Monday, May 7, 2012

Sony Alpha NEX-5 - Full Review

Welcome to The Indian Geek’s review of the Sony Alpha NEX-5. Before we get started, we’d like to clarify that latest model that was released globally in 2011, the Sony Alpha NEX-5n is yet to be released in India (at the time of writing this review, in May 2012). Hence, this review is of the Sony Alpha NEX-5 released in 2010.

Why, you might ask, is The Indian Geek reviewing the NEX-5 which has been in the market for two years? Our primary focal point for this review stems from the fact that many of the people out there know the basic advantages and limitations of the two main classes of digital cameras in the world today – point and shoot cameras and Digital SLR cameras. However, alternate camera formats with interchangeable lenses (micro four-thirds format, Sony’s NEX series and Nikon’s 1 series) are sceptically viewed as being both inferior to DSLR cameras as well as too costly when compared to point-and-shoot digital cameras.

In this review, we won’t be diving into the depths of what the Sony NEX-5 provides; rather, we’ll be looking at the value offered by a camera currently retailing at Rs. 24,500/- when compared to the costlier range of DSLR cameras and the cheaper range of point-and-shoot cameras, (including super-zoom cameras).

Read on for a breakdown of the hardware, usability, and overall quality, and whether the NEX5 is the right camera for you.

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Hardware

Sony Alpha NEX-5 - Hardware

In keeping with the high benchmark for design that Sony has been setting, like in the Sony Tablet S and the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc, the NEX-5 is a camera that looks and feels premium. We have used digital cameras that lie across the budget spectrum – from the point-and-shoot cameras that cost Rs. 3,000 all the way up to mid-range dSLR cameras that cost close to Rs. 1,00,000. Many digital cameras in the sub-Rs. 10,000 segment feel plasticky, and you just know that the plastic and the paint would start chipping soon. Not so with the NEX-5. Its metal body is a tactile delight to hold and use, with both its heft and its finish giving it a distinctly premium feel. The lens is also a departure from the all-black lenses that normally accompany dSLR cameras – it is silver, and looks as premium as the rest of the camera. The pop-up flash is detachable, and decidedly cute. It may sound like a chore to have a pop-up flash that needs to be attached/detached, but the small size of the flash unit enabled us to keep it attached to the camera at all times.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 - Hardware

The top-right portion of the camera houses the on/off switch and the shutter release button. We’ve seen some point-and-shoot digital cameras with confusing on/off and shutter release buttons; on the NEX-5, however, since the on/off switch has to be rotated between the on and the off positions, it is easily differentiated from the shutter release button which is a standard push-down button. Next to the on/off switch, there is a playback button and a video recording button. Move towards the left on the top edge, and there are the mic for recording audio during video recording. Right below the shutter release button on the front is the tiny IR sensor, which would be useful if you’re looking to use a remote control unit with the camera (this is an accessory that needs to be purchased separately). Apart from the comfortably textured grip on the right-front side of the camera, there is not much else here.

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The rear face of the Sony NEX-5 digital camera has the sharp and vertically tiltable LCD, two action buttons, a main menu button with a dial to select various menu options within the camera’s software interface. There is also a seemingly useless grainy patch at the top-right corner of the camera’s rear. This rough patch is useful for your right hand’s thumb to not slip while holding the camera and taking a photograph.

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The USB and HDMI connections are present within two covered sections on the left side of the camera. There is only a USB cable provided with the camera; you would need to obtain the requisite HDMI cable separately. The battery and memory card slots are present in a compartment that is accessible through the bottom of the camera. The bottom also houses the requisite “port” to connect any compatible tripod.

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Overall, the Sony NEX-5 is a digital camera that you can proudly display without fear of scorn or ridicule from your dSLR-toting friends. The fact that it is much smaller compared to dSLRs increases the “wow” factor for onlookers when you tell them that the sensor size is the same for this camera as those costlier dSLRs. Since you would have paid nearly Rs. 25,000/- to own this digital camera, it is definitely a good thing to have a nice “wow” factor to go along with the photo-taking capabilities of this camera.

