Sony A6500 Field Test Part I

All the action from awesome Austin: Sony's enthusiast mirrorless camera gets a real workout

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127mm-equivalent, 1/4,000 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 200

Earlier this year, my colleague Jeremy Gray published his review of the Sony A6300, a followup to 2014's amazingly popular A6000. Now in double-quick time that camera, too, has a successor in the form of the Sony A6500. Recently, I was fortunate to shoot with the A6500 on a press experiential in Austin, Texas.

In all, I had three cameras on hand to shoot with during the week: The aforementioned A6500, the Translucent Mirror-based Sony A99 II and the pocket-friendly Sony RX100 V compact. With the A99 II in short supply, though, and the RX100 V perhaps not the most ideally-suited to the subjects on hand thanks to a relatively short lens, it was the A6500 with which I did the most shooting.

As is typical on a press experiential, Sony had plenty of great shooting subjects lined up to give all three cameras a good workout. After my first week with the A6500, I have to say that it acquitted itself mighty well, turning out a whole bunch of shots that I'm absolutely thrilled with!

The company also had plenty of glass for me to shoot with. In all, I used Sony's E 10-18 mm F4 OSS, Vario-Tessar T* E 16-70 mm F4 ZA OSS, FE 70-200 mm F2.8 GM OSS and FE 85 mm F1.4 GM lenses. Given the subjects on hand and my desire to bring them up close, the bulk of my shooting was with the 70-200mm optic, with the 85mm and 16-70mm lenses together taking the bulk of the remainder.

What's new in the Sony A6500?

But let's not get ahead of ourselves: I'll start from the beginning with my initial impressions on the physical design of the A6500.

127mm-equivalent, 1/4,000 sec. @ f/1.4, ISO 100

Were you to compare the Sony A6500 side-by-side with the A6300, I doubt that any differences would instantly leap to your attention. (I didn't have both cameras side by side, however, so I've had to base my own comparisons on memory and our photos of the earlier camera.)

A reprofiled, more comfortable grip and more controls

Looking at the two cameras' bodies, the most obvious change would likely be the handgrip, which has been reprofiled for greater comfort and a more secure grip, especially when shooting with longer lenses. It's both a little less wide and flat-fronted than before, and also just a touch deeper.

With the grip now narrower than before, there was no longer sufficient room for a control alongside the shutter button and the power switch which encircles it. That being the case, Sony's designers moved the existing Custom 1 button to the top of the body directly behind the handgrip, and for good measure added another Custom button right alongside it. (This is now labeled as Custom 2, and one more such button remains on the rear deck, which is now Custom 3.)

145mm-equivalent, 1/1,600 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 100

It's just a little trickier to reach these new custom buttons, in part because they're a little further from the shutter button, and also because they now sit on a slightly higher surface of the camera body. With that said, I still found them fairly comfortable to use once I'd familiarized myself with the new layout.

There's still no front dial, sadly

Sadly, Sony passed up an opportunity to add a front control dial to the body while it was reworking the grip. If I'm honest, I'd rather have seen the company gift a twin-dial design to the A6500, rather than adding another Custom button. The lack of that second dial was one of the main reasons I found myself preferring the much larger Sony A99 II body in terms of ergonomics, when I had the opportunity to shoot both cameras side-by-side.

105mm-equivalent, 1/2,000 sec. @ f/4, ISO 200

In other respects, though, I found the Sony A6500's control layout pretty good. Sony tells us that the controls themselves now have a better feel, and while I didn't have an A6300 for a side-by-side comparison, I found almost everything pretty satisfactory on this front. I could easily tell when most controls were pressed or turned, and had no issues with accidentally changing settings either.

The movie button is poorly placed, but otherwise handling is good

The biggest remaining concern for me on the control front is the movie button, which I still feel is very poorly placed. Mounted in the right side of the thumbgrip, it's in a position we've seen in a fair few of Sony's cameras, but I find that its location is both hard to detect by touch, doesn't give much in the way of button feel when pressed, and because of its location, it tends to induce rotation in the camera body when pressed.

288mm-equivalent, 1/4,000 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 500

It's difficult to hold the camera steady when starting or stopping movie capture, because while the fingers of your right hand remain curled around the grip, the palm of your hand has to move away from the body a little to let your thumb reach the movie button. That loosened grip is then exacerbated by the fact that your thumb is pushing sideways against the back corner of the camera body.

