Camera Review: Sony NEX-5A

Sony NEX-5A

Sony's interchangeable-lens NEX-5A is both an oddly compelling and an oddly vexing digital camera. Despite its flaws, however, once you start using an NEX-5 it's hard to stop.

I have a vision of what cameras of the future are going to look like: they're going to be small. They're going to be light. And they're going to deliver resolutions and image quality, both in still and video mode, that will be simply stunning. Sony's NEX-5 offers us an early, if imperfect, preview of that future. Conceptually, the NEX-5 is just a DSLR-sized sensor paired with a lens. More accurately, it's almost nothing but sensor and lens—nearly everything else has been eliminated to reduce the camera's size.

NEX-5 Accessories

Remarkably Compact Size

NEX-5 Profile

Profile w/16mm Lens

There is no viewfinder, and manual controls are limited, to say the least. A flash head is purchasable as an external accessory (as is an external stereo mic for higher-quality video/audio recording).

Images are framed and composed via the camera's LCD screen, which offers a continuous live preview. All photographic settings such as shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are accessed solely via the LCD screen's somewhat infuriating menu system.

Rather than start with what's bad about the NEX-5, let me focus instead on what's good about it: you're getting a DSLR-sized sensor (in the crop or APS-C format) plus a DLSR-quality lens in very nearly a compact, Point-And-Shoot-sized package.

The physical area of an APS-C sensor is vastly larger than the tiny chips that normally go into compact cameras. A physically bigger sensor translates into bigger pixels, which translate into better image quality, even at the exact same resolution. Of course, a great sensor is pointless without a great lens. Happily, the NEX-5 gives you a nice range of high-quality lenses to choose from—just like a DSLR.

Compared to even the smallest DSLR, the NEX-5 truly is remarkably compact, fitting easily if a bit awkwardly into the palm of your hand (body dimensions are 4.5" x 2.375" x 2.5" w/16mm lens & cap). If the NEX-5's small size is impressive, its image quality is dazzling—especially when shooting RAW. Snap a few shots, upload the RAW files to your computer, and marvel at the sharpness, dynamic range, and overall aesthetic quality of the images. In-camera JPEG's certainly lag RAW quality, but still impress.

Once you see a few stills from the NEX-5, it's hard to ever want to go back to your favorite compact. If you're like me, you'll give your compact a sort of wistful, half-hearted glance...and then you'll grab the NEX-5 instead. How does the NEX-5's image quality compare to a current, state-of-the-art DLSR such as my Nikon D7000? The NEX is not as good. This is primarily a function of sensor technology. The NEX cameras use a sensor that is (as of 2011) about two years old. The best modern sensors do outclass it—though perhaps not by as much as you'd expect.

NEX-5 Accessories

18-55mm Lens and External Mic

NEX-5 Accessories

Nikon P300, Sony NEX-5, Nikon D7000

More significant to DSLR shooters will be the compromises involving manual control, battery life, rapid fire shooting, and reduced autofocus performance when tracking fast-moving subjects.

As mentioned, all of the camera's control's are menu-based, with the lone exception of a somewhat pointless focus ring on the lens. Shoot with the NEX-5 in any of its auto modes, and you'll be fine, but if you insist on always taking the reins yourself, so to speak, expect considerable grief trying to flip through various menus and settings.

Autofocus performance is good, especially in video mode, but obviously not as fast as a high-end DSLR. Provided you only try to shoot one still at a time (rather than bursts), you probably won't have any problems.

In video mode, the NEX-5 shoots 1080-60i HD video according to spec, but actually 1080-30P split into a 60i wrapper and recorded at 17Mbps. I would describe video quality as somewhat disappointing, given the sensor's potential. The bitrate is a tad low, and horizontal lines do show some aliasing problems, especially (oddly) in the red channel. That said, video quality is quite good compared to the NEX's peers.

Add in fully functional (and usable) autofocus plus image stabilization (with the 18-55mm lens), and the NEX-5 easily bests the current field of compact cameras when it comes to shooting video, and probably bests most DSLR's unless you know how to manually pull focus. Add the optional stereo external mic and the 18-55mm lens, and you're getting very close to camcorder-level functionality and quality.

In fact, with the versatile 18-55mm lens attached, the NEX-5 is probably capable of handling nearly all your photo and video needs. Which brings us to the NEX-5's Achilles heel: it is small, yes, but it is not truly a compact camera. I define a compact body very simply: it has to fit in your back pants pocket. With the 16mm lens attached, the NEX-5 isn't going to fit into anything smaller than a cargo pocket.

With the 18-55mm lens attached, the NEX-5 becomes a kind of spacial puzzle, always challenging you to find cases or places to put it. It's still small—no question. It's just...awkward. I find myself constantly shifting between lenses, wanting the 18-55's versatility, but also wanting the 16mm's portability. Oddly enough, for me this is the NEX-5's singular dilemma: it's not quite small enough.

And so I find myself trapped, looking with longing at my pocket-sized compact, but unwilling to give up the NEX's gorgeous video and image quality. Still, I'm going to say right now that any backcountry photographer who currently uses a compact camera, especially climbers and skiers, should give the NEX-5 serious consideration. Add the 18-55mm lens and figure out a way to carry it, and you may find the NEX-5 replacing your DSLR, too. Image quality at this size and weight turns out to be very, very seductive...

IMPORTANT: Be sure to read my NEX-5N Review

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When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

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