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What’s NEX? – full first-look review

Although you will never achieve the kind of results seen with your Sony NEX-3, the technologies used in these cameras do filter down and more compact versions may be seen in the future in your Sony Mobile Phone, enabling you to take great images on the move. Continue reading to find out more about the camera system and its capabilities.

THE SONY NEX-3 & NEX-5 cameras are ultra-slim interchangeable lens models, referred to as ‘ultracompact’ or ‘compact system camera’ models by Sony. The lens flange to film distance is only 18mm, compared to 44.5mm for the Alpha system and very similar figures for all popular SLR brands.

The Leica M and screw mounts, with under 1mm difference between them, are 10mm greater than this at around 28mm. Screw mount Leica lenses can be adapted to M even though there is only 1mm difference. With 10mm difference, almost any lens ever made for any camera – even the Robot system, original Contax, maybe even the Pentax 110 SLR – can probably be adapted to fit the E-mount. In fact it will accept 16mm and 35mm (half-frame) ciné, C-mount CCTV lenses, and subminiature camera lenses.

You name it, the NEX will be able to do it. Telescopes, microscopes, endoscopes, whatever. And Alpha lenses, and MD lenses. There is even enough ROOM with over 25mm the spare to fit a true retrofocus format reduction converter – that is, a 0.66X optical unit which condenses the image from a full frame lens to fit the APS-C sensor. It is already done in the video and ciné world, and these converters have a wonderful bonus. Your 24-70mm f/2.8 SSM lens becomes, with a 0.66X reducing converter behind it, a 16-46mm f/2. That’s right – the same way a teleconverter loses you a stop or two, a format reduction converter gains you a stop.

The same converters also increase resolution, much as teleconverters reduce it. Zeiss can achieve 400 line pairs per millimetre from high grade 35mm format movie lenses when rear-converted to reduce on to 16mm or video.

Will Sony ever make such a converter? Do they even know that Zeiss have designs, and make exactly this type of converter for Arriflex and other systems via Angenieux? Do they realise that rear fitting format-reduction converters can also perform an AF function, allowing a manual focus lens from Nikon, Canon, Contax, Minolta or whoever to be mounted on a converter which has an ultrasonic AF mechanism of its own?

Imagine that – your 50mm f/1.2 Rokkor becomes an autofocus 33mm f/1.0 on the NEX. This is not blue sky thinking, it’s an optical practicality not a mere possibility. However, you don’t want to know the price of Zeiss converters, and for a system like NEX a universal converter might never be possible; it might have to be matched to the prime lens.

The NEX mount is almost as wide in the throat as an SLR mount; for some obscure reason, Sony chose to measure the outer diameter of the flange, which is not what matters, and came up with 62.6mm for the Alpha and 58.9mm for the NEX. Inner diameter of the bayonet, the bit which counts, was not stated. But it’s a wide throat and can cope with a huge potential range of adapted lenses.

Less of this ramble, and on to the plain vanilla – the camera.

Inside the camera there is a 14.2 megapixel CMOS sensor, capable of HD video and of course the vital live view and contrast-detection focusing on which the entire camera is based. This is fed to a 3 inch, 920,000 pixel TruBlack articulated rear screen and the user must compose, control and review everything on this screen. There are few buttons, no dials except a single control wheel, and everything is converted to a virtual control or a menu choice using a Sony-Ericsson developed graphical user interface.

The NEX5 camera, by some way the preferable model of the two, has a magnesium alloy body which matches the machined and brushed aluminium barrels of the lenses. It comes complete with a tiny camera-powered flashgun, screwed into an accessory slot on the camera top which has more contacts than a mere flash should need. Three, at least, must be for the stereo microphone audio interface which also draws Electret Condensor Microphone phantom power from the body’s battery.

At the end of less than 24 hours with the camera, I cleaned the white table on the hotel balcony and took a few pictures which will show you the camera in detail.

Here, you can see the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS (stabilised) kit lens to the left; the camera body is fitted with the (raised) flash and the 16mm f/2.8 E-mount non stabilised wide angle pancake lens. In front is a 49mm fit lens cap (for either), InfoLithium battery good for around 350 shots, a 4GB MemoryStick Pro Duo MkII, and the lens hood for the 18-55mm.

The NEX baseplate view reveals the steel tripod bush set into the mag alloy casing, the lens release in a slightly unfamiliar position, the size of the grip and the location of the new Sony factory making this system – in Thailand. It was rumoured that these lenses would be branded as Zeiss. Having used these two, I can’t say they would ever have deserved that. Both are very sharp centrally but pretty soft at the edges unless well stopped down, and both have fairly strong CA. The central sharpness is excellent, about as good as you could expect, perhaps aided by the Contrast Detect focusing which is entirely free of back or front focus.

