Sony A6500 Field Test Part II
Sony A6500 Field Test Part II
Sundown, fun town: The Sony A6500 takes on the night lights of Gatlinburg, Tennessee
By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 02/05/2017
Late last year, I started my review of the Sony A6500 mirrorless camera with my first Field Test, packed with great action shots from a press experiential in Austin, Texas. The second part of my report has been a little while coming thanks to the holiday season, flu bugs, tradeshows and more, but the good news is that it's here now!
In this Field Test, I'll be looking at two main areas for which I didn't have enough content from the press experiential: Low-light shooting, and video capture. First of all, a quick recap of my earlier Field Test would probably be helpful for those of you who've not already read it, or who read it at the time but don't remember all of the details. (If you've not read it yet, though, I highly recommend going back and starting from the start.)
In my first real-world shoot with the Sony A6500 back in Austin, I came away pretty impressed by this camera and its capabilities. In terms of handling I had few complaints. I found the A6500's body to be pretty comfortable in-hand, even with my larger-than-average hands. Really, about all I'd change on the ergonomic front is the poorly-positioned movie button (something that we'll come back to in a bit), and the lack of a front control dial.
Although the Sony A6500's burst performance hasn't improved since the already-swift A6300, I found the newer model's much greater buffer depth allowed me to take better advantage of its impressive speed. Flash card write speed was still something of a weak spot, but this concern too was alleviated by the larger buffer, as well as a new on-screen indication showing how many shots remain to be written to the flash card.
I also came away fairly satisfied with the updated menu system, which while still quite sprawling is now rather more logically organized. And I loved the new touch-screen overlay on the LCD monitor, which makes focus point selection in particular rather easier. (Although for shots with portrait orientation, it can initially be a bit confusing until you know how the feature works.) I did find myself wishing for the function to be a bit less laggy, though.
Autofocus performance, too, was good. I found that the A6500 handled the action subjects in the Austin shoot very well, although it did occasionally have a tendency to jump from one subject to another while tracking. And at the lower sensitivities which I largely shot on the Austin trip, image quality was excellent, with plenty of detail, good exposure and great color.
Time for some low-light shooting with the Sony A6500
As I've said, I predominantly shot at lower sensitivities with the Sony A6500 on my trip to Austin because most of the subjects arranged for the press experiential were at least fairly well lit. Hence I didn't really get the chance to explore the area above ISO 1600 much at all, and the bulk of my shots were at fairly near base ISO.
Clearly, I needed to correct the imbalance, so I headed up to nearby Gatlinburg, Tennessee for some shots around sunset, through twilight and into full darkness. Of course, the town itself was still reasonably well-lit, but nevertheless I found plenty of subjects which let me roam ll the way up to the Sony A6500's upper limit of ISO 51,200-equivalent.
Through all of this, I still found autofocus performance to be good, with the A6500 rarely hunting or failing to lock focus on the first try, and getting the shot in focus the overwhelming majority of the time. Like some cameras, it did occasionally yield a shutter speed that was a little slower than I could comfortably hand-hold, but I think that probably comes down to two factors.
One was that I was shooting with the FE 24-240mm F3.5-6.3 OSS (SEL24240) lens, and frequently shooting at the longer focal lengths it offered. This is a really fun lens to shoot with, incidentally. It's beautifully made and offers a good range of focal lengths to cover most situations you're likely to encounter for typical travel-zoom subjects. It also feels pretty nicely balanced when shooting two-handed with the Sony A6500 body, even when the lens is extended to its maximum length at the telephoto position. It's perhaps a bit on the heavy side for single-handed shooting, though, although it's possible in a pinch.
The other thing that likely came into play is that, as I typically do for review work, I was shooting sets of three bracketed exposures for each subject I selected. In almost every case, the blurred exposure was the one with the slowest shutter speed of the trio. Most of the time, I'd still get a sharp exposure for all three frames, but just now and then that longest shutter speed would be a little more than I could handhold.
As I mentioned earlier I already discussed image quality for lower-sensitivity images in my first Field Test. (Click here if you want to take a look at that.) Image quality remains very good with low noise levels all the way up to ISO 3200-equivalent. Of course, viewed 1:1 some grain is noticeable in the shadows, but it's very fine and strikes me as quite film-like.
As you continue up the scale to ISO 6400-equivalent, the grain starts to get a bit coarser and more visible, but it's still only really noticeable when viewed 1:1 onscreen. By the time you reach ISO 12,800-equivalent, colors start to feel just slightly muted, and the noise (as well as the effects of noise reduction on finer details) continue to become more prominent, but images still remain very usable.
