It's been more than three years since Sony entered the mirrorless camera race with its NEX-3 and NEX-5. Since then, Sony has expanded its NEX-series with the NEX-7 occupying the top position, with the 16 megapixel NEX-6 next in line.
With each evolution, Sony's NEX-series continues to improve with broader features and, more importantly, better performance and the Sony NEX-6 is no exception with its hybrid AF system, a real mode dial, standardized hotshoe, and Wi-Fi. And, unlike many of its competitors, this small camera features an electronic viewfinder and a built-in flash. It's one of my favorites and when you read the review, you'll find out why.
Build and Design
Similar in design to its siblings, the NEX-6 is just a tad larger, especially when compared to the new NEX-5R and last year's NEX-F3 thanks to its grip and built-in electronic viewfinder. Styled in basic black, the NEX-6 isn't quite pocketable, although with smaller lenses like the 16mm prime, it might fit into a large jacket pocket. But the camera is compact and lightweight, measuring 4 3/4 x 2 3/4 x 1 1/16 inches and weighing 12.2 ounces with battery and media installed.
Well-constructed, the NEX-6 features a nice-sized, textured grip. There's enough room between the grip and the lens barrel for those with smaller hands but larger-handed photographers may find their fingers a little cramped when a longer zoom is attached.
Sony continues to expand its e-mount lens selections and offers the NEX-6 as a body-only purchased or in a kit with the compact16-50mm power zoom lens. Instead of using a zoom lever or a manual zoom, the 16-50mm lens is designed to zoom via a slider on the side of the lens. Not only is this method of zooming convenient but it's quiet and smooth -- two attributes that are especially important when capturing video. If you prefer a more conventional method of zooming, just work the zoom via the lens ring. If you switch to manual focus, the slider is used for zooming while the lens ring is used for focus.
Also new is a 10-18mm lens, and while the 16-50mm may be my favorite lens to date, the 10-18mm is high on my list as well. Keep in mind that with its APS-C size sensor, the NEX-6 has a 1.5x crop factor, increasing the 35mm-equivalent focal range by 1.5x. If you have A-mount lenses, an adapter is available.
With the NEX-6, Sony has finally switched to a standard hotshoe so accessory flashes aren't limited to Sony models. Actually, Sony calls this a Multi-Interface Shoe because it can accommodate Handycam accessories as well as an external microphone.
A single media slot accommodates an SD/SDHC/SDXC card or memory Stick PRO Duo/PRO-HG DUO; we recommend a UHS-1 card, such as those from SanDisk, for the best performance. You'll need an HDMI cable to connect the camera to an HDTV for viewing still images and video footage.
Ergonomics and Controls
Although not as populated with dials and buttons as a DSLR, the NEX-6 offers a sufficient number of external and dedicated controls. Overall, the layout is logical and easy to navigate.
The top plate of the camera is pretty sparse, leaving room for the hotshoe/accessory port, pop-up flash, mode dial (with a subset "thumbwheel/control dial"), shutter/power switch and a function button that calls up a quick menu with basic options or, in conjunction with a the control panel display, allows user to adjust a full complement of settings.
On the back panel, you'll find the LCD, an array of buttons and a 4-way controller for ISO, Exposure Compensation, Drive Mode and Display adjustments. A tiny "red" movie button sits just to the right of the rear thumb rest, which is a little awkward but helps prevent accidental activation. While there are two unmarked buttons and no marking on the center button of the 4-way controller, the LCD indicates what each is used for while you're shooting (e.g., Menu and WiFi). It's actually a pretty convenient method once you get accustomed to it. The control panel makes it easy to change settings and Sony's built-in help is beneficial for all newcomers to the NEX series.
One of the NEX-6's new features -- one that is even more welcome than a standard hotshoe interface -- is a mode dial. Other models, like the NEX-5R, for example, are menu-dependent for just about everything, including changing the shooting mode via a virtual, on-screen "dial." Mode dial options includes two automatic modes (Intelligent Auto and Superior Auto), as well as the standard Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter speed-priority and Manual exposure modes. Additionally, this is where you can access Sony's Sweep Panorama option, although the NEX-6 doesn't offer the NEX-7's 3D panorama mode. A Scene mode setting includes a handful of shooting choices ranging from Portrait, Landscape and Sports to Handheld Twilight and Anti Motion Blur.
