The joint development of the Micro Four Thirds system by Olympus and Panasonic allowed them to be first in the market with mirrorless, interchangeable-lens compact digitals that offer DSLR-like image quality in sub-DSLR size camera bodies. Olympus announced their E-P1 in mid June 2009; Panasonic their GF1 in early September. The partners had this niche to themselves for the rest of 2009 and into the second quarter of 2010, but now there is competition looming.
Samsung has just introduced their NX10 and Sony has thrown their hat into the ring with the recently announced NEX-3 and alpha NEX-5, due in the market this July. Barely a week after the Sony announcement, an NEX-5 found its way to my door. The ink was hardly dry on my review of Samsung's NX10, so the opportunity to shoot the newest entries into the class back-to-back (along with the GF1 back in October 2009) has given me hands-on time with three of the four players in the field.
While Samsung drifted from the rectangular, boxy body shape that characterizes the Olympus and Panasonic cameras, Sony has embraced their concept with a vengeance. The NEX-5 press release calls it (and the NEX-3) the "world's smallest and lightest interchangeable lens digital cameras." Even so, the NEX-5 packs a 14.2 megapixel Sony APS-C Exmor CMOS sensor that results in a 1.5x crop factor (35mm equivalent) for any lenses mounted on the camera. One benefit of that sensor resolution is the ability to crop images fairly aggressively if necessary while still retaining sufficient data for quality photo enlargements. This shot cropped to 8 x 12 inch size still has 228 dots per inch and will produce a good quality print.
Sony will launch the camera with 16mm pancake and 18-55mm zoom lenses available; an 18-200mm zoom is due later in the year. The NEX cameras carry the "Alpha" designation (like the DSLR line), but the NEX lens mount is an "E" mount, not the "A" mount found on the big Sonys. An adaptor for "A" mount lenses is due in July, but will not support autofocus.
The NEX-5 has a 3.0-inch articulating monitor, can shoot 1080i HD video in the AVCHD format and provides automatic and full manual controls as well as JPEG and RAW shooting capabilities. There's face detection, smile shutter technology, Sony's Bionz processor and compatibility with Sony Memory Stick Pro Duo or SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media. Sony provides a compact clip-on flash and flash case with each camera, as well as battery and charger, USB cable, CD-ROM software, shoulder strap, instruction manual and the 16 or 18-55mm lens depending on the kit chosen.
It's small, it's light and it's the newest in this fight - let's see just what the NEX-5 brings to the arena.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The NEX-5's rectangular body is a magnesium alloy (NEX-3 is composite) and will be available in silver or black versions. Our review sample was black and looked and felt well built - it measured out at about 4.37 x 2.32 x 1.5 inches. By way of comparison, Panasonic's GF1 came in at about 4.69 x 2.8 x 1.43 inches, so Sony has really done their homework in getting small with their entries in this class. Sony provided both the 16mm and 18-55mm zoom that will be the initial offerings with the camera for this review, and both lenses featured brushed aluminum barrels and steel lens mounts that combined with the NEX-5 to produce a very solid feeling combination. Here's what those focal lengths look like:
Ergonomics and Controls
The rectangular body of the NEX-5 features a built-up handgrip in the right front of the camera body - my fingers were resting against the lens barrel with either the 16mm or the 18-55 zoom onboard. Folks with large fingers should definitely try the camera to see if they can live with the clearance before taking one home. A slight bulge on the camera bottom allows the tripod receptacle to clear the lens barrel for mounting on a tripod (and Sony warns that a tripod screw less than 7/32 of an inch must be used to affix the camera). The shooting finger falls naturally across the shutter button, but the camera's small size means the middle pad of the finger wants to lie on the button itself, rather than the finger tip.
Again, folks with big hands will want to give the camera a good checkout to see if the size is a concern. Following the lead of the Olympus E-P1, the NEX-5 lacks a built-in flash. The provided flash mounts to the camera top via an accessory port, and there is an optional viewfinder that can mount to this port as well, just not at the same time. Ditto for a compact stereo microphone.
