Sony NEX-5N Review
by Dave Etchells, Mike Tomkins, Zig Weidelich, and Shawn Barnett
Hands-on Preview Posted: August 24, 2011
Full Review: December 5, 2011
The new sensor and Bionz processor also allow capture of Full HD video at 60p. A new touchscreen adds a few functions, but doesn't serve to replace any existing functions. The NEX-5N is also the first NEX -- or compact system camera for that matter -- to reach 10 frames per second at full resolution.
The front of the NEX-5N is also a little different, with a slight bevel behind the lens, where the company and Alpha logos now live. "5N" is also stamped into the front of the grip next to the shutter button.
The grip has a new broader dimple pattern in place of the raised bump pattern. Other than those items, there's very little different on the front. The 16mm f/2.8 lens is shown mounted here, though it's not mounted on the image below.
The only major difference from the top is a silver ring around the power switch (the 5 has a black ring), and the Playback button is smaller, round, and on the back bevel rather than the top deck. The three speaker holes have moved over a few tenths of an inch.
Other than the Playback button's greater visibility from the rear and the slightly smaller Sony logo, the rear physical controls, appearance, and function are identical to the Sony NEX-5.
Overall, it's the same sweet little camera with some very cool new tricks.
Sony NEX-5N Technical Info
by Mike Tomkins, Zig Weidelich, and Dave Etchells
Sensor and processor. The Sony NEX-5N is based around the combination of a 16.1 megapixel Exmor APS HD CMOS image sensor, and the company's proprietary Bionz image processing engine. Although the resolution is very close to that of the recent NEX-C3, the sensor is actually newly developed. Total pixel count is some 16.7 megapixels, and the sensor's dimensions are 23.5 x 15.6mm, yielding a 1.5x focal length crop when compared to 35mm lenses. The NEX-5N's sensor has a standard RGB Bayer color filter.
With a 3:2 aspect ratio, the NEX-5N can provide maximum image dimensions of 4,912 x 3,264 pixels at full resolution. Two further 3:2 aspect ratio resolutions are available: 3,568 x 2,368 pixels, or 2,448 x 1,624 pixels. The NEX-5N also provides a choice of three 16:9 aspect ratio shooting modes, each of which has the same pixel width as its 3:2 aspect counterpart, but with heights of 2,760, 2,000 or 1,376 pixels respectively.
The Sony NEX-5N offers an extremely wide sensitivity range of ISO 100 to 25,600 equivalents in one EV steps, with sensitivities between 100 and 3,200 equivalents available either under automatic or manual control. The remainder of the range is available only when selected manually. High ISO noise reduction cannot be disabled altogether, but provides two adjustable operating strengths: Normal or Low.
Optics. Like all of the company's NEX-series cameras, the NEX-5N natively accepts only Sony E-mount lenses, although it can also accept an unusually wide range of lenses via mount adapters provided by Sony and third parties. As with its siblings in the NEX-series, the 5N doesn't provide in-body image stabilization, and instead relies on optical image stabilization in the lens, if available.
Five Sony E-mount lenses are already shipping in the US market: a 16mm f/2.8 prime, a 30mm f/3.5 macro prime, an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 stabilized zoom (available in a kit with the NEX-5N body), an 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 stabilized zoom, and a 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 stabilized zoom. Two further models are slated to ship imminently: a Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* E 24mm f/1.8 prime, and a Sony 50mm f/1.8 stabilized prime, both currently scheduled to arrive in December 2011. The company's roadmap further calls for a Sony G-branded standard zoom, a wide angle zoom, and a mid-telephoto prime during 2012.
As well as Sony's own Alpha-mount SLR lenses (and the Minolta / Konica-Minolta Alpha-mount lenses which predate Sony's purchase of Konica-Minolta's SLR business), the NEX-5N can also be adapted to shoot with Alpha, C-mount, Canon EF-, EF-S, and FD, Contax G, Contarex, Contax / Yashica, Exakta, Fujica X, Hasselblad Xpan, Leica M, M39, or R-mount, M42 mount, Micro Four Thirds, Minolta A or SR-mount, Nikon F-mount, Olympus OM or PEN F, Pentax K-mount, Rollei, or T2-mount lenses. An impressive list indeed, although, it should be noted that each adapter will have differing limitations, and the majority will be manual-focus only.
Another item announced alongside the 5N makes the NEX-series unique among mirrorless cameras in providing support for phase detection autofocus. The LA-EA2 adapter will provide phase detection autofocusing with tracking, predictive control, and AF micro adjustment for all AF-capable Alpha-mount lenses, but cannot be used with a teleconverter.
If coupled with Sony's FDA-EV1S electronic viewfinder, the LA-EA2 adapter also provides the ability to start autofocus operation the instant that you bring your eye to the viewfinder, potentially reducing the time taken to achieve a focus lock. Available in the US since November 2011, the Sony LA-EA2 mount adapter is priced at around US$400.