Here’s the body, which is 24.2mm thick at its thinnest point, with the lens removed – the sensor is exposed. But that’s how it normally is, whether switched on or off. Turning the camera off does not closed the focal plane shutter (30s to 1/4000th, X at 1/160th, vertical travel). Dust removal is not going to be all that easy with the sensor cover glass sitting so well shielded and recessed behind the shutter gate. When a lens is fitted, the sun can come in and focus itself on the sensor. What issues will that cause for anyone careless enough to leave a NEX with a 16mm f/2.8 lens on its back, with no lenscap, in tropical mid-day sun? As people sometimes do, dining or drinking outdoors?

The lens will afford some protection when fitted. The well-machined metal mount should not admit dust too easily. There are ten contacts on the E-mount lenses (note the legend ‘E-mount’ etched on the flange). They transfer EXIF information about the lens, power for the ultrasonic focusing motor which is a silent ring type, power for the aperture adjustment via a stepper motor, and command and feedback signals to make these adjustments. Enough of the protocol is shared for the E to A mount adaptor LA-EA1 to have been designed to operate SSM and SAM Alpha lenses. At the launch conference, Sony admitted their engineers had failed to get reliable focusing, so AF was disabled in firmware. They hoped that a firmware update would restore the planned AF functionality with in-lens motor Alpha glass.

The ability to change aperture during video shooting is only offered with E-mount lenses, and is disabled when A-mount lenses are fitted via the adaptor. Sony does not make it clear whether different apertures can still be preset, before filming.

This is one of the lenses which might have proved interesting on the NEX – the Sony SAM 30mm f/2.8 1:1 Macro. You can see the difference in scale and engineering approach. Note the AF/MF switch on the SAM lens – it’s the only way to over-ride AF on the Alpha bodies. The E-mount lenses are far superior, they have full time manual focus over-ride which is ultra smooth, just turn the focus ring at any time to shift away from the autofocused point. When you do this, the rear screen instantly and automatically switches to an enlarged view to aid manual fine focusing.

Here’s a close-up of the 16mm lens iris. Whatever shape of aperture is claimed, there are only seven blades (probably to keep the action very light) and that minimum f/22 does not look especially circular to me – much like any other lens with a very small iris diaphragm. The blades are oddly asymmetrical too.

Here you have the 18-55mm naked on the body. It’s a really good cosmetic match but you can see how large even this lens is compared to the camera. The 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 which was not ready to be tried out is even larger. Note the position of the strap lug(s). They are placed down the body and angled so that when neckdangled or shoulderslung, the camera tends to hang with the lens aiming down and the screen facing up. This saves a lot of screen scuffing, gives quick access to the info there presented, and keeps the bigger lenses neatly placed.

Be warned, though, that you can’t expect to grab a shot from hanging position. If the camera is turned off, it takes a short delay to fire up and for the screen to brighten as the gain is adjusted (always from dark). If the camera is sleeping, first touch on the shutter button does the same, with the screen ready for use in a second or so. Then a firmer pressure acquires focus and re-adjusts the screen exposure; AF officially takes 0.3s, but I found you could easily have 2-3 seconds from the moment of raising the camera to being able to fire the shutter in confidence. I actually think my old Konica Minolta Dimage A2 is faster. I missed several candids and moving subjects when testing the NEX5.

This is just a shot with the petal lens hood fitted. You may notice that the 16mm lens, supplied without a hood, does have a bayonet as well as a 49mm filter thread. This is to enable two afocal front lens convertors to be fitted – the VCL-ECU1 is a 0.75X rectilinear converter, turning the 16mm into a 12mm ultrawide, while the VCL-ECF1 is a 0.62X fisheye converter creating a 10mm full frame curved view fisheye. Given that the 16mm is expected to be only around £200 (or much less in effect when bought with a body), and these converters are £100 and £120 respectively, a system will be no great weight on the pocket.

There is also an optical finder for the 16mm, which occupies the flash/mic shoe, and will cost £130. Eh?

Like the flash, shown above, it will use the 12-pin gold plated connector and thumbscrew to attach. But it’s not an electronic finder. No-one would answer whether this contact array will support an EVF attachment.

This is how you secure the flash, which stows by folding down flat. Raising it, as in this shot, turns it on.

This runs off the battery, which lives next to the dual-purpose card slot. Previous models have had twin slots. The NEX range uses a dual MSPro/SD slot which auto senses the type of card being used. An AC mains adaptor is available which uses a dummy battery and a cable emerging through a hinged portal in the battery door (above).

The rear screen is articulated very much like the Alpha 550, and does not turn to face forwards, or orient itself in any way to suit vertical compositions. It is very much geared to the landscape format trend created by video shooting, HD, mobile phones and so on. Though the camera has auto orientation sensing for photos, the display does not change like an Alpha and it’s not really designed well for vertical shots.

The downfacing position is pretty odd. It does not fold out in the usual way. I was able to shoot well enough holding the camera overhead. The screen articulation is, like the 550, a very rugged metal mechanism. It does not feel as vulnerable as many other (more versatile) swivel and tilt rear screens.