User Interface

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The basic options to tweak the settings for your photos are all available here. However, if you’re coming from a full-sized Nikon/Canon/Sony dSLR, you are likely to be unpleasantly surprised and more than a little confused - the options here are specifically tailored to users upgrading from point-and-shoot cameras – which makes them extremely simplified. If you have not used dSLR cameras previously, you’ll find it easy to transition to the NEX-5’s camera user interface, with its greater flexibility, and on-screen help tips to guide you.. On the other hand, if you have used dSLR cameras before, and you expect dSLR-style controls since this is an interchangeable-lens camera with an APS-C sized sensor, you are going to be floundering, like we were. You would need to think in simple terms, and sometimes follow the onscreen help tips to figure out the settings you want.

If you’re wondering how settings could be made simple, here’s an example – dedicated photographers generally know that a larger aperture not only allows more light, but it narrows down the field of focus of the camera resulting in photographs with those wonderfully blurred backgrounds with sharply-focussed subjects. In the NEX-5, though, you can’t manually define the aperture setting – the camera itself has a “Background Defocus” setting which can be adjusted to defocus the background to different levels.. Keep in mind that the provided 18-55 mm lens with an aperture rating of f/3.6–5.6 allows limited defocussing of the background; you’ll need a more capable lens such as the widely popular (among all manufacturers who make interchangeable lenses) 50 mm f/1.8

 

Performance

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Here, at The Indian Geek, we judge the ability and capability of a photograph-taking device by just taking photographs and looking at the results, and comparing it to other photograph-taking devices that we have used previously. When we used the Sony NEX-5 with just the standard 18-55 mm lens, the camera never disappointed. The camera being so compact, it’s easy to underestimate its abilities. However, the quality of images produced in all kinds of light was quite impressive. Some of the zoomed-in portrait shots look so beautiful that it would be easy to believe we were shooting with a much better lens than the provided 18-55 mm one.

NOTE: The samples that follow are untouched, except for our watermark logo being added. Feel free to click any image to open a full-sized version in a new browser window.

Wide angle photo, taken mid-day

Wide angle photo, taken at twilight Pepsi can, taken indoors without flash Office cubicle separator, taken indoors without flash Ice cream, taken indoors without flash

The macro (close-up) shots were also exceptionally good. We are used to taking close-up photographs of gadgets for our device reviews, and this camera was the best – in keeping the exact required point in focus, while blurring out the rest of the photograph - we have seen (barring a Nikon D60 with a specific macro filter lens). The two photographs of the candle and the phone have been taken with and without flash.

Lens cover close-up, without flash

Candle close-up, with flash Candle close-up, without flash Phone close-up, with flash Phone close-up, without flash

Notebook PC close-up, without flash Notebook PC close-up, without flash Notebook PC close-up, without flash Notebook PC close-up, without flash

At night, with little or no ambient light, the provided pop-up flash was able to completely light up subjects for portrait shots about 3-5 feet away. The test shot below was taken from outside a completely dark room, yet the flash illuminates the wall cupboard at the far wall (about 12 feet from the camera).

Photo taken to exhibit "throw" of flash in a dark room

 

The 1080p full HD video that the camera shoots is good enough to look quite realistic when displayed on a computer monitor or a TV screen.

 

Connectivity, Storage and Expansion options

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The NEX-5 has two connectivity options which we found to be sufficient for daily use. There is a mini USB port and an HDMI port if you want to hook up the camera directly to your HD TV to view the captured photos or videos. We are extremely happy with the fact that the camera has a direct USB connection. Point-and-shoot cameras remained without USB ports for years – they used proprietary connections that had USB and composite video-out combined in one cable. So if you’re moving up from a point-and-shoot, you would be pleasantly surprised. If you’re replacing an ageing dSLR, the inclusion of the mini-USB port may not come as a surprise to you, depending on the make/model of your outgoing dSLR camera. The use of the standardized mini USB port makes it easier to obtain a replacement cable if you lose the cable provided with the camera.

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The camera has no built-in storage, although most retailers we have seen are offering a free 4 GB SDHC memory card. In addition to the SDHC card slot, the NEX-5 also has a slot that supports all kinds of Sony’s Memory Sticks – Memory Stick Pro/Duo/etc. However, you can’t use both slots at the same time. So if you have old Memory Sticks, we’d suggest that you go ahead and use them. Otherwise, it may make sense for you to invest in a relatively faster Class 10 SDHC card of the capacity you require. If you plan to shoot a lot of full HD video, you will need quite a bit of storage. Likewise, if you plan to shoot most or all of your photos in RAW or JPEG + RAW format, you’ll need as much storage capacity as you can afford to buy.

