Sony NEX-5N - USER EXPERIENCE and REVIEW

Sony NEX-5N 18-200mm
Sony NEX-5N 18-200mm

Michael Reichmann at Luminous Landscape entitled his excellent field test of the NEX-5N, "What a difference an "n" makes. " I couldn't agree more. After only two days this has become my favourite camera and I believe the 5N's sensor is the best I've ever used.

This IS the "holy grail" of cameras as far as I'm concerned. Superb image quality in a small, light package. Fast AF, positive shutter, great viewfinder, wonderful high ISO performance, comfortable handling, top class HD video, relatively inexpensive, ability to accept 1000's of lenses and an impression of good build quality.

So is there a downside? Well its an ugly design. I did get to thinking that there might be a few Olympus designers looking for a job in the near future, so maybe Sony could give them a call.

IMAGE QUALITY.

Here are some 100% blowups from images I took yesterday. Just to push things even further they are taken from files that I interpolated up to the size of the a77, i.e. just under 70MB. Even doing this didn't have the usual effect of softening the images. They are still detailed and crisp.

 Sony NEX-5N 18-55mm kit zoom

 Sony NEX-5N 18-55mm kit zoom


Sony NEX-5N Voigtlander 28mm f/2 Ultron

So how, does this compare with other sensors I've used and been impressed by? (It should be made clear that these are my personal impressions and I have no graphs or figures to back this up. There are plenty of those elsewhere)

Leica M9. The Leica sensor still produces sharper images. But not by much. The 5N sensor however has better dynamic range, more accurate colour, much better high ISO performance and (though this is early days) I'm presuming it won't collect dust spots. The Leica sensor also has noticeable moire on many shots.

NIkon D7000. The previous Sony 16MP sensor. This new sensor improves on the sensor in the Nikon camera in terms of sharpness, clarity and particularly high ISO performance. The 5N apparently has a weak AA filter. "It would appear that the camera has a quite weak AA filter which then allows the best lenses to really show their stuff." - Michael Reichmann This does of course make it all the more remarkable that its so good at high ISO's. 

Nikon D3X, Sony a850 and a77. The 25MP sensors I've used. As I've indicated I believe interpolated files from the 5N are really close in terms of resolution to all these cameras. I also think the files are sharper than any of the other cameras.

m4/3. About even in terms of sharpness (using the best m4/3 lenses) but significantly better in terms of dynamic range and of course high ISO. With the previous NEX cameras I've used, I've always stated that these APS-C vs 4/3 comparisons are, in my view, somewhat exaggerated. However for the first time I'm seeing a real improvement here. Demonstrating to me, at least, that its not necessarily the sensor size that makes the difference but the sensor quality that is the important thing.

 Sony NEX-5N a mount 85mm f/2.8 SAM

 Sony NEX-5N Voigtlander 28mm f/2 Ultron


Sony NEX-5N Voigtlander 28mm f/2 Ultron

So in terms of image quality this is a very impressive sensor. There's also something very attractive about the files. There is good colour depth and contrast. Its difficult to define, and I am getting into the realms of pretension here! but there's what I would describe as a real photographic quality and they don't look "digital". As I said this is getting a bit silly, so just ignore it or indulge me!!

For lots of low-light samples see this previous post.

HANDLING

As soon as I screwed in the viewfinder and brought the camera up to my eye, I smiled. My initial thought was "NOW this works!" Just being able to hold the camera in a stable way makes it much more user-friendly as far as I'm concerned.

And the viewfinder is really good. At low ISO's you just don't realise that its electronic. It looks just like a very clear bright optical finder. In low light there is interference but this is still better than squinting in the dark. This is very impressive indeed, and using the focus peaking function its a breeze to use manual focus lenses. Plus its polarised sunglasses friendly. (Big plus point for me)

Again, as far as I'm concerned, this is the best viewfinder (electronic or optical) I've ever used.

See more on using manual focus lenses (or more accurately one MF lens!!) here:-

I spent a lot of time with the camera yesterday. I went on two long walks, shooting in beautiful light, and I can't actually remember going into the menus. Because of the quality of the images I just set it to auto ISO. Unlike my m4/3 cameras when I have to make sure that they are always on the lowest setting, the 5N produces noise-free images at much higher settings than my Olympus or Panasonic cameras. I had the AF fixed on my preferred dead centre setting and I selected aperture priority. If I wanted to alter this with the AF lenses I used, I just changed this with the thumb wheel. This I could do without moving from the viewfinder. 

The only other control I used was the MF assist button to bring up the magnified view for focusing. I got into the habit of doing this before bring the camera to my eye. I generally already knew what I was intending to focus on, so I focused, lightly pressed the shutter button to bring back the full image, checked my composition and then pressed the shutter. It was simple, quick and a pleasure.

