I have been casually watching and reading about mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera systems since they first came out, playing around with the Nikon 1 and the Sony Nex-3 at my local big box store. Especially when you travel, or attend public events or places, it is hard not to wish for a system which is compact, sheds the bulk and weight, and is less conspicuous. But for me, main negative has been that the small sensors simply haven’t been able to generate the image quality that we now take for granted in modern DSLR cameras. In July of 2011, I reviewed the Canon G-12, a part of the Canon G-series cameras that have been used by some pro’s as backup cameras. I purchased the G12 couple years back, wanting a compact camera for those times when the DSLR just wasn’t convenient or wasn’t going to work in the situation. Following my review, I cruised the Caribbean for a week and carried only the G-12. I thought it performed well for normal daytime lighting situations. Unfortunately, much of the imagery I seek is in low and other challenging light conditions and I found the the small sensor performance in low light/high ISO conditions to be essentially unacceptable. I think the G-12 at the time it was introduced was probably the best sensor of its size.
It’s hard not to wish for a system which is compact, sheds the bulk and weight, and is less conspicuous
About a year ago, I learned that the Sony Nex series of cameras used the same APS-size sensor that many DSLR cameras use (indeed, I am told it is an updated and improved version of the very same sensor found in the estimable Nikon D7000 — in fact, what I am reading is that, as good a performer in the low light, noise handling area as the D7000 is, the NEX sensor is noticeably better!). That information piqued my interest in a less “casual” way. I began to research this camera and ask questions. I looked at the NEX-5 at a camera show last Fall. My biggest concern back then was the “investment” in body, add-on viewfinder, and lenses. The Nex-3 and Nex-5 (their first offerings), had no viewfinder. For me, that is a deal-killer (see below). If you want a good quality viewfinder, it is an expensive add-on option to the 3 and 5 models (a very impressive little viewfinder, I might add). It just seemed to me that the combination, for a second, “walkaround” camera was too much of an “investment” for this hobby photographer. The Nex-7 added a very impressive OLED (“organic light emitting diode) viewfinder, and some more conventional control dials. Both the Nex-5 and 7 have “touch screen LCD’s on the back. The Nex-7 has a 24 megapixel sensor and a couple other software bells and whistles than the 6. Otherwise, the 6 and 7 appear to be functionally identical.
The Nex-6 appears to have hit the “sweet spot” for serious shooters
There appear to be other alternatives, including the “micro 4/3” sensor, which is larger than the sensor found in the G-12 or the Nikon-1, and is reputed to be a “better” aspect ratio design for the smaller lenses that are made for these cameras. My own research tells me that the APS sized sensor still has an edge over these smaller sensors. There are also APS sensor mirrorless offerings from Fuji and Canon, Pentax, and Leica (and recently a wide angle, fixed lens model from Nikon). Various factors ruled them out for me. I will say that one disadvantage of the Sony system–at this point–is that they lag behind the others in variety of lens offerings. But the Nex-6 has the very same sensor that Nikon puts in its D7000. Together with ergonomics, price and some of the factors discussed below – this was the “deal-maker” for me.
The Nex-6 appears to have hit the “sweet spot” for serious shooters like me. Introduced with Sony’s newest “kit” lens, the 16-50 3.5 -5.6 in a very diminutive package, it has a 16 mp sensor, a retro-styled “mode dial” and dual control dials (top and back) much like those found on many current DSLR bodies. It has the same bright OLED viewfinder as the 7, and for the first time, a standard sized hot shoe (the 3,5, and 7 all have a Sony proprietary shoe that is not quite standard size). The controls appear logical and are nicely laid out. There are not so many of them that it is daunting to figure out how to fire up an use the camera immediately. Importantly, I believe that with its ability to fit my Nikon lenses, it can now act as a backup to my D800 system in an emergency. At the same time, I now have a camera that won’t sit in a bag and gather (expensive) dust while depreciating in value.
Here is my (non-exhaustive) roundup of the Nex-6’s most prominent features and some of my thoughts:
In a word: Awful (this will most likely be my only really negative comment – and aside from the shipped documentation, is not a knock on the camera).
