Sony Alpha A6000 Digital Camera Review
An NEX by any other name...
By the Numbers
Throughout our lab tests with the A6000, one thing became clear: the A6000 doesn't really have any true weak spots. Whether it's focus speed, dynamic range, video quality—you name it—the A6000 more than holds its own. Though we're not overly impressed with the image quality beyond ISO 1600, the base ISO image quality is the equivalent of far more expensive cameras. Add to that its spectacular shot-to-shot speed—a Nikon D4S-level 12fps with continuous autofocus—and you've got one heck of a camera.
Color Accuracy & White Balance
When cameras capture complex real-world scenes, it's imperative that they balance color correctly. White should be white, yellow should be yellow, purples shouldn't be blue. In our color accuracy test we found that the A6000 tended to get a little carried away in most of its default color modes. In almost every color mode we found rather large color shifts, especially in blues and purples, which were often oversaturated a little too heavily for our liking.
The best color mode, however, was quite accurate. Using the "Deep" creative style, we found that the A6000 had a ∆C00 (saturation corrected) of just 2.17. That's a very good result, as anything under 2.2 is considered clinically accurate to the point that you'd hardly ever notice the errors in real world usage. Sony achieved that accuracy by keeping saturation down to just 106.5% of the ideal, which is still a little over the top but not to any worrisome degree.
In our white balance tests things weren't quite so rosy. The A6000 did well, but it failed to achieve the same level of accuracy. The A6000 has two notable trouble areas that you'll want to watch out for when using the automatic white balance—indoor incandescent lights and fluorescent scenes.
Under incandescent lights (any "warm" or "soft white" color bulb), we found the A6000 has a color temperature error of about 2,400 kelvins on average. This is pretty typical of most cameras, where errors of over 1,000 kelvins are not uncommon. Despite the fact that most bulbs used in homes have a color temperature of around 2800K, most automatic white balances simply aren't tuned to account for scenes that warm. In fluorescent light things were much better, with errors of just 318 kelvins on average, but the result is still a noticeable green shift. In daylight or when using a custom white balance the A6000 did just fine.
Noise & Noise Reduction
The A6000 uses a large APS-C sensor that provides an ISO range of 100-25,600. The camera has three noise reduction levels when capturing JPEG images: Off, Low, and Normal. We tested all three at every full stop through the ISO range and found some positives and negatives that are worth discussing.
First, the good. The A6000 is one of the few Sony cameras we've seen to provide a true "Off" setting for its noise reduction. Generally with older NEX cameras especially, Sony would say noise reduction was off when in reality it was applying a very heavy dose, muddying out fine detail in an effort to control for grainy noise. In our test we found the "Off" setting to be truly off, giving us a true picture of the A6000's abilities.
At ISO 100 with NR off, we saw 0.67% noise. That ramped up rather slowly through the ISO range, hitting 1.35% at ISO 400, 1.75% at ISO 800, and 2.45% at ISO 1600. Things get worse from there, with noise levels between 3.5% and 5.34% through ISO 25,600. Our usual cutoff for printable image quality is 2% noise, so you can safely go up to ISO 800 without any noise reduction and get great, clean images.
If you want to shoot in low light, however, you'll want to apply either the "Low" or "Normal" noise reduction settings. With the Low setting noise is kept to 1% or lower all the way through ISO 1600, hitting 1.59% at ISO 6400 before dropping to 1.44% at ISO 12,800. Why would noise drop like that despite going up another stop? Because Sony gets a little heavy with the noise reduction despite calling this "Low." If you despite noise and don't care about fine detail you can go with the A6000's "Normal" noise reduction setting, but it's ticked-off-gorilla aggressive, keeping noise under 1% at every ISO except 6400 and 25,600 (it dips back to 0.99% noise at ISO 12,800).
