I’ve never really considered Sony to be a “player” in high-end still photography (although it has long been one in professional videography). Its top-end SLRs—the A900 and (now discontinued) A850—received mixed reviews (great at base ISOs, not so great at anything higher) and, though Sony paired up with lens-maker Zeiss (Cosina), its lens offerings were very limited and (the tiny handful of Zeiss ones excepted) not particularly good. As a result, I didn’t pay close attention to Sony’s “other” cameras, including its mirrorless “NEX” series of advanced point-and-shooters. Judging by the NEX-5N (and with certain provisos), I clearly made a big mistake.
The NEX cameras are odd-looking but quite innovative. Small, skinny little rectangles that look like slightly overgrown miniature-sensor cams or anorectic 4/3rds cams, their chassis essentially house APS-C sensors, the “BIONZ” engines that control the camera/sensor and process the images the NEXes output, the NEX lens mounts, high-res LCD screens, and significantly no mirrors (and, thus, no pentaprism viewfinders). As with the Olympus PEN series or Panasonic Mirco 4/3rds cameras (albeit with an APS-C sensor), the NEX's framing and focusing are done via the LCD screen on the camera’s back—or at least they were until the latest series of NEXes, including the highly touted, soon-to-be-released NEX-7 and the camera I’m discussing here, the $599 (body-only; $699, with 18-55mm kit lens) NEX-5N, were announced in August. Both of these NEXes have 2.4k-dot OLED EVF “Tru-Finders” of unprecedented speed, contrast, and color accuracy (the NEX-7’s is built-in, the NEX-5N’s is a $350 optional attachment).
Other advancements in the new NEXes include higher-resolution sensors (16.1Mp in the NEX-5N and a staggering 24Mp in the upcoming NEX-7, available in early November); a new 921k-dot touchscreen LCD that tilts down 45º and up 80º to frame high- and low-angle shots; what is claimed to be the world’s shortest shutter-release lag time of a mere 20ms (thanks to an electronic shutter); 1080p video at frame rates from 60p to 24p: 10fps continuous-shooting mode; a new "EXMOR BIONZ” image processor which allows ISOs of up to 25,600; 6 image-layering modes (including in-camera HDRs and panoramas); and some of the best (which is to say, lowest-noise) high ISO imaging I’ve yet seen (more on this, shortly). The 16.1Mp sensor that Sony is using in the NEX-5N is, in fact, a “more advanced” version of the 16.3Mp Sony sensor that Nikon uses in its D7000 SLR (reviewed by me a few months ago) and that Pentax uses in its K5 SLR. Both of these cameras were widely praised for their low-noise, high-ISO quality, and judging by the images I’ve taken the NEX-5N is at least on a par with both out to ISO 3200, if not better. (See the ISO 3200 image printed below, taken with the Zeiss Biogon C 35mm f2.8 lens.)
Steve Huff, whose thoughtful review of this camera can be found at www.stevehuffphoto.com/2011/09/05/the-sony-nex-5n-digital-camera-review-a-monster-full-of-features/, thinks the NEX-5N's only competition at high ISOs may be the standard-setting Nikon D3s. I don’t have any experience with the D3s, but I own the D7000 and, as noted, the tiny NEX-5N keeps pace with it in very-low-light situations up to 3200 ISO. The other advantages the NEX-5N enjoys over the D7000 is much lighter weight (though some shooters may miss the bulk of an SLR and its bright pentaprism), the faster shutter (for capturing the “decisive moment”), the faster continuous-shooting speed, and, of course, the superior lenses.
WTF! I can hear some of you thinking: “I thought you just said that one of the drawbacks of Sony still cams were the lousy lenses.” I did say that: the lousy Sony lenses. What makes the NEX-5N (and the NEX-3C and the upcoming NEX-7) so attractive—and what led me to give it a spin—is the fact that with a simple Leica M-to-NEX (bayonet-mount) or Leica L-to-NEX (screw-mount) lens-adaptor, the world of lens possibilities suddenly opens up to include some of the greatest glass on the planet, including Leica’s own offerings, as well as Zeiss rangefinder lenses and Voightlander’s rangefinder lenses. Suddenly, you can take full advantage of the NEX-5N’s marvelous sensor, and, believe me, it is marvelous when you’re using great glass.
Here, for instance, is a shot I took with the Sony and the Voightlander Wide-Heliar15mm Aspherical f3.5 (which, on the NEX-5N is actually a 22.5mm wide-angle lens):
And here is another shot I took with the Sony and the Zeiss Biogon C 35mm f2.8 (which on the NEX-5N is actually a 52.5mm lens).
The first shot was taken on a cloudy afternoon, the second in bright, slanting sunlight during the "golden hour" at the end of day. Here is a third, taken wth the Zeiss Biogon C a little past midday.
I don’t know how well these images will fare on your screen, but on mine (and on 13x19” prints I’ve made) they are astonishing—clean, crisp, extremely finely detailed with remarkably subtle, true-to-life color and exceptional 3-D pop. (For more Sony Alpha NEX-5N sample images, taken at a variety of ISOs and in higher-res, I encourage you to go to jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p418098811.) Indeed, I would have to say that the Sony NEX-5N, with the right glasss, consistently produces what I'd rate among the best digital images I’ve taken so far with any camera. On Velvia 50 transparency film, a good camera and lens doesn't just capture the subject; it captures the quality of the light itself. The whole image glows as if still lit with the light of the moment. The Sony with select Zeiss, Leica, and Voightlander M-mount lenses approaches that paradigm.
