Sony NEX-6 Review
Sony's NEX-6 provides the image quality and performance of the NEX-7, all at a very attractive price.
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The Sony Alpha NEX-6 (MSRP $849.99 body-only, $999.99 with 16-50mm kit lens) is a subtle refinement of the company’s flagship mirrorless model, the Sony Alpha NEX-7.
While the name may suggest Sony is taking a step backward, the NEX-6 takes just about everything that made the NEX-7 great, shrinks the size, and offers this all for around $350 less than the NEX-7 cost when it debuted. Considering the NEX-7 was our compact mirrorless camera of the year for 2012, that's no small feat.
With a 16.1-megapixel APS-C image sensor, 10fps continuous shooting, and a great XGA OLED electronic viewfinder, the NEX-6 is an appealing option for novices and advanced shooters alike. With a sudden surge of high-quality NEX-compatible lenses about to hit the market, the NEX-6 already looks like one of the best values of 2013.
Design & Handling
A comfortable camera to shoot with, though the design isn't for everyone.
The NEX cameras have all followed a similar blueprint: thin bodies, plump grips, and a modern, simplistic design. As with other NEX bodies, most of the rear controls are unlabeled, their functions changing depending on what mode you’re currently shooting in. The NEX-7 took this to a new level, incorporating dual control dials allowing for truly customizable, manual control. The NEX-6 erhmm...dials this back a bit, with just a single control dial placed underneath a new physical mode dial.
Shooting with the NEX-6 is exceedingly comfortable. The grip is large, well-shaped, and covered with a pleasant rubberized material. The body is slightly more compact than the NEX-7, with a slightly shrunken width that actually aids balance when shooting with larger lenses. The overall build quality is quite nice, though some of the buttons sit too flush with the body and feel chintzy. The stacked dial setup works well, and the control dial has just the right amount of resistance. The loss of the second control dial isn't ideal, but the new physical mode dial is a worthy trade-off.
Our only real hangup with the NEX-6 is the menu system. While it’s certainly suitable for entry-level shooters, it feels a little out of place on a more advanced camera. There’s nothing egregious about the design, but it’s frustrating when everyday features like noise reduction and image stabilization are stashed away in the system menu, rather than in a more sensible place. Furthermore, the new applications sub-menu adds very little to the experience, asking you to download (and in some cases pay extra for) features that either aren't useful or should've been programmed into the camera to begin with.
WiFi & Other Features
The WiFi is half-baked, but the creative and auto modes are a boon to beginners.
While the Alpha NEX-6 is designed for slightly more advanced shooters, there are a great many features to assist shooters of all ability levels. Most of these are quite useful, aimed at beginners or those who just want some fun extras. Features like sweep panorama, intelligent auto plus, auto portrait framing, scene modes, and clear image zoom all add to the experience, though advanced shooters will likely ignore most of them entirely.
However, the headline feature is no doubt the built-in WiFi connectivity, which has made its way into practically every camera for the past year. While the idea of having a camera that can easily interface with your computer, television, or smartphone is appealing, nobody has made the experience feel seemless. On the NEX-6 sharing any image is a convoluted process that involves too many steps and not enough intuition. Just sharing a single photo or video requires putting the camera into WiFi standby, loading the Sony PlayMemories app on your smartphone, telling it which device you're looking for, and then waiting for it to fetch the contents off your camera.
Once all that is done you can check off any of your files, at which point you're prompted with two options: copy and upload. Copy will move the shot to your smartphone while upload will let you immediately push it to any number of apps already on your phone. This is great on paper, but disappointing in practice; as soon as you select which app you want to use (Gmail, for example) it kicks you out of PlayMemories and disconnects from the camera, forcing you start the whole process over with the next shot. Want to e-mail different pictures to different addresses? Hope you weren't doing anything important.
Improved AF complements performance that is on par with the NEX-7.
The NEX-6 performed very well in our tests, with fast continuous shooting speed, competitive dynamic range, and the ability to handle low light shooting without much trouble. The noise reduction system for in-camera JPEGs is incredibly aggressive (and can't be deactivated) though this isn't an issue when shooting in RAW, which we highly recommend. Most notably, the NEX-6’s autofocus is improved over the NEX-7, with far snappier lock-on times.
One of the major issues that held the NEX-7 back was the camera’s difficulty in locking on and tracking moving subjects. While the NEX-7 camera had remarkable burst speed, the inability to consistently action was tiresome. The NEX-6 fixes that with its hybrid phase/contrast detection autofocus system, which is more responsive than the contrast-only system that the NEX-7 utilized.
