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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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.