Recently, I rented a Sony NEX-6 camera and Carl Zeiss ZA 24mm ƒ/1.8 Sonnar E lens for five days, from Lensrentals. These are my impressions of the camera from that experience.
Five days is not long enough to really get to know a camera. It's long enough to get enamored of a camera (as we shall see), but not long enough for all of its "warts," so to speak, to fully emerge. When I used to write reviews for Camera & Darkroom my personal standard was to use the review camera for "real work" for no less than three months. I was an outlier among camera reviewers in that respect I'm sure. Five days falls far short of that exalted standard.
So this is a report, not a review per se. (The title says "review" because nobody's going to Google "Sony NEX-6 report.") So before we start, here are a few real limitations you should know about:
- I'm a still photographer. The NEX-6 does videos; it's me who doesn't.
- I shoot RAW* and then process my pictures in Photoshop, so I'm not interested in the camera's onboard JPEG conversion and processing features. I did shoot RAW+JPEG during my five days with the camera, but if I owned it I'd set it on RAW only.
- The camera has Wi-Fi and apps. Didn't check out these features; wasn't interested. Your mileage may vary (YMMV).
- I don't shoot with on-camera flash. I tried it, yes, and it worked, but I just hate the look and always have. If I need flash I use off-camera studio-type strobes (I prefer monoblocks); otherwise, I use available light.
My general conclusion about it now that it's been gone for a few days: The Sony NEX-6 is an unusually sweet camera—even by today's high stardards, and even considering the stiff competition in the mirrorless camera category. I really enjoyed using it, and I liked it a lot.
There's no "but" to add to that. I liked it a lot, full stop.
It's a better camera than its category would imply too. I snitched this idea from Kirk, who wrote privately to me that the NEX cameras (he's got a NEX-7) reveal their capabilities in layers, "like peeling an onion." That is, the more seriously you use them, the more they rise to the challenge. We tend to think of little mirrorless cameras as happy snappers—high quality ones, but less than completely serious. But the bigger NEXes, the 6 and 7, are not just portable have-it-with-you pocketable digicam replacements, useful only for quick handheld snapshots. They are serious cameras capable of top-quality results.
When I use my Nikon D800, I love the results but I'm not so happy with the weight, bulk, and the imposing presence of the camera (although I understand how that last can come in handy sometimes, for instance when impressing clients), and my unhappiness with the expense is persisting. When I use my Panasonic GX1, I love the handy form factor, lightness, and egonomics, but I'm not as often completely happy with the image quality. The NEX-6 achieves a sweet spot nicely in the middle—I got uncommonly good results with it, and it was also easy to use and friendly to handle.
Looks and handling
Looks: Several people have requested that I opine on the NEX-6's controversial looks with the biggish 24mm on it—mainly the ungainly, unbalanced-looking, undersized body / oversized lens look.
Well, there's a lot of history there. You might remember the Sony F-717 and its brethren:
So if you think about it that way, the tiny-body/big-lens vibe is hardly a new thing for Sony. The NEX-6 differs considerably in the way it's set up, of course: on the old F-xxx series the entire body swiveled up and down, and the lens was fixed; on the NEX-6, just the viewing screen flips up and down, and you can interchange lenses.
I owned an F-717, in what now seems, in camera eras, almost like prehistory. Eons ago. It was an uncommonly fun and comfortable camera to use. And I got lots of good shots with it, despite its oversaturated reds and visible noise at ISO 400.
I didn't try any of the much smaller pancakes and other lenses on the NEX-6, which would change the look'n'feel of the overall package considerably. Partly that's because, given the way I think, the 24mm Zeiss lens is the killer app. All my life I've tended to use cameras in order to use certain lenses, not the other way around. I would personally be getting a NEX, if I got one, in order to use the Zeiss lens; I wouldn't get a NEX and then be casting about for a smaller lens that didn't look so dorky on the camera. I've never understood people who buy nice cameras and then cheap out on a less than good lens as an afterthought. This lens is one of the big reasons to shoot NEX, and certainly should be a part of any decision to switch to Sony.
