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Sony Alpha NEX 3 / 5 (firmware v2) Gordon Laing, September 2010

Click here to find out about the Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5's Lens, AF, sensor and drive modes

 
 
 

Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5 Movie Mode

The Sony Alpha NEX-3 and NEX-5 both offer a selection of movie modes. Each camera will film in High Definition, although the cheaper NEX-3 is limited to 720p, whereas the pricier NEX-5 boasts 1080i; this is one of the few differences between the two models.

You can start recording at any time by simply pressing the dedicated Movie button on the back of each camera; regardless of quality selected, the maximum recording time is around 29 minutes per clip. You should successfully record video using any Memory Stick PRO Duo card, although if you're using SD memory, you'll need a card rated as Class 4 or quicker; we successfully used the best quality 1080i AVCHD mode on the NEX-5 with a SanDisk Ultra II Class 4 SD card.

In stark contrast to the movie modes on current DSLRs, both NEX cameras will autofocus while recording and the E-mount lenses are designed to do so very quietly. Sadly the exposures are fully automatic though, so there's no opportunity to adjust the aperture and control the depth of field. You can however apply exposure compensation and choose to manually focus if desired, and as you'll see below, you can achieve a shallow depth-of-field with selective focusing under certain conditions. Both cameras also sport stereo microphones and the option to mount a proprietary external microphone, although there's no standard microphone jack.

 
 
 

The more affordable NEX-3 offers the choice of filming at 640x480 pixels at 3Mbit/s or 1280x720 at either 6 or 9Mbit/s. All three video options on the NEX-3 are encoded using MPEG-4 in a progressive format at 30 or 25fps depending on your region with AAC audio and wrapped-into an MP4 file.

The pricier NEX-5 offers the choice of encoding formats. When set to MP4, you can choose between 640x480 pixels, again at 3Mbit/s, or 1440x1080 at 12Mbit/s; the latter is stretched to a 16:9 frame during playback, just like the HDV camcorder format. Like the NEX-3, they're encoded using MPEG-4 in a progressive format at 30 or 25fps depending on your region with AAC audio and wrapped-into an MP4 file.

The NEX-5 additionally offers Full HD recording at 1920x1080 pixels at 17Mbit/s in the AVCHD format. We believe the sensor outputs 30 / 25 progressive, but the NEX-5 generates an interlaced version of its Full HD video at 60i / 50i depending on your region. This AVCHD-encoded video is accompanied by Dolby Digital audio wrapped-into an MTS file; our sample came from a PAL region, so our clips were filmed at 50i.

Given the choice between shooting in MP4 or AVCHD on the NEX-5, Sony recommends the former for editing and playback on your computer and the latter for playback on HDTVs or authoring onto Blu Ray discs. Of course given the right software, you can author MP4s onto Blu Ray and edit AVCHD if desired; we successfully edited AVCHD files from the NEX-5 using Adobe Premiere Pro CS4.

A 2GB card should get you approximately 27 minutes of 720p video on the NEX-3. The same card in a NEX-5 should get you around 20 minutes at the 1440x1080 MP4 setting or 14 minutes in the Full HD AVCHD setting. Once again, the maximum length of a single clip in any mode is around 29 minutes.

In the absence of manual exposure controls, the movie mode on the NEX camera is certainly easy to use. Just point and press the big red record button the back. If you were previously shooting stills in the best-quality 3:2 format without guidelines enabled, you'll have to wait until recording commences before seeing exactly what you're going to capture in any of the video modes. Enable the grid option though and you'll notice four faint crosshairs near the corners of the image, indicating the coverage of the 16:9 frame should you start shooting video in that mode. The position of the crosshairs just in from the corners of the still image frame indicates a slight reduction in the field of view when recording video. If Wide Image is set to Full Screen in the Setup menu, the HD video frame will fill the screen when recording.

Unlike many cameras which degrade their output over HDMI once recording starts, the NEX-5 impressively outputs a Full HD image while recording. The screens below - like all those in this review - were captured over HDMI, and examining the image at 100% revealed very fine detail. This means you could potentially use the NEX cameras with an external HD monitor for framing, although annoyingly there's no display view that's completely clean; once you start recording, you'll see the image below right as a bare minimum.

Recording video in the default view. Note 3:2 guides
  Recording video with Full Screen enabled. Note 3:2 guides


We tested the video capabilities of the Alpha NEX-5 and 18-55mm kit lens, using its best quality AVCHD 'FH' setting. Registered members of Vimeo can download the original files by clicking the links below each window; these take you to the Vimeo page where the video is hosted and the link to download the actual file can be found under the 'About this video' section in the lower right. We used VLC Player to watch the MTS clips under Windows.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 sample video 1: outdoors, sunny conditions, handheld panning with zoom
Download the original file (Registered members of Vimeo only)

 

Our first video clip above shows how the NEX performs when handheld like a typical camcorder. The initial gentle panning looks fine, but there's definitely more visible shake than you'd expect from a camcorder. Towards the end of the clip we zoomed the kit lens all the way in and back out again, and like most DSLR video modes, the results ain't pretty. Again like all cameras with manual zooms, it's impossible to make adjustments to the focal length when handheld without twisting the entire camera. The resulting wobbles reveal the infamous jello effect with a number of undesirable artefacts. If you like zooming the lens while filming, there's still no substitute for the motorised zoom of a camcorder.

