Sony NEX 5 Review

Sony NEX 5 Review

A Guest Post by Chris Folsom from Studio Tempura.

Here was my dilemma: I love photography and want to have a camera with me as often as possible, but carrying a DSLR at all times is less than practical. But I want better image quality than most cellphones and point-and-shoots are capable of. Thankfully, a new segment of cameras has appeared on the market that bridges the gap between these two types of cameras… small enough to fit in your pocket, but no sacrifice in image quality. With large image sensors and interchangeable lenses, these cameras offer much of a DSLR’s functionality but with a much smaller physical footprint.

Sony’s NEX series of cameras is the most recent entry into that category of small cameras with interchangeable lenses. I picked a Sony NEX 5 while on vacation in London over the summer and having been using it quite a bit since. It is an amazing little camera that packs a lot of capabilities into a very small package, but it isn’t without its drawbacks.

First, let’s get some of the specs out of the way:

  • 14.2mp APS-C sensor
  • 3” tilting LCD screen with 921,000-dot resolution
  • Weighs about 9 ounces (with no lens attached)
  • SD memory card slot
  • Rechargeable battery good for about 330 shots per charge

The Good

As stated previously, this is a very small camera. The NEX 5 body is the size of a typical point-and-shoot camera (about 4” wide and 2” tall) and with the 16mm f/2.8 lens attached, it can easily fit in most pockets. Sony claims that this is the world’s smallest and lightest interchangeable lens digital camera and I am inclined to believe them. Despite its small size, this is a pretty rugged camera too… an all metal body with very solid, sturdy construction. Most of the back of the unit is occupied by a large, tilting, 3” high-resolution LCD screen that is a pleasure to view. There is no optical viewfinder on this camera, but the screen is so nice that I rarely found myself missing the eyepiece.

More importantly, with the right lens attached, the image quality of the NEX 5 can be stunning. Below is a shot taken with my NEX 5 near my home. Great detail and colors for such a small camera.

Constanst Gardener – Chris Folsom

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the NEX 5’s images though. It features a 14mp APS-C sensor… the same size sensor as found in most DSLR’s. By removing the mirror mechanism, Sony was able to take the guts of a DSLR and cram it into this very tiny package without sacrificing much quality in the process. The camera can shoot up to a whopping 7fps and captures very good 1080i video as well. Low light performance is impressive too… ISO ranges from 200 to 12800 and is produces pretty good results even at higher levels:

Tube – Chris Folsom – Shot at 1600 ISO with no tripod

Another unexpected benefits of the NEX 5 has been the explosion of lens adapters available. You can attach Sony’s larger A-Mount DSLR lenses to the camera, but there are also adapters available for Canon, Nikon, Leica and more. Most of these adapters will only support manual focus, but it’s nice to have the option to use some of your existing lenses if you already have a traditional DSLR.

The Bad

So, with all that I have already said, I must completely love the camera and give it a high recommendation for anyone, right? Well… not quite. There are some downsides to the NEX 5 that should be considered before making a purchae.

First and foremost is the price: the NEX 5 is not cheap. The least expensive package (the NEX 5 camera plus a 16mm f/2.8 “pancake” lens) is $650. For $150 more, you can pick up a kit with an additional lens (18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 image stabilized) and a small flash. But at a price between $650 and $799, the NEX 5 is clearly in DSLR-pricing territory. For most people, this means choosing between the NEX and a Canon T2i or a Nikon D3100. Sony does offer a NEX 3 for $549, but you will give up the metal body and higher-resolution video capability of the 5.

The next hit to the NEX 5 is also one of its advantages: its size. Sure, with the 16mm f/2.8 pancake lens attached, the NEX 5 is fairly svelte and is easy to carry in a bag or pocket. Attach a different lens though (such as the 18-55mm) and any thoughts of putting this camera in your pocket will immediately melt away. Is the camera still smaller and lighter than a DSLR? Totally. But if the size means you have to carry something around in an extra bag or on a camera strap anyway, why not just grab your DSLR instead?