Focusing. Of course, when you're not using the LA-EA2 mount adapter, the Sony NEX-5N is limited to contrast detection autofocusing, just like any other compact system camera would be. Sony's AF system in the NEX-5N offers 25-point autofocusing, and has a working range of EV 0-20 at ISO 100 equivalent, with an f/2.8 lens. The company says that it has implemented a new autofocus algorithm that improves focusing performance and speed, and indeed, we found it to be very fast by compact system camera standards, and even competitive with many SLRs. There are some other important differences compared to previous NEX-series models, too. Key among these comes thanks to the NEX-5N's new touch-panel display (more on that later): it's now possible to trigger autofocus operation by touching your desired subject on the LCD panel. Touch autofocus is something we've seen on a few competing compact system cameras, where we've found it to be quite intuitive, but it's brand-new for Sony. It's particularly handy for movie shooting, thanks to the full-time movie autofocus.
As well as the 25-point mode, the NEX-5N's autofocus system can be configured to operate either with a single point at the center of the image frame, or a flexible point that can be moved around the frame (within an 11 x 17 grid) to focus on a specific off-center subject. The NEX-5N provides both single-servo and continuous-servo autofocus operation. A built-in LED autofocus illuminator helps the NEX-5N to achieve a focus lock on nearby subjects in low ambient lighting conditions. Working range for this AF assist lamp varies depending on the specific lens in use, but with the 18-55mm kit lens, has a working range of 1.6 - 9.8 feet (0.5 - 3.0 m).
As you'd expect, it's also possible to focus manually with the Sony NEX-5N, either after an autofocus operation has been performed (Direct Manual Focus, in Sony parlance), or without any prior autofocus operation. When focusing manually, Sony offers two Manual Focus Assist zoom levels to aid in determining the precise point of focus, either 4.8x or 9.5x. Also included is the "focus peaking" display which was introduced in the NEX-C3. This makes it easier to identify the point of focus by highlighting the areas of strongest image contrast. When enabled, three highlight colors are available (white, red, or yellow), and the peaking function can operate at one of three sensitivity levels (high, mid, or low.)
Lens correction. When shooting in JPEG mode, the Sony NEX-5N includes the ability to automatically correct lens shading (vignetting), lateral chromatic aberration, and distortion in-camera, as images are captured. We don't currently have any information as to which specific lens models are supported for this feature.
Performance. The NEX-5N offers significantly improved performance over the NEX-5 in a couple of key areas. Our tests agreed with Sony's claimed prefocused shutter release lag of just 0.02 seconds, which the company says is not only five times faster than that of the NEX-5, but the fastest of any interchangeable lens camera.
Burst shooting is equally swift, with a maximum rate of ten frames per second possible in the Speed Priority Continuous burst mode, which locks focus and exposure from the first frame. Burst depth in this mode is rated by Sony as 10 fine / standard JPEG frames, six raw frames, or four raw+JPEG frames.
See the Performance page to see how the Sony NEX-5N performed in the lab.
Dust reduction. As with the NEX-5 before it, the Sony NEX-5N includes a two-pronged dust reduction strategy, with a charge protection coating on its low-pass filter that aims to prevent dust adhering in the first place, and the ability to vibrate the filter to shake free any stubborn particles that manage to adhere despite the coating. Sony describes the latter system as being new, although it hasn't detailed precisely what changes have been made. (We do note that it is now using the term "ultrasonic vibration" in its marketing materials for the NEX-5N, however, and given that the dust reduction cycle is no longer clearly audible, that suggests that it has probably increased the vibration frequency.)
The NEX-5N's dust reduction system operates when the camera is switched off, which helps to reduce the startup time, while not relying entirely on the user remembering to manually trigger a dust reduction cycle. It is, however, possible to perform a cycle manually through the menu, if desired.
Display. On the rear panel of the Sony NEX-5N is an articulated TFT LCD screen that, unless you have the optional electronic viewfinder attached, is the sole method of framing and reviewing images or movies. Like that of its predecessor, the NEX-5N's panel can be tilted approximately 80 degrees upwards, for waist-level or low-to-the-ground shooting, or around 45 degrees downwards for shooting over a crowd. The panel's basic specifications are also unchanged, with a three-inch diagonal, 16:9 aspect ratio, total resolution of 307,200 pixels (921,600 dots), and Sony's TruBlack anti-glare design. There's also still an automatic brightness control with five-step manual override, plus a Sunny Weather mode which increases brightness still further for better visibility under bright ambient lighting.
As briefly mentioned earlier, there's one very significant difference between the NEX-5N's display, and that of the NEX-5, however. In a first for a NEX-series camera, the Sony NEX-5N includes an electrostatic, touch-sensitive overlay that allows it to be used as an input device. Compared to resistive touch panels, electrostatic (or capacitive) panels have better light transmission, are more scratch-resistant, and generally have a longer operating lifetime. They're also less likely to react to accidental bumps, since they work by detecting minute differences in electrical charge across the surface of the panel when touched by a conductor such as a human finger.
The NEX-5N's touch panel not only allows the photographer to indicate the subject on which to focus with a simple touch, but can also be used to navigate menus, and make settings changes. In addition, Sony's iAuto mode includes on-screen slider controls with user-friendly names such as Brightness (exposure compensation), Color (white balance), Vividness (saturation), Background Defocus (aperture control) and Picture Effect. Of course, not everybody is a fan of touch-screen interfaces, and for photographers who prefer physical controls, the NEX-5N still provides the same user-configurable soft controls as in the NEX-5.