For more on this see:-

Sony NEX-5N 18-55mm

Sony NEX-5N 18-55mm

SO WHY ALL THE GUSHING?

There are lots of post on this blog that are less than complementary about the Sony NEX system, either specifically or in general. In fact the Sony NEX-5 + 16mm lens combination still holds the record for my most quickly discarded camera.

There are several reasons for this I think. 

The NEX-5n name seems to indicate that this is a minor upgrade to the NEX-5, but as indicated at the top of this piece thats a misleading impression. This is a major upgrade, with some quite significant changes. Primarily the sensor, which is a huge improvement on the NEX-5 and also on the NEX-C3, which I currently still have. That last bit is also a clue to all this fanboy stuff. I still have the C3. Despite the fact its too small for me and it has no viewfinder, I haven't sold it yet. The reason for that is that the images it produces are really good. Not up to the 5N, even at low ISO's, but still very attractive.

Sony NEX-C3 Voigtlander 75mm f/2.5 Heliar

I bought it originally to "prepare" for the NEX-7 I was so excited by. Since I had such negative feelings about the NEX-5, I wanted to see if I could "get on" with the system. I enjoyed the size and weight very much but still longed for a viewfinder. Just to set the record straight, I'm not opposed to working with live view. There are many occasions when I find it really useful. But for the majority of what I do, an eye-level finder suits me better. I'm more comfortable with it, and it allows me to compose in camera more successfully. So the option of the viewfinder is the second reason why I've become such a devout NEX convert.

There is also a very important third reason. Sony seem to be going in the same direction that I want to go, whereas the manufacturers of other cameras I use, such as Panasonic, seem to be heading in the opposite direction. I'm most definitely not "teenage facebook girl" and a lot of cameras that I might be potentially interested in seem to be aimed at that market. Sony have stated that they have been surprised by the popularity of the NEX system and also by the kind of people who are using it. Initially, you could see that they were probably aiming for the same target consumer group as Panasonic seem to be, but unlike other manufacturers they seem to learn quickly and are prepared to adapt. They most definitely targeted a different group of photographers and with the improvements in the 5N, plus the addition of the viewfinder, they seem to have succeeded in making it a camera that can be used in different ways by a wide variety of potential users from point and shooters to serious photographers.

If the 5N and subsequent NEX cameras are aimed at upgrading compact users only, then why the superb sensor? why the competition beating EVF? Is that market really interested in that level of quality? I'm inclined to think not. Sure the 5N has its share of gadgetry and of course there is the inevitable touchscreen, but all of this peripheral novelty value stuff is backed up by seriously impressive image quality and functionality. Take the improved shutter. Eliminating the need for the curtain to go up and down as on m4/3 cameras. Thus eliminating that annoying "clunkiness" that my Olympus and Panasonic cameras have. The shutter on the NEX-5N is quick and precise. Its also relatively quiet which is another bonus.

There is also now a rumour that Sony have abandoned their previous lens "road map" and have decided to work on some pancake lenses instead. Showing that again they seem to take note of what people want. 

So while appreciating that this may all be coincidental, I do have the impression that Sony are the likeliest to provide me with the tools I require in the future. Initially I saw those coming from Panasonic / Olympus but now I very much get the impression that they are not. Olympus seem convinced that 12MP is "enough" and in the light of the current revelations, who knows whats going to happen. Panasonic seem to be trying to create the ultimate "matchbox camera" and seem to only come up with some serious improvements if they think Sony have the advantage over them. Is it a co-incidence that they have finally decided to make a useable add-on EVF only after Sony announced theirs?

SONY LENSES.

Sony NEX-5N 18-200mm
Sony NEX-5N 18-200mm

I've never subscribed to the "Sony lenses are rubbish" view. However there may be some who might question my Sony "road to Damascus" moment because of this perceived lack of quality lenses. While agreeing that they have some way to go to provide a comprehensive system, I have a real fondness for many of their supposedly "cheap and cheerful" options. There are several lenses which have cut build quality down to the bare minimum in order to make them very competitive on price. I currently have 30mm macro and 85mm a-mount lenses, and I certainly wouldn't describe them as particularly robust. But they are optically sound and produce more than decent images. 

Concerning the NEX lenses. Sure there are only 3 available currently. I have all of them, and from my uses of them they are better than they are generally portrayed, which to be honest isn't difficult.

However once you take account of what you can use with a NEX camera, via adapters, then the situation becomes much less an issue. I'm keeping my two Voigtlanders and 3 Nikon primes in the short term, until I see what the NEX primes are like when they become available.
Sony NEX-5N 18-200mm

Sony NEX-5N 18-200mm

So my conversion to full-blown Sony fanboy is almost complete. The plan is to complete "the set" with the NEX-7. After using the 5N, I am wondering if its going to offer me much more than that, but I know I'm going to want it, so resistance is futile!