Sony A5100 Field Test Part II

Catching fire and motion in low light

By Dave Pardue | Posted: 02/13/2015

In viewing the handheld image of the A5100 with the Sony 55-210mm lens mounted in our first Field Test, it showed the nice balance of that combination, but didn't do full justice to just how small this camera can become. For shooting an NCAA basketball game as part of this second report I decided to try the A5100 paired once again with the Sony 16mm f/2.8 prime lens, and was immediately reminded of why this is such a good combination for things like travel and hiking.

Stealth: Neither your pockets nor the people around you will be put off by this combination. It weighs just a wee 12 ounces.... that's really small and light!

We took a look at images from the 16-50mm PZ kit lens in the first part of this report, but for part two I'll be sticking with prime lenses having apertures that can open to at least f/2.8 in order to be able to fully test and show the low-light capabilities of the A5100. For anyone who's ever tried to photograph fast-action indoor sports, especially in relatively low light, you know how tricky it can be without a gargantuan camera and lens combination. And if you've read our indoor sports on a budget tutorial you've seen how the A5100's popular big brother the A6000 fares in that arena, so I thought it'd be a good comparison to take the A5100 to the same gym and see what kind of results I could get in similar lighting conditions.

[Editor's note: All images below have been modified and/or cropped in post-production. Clicking any image will take you to a carrier page with the unedited image, EXIF data and a link to the original full-resolution image.]

Basketball

While capturing fast action in low light isn't easy, it helps if you have a large sensor and a fast aperture. But you also need good continuous AF performance if you want to maximize your "keeper rate" -- or relative number of shots that actually come out in focus. If you've read our Sony A6000 Shooters Report Part II from Eamon Hickey you may recall that he experienced keeper rates generally in the 40-50% range while in burst shooting mode for outdoor sports, which for a $650 camera shooting at 11fps is not a bad rate at all! I was hoping to get close to that mark with the A5100 but knew that with this somewhat older lens that might be a tall task. I ended up not being able to get anywhere close to 50%, although attempting focus in low light is tougher for cameras to achieve in general.

I'm not a professional sports photographer and I'm sure they could best my results, but then the A5100 isn't hyped as a professional sports camera. It does shoot 6fps with full AF tracking, and with this combination I experienced a roughly 20% keeper rate. That went up to about 30% when shooting with the 50mm f/1.8, which also allowed for a faster aperture although I tended to stay at or near the same shutter speed for most of the game regardless of lens. In both cases, though, I did come away with a batch of reasonably good images, especially factoring in that this camera/lens combination costs and weighs a small fraction of what professional rigs cost and weigh, and also factoring in the relatively low light.

1/800s / f/2.8 / ISO 1000 / 16mm f/2.8 lens (24mm eq.)

The best defense against high ISO: A relatively fast aperture of f/2.8 combined with the largest sensor available in an ILC compact camera allows for good low-light performance in terms of keeping overall noise levels in check. 1/800s at ISO 1000 proved a good general benchmark for this light level and sensor size in freezing the action enough without allowing the noise levels to get too high.

Note to Sony: I'll go ahead and get one gripe out of the way at this point regarding Sony cameras in general, and that's their JPEG engine's handling of high ISO noise. Most of our enthusiast photographers process from RAW files for much of their workflow, but it's a safe bet that far less than half of the potential A5100 owners will use RAW files much, so I do feel compelled to mention this one fairly substantial gripe. I personally find Nikon, Olympus and Fuji's default high ISO JPEG processing on their mid-level models superior to what I've seen from most Sonys, but I'm hopeful they can remedy this in future models (or maybe even firmware updates of existing models!). For this reason I try to keep Sony JPEG images at or below ISO 1000, but we'll take a look at some higher ISO ones below.

1/800s / f/2.8 / ISO 1250 / 16mm f/2.8 lens (24mm eq.)

