One of the most anticipated cameras of 2011, the Sony NEX 5N is pitched as being both a great camera for compact camera upgraders as well as DSLR shooters’ ideal second camera. First and foremost, this is not meant to be an technical review of the NEX 5N nor the Leica or Zeiss lenses, there are enough great reviewers out there on the internet like Steve Huff, whose opinion I’ve drawn upon greatly in the buildup to my decision to purchase the Sony NEX 5N, and dpreview, who do the most extensive techy reviews on any new piece of camera kit. This is just meant to be a sharing of my thoughts of using the NEX 5N and FDA-EV1S Electronic Viewfinder in real life situations and on location, as well as using the camera with the M mount Leica 50mm Summicron and Zeiss ZM 35 Biogon, as well as the 2 kit lenses that come with the camera, the Sony SEL1855 18-55mm and Sony SEL16F28 16mm f2.8.
I ‘normally’ shoot with my Canon 5DmkII and a range of Canon L lenses, both as a hobby and semi-professionally. Whilst I’m very happy with the results and image quality of the 5DmkII, the one thing that bothered me was the bulk and the weight of the resulting kit. I don’t have an issue with it when I’m making money from the shoot but if I’m travelling, shooting for fun and have to lug around my Domke full of camera kit, it does take its toll on my shoulders.
Since a few years ago, I’ve been looking for a suitable lightweight alternative ‘B Camera’ to take the place of my DSLR gear on non mission critical shoots. The primary criterias being – Great image quality (equal or at least close to my DSLR), lighter and smaller (obviously), sufficient manual controls so that my shooting is not dictated by the decisions of the camera. The Sigma DP1 was the first camera that caught my attention but it wasn’t ready for primetime yet, so through the years, I’ve followed the development of these prosumer cameras, Sigma DP2, Ricoh GRD I/II/III, etc, and it wasn’t till the Panasonic GF1 that I felt the technology was matured enough to start considering seriously. Somehow the the small Micro 4/3 sensor didn’t appeal to me.
When the Sony NEX 5N was announced, I looked through the specs and was very impressed indeed. 16.1MP (enough for me), EVF that was good enough quality to ‘replace’ an OVF, great low light performance (something while I loved about the 5DmkII), ability (with adaptors) to use superior lenses, manual controls, and most of all, the large APS-C sensor (I would have loved a full frame sensor but you can’t have everything eh?). Reading up other people’s thoughts on the camera further convinced me that now was the time to bite the bullet. I bought the NEX 5N, along with the EVF (FDA-EV1S), the 2 kit lenses (18-55mm and 16mm f2.8 pancake) and the highly regarded Zeiss ZM 35mm f2 Biogon (as my 50mm equivalent). I relieved my Leica M7 of its 50mm Summicron and I had a kit.
I come from a SLR background (both film and digital Canons), having bought the M7 a number of years prior on impulse and having put less than 50 rolls of film though it. Somehow I never really got used to the rangefinder way of working and more often than not, when I needed to grab a camera, I would grab my DSLR.
Having manual focus lenses on my NEX 5N meant a different style of working. I have to be honest and say that there’s a learning curve involved, especially if you’re used to AF lenses, the peaking and focus magnification feature on the NEX 5N is great but still slower than a fast AF system, and requires more user input! I didn’t nail focus on roughly 20% of my shots, and the other 80% was quite hard work. I hope to get better and faster with time though. Another issue which I didn’t find out earlier about with pairing NEX cameras and legacy lenses is the most rangefinder lenses have quite long minimum focussing distances (MFD), 70cm for both my Zeiss and Leica, which is a pain and quite a limitation, quite often I found myself thinking, if only I can take another half step forward, that would be great, but by then, the lens would not focus. I have since found out about Hawk Peng’s helicoid adaptor that can reduce the MFD by acting as a mini bellows between the lens and the sensor, allowing the lens to focus closer. It’s a real hot selling item and always out of stock, but hopefully I’ll be able to get my hands on one to try it out for myself. Check out Hawk’s Factory on eBay, if the adaptors are out of stock, just email Hawk Peng and he will inform you when they’re in stock, which is exactly what I did.
Its not all bad news though, far from that, apart from the manual focussing (my own fault for not using Sony’s AF lenses E mount lenses) and the MFD (brought on by the previous decision), the camera is great. I probably use the EVF about roughly 50% of the time and relying on the LCD screen the rest of the time. Its such a godsend that the screen and EVF tilt, allowing you to shoot from the hip (or lap, if you’re sitting down) and you find your compositions different as a result of that. Also, the Sweep Panorama feature, which Sony describes as allowing you to “create wide-angle, panoramic photos at the touch of a button” is surprisingly useful and super easy to execute. Set the mode to ‘Panorama’ and then sweep the camera in the direction of the arrow smoothly, whilst holding down the shutter button. It fires off a series of shots (sounding somewhat like a paparazzi photographer) and stitches the pictures together in a matter of seconds. You can also do vertical panoramas.
One other limitation of the camera is is the lack of physical buttons and controls due to the small size of the body, which means that many of the functions are buried in the menu system. There were times I couldn’t find the item I was looking for, having to search each section of the menu and still not finding it, only to have it show up later when I wasn’t looking. This is one of the primary drawbacks of the camera in my opinion but a necessary compromise considering the size of the camera itself. If you are intending to buy the NEX 5N, I suggest you head down to a store and have a play with it first to see if you can live with the somewhat archaic menu system.
The image quality is really really sweet for a camera of this size, I would venture to say that its probably about 85% of the 5DmkII image quality, and depending on the kind of subjects you are shooting, you might not even notice the difference in a blind test. Disclaimer: I am not a pixel peeping kind of photographer, I do not take pictures of charts and walls and scrutinise corners at 100% magnification and compare MTF charts. In fact, I normally shoot wide open (probably 90% of the time), which means that I’m usually shooting at the ‘softest’ apertures and shallowest depth of field, which makes focus, even on accurate AF systems, somewhat hit and miss at times. Back to the NEX 5N files, the RAW files have good latitude to recover some highlights and shadow details should your exposure be a bit off, or if the scene is a bit too high contrast, and the colours are vibrant and true to life.
Carrying about the camera all day did not tire me out, or cause sore shoulders, and I actually found myself shooting more because of that, and because the camera is so small and compact, it tends not to intimidate your subjects in the way that a big black chunky DSLR can.
The 6 million dollar questions is: Can it replace my Canon 5DmkII and EF lenses?
The answer for me would be: Yes and No. Yes, when you have the luxury of time and are shooting for leisure or travelling, the images you will end up with, especially with good lenses, are extraordinary, and what you lack in ergonomics, you make up for in weight reduction. I think its a fair trade off. No, I would not bring this kit to a paying job, its still does not have the sheer performance and quick handling abilities of a DSLR, and the ability to change settings very quickly and without having to dive into menus, as well as the much wider variety of good glass to go with the camera.
All in all, I’m pretty happy with the purchase and look forward to bringing it on more trips abroad, as well as it being small and compact enough to be a good camera for social events where the 5DmkII might be overkill.
Do you also own a Sony NEX series camera? Do you shoot with the native E mount lenses or do you use legacy glass? Either way, I would love to hear about your experiences. Please drop me a note to let me know or better still, share them in the comments section below so we can all benefit from it.