Another issue is the lens selection. The NEX 5 uses a new lens mount (the E mount) and the pool of lenses designed for it is pretty sparse. Sony only has three options available right now: the 16mm f/2.8, an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 and an 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3. Granted, this is a new camera system and it takes time for lenses to be developed, but that doesn’t change the fact that DSLR’s from Canon, Nikon, Pentax, etc. all have dozens of lenses available already. Even the similarly sized Micro 4/3rds cameras from Olympus and Panasonic have more lens options on the market.

My final complaint is with the controls (or lack thereof). I do appreciate the sparse, minimalist design of the camera, but I quickly find myself missing dedicated controls for things like ISO, WB, Focus area, etc. With the most recent firmware installed, some of these things can be assigned to one of the 2 custom buttons on the camera, but it still feels very limited. And even after months of use, I still can’t figure out a way to lock exposure on a subject and recompose the image. This camera feels more like a point-and-shoot in these respects and you’ll have to be willing to give up some level of control while using it.


The NEX 5 is kind of a weird beast and I have some trouble figuring out exactly where it fits in the grand scheme of things. Is it meant to replace my point and shoot? If so, it is too big with anything other than the 16mm lens attached. Is it meant to replace my DSLR? Sorry, I am not giving up my dedicated controls and large collection of lenses. So there the NEX 5 sits… the odd middle child that doesn’t have a clear idea of what it is supposed to be.

Strangely enough though, I don’t regret purchasing the camera at all… in fact, I went on to buy another for my wife. The NEX 5 has become the camera I go to when I just want a quick image without too much effort and it has the added benefit of producing pretty great results. I keep the NEX 5 (with the pancake lens attached) in my messenger bag all the time as well, so it is usually the best camera I have with me at any given time. When I travel now, as well, this is the camera that comes along for the ride… the DSLR typically stays home.

On the Wing – Chris Folsom

Would I use it as my primary camera? Probably not, for all the negatives listed above. But, if you can stomach the cost, it makes a really convenient and fun second camera. In the future, with a lower cost and more available lenses, I could see this being a VERY solid camera system. For now though, most people are probably better sticking to their DSLR/P&S combo.

Get a price on the Sony NEX 5 here.

Chris Folsom is a Baltimore-based photographer. View more of his work at his website or on Flickr. You can also follow his photographic endeavors on Twitter.

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Some Older Comments

  • Appliance August 31, 2011 11:30 pm


    well actually you quoted someone else.

    No -one will give the menu designer a medal but most of the menu problems noted are dealt with in the new firmware. I can access most of what the quote says with one click. The other complaints are just whining. Just how is the camera going to show your pano before you shoot it?

    If you change your settings fro every one of your 120 shots it might be slow - but I doubt that I really do. If you use it as a typewriter it's tricky - if you use it to take photos it works.

    It's a quirky camera but when you work with it it's fun to use and the image results can be great. Sorry you don't concur but your quoted criticism is inaccurate and wrong.

  • Alex August 31, 2011 05:53 pm

    Hi mrssmarshop

    as far as i know the NEX 5 has better video rec, everything else is the same

  • Alex August 31, 2011 05:51 pm

    I just sold my Canon 40d to the market, i take pic from 1994 always with SLR/DSLR but my main job is design so was very hard to travel every day at work with 2 bag' i took the NEX5 and i'm super happy with it !!! nice manual shooting, easy to use very nice camera for street photo and i love the lens kit !!!

    thanks for the review !!

  • mrsmartshop August 12, 2011 12:29 pm

    I'm considering between Sony Alpha NEX-C3 and NEX5. What Is the main difference between the two?

  • Matt August 12, 2011 05:28 am

    After stepping down from my Canon T2i 550D I was looking for a camera that had the compact body of a point and shoot but the performance and quality of a DSLR and I found my answer with the Sony NEX 5. Not only is it great for amateurs but also for professionals too. Every pro photographer knows you can't ask an average bystander to take a picture of my with a DSLR without a blurry image.

    Compact and lightweight, panoramic images, auto HDR, interchangeable lenses.

