Sony NEX-5N Review
Sony NEX-5N Image Quality
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Vibrant default color with about average accuracy.
Skin tones. Here, when adjusted for optimal white balance, the Sony NEX-5N did well, producing fairly natural-looking Caucasian skin tones. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.
Hue. The Sony NEX-5N did push cyan toward blue, red toward orange, orange toward yellow and yellow toward green, but shifts were relatively minor to moderate. (The cyan to blue shift is very common among the digital cameras we test; we think it's a deliberate choice by camera engineers to produce better-looking sky colors.) With an mean "delta-C" color error of 5.69 after correction for saturation, overall hue accuracy was about average. Hue is "what color" the color is.
The Sony NEX-5N offers six preset "Creative Style" options. You can adjust contrast, saturation (except for B&W), and sharpness for any of the settings. The NEX-5N also offers eleven creative filters called Picture Effects: Toy Camera, Pop Color, Posterization (Color), Posterization (B/W), Retro Photo, Soft High-key, Partial Color (Red), Partial Color (Green), Partial Color (Blue), Partial Color (Yellow), and High Contrast Mono. (These are not shown here.)
|Creative Style Options|
Mouse over the links above to see the effect of Creative Style presets on our Still Life target. Click on a link to load the full resolution image.
The Sony NEX-5N has a total of seven saturation settings available, three above and three below the default saturation. This covers a pretty wide range of saturation levels. Saturation had little effect on contrast, which is how it should work.
|Saturation Adjustment Examples|
The table above shows results with five of the seven saturation settings, including the default and the two extremes. Click on any thumbnail above, then click again to see the full-sized image.
|See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images
Exposure and White Balance
Indoors, incandescent lighting
Very warm cast with Auto, but good color with the Incandescent and Manual settings. Slightly higher than average exposure compensation required.
|Auto White Balance
|Incandescent White Balance
|Manual White Balance
Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, color balance was overly warm and orange with the Auto white balance setting and quite disappointing. Results with the Incandescent setting were quite good, though, just slightly warm and yellow. The Manual setting was very accurate, but some may prefer Incandescent because it conveys a touch more of the warmth of the original lighting. The 2,600 Kelvin setting which matches the color temperature of our lights resulted in a slightly cool, bluish image. The Sony NEX-5N required +0.7 EV positive exposure compensation here, which is a little higher than the average for this shot (+0.3 EV). (Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.)
Very good results under harsh lighting, with good handling of contrast, color, and exposure.
|Manual White Balance,
|Auto White Balance,
Outdoors, the Sony NEX-5N performed well. +0.3 EV compensation was required to keep the model's face bright in our "Sunlit" Portrait shot. The average among the cameras we've tested is +0.7 EV, so the NEX-5N performed better than average here, especially considering Dynamic Range Optimization (DRO) was disabled for these shots which tends to brighten shadows. (More on DRO below.) Contrast is a little high, as you might expect under such harsh lighting, but the camera does an excellent job of holding onto detail in bright highlights and shadows, even without the help of DRO. Auto white balance rendered the model's face a touch too warm, though, so we preferred results from the Manual white balance setting. Default exposure was good for our Far-field shot as well, with very few highlights blown, again with DRO disabled. Some very dark shadows in the leaves were lost, but the camera kept the main subject reasonably well exposed, so that's to be expected. The Far-field shot using Auto white balance had very good color. Overall, a very good performance in harsh lighting.
Very high resolution, 2,000 lines of strong detail from JPEGs, up to about 2,200 lines from RAW.
|Strong detail to
~2,000 lines horizontal
|Strong detail to
~2,000 lines vertical
|Strong detail to
~2,200 lines horizontal
ACR converted RAW
|Strong detail to
~2,100 lines vertical
ACR converted RAW
In camera JPEGs of our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 2,000 lines per picture height in both the horizontal and vertical directions. Complete extinction of the pattern didn't occur until about 2,800 to 3,000 lines. We also noticed the NEX-5N seems to show a bit more color moire than previous NEX models in some shots. When converting the matching RAW files, Adobe Camera Raw was able to extract perhaps 200 lines more of resolution here, but the Sony NEX-5N did a good job holding on to high contrast detail at base ISO in its JPEGs. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.
Sharpness & Detail
Very good detail and sharpness, though fine detail is a touch soft despite somewhat high default sharpening. Low levels of noise suppression visible in the shadows and areas of low contrast.
|Very good definition of high-contrast
elements with some visible sharpening
artifacts. Fine detail is a touch soft.
|Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur
detail in areas of subtle contrast.