Of course, it's easy enough to edit the start and end off your video clips to resolve this, but I'd much rather see Sony relocate the movie button, preferably to the top deck alongside the shutter button.

Faster processing and a bigger buffer help the A6500 shoot for longer

After the subtle body tweaks, the most obvious change in the Sony A6500 for my money would have to be its improved burst shooting depth. Performance itself is unchanged, with the A6500 still manufacturer-rated at eight frames per second in Continuous Hi mode, or 11 fps in Continuous Hi+.

Hi+ mode improves performance compared to the Hi mode by disabling the live view feed between frames, and instead simply showing the image just captured. The difficulty here is that since you're never seeing your subject's current position but rather where it was some moments ago, it can be tough to track moving subjects well in this mode.

I preferred instead to switch to eight frames per second shooting with the viewfinder refresh rate boosted to 120 frames per second from the default 60 fps, and image review disabled. Here, I could track subjects much more easily and really take advantage of the buffer depth.

124mm-equivalent, 1/2,000 sec. @ f/4, ISO 250

And that's what I did, shooting liberally in raw+JPEG mode and capturing long burst of frames documenting the action packed subjects Sony offered up, from rodeos and skateboard parks to tennis and lacrosse. Seldom if ever did I manage to fill the buffer, a testament to the processing performance improvement provided by the A6500's new front-end LSI and larger buffer memory.

Although burst performance is greatly improved, write performance isn't

Unfortunately, write performance was another matter. This has long been something of a bugbear for Sony's cameras, and the A6500 is no different. With no UHS-II compatibility, it can take a while for the A6500 to catch up after a burst and write your images to memory -- and until they're all written, they can't be checked for focus, exposure and composition.

You can now, however, at least review those images which have already been written to storage while you're waiting for the buffer to clear. And there's also now an indication on the display showing how many images are remaining in the buffer. That helps a bit with the watched-kettle-never-boils syndrome, giving you an idea of how much longer you'll have to wait before you can review those last images or access the camera's full capabilities.

127mm-equivalent, 1/4,000 sec. @ f/2.2, ISO 100
The revamped menu system isn't perfect, but it's a definite improvement

Since I've just brought up the menu system, now's probably as good a time as any to discuss the changes here. The menu still has a tabbed design with multiple menu pages grouped under each tab, and as many as six options per page.

The tabs themselves are now color coded, although those colors don't seem to have any real meaning to them: Some record-mode settings are under the first red tab, and more are under a second purple tab, for example. And there can be a lot of pages -- literally dozens of them -- under each tab, so it can take a little while to familiarize yourself with precisely where the functions you're looking for are to be found.

192mm-equivalent, 1/4,000 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 160

However, the menu items themselves now seem to be grouped more logically. While there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason as to where any given group of settings will be located under the two record-mode tabs, you do at least get an indication of what the current screen full of settings will predominantly relate to -- autofocus or exposure, say -- and those settings are by and large grouped together in a fairly logical manner.

Really, the biggest thing missing now is for Sony to add a customizable menu of some kind where you can store those settings you most frequently use, along the lines of the My Menu option offered by rivals.

Finally, the Sony A6500 sports a touch-screen!

Also new on the user interface front is a touch-screen display, and this is a very welcome addition. The reason: It lets you quickly and intuitively select the primary subject in the scene. And it's not just when shooting at arm's length using the LCD monitor, either: You can also use it in what Sony calls "touchpad" mode when using the electronic viewfinder.

241mm-equivalent, 1/1,250 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 100

By default, when you're shooting through the viewfinder only the right half of the touch-screen is monitored for input. The reason for this is pretty simple. When you raise the camera to your eye, your face will block the left half of the screen, and the touch panel might be unintentionally triggered by bumping it against your face. You can, if you prefer, make the touch area even smaller, or allow full-screen control even when shooting through the viewfinder.

The touch-screen functionality can be a little confusing for portrait shots

There is but one quirk to this design, but I stumbled upon it pretty quickly. If you turn the camera to shoot in portrait orientation rather than landscape, the active area of the touch-screen doesn't change. That means the active area of the screen is now the top half, while the bottom half is ignored -- but that doesn't really make much sense, given that both top and bottom halves of the screen are now equally reachable.