Handling: the body/lens combo can be a bit awkward in all the non-shooting aspects: hanging from your shoulder, carrying it around (although it still fits in the glovebox of the Toyota). But that downside is decidedly mild. When shooting, with the combo in hand, it feels very comfortable and natural, easy to hold and (given the lightness of the lens) well-balanced, even. What? Well, it just doesn't look well-balanced, is all; but it's quite friendly to hold when you're shooting.
Note that the NEX-6 and NEX-7 are different beasts than the little NEX-3's and NEX-5's, which are considerably smaller and have a lighter, cheaper feel.
The camera itself is sort of plain-jane but stout and no-nonsense, a look I prefer above most others. Aptly judged and quite handsome as far as it goes, in my opinion. It seems "well sorted," to use one of dpreview's favorite phrases. I mentioned that my first impression of the body was that the placement of the shutter button was too close-in, but I found I adapted to that completely in short order. As an issue, it disappeared.
Anyway, pretty is as pretty does. I liked the handing fine; I wasn't bothered by the way the combo looks. In fact I kinda liked it. YMMV.
I was quite impressed with the camera/lens combo's overall competence. It doesn't fluster easily at all. The hybrid contrast detect / phase detect autofocus is fast and sure, and actually does nail the correct focus properly almost all the time, something I can't even say of the D800 /28mmG.
I didn't track down the exact ISO that I would consider an upper limit for good-quality files, but it's comfortably high—my longtime personal standard has been that a camera needs to give me a no-reservations ISO 1600 and a usable 3200, and, in the limited tryout I was able to give it, the NEX-6 passes muster.
I also didn't explore the upper boundary of print size, mainly because I don't have a printer set up right now. My historical preferred print sizes for 3:2 were 6x9 inches, 7x10.5 inches, and 8x12 inches, depending on the image; with digital I print bigger, up to maybe 15 or 16 inches in the long dimension. Somewhere above that, the NEX-6 sensor would begin to yield ground to bigger ones—bigger ones, I mean, both in pixel count and physical size. I'm confident from what I see onscreen that I'd personally be happy this camera's sensor. People who print big will need to explore this area on their own more carefully.
As I mentioned the other day, the camera is very good at hitting the right exposure and protecting the highlights. My old Mazda Miata makes me look like a better driver than I really am; the NEX-6 will make its users look like better technical photographers than they really are.
Never cracked the manual. Doubtless there are still a few surprises awaiting me. (Every surprise within my short trial period was a good one, however.)
I keep yammering about how I never cottoned to the Olympus OM-D E-M5's controls (henceforth, OM-D), and I feel guilty about that. The damn thing just confuses me, I'll admit it. I know I could sort it all out if I had to, and it's embarrassing that I haven't bothered, but I just can't seem to get to grips with the task. I'm sorry. I don't think like it thinks, or vice-versa. Really, I'm just lazy.
The Sony, on the other hand, sorted itself out nicely, and sort of naturally. Every time I wanted it to do something, I poked around a bit and there it was. Everything was pretty straightforward, at least to my brain. A day or two and I felt I knew the camera, felt like I was using the controls surely and confidently. Nothing frustrated me. Nothing bit me in the arse. Everything worked fine.
It's like an anti-OM-D in that respect. The buttons fell to hand much more readily (the review button on the OM-D is hard to reach with my ham hands, and what's with that crazy button on the side of the fake prism housing? That's wack), and once I figured something out I remembered it.
I'm not saying I mastered it; but I was having no issues. Inside of 48 hours, the NEX-6 felt like an old friend. And it was giving me results that stoked my enthusiasm.
Addressing a specific failure of the OM-D: I almost always felt confident I knew what the NEX-6 was doing at any given time, and that it was dutifully doing what I told it to. It's trustworthy. I never know with 100% certainty quite what the OM-D is up to. Well, maybe I do, but I'm not confident about it. There have been numerous occasions when I thought it was doing one thing only to find later that it was doing another. Rude.
To be honest, part of my problem with the Olympus is that it just pisses me off. I don't feel the designers did a good job on its controls and menus, and I resent being victimized by their incompetence every time I use my expensive device. I love the results the camera gives me, which are stellar for Micro 4/3, but I feel like there's a price to pay. (As I admitted above, this is all partly my own fault.)