Sharpness. The Sony NEX-5N captures sharp, detailed images when coupled with a sharp lens, though fine detail can be a touch soft, despite slightly high default sharpening. (The images above were shot with very sharp reference lenses: the Carl Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 SSM lens at f/8 above left, and the Sigma 70mm f/2.8 at f/4 above right.) There are some mild to moderate edge enhancement artifacts on high-contrast subjects such as the larger tree branches in the image. Fine detail such as the smaller branches and pine needles show very little edge enhancement, but appear just a touch soft. Still, very good results here. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.
Detail. The crop above right shows very good detail with low levels noise suppression in the darkest areas of the model's hair. Yes, a few individual strands are smudged together in areas of low contrast, but quite a few strands are still visible. Very good results here for a 16-megapixel APS-C sensor at base ISO, and an improvement over the previous generation NEX models, partly because base ISO is now 100 versus 200 on older models, and also because the 5N's JPEG noise processing has improved. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.
RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Sony NEX-5N produces sharp, detailed in-camera JPEGs, though fine detail can be a touch soft. More detail can often be obtained from carefully processing RAW files with a good RAW converter, as shown below.
In the table above, mousing over a link at the bottom will load the corresponding crop in the area above, and clicking on the link will load the full resolution image. Examples include (from left to right): an in-camera Fine JPEG, RAW file processed through Sony's Image Data Converter SR version 3.2 software at default settings, another processed with IDC's sharpening turned up to +100 and its overshoot and undershoot sliders set to +50, and finally the same RAW file converted with Adobe Camera Raw 6.5, then sharpened in Photoshop using unsharp mask at 300% with radius 0.3.
As you can see, the Sony IDC version at default settings is somewhat softer than the in-camera JPEG. (Color rendering is also slightly different.) Increasing the sharpening settings gave the image a crisper look and helped extract a bit more detail, though noise reduction is still reducing fine detail. The Adobe Camera Raw conversion showed the most detail, but also revealed slightly more noise, as expected. Bottom line: as is usually the case, the Sony NEX-5N rewards RAW shooters with better detail than JPEGs when used with a good RAW converter, and of course also offers more control over noise reduction, sharpening, etc.
ISO & Noise Performance
Very good noise vs detail performance, with excellent results up to ISO 1,600.
Default High ISO Noise Reduction
|ISO 100||ISO 200||ISO 400|
|ISO 800||ISO 1,600||ISO 3,200|
|ISO 6,400||ISO 12,800||ISO 25,600|
Detail in the Sony NEX-5N's images remains very strong up to ISO 800, which is remarkable. There are some visible demosaicing errors in the hair above the mannequin's forehead as well as some slight moire patterns in the jacket, though that's pretty common and not really something to be concerned with. Reds get a little soft from ISO 400 as can be seen in the roses, but otherwise these images don't show much degradation until ISO 1,600, and chroma noise is also well controlled. There's a bit of softening at ISO 1,600 due to stronger noise reduction, but fine detail is still quite strong. ISO 3,200 is softer as you'd expect, but fine detail is still pretty good for such as high ISO. Fine detail gets pretty smudgy at ISO 6,400 and above, though, and there's an increase in luminance noise, blotchy chroma noise and a drop in saturation at the highest ISOs as well. Still, these are really excellent results overall and quite an improvement over its predecessor, the NEX-5, as well as the more recent NEX-C3. Much of the improvement is in JPEG processing though, as RAW files don't show as much improvement as the JPEGs would lead one to believe. As always, see the Print Quality section below for maximum recommended print sizes at each ISO.
A note about focus for this shot: We shoot this image at f/4, usually using one of three very sharp reference lenses (70mm Sigma f/2.8 macro for most cameras, 60mm f/2.8 Nikkor macro for Nikon bodies without a drive motor, and Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/2.0 for Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds bodies). To insure that the hair detail we use for making critical judgements about camera noise processing and detail rendering is in sharp focus at the relatively wide aperture we're shooting at, the focus target at the center of the scene is on a movable stand. This lets us compensate for front- or back-focus by different camera bodies, even those that lack micro-focus adjustments. This does mean, though, that the focus target itself may appear soft or slightly out of focus for bodies that front- or back-focused with the reference lens. We know this; if you click to view the full-size image for one of these shots and notice that the focus target is fuzzy, you don't need to email and tell us. :-) The focus target position will have been adjusted to insure that the rest of the scene is focused properly.
Extremes: Sunlit, dynamic range and low light tests
Very high resolution with excellent highlight and shadow detail. Very good low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness. Special modes make it possible to capture low-light images without a tripod.
|0 EV||+0.3 EV||+0.7 EV|
Sunlight. The Sony NEX-5N handled the deliberately harsh lighting in the test above very well. We preferred the +0.3 EV exposure here, as the mannequin's face was a little dim at default exposure. Contrast is a little high, but shadow and highlight detail are both very good. Despite the apparent brightness, there are actually very few clipped highlights in the model's face and shirt at +0.3 EV, with most of the clipping occurring in specific color channels in the flowers (mostly in the red channel), or in specular highlights where you'd expect clipping. There were only a few lost shadows, but shadow noise is pretty low, which is very good. Still, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible. See below for results with Dynamic Range Optimization and High Dynamic Range features enabled.
