Compact cameras with swappable lenses are big news in camera town. This is mainly thanks to the sterling work of the Olympus Pen and Panasonic G series. But now Sony has revealed its take on mixing compact dinkiness with DSLR quality – the NEX-5.
Rather than using the Micro Four Thirds system of its rivals, the NEX-5 has a 14.2MP APS-C sensor – the same size as those found in DSLRs – and its own range of E-mount lenses. There are only three of these available at the moment (16mm f2.8, 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 and 18-200mm f3.5-6.3), but you can also attach Sony and Minolta’s A-Mount lenses via a £150 LA-EA1 adaptor.
Flat as a pancake
The NEX-5’s sizeable sensor is good news for photo quality. Even at higher ISO levels, shots are amazingly crisp and it gives you the option to shoot with very shallow depth of field for arty blurry backgrounds and sharply focused objects.
It’s certainly smaller and lighter than any other interchangeable lens camera out there, and with the 16mm pancake lens it’s almost unbelievably wee. Sony has still found space, though, for a brilliantly sharp 3in TruBlack screen that can be tilted either up or down – handy for framing shots at tricky angles.
There’s no built-in flash, but every NEX-5 comes with a separate flash unit in the box. This can be mounted on top when needed, although it’s a bit fiddly and also means you won’t be able to use other accessories like the optical viewfinder or microphone.
The NEX-5 is packed with modes that help reduce complex DLSR lingo and techniques to compact camera simplicity. One of the best is ‘Background Defocus’, which is basically aperture control by another name.
In most NEX-5 shooting modes this means you can simply spin the control wheel to increase the depth of field and have it instantly previewed on the screen. Defocused backgrounds generally work best for portraits, as the subject remains sharp while the backdrop is beautifully blurred out.
Set the NEX-5 to speed priority continuous shooting and it rattles off up to seven snaps a second, although exposure and focus are fixed from the first shot. Alternatively, flip it to regular continuous and these are set before each individual snap, although speed drops to around 3fps. In practise we found it a bit slower than that.
Sweep Panorama means you can move the camera in an arc, have it take a load of shots and then it automatically stitches them into a single 8192x1856 resolution panoramic photo. There’s still the occasional visible stitch, but it’s much more refined and sharp than on the HX5 and HX1 compact cameras.
Readying itself for the boom in 3D tellys, Sony has recently provided a firmware update that lets you take Sweep Panorama in 3D, then display it on a 3D telly (via HDMI or through a PS3). It wasn’t available at the time of testing, but the demo shots looked pretty amazing at Sony’s preview event so we have high hopes for this feature.
The NEX-5 captures full-fat AVCHD video at 1080i quality – not the AVCHD Lite often found on smaller cameras. There’s also stereo sound, and the lenses have been engineered so that focusing and zooming will not cause sound to be picked up. Video quality is amazingly sharp – and don’t forget you’ll be able to bolt on full size Alpha lenses via the optional adapter (it’s worth noting that you can only use manual rather than autofocus with these lenses though).
With its dinky dimensions, solid build, genuinely useful special shooting modes and excellent stills and video performance, the NEX-5 is a strong rival to Olympus and Panasonic’s Micro Four Thirds cameras. Its lack of buttons and simplified approach mean the Panasonic GF1 has more appeal for photography purists or DSLR owners looking for a second camera, but amateurs looking to move on from compact point-and-shoots will find it hard to resist.