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Sony NEX5N

Sony NEX5N

| On 15, Sep 2012

(reposted – originally written in October 2011)
NEX5N AThe NEX-5N is one of three cameras included in Sony’s October 2011 refresh to the mirrorless NEX camera line. The NEX-5N is a second generation camera, replacing the NEX 5. Sony is currently advertising a kit including the 5N and a 18-55mm zoom lens for C$699.

Here’s an outline of what you’ll read below.

You’ll love:

    • excellent low light performance
    • fast startup
    • touch screen access to menu settings
    • beginner controls for advanced features
    • panorama mode makes it ridiculously easy to take great panorama
    • best selection of in-camera effects
    • wide variety of drive settings
    • touch focus

Not so much:

    • shooting RAW means giving up features
    • can’t take stills while shooting movie
    • long recovery time after using some features
    • power switch seems out of place
    • screen doesn’t swivel for self portrait

BACKGROUND

Mirrorless cameras feature large SLR-sized sensors and interchangeable lenses. The lack of a mirror enables the camera to be substantially smaller, but eliminates the standard SLR capability of an optical preview through the lens. In Sony’s line this camera sits between the point and shoot models and their SLR models. Sony’s mirrorless cameras feature variants of the APS-C size (23.5mmx15.6mm in the 5N) sensor found in most SLR cameras. Although the NEX series are alpha model cameras, they use E-mount lenses (not the A-mount lenses used by other alpha models). In making my comparisons below, I’ve limited myself to other mirrorless models.

THE CAMERA

My overall visual impression of the NEX 5N is that it’s a tiny camera, overpowered by nearly any lens. The body (available in black and silver) is metal and looks and feels solid and high quality. Although a flash is included, it’s an external device, plugged into a special port on top.

There are few physical buttons and controls, most serving multiple context-specific functions. The overall sleekness of the design is marred by a very old school on/off lever. While the camera itself is clearly small enough to pocket, only if you pair it with Sony’s 16mm pancake lens will you maintain a pocket-fitting profile. Other manufacturers have gone retro with their mirrorless designs – Sony’s are sleek and modern.

NEX5N BThe LCD screen swivels up 80degrees and down 45 degrees – simplifying that shot at your puppie’s eye level or over the heads of the crowd in front of you at a film festival premiere. However, as it doesn’t swivel around, it’s not much use for self-portraits.

The FW50 battery is proprietary, but used on many Sony models. Both SD and Memory Stick media are supported. There are both mini-HDMI and USB terminals. Although the camera is small, and the lens adds a lot of front weight, I did not fit it hard to hold, difficult to manipulate or awkward to carry.

CONTROLS

You can perform all menu navigation and selection using the touch screen or three buttons and a dial on the back of the camera. All functionality is accessed through six on-screen categories. Although the menu structure did not seem intuitive to me, I quickly learned how to access my most frequently used settings and selections, with one or two exceptions. Some features (like the options for picture effects like HDR painting) were so well hidden and undocumented that I didn’t find them until the last day of the review loan period. Sony’s menus include helpful guidance on making selections between options. For example, if you don’t know why or when to use DRO or HDR, the menu offers an explanation for each. If you shoot in full manual mode, you may encounter some frustration when you’re trying to make quick aperture, shutter speed and ISO changes. The control wheel, because it both spins and has four click points, is touchy to manipulate – and I sometimes found myself adjusting settings unintentionally. Similarly the touch screen has an acceleration as you scroll that slides past the setting you want.

OPERATION

The 5N is very responsive, it starts quickly and snaps quickly. I wasn’t in a position to compare the advantage that the electronic first curtain shutter (the default setting) provides, but reaction time is instantaneous, nearly always delivering the exact expression or moment I was trying to capture.

I find the on screen light meter display (which is really only needed for manual modes) to be slightly less clear than I’d like (my reference here is the Panasonic GF1’s). The manual aperture and shutter dial is a little less precise in its action, and as the dial is also used to switch between apertures and shutter modes, I sometimes found I had changed it inadvertently.