I am just asking that they cover the essential issues for the serious photographers to whom they clearly aimed this camera
The documentation that has shipped (both hard copy and the more modern PDF downloads from CD or the website) with almost any electronic for the last 20 years has been uniformly bad. That may be a good thing for the proliferation of writers and publishers that produce third party “missing manual” style books. But even the poorly written manuals that are in the box or available on the website usually give us at least the necessary information to understand how the basic functions work. The Nex documentation doesn’t—in my view—even do that. They have a plus-100 page downloadable manual and a similar “guide” (hard to tell any difference from my review). Neither of them logically explain anything more than the obvious (pointing out, e.g., where the power switch is; you know: the one that says both “on” and “off” on it? :-)), and then delving, in a superficial way, into ample coverage and explanation of all the “gee whiz” special modes and jpeg-only, features. I am not saying they shouldn’t explain those features (this is likely a camera that will appeal to and be purchased by a broad spectrum of users). I am just asking that they cover the essential issues for the serious photographers they clearly aimed this camera at.
The Nex line is touted as a highly sophisticated compact camera, suitable even, for professional use (and indeed, I know of one very talented and experienced professional who uses them daily). One must-have feature for any serious photographer—in my view—is the ability to capture in raw format. Yet the 2 downloadable pdf manuals are completely silent about which features and functions work and which do not work when shooting raw. And, there is a dearth of third party reading at this point. One third-party book (admittedly an older book by David Busch and Alexander White, covering the Nex 3 and 5) is hit or miss on the subject. The title of Jerod Foster’s “Sony NEX-6: From Snapshots To Great Shots” should have tipped me off that this wasn’t really a book about the camera – but I downloaded the Kindle version anyway– A disappointment. I am not saying there isn’t a place for these books. But they are all written, in my view, as if the purchaser just purchased his first ever digital camera (maybe even first ever camera that was a step above his cell phone). And in these “series” books written by the same author, they contain 85% generic information about how digital cameras work, exposure, f-stops, rudimentary comments about raw, how autofocus works, etc. (I just finished another one on the Nikon D800. The author just cut and pasted 1000’s of words from his other so-called “camera-specific” books. I have read 3 of his books now and the sense of deja vu is “deafening”). Seriously? The D800 or the Nex-6 is the “first” camera a purchaser buys to “learn” how to photograph? I have my doubts. There is a book slated for publication in September. I will look forward to obtaining a copy to see where the authors go. I am still looking for a third party a book explaining the functions and features of the Nex-6. Magic Lantern, where are you? (rant over :-))
General Ergonomics and Body
Several hackneyed sayings about “old dogs and new tricks” and “old habits and dying hard” come to mind here. But I am an “old-school” shooter (at least as old school as the 1970’s SLR shooters). I “grew up” with a TTL viewfinder, match-needle metering, manual focus lenses, and mechanical control dials on the camera body. The Nex-6 body was designed with that kind of “old school” in mind. The new top mode dial, (ala the similar controls on the later—venerable, but long-in-the-tooth—Canon G-series and the Nikon D7000 series), is a nice “comfort food” feature. It controls the so-called shooting mode (PASM, etc.), which are all menu functions on the other Nex cameras. Directly underneath it (mounted on the same axis and slightly larger in diameter) is a control dial. There is another control dial on the back. This is a lot like my Nikon layout (sans the front control dial), and thus familiar. I like that.
The Nex-6 body was designed with the “old school” shooter in mind
This camera, much like the Canon G-series did, feels comfortable in my hand. The right-hand grip is nice and the body has an almost leather texture. While some with larger hands may find the space between grip and lens tight, it is a tradeoff for the compact size of the camera that I think is worth while. The camera is just 2 1/2 inches deep from viewfinder to lens cap (with the 16-50 attached), 5 inches wide from d-ring to d-ring, and 2 3/4 inches high from the base to the top of the mode dial on the top right. It has a nice “heft” without being an anchor. The top control dial is easily reached and manipulated by the right thumb, as is the rear dial. This means with a little acclimation, you can make essential settings without taking your eye from the viewfinder.
Most compact cameras have been, it seems to me, designed toward the P&S consumer market. The early Nex series is certainly no exception. The 3 and 5 are completely menu driven and totally reliant on the rear LCD screen. An electronic viewfinder (EVF) is available as an (expensive) add on. The “flagship” 7 has the same built-in EVF that is now on the 6 and has two unlabeled control wheels on top of the body (in practice I am told it doesn’t take log to acclimate to their functions).
The Sony OLED EVF takes some getting used to, but I quickly grew to like it
I have shot with a viewfinder for 35 years. While there may be something to be said for getting out of the comfort zone, in this case, the viewfinder lets me isolate and “see” my image. So for me on all my cameras, lack of a viewfinder has been a deal killer. The Sony OLED EVF takes some getting used to, but I quickly grew to like it. Unlike the traditional “rangefinder” cameras that had a mechanically coupled, but compeletly separate viewfinder, the EVF is, in essence, a “live view” TTL finder. No parallax issues and “what you see is what you get.” I am not sure what the coverage is, but I am reasonably sure it is 100%. The EVF is very bright and because it is not a traditional “optical” TTL finder, it can have some unique and useful behavior. As you rotate the command dials and change either the aperture or the shutter speed, the image in the viewfinder actually grows brighter or dimmer as the exposure solution is changed! You “see” the image come into an approximation of correct exposure. Very cool.