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)
Dynamic Range Analysis
A key parameter in a digital camera is its Dynamic Range, the range of brightness that can be faithfully recorded. At the upper end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is dictated by the point at which the RGB data "saturates" at values of 255, 255, 255. At the lower end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is determined by the point at which there ceases to be any useful difference between adjacent tonal steps. Note the use of the qualifier "useful" in there: While it's tempting to evaluate dynamic range as the maximum number of tonal steps that can be discerned at all, that measure of dynamic range has very little relevance to real-world photography. What we care about as photographers is how much detail we can pull out of the shadows before image noise becomes too objectionable. This, of course, is a very subjective matter, and will vary with the application and even the subject matter in question. (Noise will be much more visible in subjects with large areas of flat tints and subtle shading than it would in subjects with strong, highly contrasting surface texture.)
What makes most sense then, is to specify useful dynamic range in terms of the point at which image noise reaches some agreed-upon threshold. To this end, Imatest computes a number of different dynamic range measurements, based on a variety of image noise thresholds. The noise thresholds are specified in terms of f-stops of equivalent luminance variation in the final image file, and dynamic range is computed for noise thresholds of 1.0 (low image quality), 0.5 (medium image quality), 0.25 (medium-high image quality) and 0.1 (high image quality). For most photographers and most applications, the noise thresholds of 0.5 and 0.25 f-stops are probably the most relevant to the production of acceptable-quality finished images, but many noise-sensitive shooters will insist on the 0.1 f-stop limit for their most critical work.
JPEG. The graph at right (click for a larger version) was generated using Imatest's dynamic range analysis for an in-camera Sony NEX-5N JPEG file with a nominally-exposed density step target (Stouffer 4110). At the base ISO of 100 (the optimal ISO) with DRO and HDR settings turned off, the graph shows 9.61 f-stops of total dynamic range, with 8.02 f-stops at the "High" Quality level. Roll-off at the highlight end of the curve was gradual, but for shadows it was quite abrupt. We did see some dark shadows in the NEX-5N's images, but they were pretty clean as echoed by the noise plot results in the lower left. These are are very good numerical results, almost as good as the best performers to date, such as the the Nikon D7000. Compared to the Sony NEX-5, the NEX-5N scored slightly higher at the High Quality level (8.02 vs 7.57 f-stops), but lower in total dynamic range (9.61 vs 10.7 f-stops). Note though that this measurement has a margin of error of about 1/3 f-stop, so differences of less than 0.33 can be ignored.
RAW. The graph at right is from the same Stouffer 4110 stepchart image captured as a RAW (.ARW) file, processed with Adobe Camera Raw using the Auto setting. (Slightly better results are likely possible with manually tweaking, but we weren't able to do much better.) As can be seen, the score at the highest quality level increased from 8.02 to 9.95 f-stops, which is almost a two f-stop improvement, while total dynamic range increased about 2.7 f-stops, to 12.3 from 9.61. These results are excellent, almost as good as the best APS-C sensors we've tested. (The Nikon D7000 for example scored 10.1 f-stops at the highest quality level, while the Pentax K-5 scored 10.2 f-stops.) It's also worth noting here is that ACR's default noise reduction settings reduced overall noise somewhat (see the plot in the lower left-hand corner) relative to the levels in the in-camera JPEG, which would tend to boost the dynamic range numbers for the higher quality thresholds.
We really like it when a camera gives us the ability to adjust contrast and saturation to our liking. It's even better when those adjustments cover a useful range, in steps small enough to allow for precise tweaks. Just as with its saturation adjustment, the Sony NEX-5N's contrast setting meets both challenges.
|Contrast set to lowest,
|Contrast set to lowest,
At its lowest contrast setting, the NEX-5N did a really excellent job of preserving highlight detail, maintaining natural-looking skin tones, and holding nice detail in the shadows. Overall, very good results here.
|Contrast Adjustment Examples|
The table above shows five of the seven contrast setting, including the default and two extremes. It's pretty hard to evaluate small differences in contrast on small thumbnails like these, so click on any thumbnail to go to the full-size image.
One very nice feature of Sony's contrast adjustment is that it has very little effect on color saturation. Contrast and saturation are actually fairly closely coupled, it's a good trick to be able to vary one with out the other changing as well. Sony did a good job here.
Outdoor Portrait DRO Comparison
Dynamic Range Optimization is Sony's name for their dynamic range enhancement technology. DRO divides the image into small areas, analyzes the range of brightness of each area, and adjusts the camera's image processing parameters accordingly to make the best use of the available dynamic range. Auto DRO is enabled by default on the Sony NEX-5N. You can also set the level manually, from 1 ("weak") to 5 ("strong"), or turn it off. As one would expect, DRO is only available for JPEG files.