Using your resolution: At IR, we're generally not big fans of cramming tons of pixels onto tiny sensors, but the A5100 has a really BIG sensor compared to almost all compact cameras. In fact, while I've not done a formal study, I can say for sure that it has very few equals in how small it is for having an APS-C sensor. (For anyone not familiar with that term, it's what's found in most consumer and enthusiast-grade DSLRs). All that to say that putting 24mp onto this chip allows for a healthy amount of cropping in post-production, which is great for framing sports moments to make them a bit more dramatic.


The above cropped image was pulled from this 7-shot burst sequence, and was one of the better ones I was able to capture using this combination in C-AF, where the camera did a fairly nice job of tracking focus while ripping off 7 shots to capture this moment in the game. A few others fared as well, but most sequences had a much lower keeper rate, and some had no keepers at all while the lens racked in and out to try and achieve focus throughout the entire burst sequence.

This is not uncommon for a consumer-level camera, though. If you're paid to shoot professional sports then your job depends on a high keeper rate that a pro rig provides, as you'd never want to miss that pivotal moment in the game that everyone is dying to see. But for the rest of us looking to capture images of friends or our kids or just as a hobby, mid-level rigs can serve that purpose nicely with a little patience and perseverance, and the right shooting settings for the arena. It also helps to fire off a lot of shots if you're hoping for that one great shot to put up at home on your wall or mantle.


Going longer

The 16mm f/2.8 is a good lens, and the incredibly small combination is rather addicting, but moving up just a bit in size and weight is another combination we took a peek at in the first report when the A5100 is paired with the 50mm f/1.8. Weighing in at only 16.6 ounces combined, you're still quite light on your feet for sports shooting and other adventures and move up a notch in maximum aperture and all-around image quality. Off the top of my head I can't name a camera and lens combination with an APS-C sensor and a 75mm eq. f/1.8 lens that only weighs just over a pound and costs less than $700 combined. (The A5100 was listed on Sony's site at $450 body-only the day I finished this report, and the 50mm f/1.8 is generally available from most major retailers for ~$250.)

1/640s / f/1.8 / ISO 1250 / 50mm f/1.8 lens (75mm eq.)

Made for each other: Of all the lenses I used with the A5100, the 50mm f/1.8 felt the most natural and well-balanced, and I got the best images from this combination. At a combined current street price of ~$700 and a combined weight of just 16.6 ounces, this is a worthy combination indeed.

Clear Image Zoom

Most Sony ILCs and many of their compacts offer both 4x in-camera digital zoom, and also what Sony calls "Clear Image Zoom," which claims to provide up to 2x magnification with image quality "close to the original." We took a look at both digital zoom settings in part I of this report, but a reader requested I try this at a basketball game to give a low-light reference for its potential, and below are several results. In the first instance I was fairly impressed with the results, but in that case there wasn't much movement going on. Subsequent shots at a distance and with movement proved a bit harder for the camera to render an image that was close to the same quality as the original would likely have been, but they're not bad and certainly usable for certain purposes. I'd definitely use it in a pinch, but can't see myself using it often. Still, it's onboard if you need it.

A closer look at Sony's Clear Image Zoom
1/640s / f/2.0 / ISO 500 / 50mm f/1.8 lens (75mm eq.)
2x Clear Image zoom
The above shot is one of the best Clear Image Zoom shots I've been able to achieve. It's remarkably clear considering it's an in-camera digital magnification process.
1/1000s / f/2.0 / ISO 1250 / 50mm f/1.8 lens (75mm eq.)
2x Clear Image zoom
This image isn't quite as crisp as the first, but then again the ISO is quite a bit higher.
Low light zooming: Clear Image Zoom at 2x doubles your effective focal length while claiming to provide image quality close to the original. I found this to be true when shooting fairly near and static subjects, but not quite as useful at a distance and on moving subjects.

