Support Cameralabs by shopping at our partner stores or donating via Paypal
 






Follow my RSS feed at Camera Labs RSS Feed
 
  Latest camera reviews

Sony Cyber-shot H400
Canon ELPH 340 IXUS 265
Canon G7X
Nikon P530
Canon SX520 HS
Canon G1 X Mark II
Panasonic Lumix FZ1000
Panasonic TZ60 / ZS40
Sony RX100 III review
Sony A3000 review
Canon EOS 1200D T5
Sony WX350
Nikon P600
Sony Alpha A5000
Sony Cyber-shot HX400V
Panasonic Lumix GH4
Panasonic TS5 FT5
Sony Alpha A6000
Canon SX700 HS
Canon SX600 HS
Olympus TOUGH TG2
Nikon AW1
Nikon D3300
Fujifilm XT1
Olympus STYLUS 1
Sony Cyber-shot RX10
Olympus OMD EM1
Panasonic Lumix GM1
Nikon D610
Sony Alpha A7
Nikon D5300
Canon PowerShot A2500
Sony Alpha A7r
Canon ELPH 130 IXUS 140
Nikon COOLPIX P520
Nikon COOLPIX L820
Canon PowerShot S120
Panasonic Lumix GX7
Canon SX510 HS
Canon PowerShot G16
Fujifilm X20
Panasonic FZ70 / FZ72
Canon EOS 70D
Sony RX100 II
Canon ELPH 330 IXUS 255
Panasonic Lumix GF6
Fujifilm XM1
Olympus EP5
Panasonic Lumix LF1
Panasonic TZ35 / ZS25
Olympus XZ2
Sony HX300
Panasonic Lumix G6
Sony HX50V
Fujifilm X100S
Canon SX280 HS
Canon EOS SL1 / 100D
Panasonic TZ40 / ZS30
Nikon D7100
Nikon COOLPIX A
Fujifilm X-E1
Canon EOS 6D
Nikon D5200
Panasonic Lumix GH3
Canon PowerShot S110
Panasonic Lumix G5
Sony NEX-6
Panasonic Lumix FZ200
Canon PowerShot SX50 HS
Nikon COOLPIX P7700
Olympus E-PL5
Canon EOS M
Panasonic TS20 / FT20
Canon PowerShot G15
Nikon D600
Nikon COOLPIX L810
Canon PowerShot D20
Sony RX100
Panasonic Lumix LX7
Canon SX500 IS
Fujifilm HS30 EXR
Sony HX200V
Panasonic FZ60 / FZ62
Canon 520HS / 500HS
Canon 110HS / 125HS
Nikon D800
Canon EOS T4i / 650D
Canon PowerShot A3400
Panasonic ZS15 / TZ25
Olympus E-M5
Nikon D3200
Fujifilm X-Pro1
Canon PowerShot A2300
Canon SX240 / SX260
Samsung NX200
Sony Alpha SLT-A77
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Panasonic ZS20 / TZ30
Canon PowerShot G1 X
Sony NEX-7
Panasonic GX1
Olympus E-PM1
Nikon V1
Sony NEX-5N
Canon EOS T3 / 1100D
Canon EOS 600D / T3i
Nikon D7000
Canon EOS 60D
Canon EOS 550D / T2i
Canon EOS 7D

All camera reviews
 
 
   
 
  Best Buys: our top models
   
  Best Canon lens
Best Nikon lens
Best Sony lens
Best budget DSLR
Best mid-range DSLR
Best semi-pro DSLR
Best point and shoot
Best superzoom
Best camera accessories
   
 



Camera Labs Forum

Any questions, comments or a great tip to share? Join my Camera forum and let everyone know!
   
 
  DSLR Tips



 
Free Shipping on ALL Products
Sony Alpha NEX 3 / 5 (firmware v2) Gordon Laing, September 2010

Click here to find out about the Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5 Movie Modes

 

Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5 lenses, focus, sensor & drive

The Alpha NEX-3 and NEX-5 employ Sony's brand new E-mount for interchangeable lenses. It's a 100% electronic system and since the NEX cameras feature relatively large APS-C sized sensors, the E-mount also has an appropriately large diameter; indeed the outer edge of bayonet mount touches the top and bottom of the NEX-3 and actually protrudes a little above and below the smaller NEX-5 body. It really brings home both the compact size of the bodies and the large sensors housed within.