    Long battery charge, short battery life

    For people saying it has lack of lens options heres news for you: get a lens adaptor!!!! I got a super takumar 50mm 1.4 m42 lens I got for $100 AND an adaptor for my NEX on ebay for $15. The lens will improve your photos drastically

    A Note To Thurd,
    The autofocus is faster than most canon dslrs w kit lenses. The flash is also the brightest flash I've had on a compact camera, most digital cameras have problems autofocusing in the dark.

  • peterquixote August 6, 2011 04:42 am

    I take about 120 shots per day, thats enough information for me to comment as above.
    I repeat as other most comments have pointed out. The menu on this camera is a dog.

  • Appliance August 1, 2011 11:15 am


    Sony revamped the whole menu system months ago and added new features including programmable soft buttons, and focus peaking. Your post is as puzzling as it is ill informed.

    it's pretty sweet camera to operate.

  • Appliance August 1, 2011 06:21 am


    It's a lovely camera and it can act like point and shoot - fully auto - or you can take more control.

    To know:
    3 things that control an image are: iso, shutter speed and f-stop. google this and it is pretty straight forward.

    Make sure your firmware is up to date - go to website and download firmware installer - follow instructions.

    What I do with any new camera is just poke around the menu system - take test shots explore. When I find I don't know how to do something I look at the manual; as opposed to just opening the manual - because now curiosity is peaked.

    I just let my hands wander around the controls. In about 3 days muscle memory starts to emerge and things that were frustrating become easier.

    But as you're doing this go and shoot in whatever mode is most comfortable and enjoy as you learn.

  • peterquixote July 19, 2011 11:33 pm

    I appreciate comments above. It must be embarrassing to Sony to find that people use this camera as a point and shoot, because of the gross deficiencies in menu design.

    Somewhere I read a cynical report on the Nexus 5
    It said,
    ‘treat this camera as a point and shoot, if you try to work your way through the menus for a specific function the battery will run out, and any living subject will be well gone before you press the shutter”
    The makers of the system here and the sensor can receive medals. The designer of the menus could not have made a bigger mess if he tried. The Menu system is ghastly, and absurd.
    OK you walk out into a bright sunny day, and suddenly you remember that you were shooting at ISO 6400 last night and you need to clock it back to 200 ISO.
    But you can’t see anything on the LCD screen because the sunlight washes the image away.
    Lets change the screen brightness you think.
    Ready for the fun? Go to set up menu if you can see it, or if not just guess, then scroll your way through
    Date, time, area setting, steady shot, colour space, MF assist, grid line, histogram, auto review, long exposure, movie audio record, soft B setting, soft key C setting, custom 1, custom2, custom3, beep, menu start, language, steady shot, power save …..
    oh look here it goes LCD brightness.
    So you change it to sunny weather so that you can see the screen.
    Now go back to the original menus and go to brightness /colour
    Fumble your way through lots more functions folks, arrive at ISO rating, and guess what .. function disabled.
    You have left the shoot mode on auto.
    Right, don’t throw the camera at the wall yet. I know your subject got sick of waiting and left ages ago.
    But into main menu and change shoot mode to say P.
    Then back into brightnes/colour and then yes, change ISO rating to 200 ISO.
    Try finding dynamic range optimizer,or auto HDR, and then change your mind and go back to turn it off.
    Ten points if you can do that in under 15 seconds.
    There are two soft keys where you can lift specific functions up for easier access.
    But not all functions, just some functions which Sony have decided for you.
    We want a major personalized Menu, to which we can add any function. And we don’t want to see “ function disabled:
    Rearrange things so that if the user wants continuous advance shutter he can actually do that without having to read a text book on why not.
    There are other things, the Macro on this camera is about as useful as the macro on a 1954 Kodak box brownie.
    Movie Video
    The Movie button is positioned exactly where your right thumb tends to go. Heres a guarantee you will inadvertently switch on movie many times.
    There is a small ‘rec’ sign when you are shooting movie, but in a brilliant move the Sony designers give a big signal on the screen saying ‘RECORDING’ after you switch the recording off. Yes that’s right RECORDING sign lights up as you switch recording off.
    When I shoot movie in the HD movie mode, I get an intermittent black vignette on the horizontal borders of the frame. It comes and goes to and reduces the value of the movie dramatically.
    Forget about manual focus. The focusing ring can be wound round continuously, the magnification of subject will confuse and there is no attempt at screening to you the approximate distance to focus. Maybe ok with a tripod.
    The dual lens combination 16mm and 18 to 55 is silly.
    Only in specialized circumstances will you use the faster 16 mm lens .
    Panorama lateral. The screen does not close down to show you the wiewing area of the panorama. In many cases you will find your vertical expectations cut up.
    Missing peoples heads, missing feet. Its guess work where the vertical image starts and ends.
    Exposure. Neutral exposure is overexposed in my work. I constantly shoot at –0.7 or even -1 stop to get good colour.
    Good things
    This camera takes spectacularly good photographs in low light,
    The colour saturation can be breathtaking, and the functions available are great if you can get to them.
    The variable flash fill in is brilliant, you can choose between -2 stops subtle fill in to plus two stops overkill flash, for say very bright back grounds.
    But as I said unless you have a still life in front of you, you are probably going to miss the shot.
    Even the switch on time takes several seconds .
    All we need is for Sony to completely revamp this camera so that users can work the menu.

