Sony alpha NEX-5 Performance, Timings and Image Quality

by Jim Keenan Reads (434)
Editor's Rating
7.60

TG Ratings Breakdown

    • Image/Video Quality
    • 8
    • Features
    • 9
    • Design / Ease of Use
    • 6
    • Performance
    • 7
    • Expandability
    • 8
    • Total Score:
    • 7.60
    • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10

PERFORMANCE
With the compact interchangeable-lens class cameras mounting sensors sized like those in a DSLR, image quality has been the least of their worries. Autofocus and shutter performance has in general been OK, but not quite up to DSLR standards. Does the NEX-5 break any new ground in this regard?

Shooting Performance
The NEX-5 powered up fairly quickly, and I was able to get off a first shot in about 2 seconds. Single shot-to-shot times ran about 2 seconds as well. Continuous rates worked out to 2.6 frames per second (fps), but there’s a speed priority continuous setting that managed 7 fps using focus and exposure from the first capture for all subsequent photos in the sequence.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon Rebel T2i 0.02
Olympus E-PL1 0.03
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10 0.05
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.05

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon Rebel T2i 0.18
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10 0.32
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.39
Olympus E-PL1 0.84

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Canon Rebel T2i 170 3.7 fps
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10 17 3.3 fps
Olympus E-PL1 14 3.1 fps
Sony alpha NEX-5 2.6 fps

*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera’s fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). “Frames” notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

Shutter lag came in at 0.05 seconds – same as the Samsung, slower than the Panasonic and Olympus competition. AF acquisition at 0.39 seconds trailed the Panasonic by about 0.07 seconds but was faster than Samsung and Olympus. AF acquisition times predictably lengthened in dim lighting conditions.

Sony alpha NEX 5

The NEX-5 flash has a guide number of 7 at 100 ISO, and even at the camera’s baseline 200 ISO sensitivity range will be limited. Recycle times with a fully charged battery and partial discharges ran about 2 seconds in normally lit conditions – the camera was pretty much ready to shoot flash again as soon as the focus icon came back on screen. Shots designed to produce full discharges (minimum aperture, telephoto and dimmer conditions) ran a bit over 5 seconds.

Sony lists a battery life of about 330 images using a CIPA standard, and my experience suggests the camera will approach that figure with careful power management and using the monitor at auto brightness settings. With the monitor set to the “sunny weather” illumination level, battery life seemed greatly reduced.

Lens Performance
First off, Sony advised us that the 16mm pancake lens provided for our review was a pre-production sample and image quality might not be representative of production units. That’s probably not a bad thing based on our results with the 16 – it displayed what appeared to be some mild moustache distortion on horizontal lines, and sort of a pincushion distortion at the vertical edges. The lens was fairly sharp generally, with some softening in the edges and corners and perhaps a bit of light falloff as well, but it was the geometric distortions of the lines that really stuck out.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
16mm

The 18-55 was more traditional, displaying barrel distortion at the wide end and pincushion at telephoto. Edges and corners were a bit soft at both ends, but image quality overall was certainly on a par with similar kit lenses on other cameras I’ve reviewed. A little chromic aberration (purple fringing) was present if you looked long and hard at extreme magnifications (400x), but the lens did a very good job overall in this regard.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
18mm Wide Angle

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
55mm Telephoto

While Sony builds image stabilization into their DSLR camera bodies, the NEX models don’t have room for that system. The 18-55 and 18-200 zoom lenses are stabilized, and stabilization is enabled and disabled by camera menu. Sony recommends disabling stabilization for tripod work. In addition to the “A” mount lens adaptor that permits the use of a range of Sony and legacy Minolta glass in manual focus mode only, there are ultra wide and fisheye converters that provide 12mm and curvi-linear distortion effects respectively.

Video Quality
The NEX-5 captures true 1080i HD video in the AVCHD format that my 64 bit Vista platform didn’t want anything to do with, so I had to settle for the 1440 x 1080 MP4 resolution. The camera has a CMOS sensor, but rolling shutter effect is muted in all but the most exaggerated panning speeds. The dedicated movie capture button is handy, but the big news is the camera does auto focus and exposure continuously while recording.