On the plus side, the CMOS sensor ensured there was no vertical streaking on the sunlight reflected in the rippling water. Windiness aside, the audio quality from the built-in mics was pretty good and there was no audible evidence of the lens's various mechanics in motion. The AF system wasn't particularly challenged during this clip, but there were no issues to report.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 sample video 2: outdoors, sunny conditions, tripod mounted
Download the original file (Registered members of Vimeo only)

 

For our second clip we mounted the NEX-5 on a tripod and smoothly panned it from left to right, while avoiding any zooms. With all shakes, wobbles and twists eliminated, the results understandably look much better.

Mild wind has however had an impact on the audio track, and you'll also notice on all the clips how even slight brushing on the camera's body is recorded clearly. The external microphone promises much better results.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 sample video 3: indoors, low light, handheld panning
Download the original file (Registered members of Vimeo only)

 

In our third video clip we moved indoors for a low-light test, with a handheld pan. Annoyingly the NEX cameras don't relinquish any control over the sensitivity when recording movies, so not only can you not control the exposure, you can't fix the ISO either. Instead the camera adjusts its own gain for video, resulting in noisier clips than you might have hoped for. That said, the clip is still much cleaner than those recorded using cameras with smaller sensors. It's just a shame you can't get your hands dirty with the NEX video modes and fix the exposure settings as desired. In that respect, it falls below what's possible with many DSLRs, although in its favour, the NEX can adjust its focus quickly and quietly while filming.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 sample video 4: indoors, low light, manual focusing
Download the original file (Registered members of Vimeo only)


Sony correctly states in its NEX marketing that a camera with a large sensor (and correspondingly longer focal length lenses) allows much shallower depth-of-field effects than a typical compact. But frustratingly for videophiles, the NEX-3 and NEX-5 use automatic exposures for their video modes, with no manual control over the aperture. This would suggest there's no control over the depth-of-field, but under the right conditions you can still pull focus from one subject to another.

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In our fourth clip we zoomed the kit lens to 55mm and positioned it close to a coffee cup in a moderately lit cafe – apologies for the knocking noises in the background. The relatively low light forced the NEX to open its aperture, which coupled with the long focal length and close subject distance has delivered a shallow depth-of-field. Prior to filming we set the NEX-5 to manual focus and focused on the edge of the cup, then with the video recording we adjusted the manual focusing ring to focus back to glasses a few inches behind, then back again.

Even with a high resolution screen it was hard to confirm exactly when the glasses in the distance were in sharp focus, while the absence of distance markings on the lens along with motor-assisted manual focusing made it tough to mark preset points. But as you can see from the clip, it was still possible to pull focus from one subject to another with a shallow depth-of-field effect. The NEX-3 and NEX-5 may not be the ideal tools for this effect with their current control systems, but it's still an improvement over what's possible with typical camcorders.

In other clips we filmed people with lots of camera motion and found the NEX did a fair job of refocusing. It sometimes disagreed with us on what should be the primary subject, often snapping onto other people or objects, but it's still much better than the complete absence of autofocusing in most DSLR movie modes.

Ultimately we still found dedicated camcorders preferable for handheld filming. Their stabilisation and AF systems proved more effective than the NEX in our tests, and motorised zooms remain the only way to smoothly adjust the focal length while filming. The major advantage of the NEX – its big sensor with potentially superior low light capabilities and shallow depth-of-field effects – is also hobbled in the almost 100% automatic movie mode. If you can't manually adjust the ISO or aperture, you're limited in what you can achieve. Don't get us wrong, the low light performance can be good, but equally the automatic gain can hike-up the sensitivity more than you'd like. We wouldn't expect the degree of control to change with a firmware update either, given it would encroach on the video-oriented NEX-VG10.

But as movie modes on still cameras go, especially still cameras with big sensors, the NEX does a very good job. The AF may not be perfect, but at least it can autofocus while filming and the kit lenses do so very quietly. The audio from the built-in mics isn't bad and there's the option to upgrade with an external unit, albeit a proprietary one. The video quality looks pretty good, so long as you don't incur the jello monster's wrath by twisting or wobbling too much, and the handling of the small body with the tilting screen works well. While we were unable to try it in person, you may also be able to enjoy manual control over the aperture by fitting an older lens via an adapter, just like the early days with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II before its firmware update brought manual exposure control.

Update: Sony has promised a firmware update in mid-October 2010 which adds the ability to adjust the aperture on movies. We hope to retest the NEX cameras with this update in the future.

Now let's return to the photo quality with our Sony NEX real-life resolution results.

 

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

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