5 months ago, a tiny newcomer crossed the threshold of my house and joined the long line of cameras to replace an ageing Nikon D80. The Sony NEX-5n has caught my eye on sonyalpharumors and seemed like the right camera for a soon-to-come trip to Australia.
I bought it with the intention of using it with nothing but manual lenses.
Since that day, I have thouroughly enjoyed the camera and regularly posted updates to investigates specific aspects of its use. You will find these previous instalments here :
- Welcoming the NEX5n (my reasons for buying it)
- A Slow-Food review of the NEX-5n
- Multiple legacy lenses from Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander on the Sony NEX-5n
- The Leica-R Summicron 50/2 on the NEX-5n
- The Leica Elmarit-M 90/2.8 on the NEX-5n
- A review of the Zeiss ZM Distagon 18mm f/4 on the NEX-5n
- A review of 3 Contax-G lenses on the NEX-5n
- The night sky with the NEX-5n
- Exploring the B&W mode on the NEX-5n
- Hong-Kong and Western Australia using the panoramic mode on the NEX-5n
- Exploring the HDR mode
- Exploring the Toy Camera creative mode
- Pitching the NEX-5n against the NEX-7
As always, be sure to click on pictures to see larger versions. WordPress makes the smaller on-page versions look quite fuzzy
What’s to like ?
It is, in a word, stunning. Remember this is a tiny and cheap camera. In that respect, it challenges pro cameras costing many times the price.
Part of the joy of using Leica lenses and cameras is that out of camera files are just spot on and require much less tweaking than those from other brands. You effectively spend much more time shooting and less time on Photoshop. This is true of this little gem of a NEX. It’s good. Easily 24″ wide print good.
I’m not much of a high ISO aficionado, but you can certainly shoot fast in the dark if you cannot afford a tripod.
It lets you build a lens kit
This is criterion #1. Cameras die, lenses stay. The look of your pictures is created by the lenses. Once you love a lens, you keep it forever. Always buy cameras that are compatible with your lenses, not the other way around. The Sony NEX-5n is THE perfect camera for this. It is compatible with a huge variety of lenses. By which I mean the sensor and lenses match well. Which cannot be said of many other cameras out there.
It has the best auto-focus system in the world
That’s me. I know where I want to focus better than any electronic auto-focus knows where I want to focus.
Focus peaking has its limits, but mostly work brilliantly. With long lenses, it’s usually easy to snap into focus. Wide angles can be more fussy and I often found myself back-focusing using Philippe’s Zeiss ZM18 Distagon. With such lenses, use focus peaking at its minimum and open the lens’ diaphragm. For some (unexplained to me) reason, some lenses seem to have much shallower depths of field than others (all else being equivalent). Philippe and I repeatedly found that my Elmarit 19/2.8 is much shallower than his Distagon 18/4, for instance.
Since it’s never wasting its time focusing, it’s always instant. The shutter mechanism is also ultra-fast. So you press, it clicks. Instantly. You cannot imagine how liberating this feels when you’ve struggled with slow AF systems for years in low light.
It’s very well built
I’ve use the little sweety with some of the most prestigious and expensive lenses money can buy (not mine, unfortunately ;)) and it never ever looked out-of-place. Fit and finish is perfect. It looks good. Granted it isn’t made of a slab of Wolverine’s skull like the M9, but it still feels very nice in the hand (and, hey, it has a grip. Take that, Wolverine skull digital camera designed 70 years ago ;))
Exposure is mostly spot on
Not only is exposure very reliable, the highlight headroom in RAW files is really great. Some have measured it. What I can tell you is you can shoot deep shadows and sky on a sunlit Australian day and get away with it. Easily. Throw in white clouds and you’ll need to bracket that, though.
And guess what ? Sony will soon be making a newer version of this, so it will get even cheaper.
It has a great feature set
Laugh all you want at the Toy Camera mode 😉 It’s just great to be able to experiment and have fun. The menus could be improved by a 3-year-old with mental disorders, but once you get there, it is a lot of fun. B&W modes are also nice. Panoramas look stunning when they work well, but there have been some glitches (see link above). HDR is well implemented and you can season it with tone mapping or not (albeit in two different menu sets, unfathomably). There’s plenty more.