Audio recording is on by default but may be disabled; the built-in microphone has some susceptibility to wind noise but there is no wind cut feature and lens/camera noise may be recorded as well. Video quality was very good and the auto focus/exposure worked as advertised – very easy camera for video capture work.

Image Quality
Default images out of the NEX-5 were very pleasing in terms of image quality and color accuracy. Sharpness may have been right on the edge of being not quite enough to suit my taste initially, but that would vary from shot to shot. Anyway, there’s plenty of settings for image manipulation in the manual modes so I can’t imagine anyone not being able to come up with some combination that meets their needs. Sony’s color palette is called “creative style” and offers five color and one black and white shooting option.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Standard
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Vivid
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Portrait
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Landscape
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Sunset
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Black and white

Like many digitals these days, the NEX-5 offers settings designed to expand the camera’s apparent dynamic range – the dynamic range optimizer (DRO) and auto high dynamic range (HDR). DRO “analyzes the contrast of light and shadow between the subject and the background, producing an image with optimal brightness and gradation,” according to Sony. The DRO default is auto, but you can also manually set strength levels from 1 to 5 for image enhancement. Here’s a shot with DRO disabled, the same shot on auto and at levels 1, 3 and 5.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
DRO Off
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
DRO Auto
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
DRO 1
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
DRO 3
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
DRO 5

HDR shoots “three images with different exposures, and then overlays the bright area of the under exposed image and the dark area of the over exposed image to create an image with rich gradation.” With HDR enabled you can again use an auto setting, or manually choose from 6 levels of exposure difference. Here’s the shot with no HDR, and then HDR auto and levels 2, 4 and 6.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
HDR Off
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Auto HDR
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
HDR 2
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
HDR 4
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
HDR 6

Files are output at 350 dots per inch so your shots are print-ready right out of the camera.

Multi metering did a good job overall with average scenes but could lose some highlights in high contrast situations, a not-uncommon performance. Center-weighted and spot metering options are available. Auto white balance was also good overall, but shot warm in the studio under incandescent light. There are six preset, two custom and one color temperature options available in addition to auto.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light

Finally, the NEX-5 has the easiest stitch image option I’ve come across. The sweep panorama shooting mode captures images of up to 226 degrees horizontally or 151 degrees vertically. By comparison, the 16mm and 18-55 zoom lenses have fields of view of 83 and 76 degrees, respectively. More important than the field of view is the ease with which the NEX-5 makes the capture.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image

You select the sweep shooting mode then slowly pan across the field of view while holding the shutter button down. When the camera quits capture it automatically processes the image. Minimal user involvement is required and you won’t have to manually position subsequent shots onto earlier ones to form the panorama as with most other cameras.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image

Sony is planning firmware updates for this July that will provide a 3D panorama capture capability that may be viewed on a line of 3D televisions Sony will be announcing around the same time.

Sony’s noise performance seems to be about par for the class. Images at ISO 200 and 400 are quite clean and hard to tell apart, with some noise becoming apparent at 800. ISO 1600 and 3200 are clearly impacted but certainly usable for small images.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 200
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 400
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 800
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 1600
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 3200
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 6400
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 6400, 100% crop
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 12800
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 12800, 100% crop

ISO 6400 and 12800 are small image options but settings of last resort for any sort of print enlargements. I thought that the Samsung NX10 held its own with the Panasonic GF1 through 400 ISO and then possibly fell a little bit behind at the 800 through 3200 sensitivities. My sense is the Sony is a little better than the Samsung at 1600 and 3200, so overall the NEX-5 is solidly in the mix with the class competition, but differentiating the brands on the basis of ISO performance alone provides no clear cut winner.

Additional Sample Images

Sony NEX 5 Test Image Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Sony NEX 5 Test Image Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Sony NEX 5 Test Image Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Sony NEX 5 Test Image Sony NEX 5 Test Image


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