Sony also offers a touch and follow mode – you touch the object on the screen you want in focus and it follows that object to keep it in focus. This works reasonably well, but you need to dig deep into the menus to turn it on and off. I was tempted to leave it on, but found that it would sometimes kick in (recognizing something similar from a previous shot?) when I didn’t intend.

NEX5N 1Great low light performance. I captured Tom Hanley (of Stereoflavour) in performance at Timothy’s pub. SEL50F18 lens, 1/80s, f1.8 ISO 1600.

SHOOTING MODES/MENUS

There are nine shooting modes, accessed through the shoot mode menu, which makes switching slightly awkward – most cameras have a control dial to switch. I’m not sure why some features, like panorama and anti-motion blur have dedicated modes while others like Auto HDR (on the brightness/color menu) and Smile Shutter (on the camera menu) do not. Intelligent Auto is a mode unto itself, although it would make sense to me to group it with the rest of the scenes in the Scene Selection mode. Sweep Panorama and 3D Sweep Panorama are modes, although I’d put 3D with the rest of the panorama options which are confusingly in the Image Size menu (although they should be in the Camera menu). I also find it confusing to wade through all options (most of which are dimmed and not available) to find the one or two appropriate to the current mode.

In my mind, there are only five modes: Scene (including Intelligent Auto), Program, Aperture, Manual and Shutter (P/A/S/M). The remainder are features which appear on an Options menu, which includes only the appropriate options for the current mode, and may require two levels. For example, Panorama is a scene, options include 3D. After selecting 3D, the 3D specific options include direction and size. Sony does use this model if you’re accessing Picture Effects in P/A/S/M mode.

Incidentally, the menu is constantly warning me about incompatibilities between settings, but not allowing me to proceed until I go to another menu to fix it. For example, If I switch to Intelligent Auto, and try to engage the Photo Creativity mode, I get a warning that this selection is Invalid with RAW and RAW+JPEG. Clicking OK closes the warning, although I’d much prefer if it either set the mode to Fine or displayed the Quality setting from the Image Size menu. Then when I’d made that selection, I’d be in Photo Creativity mode, rather than back at square one.

I’ll note that this Sony doesn’t really take advantage of the touch screen. The screen displays all of the current settings (like smile shutter, focus mode and ISO) with icons. Why not just touch an icon to change the setting?

The ability to touch an object on the LCD monitor and have the camera automatically focus and expose for the touched item and then snap the image is also missing.

NEX5N 5Astounding detail and clarity. SEL55210lens at 55mm. 1/1000s, f5.6 ISO 100.

AUTO MODE

This camera clearly demonstrates that auto mode has grown up. The conventional wisdom that buying a manual-capable camera and shooting in auto was money wasted may not be true any longer. Although there were cases where I clearly needed to over-ride auto settings to get the image I wanted, in most cases the Sony processor knew exactly what to do. Last year cameras started to detect your photo’s subject and switched automatically between modes to take pictures of flowers, portraits or landscapes. Scene detection and the settings being adjusted as a result seem to have improved again. This is particularly true in low light settings. Even under the most challenging circumstances in a dark pub, I got surprisingly good results – sharp images with low noise. There were a few occasions where I did over-ride its selections, opening up the aperture to increase the shutter speed. In the tradeoff of focus depth over blurred movement, I opted to freeze the action. The high ISO settings (auto mode limits itself to 2400, but ISO can be manually adjusted as high as 25,600) Finally, as good as it is, the 5N does not quite meet the capabilities of the Panasonic GF1 for taking pictures of food in restaurants, a particular obsession of mine. This is primarily a white balance issue, so I was able to make the minor tweaks needed using Lightroom.

NEX5N 8HDR Painting mode

CREATIVE EFFECTS

Although experienced manual shooters may not appreciate Sony’s “photo creativity” settings, (accessed in Intelligent Auto mode), it provides access to a set of adjustments that are optimized for digital photo taking. In “photo creativity” mode, you adjust a slider to set the amount of background defocus. This adjustment requires no understanding of apertures, but provides WYSIWYG control over the amount of background defocus. Similar slider adjustments can be made to brightness, colour and “vividness”. I’d never thought about the amount of background defocus I wanted before, so it was new to be able to set it using a sliding control.

