Sony A5100 Field Test Part I

Out and about with a smörgåsbord of lenses

By Dave Pardue | Posted: 08/26/2014

1/320s / f/2.2 / 50mm (75mm eq.) / ISO 100 / 50mm lens

I've had the privilege of shooting with most of the NEX-gone-Alpha models since the beginning of the line in 2010. The NEX-5 from that year marked the beginning of the mid-level price / capability points of the line, nestled comfortably between the lower-end NEX-3 and the higher-end NEX-6 and flagship NEX-7 models. This mid-level line has been updated every year since its inception, with the A5100 being the 5th generation to date. [Though its naming struck us as odd, as many believe it to be the successor to the A5000, which of course it isn't but sure sounds like it is.]

To me, this model marks the most significant set of upgrades to the mid-level line thus far, as well as a few setbacks worth mentioning. Right out of the box it felt different than its predecessor, beginning with the rougher texture of the body, making it a bit more stable to hold and, at least to me, feeling more solid. Some will likely prefer the metal chassis of the NEX-5T, but on this size camera, I prefer the polycarbonate of the A5100. The grip is not quite as severe in its shape than last year's NEX-5T, allowing more breathing room for my fingers between the grip and the lens, especially when carrying it around. It's a bit thicker, as you'll see below, but that gives it even more stability in the holding, both with the right hand on the grip or with it resting on my left hand. Larger lenses also seem and feel more at home on this model, striking a better overall balance.

A sleek combination: The Sony A5100 paired with the Sony 55-210mm lens has a nice, balanced feel and provides a ton of shooting range (320mm eq. at tele) for such a small and lightweight package.

You get a pop-up flash with this model that the NEX-5T didn't have (you had to open a small door and screw the flash on) and that area is now slightly raised, making it look more natural up against the lens barrel. Also, the pop-up mechanism behaves more precisely than many cameras in this price range, whose flash units often jiggle around when being deployed. You lose the top control dial with the A5100 however, which is the single largest letdown about the camera for me, and you also lose the top function button, which is also a con as compared to the 5T. I prefer physical controls and dials, and even though this body is very small for the APS-C world, the 5T managed it just fine, so it was a bit of a surprise and letdown discovering these were missing.

As you'll also see below, there's no mode dial on this model nor its predecessor. If mode dials are important to you, you'll need to step up to the A6000, which is a bit more in price and somewhat larger as well. But you'll get an EVF and a hotshoe to go along with it, so the two models are clearly aimed at different photographers or shooting situations to a large degree. In the hand they feel like vastly different cameras in comparison, and serious enthusiasts won't mind spending just a bit more for these features that are critical to certain shooting situations like sports photography. But for the shooter needing a smaller and lighter body with most of the same features and don't mind losing those few things, by all means read on.

For one last gripe before getting onto the good stuff, the shutter button isn't quite as comfortably placed to me. The 5T had it sloped on the front bevel, while the A5100 moves it back to the top and laid flat. This is a small gripe, but you pay us to tell you these details, so I felt compelled to say it. Fortunately they somewhat make up for this by providing a zoom lever where the power switch used to be, which allows for zooming power-zoom lenses if you prefer not turning the lens ring to zoom. Point-and-shoot step-up users will no doubt find this familiar, and I tended to use it more than turning the lens barrel as well. The darker flange is also more attractive and less likely to induce glare than seen on the NEX-5T.

Predecessor comparison: The Sony A5100 (lower image) replaces the Sony NEX-5T (shown above). You lose the control dial and top Fn button, but gain a more stable-feeling width as well as a zoom lever for power zoom lenses like the 16-50mm PZ kit lens.
[Editors note: the d-rings were removed from the NEX-5T, but it also comes with them.]

A few more notes on the controls, and then we'll move onto shooting. Sony does a good job of recessing the movie button on this camera so that you don't accidentally trigger it, even more so than on the 5T. Also, I really, really (really) don't like when the "play" button is on top of a camera! The A5100 moves it to where I believe it belongs, which is just to the right of the LCD. That's exactly where your thumb naturally rests when you're viewing images, so a big thanks to Sony engineers for moving it!

It shares with its predecessor one thing I do really love, and that's a dedicated ISO button. This series of cameras has gone back and forth on whether or not to do this as a standard feature. I change ISO all the time - don't generally prefer relying on the camera to decide it for me - so that's something that's a big deal to me personally. So: Menu, Play and ISO are all very conveniently placed. And the newly added help button, denoted with a question mark, doubles as a trash button which is also useful. And of course, it's nice to have a dedicated drive button, as I switch between modes often during certain types of shooting.

Proper controls: I prefer most of the changes made on the A5100 controls, especially moving the play button to the only place that makes sense to me - at the lower right of the screen.

I find the Sony menu systems straightforward for the most part. There is no need for scrolling down as some camera companies prefer, and instead you get to see everything on any particular screen. This forces you to access many more screens of course, but for my tastes this is preferable to scrolling down to figure out what's in a certain menu. Going through these for the first time, I was genuinely surprised at how many adjustable features are present in a camera at this price level.

Now let's take it shooting.

Toting 3 zooms and 3 primes

To my way of thinking, interchangeable lens cameras are just as much about the lens possibilities as the camera itself. Naturally, many readers looking at this price range will be interested in seeing how the 16-50mm power zoom kit lens stacks up in real world shooting, so I grabbed it and a big bag of anything and everything I could find in our lab (fun!) and headed out for a first weekend of shooting. We'll start with the kit lens and work our way up to some slightly more intriguing possibilities, including tossing an FE lens into the mix as well.

