Is it possible to have quality AND convenience in one camera?
The Sony NEX has got it all. It’s small enough to carry with you every day but still produces amazing results. It’s the perfect camera to have at your side whether you’re traveling the world or hanging out at home with your family.
It will be your constant companion as you live a photographic life, and capture the everyday moments that you’ll want to remember forever.
Check out this video for a look at the NEX and why it’s a camera that will really get used!
For an entire month, we put it to the test in Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, is one of the biggest and most vibrant cities in the world. We traveled there with the NEX to give it a real field test. Would it be good enough to replace our big pro cameras for day-to-day shooting? We were skeptical, but the little NEX constantly surprised us with both the quality of the photos it produced, and how flexible and free we felt with it in our hands.
We’ve been searching for a camera like the NEX for a long time.
As pros, we know how important it is to have a camera with you at all times—always ready to get the shot. Improving at photography takes a lot of practice, and there’s no better way than to shoot as much as possible. But we were frustrated by the bulky size and hefty weight of our pro DSLRs. They take great photos, but were just too much of a hassle to keep with us at all times. We needed something that would be practical enough to capture daily life, but have the image quality to meet our high standards.
Improving at photography takes a lot of practice, and there’s no better way than to shoot as much as possible.
At the same time, we wanted to find a camera for our friends and family who were eager to get into photography, and wanted to shoot their travels and their loved ones. But we knew that DSLRs were expensive, complex, and inconvenient. We couldn’t recommend a point and shoot (the quality was just too poor), but a DSLR was usually more camera than necessary. We needed to find something that was fun to use, and took fantastic photos.
Then we found the NEX, and knew it was something special for both pros and hobbyists.
Check out this video for some of our favourite features of the NEX
For Pros + Advanced Amateurs
If you’re a pro or an advanced amateur used to SLRs, here’s what you’ll love about the NEX:
- Take It Everywhere: Way lighter and smaller than a typical DSLR, but with many of the benefits of the larger cameras (described below). This makes it the perfect travel or all-around camera for pros looking for high quality results in a small form factor
- Be Discrete: You’re used to having people stare when you pull out your DSLR. They get shy and uncomfortable. The NEX looks like nothing more than an average point and shoot, so people barely notice you. It’s liberating.
- Depth of Field: The NEX features a DSLR-sized APS sensor. This sensor is way way larger than typical point and shoot cameras, which allows the NEX to produce impressive depth of field (i.e. nicely blurred backgrounds)
- Tilt Screen Flexibility: The Sony NEX has a tilt screen, which makes it incredibly easy to take high and low angle shots. Once you start using it, you’ll be hooked. You can shoot way more discretely, as well as from vantage points that would be impossible looking through the viewfinder of your DSLR (watch the above video to see what we mean)
- Interchangeable Lenses: Change your lens to best suit your shooting situation. Shooting street photography, or just want a great walking-around lens? Throw on the low profile 16mm wide angle lens. Want to shoot the action of daily life, or some flattering portraits? The 18-55mm zoom lens will be just right.
- Full Manual Control: With quick access to aperture, shutter speed and ISO, you can control the camera in manual mode almost as easily as your DSLR
- Flexible Post Processing: The NEX can shoot in RAW (here’s why you should care about shooting in raw), giving you high quality files that have all the data necessary for processing in Lightroom. You can make already great images unbelievable. (If you want to learn how, we’ve put together an easy-to-follow tutorial!)
- Great High ISO Noise Performance: Shoots up to ISO 800 beautifully.Easily make large prints at ISO 1600. At ISO 3200 noise becomes more visible, but can be managed with noise reduction. When there’s practically no light you can still turn it up to ISO 6400 and 12800 to get the shot.
- Focus Assist: A small turn of the focusing ring puts the camera into Focus Assist mode. You automatically get a zoomed in view so you can nail your focus. Makes focusing so much easier (really wish I had this on my DSLR!).
If you’re just getting started with photography, here’s what you’ll love about the NEX:
- Super Small and Super Light: It packs a DSLR sensor (which means higher quality files, more blurred backgrounds, and better shooting in low light), and pro level features (detailed above), but it’s about the size of a point and shoot. High quality without looking like the paparazzi!