Catching Fire

At halftime during the Georgia State-Arlington game they rolled out the drummer from the school band, and he fired up flaming drum sticks and started pounding away. They have one of the best school bands I have ever heard, but their drummer, Casey Cooper, is simply fabulous. I was running onto the court to start firing shots before I even realized what I was doing, and had my aforementioned favorite combo (A5100 + 50mm f/1.8) already at attention and in burst mode, though I still had Clear Image Zoom set to about 1.6x.

It turns out that the settings for catching a hard hitting drummer with flaming sticks are pretty much the same as catching basketball players flying about, which was lucky for me because I didn't have time to think about settings, knowing the flames would only last for maybe a minute or two. I caught plenty of images to my liking, but chose this one since he's actually flipping a flaming stick (if only I had a dollar for every time I typed the phrase "flipping a flaming stick" eh?). The shutter speed of 1/800s was low enough to allow an ISO of 2000, and I wouldn't have wanted to boost the ISO much higher than that for reasons already mentioned though my use of about 1.6x Clear Image Zoom also contributed to the softness. A faster shutter may have been more dramatic, but sometimes a little motion blur is a useful effect.

Below that image is another look at fire where I was outdoors at dusk and able to really capture the fire dancing with a 1/2000s shutter speed and ISO 1250, followed by an image of a different form of fire catching in the birthday world.

1/800s / f/2.0 / ISO 2000 / 50mm f/1.8 lens (75mm eq.)
~1.6x Clear Image Zoom
The apparent distortion you see near the school mascot is actually ripples of heat coming off the drum stick.
1/2000s / f/1.8 / ISO 1250 / 50mm f/1.8 lens (75mm eq.)
Too bad there was a car in the background, but the child inside staring at the flames gives the shot a bit of a mysterious (creepy?) flair, and the fast shutter speed fairly well freezes the popping embers from the fire.
1/80s / f/1.8 / ISO 400 / 50mm f/1.8 lens (75mm eq.)
Keeping the shutter speed to 1/80s allowed me to keep the ISO in check here at 400, which is better for people's faces than going much higher. It causes the flames to blur more, but I like the effect in this case.

Climbing the ISO ladder

As stated earlier, I'm not a big fan of Sony's in-camera high ISO JPEG noise processing, but this sensor size does still allow for fairly good shots as ISO rises, depending primarily on the subject matter. Below are examples at ISO 3200 and ISO 6400 to show the point at which noise starts to come into play in a noticeable fashion. My personal suggestion for shooting JPEGs with this camera is to set ISO 3200 as a hard upper limit and you'll tend to be happy in most any shooting situation with the results. Keep it below 1250 when you can, but don't sweat if it goes just a little higher.

Boosting the gain
1/25s / f/2.5 / ISO 3200 / 50mm f/1.8 lens (75mm eq.)
This image uses the picture effect Rich Tone Monochrome, which I love to use in situations like this shot for a more classic look straight out of the camera. ISO 3200 looks fairly good with this type subject, and allowed for a fast enough shutter speed to avoid handheld blur, as the room was fairly dark.
1/500s / f/1.8 / ISO 6400 / 50mm f/1.8 lens (75mm eq.)
Taken before dusk, I didn't actually need ISO 6400 for this shot because a slower shutter speed of a stop or two less would have been more than sufficient here. But I wanted to post at least one gallery shot at this ISO. Even without zooming in much you can see some noise in various areas of the image, and for this reason I suggest keeping the ISO below 3200 when possible.

Getting partial

Partial color mode is several years old now but I'm a bit of a confessed P.C. addict, so I can't stop myself from using it. My colleagues used to rib me about it, thinking it's a bit hokey, but now they're trying to get me to consider counseling to shake the addiction. Back in my film days my favorite thing was enlarging black and whites and then painting them with special paints made for the purpose, and I'd always choose just one color for any given image. Now that the camera does it for me, how can I resist?