After using the “photo creativity” mode for a while, I began to think that the future of photography may be more in controls like this and less in controls that emulate analog functions.

NEX5N 7HDR Painting mode

Another control offers eleven picture effects like retro photo, toy camera and partial colour. These are interesting and fun, saving hours of work in Lightroom. Although easily accessed in “photo creativity”, there are substantially more effects (I count 29, including all the options) accessed as picture effects through the brightness/color control in P/A/S/M modes. I found it confusing that there are two different ways to access the effects, and that the selection of effects differ depending on the mode.

What I also didn’t like about either “photo creativity” or picture effects is that you can’t access them if you’re saving in RAW* or RAW+JPEG modes. The other camera I’ve evaluated that offered similar picture effects was the Olympus EPL-2, which saves the effect in the JPEG file, but also saves the original unmodified RAW file. Sony should follow suit. Switching in and out of RAW modes to access these modes is a pain.

What I did like was the wide range of effects and how they worked. From the miniature mode that simulates a tilt-shift lens, to HDR painting which adds vivid colour and exaggerated detail, in P/A/S/M mode, this is the most extensive set of in-camera effects I’ve encountered. Partial colour didn’t always select everything I expected, but overall these effects provide exceptional (if slightly gimmicky) results.

NEX5N 6The best panorama mode (although it is available in other Sony models). Just click and drag. In this photo, which captures slightly more than 180 degrees, the road at the left and right is directly behind me as I look north up the Humber river at Etienne Brulé park. SEL1855 lens, 18mm, 1/160s, f6.3 ISO 100. The dimensions of this image are 12416×1856.

FEATURES

It’s worth calling out panorama mode on the 5N, although this capability has been extended to other Sony models. It’s excellent. It’s wonderfully easy-to-use and takes terrific images. The menu includes options to set the direction (left, right, up, down) and size. Standard size is 8192×1856, wide is 12416×1856. With a wide angle lens (like the 15mm end of the kits lens) it easily exceeds 180 degrees. If you aren’t moving the camera slowly (or quickly) enough, it coaches you to get it right. It’s also worth noting that, like several other features, panoramas take some processing time after the image is taken before you can take the next shot.David Pogue has some great samples in his 5N review:

http://gallery.me.com/pogue#101683

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/29/technology

The 5N also has more drive settings than most cameras. In addition to single shot, there are two burst modes. On most cameras, these are labelled slow and fast. Sony defines fast as “speed priority”, meaning that it sets focus and exposure only for the first image. I didn’t try to determine whether it really was capable of ten frames per second. What I can tell you is that even using settings that should enable the fastest rate (8Mpixel JPG in speed priority mode on a Class 10 SD card), the rate slows considerably after the first second or two. Add RAW and you’re lucky to get 3-4 images before it slows. Drive settings include a three-shot bracket, but what got my attention was the three self-timer modes: single image after two or ten seconds, or continuous after 10. That should simplify getting the group shot where everyone’s eyes are open and smiling, as well as the “now let’s get goofy” shot at the end – without running back and forth to the camera.

Among all these great features, is it too much to ask for time lapse? I realize that the competitors don’t do it either, but.

NEX5N 2The Zeiss 24mm is an exceptional (if expensive $1149.) lens with beautiful bokeh.  SEL24F18Z lens. 1/160s, f1.8, ISO 125.