As well as its built-in LCD panel, the Sony NEX-5N is compatible with the company's optional CLM-V55 LCD panel accessory, a five-inch, 800 x 480 pixel display that attaches via the HDMI port, and includes a detachable hood to improve daylight visibility. The CLM-V55 requires an NP-FM500H battery pack or PW10AM AC adapter for power, as well as a VCT-55LH bracket to attach, all of which are optional accessories.
Optional Electronic Viewfinder. Alongside the NEX-5N, Sony has announced the new FDA-EV1S XGA OLED Tru-Finder EVF. This optional viewfinder is closely related to that used in Sony's flagship Alpha SLT-A77 Translucent Mirror camera, although it does have a slightly lower eyepoint. Resolution is a high 1,024 x 768 pixels (2.4 million RGB dots), and the EV1S plugs into the camera's Smart Accessory Terminal 2 port. Note that it's not compatible with the older terminal found on the NEX-5, NEX-3 and NEX-C3.
The variable-angle display tilts up to 90 degrees and offers full shooting information overlay. Sensors in the eyepiece automatically activate it when you put it you your eye, while automatically disabling the LCD monitor to save power. There's also a Finder/LCD button for manually switching displays. Note, though, that it's use precludes attachment of a flash strobe, so exposures with the FDA-EV1S are of necessity limited only to available light.
Exposure. The Sony NEX-5N offers a choice of nine basic operating modes, unchanged from the NEX-5: Intelligent Auto (iAuto), Programmed AE, Aperture-priority AE, Shutter-priority AE, Manual, Sweep Panorama, 3D Sweep Panorama, Anti Motion Blur, and Scene Selection. This last will automatically set the camera up for one of eight common scene types, as selected by the photographer. Available scene modes are Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports Action, Sunset, Night Portrait, Night View, and Hand-held Twilight.
As in Sony's recent cameras, the Hand-held Twilight and Anti Motion Blur modes are similar in that they capture six sequential frames with higher sensitivity / shutter speeds to prevent blurring, and then combine them in-camera to yield a single frame with reduced noise levels. They differ from each other in that Hand-held Twilight mode will generally opt for lower (but still hand-holdable) shutter speeds than in Anti-Motion Blur mode. The Sweep Panorama modes each capture a burst of images for as long as the shutter button is held down, then automatically stitch them into a panorama. (The 3D mode generates a single image with separate left-eye and right-eye views of the scene, as the subject passes across the field of view).
As with all compact system cameras, the NEX-5N's performs exposure metering using its image sensor. The metering system in the NEX-5N assesses the metered scene as 1,200 separate zones, and has a working range of EV 0 - 20 at ISO 100 equivalent, with an f/2.8 lens attached. Available metering modes include Multi-segment, Center-weighted, and Spot. There's not a separate Autoexposure Lock function, but the metered exposure is locked along with focus when using multi-segment metering. Exposure compensation is available within a range of 3.0 EV on either side of the metered exposure, in 0.3 EV steps, and the NEX-5N can also perform three-frame bracketed exposures with a step size of either 0.3 or 0.7 EV.
The Sony NEX-5N offers a generous selection of ten white balance modes, including Auto, six presets (Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, and Flash), a direct color temperature setting (2,500 to 9,900 Kelvin), a color filter setting (15-steps of green to magenta bias, and 15-steps of blue to amber bias), plus a Custom white balance mode. There's also a white balance fine adjustment function available.
Available drive modes include Single-shot, Continuous, Speed Priority Continuous, Self-timer (with a delay of two or ten seconds), Continuous Self-timer (shoots three or five exposures, after a ten second delay), Bracketing, and Remote Commander (for use with the optional RMT-DSLR1 infrared remote control unit). The Speed Priority Continuous mode is particularly impressive, achieving a full ten frames per second, with exposure locked from the first frame.
Shutter speeds from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds are possible, and the NEX-5N also offers a bulb shutter function that will hold the shutter open for as long as the shutter button is depressed. Flash sync is at 1/160 second. An optional long-exposure noise reduction function is available for exposures shot with shutter speeds longer than 1 second.
The NEX-5N focal-plane shutter has the same exposure specs as for the earlier NEX-5, but the NEX-5N has obviously been goosed up some to get its amazing 10 frames per second at full 16-megapixel resolution. The most noticeable change in the NEX-5's exposure system is its use of an "electronic first curtain." This improves performance while reducing noise and vibration, and overall is a very welcome addition.
Sony NEX-5 Electronic First Curtain: Fast and quiet. A key technology in all Sony's August 2011 Alpha and NEX announcements is the "electronic first curtain" exposure capability. This greatly speeds the shutter release on live-view cameras, and significantly reduces shutter-generated vibration as well. A little explanation is perhaps in order.
In a conventional SLR, the focal-plane shutter is composed of two leaves or "curtains" that work together to control the exposure time. Think of your camera's sensor as a window with two windowshades; one rolling up from the bottom, the other rolling down from the top. The first curtain starts the exposure by dropping down to uncover the sensor. The second curtain ends the exposure by dropping down to cover it again. After each exposure, the shutter curtains are returned to their original positions in preparation for the next shot. Very short exposures are made by having the two curtains move together, moving a small slit across the focal plane.
