Two days ago, I welcomed the arrival of a Sony NEX 5N after my previous camera conked out on me. In that post, I described how digital photography, for me, had become the picture making equivalent of fast food: convenient and fun occasionally, but often tasteless and ultimately very bad for you. I intend to use the little Sony as a therapy against the speed shooter syndrome and let deliberate photograph making take center point once again.
There are plenty of excellent reviews of this camera out there on the web, this one will focus exclusively on using it with manual lenses such as old Leica-R, M-mount, screw mount, Contax/Yashica, … lenses. I will try to describe what it is like to make photographs the traditional way (choose lens for a specific look, frame, focus, choose aperture, choose exposure …) using a 2011 electronic gadget and see whether it can be a real substitute for ancient favourites such as the Mamiya 7 and whether it is still convenient enough for the type of quick family/pet/reunion/tourism/… snap we have grown accustomed to.
Also, I will try to determine whether this or the NEX-7 is the best camera for manual lenses!
Short version: FAN-flipping-TASTIC. More detailed version below
In the hand
There’s no denying the camera is small. It’s a case of being careful what you wish for. After begging for a smaller, lighter camera for years, I have to admit this one is so tiny that it challenges all I have learnt about camera manipulation in the past decade. Still, it’s pleasantly small. It sits at the back of a Leica-R lens like an astronomical imaging device at the rear end of an optical system. It’s sole function seems to be to record photons beamed by the lens and after a few hours with it, you actually wonder what it is that makes other cameras so bloated and huge? Food storage for the winter, possibly?
So, it feels solid, and not out of place at the business end of a Leica, although a bit more plasticy in places. The swivelling rear screen is buttery smooth yet firm and what few buttons and controls the body displays are well-built and show positive action. The battery/card latch is firm and secure and the tripod screw support seems massively strong. Only the read wheel lets it down a little, plus the little rubbery patch at top right looks like it could fall off long before the rest of the body feels sorry for itself.
My greatest worry was the ergonomics but while it’s true you need to readjust coming from a DSLR, the NEX is actually great fun to use and very easy to configure for efficient image making. Ironically, my guess is it’s probably a lot easier to use with manual lenses, because of their focus and aprture rings than with Sony full auto thingies (all 2 or three of them unless you are prepared to let the camera make absolutely all the decisions by itself in one of the full auto modes.
It’s clearly geared that way and, out of the box, doens’t look very promising. It is able to recognise whether it is staring at a mountain or the rear end of a horny baboon but not to let you shoot without a non Sony lens or display the focus peaking aid. And since the manual devotes 99% of its space to meaningless information, God bless the Internet ! Still, after 20 minutes of anxious forum consultation, here’s what you are looking at:
- Aperture and focus on … the lens. Yippee! (sounds obvious but it’s been so long since I’ve used an aperture ring)
- A wheel with functions at four cardinal positions, including ISO setting and focus magnification
- Always on focus peaking
- A button click + turn of the wheel for exposure compensation
Apparently, the little monster can do much more, but that’s just perfect for me. The rear screen is really excellent and I don’t miss the viewfinder as much as I feared, though it will be a welcome addition some day. Tricky compositions are not natural at arms legnth and bracing for stability would be niceas well. Plus, there are a few occasions in harsh sunlight where the focus peaking is hard to see on the screen.
So far, so good.
Friggin accurate. After 4 years with a Nikon D80 and it’s EXPOSURE=RND(256) algorithm, it is just so soothing to simply rely on the metering and not worry about it. The fantastic bonus of using live view is that if the standard (read accurate) exposure is not to your liking, it takes a couple of seconds to alter while viewing the result on-screen. Oh my, what a great time to be a photographer. That feature really boosts creativity. In the example below, I manually added +2 stops for the faded look.
The NEX’s apparently very gentle tonal curve in the highlights lets you overexpose severely without inducing any harshness. The lens probably helps as well and a higher contrast Summilux may have yielded different results.
Focusing is easy .. to get wrong. Focus peaking is addictive and so much more predictable than auto focus (you decide what to focus on) and easy than rangefinders (well, the Mamiya 7 was easy, but some aren’t). Predictable .. in theory. In real life, you will get away with the quick & dirty way (1 – view screen, 2 – rotate focus until focus peaking says to stop, 3 – click) with a short lens and small aperture where depth of field will compensate for errors. But anything else demands a more thorough approach. The shots below illustrate this.
In both cases, focus was on the front lettering 11 – 16. In the first shot, focus is a good cm behind what it should have been. In the second, focus peaking was used on an enlargement (9.5x) and it spot on. This has been systematic in all my pictures so far. Casual snaps will be OK without focus magnification but to exploit the sensor’s resolution it’s essential to use focus peaking on an enlarged view.
People worried about focus shift recommend focusing at max aperture if you intend to use max aperture then at about f/4 for other apertures and then close down before clicking. I just focus at whatever aperture has been chosen for the picture and that seems to work just fine. The view gets a bit gritty in low light, but focus peaking still remains accurate.
You’ll find more artistic sunrise pictures but the dynamic range in this one is quite special. With a touch of recovery in LightRoom, there is absolutely no clipping in this photograph. The sun is just behind the trees on the left and most of the garden in still in the shade. Really impressive.
I tried Auto HDR once and it seems to work well, but lighting conditions would need to be pretty harsh to need it considering the natural dynamic range of this camera. As above, the medium contrast of the lens probably helped a lot here.