The result is a camera that performs well in a wider variety of conditions, with fewer frustrations than its predecessor. Unfortunately, that doesn’t hold true for the new 16-50mm kit lens. While it’s an able performer, the powered zoom functionality is unwelcome for everything except video shooting. Whether it’s the zoom lens returning to wide angle every time the camera powers off or accidentally nudging the lever and ruining your framing, this lens simply doesn’t seem suited to the kind of photography the NEX-6 was built for.
For video shooters, the news is also quite grim. The NEX-6 provides manual control over exposure while shooting, but the lack of a 3.5mm mic input and other audio features is a dealbreaker. The actual 1080/60p video quality isn't bad, but for the price there are better performers out there.
Besides that, the NEX-6 compares quite favorably to the more expensive NEX-7. The sensor quality seems to have taken a minor step forward, but the biggest reason to go with the NEX-6 over its predecessor is simply value. For just $849.99 body-only you get the same quality for roughly $300 less—plenty of scratch to put towards a better lens.
The NEX Lens System
Sony's system is on the rise.
Recommending Sony NEX cameras for the last couple of years has required one massive caveat: lens selection. While Sony has been perhaps the most aggressive company in promoting the use of lens adapters with its mirrorless cameras, the first-party lens options have been sorely lacking.
If you’re willing to invest in high-quality glass, the NEX system is about to get a lot more appealing. Sony's mirrorless camera system is set to grow in both quantity and quality this year. The biggest addition will be three new Carl Zeiss prime lenses, including the 12mm f/2.8, 32mm f/1.8, and 50mm f/2.8 macro. These will be available for both NEX and Fujifilm XF mounts, joining the Carl Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 that has long been the best native NEX lens you can buy. In addition, other third-party manufacturers like Tamron and Sigma have lenses ready for the NEX system, not to mention Sony’s own continued first-party efforts.
That's essential, as the competition from Fujifilm, Olympus, and Panasonic is formidable. The Micro Four-Thirds system still provides the best variety of lenses, including great first-party primes such as the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 and Olympus 75mm f/1.8, but the Sony system is coming around. The NEX equivalents will continue to be much bulkier due to the larger APS-C sensor, but at least Sony shooters won't be starved for choice.
One big exception we should reiterate is the 16-50mm powered zoom lens that Sony is kitting with the NEX-6. While we found the lens to be of acceptable optical quality, its ergonomics are very frustrating. Powered zooms may be a familiar comfort for point-and-shoot users, but the better option is to get an NEX-6 body by itself and put the extra money towards better glass.
A great performer at a great price
Sony’s NEX system has seen considerable growth since its inception just three short years ago. What started as two barely discernible options—the NEX-5 and NEX-3—has grown into a fine system with options for just about everyone. The NEX-7 also became one of the first premium mirrorless cameras, providing advanced features for those who want a body that isn’t just concerned with courting point-and-shoot users away from DSLRs.
The NEX-6 follows up on the NEX-7 by preserving a similar package—XGA OLED viewfinder, 16.1-megapixel APS-C image sensor, and fast shot-to-shot speed—while advancing in significant ways. The hybrid autofocus is flat-out better, the more compact body is well-balanced, and the addition of a physical mode dial is a welcome change.
This would already be a worthy update, but increased competition from the Fujifilm X-Pro1, Olympus OM-D E-M5, and the Panasonic GH3 have forced Sony to rethink its price points. The NEX-6 debuts for just $849.99 body-only, which undercuts all of those cameras (even at their discounted prices) by a considerable margin—all while returning similar—if not superior—quality.
We fully expect to see updates from both Fujifilm and Olympus this year, not to mention the promise of improved mirrorless cameras from both Nikon and Canon. Still, at its current price and based on what we’ve seen in our time with the camera in and out of the labs, the Sony Alpha NEX-6 provides one of the best values you can find.
The NEX-6 (MSRP $849.99 body-only, $999.99 with 16-50mm kit lens) comes stocked with a 16.1-megapixel APS-C image sensor, 10fps continuous shooting, and a BIONZ processor all at a body-only price of $849.99—several hundred dollars less than the Sony Alpha NEX-7 was at launch. In our labs we found the NEX-6 performed much like its predecessor, with excellent dynamic range, solid all-around performance, and a heaping amount of noise reduction. In addition, the NEX-6 uses a new hybrid autofocus system that better tracks moving subjects. Simply put, this is an NEX-7 in a smaller body at a (much) smaller price.
Color accuracy isn't Sony's bag, but the NEX-6 performs well enough.
Color accuracy has never been Sony's strong suit, as they tend to push colors more towards the vivid end of things. In our test we often find that the NEX cameras begin with accurate colors, but then exacerbate color errors by pushing saturation more than most manufacturers.
