Sony’s mirror-less digital camera system and it’s NEX-5 camera

Written by Gary on May 11th, 2010

Following the unprecedented success of the Micro Four Thirds system by Panasonic and Olympus, Sony has joined the mirror-less interchangeable lens digital camera system marketplace with a DX-crop camera system.

Sony did not make the mistake Samsung made and opted for a shorter sensor-lens mount distance of only 18mm – even shorter than Micro Four Thirds of 20mm, and thus unlike the 25.5mm distance of the Samsung NX system, theoretically, just like as has happened with Micro Four Thirds, we should be able to adapt almost any legacy lens ever made onto this system, including Leica M.

This is great news and will give Micro Four Thirds a run for its money – competition is good!

The NEX-5 with 18-200mm lens will offer similar 17mbps 1080i 60fps AVCHD video capability as a Panasonic GH-1 with 14-140mm lens although details and image quality comparisons are yet to be seen. I suspect with the large lens, the GH-1 will handle better and of course it has the massive advantage of a built-in EVF to help steady your videos.

Unfortunately, the NEX-5 does NOT offer a 720p mode in either AVCHD or MPEG4 and there is no manual video exposure mode – you only get some Scene modes and exposure compensation. This is a deal breaker for me – I mainly use 720p and mainly use manual exposure – what a pity – perhaps they are saving this for a higher end model?

The entry-level NEX-3 is $Us100 cheaper, has different body construction, and only 9mbps 720p MPEG4 HD video, but otherwise is very similar to the NEX-5.

Like Panasonic with MFT, Sony have announced they will market a HD camcorder based on the E system later this year.

The initial lenses offered by Sony are:

  • 16mm f/2.8 pancake (24mm wide angle lens which will be handy for travelers but a bit too wide for candid portraits)
  • 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS (27-82.5mm)  – much longer than the collapsible Olympus equivalent
  • 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS (27-300mm) – 67mm filter, 524g and 99mm long

The advantages of the Sony NEX-5 over the Micro Four Thirds cameras appear to be:

  • marginally better image quality at high ISO given the larger sensor although in practice, this may not be significant – images I have seen to date at ISO 3200 show the NEX-5 with more aggressive NR applied and less image detail and perhaps less dynamic range.
  • 1.5x crop factor vs 2x crop factor allowing better use of legacy lenses in the wide end and marginally shallower depth of field for same subject magnifications.
  • smaller camera body size – this may make it more pocketable without lens or with pancake lens, but may adversely impact ergonomics – nevertheless, I would expect MFT camp to come up with a body as small as this one sooner rather than later.
  • tilt out LCD allows waist level shooting but not for self-portraits as with the flip out and swivel screen of the  Panasonic GH-1
  • high resolution LCD – 921K dots
  • various multi-image modes which may be of use to increase dynamic range, twilight, sweep panorama or reduce motion blur
  • offers ISO 12,800
  • optional IR wireless remote control
  • 1080i HD video in motion jpeg or AVCHD
  • although 2.7fps burst rate is comparable to MFT cameras, it also has a brief but very handy 7fps mode where AF/AE is fixed on first frame
  • aggressively priced (said to be ~$US699 for NEX-5 with 3x kit lens)

The advantages of the Micro Four Thirds system over the Sony system:

  • more mature system provides a range of bodies,  lenses and adapters for legacy lenses
  • smaller lenses
  • HD video much more functional than on the NEX-5, with added options of motion jpeg or AVCHD at 720p 60fps (50fps PAL)
  • pancake and 3x kit lens appears to be substantially sharper edge-to-edge – see here for how bad the corners are on the Sony
  • the very nice Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens which is great for low light work, candid portraits, street work, social events, and travel
  • many of the Four Thirds dSLR lenses will autofocus (the Sony Alpha lenses will not AF on the NEX-5)
  • availability of either built-in EVF (eg. GH-1) or add-on EVF (GF-1, E-P2, E-PL1) – the Sony NEX-5 will only allow an add-on optical viewfinder
  • true multi-aspect sensor (GH-1)
  • Panasonic cameras have in-camera CA and distortion correction for MFT lenses
  • iA dummies mode still allows exposure compensation unlike on the Sony NEX-5
  • can disable NR
  • Olympus jpeg engine which is highly regarded for its colours
  • Olympus Art Filters
  • in-camera sensor shift image stabilisation in Olympus cameras – important for legacy lenses in particular
  • hotshoe on camera body to allow bounce flash, etc instead of only the Sony proprietary attachable flash with GN 7m at ISO 100
  • wireless remote TTL flash (E-PL1)
  • better access to controls and menu system
  • AF subject tracking
  • 2x crop will potentially allow more telephoto reach for same size lens
  • LCD touch screens (G2, G10)