Another nice feature (becoming more the norm – the tech just keeps getting “smarter”) is the automatic setting that senses when you bring your eye up to the viewfinder and turns it on and the back LCD off. You can override this behavior and even turn the LCD off completely to save on battery drain.
You can also set up the viewfinder to display the important information, including a horizon level indicator and, if you wish, a real-time histogram. And, of course the viewfinder—like my DSLR—shows essential information, like exposure, shutter speed and f-stop settings. I have set the horizon level indicator in my viewfinder and it–unlike the ones one the back LCD (my G12 had it), actually works pretty well in handheld shooting.
The potential for lens selection and use with this camera appears to have little limitation
Here is where the Nex series gets interesting. The potential for lens selection and use with this camera appears to have little limitation. In order to have all the offered metering functions, auto-focus, and some of the added features, you will, of course, need to have lenses with the proprietary Sony e-mount (Sony also offers an adaptor for their DSLR-mount lenses that will allow essentially all the functions). Sony currently offers 13 different e-mount lenses (I have oft-noted that these equipment reviews are my empirical and practical observations and are anything but technical. There is an abundance of commentary on the relative sharpness and other characteristics of these lenses and I’ll leave you to your own research on that topic). My Nex-6 came with the “kit” SELP1650, 16-50 f3.6 – 6.5 zoom.
Sony 16-50 “kit” lens: It’s all a matter of perspective (pun intended). Against my Nikkor 24-70 f2.8, the 18-55 lens that has shipped as the “kit” lens on the prior Nex-series bodies is small and light. But for a compact camera, it’s still a bit chunky and the heft is noticeable. The new 16-50 is downright diminutive. About a third the length of the 18-55, it is also much lighter, making the Nex a (barely) “pocketable” camera (think cargo or jacket pocket – not jeans pocket).
Critics say it is not a “sharp” lens (those same critics often also criticize the 18-55). Lets face it. Its a relatively wide range, variable aperure zoom, at a mid-price range. There are going to be some compromises. I don’t have an 18-55 copy, so I cannot do comparisons. But my results on the 16-50 seem pretty good to me. The barn at the beginning of this post was taken handheld, all manual (except for AF) with specs of f16 and 1/100 second. But, I wanted to see how it would perform at wider apertures, so I did some of my own unscientific tests. My conclusions are that as a practical matter, the lens performs very well at almost its whole range of apertures in terms of sharpness for general photography. I use ACR in Photoshop and routinely correct for lens aberations, using their built in database, which seems to do very well. I will cover this lens in my next blog, as this one is already too long.
The filter size for this newer lens is an odd, 40.5mm. The only filter I generally use is a polarizer. They are surprisingly expensive for this size. I did learn in my research that because of the way AF is accomplished in these cameras, a circular polarizer is not necessary. I was able to find a B&W linear polarizing filter for a reasonable price.
Non-Sony Lenses: Here is the exciting part. For a relatively small cost, you can buy a third party adapter and use a huge selection of lenses from virtually any lens manufacturer. This is all done fully manual, but the bright EVF makes focusing easy. One challenge appears to be that my newer Nikon lenses which do not have manual aperture rings, will not allow me to choose my aperture. For the most part, in my likely emergency backup scenario, I will be looking for maximum DOF throughout, which is a good think, because the NEX appears to choose the smallest aperture, and require you to vary the shutter speed. Wind, of course, may well be a concern. When the series first came out the native “e-mount” lens selection was very small, including only 2 lenses. The Sony selection has grown to several and is likely to continue to grow. And even better, some other manufacturers are now making lenses in the e-mount, including Sigma, and excitingly, Zeiss. It can only get better.
At first, I was perplexed by this button. It doesn’t behave at all like I expected it to. On my Nikon DSLR bodies, there is a function button that you can assign certain features to. When you press it, it performs that single task (e.g., on mine, I have it shift from averaging type metering to spot metering. The documentation, once again, is hopelessly unclear. So, it took me a while to figure out that on the Sony Nex, the Function Button really acts more like a “quick menu” submenu button, bringing up a short list of settings changes. Unfortunately, customization here appears limited. I cannot have the “quick menu” list the functions I want it to. I have choose from their options. Maybe a firmware update, Sony?