For an interesting aspect of low light photography with the NEX-5N, take a quick look at my previous post: My God, it’s Full of stars! This shows a picture of the night sky at ISO1600 and an exposure of 25″ @f/2.8. A galaxy (two, counting our own) is visible as well as a meteor.
But for the ultimate low-light torture test, consider the picture below:
The flower was lit only by a power-saving table lamp 30 feet away. It was way too dark to read for instance. The exposure is 0.5″ @f/2.8 and ISO6400. Low light is much more significant than high ISO if you want to test your sensor and anything darker than this would be night vision. The result is OK. Nothing great, white balance is off a bit, sharpness could be better, and focus is on the stem because that is the only thing I could see well on the screen. But the picture exist and doesn’t look that bad at all (did I mention ISO6400 in total darkness?). In similar conditions, my Nikon D80 (and many others) would have rendered a colourless mess of pixel soup, not a pleasing, if slightly soft, image. Not bad at all, although that’s not my cup of tea and I would have used a 30 seconds exposure at ISO100 instead. But the test is the test, and the NEX came out well.
Another extreme example of low-light high-ISO photograph:
That’s ISO 25600 long after the sun has set (f/2.8, 1/60th). There’s no way you are going to enlarge this more than postcard size (a RAW picture might do better) but for those who (think they) really need these insane sensitivities, it’s there. At the other en of the spectrum is the low-tech solution of a … tripod. Same view 30 minutes later (pitch black), 30″ f/4 ISO400. I’ll let the high ISO camp take the first picture and will keep the second
Image stabilization is the one feature missing on this camera that really mattered to me.
This picture was made well before sunrise: 1/4s f/2 ISO400. Expsure is spot on and there is no shake. I have handheld shots up to 1.3″ (with a 19mm lens, not the 50mm) with great success. There is no vibration when the shutter opens and no mirror slap, so if you brace and hold the camera steady, very long exposures are possible.
So while internal stabilizatoin would be nice, the camera really doesn’t induce any vibrations and lets you shoot away in darkness.
Colours in jpeg are nicely subtle and very pleasing although just a little yellow. Don’t know whether others have found that as well.
In RAW mode, the files are very rich and responds very well to manipulation in LightRoom. So the colours are basically what you want to make them without breaking apart if you choose to alter them.
Black & White
RAW photographs made with this camera have crispness and a big dynamic range, lending them well to B&W conversion. With the right lens in hand, they can produce very nice and natural results.
But, although it’s just a gadget, it’s the in-camera high contrast B&W mode (jpeg only) that really impresses me. It’s not equally fabulous with every lens, but with the right glass and right conditions, results strait out of the box are just lovely.
Get everything right – essentially, nail focus – and this is your reward:
This would print to 30″ with very good quality (this is just a small bit of the total picture and you really need to view the enlarged version to see how sharp and smooth it is). It’s roughly 4-5 feet wide on-screen. The tonal range is superb, the colours are subtle and true to life and sharpness very high. A good lens helps, but the camera has really done a wonderful job here.
It’s not perfect, though Perfect is a Leica M8. Go to dpreview.com to see sample images by the M8 and you will see they are even sharper pixel for pixel. The NEX is still very very good, but come on Sony, get rid of the AA filter altogether. If your technology is smart enough to detect a baby’s smile, surely it can detect moiré and correct it automatically in the jpeg. On some pictures (with some lenses) there is just a hint of softness that looks harsh when you try to sharpen and pixel peep. But all in all, it can be superb.
Can this tiny iPod lookalike make me forget the mighty Mamiya 7? Remember that is the target to beat with its lovely – almost square – 6×7 “ideal” format, perfect handling and stupendous image quality. And above all, a camera that made hard to miss a shot.
In terms of image quality, we’re not quite there, yet. Compare this forest picture (Fuji Velvia, converted to B&W in Photoshop, by the way) with The Old playground above, for instance. Even small and on-screen, it is better in every conceivable way: smoother, sharper, even better tonal control. You can just tell that one was made by a small sensor and the other by a huge negative. As an aside, it’s shame that the pixel race received more attention than the size race. With millions of large format lenses or all sizes and personalities out there, imagine how much fun it would have been to use a 10Mpix 56x72mm sensor with immmmmense pixels. Probably very expensive to make, but is it really much more difficult than cramming 24 million photosites on an APS-C poststamp? Just a tought.
Still, that is quibbling, and the NEX-5N really is a fantastic gem of a camera. Besides, it’s great fun to use and encourages creative visualisation. Configured as it is for me, it simply never gets in the way and now that I am getting the hang of it, it repeatedly produces files of very high technical quality. It’s cheap to use and not that expensive to buy.
A full frame NEX (or whatever mount is needed) with no AA filter would be better for two reasons: image quality would be even better and the camera body would be slightly larger. In that respect the NEX-7 is probably a bit better. As it is, the NEX-5N has a very nice grip and is bery intuitive but some of its buttons are a bit to small for even medium-sized hands like mine.
The shutter makes a nice silent snick that scares the wits out of my cats, for some reason.
Whether it is much betterer than NEX-7 with manual lenses is discussed in the next post using Leica-R, Leica-M, Zeiss ZM and Voigtlander M-mount lenses. But, judging by images posted on the Picture Desk’s Flickr stream and from those produced by my NEX-5N over the past two days, I’d say there is no contest. Stay tuned!