LENSES

Sony provided four lenses for the evaluation: the 18-55 kit lens, the 55-210 zoom, and 24 and 50mm primes. The E-series now includes 7 lenses (and 2 wide-angle converters). Sony sells an A-series converter and there are third party adapters for many other mounts. The build quality, as well as the operation of these new E-mount lenses is excellent (I prefer their design and operation over the A series). With the exception of the 55-210, these lenses feature a fully metallic exterior and nicely machined zoom/focus rings. Zoom extensions move smoothly in and out. The best of the bunch (not included this time) is the 18-200 lens that’s included in the NEX series video camera (VG10, soon to be upgraded to VG20) kit. Of the ones provided this time, the 24mm f1.8 with Zeiss glass was clearly my favourite – it’s a great lens for all situations, especially indoors. With a minimum focus distance of 16cm, it’s very usable for macro as well, and produced a smooth and pleasant bokeh in closeups of flowers.

VIDEO

Although barely mentioned in the manuals, the 5N’s video recording capabilities greatly exceeded my expectations. In many ways, the 5N is a terrific camcorder substitute. In the past, even with dedicated video cameras, I’ve rarely been pleased with footage I’ve shot at concerts, either in bars or in an auditorium. The dark scene combined with bright lights often make for a contrast range that’s difficult to capture properly. Auto-exposure routinely over-exposes faces, and auto-focus rarely gets it right. I should mention that for these shoots I used the 24mm f1.8 and 50mm f1.8 lenses.

Auto mode got it right both while shooting StereoFlavour at Timothy’s and Maria Schneider with the Humber Faculty Big Band at the Humber Kipling Auditorium. There is no external mic input, nor any audio control capability. Sound was as I expected – acceptable, missing detail as well as low and high frequencies, but not overloading into distortion on loud passages. I’ve also noticed that most enthusiasts are dual-recording audio on a dedicated recorder, so maybe high quality sound in a camera isn’t as much of an issue as it used to be.

In addition to Auto, the dedicated video button can start recording in any mode, providing access to many settings that are not typically available in a camcorder – like shutter speed. Although shooting as extremely slow as 1/4sec requires a tripod, and as an effect might not be required often, it’s nice to know that these adjustments are available.

One caveat to using the 5N as a full-on video camera: recordings may stop without warning. During the Humber concert recording stopped just before 30 minutes was up. I started recording again, but it stopped again two minutes later, this time with the indication that the camera was overheated and needed to cool down. Also worth noting that the camera does record in 2GB file chunks. Oh, and if you stop recording, you’ll have to wait several seconds to start again as the camera does its file housekeeping. Finally, the 5N can’t save stills while it’s recording video. Sony has figured this out on other cameras, why not here?

NEX5N 3

SUMMARY

If you are a photo enthusiast looking for a small camera that has full manual controls and an SLR-sized sensor for under C$700, you need look no further. Hopefully some of the rough edges above will be addressed in upcoming software releases. Sony was very responsive to requests when the NEX series was released last year, and we can expect the same again.

If you’ve been point-and-shooting and wish to move up, this is an excellent choice. With a terrific auto mode, menus that help explain functions and lots of creative effects, it makes taking great photos easy and fun.

I’m pretty sure that if I was left with only a 5N and either the 16mm (for pocketability) or 24mm lenses, that I’d be able to take nearly all of the shots I’d like. Portable, versatile, great performance in low light (especially with those large aperture lenses), an excellent video mode … there’s little that’s left to be desired.

If you are considering this camera, do have at least a cursory look at the other cameras in this class: the Panasonic GF series, the Olympus and the Samsung NX series. Last year Sony finally started to get some recognition for their innovation and efforts among pro and semi-pro photo magazines. This camera, and the soon to be released NEX 7 should add to that reputation.

WORTH NOTING

No one reviews cameras with the attention to detail found at DP Review. It’s clear that the included manuals are skimpy when you learn details of the features and functions in a DP review. They’re the best.

*RAW? RAW files are an unadulterated export of the data directly from the camera’s sensor without further processing. This enables full control over the image in applications like Lightroom and Aperture. RAW files are free from white balance and other in-camera settings. RAW files are also free of the processing artifacts sometimes found in JPG images. While it’s great to have in-camera processing and creation of JPG files, especially for effects, it’s also nice to have the original image that the camera captured  for other, alternate manipulation.

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