To help you visualize, here are a couple of animations showing the action described above, one for a longer exposure, the other for a short one; once the graphic loads, click the button to see the shutter animation. (These animations are from Photocourse.com; check out their excellent Textbook of Digital Photography.)
In a live-view camera, the shutter curtains are initially open, so light can reach the sensor to create the live viewfinder display. In live view mode with a conventional mechanical shutter, the bottom curtain has to be raised first, before the exposure can begin. This of course takes time, increasing the shutter lag before the exposure can begin. The closing of the first curtain can also introduce additional vibration, affecting image sharpness at some shutter speeds. (See our detailed discussion of the blur anomaly in the original Olympus E-P1 for an example. The same issue exists to a greater or lesser degree in most mirrorless cameras, though it's all but invisible in some.)
What's new in this latest crop of Sony cameras is that the "first curtain" function is performed electronically. Rather than having to raise the shutter curtain before the exposure, the NEX-5N, NEX-7, A65, and A77 all begin the exposure electronically, manipulating voltage levels on the sensor array to enable light-gathering in a progressive wave, sweeping down the sensor's surface.
The most noticeable result of this is that shutter lag in live view mode is very brief: Sony claims only 20 milliseconds (0.02 second), a number closely matching the 22 milliseconds we measured electro-optically in our lab. The reduced curtain movement also reduces shutter-induced camera vibration, and makes for a much quieter shutter release as well: All Sony's new cameras with this shutter setup are unusually quiet in operation.
This isn't the first time we've seen an electronic first-curtain: The Canon 40D SLR introduced the concept back in August of 2007, and as far as we know, Canon live-view-capable SLRs still employ the technology. There's a significant difference in what we call prefocused release lag, though, with Canon's SLRs in Live View mode measuring in the range of 80-90ms, vs the astonishing 20ms for the NEX-5N and NEX-7. A 20ms release time is actually quite a bit faster than even very high-end professional SLRs can manage. (The Nikon D3s is one of the very fastest, with a release lag of 43ms, measured on the same test equipment we used for the NEX-5N.)
Face detection. Even among SLRs, face detection during live view is a fairly common feature these days, and for compact system cameras its pretty much standard. The Sony NEX-5N does a step further, though, in offering the ability to register the faces of eight specific individuals, who will then be automatically recognized and prioritized over other faces when determining focus, exposure, and flash output, as well as during post-exposure image processing. The NEX-5N is capable of simultaneously detecting and accounting for up to eight faces in any given scene, and also includes a Smile Shutter function with three-step sensitivity, which will automatically capture an image when your subject is smiling. Of course, face detection can be disabled, should you wish.
In addition, Sony is using its face detection capability to allow the user to further process images after capture. A Soft Skin Effect function can be used to locate faces in an image, and then smooth out the skin tone areas to reduce or remove fine wrinkles, freckles, and the like. Three retouching levels are available--low, mid, or high--and like the pre-capture face detection function, this tool can identify up to eight faces in a scene.
Flash. The Sony NEX-5N doesn't feature a built-in flash strobe, and nor does it include a hot shoe. Thanks to its Smart Accessory Terminal 2, which is backwards-compatible with the Smart Accessory Terminal found on earlier NEX-series cameras, it can however, accept proprietary external strobes. A Sony HVL-F7S flash strobe comes bundled with the NEX-5N, and is the same model offered with the earlier NEX-5. When not in use, it folds down flush against the top surface of the camera body, providing the smallest possible footprint, and it's enabled simply by raising it to stand proud about an inch over the camera's top deck. With a guide number of seven meters (23 feet) at ISO 100, it's reasonably powerful given its size, and since it draws power from the camera body, you needn't carry an extra battery type with you. Recycle time is manufacturer-specified at around four seconds. Although it is rated for 16mm coverage, we found it to yield rather uneven illumination at wide angle even with the NEX-5N's 18-55mm kit lens. With some lenses, vignetting is also likely to prove an issue, given the relatively modest height of the strobe when raised.
With that said, these shortcomings can be forgiven, when one considers its compact size and weight, as well as the fact that the NEX-5N is also compatible with Sony's larger and much more powerful HVL-F20S flash strobe. Announced alongside the NEX-C3 back in June, and available since August 2011, the HVL-F20S adds not only a 75-degree bounce head, but also a selection of tele (50mm equivalent) or standard (24mm equivalent) coverage, plus a built-in diffuser for 18mm wide angle coverage. It has a guide number of twenty meters (66 feet) at ISO 100 using a 50mm-equivalent lens. Recycle time for the HVL-F20S is manufactured-rated at five seconds or less. Like its smaller sibling, the HVL-F20S draws power from the camera itself, and so doesn't need separate batteries.
The NEX-5N uses pre-flash TTL metering, and offers +/- 2.0 EV of flash exposure compensation, in 0.3 EV steps. Available flash modes include Flash Off, Auto Flash, Fill Flash, Slow Sync, and Rear Sync, and an optional red-eye reduction function is available.
Creative. The Sony NEX-5N includes quite a range of creative controls to help photographers get the look they're after, with a minimum of time spent in the digital darkroom. A selection of eleven Picture Effect modes are available, five of them new since the NEX-5 (with one mode having been removed.) The new modes include Soft High-key (which replaces the NEX-5's High-key mode), plus Soft Focus, HDR Painting, Rich-tone Monochrome, and Miniature. The Posterization (color or black & white), Pop Color, Retro Photo, Partial Color (red, green, blue , or yellow), High Contrast Mono, and Toy Camera are all held over from the earlier camera.
