Sony Alpha NEX-5N Review
The Sony's NEX-5N packs high-end performance in a small body.
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The Sony NEX-5N is the update to one of Sony's first NEX cameras, the NEX-5. At first glance the camera does not seem much different from its predecessor, but (figuratively) look under the hood and you'll realize the NEX-5N is a different beast entirely.
The new sensor in the 5N puts it squarely next to mid-range DSLRs like the Nikon D5100 and the Canon T3i, but with a smaller body and significantly faster shot-to-shot time. Sony has also added touchscreen functionality to their rear, articulated LCD. Add it all up and you get one of the most intriguing cameras on the market today. It's available in black, silver, and red with the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens.
Design & Usability
The NEX-5N handles well for a camera of its size, and we love its sleek, modern design, but we'd prefer a physical mode dial and a standard hot shoe.
The NEX-5N has a massive image sensor compared to compact cameras, but this poses one problem: full-size DSLR sensors mean (generally) full-size DSLR lenses, and those hinder portability considerably. This Sony has a substantial grip though, which accommodates lenses well. It also saves space by omitting a built-in flash, providing a thin mount (NEX compatible only) and its own flash unit instead. Menu interactions are facilitated by either physical buttons or with a 3-inch, 921k-dot resolution LCD touchscreen that doubles as a tilting viewfinder. We particularly appreciate that touch-control is a secondary function, instead of a primary one.
Some users will doubtless long for a physical mode dial, which manifests virtually on an in-camera menu instead. The menu looks great though, with bright symbols and clean text that pop off the screen. Options are well organized by tabs, but excessive scrolling tends to hamper navigation. The 5N uses the same dual-button contextual design as the NEX-5, NEX-3, and NEX-C3, with an additional control wheel on the back that doubles as a four-way directional pad. Sony's E-mount makes this camera compatible with nearly every lens you can think of, and in combination with the APS-C image sensor, enthusiast heads will surely turn. Be aware though, that the NEX-5N isn't as focused on deep manual controls and physical dials. The combination of automatic shooting modes, on-screen guides, and in-camera shooting tips seem rather geared toward the novice.
Sony has packed the NEX-5N with their usual bag of tricks, yet excellent hardware bumps everything up a notch. This is an enthusiast-level camera with a novice level of control.
For now, consumers can't expect SLR performance to fit in their pockets, but things are at least heading in the right direction. That's where the shrinking NEX-5N excels. Some manual bells and whistles are missing, but this model still has a full measure of manual exposure controls, allowing adjustments to dynamic range, ISO, white balance, focus type, and focusing area as well. Unfortunately, most of these controls are in sub-menus, so in order to streamline the manual experience, advanced shooters should assign multiple functions to a "custom" menu, accessed by a center softkey on the rear control dial.
Never fear, newbies, the 5N includes a variety of automatic modes as well, and many creative scene modes, like macro and sunset. The fun doesn't end there—digital picture effect filters, 11 altogether, spruce up images with selections like retro photo and soft focus, and there are five color modes too. There are barely any in-camera editing options on the 5N, but burst modes are very speedy and video mode is reliable.
The most exciting features come in the form of hardware though, like the sensor, which is borrowed from such stalwarts as the Nikon D7000 and the Pentax K-5. The NEX-5N's large sensor is the same size as those in many DSLRs, so this high level of performance is a real bargain in this compact, (relatively) inexpensive camera body. The kit lens is a standard 18-55mm lens with a large, textured zoom ring, but some kits offer a 16mm pancake prime as well, which is great for traveling due to its compact size. The N5 maxes at 16 megapixels and supports lossless RAW.
The image quality on the NEX-5N is, without reservation, excellent.
We found the image quality of the NEX-5N to be quite superb, with great color accuracy, wonderful dynamic range, and impressive noise performance. The 16-megapixel image sensor is leaps and bounds ahead of the Sony NEX-5. The idea of a mirrorless camera with a sensor this large, the idea of this kind of dynamic range and high ISO performance in a smaller camera, has had people salivating for years, and finally it's here to satisfy the market's appetite. In low light, the NEX-5N can lock focus and render images without overwhelming noise levels and users will be able to capture shots at a blistering 10 frames per second, in full resolution. This puts the NEX-5N up with the fastest mirrorless cameras on the market (though a far cry from the Nikon 1's 60fps).
As for areas that need improvement, we were dismayed by the performance of the 18-55mm kit lens, which occasionally caused small distortions to appear—this camera can do much, much better. Additionally, the otherwise excellent video quality was plagued at times by visually distracting errors. All things considered though, the NEX-5N offers one of the best performance to price ratios on the market right now.
Sony's NEX-5N packs high-end performance in a small body.
Put the Sony NEX-5N and its predecessor, the NEX-5, next to each other and you'll be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Changes are few and far between. Once you compare shots though, it's clear that the NEX-5N is making good on Sony's latest promises. The 5N is just about everything the NEX system aspired to be: DSLR image quality in a compact mirrorless body. The 5N's 16-megapixel sensor provides fantastic image quality, and this Sony's shot-to-shot time puts it among the faster cameras under $1000. Still, the NEX-5N doesn't erase all the complaints that were levied at earlier versions; it's still got a very large lens mount and an awkwardly small body; its lack of control dials don't appeal to enthusiast photographers; it still costs more than your average, entry-level DSLR.