In the case of the NEX-6, we found the patten continued. The standard color mode returned an average color error (∆C00 uncorrected) of 2.75, though that falls to just 2.29 when you correct for the camera's 112% saturation. The standard mode was, by far, the most accurate of the lot, largely due to the fact that every other mode boosts saturation even further.
The NEX-6's dynamic range numbers are competitive with other APS-C cameras.
The NEX-6 uses a 16.1-megapixel APS-C image sensor and a BIONZ image processor. It's a similar platform to the NEX-7, and the performance is quite similar. In our testing we found a slight improvement of around a half stop at the base ISO, though that may be Sony merely fine-tuning the performance of an existing sensor.
At base ISO you can expect the NEX-6 to return about 12.6 stops of dynamic range when you're shooting in RAW. When shooting JPEG there's a heavy dose of noise reduction, though there's around 10.5 stops of visible range in the shots right out of the camera. You should be able to rescue some more detail from the shadows with JPEG images, though it's possible the noise reduction system will muddle fine detail too much to make that worthwhile at higher ISO speeds.
Aggressive noise reduction keeps grain down, but at the expense of fine detail.
There ISO range of the NEX-6 stretches from 100-25600, with two options for noise reduction: low or high. As with many Sony cameras the noise reduction settings are great their job, but they can't be turned off and they make a mess of fine details and texture while suppressing grain at high ISO speeds.
At the low NR setting we found that noise was kept to just 0.45% at base ISO, and under 2% all the way through the maximum ISO of 25600. On most cameras this would qualify as the "high" or maximum amount of noise reduction. On the NEX-6 there's still the "high" setting, which keeps noise under 1% all the way up to ISO 12800, with noise only reaching 1.3% at maximum ISO.
Those are great numbers, but they're bought with the loss of fine detail and muddled textures. It's not very noticeable at web resolution, but it's especially glaring if you want to print your image to a large size or bring up the levels. If we get around the noise reduction system by shooting RAW, the NEX-6 produces 0.69% noise at ISO 100, with 1.74% noise visible at ISO 800. Beyond that the noise levels increase dramatically, hitting 2.45% at ISO 1600, 5.51% at ISO 6400, and 13.67% at ISO 25600. Again, you'll probably apply at least a little noise reduction when developing RAW, but it's important to know that the in-camera noise reduction settings are extremely aggressive and can only be avoided by shooting in RAW.
To see a full gallery of real world shots as well as our full resolution studio samples (from ISO 100-25600) you can head over to our Sample Photo gallery.
Continuous Shooting Speed
The impressive shooting speed is underpinned by an improved AF system.
The Sony NEX-6 is one of the fastest mirrorless cameras on the market—no surprise, given that most of the NEX cameras are very quick. The NEX-6 is capable of shot-to-shot speeds of up to 10fps when capturing images at full resolution. It even maintains that speed when shooting RAW+JPEG, though it can only capture nine such shots before it has to stop entirely and clear the internal buffer. When shooting just JPEG images you can capture 12 shots in a burst, at which point the camera slows to around one frame per second as it writes to the memory card.
The NEX-7 put up identical numbers in this test, though it had one glaring flaw when it came to capturing action: autofocus. The NEX-7's contrast-based AF system was rather slow to lock onto moving subjects. The NEX-6 solves this dilemma by including phase detection autofocus points on the image sensor itself, allowing the camera to better track motion and predict where the subject will move. The result is noticeably snappier AF, even in low light, with the ability to track a subject across the frame. It isn't perfect, but it gives the NEX-6 a leg up when it comes to capturing action.
Video is an afterthought with the NEX-6.
Video isn't the NEX-6's strong suit, thanks to a lack of audio features. The camera has a built-in stereo microphone, but lacks the 3.5mm mic input that many competing models have. In addition, the lack of audio level control will certainly cause most serious video shooters to look elsewhere irrespective of the actual video quality.
Despite this lack of features, the NEX-6 actually performs quite well. It records 1080/60p video that adheres to the AVCHD 2.0 standard, though 24p is also available. You can also set it to record in .MP4, which is easier to edit but tops out at 1080p and either 24 or 30 frames per second.
We found the 1080/60p to be the highest quality of the lot, with fair sharpness numbers and improved low light sensitivity. In bright light the 1080/60p video was able to resolve up to 750 line pairs / picture height vertically and 675 horizontally. In low light those numbers dropped slightly, to 675 LP/PH vertically and 625 horizontally. The NEX-6 required just 11 lux of light to produce an image that hit 50 IRE on a waveform monitor—a standard measure of brightness. This is slightly better than the NEX-7, though it's about average for the price point.
In total, if you're serious about shooting video we recommend looking elsewhere. The NEX-6 can certainly capture some nice video in a pinch, but there are plenty of cameras around this price range with more features and higher video quality.
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