What’s not to like ?
The rear screen is great and with the camera on a tripod, it feels spookily close to re-living my view camera days.
But, after almost 6 months with it, I still want to take it to my eye. A view finder is more intuitive in some situations (portraits, for instance). It also lets you see better in stark sunlight. Plus it lets you brace yourself with the camera tight against your face for more stable long exposures.
The EVF is very nice on this camera. And it swivels upwards. Oh joy. But costs too much. It’s definitely worth the price, but as I never intended to live with this camera forever, the investment is not worth it for me.
It’s probably best to include it in the camera by default.
It’s a walkman
As pleasurable it is to use, it just doesn’t feel like a camera. Younger generations probably won’t mind, but I do. In that respect, the NEX-7 is way better. It almost feels like a baby Mamiya 7. Go Sony.
Suggestions for future evolutions
There’s definitely room for improvement, but it’s revealing of how pleasing this camera is that I had a lot of trouble remembering what these were.
Menus have their limitations and when you want to quickly get out of whatever fun mode you were experimenting to go back to RAW for a fleeting shaft of evening sunlight on a slate grey ocean through a pink tinged cloud (is that good enough an incentive to switch modes ?), you quickly feel yourself drawn to the dark side of the Force.
Let me check the date. Yeah … 2012. No live histogram? Really, Sony? Really?
UPDATE: Barry Timm corrected my mistake here. See comments at the end. There is indeed a live histogram on the camera. I did look for it quite a bit, but not well enough obviously 😉 Thanks Barry. Be sure to read the comments for caveats concerning its use and exposing too far to the right.
Half-press focus peaking
Focus peaking is a brilliant aid for … focusing. So you only really need it when … focusing. The rest of the time, it’s a bit of a pain, painting your picture shimmering red or yellow.
It could be nice to leave it off and to activate it by half-pressing the trigger. And why not give us some control over the peaking level without having to go through the menu. Some sort of wheel control maybe.
Sometines, it gets a bit frustrating and you switch it off completely. With this type of result …
How can I put this ?
About 1% of photographers are fashion photographers. Let’s pass over the fact that absolutely none of them would use this sort of camera.
About 10% of their shots might show moire.
So, about 0.1% of pictures might suffer from moire, which seems like a great rationale for artificially blurring 99.9% of others. Doesn’t it? Brilliant!
Come on Sony. Leica got rid of AA filters long ago (never had them, to be exact). So did Ricoh and Fuji. And Sigma. And even good ol’ I-never-listen-to-customers Nikon ! Are you going to let even conservative Nikon out-innovate you ? Get rid of the damn AA filter. Completely. For. Ever !
Why not do it the (not so) “smart” way and charge 10% more for for a camera that doesn’t have that expensive component (a la D800E) and make a quick buck if that’s what your execs are worried about?
I’m not talking about some elaborate lens recognition system. Simply a menu letting you select the lens you are currently using from a list you define as you go. This would be nice for EXIF and for bulk corrections.
Oh, and, better customer service
Yes, Sony, how about decent customer service (see below) ? Better access to repair shops would be great. You’re a great brand,go all the way. This is not consumer electronics.
Who is it for ?
Many will consider it as a backup camera. I think it’s a great camera for learning photography. All major controls are there, yet it’s incredibly easy to use. The creative modes inspire you to try new things and see what works. The amazing image quality rewards careful technique. I simply cannot think of a better camera for serious learning or teaching. Grab yourself a nice Voigtlander lens and you’ll be making creative images in minutes for less than 800$
Families and amateurs never going to print : I suggest getting a smartphone instead.
It’s also great for hiking or trekking – reliability issues aside – though for really tough conditions, a really tough camera such as the Panasonic GF1 might be better.
If you’ve read the [first instalment] of this long-term rolling review, you’ll know I bought the NEX-5n a couple of months before a long trip to Western Australia because my Nikon D80’s processing seemed to be having occasional mishaps (it wasn’t, my mistake …).
The sad irony is that once in Oz, out in the boonies, the NEX-5n failed. It began eating up battery very rapidly (I would lose 5% every time I switched it on) until after a few days, the camera stopped functioning altogether.
