Sony NEX-5N Review
This is an in-depth review of the Sony NEX-5N mirrorless camera that came out on August 24, 2011 along with the Sony NEX-7 flagship mirrorless camera and three E-mount lenses. I had a chance to test the Sony NEX-5N, along with its kit 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS lens while reviewing the Nikon 1 camera system. My initial intent was to only use this camera for lab tests, to see how it would fare against the new Nikon mirrorless cameras. But after just a day of pleasant shooting with the NEX-5N, I realized that I wanted to take it for a real spin and do a full review instead. In this Sony NEX-5N review, I will talk about my experience with the camera and provide some feedback on its features and capabilities, along with comparisons to Nikon 1 V1 and Olympus E-PL3 cameras.
The NEX-5N is Sony’s fourth mirrorless camera, which replaced the Sony NEX-5 that was released back in 2010. While the added letter “N” might make it sound like a slight update, the similarities between the cameras are only in external appearance – the guts of the camera, as well as some of the functionality went through major changes. From a higher resolution superb 16.1 MP sensor, to touchscreen LCD and fast 10 frames per second shooting rate, the Sony NEX-5N is a whole different animal.
1) Sony NEX-5N Specifications
- 16.1 MP Exmor™ APS HD CMOS image sensor
- Updated BIONZ® image processor
- Full HD movie shooting 60p/24p
- Object Tracking AF via Touch LCD
- 11 Picture Effect modes
- Regular and 3D Panorama Modes
- HDR Capability
- Phase Detect AF for E-mount bodies w/ adapter
- Extended battery life for up to 430 shots
- Tiltable 3.0″ Touch LCD with 921K dots
- Optional XGA OLED viewfinder with 2.395K dots
- Intelligent Scene Recognition and Face Detection
- In-camera “SteadyShot” Image Stabilization
- Electronic First Curtain shutter
- Up to 10 fps continuous shooting at full 16.1 MP resolution
- World’s shortest release time lag of 0.02 sec
- Peaking AF display for precise manual focusing
- 25-point Auto Focus with wide coverage
- Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) technology
Detailed technical specifications for the Sony NEX-5N are available at Sony.com.
2) Sony 16.1 MP Exmor Sensor
One of the most important attributes in a digital camera is its sensor – the heart of the camera that is responsible for capturing images. The Sony NEX-5N features the excellent APS-C sized 16.1 MP Exmor sensor, which in my opinion, has a great balance of resolution and noise (the same sensor is also used on the lower-end Sony NEX-C3 mirrorless camera). While the latest generation high-resolution sensors on Sony A77, A65 and NEX-7 cameras have their advantages, sometimes less can be more. For the type of the camera the NEX-5N is, which is positioned as a mid-level mirrorless camera by Sony, 16.1 megapixels is more than plenty for most photographers that will be looking into buying it.
The biggest advantage of the Sony NEX-series mirrorless cameras compared to other mirrorless cameras on the market such as Micro 4/3 and Nikon 1, is the physical size of the sensor. The 23.5×15.6mm APS-C sensor is currently among the largest sensors used in mirrorless cameras, with the exception of the expensive Leica M9/M9-P rangefinder cameras that have full-frame sensors. Large sensor size means larger pixel size, which translates to better low-light (high ISO) performance and better dynamic range. Sony picked the same 1.5x crop factor APS-C sensor size that is used in their “SLT” camera line, which is bigger than Canon’s APS-C sensors with a 1.6x crop factor and about the same as Nikon’s DX sensors. Here is a chart that summarizes sensor size differences (courtesy of Wikipedia):
Another big advantage of a larger sensor is smaller depth of field, which translates to better opportunities to isolate subjects from the background – an important factor for many photo enthusiasts and pros out there. Coupled with fast prime lenses like the Sony 50mm f/1.8 OSS, one could capture creative photographs with beautiful bokeh – something that is hard to achieve on small sensor cameras.
From small sensor to large – Nikon 1 V1 vs Olympus E-PL3 vs Sony NEX-5N:
At the same time, a larger sensor requires a bigger image circle from lenses, which negatively impacts the size requirements of both lenses and the lens mount (read more on this below).
3) Camera construction and handling
Compared to the older Sony NEX-5 that only had its front protected with a magnesium alloy plate, the NEX-5N has a sturdier build with both front and top magnesium alloy plates. Sony did a great job designing the NEX-series cameras and the NEX-5N is no exception – I found it ergonomically superior than both the Olympus E-PL3 and the Nikon 1 V1. A big part of it has to do with the grip; the large, rubber-coated grip perfectly accommodated my right hand and made it easy to hand-hold the camera. The grip is designed to have your fingers wrap around it, with your finger tips in between the grip and the protruded lens mount. Here is the view from the top:
Needless to say, the grip is a world better compared to the little bump on the Nikon 1 V1. Looking at the neatly designed top view, you can see just how thin the Sony NEX-5N really is. If it was not for the lens mount and the grip, the camera is thinner than most point and shoot cameras out there, let alone other mirrorless cameras. The angled top panel has a simple, yet elegant design with only three buttons and the on/off switch. The shutter release button is positioned ergonomically well, just like the red video record button.