My impression – the Sony system has the potential to be a great system, I am not sure the first two cameras and the lenses cut it though, with crippled video modes, no hot shoe – and when it does come it will probably be that lame Sony/Minolta proprietary hot shoe that is not compatible with any other flash without an adapter, no EVF capability, and perhaps worse of all – poor image quality away from the centre – perhaps they will need an expensive Leica M9 type of sensor to remedy this.

Personally, the Panasonic GH-1 with 14-140mm lens and 20mm f/1.7 pancake is a far better all purpose camera kit than the Sony NEX-5 with 18-200mm lens and 16mm f/2.8 pancake, BUT the Sony will presumably be a lot cheaper and the camera body smaller, although the 10x lens is substantially bigger at 76x99mm and 67mm filter vs 70x84mm and 62mm filter for the Panasonic.

I really couldn’t see myself using a tiny NEX-5 with a massive 0.5kg 18-200mm lens, especially without an EVF to help stabilise it.

But I could imagine using a NEX-5 with a 25mm f/1.7 pancake lens if they make one, and in the interim, the 16mm f/2.8 – for this is the camera’s strong point at present – pocketability and affordability.

Furthermore, one could use this combo and a MFT camera, and interchange your legacy lenses between the two with ease once adapters become available, and then you will have access to the advantages of each system and 2 different crop factors for your legacy lenses.

Once there are more digital lenses and legacy adapters available for the Sony, the NEX-3 may indeed give the Panasonic GF-1, Olympus E-P2 and E-PL1 a run for their money at that price point but I am concerned about image quality away from the centre, it’s lack of EVF or flash hotshoe options, poor ergonomics and tripod support – not a photographer’s camera, not a videographer’s camera, but perhaps better than an iPhone.

We will have to see if Sony can really make a real photographer’s camera smaller than a MFT camera and add some better quality lenses, but you can bet MFT teams will be under pressure to add an entry level small MFT camera to match the NEX-5’s size.

My final take on the Sony system:

  • has lots of potential but proprietary flash interfaces will always plague Sony products
  • current cameras whilst cheap, and having interesting features are just not ergonomically or functionally designed for photographers or videographers with far too many compromises for serious use.
  • current cameras will be best used as a pocket camera with a pancake lens – unfortunately the only pancake is too wide for most needs
  • there is no image stabilisation built in to assist with legacy lenses when adapters do arrive – and they will.
  • current zoom lenses are not as good optically in the corners and the 10x zoom is too big for such small cameras
  • the system has a long way to go before it can match what is available for the MFT system.

See reviews of the Sony at:

  • imaging resource – unfortunately they didn’t compare it with the best MFT sensor – the GH-1
  • dpreview
  • luminous-landscape – scathing of the NEX-5’s user interface and poor video with some concerns of image quality but like me, believes the system has potential – just not these cameras.

3 Comments so far ↓

  1. Geir says:

    Keeping a set uf legacy lenses and switching the bodies seems like a new concept to me, and a strange one. Doesn’t that work against the idea of having a portable system?

  2. admin says:

    Not really – I view the cameras as just digital backs – so I use my set of Olympus OM lenses on my Micro Four Thirds, Four Thirds and Canon cameras, so having an extra digital back in a Sony NEX would not be such a big deal.

    After all the new Sony lenses don’t seem anything to write home about optically – and I wouldn’t bother with their zoom lenses as they defeat the whole purpose of pocketable kit and I have the MFT 10x zoom if I need it.

    Of course, nothing beats high quality digital AF lenses – but these are too expensive to have multiple systems.

  3. wanna buy camera says:

    No Art Filters on NEX5?

    in that case, i’ll buy the Olympus E-PL1..