In regular use, I felt that the upper limit on image quality for my own tastes was at somewhere around ISO 16,000 to ISO 20,000-equivalent. Viewed 1:1, you're definitely losing many of the finer details by this point, and the effects of noise reduction are becoming quite visible. Beyond this point, ISO 32,000 to ISO 51,200-equivalent are usable in a pinch for smaller print sizes or viewing on-screen at reduced resolution, but look rather rough if viewed 1:1, and colors are definitely pretty muted.
All things considered, I'd say that the Sony A6500 turns in a very good performance on the image quality front! (Want to see more for yourself? Look in my Sony A6500 gallery for loads more shots across the whole sensitivity range.)
Video shot at the Sony A6500's maximum 4K resolution is absolutely jam-packed with detail, a fact I confirmed by viewing the output on my 55-inch Sony 4K TV. The image looks extremely lifelike, and just as for still imaging, exposure and color are also pretty darned good, which helps give subjects a feeling of realism.
There are only really two main downsides to shooting at this resolution: 4K filesizes are almost double those of Full HD clips at the same frame-rate, and your choice of frame-rate options are much more limited. Ultra high-def capture tops out at just 30 frames per second, so there are no significant opportunities for slow-motion videos in 4K, and more active subjects can look a bit choppy. (But both priority and fully manual exposure control are available for video capture, so you can switch to a slower shutter speed to blur motion, giving a more natural, less choppy-looking aesthetic.)
Once you're used to 4K, switching back to Full HD resolution can feel a bit jarring, reinforcing just how much more detail there is in that 4K image. If you can afford the storage space and don't need higher frame-rates than are available for 4K footage, there's no question that it's worth shooting ultra-high def today, even if you don't yet have an ultra high-def display.
Still, it's not really fair to compare Full HD to 4K. Compared to Full HD output from other cameras, I'd say the Sony A6500 does a pretty good job. There's still a good amount of fine detail, and as for 4K, movie exposure and color are generally pretty good. It's really nice to have the higher frame-rate 60 fps and even 120 fps capture in Full HD, too, both to help reduce the choppiness of moving subjects and for the slow-motion possibilities it provides.
And speaking of slow motion, the Sony A6500 also sports a raft of Quick and Slow Motion modes. You have a choice of recording at one, two, four, eight, 15, 30, 60 or 120 fps, and then outputting at 24, 30 or 60 frames per second. The result is anywhere from a 5x slow-motion effect with 120fps capture and 24fps output, to 60 fps fast-motion with 1fps capture and 60fps output. Note that it isn't possible to record with 120fps capture and 60fps output, however.
One other thing to bear in mind is that the faster your capture frame rate, the less rolling shutter or jello effect that may be visible in resulting videos, depending upon your subject. Shooting 120fps Full HD video, I noticed that there was far less tendency for moving subjects like cars to look tilted than there was at the slowest 24 or 30fps capture rates.
Full-time autofocus is available during movie capture, and so is Sony's SteadyShot image stabilization system. The Sony A6500 reacts fairly quickly to changes in subject distance, and includes the ability to track subjects as they move around the frame during movie capture. Focus shifts while recording a video clip are intentionally slower than those in still imaging, so as to give a smoother focus shift that's not so jarring.
And thanks to its in-body image stabilization, the Sony A6500 also provides a way to steady your movies even if the attached lens lacks built-in stabilization. The in-body image stabilization of the Sony A6500 isn't quite strong enough to stabilize the motion from walking, although it comes fairly close with wider lenses. It's certainly more than up to the task of filling in for a tripod when hand-holding your video clips, though.
All things considered, I think the Sony A6500's movie mode offers quite a bit of bang for your buck. And if you need an added measure of control, it even allows for uncompressed HDMI output to an external recorder. There are only really two things which jump to mind that I'd like to see changed.
For one thing, I'm still not a big fan of the movie button placement, which is something I've mentioned in past reviews, as the design is similar to that shared by other recent Sony cameras. Since it's mounted in the outside of the thumb grip at the top right corner of the rear panel and the button itself is very small with relatively little button feel, it's hard to press properly without shaking the camera from side to side. I'd like to see a more traditional location used in future models, whether on the top deck or inside the thumbgrip.
I'd also like to see a headphone jack added to allow for in-camera audio levels monitoring. There's a microphone jack to complement the built-in stereo mic on this model, but a headphone jack sadly didn't make the cut.
Final thoughts on my time with the Sony A6500
As I reach the end of my time with the Sony A6500, it's time for my closing thoughts. Having shot with it quite extensively over the last couple of months, I find myself coming away very impressed indeed by this camera! It's relatively compact and quite comfortable to shoot with, yet offers a great degree of configurability and versatility, along with an extremely generous feature set.
Perhaps best of all, it shoots really great images and videos, with loads of detail and pretty realistic color. It's a whole lot of fun to use, and while there are still some improvements I'd like to see made here and there, I'd say it has be be hands-down my favorite sub-frame mirrorless camera to date!