 
 
 
 
 







Like Micro Four Thirds before it, the E-mount enjoys a relatively short lens to sensor distance thanks to the absence of the traditional DSLR mirror and optical viewfinder. Despite featuring a larger sensor and wider diameter mount though, the NEX lens to sensor distance is actually a fraction shorter than Micro Four Thirds. This coupled with a protruding lens mount rather than one which is flush to the front surface contributes to the thinner proportions of the NEX bodies compared to rivals. It's an impressive achievement.

 

Any new system lives or dies by its selection of lenses and at the time of writing, Sony offered three for its new E-mount: an 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 kit zoom, a 16mm f2.8 pancake prime, and an 18-200mm f3.5-5.6 super-zoom. Since the NEX cameras share the same sized sensor as the Alpha DSLRs, they also inherit the same 1.5x field-reduction factor, so the three lenses deliver equivalent focal lengths of 27-83mm, 24mm and 27-300mm respectively. Sony also offers a pair of wide angle converters which attach to the 16mm pancake: once converts it into a 12mm (18mm equivalent) and the other converts it into an ultra-wide fisheye.

Unlike the Alpha DSLRs though, there's no room for sensor-shift stabilisation in the tiny NEX bodies. Instead Sony's opted for optical stabilisation, included on both the 18-55mm and 18-200mm zooms, but not the 16mm pancake. This is no different to the Panasonic Lumix G series, which also relies on optically stabilised lenses, but is a key downside compared to the Olympus models which boast built-in stabilisation which works with any lens you attach. We'll test the stabilisation of the Sony NEX 18-55mm kit lens in just a moment.

 
 

While three lenses is obviously a minimal selection, Sony has plans for more and in the meantime, adapters are available for mounting alternatives. As Micro Four Thirds owners already know, the benefit of a short lens to sensor distance is the ability to adapt the mount to handle virtually any lens system. For starters, Sony offers its LA-EA1 adapter which allows you to fit full-sized Alpha lenses on the NEX, although the 100% electronic E-mounting means there's no autofocus. Sony has however promised support for AF on SAM and SSM lenses with a firmware update in mid-October 2010. Note the adapter features its own tripod mount, eliminating fears over the small mating area on the NEX-5.

Beyond Sony's systems, Rayqual offers adapters which allow the NEX cameras to use Nikon F, Canon FD, Leica M, Contax / Yashica and Pentax K mount lenses. Cosina also offers a Voigtlander VM adapter. You're looking at around $100-$200 USD for an adapter, and again you'll be manually focusing, but the opportunity to use some of the best quality lenses around is a big advantage, especially as native E-mount options are currently limited.

As for the initial triplet of E-mount lenses, Sony's unusually avoided plastic construction and instead opted for much classier metal bodies. The three E-mount lenses really do look and feel the business. Impressively they also autofocus in virtual silence, which coupled with the decent build quality give them a real edge over most noisy, plastic-bodied DSLR kit lenses. Polariser fans will also be pleased to learn the filter mount doesn't rotate while focusing.

As for Sony's choice of focal lengths for its first three E-mount lenses, the two zoom ranges aren't surprising, but some may question the decision to produce a wide prime before any other. Olympus and Panasonic opted for arguably more sensible 17 and 20mm focal lengths for their initial pancake primes, equivalent to 34 and 40mm respectively. These can be used as general-purpose lenses, whereas the 24mm equivalent focal length of the Sony 16mm is best-suited to landscape and architectural work.

Of course lens focal lengths are very personal choices. While a 24mm equivalent is way too wide for traditional portrait work or achieving shallow depth-of-field effects, it may be right up your street for other types of photography. Indeed rather than seeing it as a mistake by Sony, it could be a key reason to go for the NEX system over rivals; it's certainly one of our favourite focal lengths for general travel photography. But before you choose the NEX for its 16mm alone though, be aware the Olympus lens roadmap states a wide prime between 20 and 30mm equivalent (not to mention new fisheye and macro) will be available for Micro Four Thirds in Spring 2011 – and of course when mounted on an Olympus Micro Four Thirds body, they'll become stabilised too.