- Gorgeous Design: At a glance you can tell this is a special camera. The untraditional asymmetrical design really makes the camera stand out. At the same time it’s comfortable to hold, and easy to shoot with one hand
- Easy HD Video: With a button dedicated to video, you can start recording in high definition in an instant. Add in stereo sound, and you have a fantastic video camera. The camera autofocuses in video mode, and you can tweak the brightness to get amazing results.
- Sweep Panoramas: Shoot wide format panoramas simply by sweeping the camera across the scene! The camera then stitches the panorama together automatically. You’re going to get addicted to this feature.
- Impressive Picture Modes: We’re not usually impressed by built-in modes, but the NEX has some surprisingly useful ones. The Twilight mode was particularly impressive. You can take hand held night shots without needing flash, or getting motion blur. The NEX takes 6 quick shots, and combines them to give some really incredible results.
- Responsive: You can turn the NEX on, and fire off a shot, within 1 – 2 seconds. You won’t miss a moment fumbling for the on/off switch, or waiting for it to wake up.
- High Quality Prints: The high resolution 14.2 megapixel sensor can produce large prints that look phenomenal. There’s a 16×24 inch print on our wall right now that I can’t believe was taken by such a small camera
- Catch Fast Action: Not only does the camera have a quick response to pressing the shutter, but it can also capture up to 7 images per second! This is especially useful for fast moving situations—like sports or hyper kids!
- Easy To View Screen: Whether composing your photo, or reviewing the images afterwards, the super large screen looks beautiful
- Attachable Flash: It gets out of the way when you don’t need (which is most of the time!)
One of the most consistently surprising things about the NEX is the image quality that comes out of such a small camera. You have the super large sensor to thank for this! Even at 100% the photos are impressively sharp, with fantastic detail.
We love how well the NEX handles high ISO. Shooting in natural light is way more fun than having to use the flash. You can get some absolutely gorgeous results by just using the light you have around you! But when there isn’t much light to be had, you have to bump up your ISO. Because of the large sensor the NEX performs incredibly well even at high ISO settings.
Shooting in natural light is way more fun than having to use the flash.
Here’s what we found at different ISO settings:
- From ISO 200 to ISO 800 there’s no real noise
- At ISO 1600 there’s noise that looks more like film grain
- At ISO 3200 there’s colour noise creeping in, but it can very easily be corrected in Lightroom
- ISO 6400 and ISO 12,800 are noisier, as you’d expect. But having these options lets you get the shot even in super low light conditions
Here’s a shot taken at ISO 3200. A 100% crop of the straight-out-of-camera version shows that there is noise, but surprisingly small amounts for a non-DSLR. Then, with noise reduction and sharpening applied in Lightroom, it’s seriously impressive.
It’s super exciting that the NEX allows for interchangeable lenses, because that means you can get a lot more variety in your photos!
In Buenos Aires we used both the 16mm f/2.8 Wide-Angle Lens and the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Zoom Lens.
The 16mm was the one that lived on our camera most of the time. It is super small, so the camera was lighter and less noticeable. The lens is faster (has a larger maximum aperture) so it’s better for low light situations. The focal length was wider (equivalent to a 24mm lens on a full frame camera) which worked well for the street and photojournalistic work I was doing.
The 18-55mm definitely got used though. Having such a wide range of focal lengths let me be really creative, and I was able to take some really nice portraits at the longer end (which is effectively an 82mm on a full frame camera—perfect for portraits).
The choice of which lens to get will depend on what you want to shoot. I like the 16mm a lot for the small size, but as soon as a 50mm f/1.4 equivalent comes out I’m jumping on it. The 16mm is still a bit too wide and slow (doesn’t have a large enough maximum aperture) to be perfect.
The NEX shoots great HD video. You won’t need to have a dedicated video camera, since the quality this little guy produces is awesome.
One of the best features is the inclusion of a dedicated video button. You can hop into recording a video instantly so you won’t miss a second.
Here are a couple sample videos to give you a look at the results. These are taken with the NEX-3 which shoots 720p. If you go with the NEX-5, you can shoot 1080i, which is higher quality.