The back of the camera also has a simplistic design with a rotary dial + center button and two extra unlabeled function buttons. Why unlabeled? Because their functionality changes depending on where you are in the menu. The multi-purpose dial is similar to the one found on the Nikon 1 V1. While rotating the dial is pretty smooth, the camera might lag a little in playback and other modes. I saw a similar lag when using the touchscreen, which did not seem to be very responsive in some cases.
Speaking of touchscreen, I kind of liked using it for selecting focus in AF and MF modes (especially cool for selecting a particular area when using manual focus), but found it not so useful for anything else. For navigation, I mostly used the buttons on the back of the camera. Unlike the versatile swivel LCD on the Sony A77, the LCD on the NEX-5N only swivels up and down, like the Olympus E-PL3 does. Still better than not having it at all (Nikon 1 V1/J1).
Now let’s talk about the size and bulk. While the camera itself is thin and lightweight (it weighs less than both Nikon 1 V1 and Olympus E-PL3), it has a rather large mount, which translates to bulky lenses. The standard 18-55mm zoom lens that is shipped with the NEX-5N is a massive chunk of glass, as clearly shown the below image:
4) Camera Menu System
The simplistic approach with the buttons on the camera means that certain functionality can only be accessed from the camera menu system. This includes the PASM exposure mode selector dial, which is emulated inside the “Shoot Mode” menu. The menus are organized by large descriptive icons and you can navigate through them by rotating the dial on the back of the camera, or by touching the screen. The “Camera” menu contains many options, including Drive Mode (single, continuous, bracket, etc), AF/MF Select, Autofocus Area and Face Registration. The “Image Size” menu is for picking Image Size and Quality, Panorama Size and Direction, Movie Format, Aspect Ratio, etc. The “Brightness/Color” menu contains White Balance, Metering Mode, HDR, ISO, etc. Not sure why Sony decided to stick “ISO” into “Brightness/Color”, because it really should be under “Camera” menu instead. “Playback” menu is for configuring image playback for viewing images on the LCD. Lastly, “Setup” contains important camera setup options, such as Noise Reduction, Lens Compensation, in addition to “Peaking Level” and “Peaking Color” – two very useful functions for shooting with manual focus lenses.
While using the camera menu can sometimes be slightly laggy, I found it quite easy to use, especially when compared to the Olympus E-PL3 camera that has a horrid menu system. I still prefer the Nikon 1 V1 menu system, because it just feels less “cartoonish”, but that’s probably because I am just too used to Nikon cameras. At the same time, the Sony NEX-5N has a lot more menu features than the Nikon 1 V1 and definitely more customization options.
5) Features and Responsiveness
Unlike the Nikon 1 V1, the Sony NEX-5N has a rich set of in-camera features that can be quite useful for everyday photography. The “Lens Compensation” feature found in the “Setup” menu allows fixing len-specific issues like vignetting, chromatic aberration and distortion. Obviously, the amount of lens correction depends on each lens, so Sony included current lens profiles in its camera firmware. New lenses that come out in the future will also be supported via firmware upgrades.
6) Sony E-mount Lenses
Sony has been making more and more E-mount lenses for the NEX cameras during the last couple of years, including some fast prime lenses. While the selection of lenses is nowhere close to what Micro Four Thirds has got to offer today, the available lenses do cover a broad range from wide angle to telephoto. Here is a list of all current lenses for the E-mount by Sony:
- Sony 16mm f/2.8
- Sony 24mm f/1.8 Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* E
- Sony 30mm f/3.5 Macro
- Sony 50mm f/1.8 OSS
- Sony 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS
- Sony 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS
- Sony 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS
With the sensor crop factor of 1.5x, you have to multiply the focal length of each lens by 1.5 to get an equivalent field of view of a full-frame camera. For example, the 55-210mm lens is equivalent to a 82.5-315mm lens, while the 16mm pancake is equivalent to a 24mm lens.
In general, the above Sony E-mount lenses have very good performance characteristics with great sharpness and colors – they perform similarly to Sony A-mount lenses, but without the weight and bulk. One thing you might have noticed from the above list is “OSS” (Optical Steady Shot) on the last 4 lenses, which means that the lenses are stabilized. This is a disadvantage of the NEX-series cameras – they do not have in-camera image stabilization. While it is understandable that in-camera IS might have resulted in a larger body and could have increased the cost of the camera, I still think Sony should have followed the same approach as in their SLT cameras, which is to use in-camera IS instead of lens-based IS. When working with short focal length lenses, in-camera IS is the way to go, especially when using LCD/EVF for framing shots. Those shorter focal length lenses also would have greatly benefited from in-camera image stabilization in low-light situations.
As for manual focus, unlike the Nikon 1 lenses, the Sony E-mount lenses feature a manual focus ring for smoother and more precise MF operation. Once you put the camera into manual focus mode through the “Camera” menu, you can configure the camera to automatically zoom in when the focus ring is turned. I found this feature to be quite useful, because you can combine it with the touchscreen. By selecting an area on the touchscreen to zoom into, you can quickly move the desired focus area.