In addition, the NEX-5N provides the same Creative Style choices as in the NEX-5, each of which offers +/- three-step control over contrast, saturation, and sharpness. Creative Style modes include Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, and Black & White.
A Dynamic Range Optimizer function aims to open up the shadows while maintaining highlight detail, and can be left under automatic control, or set to one of five preset levels. There are also several multi-shot modes, including Hand-held Twilight and Anti Motion Blur (both of which allows faster shutter speeds with reduced image noise), and an Auto HDR mode. This last creates a single high dynamic range image from three sequential shots, whose exposure level varies anywhere from 1 - 6 EV in 1 EV steps, controlled automatically or manually.
The NEX-5N also offers an in-camera Sweep Panorama function, which captures and stitches together multiple images as you sweep your lens across a panoramic scene. When set to Wide mode, Sweep Panorama can create a horizontal scene with a resolution of 12,416 x 1,856 pixels, or a vertical scene with a resolution of 2,160 x 5,536 pixels. In standard mode, the horizontal dimensions are 8,192 x 1,856 pixels, while vertical panoramas occupy 2,160 x 3,872 pixels.
3D Imaging. In addition to the standard Sweep Panorama function, the NEX-5N includes a 3D Sweep Panorama mode, which was added to the earlier NEX-5 model via a post-launch firmware update. Since the NEX-5N only has one objective lens, the stereo effect is created using some clever mathematics to reconstruct a 3D image as the subject passes across the lens' field of view. The result is saved as a single multi-picture object file that contains two separate JPEG images, one for each eye, allowing it to be viewed on 3D-capable Sony Bravia displays In Wide mode, 3D Sweep Panoramas occupy 7,152 x 1,080 pixels, while in Standard mode the resolution is 4,912 x 1,080 pixels. There's also a 16:9 mode, which saves a 1,920 x 1,080 pixel panorama suitable for full-screen HDTV viewing.
Video. The Sony NEX-5N also offers Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixel) video capture capabilities, and according to Sony, is the world's first interchangeable-lens camera (along with other Sony models simultaneously announced) able to record Full HD off the sensor at 60 frames per second. (We've seen cameras previously which recorded 60 interlaced fields per second at Full HD resolution, but these either clocked the data off the sensor at 30 frames per second and then split each frame across two interlaced fields, or they clocked the data at 60 frames per second but discarded alternating fields, to be compliant with the original AVCHD 1080 60i specification.)
The NEX-5N's Full HD video is recorded using AVCHD Version 2.0 compression, with Dolby Digital (AC-3) audio, and a wide range of progressive-scan and interlaced frame rates are available. When set to NTSC mode, the available progressive-scan rate are 60 fps (28Mbps) or 24 fps (24 Mbps or 17 Mbps), and you can also opt for an interlaced 60 fps (24 Mbps or 17 Mbps). If you switch to PAL mode, the options are the same, except that the 60 fps rates are replaced by 50 fps equivalents, and the 24 fps rates by 25 fps ones.
It's also possible to record at a high-def resolution of 1,440 x 1,080 pixels (12 Mbps), or a standard-definition VGA (640 x 480 pixel, 3Mbps) resolution. These are all available at 30 fps in NTSC mode, or 25 fps in PAL mode, and are captured using MPEG-4 AVC (H.264) compression with MPEG-4 AAC-LC audio. Note that no 720p recording mode is available on the NEX-5N.
Unlike many competing cameras, the Sony NEX-5N provides full control over movie exposure, with a choice of Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, or fully Manual recording. It also allows Tracking autofocus, as well as use of Creative Style and Photo Creativity effects during movie capture. Recording is started and stopped with a dedicated Movie button on the NEX-5N's top panel, and audio is captured by default with a built-in stereo microphone. As an alternative, Sony's ECM-SST1 external microphone accessory mounts on the Smart Accessory Terminal 2, and can provide directional audio coverage at either 90° or 120°. A built-in monaural speaker caters to movie playback, and has an eight-step adjustable volume setting.
Playback. To let you immediately judge composition, exposure, and the like, the Sony NEX-5N provides an optional Auto Review function that can display images on-screen for two, five, or ten seconds immediately post capture. After capture, Playback mode lets you review single images, with optional shooting information, RGB histogram, or blinking highlight/shadow warning. In addition, images can be enlarged up to 14x to confirm fine details. Two index views are available, showing either six or twelve frames at once.
Connectivity. The Sony NEX-5N includes a USB 2.0 High Speed data connection, allowing for transfer of images and movies to a personal computer. Two operating modes are available for the USB connection, either USB Mass Storage Class, or Microsoft's Media Transfer Protocol. Catering for high-definition video output, the NEX-5N also provides a Type-C Mini HDMI connection, with support for Bravia Sync, Sony's brandname for the Consumer Electronics Control standard. This allows certain playback functions such as switching between images to be performed using the attached display's remote control unit. There's no standard-definition video output on the NEX-5N, though, so photographers who've yet to switch to a high-def display will need a third-party device with which to view images on a standard TV.
