's functions well, the Panasonic's decently, and the Olympus' now much better than the first try with the early E-P1 firmware). Two, hyperfocal shooting, the close cousin of scale focusing, can degrade performance through diffration (because it requires small apertures); inherently degrades performance through assuming a "circle of confusion" rather than one-point focus; and, from an aesthetic standpoint, has the capability to rob the human viewer of depth cues. The lack of scale- and hyperfocal capabilities in new interchangeable-lens cameras may be irritiating to some, but it permeates all segments of the market, all the way up to the pro gear.  Part of it is industrial design, part of it is aesthetics, part of it is cost-cutting, and part of it is that methods of focusing have changed a lot since the Zeiss-Ikon Contessas of the 1930s.

Legacy lenses, or what your mother never told you. There is no question that Sony had legacy lenses in mind when it put the "shoot without lens" feature in firmware 2.0. The Sony Alpha adapter has electronics... For use with legacy lenses, it is reasonable to conclude that the NEX-5 is a better platform than M43.  Why? The typical comparison comes down to the presence of in-body stabilization on some of the M43 cameras. Where reviewers have been missing the mark is:

1. The lower "crop factor" provided by the NEX's APS-C sensor keeps lenses somewhat closer to their intended function and allows the use of 75-85mm lenses without much need for anything other than a steady grip.

2. Absent an eye-level EVF (or optical finder), you are stuck shooting like a soccer mom on most systems. Holding a camera out in front of you at arm's length and turning a focusing ring is an incredibly unstable position. The NEX screen flips up, allowing you to shoot as if it were a Rollei TLR and to keep a basically triangular support betwen the camera and your torso. This is much steadier and compensates for much of the (at least perceived) advantage of in-body stabilization.

3. The 920,000 pixel screen on the Sony is light-years ahead of the 230,000 dot display of the pens and the 460,000 dot displays of the Panasonics. It has such a fine pitch (like an Apple Retina display) that you can focus on fine detail until you see moire. This alone is an excellent non-magnified focus aid that seems to be dead-on, even with telephoto lenses.

Now for the ugly parts about legacy lenses on NEX and M43 cameras.

1. There's not a whole lot of a point legacy lenses with any platform, but if you do it, APS-C is better than M43.  The latter doubles the effective focal length of lenses. The APS-C multiplies by 1.5. That $600 12mm Voigtlander lens becomes a very expensive, very slow 24mm lens on an M43 camera. It is an expensive, slow, vignetted 18mm lens on an NEX. In general, the NEX has a better sweet spot for legacy lenses: about 15mm to 50mm. That gives you the equivalent of 21mm to 75mm. In the long run, though, purpose-built lenses will be better on APS-C and M43 bodies than repurposed 35mm lenses.

2. Lens characteristics are not what you expect when you focus through the lens. Lenses can have focus points that shift, and adapting lenses to direct view can cancel out the shift. Legacy lenses may also lack the performance to look sharp on a 14mp, sub-35mm frame.  We all tend to discount the massive resolution inherent in small-sensor digital camera lenses; 35mm was relatively undemanding by comparison - for the same reason that 6x9 lenses don't need to have the absolute resolution numbers that 35mm lenses require.

3. Adapters affect minimum and maximum focusing distances. Most (if not all) adapters are shorter than what is necessary to put the adapted lens at its ideal registration distance at infinity. This preserves (or, according to Ebay listings "guarantees") infinity focus (which can be at different points at different apertures) but it also increases the minimum focusing distance, particularly with wide and super-wide lenses, where loss of 1/10mm of barrel movement could mean loss of several inches of close focus.

4.  There is no scale focusing.  Gotcha!  There is scale focusing, but the distances shown on the lens scale do not match real-world distances (nor will the depth of field markers be adequate for APS-C).  So get out your measuring tape if you harbor scale-focusing or hyperfocal designs.  You will need to find a way to map the effective distances onto the old scale and make your own DOF scale (you would probably want to use one scale smaller than the aperture you are using).

5. Legacy lenses can be difficult to focus. If you don't use magnification, your focusing is about as good as your contrast perception and the resolution of your viewing screen or EVF. If you do, your 50mm Pentax K lens is suddenly a 350mm lens at 7x magnification - making everything jump around, even with in-body stabilization as on the EP cameras. Bring your tripod, a red Pod, or a tube of Dramamine.

Conclusion. As Yogi Berra liked to say, "the future ain't what it used to be."  In 1999, the rise of digital cameras was almost inconceivable.  But since then, digital has become the norm and camera design has been drifting away from analogues of film cameras.  The NEX-5 fits into the new mirrorless category - and as of this writing (December 26, 2010), it's fairly easy to predict that this type of camera  (and the Olympus and Panasonic offerings) will take up most of the serious amateur market.