But back to the E-mount and the 18-55mm kit zoom which we used for our test shots. As stated above, this delivers an equivalent range of 27-83mm and to illustrate the coverage in practice we took shots with it fully zoomed-in and out from a tripod at our standard outdoor test location. You can see the coverage below, and can check out the performance of the lens at different apertures in our results pages – it's better than you'd think for a kit lens.

Sony SEL1855 18-55mm kit lens coverage when zoomed out and in
18-55mm at 18mm (27mm equivalent)
  18-55mm at 55mm (83mm equivalent)


As explained above, the 18-55mm and 18-200mm E-mount zooms employ optical stabilisation, which is enabled or disabled using a menu option rather than a physical switch. To put its effectiveness to the test we took a series of photos with it zoomed-into an equivalent of 83mm, where traditional photographic advice would recommend a shutter speed of at least 1/83 to eliminate camera shake.

Our sequence started at 1/80 and reduced by one stop each time until 1/10. We performed this sequence twice, first without OSS enabled, and secondly with OSS enabled. Below are 100% crops taken from the non-OSS and OSS images at a shutter speed of 1/10.

Sony SEL1855 18-55mm kit lens OSS stabilisation at 55mm
100% crop, 1/10, 18-55mm at 55mm (83mm equivalent), OSS off
  100% crop, 1/10, 18-55mm at 55mm (83mm equivalent), OSS on


As you can see, the version with OSS is much clearer than that without, and delivering a steady image at 1/10 corresponds to around three stops over conventional wisdom.

Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5 focusing, face and smile detection

   
   
   
   
   

As mirror-less cameras, the Alpha NEX-3 and NEX-5 rely on contrast-based autofocusing, just like Micro Four Thirds and conventional compacts. The NEX-3 and NEX-5 offer three different AF modes: 25-area Multi, Centre and Flexible Spot; the latter allows you to position a small AF area almost anywhere on the frame, and considerately dedicates the lower soft key to readjustments if required.  

In addition you can choose between Single Shot AF (AF-S) and Continuous AF (AF-C) modes. You can also opt for DMF which lets you make manual adjustments after autofocusing, or complete Manual focus control. All focusing options are in the Camera menu, although Setup offers an additional MF Assist option which enlarges the view by seven or 14 times when manually focusing for easier confirmation.

In use with the 18-55mm kit lens, the autofocus system felt fairly snappy – not lightning fast, but certainly able to lock onto most subjects in less than a second. Side-by-side with the Olympus E-P2 (running its latest firmware), both cameras felt similar in AF speed. Where the Sony NEX system really scores though – at least with the kit lens anyway – is the AF noise. The Micro Four Thirds models were already fairly quiet, but the NEX kit lens operates in virtual silence; it's certainly in considerable contrast to typical DSLR kit lenses which can audibly grind away while autofocusing. The NEX cameras also support continuous AF while filming video, and we'll discuss that more in our Movie Mode page.

   

Like Micro Four Thirds, manual focusing is motor-assisted. This can feel a little detached if you're used to a mechanical system, but becomes familiar over time. The magnified focusing assistance views coupled with the high resolution screen makes it easy to manually focus very precisely.

The NEX cameras also feature face detection, and like Sony's latest Cyber-shots you can actually choose whether to prioritise Adult or Child faces, and amazingly it works too. If face detection is enabled, but no faces are detected, the camera reverts to the 25-area Multi-AF mode.

In use the face detection on the NEX cameras proved less reliable than the company's compacts though. There were many occasions when it failed to lock onto either adult or infant faces, instead reverting to the 25-area AF system. We believe this may be down to the face detection operating more confidently with subjects that are already in fairly sharp focus, and that the comparatively shallow depth of field of the NEX compared to a compact was tripping it up. Either way when using traditional compacts alongside the NEX, the latter definitely felt less confident and consistent at face detection which might be an issue for some point-and-shoot upgraders.