The above thumbnails and histograms show the effects of the various levels of DRO on our "Sunlit" Portrait shot with no exposure compensation. Mouse over the links to load the associated thumbnail and histogram, and click on the links to visit the full resolution image. As you can see from the thumbnails and associated histograms, DRO had only a slight effect on the highlights in this shot, though few highlights were clipped to begin with. The bulk of the difference between different levels of DRO is found in the shadows and darker midtones. The stronger the DRO level, the more boost is applied to darker areas. That usually results in more visible noise in boosted areas of the image, but the NEX-5N produces images with fairly low shadow noise, so increased noise wasn't really an issue even at the highest DRO levels. The default Auto DRO setting did a pretty good job here.
Above, you can see the effect of DRO settings on our Far-field House shot. The default Auto setting produced a good exposure overall, despite the harsh lighting.
High Dynamic Range. The Sony NEX-5N's HDR mode takes three images in rapid succession, one nominally exposed , one underexposed, and one overexposed, then combines them into one high dynamic range JPEG automatically. Lighter areas from the underexposed image are combined in-camera with darker areas from the overexposed image to produce an image with increased dynamic range. The camera then saves a single composite image, as well as the nominally exposed image. The overlaid images are micro-aligned by the camera, but it can only correct for so much movement. If it can't micro-align successfully, an icon indicating HDR capture failed will appear. For best results, the subject should not move or blink, so it's not really intended for portraits. There is also a manual mode where you can select 1 EV ("weak") to 6 EV ("strong") difference in exposures.
Mouse over the links to load the associated thumbnail and histogram, and click on the links to visit the full resolution image. The higher the setting, the more highlights were toned-down, and shadows opened up. As you can see, the highest settings produce images that looked flat and unnatural with this scene, however Auto and the lower manual settings did a pretty good job at boosting shadows. reducing highlights, while still retaining enough contrast.
Above, you can see the effect of HDR settings on our Far-field shot by mousing over the links.
Low Light. The Sony NEX-5N performed well in our low light test, producing bright images down to the lowest light level we test at (1/16 fc) at all ISO settings. The metering system struggled a bit at very low light levels though, so we used manual exposure for these shots as we often need to do. Noise is very well controlled up to ISO 1,600, though as expected, at higher ISOs there are moderate to high amounts of fine luminance noise and some blotchy chroma noise. Auto white balance did a very good job here, producing a fairly neutral, just slightly cool color balance at all ISOs and light levels, though darker colors had a greenish cast at higher ISOs and lower light levels. At the highest ISO, the bottom of the frame showed what looks like heat blooming in the form of red coloration, though hints of it can be seen at other ISOs. There is also just a hint of some horizontal banding at very high ISOs, but that's not uncommon. A few hot pixels can be seen especially with long exposure noise reduction turned off (the right-most column), but nothing out of the ordinary.
The camera's autofocus system was only able to focus on the subject down to just below the 1/4 foot-candle light level unassisted with the kit lens. However, the NEX-5N was able to focus in complete darkness with its built-in focus assist lamp enabled.
How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.
NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Thanks to their larger sensors, compact system cameras like the Sony NEX-5N tend to do better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects. (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)
Excellent printed image quality, with ISO 100 producing terrific 24 x 36 inch prints; ISO 6,400 images look good at 8 x 10, and even 12,800 prints a usable 5 x 7.
ISO 200 images look great at 20 x 30 inches, with only minor loss in detail in our red swatch.
ISO 400 images are almost the same as 200, but with some softening beginning in strong, low-contrast red areas. Detail is very crisp at 16 x 20.
ISO 800 images still look good at 16 x 20 inches, only red areas continue to soften. We'd still call it good.
Even ISO 1,600 shots are good at 16 x 20 inches, again with softening in red areas, and some cloudy noise appearing in the shadows, but they're still good.
ISO 3,200 images finally turn the corner, appearing just a little too soft at 16 x 20 in low-contrast areas, but look better with a reduction to 13 x 19 inches.
ISO 6,400 shots are usable at 11 x 14, but really look better at 8 x 10, which is still a pretty large print size for this ISO.
ISO 12,800 images have just enough fine detail to print at 8 x 10, but noise suppression in low-contrast areas merits reduction to 5 x 7, which brings all but the low-contrast reds under control.
ISO 25,600 shots are a little rough at 8x10, but look decent at 5x7, though many colors are a little darker than normal.
Overall, the Sony NEX-5N's images print well, supporting 24 x 36 inch prints at ISO 100 and a good 16 x 20 even at ISO 1600!
Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon Pro9000 Mark II studio printer, and the Canon Pixma MP610 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 Mark II review for details on that model.)
Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.
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