The GUI is exactly what GUI means – very much a graphical, not textual, user interface. The six main menu icons resemble mobile phone menus. You get to them by rotating the scroll wheel and pushing its centre button. Shortcuts are marked at the compass points of the wheel for outer rim press-clicks taking you to different options or changing the display mode. The LCD has a glass cover but Sony still offers both hard and adhesive protectors. I took photographs using the ‘Sunny’ brightness setting, not Auto. ‘Sunny’ really boosts the backlight well beyond the auto brightness maximum.

The Brightness/Color Menu includes the options for DRO+ and for HDR shooting. HDR is now three frame bracketing, with manual control up to 6EV span (plus/minus 3). The NEX has a very powerful new BIONZ processor and crunches 3 raw files into an HDR JPEG instantly – while also saving, at the same time, the middle bracketed exposure from your rapidfire 7fps burst as a standard choice. So you get two frames from your triple shutterburst, one normal, one HDR. There are also six-shot Night Scene and Anti Motion Blur modes, which synthesise a final low noise or minimum blur JPEG in-camera; I failed to test these, as the presentations made no real mention of them.

Here you can see the second shutter release, marked MOVIE. Press this and there is no waiting – filming starts immediately, so you either need to be in Continuous AF mode, or have pre-focused using the main shutter release. A second press ends the take. Unlike almost every other HD Video 1080p capable model yet made, the NEX5 will shoot continuously without clip length limits, up to around 29 minutes (filesize limit).

Select Shoot Mode, and an image of a virtual mode dial appears concentric with the control wheel. It turns in perfect sync with the wheel. So, without having a physical dial, Sony has given you one. Text information appears as you perform changes. Some more annoying repetitive cyber-advice can be turned off; other ‘tips’ are not optional. They follow you round for life.

The camera includes many functions aimed at happy young exuberant target-market users. I don’t think it is complete, as the Smile Detection menu has not made adequate allowance for Goths, neo-punks, or grumpy old folk with permanently inverted scowls. A future version for the legacy Alpha-owner generation should include ‘Not Frowning’ as a smile mode!

The Display mode change options include a semi-graphical exposure scale exactly along the lines of current Alpha models.

Alternatively, you can opt for a different set of info more aimed at the advanced user. I found that no matter what display mode I used, the screen became so cluttered I sometimes could not see parts of the subject I was keen to check for alignment, cut off or inclusion in the shot.

This – a very simple display indeed – was what I found most acceptable. It is interesting to note that with the exposure metered live from the CMOS, there was much less need for the plus-minus over-ride function using NEX. I was shooting raw, but even the JPEGs obtained alongside the raw files were pretty much perfectly exposed every time. For difficult subjects the JPEG-only shooter can use a three-shot HDR in-camera process, and this worked very well.

I have a gallery of 48 full size in-camera JPEGs taken during the photo shoot opportunity organised for the press, which involved two hours in sealed dirty-window ferry and bus plus half an hour wasted on a wine tasting (?!) session, for the sake of maybe an hour of pictures. They would have been better just bussing us into Split old city and telling us to meet later. Escorting a gaggle of journos round Hvar town was singularly unproductive!

//www.pbase.com/davidkilpatrick/nex5_samples

48 full size in-camera JPEGs with peculiarly deficient EXIF data. Where it says 16mm, the 16mm was used. Everything else is on the 18-55mm. The NEX5 body was used.

The NEX system and the initial 3 and 5 model cameras needs much more writing about it, with many new functions and features. This has just been a small guided tour of the camera for you to see it in detail. We will be posting further reports as time permits, rush-blogging not being something I intend to do when there is so much detailed information to be digested. My quick reports from Croatia and during transit back home have already appeared on the BJP website:

//www.bjp-online.com/public/showPage.html?page=874544

//www.bjp-online.com/public/showPage.html?page=874550

You can see a short 720p HD movie (rescaled from the original 1080i for YouTube, edited using iMovie 09 on Mac) here:

//www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSl3jN2sk7Q

– David Kilpatrick


3 comments to What’s NEX? – full first-look review

  • admin

    Sony IDC simply creates a JPEG which looks much the same as the in-camera JPEG. As yet no other raw converter supports the format. I’ll be running my raw files (all images were shot RAW+JPEG) through something I know well like ACR, Lightroom or RawDeveloper before commenting.

    I think the AF on the NEX-5 was very fast with the 16mm. It’s so light. I do not think it was all that accurate, and I would love to see how the system works with a wider aperture, longer lens. The AF on the 18-55mm did, occasionally, hunt at the longer end and I did get a couple of out of focus shots with that lens.

  • LEdgars

    Most of NEX reviews as usually are based on JEPG examples. How about RAW, is IQ of RAW somehow better?

    Second question is about autofocus. Is AF of NEX faster with (faster) 16mm f2.8 lens?

  • admin

    This comment has been sent to me by Paul Genge of Sony UK: “All products we provided were pre-production. They were near final quality, but we have subsequently discovered that attendees were discovering some lenses were better than others, of both types. So, please refrain from drawing any conclusions of optical performance based on these examples. Though the camera bodies were near final, so image noise and other parameters were a good indication of the cameras output.”