Underneath the mode dial is a control wheel that, in some ways, functions the same as the dial surrounding the 4-way controller. You can use either of these dials to scroll through menus and functions and to adjust shutter speed in Manual exposure mode. Otherwise, the top control wheel controls aperture and shutter settings in semi-manual mode.
However, I'm still not fond of Sony's menu system. It's broken out into categories that don't always make sense to this reviewer and even after working with a number of NEX cameras, I still can't remember where some of the features are.
Like the NEX-5R, the NEX-6 is equipped with built-in Wi-Fi -- a feature that is more and more relevant as cameras need to compete with smartphones. While a few manufacturers tried their hand at Wi-Fi enabled compact cameras over the years, better wireless technology and consumers' familiarity with Wi-Fi means we'll probably be seeing this feature become standard in the not to distant future.
Sony's implementation of Wi-Fi is quite good, although it requires the use of proprietary apps from PlayMemories Online. Setting up a WiFi connection is very easy although typing in passwords and registering for PlayMemories on the camera's virtual keyboard using the 4-way controller is tedious (you can also connect the camera to your PC or Mac and use a standard keyboard, which is easier). A separate button turns the Wi-Fi on and off to save battery life when not in use.
Once you're set up, apps are accessed via a new applications icon on the NEX-6 menu screen. Right now, there are 9 apps and a direct upload app. Some are free while others cost $5.00, with Time-Lapse the most expensive at $10.00. In addition to the free Picture Effect+ (with additional creative effects), the $5 Cinematic Photo (cinemagram) and Photo Retouch, to name a few, there's also Smart Remote Control app (free). This allows you to view and trigger a shot from your smartphone (we tested it on an iPhone4s but it's also available for Android devices). With the Smart Remote Control you can adjust EV (exposure compensation +/- 3.0); use a Self-Timer (off, 2 seconds) or trigger it manually from the phone. You can also save the image to your smartphone or simply review it on the screen. The Upload app is currently limited to your PlayMemories account or Facebook but Sony promises that other sharing options will be added. You can also download: Bracket Pro (shutter, aperture, focus, flash bracketing) and Multi Frame NR (to shoot and stack multiple images of the same scene in low light to keep noise to a minimum); both cost $5.
Menus and Modes
I've been complaining about the NEX menu system since I first got my hands on the NEX-5 three years ago. Not much has changed and I still find the way in which Sony assigns functions to one icon or another a little confusing.
The menu's half-dozen icons include: Camera, Image Size, Brightness/Color, Playback, Application (WiFi apps) and Setup. Some of the menu names, like Image Size, are pretty obvious and you'll find what you expect although this is where the choice of panorama direction is hidden. Picture Effects and Creative Styles are housed under Brightness/Color while the Soft Skin Effect is under the Camera menu. While the menu arrangements aren't a dealbreaker, having to jump from one menu to the other searching for a specific feature can be time-consuming and frustrating. On the other hand, others may have a better memory than I do and have no problem finding what they're looking for.
Beyond the WiFi apps, the NEX-6 has a full complement of manual, semi-manual and automatic features that range from exposure modes, dynamic range options, creative styles and special effects. And that's only some of what this camera offers. The camera is quite versatile and offers enough options to satisfy a wide range of photographers.
It's rare to find a compact system camera of this size with a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) and a pop-up flash, but the NEX-6 has both.
Like its more expensive sibling, the NEX-7, the NEX-6 is equipped with a bright, high resolution OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) EVF. The supplied rubber eyecup is generally comfortable to use, even while wearing glasses and because it's an EVF, it displays a wide range of information. The camera features a very responsive eye sensor that automatically switches between EVF and LCD, although sometimes it's too responsive. My biggest complaint is that the diopter dial is so tightly crammed next to the eyepiece that it's a little difficult to adjust.
The display is a tiltable, 3-inch high resolution (921,000 dot) LCD. With multiple brightness options, along with a special Sunny Weather mode, the LCD is usable in pretty much all lighting conditions. The LCD tilts up to 90 degrees and down to about 45 degrees.
I'm a huge fan of fully articulated LCDs and while if I had my wish, the NEX-6's screen would have that versatility and the ability to fold it inwards to protect the screen when not in use. But being able to adjust the LCD for overhead and low angle shooting is always a bonus.
Several display options are available, including a virtual level for keeping horizons straight. Perhaps the most useful, especially if you prefer using the EVF for shooting and want to avoid the internal menu system, is the full control panel. As mentioned earlier, press the Function button when the control panel is displayed and you can quickly and easily adjust pretty much any setting the camera offers.
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