The camera itself is short on external controls - the power switch, replay, shutter and dedicated movie capture buttons adorn the top of the body, with two soft keys (buttons) and a control wheel on the back. The three controls on the camera back are the ones you'll use for camera setting selections and changes.
Menus and Modes
The NEX-5 has six primary menus - shoot mode, camera, image size, brightness/color, playback and setup. Within each menu are various sub-menus offering settings and options. About midway through the setup menu is the "help guide display" setting which is off by default. I'd recommend enabling it until you get familiar with the camera - I found it useful when accessing the primary menus, as it provides a brief list of the main settings in that particular menu as well as descriptions of each sub-menu item when you designate them.
The menus are generally intuitive, but the soft keys and the control wheel took a little extra getting used to - the screen next to these controls will show the function of each control at any particular time, but the function can vary depending on shooting mode. For example, in the manual shooting modes (P, A, S, M) the upper soft key selects "menu," the control wheel handles shooting mode settings and the lower soft key offers "shooting tips."
Switch shooting mode to the fully automatic "intelligent auto" and the soft keys remain the same but the control wheel now handles "background defocus."
Press the "menu" soft key from either screen and you get the six main menu screens - the top soft key becomes the "back" key, the control wheel is used to select the menu choice and the bottom soft key is disabled.
With the "help display guide" enabled, you'll get an overlaid panel that briefly (and generally) explains what each major menu section involves. Here's the guide entry for the "brightness/color" menu.
Entering the Brightness/Color menu gets us this first page, on which we've scrolled down to the DRO/HDR setting.
Selecting DRO/HDR then gets us this screen, which shows that the camera is set for auto HDR with a 2 E.V. exposure differential.
Also note the functions assigned to the soft keys on this screen - the top key is "cancel" and the bottom key is "option". Compare this to the previous screen, where the top key was "back" and the bottom key was unassigned - you have to keep an eye on the keys and the control wheel since the functions can change from screen to screen. In this case, we decide to hit "option", which gives us this screen:
With the HDR icon highlighted, we can scroll the control wheel through six manually set levels of exposure difference as well as an auto setting. Due to its small size and relatively sparse set of external controls, the NEX cameras have adopted this somewhat unconventional method of shifting control functions based on the camera's context at any particular moment, and I found some areas not very intuitive at first. The user's manual was helpful in getting me past the difficult parts and should probably be carried with you in the field the first few times out, particularly if you plan to shoot manual modes and alter settings as you go.
After a few run-throughs, things began to make more sense, but the NEX-5 was one of the more difficult compacts I've run across in trying to figure out operations initially. The camera is just menu-intensive when it comes to changing shooting settings, and manual shooters are more apt to be impacted by this than the full auto folks.
One gripe on the menu layout - "format" is found in the setup menu, but you have to scroll through 12 shooting settings and 16 main settings to get to it. How about moving it to the head of the shooting setting list? Camera settings are likely to be changed relatively infrequently compared to formatting, so here's my vote make it more readily accessible.
Shooting modes include automatic and scene-specific options, along with a nifty sweep panorama mode and the manual exposure controls more experienced users will tend to gravitate to.
The NEX-5's 3.0-inch LCD monitor is of 921,000-dot composition and adjustable for five levels of illumination manually, as well as auto and sunny weather settings. Sunny weather sets the monitor level automatically according to outside light levels and is quite bright; it also seems to draw down the camera battery quite rapidly. Even with the sunny weather setting the monitor can be difficult to use in some bright outdoor conditions, but it proved to be one of the better performers for image composition outdoors.
The monitor can be moved away from the camera body and tilted upwards through about 80 degrees of rotation; approximately 45 degrees of tilt is available downward. Sony does not specify an area of coverage for the monitor, but it appears quite close to 100%.
There is an optional viewfinder available that mounts onto the camera via the accessory port. The all-glass lenses of the viewfinder consist of 4 groups and 5 elements. Area of coverage is not specified.
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