Nevertheless, stack up the considerable performance gains, the enjoyable user interface, and the approachable, modern design, and the complaints feel minor in comparison. We were seriously impressed by the NEX-5N's combination of low light capability, speedy shooting, and fast-twitch responsiveness—in several weeks of shooting, in all sorts of conditions, we were never once frustrated by the camera's performance. This is a mid-level DSLR, boiled down and poured into an affordable body that any novice would feel comfortable shooting with. Enthusiasts who want complete control may find better options with Panasonic's GX1 or the Olympus E-P3, but the Sony NEX-5N performs well enough to be most anyone's main camera.
When you can pack this kind of performance into a body this small, it's hard to not be impressed. We're not ready to label the NEX-5N as the best compact mirrorless camera we've seen (the E-P3's bright light image quality is still amazing), but it has become part of the conversation. We're very excited to see what the NEX will do next.
Sony squeezed a lot into this compact NEX-5N, and testing indicates that it works. Noise performance on this model is impressive and low light capability is quite noteworthy as well. It takes a bit of tweaking, but color accuracy can be top-notch too, with the right steps. We wish that video capability were a little better, and that the lens was higher-quality, but for the most part, this is an all around excellent performer.
The Sony NEX-5N produces decent color accuracy, with preferences toward more vibrant, saturated images, and though the 18-55mm kit lens is not overly sharp in any area, sharpness problems overall were not major.
In testing the NEX-5N, we found that Sony's default settings for the camera heavily pushed saturation in each of the camera's different color modes. The most accurate—standard—produced a color error of a little over 3.0, but a saturation level of close to 115%. By toning down saturation two stops (on a +/- 3 scale), that error dropped to 2.6 as purples and blues were better controlled. The other modes on the 5N tended to push saturation to an even greater degree, in excess of 120% over the ideal. Most of the other modes, while significantly more vibrant, still kept color error to around 4.0. The blue, magenta, and yellow patches were consistently the most oversaturated.
The Sony NEX-5N adds quite a bit of sharpness to its images, identifying areas of fine detail and increasing contrast to improve the perception of sharpness. This is a common technique in mirrorless and compact cameras, and it enhances the quality of images overall. The main issue with the lens is the chromatic aberration, as different wavelengths of light (colors) focus at different depths across the frame. While the camera can correct the color fringing digitally, those kinds of focus errors still impact sharpness negatively on the NEX-5N.
The NEX-5N allows you to shoot up to ISO 25600, but produces relatively noise-free images as high as ISO 3200.
The Sony NEX won't let you deactivate noise reduction when shooting JPEG images. The only options available are to turn high ISO noise reduction to Low or Standard or to shoot in RAW and process images yourself. The noise reduction is effective, but it's not a blanket smearing of fine detail. Noise is controlled, with the camera's noise reduction mostly hitting smooth areas like skies and blacks the hardest. There is only a minor difference in noise levels between the Low and Standard setting. On average across the ISO range, the Standard setting only produced 0.1% less noise than the Low setting, with very little discernible difference to the naked eye.
ISO on the NEX-5N is set primarily through the Brightness/Color menu, with no dedicated key assigned to the function. If you want to take more direct control over ISO, you can assign the center soft key to bring up a user-defined Custom menu, in which ISO can be placed. From there, the center soft key will bring up a vertical scrolling menu that allows users to pick out an ISO from 100-25600, or to select the automatic setting.
The NEX-5N offered acceptable color accuracy, but sampling errors hinder what could've been phenomenal sharpness results.
We found that the NEX-5N was able to consistently reproduce around 700 LW/PH of horizontal sharpness, and around 650 LW/PH of vertical sharpness. The camera hit much higher highs than that (it occasionally touched in the 1000 LW/PH, which is ridiculous for an APS-C camera sampling down to an HD signal), but between 750 and 950 LW/PH frequencies, the camera produced a circular banding error that was incredibly distracting.
When video was captured in motion, that sampling error coupled with the 18-55mm lens' inherent chromatic aberration to produce a rainbow of colors we really didn't want to see. We feel that the camera can be very, very sharp when needed, but particular patterns are going to come out looking quite trippy.
The NEX-5N's kit lens produces significant distortion and chromatic aberration, correcting it digitally in-camera.
The 18-55mm kit lens on the Sony NEX-5N produced quite a bit of chromatic aberration, with defocusing errors in the blue and red channels specifically. These are mostly visible in our test charts in areas of high contrast, surrounding areas of white, blue, and magenta. The setup menu on the camera has the ability to correct for these errors, which will halt the decoloration but won't sharpen up the detail in the image.
The kit lens on the 5N also has very poor distortion across the focal length range, ranging from significant barrel distortion to even more pincushion distortion. At the 18mm focal length our tests detected 2.45% of barrel distortion. In most lenses, this evens out by 35mm, but the Sony 18-155 pushed that all the way to a 2.56% pincushion distortion. At the full telephoto of 55mm this is mitigated somewhat, but there's still a 1.56% pincushion distortion. Again, this can be corrected somewhat digitally in-camera, but we wouldn't recommend this lens for budding architecture photographers.
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