On the first outing I got lucky and ran across a gorgeous butterfly in a nice garden. He made it just challenging enough by flitting fairly quickly from flower to flower, and a bright, expensive zoom lens would have been welcome here! The sun was super-bright and directly overhead, so it would have also been nice to have a viewfinder, as there are virtually no LCDs I'm aware of that can cope with that much direct sunlight and stay visible (Atlanta in August, folks, what can I tell ya). But of course, the A5100 is not as expensive as its popular older brother the A6000, so you get what you pay for.

Nevertheless, I was able to navigate the sunlight and use the kit lens well enough to get shots that I was more than happy with in fairly short order. I also threw on the E-mount 50mm f/1.8 prime lens and grabbed a similar shot for comparison, which is the first image shown in this report above. The framing is different, as are the settings, so the comparison is just a rough one at best, but still nice to see the subtle differences in things like background blur. Clicking on the image below will take you to a carrier page and clicking on that image will bring up the full resolution image, to allow you to see how much detail the kit lens is capable of delivering across various shots.

1/500s / f/5.6 / 50mm (75mm eq.) / ISO 400 / 16-50mm PZ kit lens / (-.3 EV / slightly cropped)

Next I found a moth who didn't seem to mind my presence too much and decided to try my hand at exploring Sony's Clear Image Zoom and Digital Zoom features. The first gives you a 2x in-camera magnification while the latter yields a 4x boost. These have both been around for awhile, but surely the algorithms get tweaked from model to model, so always a good thing to test out. Note that in order to turn either of these features on you'll need to be shooting in a JPEG-only mode -- no RAW capture allowed while digitally zooming.

As you can see from the images below, each of these settings are capable of allowing you to get remarkably close to your subject and achieve very usable images, and remember this is still the kit lens we're looking at. Also noteworthy is that for a kit lens, the background blur is fairly good, also on display with the kit lens butterfly shot above. It won't win bokeh awards for the creamiest and smoothest out there (see the 35mm FE images below for a start down that road) but for a kit lens it's certainly pleasing enough for all but the most critical shooting situations, and something you simply can't achieve with most smartphones today.

1/640s / f/5.6 / 50mm (75mm eq.) / ISO 100 / 16-50mm PZ kit lens / (-1.3ev)
(no digital zoom)
1/800s / f/5.6 / 50mm (75mm eq.) / ISO 100 / 16-50mm PZ kit lens / (-1.3 ev)
(2x) Clear Image zoom
1/640s / f/5.6 / 50mm (75mm eq.) / ISO 100 / 16-50mm PZ kit lens / (-1 ev)
(4x) Digital zoom
Zooming in-camera: Clear Image (2x) and Digital (4x) zoom certainly allow you to get up close and personal with your subject matter, while still maintaining a reasonable amount of clarity in both cases.

We use the Sony 50mm f/1.8 lens for our Still Life lab tests for this camera series, and it's a great lens for the price, so I try and sneak it out of the lab when I can. Below are several images showcasing this paired with the A5100, which also proved to be a great-feeling combination - lightweight in hand yet professional in output. (And you can acquire this combination for less than $1000... sweet!)

1/320s / f/2 / 50mm (75mm eq.) / ISO 100 / 50mm lens
1/125s / f/2 / 50mm (75mm eq.) / ISO 100 / 50mm lens

I was able to try the A5100 out with several Sony long-zoom lenses as well, both of which have been around for a few years now and have received praise for their quality-to-price quotient. Neither are bright zooms by any means, not intended for catching indoor sports by a long stretch, but terrific when there's enough light available. The 55-210mm is pictured first, and the other is the larger and slightly sharper 18-200mm, with a first real-world look at bumping up ISO to 3200.

1/100s / f/5.6 / 109mm (163mm eq.) / ISO 320 / 55 - 210mm lens
1/200s / f/6.3 / 117mm (175mm eq.) / ISO 3200 / 18 - 200mm lens

The Sony 16mm f/2.8 prime makes the sleek little A5100 virtually a pocket camera for hiking, so I tried in out for just such a setting on a mountain hike with my kids. It's a nice little go-anywhere combination, barely noticeable in a pocket or backpack but there at the ready for wide angle shooting.

1/640s / f/4.5 / 16mm (24mm eq.) / ISO 100 / 16mm lens

Saving the best lens for last, I couldn't resist trying out one of the newer Sony Zeiss-branded full frame lenses on the A5100, namely the 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar T FE. And since it sells for more than the price of the camera, this is certainly not going to become a classic pairing, but hey, why not try it anyway? (You could do a lot worse if you only had a total of $1500 to spend.)

I'd already heard from my colleagues that this lens is stunning and found it to be the same myself, even with a much lower-priced camera than the full frame offerings they were shooting with. You lose some of the image circle collected by the lens, but I don't think that is really an issue and in some ways could even be a benefit since corners are generally softer anyway. Below are a few examples of the rather nice bokeh I was referring to above.

1/80s / f/3.5 / 35mm (52mm eq.) / ISO 800 / 35mm FE Zeiss lens
1/160s / f/2.8 / 35mm (52mm eq.) / ISO 1600 / 35mm FE Zeiss lens

Autofocus speed on this camera is purported to rival the lightning fast A6000. For my first few days shooting I found it to be quite good in most all situations and across the various lenses. It hunts a bit in low light sometimes, which is a common occurrence for most cameras. But otherwise the AF performance has thus far been superb.

For anyone interested in seeing more images from the A5100 or accessing the RAW files for some of these images please visit our Sony A5100 gallery page, and see Field Test Part II where we'll explore low light, motion and video.


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