Shit happens. But sometimes it get’s handled more gracefully than others. Back in Perth – having lost the once in a lifetime opportunity to make pictures of Kalbarri NP – I took the little NEX to the Sony Store. That’s like the largest Sony shop within 2500 miles. The guy there gave me a bemused look and told me
“Sorry mate, we sell those, we don’t repair them”
Or, for that matter exchange, loan, rent … or in any other possible way try to make a stranded customer happy. Ouch!
This is not to bash Sony, but it’s simply very poor salesmanship. My next camera won’t be a Sony. And my TV is a Sony Bravia. My Blu Ray player is a Sony. It’s very likely that replacements won’t be. Are you listening, Sony? Reputation matters! Wonderinf why you’re loosing money? Focus on quality.
The picture below taken with my wife’s Olympus Tough 610 while my NEX-5n was lying dead at the bottom of my bag. I like it a lot and people have asked me to sell them prints. I think that just shows how much most amateurs wory excessively about pixel peeping “quality” instead of technique. Ergonomy matters much more. Click to enlarge and you will see just how good even the smalles cameras can be. A Nikon D800 wouldn’t have made this pictures because I simply wouldn’t have hauled it around for 8 hours in 48°C temperatures.
So Sony sucked big time. On the other hand, Amazon.com were incredible. I went to the website, was sent a new camera in 3 days, printed out a form and sent my dead soldier weeks later, back in France. No questions asked. A. MA. ZING. Thank you Amazon! Thank you!
I never mentioned the incident on this blog before because it could have been random luck. But my replacement camera, now 3 months old, is going AWOL in exactly the same way as the first and I fully expect it to drop dead on me as well … Now I’m not a pro. Photography is just a hobby and this doesn’t really matter. But that’s besides the point. I’ve loved photography and cameras for 30 years and simply can’t be bother with gear/service that can’t be relied upon.
But basically, it’s my fault. Sony is a consumer electronics company, not (yet) a fully fledged camera brand (they do seem to be working hard at it). Chances are few NEX buyers make 5000 pictures in 2 months. Odds are most will be very happy with their acquisition. Image quality is just fantastic. The price is right. Only, if you’re a serious photographer that wants to rely on your camera even when Amazon’s not here to help, buy from a reliable camera maker.
What I miss from the DSLR days
As mentioned above.
My lowly Nikon D80’s shutter achieved far more than its guarranteed number of cycles. My 18-200 was dropped into an Icelandic river and works just fine. That’s immerged into freezing water (along with the photographer, camera bag, the whole business) for at least 30 seconds, pulled out, left to dry outside in the air with no technical intervention and put back onto a new body to work perfectly for several extra years. It still does today. This definitely is a strong incentive to buy again.
As I already mentioned.
A bit of chunkyness
Small, light cameras are a boon. Really. After an 8 hour hike with the NEX-5n and a pancake Voigtlander around your neck, you KNOW there is no going back. But there can be too much of a good thing. The NEX-5n is almost perfect. But the NEX-7 feels better proportionned, allowing a slightly more natural grip.
What I do not miss
Regulars know how much I like the little Sony. But let’s face it : 80% of its appeal comes from the mirrorless concept. Olympus PENs, Panasonic GFxxx and similar designs are just as pleasing. My reason for going Sony was solely linked to the way the sensor handles M-mount lenses (past generation M43 cameras have not been so brilliant). As much as I would LOVE to use that Nikon D800 sensor for landscapes (it”s not just the pixel count), there is simply no way to drag me back to the huge body and lenses, the cluncky, noisy slap of the mirror and the conspicuous body shouting for attention when that’s the last thing you want. Nope, mirrorless is the present and the future as far as I’m concerned.
Be honest : what’s the difference between any Nikon and any Canon ? I don’t see it and I’ve been a photo nut for 30 years. They’re just all the same camera with extra bits and bobs added or removed from the feature list by the respective marketing department the herd us into (not so, it turns out) lucrative ranges. That’s not the same with mirrorless cameras. An Olympus Pen is a little gem of a camera. A truely brilliant little object with distinct differences from my Sony NEX-5n (the look, the feature set, the build, the philosophy). To me a PEN has all the appeal the iPhone seems to have on so many people. It is an utterly desirable object from a design and technological point of view. A Nikon, even the incredibly capable D800, is just a dark grey plastic box. A great tool for a pro, but nothing that stirs me or begs me to get out of the house to shoot.
