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.
Overall performance is quite good and, in some ways, is way above average for a mirrorless camera. Continuous shooting is available up to 10fps (even in RAW) and the hybrid autofocus system works well. It took me a few tries to get the AF tracking to work at that speed but it does a good job.
Start-up time and shot to shot time are minimal, even when consistently shooting with the flash. It's no DSLR in terms of speed but we didn't miss any shots because of performance issues. And, of course, the camera's SteadyShot image stabilization allowed me to handhold the camera at slower than average shutter speeds.
Battery life, when using the EVF (but not WiFi), is really good at around 360 shots. With the LCD, it drops to about 270 images per charge. Even with the occasional WiFi usage and shooting some video, the battery easily lasted through a full day of picture taking.
As expected, the NEX-6 can capture full HD video in 1920 x 1080 (60p/60i/24p) in AVCHD Progressive and different quality levels, along with 1440 x 1080 or 640 x 480 both at 30fps. Audio is captured in stereo but, as is common, the camera speakers are monaural. If you're serious about recording sound, be sure to pick up the optional stereo microphone and plug it into the Multi-Interface Hotshoe.
Like the NEX-7, full manual and semi-manual exposure control is available...even while recording. Adjusting exposure while shooting might be a little awkward at first since you'll be trying to keep the camera as steady as possible (mounting the camera on a tripod is a good idea). And, a clicking sound is audible when changing settings (which will hardly be noticeable if there's enough ambient sound).
Video quality is excellent for a camera in its class. Footage is clear and sharp, with accurate and well-saturated colors. We noticed no rolling shutter when panning slowly. Under low light, the NEX-6 handles image noise quite well.
Continuous autofocus and tracking work well, thanks in part to the camera's hybrid autofocus system. However, really dark/low contrast scenes can be a little challenging but the NEX-6 does surprisingly well, even though the AF may hunt a little under these conditions. I managed to capture some pretty good footage in a dark aquarium of pulsating jelly fish. Keep in mind that, regardless of lighting conditions, there's a brief wait time between the press of the video button the recording; the same wait time applies when you press the button to end recording. It's more of an issue when you start recording since you may miss the beginning of a scene. At the end, if you end up with a second or two of extra footage, you can always clip it out in post-production.
Audio quality is good and the built-in microphone is sensitive to most levels of sound. On the other hand, even the whoosh of light wind can be heard so be sure to turn on the wind filter. That won't quash the wind noise totally but it helps.
Image quality is above average, particularly for a mirrorless camera. However, I found the best results were achieved when shooting with the 16-50mm power zoom (and the 10-18mm lens). Test shots were, for the most part, well exposed and well detailed. Colors are accurate but well-saturated and vibrant. Dynamic range, particularly when Sony's D-Range Optimization is enabled, is quite broad.
The NEX-6's ISO ranges from 100 to 25,800 and the camera handles image noise quite well. Images are clean up to ISO 400 and very usable at 800 and beyond, although we'd save the upper reaches (especially 12,800 and above for dire emergencies only). Be sure to shoot in RAW any time you head above ISO 800 for the best results and beware the in-camera noise reduction since it's a little heavy-handed and you'll lose details.
The Sony NEX-6 is a great little camera and, one of my personal favorites. Other than its sometimes confusing menu system, the NEX-6 is well designed for comfortable and efficient shooting for enthusiasts and those just stepping up from compact cameras. To round out the mix, the camera offers good performance, above average image quality and an excellent feature set - including Wi-Fi. While the Sony NEX-6 hasn't revolutionized the mirrorless camera industry, it's a very strong contender in this increasingly competitive category.