Initially, I thought that the touchpad functionality simply didn't work in portrait orientation. With the camera in this orientation, my thumb naturally fell on the disabled lower half of the screen. It wasn't until I stumbled on the menu item allowing you to select the touch area that I realized my mistake (and at the same time, the UI quirk.) I'd really like to see Sony change this behavior, whether simply by ignoring the touch area setting for portrait shooting, or by allowing the user to set a separate preference for this orientation.

The only other concern I had with Sony's touchpad implementation is that it is a bit on the laggy side compared to similar functionality from rivals. I found that when adjusting my focus point when shooting through the viewfinder, the on-screen indication consistently lagged behind my touches by about a quarter to half a second. It's not enough to be a problem, but enough to make the function seem less polished, given the Sony A6500's considerable performance in other respects.

150mm-equivalent, 1/1,000 sec. @ f/4, ISO 100

I'm hopeful that this lag can be reduced through firmware optimization; it's a brand new feature for Sony, and as new code I'd guess the opportunities for optimization are better than for a feature which has already been polished and honed over numerous iterations. But even if not, it's still a very useful and intuitive feature -- you just have to put up with the lag and remember the active screen area when in portrait orientation.

The Sony A6500 has swift and capable autofocus for its class

The A6300 was no slouch in the autofocus department, with its point-dense hybrid autofocus system gaining high points in our review both for its performance and tracking capability. The Sony A6500 shares basically the same AF setup as its sibling, and I came away thoroughly impressed with its autofocus performance, finding it more than up to the task of following subjects around the lacrosse field or during the rodeo, those being two of the tougher subjects I shot with the A6500.

190mm-equivalent, 1/4,000 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1600

With that said, the tracking functionality isn't infallible. I did find it had a tendency to get confused sometimes, and switch between different subjects when they came sufficiently close together. For example, during the rodeo segment of our shoot, one of the shooting opportunities was what I believe was referred to as "pole bending" -- think the horseback equivalent of slalom skiing. Horse and rider would take a run down a row of poles, zig-zagging back and forth to cross each pole on the opposite side to the last one. At the end of the run, the horse and rider would then return at full speed parallel to the poles.

This was one of several subjects where I found that, shooting with a relatively long lens, the AF tracking would sometimes lose the moving horse which I'd initially selected as the subject, and suddenly fixate on one of the stationary poles instead. Of course, I could let up on the shutter button briefly, put the horse and rider back under my selected focus point and then continue, but I doubtless lost a few shots to this behavior.

247mm-equivalent, 1/4,000 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1600

Still, no camera I've shot with yet is perfect in this respect, and the A6500 also returned many sharply-focused shots even as I stood just a few feet to one side of the horses' path, as they thundered towards (and right past) me at one end of the poles. I mention it more for completeness than anything. And not only was I panning to follow the horses, but also zooming to try and keep the framing as I wanted it, mostly shooting with a fairly long focal length as well to get the shots I was after. These were really challenging shots, and the A6500 performed remarkably well with them despite the occasional tracking issues.

127mm-equivalent, 1/200 sec. @ f/1.4, ISO 125
Great image quality too, although I've yet to try the higher sensitivities

The one thing I've not had a chance to do much of yet with the Sony A6500 is low-light shooting. This is definitely on my to-do list for my next field test, but at low sensitivities at least I'm very pleased with what I've seen so far. The Sony A6500's images are crisp and detailed, and showed great color with for the most part accurate exposure.

If you're looking through the gallery, which I highly recommend doing, note that the lacrosse shots (which are just a tad underexposed) are down to myself, and not the camera. At the recommendation of prolific sports shooter and Sony Artisan Patrick Murphy-Racey, who was on hand to offer advice, I shot the lacrosse practice using manual exposure, and erred on the side of not losing the highlights in the teams' predominantly white uniforms).

Having not yet shot much at sensitivities beyond ISO 6400-equivalent (and then under very difficult lighting), I can't yet assess Sony's assertion that the high ISO noise levels in JPEG mode have been improved. In other respects, though, I'm very happy with what I've seen thus far in the image quality department.

Read more in my second field test

And with that, I'll bring my first field test of the Sony A6500 to a close! For good measure, I've now published my second field test of the Sony A6500, which you can read here. Click the link now, and hop on over for the remainder of the story...

127mm-equivalent, 1/200 sec. @ f/1.6, ISO 125

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