TOP's Man in Croatia, Editor-at-Large Vlatko Juric-Kokic, attends the Croatian press launch of the new Sony mirrorless cameras.
You really cannot go in depth about a camera if you had it in your hands for only a couple of hours, but you can tell what it is about. And Sony NEX cameras are all about consumer photography. I know that some might consider that term an oxymoron, but we are talking about the kind of photography that doesn't really care about capturing the perfect composition, that doesn't really care about technique, and even less about the intricate technical details of cameras. The people who commit consumer photography care about capturing the emotional content of their lives—the easier they can do that, the better.
Sony is very clearly targeting just such people with NEX-3 and NEX-5. Even the presentation for journalists I attended was done like not a single one of us knows anything about cameras or photography. They talked about "creative defocusing," decreased noise, number of frames per second, the small size of the camera, the highness of its ISO and similar easily shown number-oriented features, as well as the ability to capture 3D pictures to display on Sony TV sets. In other words, typical consumer-marketing strategy, as if they were talking about a compact camera.
Before you start thinking I'm seriously condemning both Sony and their new cameras, let's check how the camera operates. Note that I'm using singular: most of the journalists were handed the NEX-5. Sony positions it as the higher of the two models, but the differences are not big. The NEX-5 is slightly smaller, has magnesium alloy housing, and can capture video in 1080p resolution AVCHD. The rest is about the same. And the NEX-5 is really small, by the way. In spite of the size, it's quite comfortable to hold, due to its grip, but I would still recommend not holding it like a DSLR. On the other hand, the size meant that I accidentally pressed the menu button and dial quite often. (More often than on my Olympus Pen, which is bigger.)
The buttons are my main reason for irritation with the NEX cameras. They are designed like true compacts. That is, no direct fiddling with values. If you want to change the EV compensation, you have to go to the menu and then to Camera Settings. After you've done that, you have to stay with that value until you decide you want to change the EV compensation again. The same thing happens if you want to change ISO value—in that case you have to go to Brightness menu. I would say this different placing is just great for people who don't think that image parameters should be grouped together or don't care about it, but for photographers, at least, most of probably won't be welcome. Yes, I know you can adjust to the placement of the settings as well as to the work through the menus, but then, we can adjust to almost anything.
In spite of the awkward way of working, NEX-5 is quite a nicely responsive little camera. Menus fairly zip by and the reviewing of captured photos goes quickly as well. Focusing also seems quite fast and the camera seems to lock on subjects properly. Provided, of course, you didn't let the camera decide where to focus, like your garden-variety compact user most probably would. Centre-point seems to be the most "serious" way of automatic focusing, but of course you have to recompose later. The only problem with the speed of the processor came after I shot an in-camera panorama or used the high-speed burst. The camera would obediently and quickly take the photos and then choke while writing them on the card. That might go better with a faster card (we had Group 4 SD cards), but given that the panorama is written only as JPEG, I'm inclined to doubt it. It takes time to process many photos.
There is also a difference between the two lenses we could try—the 18–55mm ƒ/3.5–5.6 kit zoom and the 16mm ƒ/2.8 pancake. The kit zoom is a kit zoom. The photos taken with it look nicely sharp, although its slowness could be the main reason why more enthusiastic photographers won't warm to it.
The pancake is yet another story. I'm not among those who think that ƒ/2.8 is a tragedy. Of course, something like ƒ/1.7 or even ƒ/2 would be more than welcome, but ƒ/2.8 is quite usable. The fact that it's wide-angle seems to be more problematic in use. Naturally, you can shoot with a wide-angle lens in lots of situations but it forces you to use a particular way of shooting. Sony recommends the use of digital zoom for those who are not familiar with wide angle lenses. One word: ewwww. Then there's typical wide-angle distortion when close to the subject which seems to be greater if the camera is in portrait orientation. On the other hand, I simply cannot decide what is the reason for softness on quite a lot of photos I took with the pancake—whether it was caused by the low shutter speed and camera shake, model movement, misfocus, the combination of any of the above...or that I say the lens is simply slightly soft wide open and be done with it. It would need more photos taken with the lens to be certain*.
Unlike the kit zoom, the pancake doesn't have the optical stabilisation. (And you turn the stabilisation for the zoom through the cumbersome menus.) When I asked why Sony abandoned their in-body stabilisation, I was told that it was because the stabilisation module from Alphas couldn't fit into such small bodies.
What certainly comes next is a super-zoom lens finely tuned for video work, with silent focusing. There apparently won't be an even wider lens than the pancake because Sony has already manufactured a fisheye converter for it.
It's also certain that there will be new bodies, too. They didn't want to specify anything for the future bodies but I was told that they didn't just throw these two cameras in the market and that their engineers are already working on new models.
In the meantime, what we've got is two cameras firmly oriented towards consumers and people who want to step up from their compacts. For that part of the market the two NEX cameras seems to be very nice, but photography enthusiasts will probably have to either wait or take up with the competition.
Vlatko*The softness of the 16mm is now a "known bug" and Sony has stated they didn't really mean it. That will give them a chance to figure out what's wrong and make it right. —Ed.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.