Although the NEX-5N doesn't have a dedicated power input, it can accept external power via the AC-PW20 AC adaptor kit. This includes a dummy battery which feeds power to the camera from the AC adaptor, with a small flap in the battery compartment door providing ingress for the dummy battery cable. With the exception of the aforementioned Smart Accessory Terminal 2, there is no other connectivity on the NEX-5N.
Storage. As well as Sony's proprietary Memory Stick PRO Duo and Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo flash cards, the NEX-5N can also write images and movies to Secure Digital cards, including the higher-capacity SDHC and SDXC types. The NEX-5N also support's Eye-Fi's WiFi-capable SD cards, for wireless image transfer direct from the camera body. 2D images can be saved either in Sony ARW 2.2 raw format, or as standard JPEG files (DCF Ver. 2.0, Exif Ver. 2.3, MPF Baseline compliant). 3D images are saved as Multi Picture Object files (MPF Extended compliant).
Battery. The Sony NEX-5N draws power from a proprietary NP-FW50 lithium-ion battery pack, which is rated by Sony for 430 shots to CIPA testing standards, an improvement of 30% over the battery life of the previous NEX-5 model.
Sony NEX-5N Shooter's Report
by Shawn Barnett
Heading out with the Sony NEX-5 is a lot like taking your grip, LCD, and a small lens out for a walk on the town, leaving the rest of your bulky SLR at home. I love my bulky SLRs, don't get me wrong, often for their very heft, but sometimes it's nice to have all the sensor and optical capability with a little less weight and volume, especially when photography will not be my primary activity.
EVF. I shot both with and without the new FDA-EV1S electronic viewfinder, and again found myself using the LCD more often than the EVF, especially out in the daylight (I say again because I did the same with the new Sony A77 and A65, which have viewfinders based around the same OLED panel). My reasons are similar, but not entirely weighted the same. I still found the EVF more difficult to use in bright sunlight, but the main reason I'd have preferred to leave it off is that I like the NEX-5N without anything on the top. The EVF just kept flipping around too much, got in the way as I held it, and sometimes snagged against my shirt. I even had the rubbery eyecup fly off once, as it's a little too easy to remove. I did like the way it tilted up so I could look down into it while shooting from a very low angle, but I could do the same with the NEX-5N's LCD, so it wasn't as big a plus as the same feature is on a camera like the Olympus E-P3, whose LCD screen doesn't articulate.
My other concern with the electronic viewfinder was its contrast ratio, which was quite high. Darks looked too dark, and the viewfinder itself was dark out in the bright light. I found the LCD worked great in bright sunlight. On the plus side, the screen is very smooth and high resolution, and works pretty well indoors. I could see using it for indoor work and shooting in close quarters, but out in bright sunlight, I'd rather have the little flip up flash attached, or else nothing at all. If you're already used to the limitations of EVFs in bright sunlight, I doubt you'll be too concerned with the issues I raise.
Out shooting snaps of the family, I was grateful for the Program shift in Program mode, as I don't like to think about aperture changes all the time while shooting casual family shots, but when I want to tighten up the depth of field, or even increase it, it's nice to know it's just a turn of the rear dial to greater control. The two sliding scales on the back tell me what's shifted in which direction, and I can quickly get the shot I want. On a camera without two control dials, it's a great way to shoot. The same scale appears in Aperture priority, of necessity, since there's no physical aperture ring to look at. The onscreen scale is better than just a number, because at a glance you get a reminder of what the mounted lens can do, especially important for an interchangeable lens camera. The scale also changes as you zoom with a variable aperture lens. Good stuff. This scale is only available on one of the four display screens, but it's the one I prefer, because it gives you the most important information about your shooting conditions and the camera's capability.
I liked the sure grip of the Sony NEX-5N. It's just deep and thick enough so I can shoot vertically or horizontally one-handed. I put a wrist strap on it, though, to keep from dropping it. Of course, I can't zoom when shooting that way, and its not very stable, so I don't really recommend it.
The tilting LCD is handy for horizontal shots, and I almost always flip it up, as I don't do much shooting over crowds. I shoot more shots of people shorter than I, so it makes sense. It's not really useful for my more common vertical shots, also often taken from a low angle, but the display works well enough that I can usually compose well even in sunlight.
Like the other new Sony Alphas, the NEX-5N uses an electronic first curtain, making each exposure quieter. The camera doesn't need to close the first shutter curtain before opening it again to make the exposure, making less noise, and saving time after you press the shutter. The camera can go straight from Live View mode to capture mode, which makes it more likely that you'll get the shot you saw before you pressed the shutter. It's a very good thing, and is less likely to alert your subject that you're taking their picture. Instead of a clack-clack, you get the single clack of the second shutter curtain closing and opening again, apparently so fast that it only makes one sound.
Menus. I still find the menus a little frustrating. I prefer the tabbed menu system in the Alpha SLRs, as I tend to get lost in long, endless menus. It's especially troubling when I'm searching for a menu item whose name I can't remember.
I'd be happier if Sony revamped a few aspects of the menus. I can't understand why they split it up the way they did. For example, I would expect to find the ISO setting under the Camera menu, just right of the Mode dial, but it's under Brightness/Color. I understand that on some level, but "Exposure" would make more sense to me. Also, their practice of graying out certain menu items, like the Panorama resolution size, when you're not in the Panorama mode makes little sense. What if I'm going out to shoot a variety of shots and want to make sure the camera's Panorama mode is in vertical sweep mode, but with the Wide setting? Why must I first enter Panorama mode to make this change?
