Sony A6000 Field Test Part I

Getting Things Fixed and Heavenly Light

by Eamon Hickey | Posted: 04/25/2014

When I reviewed the Sony NEX-6 last year, I liked a lot of things about its performance and image quality, but I had some pointed criticisms of its usability. Those usability faults were important enough to me that when I decided to buy a mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera a few months later, I left the NEX-6 off my shopping list. I ended up buying its older brother, a Sony NEX-7, which I've used with reasonable happiness for the last six months or so.

Now comes the Sony Alpha 6000 to my doorstep, and the first question I had was: did Sony fix what I thought was broken in the NEX-6? I'll tackle that issue in this first installment of my shooter's report, and then explore the camera's performance upgrades in later installments.

The fixes. My Sony A6000 came with a standard kit lens, the E PZ 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS. I also got the new FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS lens, which I'll put through its paces in later installments. I've taken them on walks in the New York Botanical Garden, in Washington Square Park, and along the shore of Eastchester Bay.

One of my major complaints about the NEX-6 was that it did not allow you to separate autofocus activation from the shutter-release button. In fact, this by itself disqualified the NEX-6 from my shopping list last year.

Verdict? Completely fixed on the Sony A6000.

E PZ 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 OSS, 25mm eq., f/8, 1/250s, ISO 100
Color rendition. A look at how the A6000 renders so-called "memory colors", like green grass and blue sky. [Brightened a touch from the original JPEG - click here for the original unedited file.]

My cameras are always set permanently to shoot this way, so the Sony A6000 was ready to go when I spotted a tug boat/barge about to steam in front of some "heavenly light" on Eastchester Bay one morning. Using the AEL button I autofocused on the boat once, then re-composed with the light rays positioned where I wanted them and waited for the boat to sail into the frame. I shot a series of pictures as the boat moved across the frame, safe in the knowledge that the camera would not mistakenly re-focus on the background or a foreground obstacle every time I pressed the shutter. In this particular case, random re-focusing might not have ruined the picture since the boat was almost at infinity anyway, but the principle holds: many times you are better off not having the camera re-focus every time you want to expose an image. That's why I always separate AF from the shutter release, and why I'm delighted that the A6000 implements this so well.

I also complained about the autoexposure compensation system on the NEX-6. Well, to be exact, I called it "bafflingly dumb". It couldn't be accessed directly — it called up a separate display mode — and the live histogram disappeared when you were setting a compensation value.

Verdict? Completely fixed on the Sony A6000.

FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS, 105mm eq., f/5.6, 1/400s, ISO 100
Catching the Light. Heavenly light streaming down on Eastchester Bay. [Edited from the original JPEG - click here for the original unedited file.]

Exposure compensation on the Alpha 6000 is directly accessible using the rear control dial, and the live histogram shows you what your adjustments are doing in real time. Fantastic! A complete no-brainer (most advanced live view cameras have worked like this for eons), but fantastic nevertheless. I used this when I happened upon a dog in Washington Square Park, evidently waiting with his luggage for the next train out of town. I had already noticed that the A6000's Multi-area meter tends towards underexposure, so I took half a second to spin the rear dial to +2/3 EV and got exactly the exposure I wanted.

Last year, I was equally baffled by the NEX-6's lack of user settings — the feature where a camera can memorize groups of settings that you program, and then quickly recall them when you need them.

Verdict? Almost completely fixed on the Sony A6000.

E PZ 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 OSS, 75mm eq., f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 400
Traveling light. I like his taste in luggage. A quick +2/3 EV exposure compensation got this one right.

Total Recall. With the Memory Recall feature, you can memorize three different sets of camera settings and recall them reasonably quickly. It does take a turn of the mode dial, then three button presses, which is why I say "almost" completely fixed. I used this feature when I noticed a guy dozing on the subway one day. I had pre-programmed a low light/high ISO setup for just this situation. It took me not much more than a couple of seconds to select it and shoot — not quite as fast as some other systems, but 90% of what I want.

My last, more minor gripe about the NEX-6 was that it lacked a one-button toggle between manual focus and autofocus. This, too, is completely fixed on the Sony A6000. I’ve got mine programmed to use the C1 button for this feature.

In essence, Sony has nailed every one of my major usability complaints about the NEX-6. From my point of view, this makes the A6000 a huge step up from the NEX-6 even before we talk about performance, image quality, or anything else.

E PZ 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 OSS, 75mm eq., f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO 6400
High ISO performance. Waking up from a nap on the 6 train in Manhattan. [Default noise reduction.]

Other quick first impressions. I've shot more than 300 pictures with the A6000 so far, and as I already mentioned, one thing I've noticed is a modest but definite tendency for the Multi-area meter to underexpose. This is probably an intentional decision by Sony and not a big deal to me but something to note.

I'll have much more to say about performance, but I've also cocked a skeptical eyebrow once or twice regarding how long it takes for the camera to turn on and wake from sleep, especially with the power zoom SEL 16-50mm lens. It's nothing egregious for an electronic viewing camera, but this is one area where there's room for more improvements.

I know that autofocus performance is on nearly everybody's mind with the Sony A6000. So far, I only feel comfortable commenting on single AF in good light, which is extremely fast and sure. As just one point of comparison, the A6000's S-AF in sunlight is functionally indistinguishable from the Nikon D4S that I am also reviewing right now. But single AF on stationary subjects in good light is the easy job. If you can't do that, you might as well switch to making vacuum cleaners. In the coming days, I'll be looking for erratic, fast-moving subjects, not located at infinity, moving towards the camera not parallel to it, using the 70-200mm lens wide open not at f/11. Then we'll get a feel for what the A6000 can really do.

E PZ 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 OSS, 75mm eq., f/5.6, 1/60s, ISO 400
Kit lens magic. A water lily in the New York Botanical Garden shows mid-ISO color and detail.

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