The cool thing about the Sony NEX mount, is that you can use many different lenses with it, as long as you have an appropriate adapter. You can use the A-mount Lens to NEX Adapter, which will let you autofocus A-mount lenses for both stills and video, or the basic LA-EA1 adapter, which only allows MF operation. There are many other adapters available for using Nikon, Canon, Pentax and even Leica lenses on the NEX cameras.
8) Autofocus / Manual Focus Performance and Metering
Unlike the Nikon 1 V1, which uses both phase detect and contrast detect for focusing, the Sony NEX-5N only relies on contrast detect. Because of this, its AF acquisition speed is not fast enough for photographing sports and wildlife. While contrast detect works remarkably faster than most live-view contrast detect implementations on modern DSLRs, it still cannot compete with phase detect AF. In daylight conditions, the AF speed is quite good, but the performance definitely suffers in low-light conditions – the camera starts to hunt continuously, even with its bright AF assist lamp. In addition, the camera has a tendency to occasionally miss focus; you might see some out of focus images even when you thought the camera confirmed accurate focus.
9) Movie Recording
Every new camera that comes out seems to have impressive movie features and the Sony NEX-5N is no exception. It can record full 1080p HD movies at 60 fps (AVCHD 2.0) for smooth playback, which is very impressive (better than Nikon 1 V1 and Olympus E-PL3). You can also pick lower resolution MPEG-4 format and slower rates (down to 24 fps) for smaller movie files. Another advantage of the movie mode is that you can fully control the exposure while recording movies – you can easily adjust aperture, shutter speed and ISO when shooting videos in Manual mode. If the scene you are recording is too bright or too dark and you are in one of the P/A/S modes, you can also use exposure compensation to adjust the brightness level. The camera LCD will reflect these changes and you will see exactly what you are capturing. Autofocus and subject tracking both work when recording videos, but the AF speed and accuracy is not as good as on the Nikon 1 V1 camera. As for Sony’s Optical SteadyShot image stabilization, it works pretty well when recording videos, but you have to be careful when panning the camera with SteadyShot turned on, because it will occasionally bump the camera up or down. This is normal behavior and the same thing would happen if you were to pan while taking stills.
10) Dynamic Range / HDR / DRO
A big advantage of a larger sensor is its ability to produce images with more dynamic range. Compared to the Nikon 1 V1′s much smaller sensor, or the Olympus E-PL3′s Micro Four Thirds sensor, the Sony NEX-5N 1.5x crop factor sensor is capable of producing higher dynamic range. DxOMark ranks the Sony NEX-5N at #14 spot in dynamic range, which is higher than any other mirrorless camera on the market, except its bigger brother, the Sony NEX-7 (which is ranked #8). As with all digital cameras, increasing camera ISO also decreases dynamic range, so shoot at base ISO of 100 if you want to preserve the most amount of information on your photographs.
Overall, I am very impressed by the Sony NEX-5N – it is a high-quality camera with excellent image quality characteristics. As you can see from the previous page of this review, the Sony NEX-5N easily beats the Nikon 1 V1 and the Olympus E-PL3 in terms of image quality and high ISO performance. Despite having the highest resolution among the three, it provides cleaner images at almost all ISO levels, especially above ISO 1600 and that’s at 100% view! Once down-sampled to 10 MP, it blows the Nikon 1 V1 out of the water and puts the Olympus E-PL3 high ISO performance to shame. True, sensor size does play a huge role here, which at the same time results in a lens size disadvantage for the Sony NEX-series cameras. However, what is more important for you – higher image quality or smaller camera system size?
The Sony NEX-5N has its share of problems. Despite its impressive image quality and high ISO performance, the camera’s biggest weakness is its AF performance. While contrast detect has gotten better over the last several years, the Sony NEX-5N is just nowhere as responsive as the Nikon 1 V1 for fast-action photography. Occasional focus errors are typical, but the worst is its low-light AF performance, where in very dim conditions the camera seems to continuously hunt for focus, even with the AF assist light turned on. These AF issues might not be a big deal for landscape and portrait photography, but will definitely be problematic for sports, indoors and other fast-action photography. Lastly, the lag that is clearly noticeable when using the touchscreen or accessing some of the menu items is rather annoying, which I very much hope Sony will address with future firmware updates.
Despite these shortcomings, the Sony NEX-5N is a great camera for those that do not want the weight and bulk of a DSLR system. While it is not comparable to a DSLR in terms of features, autofocus, speed and versatility, it certainly is comparable to some of the best APS-C DSLRs in terms of image quality. Hence, if you already own a DSLR and would like to have a smaller and lighter stills & video camera for travelling and hiking light, the Sony NEX-5N is definitely a camera I would recommend to consider.
Where to buy and availability
If you live in Kuwait, then you can get Sony NEX-5N camera with its kit 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS lens for 249.900 KD and with extra Sony 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS lens for 320 KD, from the Sony Official Dealer in Kuwait.
Also you can find it online on Amazon for 700$ with its kit 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS lens and for 600$ without the lens.