What Could Be Improved
No camera is perfect. The NEX comes close in our minds, but there are still some areas for improvement.
- Necessary Firmware Upgrade: You have to upgrade the firmware (the program that controls the camera) to be able to customize buttons. This was absolutely essential to be able to reprogram the center button for easy access to ISO. Extra work, but at least the upgrade is free. (Links to upgrades can be found in the More Info section at the very bottom of this review)
- Movie Playback A Hassle: It takes going to Menu, Playback, and then Still/Movie Select to choose if you want to view movies or stills. It would be way more convenient if they were all just shown together. Most of the time we only reviewed photos, but this was still a hassle
- No Viewfinder: It would be nice to have a great, affordable, attachable electronic viewfinder for those times when you don’t want to use the screen to compose your image (e.g. super bright sunny days). Unfortunately Sony only makes an expensive optical viewfinder designed for the 16mm lens. The tilt-able screen makes up for this a bit.
- Panorama Mode Limitations: If people are moving in your panos the camera won’t always be able to stitch things together well (people can get cut in half! Ouch!). It has similar issues sometimes with highly detailed scenes (for instance, the bottom of the bookstore pano above has a few stitching errors). It also cannot create a pano in RAW, which is a bit disappointing. Overall, the results of the panorama mode are impressive, with some limitations.
- A Bit Unbalanced: The camera can feel a bit unbalanced, especially when using the larger 18-55mm zoom lens. While it’s easy to hold and take photos with one hand, making adjustments to settings feels more comfortable with two hands on the camera. The grip on the NEX-5 is a bit easier to hold than the grip on the NEX-3.
- Limited Lens Selection: This is probably our main concern with the camera. At the moment the options for NEX E-mount lenses is limited. Sony currently only makes three E-mount lenses, and they’re all fairly slow (the 16mm’s widest aperture is f/2.8). However, earlier this year Sony released E-mount lens specifications to other lens manufactureres. Pretty soon we’ll see E-mount lenses from Carl Zeiss, Sigma and Tamron! If you can’t wait for new lenses there are a variety of adapters that let you use everything from Sony A-mount lenses to Canon, and even Leica M-mount lenses.
NEX-3 vs. NEX-5
Sony currently makes two versions of the NEX: the NEX-3 and the NEX-5. The cameras are virtually the same except for a few subtle differences
- NEX-3 has a polycarbonate body. NEX-5 has a magnesium alloy body. This makes the NEX-5 slightly lighter, and quite a bit stronger
- There’s a slightly different grip on each camera. The NEX-5 has a more defined edge, which we found made it a bit easier to hold
- NEX-3 can record HD video at 720p. NEX-5 can record HD video at 1080i, which is higher quality. They have the same sensor, but the NEX-3 is limited by it’s firmware, which is a bit annoying
- The NEX-5 costs $100 more
Given that both cameras have the same sensor (14.2 megapizel APS sensor) the main differences are the build, and HD video. We went with the NEX-3, because we got a great deal. The differences are pretty negligible in our minds.
Overall, the Sony NEX is an awesome camera for every level of photographer.
- DSLR sized sensor in a point-and-shoot sized camera
- Compact size and light weight mean it’s easy to take with you everywhere you go
- Fully automatic mode makes shooting easy for beginners
- Easy-to-use manual mode allows full creative control for advanced photographers
- Great high ISO low noise performance
- Captures beautiful HD video
- High quality RAW data
- A blast to use!
Whether you want a camera to take on your next trip, something to have at hand to practice your craft, or just a high quality option to take photos of your family, the NEX is the camera you’ve been looking for.
BONUS: Bundle this little guy with Adobe Lightroom, and you have everything you need to capture, organize, and edit your stunning images.
Wanna see more photos from our Buenos Aires trip with the Sony NEX? Check out this Flickr gallery, or click here to view ‘em big on Flickr!
Check Out Our Other Camera Guides & Recommendations
Disclaimer: No part of this review has been sponsored. All opinions are our own.
Firmware Updates for the NEX:
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License
Copyright: All images are copyright Rob & Lauren Photographers, 2011