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Sony NEX-5N Compact System Camera Expert Review

SONY NEX5NKB

Rating: ★★★★☆

It follows on from the entry level NEX-3 and mid range NEX-5, introduced in summer 2010 as Sony‘s first-ever interchangeable lens compacts.

Outwardly, the slender, Russian tractor factory-approved body design isn’t a massive departure from its plain-looking predecessor.  Indeed, while its low profile shape when compared to the rival Olympus PEN, Panasonic GF and Samsung NX series has reportedly made the fledgling NEX range a big hit in Asia, the combination of slightly more conventionally styled bodies plus smaller lenses means that competing systems such as Micro Four Thirds have gone down slightly better in the West.

Will the Sony NEX-5N, progressing Sony’s hard sell combination of small body yet large optics, be the one to take the range to the next level?

On paper at least, the NEX range has a key advantage to draw in the photo enthusiast – namely its incorporation of APS-C CMOS sensors, a size match for those found in DSLRs.  These are much bigger than the Micro Four Thirds sensors used by Olympus and Panasonic, and those of the new Nikon 1 J1 and Pentax Q interchangeable lens system cameras.

Of course a larger sensor when combined with bigger glass in front of it theoretically delivers the best quality images.  So can the Sony NEX-5N impress in use and transcend its unassuming exterior?

Features

Newsworthy differences between the plain old Sony NEX-5 and the NEX-5N include an upping of the headline resolution from 14.2MP to 16.1MP, albeit courtesy of the same APS-C format sensor, plus an ISO boost from a maximum ISO 12800 to ISO 26500, due to what Sony claims is a new Bionz processor.

There’s still no integral flash, but once again there’s a small clip-on option that slots in above the lens mount.  The back screen LCD thankfully remains tilting, but this time it offers the touchscreen facility that we felt it should have had originally, the large onscreen function icons lending themselves to an inquisitive prod.

The pivoting monitor in the absence of an adjustable electronic viewfinder is useful for high or low-angle compositions, and led to us taking the kind of shots we might not otherwise have attempted, while avoiding grubby knees.

But the three-inch, 921k dot resolution screen’s use remains slightly restricted.  It can’t be flipped out through 180 degrees so it’s parallel to the body, like on a camcorder.  Nor can it be flipped to face the user as they peer into the lens for a self-portrait, or turned screen inwards to the body for added protection.

Another flagship feature is the Sony’s respectably swift 10fps continuous video capture speed.  This is up from the already impressive 7fps of its forebear, albeit operating at a fixed focal point, while alternatively making sure our subjects remain sharp wherever they are in the frame.  This is 25 point contrast detection – as opposed to phase detection – auto focus.

With 1200-zone evaluative metering instead of the 49-segment metering of the NEX-5, its maker also claims a shutter lag of 0.02 seconds, so it’s five times faster than its older sibling.  Subtle tweaks perhaps, but in operation the Sony NEX-5N really seems to fly.

The signature Sweep Panorama mode also seen on Cyber-Shot models again features, here generating up to 23MP images.  There are both 2D and 3D versions, the latter only viewable on a suitably equipped TV, both of which stitch together a rapid-fire sequence of images to automatically deliver a single elongated image.

Again this works well, and is effortless.  Pan with the camera in the direction of an onscreen arrow through an arc and the Sony NEX-5N will do the rest.

Another neat feature retained is background defocus, so users can achieve that attractive shallow depth of field effect to soften background clutter and make foreground subjects really jump out of the frame.  The intensity of said effect is controlled by simply dragging a point on a slider.

Finally, Full HD 1920 x 1080 pixels video capture again features, with a dedicated red record button to commence its capture.  There’s a choice of AVCHD or more widely compatible MPEG-4 file formats, the latter necessitating a resolution drop to 1440 x 1080 pixels due to it applying less compression.  While we don’t get the accessory shoe of the NEX-7 or modern gimmicks such as GPS, the Sony NEX-5N very definitely has most feature boxes ticked.

Build Quality & Handling

As with Nikon’s equally new V1 flagship CSC, the Sony NEX-5N has the kind of magnesium alloy construction usually reserved for mid-range DSLRs.

Not that it is immediately obvious, again thanks to that rather slender chassis weighing a body-only 210g – the lightest of the current NEX trio.  Sony claims a depth of 23.3mm at its slimmest point, a pinch slimmer than the 24.2mm of its predecessor.

Although Sony’s NEX series of Compact System Cameras incorporates some of the most svelte camera bodies in relation to the full APS-C sized sensors at their core, this compactness has, for us, always rather been undone by the physically larger E series lenses they’ve been matched with.

The result, as we see again with the Sony NEX-5N, is that, with the optically stabilised 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 standard zoom that came with our £599 review kit attached to its E-mount, the camera looks oddly front-heavy.  If we were cruel, we’d say that the NEX system still looked like a work in progress.

Still, if removing said lens, the Sony NEX-5N slips into a jacket pocket rather more easily than the majority of its CSC rivals, except the almost toy-like Pentax Q.  And with the lens attached, it does feel like a more solid proposition overall.

An optically stabilised zoom is a must, incidentally, because unlike say the Olympus PEN range, including the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3, Sony hasn’t built anti-shake into the body itself.

JPEG and raw photos and 1920 x 1080p video are committed to either SD card or Sony’s proprietary Memory Stick Pro Duo media, which share a slot in the base of the handgrip with the NP-FW50 rechargeable lithium ion battery.

The grip itself is barely larger than the battery it houses, but its pitted rubber surface prevents slippage while offering sufficient space to wrap three small fingers around, while the thumb rests on a tiny curved rubber pad at the back.