The NEX also features Sony's Smile Shutter technology, enabled in the Camera menu. This actually measures the size of your subject's smile, indicating their apparent cheeriness on a scale on the left. It’s surprisingly effective at doing it too, and fun to watch as the bar rises and falls as their expression changes. Then when the user-selectable trigger point is reached, the camera automatically takes a photo. There's three trigger options, with the mildest firing the shot with little more than a demure raise of the lips, while the strongest requires full-on toothy grins. So long as the face detection system has already locked-onto the subject, the Smile Shutter works very effectively.

Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5 shooting modes

Sony may primarily target the NEX-3 and NEX-5 at beginners, but both cameras offer a wealth of shooting modes to choose from. In the absence of a physical dial, the most common modes (according to Sony) are selected on-screen from the Shoot Mode menu. The options are: Intelligent Auto, SCN, Anti Motion Blur, Sweep Panorama, 3D Sweep Panorama (on version 2 firmware onwards), Manual, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Program.

The Shoot Menu is the first option in the main menu system, which you can access most times by pressing the upper soft key. Alternatively with the NEX set to anything other than Intelligent Auto, you can directly adjust the shooting mode by pressing the button in the centre of the control wheel and turning it to the desired setting.

Choosing Intelligent Auto from the virtual mode dial
  Intelligent Auto recognising a landscape view

Intelligent Auto mode employs scene detection which attempts to figure out what you're photographing and adjust the settings accordingly. Depending on the subject, the camera can automatically switch between Night View, Tripod Night View, Night Portrait, Backlight, Backlight Portrait, Portrait, Landscape and Macro. If none are recognised the camera defaults to a standard automatic mode.

Like its latest Cyber-shot compacts, the NEX's Intelligent Auto mode works very well in practice. Point it at a distant subject under reasonable lighting and the NEX is likely to select the Landscape preset. Point it at a person or a very close subject and it'll switch to Portrait or Macro respectively. Take a shot under dim conditions and Night View will be activated, and cleverly if the camera doesn't detect any wobbling, it'll assume you've got it mounted somewhere steady and choose Tripod Night View. As mentioned earlier, the optional Shooting Tips are dynamically related to the current scene mode, so if the NEX thinks you're shooting close-ups and selects its macro mode, then the tips also become focused to taking close-ups – clever stuff.

   
   

Intelligent Auto also presents a beginner-friendly means by which to adjust the depth-of-field, using a 'Bkground Defocus' scale on the right side of the screen; simply turn the control wheel to choose between Defocus at one end of the scale and Crisp at the other. As you turn the wheel towards Crisp, the aperture closes, increasing the depth-of-field and vice versa. It's a nice idea and works fairly well, although anyone unfamiliar with the other impacts of selecting small aperture settings - such as f-numbers in double figures - should beware as they can produce a softer image due to diffraction, not to mention run the risk of camera shake due to subsequently longer exposures.

   
   

If you like the automatic life, but prefer to point the camera in the right direction, the SCN position offers eight presets including Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports / Action, Sunset, Night Portrait, Night View and Handheld Twilight; each is accompanied by a page which describes the mode with a sample image of how it might be used. The most interesting of the Scene presets is Handheld Twilight mode, which really ought to have its own position on the virtual dial alongside Anti Motion Blur. Both of these modes share an innovative approach to the problems of shooting in low light so we'll describe them together.

Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5 Handheld Twilight and Anti Motion Blur

   
   

First seen on Sony's top-end Cyber-shots like the HX5 and TX7, the Handheld Twilight (HHT) and Anti Motion Blur (AMB) modes both fire-off six frames in less than a second before combining them into a single image. HHT is designed for static subjects in low light and combines its frames to reduce visible noise. AMB is designed to combat blur due to movement in low light and combines its frames in an attempt to generate a sharp result. The sound of the shutter firing six times in quick succession before resetting itself is far from discreet and guarantees some head turning from anyone within ear-shot, but the results can be excellent.

We believe the HHT and AMB modes are so important we've dedicated detailed results pages to each. Along with comparing them side-by-side with the normal NEX modes, we've included several comparisons with rival cameras, where the low light advantage of the NEX cameras becomes clear.