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The biggest limitation that everybody quotes for the NEX series of cameras is that there are comparatively fewer lenses available than there are for dSLRs. We even met a salesperson who tried telling us that the cost of the Sony NEX-5 with the A mount lens adapter equals the cost of a full-sized dSLR camera, so we might as well purchase a dSLR because, he told us, we’ll definitely need the A mount lens adapter to be able to fit the full range of Sony’s A lenses. NOTE: Sony’s full-sized dSLR cameras use an A mount for lenses while the NEX series of cameras use an E mount for lenses. Let’s take an objective look at the available lenses right now, so you know what you would be getting yourself into if you buy a Sony NEX-series camera, such as the Sony NEX-5.

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In India, there are currently three E mount lenses for sale – one of which is included with the NEX-5. However, this past year (2011), Sony introduced several more lenses to the NEX line-up globally, considerably expanding the lens selection for these cameras. The following tables list the Sony NEX-format (E mount) lenses available in India and abroad:

 

Lens name Focal length Aperture Comments
SEL1855 18-55 mm f/3.5 – 5.6 Standard kit lens
SEL16F28 16 mm f/2.8 Wide-angle lens for landscapes, scenery
SEL18200 18-200 mm f/3.5-6.3 Zoom lens, equivalent to 11x optical zoom or 27-300 mm in 35 mm equivalent

Sony E mount lenses available in India, as of 7th May 2012

 

Lens name Focal length Aperture Comments
SEL30M35 30 mm f/3.5 Macro lens
SEL24F18Z 24 mm f/1.8 Carl Zeiss wide-angle lens with large aperture
SEL55210 55-210 mm f/4.5-6.3 Cheaper zoom lens
SEL50F18 50 mm f/1.8 Portrait lens with large aperture

Sony E mount lenses available in the U.S, U.K. and certain other countries, as of 7th May 2012

 

If you ask us, the 50 mm lens and one of the 200 mm lenses should completely suffice for the needs of even high-end amateur photography. The photos and videos that we were able to shoot with just the in-box 18-55 mm lens were jaw-droppingly beautiful, and the thought of augmenting that photographic capability with better lenses gets us salivating.

 

Final Thoughts

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The Sony Alpha NEX-5 is definite proof that the best things come in small packages. After handling and using a Nikon D60, a Nikon D90, and a Canon EOS 550D we can safely say that the compromises that have been made by Sony in terms of reduced functionality and options to tweak the settings are well worth it for the advantages in terms of smaller size, and easier-to-handle form factor. If you are using a standard point-and-shoot and want to move to something with dSLR-level photography capabilities and gorgeous video, definitely take a look at the Sony NEX-5. If, on the other hand, you are used to dSLR cameras and want to upgrade your current entry-level model, the simplified controls and the reduced set of available lenses may not suit your needs.

This is not the best camera out there; but there is no doubt that the Sony NEX-5 offers incredible bang for the rupee. Once Sony India launches the 2011 NEX-series here, the new NEX-C3 and the new NEX-5n should be worthy buys, along with the new set of lenses which would accompany them.
 
Thanks to Pratheesh Cherayerumal for his contributions to this review.

5 comments:

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chetan kothari said...

pretty nice review and very well detailed and supported by enough pictures 

Sandesh Kulkarni said...

Nice review. I would like to add one more aspect about lenses: you can buy adapters to put virtually any lens to nex system as manual focus lens - even old film camera lenses can be used with proper adapters. The focus peaking is amazing feature for manual focus lenses. 

I have nex3 and I am satisfied with its price per performance. I am awaiting the launch of nex5n and nex 7 in India. I liked the specs of 7 especially the tri navi controls and excellent OLED view finder which makes it a complete package. I would grab it as soon as it is launched. Here, are my photos.

Sandesh Kulkarni said...

Photo taken by nex 3 with kit lens 18-55 mm. I did not use any macro converter for this shot. Read my comments about the review below (I was not able to put the image after I posted the comment).

Cheers,

Sandesh Kulkarni

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