As usual, we recommend sitting down with a cup of coffee and the manual on a camera like this. Its few external controls can make it seem simpler than it is -- until you dive into the menus, of course -- and you'll miss out on some of the great functionality.
Touchscreen. You can use the touchscreen to navigate the menus and make selections, or else just use the physical controls. You can swipe vertically to move within the menu lists, and swipe left and right to scroll through pictures in Playback mode. Tapping on the screen also activates Focus Tracking mode, a nice feature, but not one I find myself using much.
Sweep Panorama. One of Sony's best innovations in recent memory is Sweep Panorama, and you can produce some very large, detailed images with the Sony NEX-5N. The camera also offers a 3D Sweep Panorama mode, which we didn't test, though we have tested the mode on past models.
Video. Manual mode in video on a video-capable digital camera a rarity. But not with the NEX-5N. You can select from PASM. In fact, there's no dedicated Movie mode that you need to set to enable video. Just press the red button on the top deck. While recording, you can adjust both aperture and shutter speed (you have to press the EV compensation button, the down arrow, to switch to aperture, as shutter is the first available setting), and you can even change the ISO while shooting. You'll have to accept the clicks and dial sounds entering your recording, though.
Image stabilization is quite good while recording video. My train video looks a lot more stable than I expected. Beware that there's a loud train horn in there that will get quite a bit of attention if you don't turn the volume down.
Phase-detect. I decided to take the LA-EA2 out for a spin with the new 16-50mm f/2.8, and I even tried it at a high school football game with the Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G lens. The combination is large, to be sure, but I found that with the smaller lens, cradling the LA-EA2 simulated the base of an SLR quite well, and the NEX-5N's small but deep grip was still sufficient to control the camera. It was another story with the larger 70-200mm f/2.8 G lens, which looked quite comical on the very small Sony NEX-5N.
Once I got the hang of it, shooting rapid-fire with the Sony NEX-5N, the A-mount adapter, and the electronic viewfinder (FDA-EV1S) attached was quite similar to shooting with the A77. The shutter sound was a little different, though, making me wonder if the electronic first curtain is still enabled with the phase-detect autofocus system enabled. My results, though, were disappointing. Most of my shots were either out of focus or back-focused. The buffer didn't capture as many shots as I was used to from the A77, either. As I tried to capture a kicker trying for a field goal, the buffer ran out just after his windup, right before his foot swung for the ball.
The crowd of sideliners were particularly good at moving in my way as soon as the action started, so that reduced my opportunities; but what really cramped my shooting was the battery: It died just before the end of the second quarter. It's not really a surprise, of course, as the little battery was hard at work running not only the camera, but also the A-mount adapter with all its electronics, which were driving the lens focus motor as well.
At that point, the battery was down to 49 percent, but when I removed the lens and adapter, I was still able to shoot with the standard E-Mount lens, shooting a few more videos and stills, but football action was out for the rest of the evening. It's not a fair situation to test the NEX-5N, not entirely. True, they do make the adapter, and it lets you use these big lenses, but it's not the camera's main intent. I'm not sure I'd recommend using the NEX-5N combined with the LA-EA2 for sports shooting, as its fastest continuous mode doesn't support tracking autofocus, but though the unit said "FINAL" on its sticker, it's possible that the accessory isn't quite up to snuff as of review time. Of course, you can shoot sports like we used to before motor drives, one shot at a time, but it's less than ideal. The NEX-5N still has what it takes for well-lit sporting events with the proper lens, preferably an E-mount optic sized for the body, just make sure your subject isn't moving toward the camera.
The Sony NEX-5N is more intended as an everywhere camera for the average shooter, and it meets those needs quite well.
Sony NEX-5N Image Quality Comparison
Most CSCs will produce very good results at base ISO, so we like to push them and see what they can do at ISO 1,600. Recent advances in sensor technology have made ISO 1,600 look a lot more like ISO 100, but there are still cameras whose quality starts to fall apart at this setting. I also choose 1,600 because I like to be able to shoot at least at this level when indoors and at night.
Sony NEX-5N versus Olympus E-P3 at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-5N versus Panasonic GF3 at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-5N at ISO 1,600
Panasonic GF3 at ISO 1,600
It's a very similar story comparing the Sony NEX-5N to the 12-megapixel Panasonic GF3, with is about as small as the 5N, but doesn't do quite as well in low light. The images speak for themselves.
Sony NEX-5N versus Panasonic G3 at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-5N versus Samsung NX100 at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-5N at ISO 1,600
Samsung NX100 at ISO 1,600
Noise and noise suppression in the Samsung NX100 are so strong it's easy to tell the difference between the two cameras.
Sony NEX-5N versus Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-5N at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 1,600
We were surprised to see the difference between the relatively new NEX-C3 and the NEX-5N, but it's clear that the newer sensor is a little more crisp, with better detail overall.
Today's ISO 3,200 is yesterday's ISO 1,600 (well, almost), so below are the same crops at ISO 3,200.