Other manufacturers are now making lenses in the e-mount…It can only get better
Rear LCD Screen
The generous 3 inch by 1 3/4 inch rear LCD screen is bright and clear. It articulates some (not as much as on the 3 and 5, because the addition of the viewfinder interferes with that). But it does pull slightly away from the body and tilts to a horizontal position for those who use it. I can see its usefulness in my own shooting style in those rare occasions where I might want to hold the camera out away from me.
The 5 and 7 have touchscreen capability. That is a useful feature, especially when using the features that might require inputting information into the camera. This would be particularly true if using some of the camera’s WiFi features.
The Nex-6’s WiFi capability should be a big deal, but for now, it appears to be “DOA”
My only concern is that I am one of those guys who has a near “reverence” for the beauty and maintenance of my equipment. It is rare for me to have a scratch, ding or other imperfection on any of my gear (no matter how old), and that big, exposed screen makes me nervous. I have added a screen protector (but I generally hate the things as they are a pain to apply and rarely look good).
This is a mildly “disappointing” area. Battery life could be better. There are a lot of electronics going to suck life from the small battery. The AF on these cameras is contrast-detect oriented and by their nature, they are pretty much constantly “searching” for focus when AF is on. I like to use the “review” features on the back of the camera, and tend to leave them on at longer intervals than is necessarily recommended. The bright EVF viewfinder no doubt uses some energy from the battery. I am philosophical about this one. A spare battery and and external charger (the camera does not ship with an external charger, btw), is relatively cheaply acquired.
You may wonder why this is relegated to the bottom and I don’t give it much coverage. The Nex-6 is the first Nex body to ship with integrated WiFi capability. This should be a big deal! But for now, it appears to be DOA. The reason is that its implementation apparently is rivaled only by the Sony Documentation I bashed above. I still haven’t tried it, as it sounds like those who have, universally say it is wonky, doesn’t work well and is generally a PIA. I guess the good thing is that the capability is built in and one can only hope the subsequent software updates will make this pretty cool feature more workable and useful. I was pretty excited when I first read that I could use my iPhone as a remote shutter release and monitor! I have enabled my Nex-6 with my iPhone 5, and have used it in my house as a remote. Its pretty darn cool! Once you figure out how to get the camera to “join” the network (it takes a master programmer – don’t expect any intelligible help from any of the available documention–you use a localWiFi connection, but once the camera logs on, it then names itself as a network and that is what you tell the iPhone to join), you will not only be able to use the phone as a remote shutter release, but the phone’s monitor becomes a live view monitor for the camera! It was fun to play with and with my iPhone armed with a pdf manual, TPE, and GPS and Mapping software, you will have a pretty good accessory to the camera. Lets hope they get this fixed—and right.
Things I would like to see added in new firmware or design:
Dedicated AF button: I use the back AF button on my DSLR bodies most of the time when doing landscape shooting (especially from a tripod). I turn off the AF activation from the shutter button. On the Nex-6, it seems like you could program it so when video is turned off, you could assign that function to the video button.
Custom Shooter Banks: the D800 (and other Nikon bodies) allow you to set up a couple (4 on the 800) custom shooter banks. I currently use only 2, a Landscape and an Action bank, but that would be a useful feature.
More Customization of the “Function” Button: As I mentioned, I would like to be able to populate its short list with the functions I, in my own discretion, access the most
Let me say that I love this camera–so far. I think positives solidly outweigh the negatives. It appears that it will be the answer to my desire for something more “usable” in conditions where setting up the “big guns” is simply not practical or convenient. And, I think it really has some crossover potential, so that I will feel that I can achieve photographic goals with it even though I do not have immediate access to my D800.
I don’t have any illusions that it will become a “replacement” for my D800. They are different tools for different purposes. But it would not surprise me to see the Nex get more use on a regular basis than the D800. My good friend, mentor, and pro photographer, Ray Laskowitz, made a very interesting, and I think apt observation. He views the D800 the new “medium format,” in the sense that it creates such a massive megapixel image size (of course, the handling is the same as it always has been for an SLR camera). The newer compact, APS sized sensors in these cameras like the Nex are making them essentially a more portable DSLR. And rumors abound that there will be a (so-called) “full-frame” sensor compact in the not too distant future. I don’t know whether I’ll consider that overkill or not. Technology marches on. The Nex is surely electronically equivalent to today’s DSLR models. Imagery will, over time, tell. I am looking forward to using it more and hopefully, from time to time, reporting back here.
Next week: The included Sony 15-50 zoom lens. Stay tuned …………………………..