  • Brazilianbloke July 4, 2011 05:51 am

    I have the Sony NEX3 myself. I wasn’t very impressed by its image quality to be honest but of course I have only used the kit lenses that come with it. Although, it is been only five days I bought it I am thinking about getting the Olympus EP3 or maybe Panasonic G3. Do you think this is a good idea?

  • Jamie Lawrence June 24, 2011 07:50 pm

    I've had a NEX-5 for about a year and love the little camera. It's perfect as a family camera to carry around town, out for a walk with the kids or playing in the garden. It delivers DSLR quality in a package that "normal" people can operate.

    Regarding pocketability. I think this is a red herring as the only camera that has ever fitted in my trouser pockets is my iPhone. The NEX + 18-55 lens fits very well in my waterproof jacket pocket which is a big advantage over the SLR.

    There are 4-5 lens coming this year including a 30mm macro, 24mm f/2 pancake lens and 40mm f/2. I also use some manual Nikon lenses via and adapter and the latest firmware with focus peaking makes this a really viable alternative to autofocus.

    And in fitting with it's role as my fun camera, I have a tilt adapter and use the high-ISO and live-view capabilities or IR and long-exposures with welding glass.

  • manuel June 24, 2011 03:05 am

    I love photography and I take my DSLR where ever I go . I have a Nikon D90 with battery grip with a special shoulder belt to carry it and sometimes I don't even know I'm carrying it . When I take a photo I always try to take the best photo possible under the circumstances and that means using my D90 . I never have understand all this hoopla going around on carrying a DSLR . The way I see it , if your lazy don't buy it . I can walk all day with my camera and not feel hindered by it's weight one bit and believe me my camera with battery grip when using my 70-300mm feels quite heavy .

  • jn June 24, 2011 02:07 am

    I still love my Canon G10 which is almost as good as an DLSR.

  • Chris alley June 22, 2011 08:46 am

    OneOne makes great software. I would love to try their Perfect Layers and Suite. Hopefully it's integrating would speed up workflow being that it's integration with Photoshop is a little slow.

  • ron75 June 22, 2011 04:49 am

    Im a journalist for a local magazine in Malaysia, whenever im not on assignment, nex5 will always be with me. only owned 16mm pancake, and most of the time attach to canon lens, im still carrying a camera bag around, but with far less loads. Theres time, i found interesting subjects while im not working, nex5 never disappointing. My only complain, why cant sony put a standard hotshoes flash like gf2, we could all benefits having better flash.Stupid!

  • Lovelyn June 22, 2011 12:34 am

    I've been looking for a small camera to carry around when it's too much of a hassle to carry my DSLR. I thought this camera might be a good choice since my DSLR is a Sony, but after reading the comments I'm reconsidering.

