Sony Alpha NEX-5 … hands-on first look
Ahead of our in-depth reviews, we take a preview look at the Sony Alpha NEX-5 and Sony Alpha NEX-3 – featuring smallest ever body sizes and the new interchangeable lens system
We’ve been lucky enough to get a first look at the Sony Alpha NEX-5 and NEX-3 at the Sony European launch in Split, Croatia this week. The location was the perfect backdrop to test out everything this new camera breed had to offer, so we took the Sony Alpha NEX-5 to the streets of the stunning island of Hvar to see what it could do.
The NEX-3 and NEX-5 are a sub-brand of the Sony Alpha range, competing with the likes of the Olympus E-P1 and EP-2, the Panasonic GF1 and the Samsung NX-10. In keeping with the new interchangeable lens system, which is sweeping the market this year, the Sony NEX system boasts the smallest body size yet at a mere 110.8 x 58.8 x 38.2mm for the NEX-5 without the lens (the NEX-3 is marginally larger).
The NEX-5 comes wrapped in a magnesium body and is aimed at the more experienced photographer. The NEX-3 sports a tough plastic body and built more with the beginner in mind. In essence, the only major difference between the two is the video capability – the NEX-5 records 1920 x 1080 full HD video, whereas the NX-3 is limited to 1280 x 720 HD recording. Both models feature a 14.2 megapixel APS HD CMOS sensor, which is as big as the APS-C sensor found in Alpha DSLRs.
Moving away from the A-mount system seen in the Sony Alpha DSLRs, the NEX cameras sport a brand new E-Mount instead, which is still a pretty large lens mount which dominates the front of the camera body. Alpha veterans will be pleased to hear there is also a lens mount adapter for A-Mount lenses, although considering the minute proportions of the NEX-5 body, the A-Mount lenses are likely to feel extremely bulky. To help with the inter-compatibility of old Alpha lenses, an additional lens tripod support is offered to help balance the equation. It’s worth noting that the autofocus is disabled with A-mount lenses.
Sticking with the NEX-specific lenses though and Sony has produced a slick trio of lenses to kick off the line-up: a 16mm f2.8 pancake lens, an 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 lens and an 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 lens. The latter two are both optically stabilised, as this is the first Alpha camera not to feature in-body sensor-shift stabilisation (due to its size).
Loaded up with the pancake lens gives the NEX-5 the double-whammy title of the worlds smallest and lightest interchangeable lens camera and indeed it is a very neat and tidy little package. The camera can easily slip into a small bag or coat pocket and is the ideal travel companion. We also tested the 18-55mm lens too, which although significantly bulkier, felt pretty well balanced against the camera body. With the lens strap attached, the camera points down too, which also helps keeps the camera out of the way when you’re out and about and also helps keep the LCD free from scratches.
Adding something new into the interchangeable lens category is the NEX-5’s articulated LCD screen, which tilts up and down. This is great for shooting at creative angles and overhead shots.
Matching the impressive exterior is a wealth of features, which gave us plenty to experiment with. The first major bonus is the Sweep Panorama function. As previously seen on the Sony HX1, the mode works by setting the scene mode and sweeping the camera across the vista before you. The main difference with this version is that the NEX-5 takes individual images and stitches them together by picking the sharpest details from each frame. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 relied on a buffering a video file, which provides a panoramic image, but with much lower resolution. The NEX-5 Sweep Panorama function, however, produces pin-sharp images which we found to be seamless for nine out of ten shots. We loved the fact you can use this both horizontally and vertically, really adding a creative option to your shots. Just prepare yourself for the noise of the rapid fire of shots, which is like a machine gun firing off a round. You can imagine the clatter with 20 journalists firing the same function within close proximity of each other! That being said, the shutter noise is a real charm of the camera, with a reassuring click for each shot you take. It’s reminiscent of a traditional SLR, and feels strangely addictive.
The panoramic features are due to go a step further this summer, with a firmware update on its way to enable you to shoot 3D panoramas, which can be viewed on Sony Bravia 3D TVs. We donned our 3D glasses and took a look at a demo and the results are really superb, with images literally leaping from the screen.
Sticking with the features the NEX-5 has ready to go and we were quite taken with the Auto HDR mode. Leading on from the HDR capabilities of the Sony Alpha 550, the NEX-5 takes three images (one underexposed, an average shot and an overexposed one) and saves both the average exposed image and the Auto HDR file. This is a speedy way to ensure really great exposures. Forget over processed frames and lurid colours, the HDR frames are well balanced, rich in tones, without a whiff of the ‘Photomatix’ effect about them. It even works whilst in Black and White mode too.
Beginners to photography will also enjoy the Background Defocus mode, which is found in the iAuto shooting mode. This feature is designed to help users control the depth of field in an image, without any knowledge of apertures (or even what depth of field is for that matter). A dial appears onscreen giving you the option to crank the background from crisp to blurry or anywhere in-between. You can see the results before you shoot and it’s a fantastic way for users to get creative, without having specific photographic knowledge. It’s really quick and easy to use and produces some nice results.
As well as iAuto, there is a choice of manual controls too. Sony has decided to keep the camera body clutter free, and placed all the shooting menus within the menu interface. Instead, two soft touch buttons and a d-pad / jog wheel combo decorate the back. Initially, delving into the menu system to pick a shooting mode felt like a chore, but we quickly got used to it and found the controls and menu really responsive. The biggest drawback is having to go into an additional menu tab to call up all of your white balance and exposure controls – something that we didn’t really take to and held us a bit when setting up shots.
Taking a walking tour of Hvar, gave us ample opportunity to try out all of the features and functions and then an evening visit to an art museum in Split gave us plenty of great chances to try out the low-light capabilities. The NEX-5 features a hand-held twilight mode which fires six high speed shots and merges them together. This works really well and captures colour and light beautifully, with limited noise and no blurriness. There is also an anti motion blur mode too, which works in the same way and helps capture the ambience of the scene without the use of flash.
The flash system on this camera is rather unusual in that first and foremost there is not built-in flash. However, a compact external flash is provided (and comes conveniently attached to the camera strap) which you screw into the hot shoe. This flips up and does a sterling job at lighting your scene. It’s powered internally from the camera itself and has a seven-meter range and 16mm wide-angle field of view. This combined with the night portrait mode within the scene modes produced really flattering portraits.
Other notable things the NEX-5 impressed us with are its lightning-quick continuous mode, which captures up to seven frames per second in Speed Priority mode. This quick performance is reflected in the rest of the camera’s operations too, making it ideal for instantaneous shooting and capturing spur of the moment candids.
Sony is aiming this camera at those upgrading from compacts to something more substantial and creative and this is reflected in the easy-to-use interface and auto functions. However, we think this camera will be a hit with DSLR owners looking for a second camera to take on their travels and the image quality certainly wont disappoint these users either. They may find the interface and menu system a little tiresome having to delve into a menu to pick a shooting mode, but we found after an afternoon of shooting, you get pretty used to this and the placement of the features and functions become second nature.
The overriding feel we got from the NEX-5 is that it’s extremely fun to use and a pretty liberating experience compared to the weight and bulk of shooting with an SLR. The NEX range hits the shelves early to mid June with prices starting at around £450 for the NEX-3 and £550 for the NEX-5. We’ll bring you the full and comprehensive review as soon as we receive the cameras in the office!