Indeed the HHT and AMB modes are so effective, our only complaint is they're not implemented as standard in the Intelligent Auto mode. Sure, you'd need to warn the photographer the shutter will noisily fire multiple times (and allow them to choose a normal mode for discretion if preferred), but at anything above 400 ISO, the HHT mode really makes a difference to noise levels, while the AMB mode is ideal for subjects in slight motion under low light without a flash. Both modes are key advantages of the Sony NEX cameras over the competition. See our Sony NEX Handheld Twilight results and Sony NEX Anti Motion Blur results.

Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5 Sweep Panorama

   
   
Next up on the virtual mode dial comes Sony's Sweep Panorama, again first seen on selected Cyber-shot compacts. This again exploits the quick continuous shooting capabilities to fire-off a burst as you pan the camera across a scene. The camera then automatically stitches the frames into a single panoramic photo within mere seconds.

As before you can choose the panning direction from left to right, right to left, or vertically from down to up or up to down. You can also select between standard or extra wide image sizes, although this time, the resolution is slightly higher than the Cyber-shots. Instead of a 1080 pixel height for horizontal panoramas, the NEX cameras shoot at 1856 pixels tall by 8192 or 12416 pixels wide, depending on the size selected; the wider of the two represents a 201 degree sweep with the kit zoom at 18mm. Vertical panoramas measure now 2160 pixels wide by either 3872 or 5536 pixels tall, again depending on the size selected. The vertical panorama mode can also be used for a horizontal sweep with the camera turned to the portrait orientation if preferred.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 Sweep Panorama samples


Both images taken with 18-55mm at 18mm (27mm equivalent)


In use the Sweep Panorama is certainly impressive. As you shoot, a frame on the screen guides you through the pan and asks you to repeat if you're moving too fast. If you stop moving before the maximum image width, the camera simply records a grey area you can crop-out later. At first glance the results look great, although like most panoramic stitching there can be errors depending on the subject, distance and focal length. If the subject moves during the pan, such as a boat bobbing or tree swaying, there'll almost certainly be some ghosting, while anything at close range may suffer from parallax effects. But zoom-out, keep your distance and the results can look wonderful.

Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5 3D Panorama

 
 
 
 
 
 

Update the NEX cameras to firmware version 2 and they'll additionally offer a 3D Sweep Panorama mode. This exploits the panning motion to generate depth information which can be interpreted by a compatible 3D TV over HDMI to deliver a 3D image. You also get a 16:9 image option along with the standard and wide sizes, although this time the maximum height of all three is 1080 pixels. In 3D Panorama mode, the NEX cameras record two files: a standard 2D JPEG which can be viewed and used as normal, and an accompanying MPO file which contains the depth information; the MPO files typically measure between 1 and 3MB each.

It sounds like an amazing feature, especially considering there's only one lens, but the conditions are stricter than the normal Sweep Panorama mode. First it's only available for horizontal pans. Secondly you'll need to get the panning speed just right or the NEX will abort and ask you to try again.

To put the 3D capabilities to the test we updated our NEX-5 to firmware version 2 and photographed a variety of scenes with depth in mind. We then connected the NEX-5 to two different 3D TV sets using an HDMI cable: the Samsung UA55C7000, a 55in LED set, and the Panasonic TH-P50VT20, a 50in Plasma set. Many thanks to the Noel Leeming store in Remarkables Park, Queenstown for letting us try out both sets.

By default, the NEX cameras output their 3D images in 2D, allowing you to view them as normal. To view them in 3D, you'll need to enable '3D Viewing' in the Playback menu, which is only available when connected to a compatible 3D TV over HDMI. Once connected and enabled, the NEX cameras display an additional menu which lets you push a button to confirm 3D playback, after which you're in business.

We were initially sceptical about how well it would work, but were impressed to see clear depth effects from the 3D Panorama images during playback on both sets (using their respective 3D goggles). As with 2D playback, wide or standard panoramas could be viewed in their entirety, or enlarged to fill the screen and scrolled smoothly. Images shot in the 16:9 3D Panorama mode simply filled the screen and remained still.