Funnily enough, although there’s now touchscreen control, the scroll wheel and flanking function buttons at the top left and right of it remain on the backplate, and can be used for all selections.  So if you’re not a massive fan of touchscreens on cameras, you can ignore it.

Although there’s not a physical shooting mode dial, a virtual version pops up on the screen, which the user can navigate with the thumb and a spin of the scroll wheel.  Offered here are the expected Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, Panorama, Anti Motion Blur setting and scene modes, along with a smart auto mode that affords point and shoot simplicity.

While you might want to steer clear of the latter in busier scenes or with more detailed subjects, it’s a more than reliable fall back when you want to concentrate on subject rather than settings.

It also means that, when set as a default, anyone trading up from a compact camera will be able to pick up the Sony NEX-5N and start taking colourful shots straight away.

Performance

When it comes to the business of taking photos with the Sony NEX-5N, to the right of the top plate, where a shutter release button might usually be, is the chunky on/off switch.  The shutter release button is instead located on the forward slope of the handgrip and slightly to the left.

Flick the Sony NEX-5N on and the camera readies itself for action in just over a second, so a smidgeon slower than a DSLR, with the LCD fading into life.  Squeeze down halfway on the shutter release and the camera’s auto focus does its stuff, the back screen display momentarily softening before snapping back into focus, AF points highlighted in green with a beep to confirm that the user is able to press down fully to take the shot.

To us it doesn’t feel as fast as the AF systems of the Olympus PEN or Panasonic G series, including the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3, which claim the world’s fastest AF and again use contrast detection AF, but it’s still plenty fast enough on a single shot basis.

In terms of exposure, and metering too, we were impressed, with burnt out highlights a rarity – indeed the camera tends to underexpose if anything, to preserve detail, and using Curves in Photoshop we were able to drag an impressive degree of shadow detail back.

The result was that we maintained both foreground and background detail in the same shot, so achieved an image closer to what our eyes were seeing at the time, which is arguably all anyone wants from a consumer-level camera.  The bundled lens is up to the task, in that we were able to achieve sharp results handheld at maximum telephoto as well as maintain edge-to-edge sharpness at maximum wideangle.  The usual Sony bugbear of pixel fringing was refreshingly absent here.

The well-saturated colours synonymous with the Sony range are in evidence when examining JPEG photos straight from the cameraWhite balance was only ever an issue when shooting in lower light, and at higher ISOs, and noise only really starts becoming an issue above ISO 6400.

At ISO 12800 we’re seeing softening of edge detail and more grain in the shadows, while at maximum whack ISO 25600 we’re getting a gritty appearance across the entire frame.  But, ironically, this helps to maintain an impression of edge sharpnessYou’re best off sticking to ISO 6400, however, unless particularly pushed.

Whether shooting raw or JPEG, the results from the Sony NEX-5N and lens combo are sharp and detailed, and most photographers will be more than happy sticking with JPEGs for day to day shooting.

Incidentally, power is good for up to 410 shots from a full charge, according to CIPA testingSo that’s a positive improvement on the 330 shots of its forebear, and an exact match for the performance of the new Nikon V1 competitor.  But the Sony NEX-5N offers twice the longevity of the cheaper Nikon J1, which is a more exact price match.

There’s very little with the Sony NEX-5N to find fault with, other than perhaps the niggle that its minimalist design and lack of physical buttons sometimes necessitates a little searching on behalf of the user.  Enthusiasts may also find it a pain that the likes of ISO aren’t given a dedicated button or placed immediately at their fingertips.

Once familiar with the quirks of its menu system, however, using the Sony NEX-5N became more of a pleasure than we expected.

It still looks a little odd with the 18-5mm lens bolted on the front, but it’s a good catch-all lens for anyone buying into compact system cameras for the first time.

The price, although not cheap, nevertheless seems reasonable in the wake of some of the most recent additions to the compact system camera market, such as Nikon’s 1 system cameras the Nikon V1 and Nikon J1, and the Pentax Q.

It may not look as attractive to us as most of its more conventionally styled rival cameras, but you only have to look at the Sony NEX-5N’s images to realise that it knocks spots off most of the competition.

We look forward to comparing to the new flagship Panasonic, with its expected resolution hike.  For the moment we’d have to say that in purchasing this Sony NEX-5N you can’t go far wrong.

We Liked

Its body design may be slightly drab, but where it counts this camera has got it.  The Sony NEX-5N’s combination of a large sensor and large lens delivers detail-rich images that knock spots off even long-awaited rivals such as Nikon’s new 1 system cameras, the V1 and J1.  Plus most of the current must-have features we’d want are here.

We Disliked

What makes the NEX system a different proposition among compact system cameras – with the exception of Samsung NX, which also uses an APS-C sensor – has also led to the rather odd-looking combination of a slim body and unwieldy lens if going for the kit zoom on test here.

Also, photography newcomers will require a period of familiarisation with the quirks of Sony’s menu system.

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Pros

  • Tilting LCD
  • Clip-on flashgun included
  • Sweep Panorama
  • Tilting LCD
  • Clip-on flashgun included
  • Sweep Panorama

Cons

  • Unlabelled soft keys
  • Inelegant front-heavy appearance with kit lens
  • More of a consolidation than a leap on from its predecessor
  • Inelegant front-heavy appearance with kit lens
  • More of a consolidation than a leap on from its predecessor

Verdict

It’s hard to knock the Sony NEX-5N at its suggested price with 18-55mm kit zoom.

Yes, this is more than an entry-level digital SLR, but the NEX is going for a different market, and in that respect delivers most of what it sets out to do.

Sony NEX-5N

 

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