Our recommendation is that you stick with NR off in bright light conditions and ramp up to NR Low if you know you're going to be shooting mostly in low light. NR High is a last resort and should only be used if you need to shoot at ISO 25,600. Otherwise you can also always shoot in RAW—which applies no noise reduction in the camera–and develop your shots later.
Our dynamic range test is rather simple: we have a very expensive box that has a backlight and 21 patches. Each patch is half as bright as the one before it, giving us the ability to capture up to 20 stops of dynamic range in a single image. The Sony A6000 can't get close to 20 patches—no current camera can—but it did manage a healthy 12 stops of range by the industry standard measurement. This involves tracking how many stops a camera can capture before the signal to noise ratio drops below 1:1.
We use a higher threshold in our scoring, however, seeing how many stops a camera can capture with a signal to noise ratio of 10:1. By that metric the A6000 does well at base ISO but falls off dramatically after ISO 800. In our test we saw 7.92 stops at ISO 100, 7.04 stops at ISO 200, 5.77 stops at ISO 400, and 4.49 stops at ISO 800. The A6000 preserves 2–3 stops at ISO 1600 and 3200, but less than 2 stops at ISO 6400. No part of the image manages to pass our test at the top two ISO speeds.
Compared to other cameras on the market the A6000 does very well at base ISO. It has about a stop less range than competing full frame cameras on the market, but it more than holds its own against all competing APS-C models. At the higher ISOs things aren't quite as good, however, and if you do a lot of shooting at high ISO speeds we really recommend upgrading to a full-frame camera.
When Sony launched the A6000 the company did so by bragging that it had the world's fastest autofocus speed at something ridiculous like 0.6 seconds. While we can't vouch for Sony's methodology, in practice we found it to be exceptionally quick. What's more, the A6000 can use that fast autofocus while continuously capturing shots at up to 12 frames per second.
While there are plenty of cameras that can shoot at 10 frames per second and higher, nearly all of them require that focus be locked on the first frame. This means that if your subject is moving toward or away from you, they will move out of the plane of focus and you may not get a usable shot. In our test we found that the A6000's shot-to-shot speed was indeed around 12 frames per second (12.02, to be exact), and we found its continuous focus speeds often returned 12 usable frames even with a moving subject.
The other thing that separates the A6000 from some of the similarly speedy competition is its shot-to-shot capacity. There are point-and-shoots these days that can capture 10 frames per second, but they can only take 10 shots and then they lock up while recording the shots to the memory card. The A6000 doesn't suffer from this drawback, as we were able to record up to 40 JPEGs in a single burst before the camera slowed down. If you shoot RAW you'll be happy to know that we also managed 23 RAW+JPEG (24 RAW alone) captures before hitting any snags, also. A pro-level camera like the Canon EOS 1D X will capture more in one go, but it also costs roughly $6,000 more than the A6000.
Though we are less-than-enthused about the A6000's lack of a mic jack, headphone jack, audio level control, audio level display, or really any audio control at all in video, the camera's clip quality is actually quite nice. In our video resolution test we were able to capture up to 675 line pairs per image height horizontally and 625 LPPH vertically while shooting in 1080/60p AVCHD. That number fell quite a bit in low light, however, to just 475 LPPH horizontal and 450 LPPH vertical.
In our motion test, however, the A6000 did just fine. There we noticed very smooth video reproduction with only minor hints of trailing and artifacting. There was also very little tearing or frequency interference, and minimal ghosting with the camera's CMOS image sensor. Our low light sensitivity test did give the sensor a chance to shine, however, producing a usably bright (50 IRE) image with just 5 lux of available light.
Overall these are pretty typical numbers for a camera with a full 1080/60p mode and an APS-C sensor. The video quality here is obviously quite good. In our opinion it lags a bit behind the best cameras at this price point, such as the Nikon D5300, and the lack of control does it no favors. But if you are primarily a stills shooter who wants some great video quality and doesn't care about great audio, then the A6000 gives you high-quality video with plenty of exposure control.
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