In our test shots, the 3D effect always appeared behind the screen, not in front of it. The effect was also variable depending on the subject matter. Unsurprisingly our shots which included mostly distant landscapes had the least impact. Those which included very close subjects may have revealed the greatest depth effect, but often suffered from stitching errors. The most effective 3D Panoramas were those with subjects no closer than about one meter, but which also included a distant background. Sony recommends keeping subjects no closer than 3m.

We've pictured examples two below - albeit presented in 2D from the JPEG files: the first was our most effective 3D capture, while the second proved problematic due to very close subjects and stitching errors - although to be fair, the subjects were much closer than Sony recommends for this mode.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 3D Panorama samples (using the 2D JPEG file)


Both images taken with 18-55mm at 18mm (27mm equivalent)


Since the 3D mode creates a normal 2D JPEG image in addition to its dedicated MPO depth file, you might wonder why you wouldn't shoot all your panoramas in 3D mode for 'future-proofing'. Well you could, but the 3D mode shoots at a lower resolution than the normal Sweep Panorama and is limited to the horizontal direction, not to mention demanding a stricter panning motion. But if you're happy with a 1080 pixel height and carefully shooting all your panoramas horizontally, then you may as well opt for the 3D mode and enjoy their extra depth when connected to a 3D set.

Ultimately while the 3D effect is nowhere near as good as that of a decent 3D animated movie, it remains a fun and impressive capability, given there's only one lens on the camera. When the subject matter is right, the effect can look good, and adds yet another unique string to the NEX bow.

Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5 PASM modes and bracketing

   
   

Following the innovative automatic, stacking and stitching modes, the traditional Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual modes may lack glamour, but they do let you take control over the NEX exposures. The NEX-3 and NEX-5 offer shutter speeds of 1/4000 to 30 seconds in 1/3EV steps and a Bulb option in Manual for longer exposures. Bulb is more practical on the NEX-5 as the camera supports the optional RMT-DSLR1 IR remote control to trigger the shutter, whereas the NEX-3 forces you to press the shutter release button; we're confirming with Sony on the maximum length of Bulb exposures and whether you'll need to keep your finger on the remote for the duration. The maximum flash sync speed is 1/160.

Adjusting the aperture and shutter speed in their respective Priority modes is as simple as turning the control wheel, although we were a little disappointed not to find Shift in Program mode. Exposure compensation is available in a +/-2EV range with 1/3EV increments; note compensation is not available in Intelligent Auto.

Bracketing is available from the Drive menu with three frames taken in the choice of either 1/3 or 2/3EV increments. This may seem a little restrictive until you discover the NEX's built-in High Dynamic Range (HDR) option. The HDR mode, available from the DRO / Auto HDR section in the Brightness / Colour menu, fires-off three frames at a choice of exposure increments, then automatically combines them into a single image with increased dynamic range – great for protecting detail in highlights and shadows, and like the camera's other cunning modes can be used handheld.

   
   

By default, the NEX chooses the exposure increment for you in Auto HDR mode, but pressing the lower soft key allows you to manually select exposure increments of 1 to 6EV in single EV steps; that's a huge range and while HDR aficionados may have preferred an additional option to shoot more than three frames (or have broader bracketing options for HDR assembly on their computers), it remains a very powerful feature to find in-camera. It's also worth noting Sony's Alpha A550 only combined two exposures up to 3EV apart in its HDR mode, so having three here with a 6EV range is a significant step-up.

To put the Auto HDR mode to the test we photographed our standard low light scene with DRO disabled, then with HDR Auto enabled; we let the NEX decide on the exposure increment. The results, along with their respective histograms are shown below.

Sony Alpha NEX HDR comparison in Aperture Priority: DRO disabled / HDR Auto
 
     
 
DRO disabled, 1/20, f4, 200 ISO
 
HDR Auto, 1/20, f4, 200 ISO (from EXIF data)

You don't need to analyse the histograms to see the impact of Auto HDR on this particular composition: dark shadow areas have been lifted and saturated highlights brought down to deliver an image with a much higher tonal dynamic range than before. It's also clear from the histograms how mid tones have been boosted and shadow areas softened. Whether you like the result or not is personal, although with the chance to manually intervene and choose your own exposure increments, the NEX cameras deliver the most powerful in-camera HDR feature we've tested to date. Note when testing the Cyber-shot HX5 we needed to meter for highlight areas to get the most from its HDR mode, but that wasn't as necessary when shooting with the NEX cameras. You really can point and shoot in this mode and enjoy excellent results.