The best description of the OM-D's menus I've heard came from a reader—I think he was a pro, I don't remember—who said it normally takes him three hours to set up and completely learn the menus on a new camera, but with the OM-D it took him three days. That's about right. The NEX-6's menus by comparison are clearly designed to be simplified and user-friendly, and, even when they're not immediately understandable, they're at least reasonably easy to figure out. You can easily get going with no problem well within three hours, and by three days you feel like you're getting pretty close to the bottom of the well. I'm much happier with the usability, handling, and especially the controls and menus of the NEX-6. Much.
[Continued in Part II]
*We here at TOP—and be "we" I mean me—just made a site style change, to write "raw" in all caps. This is non-consistent, because the term isn't an acronym, and doesn't need capitalization any more than when you're talking about feeding tigers RAW meat. However, common usage exerts its hegemony, and we are acceding to it. The world writes it "RAW," so, henceforth, TOP will too.
Current products mentioned in this post:
Sony NEX-6 body ($748—the price has dropped $100 since last week)
Zeiss Sonnar T* E 24mm ƒ/1.8 ZA lens ($1,098)
Nikon D800 ($2,797)
Panasonic GX1 (a steal right now at $275)
Sony NEX-3N (with 16–50mm lens for $498)**
Sony NEX-5R (body only $548)
Sony NEX-7 (body only $998)
Olympus OM-D E-M5 ($930)
**Whoops, I originally said this was "on end-of-life closeout." That's wrong. Sorry! Can't keep up with the alphanumeric onslaught.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
jim: "For once you cant agitate me into buying a camera with your review because I allready own a NEX-6! Unfortunately I don't own the Zeiss 24mm so I really wish you'd quit being so eloquently pleased with it!"
Andreas: "Funny, I feel similar about the OM-D (which I borrowed from a friend for a few weeks now). On the one hand it is greatly customizable—more than a 5D Mark III, but on the other hand there are weird dependencies between settings that shouldn't be related. I don't have an example at the moment, probably because these things twist my brain so I prefer not to remember them.
"But then, picking up the OM-D feels really good; it fits me like a glove and it feels very reliable. What I also like is the EVF, the first I saw that works for me, somehow. They got the brightness and contrast right, and—very importantly—the refresh-rate, which is still good at low light!
"This bothered me with the GX1 and its EVF, which is decent in good light, but breaks apart in low light, especially in the refresh department. I never ever read about such things in reviews, but these aspects are very important IMHO. Because due to the EVF, the OM-D feels like a real camera compared the GX1, which would be quite perfect if it only had a proper viewfinder, a better dial and smoother shutter sound.
"So, Mike, I would be very happy if you speak about the Sony's EVF (in low light). Thanks."
Mike replies: I will, in Part II.
Kirk Tuck: "I actually have a NEX-6 and three NEX-7's. Since I bought these little Sonys I've never had a moment of camera lust for any other small camera. I play with friends' EM-5's, say something nice about the sweet sound the shutter makes and then hand 'em back. I've never had the compulsion to push through to the transaction and actually own one.
"Why three NEX-7's? I've learned that as soon as I find a camera I like it gets discontinued and whatever replaces it generally sounds like the next coming on paper but falls short of the model I liked because of one 'improvement' or another. I found the NEX-7 so alluring to shoot with I wanted to make sure I always had two working bodies.
"When I go out to shoot a job I put a different lens on each body and set them all the same. Just like we used to do in the film days.
"I know I am an anomaly because I am the one person who gets along well with the strap.
"So, with three NEX-7's why did I bother to get a NEX-6? Simple, I wanted a camera I could use a small, cheap, conventional flash on. At least that was my rationale. I've never put a flash on the top but I do use it when I want smaller (but still very, very good) raw files to play with.
"These two NEX cameras are my favorite cameras of the digital age so far. I own the Sony a99 but my brain always seems to direct my hands to pick up the NEX cameras first.
"I've never been disappointed."