Sony was one of the first companies to add this feature to ILCs, and theirs works well but has fallen behind a few other companies in that they still offer just 4 hues to choose from, where some offer 6 and others even more. This is something they could easily upgrade on future models or in firmware upgrades. It won't appeal to any of my colleagues, but it will to yours truly.

Sony partial color mode
1/100s / f/2.0 / ISO 100 / 50mm f/1.8 lens (75mm eq.)
partial color mode: green
Cat's eyes are cool to me. This was an easy way to set them off in-camera and create a simple effect.
1/4000s / f/2.0 / ISO 100 / 50mm f/1.8 lens (75mm eq.)
partial color mode: blue
Partial color and people works great for blue because the skin and the surrounding landscape turn completely black and white, rendering the look I tend to fancy. I've found people either love this type look or strongly dislike it, so it's all a personal choice. If you'd like to compare this image to the same location, setting and subject, click here for how the higher-end Sony RX1 captured a similar shot 2 years ago.

Video

Most notable in the video category for the Sony A5100 is that it has the ability to record two different video file formats simultaneously. This could come in handy for any number of reasons! For instance, if you want the highest quality files currently available (XAVC S) you could record these in Full HD along with a standard HD MP4 -- a file that would be miniscule in size in comparison -- and then use the much smaller files for daily screening, uploading to colleagues for quick viewing, etc, while saving the the higher quality files for your actual edits.

Video samples #3 and #4 below were recorded using this function, where sample #3 is a standard HD MP4 and #4 is a Full HD XAVC S file. Note the file size difference of a clip the same length -- 13.9MP vs 247.1MP. The XAVC S file is almost 18x larger in filesize! So if you're shooting in that format, adding an MP4 copy isn't going to put much of a dent in the data storage department, so it really may be a useful function for many applications. (Note that this feature was not included on the Sony A6000, but firmware version 2.0 will allow for XAVC S file recording.)

Sony A5100 Sample Video #1
1,920 x 1,080, AVCHD, 30 fps
Download Original (54.1MB MTS)

 

Sony A5100 Sample Video #2
1,920 x 1,080, AVCHD, 30 fps
Download Original (72.5MB MTS)

 

Sony A5100 Sample Video #3
1280 x 720, MP4, 30 fps
(recorded in "dual recording mode" with Sample video #4 below)
Download Original (13.9MB MP4)

 

Sony A5100 Sample Video #4
1920 x 1080, XAVC S, 30 fps
(recorded in "dual recording mode" with Sample video #3 above)
Download Original (247.1MB MP4)

To read more about the A5100's video capabilities please see our Sony A5100 Tech Info page!

Shooting Conclusion

I came away from this shooting experience wanting to own the Sony A5100 and a few select lenses, especially the 50mm f/1.8 and the 16mm f/2.8. Both pairings allowed me to get shots that I loved in a variety of shooting situations, and the cost of owning all three with the kit lens is only about $1100. That is a huge amount of firepower for the money.

The positives are overall size and weight are extremely small and light for this large of a sensor size, and the general controls and ergonomics are simple and fairly straightforward, with a very nice overall build quality. The drawbacks include no EVF, though I found I didn't miss having one much, and don't care much for the EVF on the Sony A6000 anyway (though I do like that camera). Other drawbacks include Sony's somewhat mediocre high-ISO JPEG noise processing, though a fast lens helps to keep ISO in check for the most part, and continuous AF seems only average in performance, despite being a hybrid system. No camera is perfect that I've yet found, though, and this model has enough to like about it that I didn't find myself yearning for anything else during my time with it. The Sony A5100 delivers great images at an amazing price, and that's a nice combination.

1/60s / f/2.8 / ISO 100 / 16mm f/2.8 lens (24mm eq.)

For anyone interested in seeing more images from the Sony A5100 or accessing the RAW files for some of these images please visit our Sony A5100 gallery page.

[Quick links: Sony A5100Field Test Part IGalleryA5100 vs A6000]

 



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