Once again our biggest complaint about the HDR mode on the NEX cameras is that it's hidden away in a Brightness / Colour sub-menu. We'd argue that HDR, along with the Handheld Twilight modes deserve top-billing alongside Anti Motion Blur and Sweep Panorama on the main mode dial. These are not novelty modes: they're truly useful tools which give the NEX cameras a key advantage over the competition. It's certainly interesting to see how Sony's designed the NEX cameras as its own Cyber-shot HX5 compact not only sported a physical mode dial, but one which proudly featured its HDR and Handheld Twilight modes alongside Anti Motion Blur and Sweep Panorama. Is Sony really trying to tell us the NEX cameras are aimed at a lower-end customer than the HX5?

Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5 sensor

 

The Alpha NEX-3 and NEX-5 are equipped with a brand new 14.2 Megapixel CMOS sensor, measuring 23.4x15.6mm and delivering 3:2 aspect ratio images with a maximum resolution of 4592x3056 pixels. This is exactly the same size as the APS-C sensors employed by the vast majority of cropped-frame DSLRs and a major advantage the NEX system has over arch rival Micro Four Thirds. Considering Micro Four Thirds (and full-size Four Thirds) employ sensors measuring 17.3x13mm, the NEX sensors boast a surface area that's over 50% larger.

Support this site by shopping at Amazon



Like Micro Four Thirds cameras, the NEX sensor is visible when you remove the lens. When taking a shot, the shutter curtain actually has to close first before opening and closing to make the exposure, before finally opening again to the default position. It may alarm some to find the sensor exposed and vulnerable without a lens attached, but like Micro Four Thirds, the low pass filter protects the surface and is considerably tougher than a delicate shutter curtain. Understandably there's some concern over dust settling on the sensor, but we only noticed the tell-tale marks on a handful of images taken at small apertures, and a quick blast from a Giotto's Rocket blower sent them all packing.

 
 
 

The NEX-3 and NEX-5 offer two lower resolutions at 7.4 and 3.5 Megapixels respectively, along with a cropped 16:9 mode with three resolutions at 12, 6.3 and 2.9 Megapixels. Images can be saved with Standard or Fine JPEG compression, or recorded as a RAW file either by itself or accompanied with a JPEG.

Best quality Large Fine JPEGs typically measure between 4 and 6MB each, while RAW files typically measure just shy of 15MB each. As discussed above, you'll need to enter the Image Size menu to adjust the settings, and remember if RAW or RAW plus JPEG are selected, the HDR mode will be unavailable.

Like the Alpha A550, the sensitivity runs between 200 and 12,800 ISO in 1EV increments, with High ISO noise reduction applied with the choice of Auto or Weak levels (there’s no Off option). Long exposure noise reduction is enabled by default, applying to exposures of one second or longer, although this can be disabled if preferred. There’s no expansion to the ISO range, so 200 is both the base and lowest setting, while the top value of 12,800 ISO is as far as the camera will go. This highest ISO is double that of the Olympus E-P1 / E-P2 and four times the maximum sensitivity of the Panasonic Lumix GF1; you can see how the NEX performs across its sensitivity range in our High ISO Noise results.

We believe the Auto ISO setting (used by Intelligent Auto and available as an option in the PASM modes) uses a range between 200 and 1600 ISO, although can confirm both the Handheld Twilight and Anti Motion Blur modes can access sensitivities up to 6400 ISO. While manual control over sensitivity can only be made in 1EV steps, the Auto modes have access to smaller increments – indeed in our tests the HHT and AMB modes regularly selected in-between values which prevented direct comparisons with the normal settings in our results pages.

Like most Sony cameras, the NEX-3 and NEX-5 apply contrast, saturation and sharpness using a series of Creative Styles. The NEX cameras offer a choice of Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset and Black and White, with all but the latter offering optional tweaking of contrast, saturation and sharpness in +/-3 steps; the Black and White Creative Style of course loses the saturation control, although sadly doesn't replace it with a choice of colour filters.