  • simplificity June 22, 2011 12:26 am

    I totally agree with your post. I bought nex-5 with 15-55mm lens and felt the same about it. Aside that, I am still very happy with my purchase. I find DSLR too heavy and bulky for myself to carry on a daily basis. I think its worth my money since I took lots of picture with it and enjoy the quality of the photos. If I still use my point-and-shoot, I wouldn't be that happy with the quality, while If I bought a DSLR, I would leave it at home because its too troublesome to carry and a bit embarrassing if i want to take pictures of random stuff. But yeah, overall a really decent camera and good review of it ;D

  • Alma June 21, 2011 11:53 pm

    Sorry, lookin at that thing, I would never call it a pocketable camera. Viewfinders and lightning fast autofocus will always be worth the size inherent to SLR's. That said, I would still really like to play around with this Sony.

  • Steve M June 21, 2011 11:47 pm

    Another item for the "con" column; Sony US support is horrible. There was a firmware update released yesterday for the SLT a55/a33. The update is available for download from Sony's UK, Australia and Japan sites, but not US. When asked about it the Sony support reps replied that there was no such update available, and that installing non-US updates could damage the cameras.

  • Thrud June 21, 2011 11:10 pm

    Sorry, Minimum ISO 200 should of been a Con.

  • Tashique Alam June 21, 2011 11:07 pm

    another disadvantage is the slow continuous shutter speed (although it can be maxed to 7). besides it doesnt have a viewfinder that gives the direct view of the lens, rather the sensor based one. but the emergence of mirror-less interchangeable lens systems will probably start catching on after this.

  • Thrud June 21, 2011 07:42 pm

    Hi, just thought I'd give my opinion, I too bought the NEX-5 for those times that I didn't want to carry the 7D.
    Some others the I feel.
    Instant HDR
    Instand Panoramic
    Minimum ISO of 200

    Really slow autofocus
    Almost useless flash
    Some expensive assessories - couldn't even find a place to buy replace lens hood, why does the AC powersupply cost so much?
    Loud "shutter" noise

    I'm actually pretty disappointed with my purchase.
    Example, I brought the nex-5 to a friends wedding in a darkish church, as the bride walked down the isle I didn't get one focused shot with AF. Also when I tried to do a panoramic of the bridal party the "shutter" noise was embarrassing.

    I''ve been waiting for better quality lens to come out for ages, I think NEX-7 will be out before any lens arrivies :(

  • Gunnar June 21, 2011 07:02 pm

    from what i read, you`re in the illusion that your DSLR is still your primary cam ;) but if it sits at home it hardly is.. i own the NEX-5 plus a nice collection of lenses and so far i dont miss a big DSLR at all.. as anyone knows, the best Cam is the one you have with you. ;) and full manual photography is so much fun with the NEX, especially with the lastest Firmware-4

  • Archideos June 21, 2011 04:29 pm

    "When I travel now, as well, this is the camera that comes along for the ride… the DSLR typically stays home."

    This statement made me laugh.. lol.. If you go for the ride make the best of it.. bring your DSLR.. and a Big ahhh!!!!.. in the first place why you buy your DSLR if it stay at home..

    As for the Nex 5 model.. well you already said the pros and cons.. I can now advice my friend who want to buy this model..

    Thanks for the review.. cheer up!!!!

  • Chris Oaten June 21, 2011 01:17 pm

    You must have a baggy pocket if you can fit an NEX with a lens into it.

    Tip: Snappy leads will get the reader hooked, sure, but try not to use trite statements that you must later qualify or even contradict. Either it fits into a pocket, or it doesn't.


  • Aaron June 21, 2011 08:16 am

    This is the camera that got me into photography.

    I have to say, I've never used a DSLR, but this camera is great. Between all of the info available on camera, and DPS, I've learned everything I need to know to feel comfortable with an expensive DSLR if ever desired. I switched to full manual mode with days, and feelike I have so much control.
    Again, I can't compare this to any DSLR, but I will say if your not sure about a difficult learning curve and even slightly into taking awesome pictures, this is a great purchase.

  • Silvia June 21, 2011 07:28 am

    hello! I am COMPLETELY new at photography and somehow i got this camera.. a gift :) , and i would love to learn how to use it.. you know about any good book or tutorial or something that can help me understand this type of camera and how to take advantage of it?