What will I replace it with?
The Sony NEX-5n is a wonderful image making device that opened my life to a new form of – mirrorless – camera and rejuvenated my love of photography. I don’t think I can make it a better compliment. But what can I step up to in the Sony stable ? The NEX-7 ? Nope. No way. I lusted for it before the tsunami. I used it after. It can’t handle legacy lenses. It’s pixels are too small, too grainy and too fidgety. A great camera in the hands of someone who loves it, but that’s not me.
I pre-ordered a Fuji X-pro1, falling for all the “better than full-frame” hype. Then cancelled my order after reading the reviews. Image quality simply isn’t better than the NEX-5n (I don’t know this but did print many 24″ inch prints fragments using dpreview samples from both cameras). Yes it’s better at 6400 and possibly a tiny tiny bit better on screen at 150% at base ISO. But that’s about as relevant to me as how fast my car would drive on the moon (and much less fun). Plus, the viewfinder leaves me cold and the focusing seems to make everyone miserable.
The Nikon D800 ? Thought hard about that one. Incredible tonal range, dynamic range, colour depth and pixel count. But no, I’m not going back to a very competent tool that will stay at home because it breaks my neck, scares away the wildlife half a mile away, attracts unwanted attention and is a pig to handhold in low light. Why Sony doesn’t use it’s onw sensor in an M9 thrashing mirrorless design is far beyond me. Shame though. I’d buy that this instant, in spite of reliability worries.
A Leica M, possibly ? Hmmm, that would be a major financial commitment and image quality certainly would sway me that way. Leica is making a major announcement on May 10th and while my eyes a peeled, my hopes are low. Interesting rumours abound. But, however good picture quality will undoubtedly be, odds are the new camera will turn out to be be yet another overpriced 70 year old suppository design piece of kit that will frustrate all but existing fans and collectors. So the M is another one I lusted after, tried (co-author Caroline’s M8) and will leave well alone for now. I sure hope I’m wrong and Leica proves itself capable of surprise as it did with the lovely X1. Reinvent itself ? Unlikely.
No, interestingly, my latest romance comes from the exact opposite direction.
In my haste to find a larger sensor version of the mirrorless design, I had passed on a very very interesting new camera from Olympus. Robin Wong’s review of the OM-D 5D made that wrong right.
Here we are with a small but well designed camera, built by a company with deeply rooted photography DNA, built like a tank, with a viewfinder (albeit for people who breathe through their mouths ;)) and that has somehow managed to at least match APS-C image quality in a tiny M43 sensor.
No, I don’t like the idea of going smaller. Every neurone in my brain is fighting it. Bigger pixels are better pixels. Plus Olympus suffers from the AA filter syndrome (whyyyyyyyyyy?)
But images from this newcomer simply challenge my beliefs enough for me to reach for my Paypal account. That is a fantastic looking camera. The Olympus colours (even better than Leica in my book), the per-pixel sharpness, the weather sealing, the Internal Stabilisation, the Zuiko lenses, the build quality … it’s all there at a price that’s barely more than a new NEX-5n with EVF. Drat, I’d dearly love to find a flaw and not go the smaller pixel way, but it sure looks like future pictures you’ll see on this website may be Oly-powered.
Plus, Olympus are in dire straits and I’d really be happy to help.
M43 cameras of previous generations have not been a great match for M-mount lenses. If, by any miracle, the latest Oly cures this, I’ll be one happy camper.
Gear for sale!
In order to fund my new purchase, I am selling some of the gear I will no longer be using. If you’re interested, just leave a comment or send me a note : pascal.jappy at gmail.com. Cheers!
Zeiss Contax Planar 50/1.7 T*. At least as good as Leica’s Summicron-R and far cheaper, this lens requires a separate adapter, which I was too lazy to buy. I’m letting it go for 130€. My short review is here. Note the astounding flare resitance and clarity.
Burzynski ball head. I bought this immensely strong ball head for astrophotography and never used it. You can find a review here. As new. Yours for 250€.
Will ship for free in France. Please add 30€ overseas for the ball head and 20€ for the lens.