August is always a hot month for new camera announcements, and this year August 23 was a particularly busy day. Canon, Nikon, and Sony all introduced multiple models that will be available in the coming months, and Sony concentrated on revamping its entire interchangeable-lens camera lineup.
I managed to get my hands on a production unit of one of Sony’s latest mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras, the Alpha NEX-5N. It’s a follow-up to last year’s popular NEX-5 camera, and I saw more similarities than differences between the two. For example, the new camera still has no on-board flash, although an external flash is included.
That said, the things that have changed are notable.
Who said that mirrorless cameras have to be slow? Even though Sony bumped up the sensor’s resolution from 14 to 16 megapixels, the 5N’s 10-frames-per-second continuous shooting speed definitely (and surprisingly) outpaces the NEX-5’s 7-fps rate. For single shots and in continuous mode, this little camera performs like a champ. Shutter lag? No problem; it’s almost nonexistent. According to Sony, the NEX-5N has a release time of about 0.02 second, and it certainly feels a lot faster than the NEX-5’s 0.1-second release time.
Perhaps the most distinguishing aspect is the NEX-5N’s adjustable touchscreen LCD--a first among Sony’s Alpha cameras. The screen itself is responsive, even when you tilt the hinged display, and the touchscreen doesn't replace the camera's physical controls entirely.
Unfortunately, only a couple of direct touch-panel controls are available, and setting changes require a trip to the rather confusing menu system. (Movie options, for example, are divided between the Image Size and Setup menus.) That slows down operation, at least when compared with the dedicated buttons you find on a DSLR. However, the arrangement may be a necessary trade-off for making a camera this small with such an uncluttered interface.
Flexible Spot AF is, perhaps, the best justification for the NEX-5N having a touchscreen panel, as a single tap of the LCD places a focus point in the desired position. It's fairly responsive in bright light at wide angle, but it slows under low light when the 18-55mm kit lens is extended to its moderate telephoto position.
Although the final focus lock comes when the shutter is half pressed, you can get a nice bokeh (soft background) effect depending on the lens and focal length you use. I was disappointed to find that the NEX-5N offers no way to trigger the shutter via the LCD as other touchscreen cameras do (or maybe I just overlooked the feature, as I'm still getting the hang of the NEX-5N).
In movie mode, focus automatically adjusts as the camera moves across and through a scene. Again--and as expected--focus adjustments are faster when you're shooting at wide angle. In my trials at close range, while using midrange and telephoto focal lengths of the 18-55mm lens, I found the focus slightly slower to catch up during panning but not excruciatingly so. And I saw little noticeable, distracting focus search.
Sony also boasts about having the smallest camera in its class to use a full APS-C-size sensor. Initial ISO tests seem to indicate that the larger sensor helps keep image noise (reasonably) under control, as it should. Of course, push the ISO to the NEX-5N’s max of 25,600, and--well, it’s not so pretty. But it’s also not surprising.
Sony added a few new creative options to the NEX-5N, including the now-ubiquitous miniature mode, along with an HDR painting filter, soft focus, and rich-tone monochrome. Fun, but not terribly exciting at first pass.
The camera has a couple of very cool--albeit very expensive--accessories: an optional eye-level OLED viewfinder and an A-mount adapter that has built-in phase-detection focus similar to the system found on the just-announced Alpha A77. The phase-detection system is, by nature, faster and more flexible than the contrast-detection focus that mirrorless cameras use. Both add-ons sound handy, but at $400 for the mount adapter and $350 for the OLED viewfinder, they more than double the price of the $700 kit package for the NEX-5N.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is image quality, and early test shots show that the NEX-5N delivers some really good-looking images. Its photos are perhaps even a little better than those of the NEX-5, and that’s coming from someone who really, really likes the NEX-5.
I’m still playing around with this new compact interchangeable-lens camera, so look for a full review soon.
This story, "Hands On: Sony Alpha NEX-5N First Impressions" was originally published by PCWorld.