We used the Standard Creative Style for our tests and found it delivered pleasingly natural-looking images which were neither over-cooked nor lacking in vibrancy.

Alongside Auto White Balance are Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent and Flash presets, each of which can be tweaked in value. The NEX cameras additionally offer a Custom White Balance option and direct entry of colour temperature in a range of 2500 to 9900K with 19-step Magenta and Green compensation.

Like other Alphas, the NEX cameras are equipped with Sony’s D-Range Optimiser (DRO) feature which can adjust the tonal range as you record the image; you can access this through the Brightness / Colour menu. DRO can be set to Auto (the default) or manually from a scale of one to five. We used the default Auto setting for our gallery shots, but disabled it for our High ISO results as it can artificially increase noise levels.

Sony Alpha NEX DRO comparison in Aperture Priority: DRO disabled / DRO Auto
 
     
 
DRO disabled, 1/20, f4, 200 ISO
 
DRO Auto, 1/20, f4, 200 ISO

To put DRO to the test we photographed our standard low-light High ISO scene with DRO disabled then set to Auto. You can see the full images above, with their respective brightness histograms below. In this particular example, the effect is subtle, and you may need to consult the histograms to see the Auto DRO option has a slight boost in mid-tones.

DRO does a fair job at adjusting the contrast in tricky scenes, but much of the glory is snatched by the HDR option available from the same menu; we've covered that in detail in the shooting modes section above.

Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5 drive modes

Support this site by shopping below

 
 
 

Following a very welcome trend with a number of Sony cameras, the NEX-3 and NEX-5 offer above average continuous shooting abilities. Each camera offers two continuous shooting modes: one which fires at 2.6fps and a 'Speed Priority' option which locks the focus and exposure on the first frame, but accelerates the rate to an impressive 7fps. It's this speed which allows the NEX cameras to support Sony's innovative stacking and stitching modes.

With the NEX equipped with a 2GB Memory Stick PRO Duo card, the shutter speed set to 1/500, the sensitivity at 200 ISO and DRO on Auto, we fired-off 50 Large Fine JPEG frames in a fraction under 21 seconds, corresponding to a rate of 2.4fps. Switching to RAW allowed us to fire-off seven frames in just under three seconds before the camera paused briefly for breath; again this corresponded to around 2.4fps.

Moving onto Speed Priority mode we fired-off 20 Large Fine JPEGs in 3.2 seconds before the camera began to vary its rate – albeit remaining fairly quick. This initial burst corresponded to a rate of 6.25fps. Switching to RAW again allowed the same seven frames to be captured as before, but at the faster rate. So slightly slower than the quoted specification, but still pretty swift.

In the normal continuous shooting mode, the NEX cameras deliver roughly the same speed as the Olympus E-P1 / E-P2 and Panasonic Lumix GF1, but where Sony scores over its rivals is the Speed priority mode. With the exposure and focus locked from the first frame, it needs to be used with care, but under the right conditions it again gives the NEX cameras a key advantage.

Sony Alpha NEX Speed Priority Continuous shooting
       
                 
       


To put this to the test we headed to the World-famous Shotover Jet in Queenstown where the boats travel at up to 85kph and perform 360 degree spins. We had to be careful when to start our sequence so not to get caught out by changes in distance or brightness, not to mention avoiding the point where the buffer briefly stalled after around 20 shots. Like most Live View cameras, there's no live update to the subject's position once you start shooting, although the recorded images flash-up sufficiently quickly to give the impression of live feedback, allowing you to track even fast subjects effectively. Once mastered the Speed Priority mode captured impressed results. You can see a sequence of ten images above and have 100% crops from another in our Sample Images Gallery.

The Drive menu also offers the choice of 10 and 2 second self-timers, along with a Continuous self-timer option which captures three or five images after a ten second countdown. The latter is handy for maximising your chance of a successful self-timed shot, but it's a shame not to find the face-timers of recent Cyber-shots which actually wait until someone's recognised in the frame before starting the countdown, thereby saving undignified dashes back to the camera.

Now let's check out the Alpha NEX movie modes.


All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2014 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

/ How we test / Best Cameras / Advertising / Camera reviews / Supporting Camera Labs