Of course, there is no free lunch in digital photography. First, to use lenses of this quality, much less Leitz glass, you have to shell out a good deal of dough. So right away, unless you already own them, you’re looking at $1300-$1500 for two Zeiss or Voightlander lenses ($1600+ for one Leitz M lens) for a $600 camera ($950 with the EVF, which, like Huff, I strongly recommend purchasing). Second, you have to give up a lots of conveniences when you use a lens-adaptor, such as autofocus, in-camera lens stabilization (although there is a Steady Shot mode for JPEG-shooters that goes a long way toward doing this very thing), any metering mode save for Aperture Priority, any in-camera lens corrections (such as geometry and aberration correction), etc. This is a stiff penalty for many users—too stiff for most, unless you are wedded to getting the best possible images. I should note, however, that Sony makes manual focusing easier by including what it calls “manual-focus peaking” in its on-board camera menu. What this means is that, when you’re manually focusing a lens, your subject is heavily outlined in one of three user-selectable colors (red, yellow, or white) when it is in sharpest focus (focus peaking). The EVF does this outlining, too, in case you wondered.
The third disadvantage of the NEX-5N is that it has some operational quirks of its own.
For one thing, the camera does not allow you to set a minimum shutter speed when shooting in AP mode (the D7000 does). This, frankly, is a drag. Of course, there is nothing preventing you from setting both aperture and shutter speed in Manual mode, although that will slow you down no matter how fast the Sony’s shutter is. (There is a work-around for this: If you shoot JPEG only and set the shooting mode to "Steady Shot," the camera will tend to fire at the highest usable shutter speed. Of course, it it will also fire off a very fast sequence of six shots and combine them, impressively, via its EXMOR BIONZ processing into a single image that is blur-free.) For another thing, when its battery’s charge starts to droop (say below about 25-30% charge), the NEX-5N’s AP metering becomes erratic (at least, this has been my experience), with considerable underexposure on certain shots. I also got some sensor peculiarities with low battery charge (a single largish dust-like spot in the blue of blue skies of two shots--these may have been read/write errors caused by the near exhaustion of the battery). In addition, you cannot clean the NEX-5N’s sensor when the battery drops down to about 20%—the camera simply doesn’t have the power to accomplish the task. Also, unlike the D7000 with its seemingly inexhaustible battery good for maybe 800-1000 shots, the NEX-5N’s fully charged battery is only good for maybe 300-400 shots (less if you turn the camera on to download images to a post-processing program). This isn’t an insubstantial number of shots, but it isn’t a fiesta, either. Because it take four hours to re-charge a depleted NEX-5N battery, I’d recommend a second (charged) battery as part of your NEX-5N package.In addition the EVF "Tru-Finder" is great in shadows or low light, but in bright sunlight it loses a bit of contrast if you look at it through prescription eyeglasses, as I do. (This is because, with glasses on, your eye sits a bit back from the EVF and isn't shaded by the eyecup.) I don't want to make too much of this, as the EVF is still plenty usable even when the user is wearing glasses. What is a bit disappointing is the user interface. The NEX-5N’s paltry touchscreen menu screams “point-and-shoot.” This is not a sophisticated interface for professional photographers—on the other hand, the photographic results speak for themselves.
Another liability—for the time being, until Adobe gets around to updating its ACR database—is that you have to use Sony’s junky software to convert RAW images to TIFFs (you cannot download RAW to Photoshop or Lightroom or Photoshop Elements or any post program at this time). The upside of this is that the JPEGs produced by Sony’s BIONZ processor are really good. You were looking at them a moment ago. (N.B. With the release of Lightroom 3.5 and ACR 6.5 on 9/29/11, importing RAW files into Lightroom and Photoshop is no longer an issue.)
Finally, the video quality of the NEX-5N is reputedly stellar, though I’ve done no videography with it. However, it has widely been reported (and Sony has apparently confirmed) that the camera makes a low-level mechanical "clicking noise" that Sony's internal NEX-5N mic picks up, spoiling soundtracks recorded alongside video. As of this writing, no "fix" for this problem has been announced. (N.B., this situation has changed since I originally wrote this mini-review. See the last paragraph below for details.)
So, to sum up, the Sony NEX-5N is a paradox: A genuinely great sensor (and a superb EVF and first-rate image processor) coupled to a point-and-shootish interface and housed in a (magnesium alloy) body that may be too tiny and toy-like for many of you to become comfortable with. (I like it; you may not.) Moreover, to get the most out of the NEX-5N’s sensor/processor, you have to spend big bucks on glass (the kit lens doesn’t cut it, IMO). But if you’re willing to shell out for the glass (and the EVF), the NEX-5N may be a veritable poor man’s Leica M9, albeit without rangefinder focusing, (For a direct comparison between the NEX-5N and the M9 with the same lenses, see the Huff review and Web site). If you’re willing to buy or already own the glass, buy the NEX-5N and its EVF (or the NEX-7, which has fifty percent higher resolution but may not have the same great high ISO performance). If you don’t, don’t. With the right glass, I can assure you that you will be delighted by its imaging. Do not consider buying the NEX-5N for videography until Sony fixes the "clicking problem" (which it apparently has as of 9/24/11, for which go to esupport.sony.com/US/perl/news-item.pl) or unless you use Sony's external mic.