Sony NEX-5N versus Olympus E-P3 at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-5N versus Panasonic GF3 at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-5N versus Panasonic G3 at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-5N versus Samsung NX100 at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-5N at ISO 3,200
Samsung NX100 at ISO 3,200
The Samsung NX100 has a problem at ISO 3,200 and 6,400 that we never figured out. The Sony NEX-5N clearly does better.
Sony NEX-5N versus Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-5N at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 3,200
And the Sony NEX-5N remains crisper than the NEX-C3 with slightly more vibrant color at ISO 3,200. That $50-$100 difference between the two might be worth it.
Detail: Sony NEX-5N versus Olympus E-P3, Panasonic GF3, Panasonic G3, Samsung NX100, and Sony NEX-C3
Sony NEX-5N Print Quality
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!
In the Box
The Sony NEX-5N ships with the following items in the box:
- Sony NEX-5N body
- E 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 OSS lens zoom lens (in kit version; other kits may be available outside the US market)
- Body cap
- Front and rear caps for lens
- NP-FW50 rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack
- BC-VW1 battery charger (separate power cord included in some markets)
- USB cable
- Shoulder strap
- HVL-F7S proprietary flash strobe and hard case
- Application Software for Alpha Camera CD-ROM
- Alpha Handbook CD-ROM
- Instruction manual
- Warranty card
- Extra battery pack
- AC-PW20 AC adapter
- FDA-EV1S external electronic viewfinder
- ECM-SST1 external stereo microphone
- HVL-F20S proprietary flash strobe (larger but more powerful than bundled strobe)
- LA-EA1 or LA-EA2 mount adapter (if you want to use Alpha-mount lenses)
- Protective case
- Large capacity, high-speed SDHC/SDXC memory card. 8-16GB or larger makes sense if you plan on shooting lots of HD video. Look for a speed grade of at least Class 6 for HD video capture.
Sony NEX-5N Conclusion
When the original NEX-5 digital camera debuted a little over 18 months ago, it was something of a landmark--not only for Sony, but for the compact system camera market as a whole. Its aggressively-styled body was compact even compared to CSCs that used much smaller sensors, and yet its APS-C sized image sensor kept it at the top of the pack in image quality. Following in the footsteps of that camera, the Sony NEX-5N has to fill some very big shoes indeed. As a more straightforward upgrade of an existing model, it might not grab headlines in quite the same way as its predecessor, but that perhaps does it something of an injustice. Sony hasn't simply gone the typical route of jamming in a few more megapixels, and maybe a few of the latest buzzwords. The NEX-5N includes some very worthwhile upgrades from its predecessor, including a handy boost in performance, a new touch-screen LCD panel, an upgraded accessory port that's compatible with a surprisingly good--albeit optional--electronic viewfinder, and an unusually capable movie mode, among other changes.
Perhaps the most important difference, though, is where it counts. Despite a modest increase in sensor resolution, the NEX-5N has taken a good step forwards in image quality, and again sits near the top of the pack when compared to its nearest competitors. It might not be the smallest interchangeable-lens camera on the market any more, things having rather heated up on that front over the last year, but it still offers a very worthwhile savings in size and weight over a traditional SLR camera, while providing similar levels of image quality. High ISO performance particularly impressed us, as did the NEX-5N's dynamic range. Add in a swift autofocus system--especially by contrast detection standards--and admirable performance both in shutter lag and burst shooting, and you have a camera that truly makes you confident that you can leave your bulky SLR at home. If you're an enthusiastic videographer, the NEX-5N is even more appealing, with complete control available over all exposure variables (even during recording), and the very intuitive ability to adjust your autofocus point by touching the LCD panel during capture. It makes light work of drawing your viewer's eye from one subject to another using depth of field alone, something you can happily take advantage of, given the quiet nature of Sony's E-mount lenses.
The picture's not entirely rosy, however. I continue to dislike Sony's NEX-series playback interface, which artificially separates stills from movies, and now also does the same for each movie compression type. It's confusing for newcomers, and it's unnecessarily awkward even for experienced users; even more so now that there are essentially three separate playback groups. I also find the NEX-5N's menu system rather clumsy, with options not necessarily appearing where I'd select, and the Setup menu in particular involving entirely too much scrolling. It doesn't help that--while it's impressively fast elsewhere--the NEX-5N can feel quite slow both when jumping between images and movies in playback mode, and when simply browsing the menu system. (Occasionally, it even stutters a little in simply drawing the menu.) The NEX-5N's speed in other areas makes this all the more noticeable, and makes me yearn for a complete overhaul of its on-screen interface. When compared to some of the latest system cameras to hit the market, it's growing quite obvious that Sony's chosen sensor size does leave it at something of a disadvantage in terms of lens size, as well. Nor am I entirely convinced by the electronic viewfinder, which--while visually impressive in most respects--is rather too bulky and expensive for me to consider a must-have item.
Still, the Sony NEX-5N is unquestionably a more feasible take-anywhere camera than pretty-much any SLR camera, and its combination of image quality and feature set make it fairly easy for me to look past the occasional wrinkle here or there. More often than not, I found myself grabbing the NEX-5N from our well-stocked shelf when I left the office for a little photographic R&R. That, in my book, is the mark of a camera worth owning, and for that reason the Sony NEX-5N earns a clear Dave's Pick.
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