Sony NEX-5N Review
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The Sony NEX-5N is a new compact system camera, the fourth model in the NEX series. Featuring a 16.1 megapixel Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor, 25-point contrast-detect autofocus system, 49-segment exposure meter and 3-inch tilting LCD panel with 921,000-dot resolution, the NEX-5N also offers a brand new touch-screen interface, an expanded ISO range of 100-25600 and both a mechanical and electronic shutter. The magnesium bodied NEX-5N can also capture fast-moving action at 10fps at full resolution, shoot Full HD 1920 x1080p video as high-quality AVCHD files, and is supplied with a compact clip-on flash that attaches via an accessory terminal. Lenses can be fitted via the E mount system, but the NEX cameras can also use regular Sony Alpha lenses via the optional new LA-EA2 adapter. In the UK the Sony NEX-5N costs around £600 with the 18-55mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens or £700 with the 16mm f/2.8 lens. A double-zoom kit, comprising the Sony NEX-5N camera body and the 18-55mm as well as the new 55-210mm lens, costs £800. In the US the NEX-5N ships body-only for $600 or with the 18-55mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens for $700.
Ease of Use
The NEX-5N is outwardly very similar to the NEX-5 model that it replaces, so some of the comments that we made about that camera apply equally to the 2011 update. There are a lot of changes under the hood, though, which we'll cover in more depth.
The NEX-5N's rectangular body shape and blocky grip still looks to our eyes closer to the austere 'built in a Russian tractor factory' style of Ricoh's GXR system camera than the immediately appealing retro finesse of an Olympus Pen, or modernist rubber clad curves of the Panasonic G series. With the supplied 18-55mmm kit lens attached the NEX-5N also looks and feels top heavy, and that's without fitting an existing Alpha DSLR lens proper, compatibility offered with pre-existing optics via the new LA-EA2 accessory adapter which allows phase-detection AF with almost all of the A-mount lenses. The camera does undoubtedly feel solid when gripped in the palm, though with the lens attached it's too large for most jacket pockets.
The LCD screen can be tilted back and forward - if not, unfortunately swung outwards at 90° - to allow for low and high angle compositions we might not have attempted without. Sony has also included High Definition video shooting, now at Full HD 1080p at 60fps with stereo sound with the welcome ability to control shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation during recording. It even matches Panasonic G-series options and the Olympus E-PL1 by featuring a dedicated red camcorder-style video record button for instant thumb-operated video access, which is useful, while Tracking Focus allows a target object to be selected via the touchscreen LCD, even when the subject is moving, for both stills and video.
The NEX-5N isn't quite the world's smallest and lightest interchangeable lens camera, but at 210g and 23.3mm in depth if not counting its grip or lens mount, it's hardly a large model. Low light sensitivity without flash also theoretically looks set to show rivals a thing or two by ranging from ISO 100 to a maximum ISO 25600 equivalent setting. Impressive stuff, and matching the sort of spec we're used to seeing on mid-range DSLRs.
Like Panasonic's directly competing GF3 (and unlike the Olympus Pens) there's no in-body image stabilisation offered by the NEX-5N unfortunately, so this is via lens only, the optically stabilized 18-55mm zoom offered as part of a kit deal for £600 / $600 all-in. Though we did get occasional softness, this appears to work well - at least as effectively as the in-camera or lens based anti shake methodology deployed by rival brands.
For sure the provided lens is one of the most important components of the NEX-5N's set up, but with or without it screwed on to the front via Sony's E-mount (as opposed to standard Alpha mount utilized by the rest of the DSLRs in its family) the camera design looks a little 'basic' compared to competitors - certainly when viewed from the front.
Sony branding and DSLR-style lens release button aside, all we find on the faceplate is a small porthole-shaped window for AF assist/self timer lamp, rectangular CR3 battery-sized and shaped handgrip with a slightly revised ridged surface for a firmer hold, plus the shutter release button on the forward-sloping edge at its top.
The top plate looks similarly functional rather than fashionable. The NEX-5N is turned on or off via a thumb-flick of a chunky, nicely rigid switch to the far right, rather than via the recessed button we usually find on cameras with a smaller form factor. Do this and it's a wait of 2-3 seconds before an image materializes on the LCD allowing the first shot to be framed - slightly slower than we expected in this regard, and certainly no match for a DSLR proper.
|Front||Tilting LCD Screen|
To the left of this switch on the slope that melds into the back plate is a dedicated playback/review button and the dedicated movie record button. Press this and the user is instantly recording video, whatever alternative shooting mode might previously have been in use; like the same control found on latter Panasonic G-series and Olympus PEN cameras, this proves essential with regard to spur of the moment filming.
Also positioned atop the camera are a left and right (stereo in combination) microphone, each sitting either side of the lens mount, with the clip-on flash/accessory port positioned in between. To the right of this is also a small built-in speaker, for reviewing audio in the field.
Incidentally, should you already have a lens attached, screwing the flash into position proves a tad fiddly, as there's not much room to fit your fingers between the curve of the lens barrel - which stands slightly proud of the top and base of the camera - and the front of the flash, which features a small tightening nut via which it is secured in place. Though the flash can be stored flat to the body to aid portability and adds hardly any additional weight or bulk, when in use the head needs to be manually raised at a angle of approximately 45°.
Press the shutter release button down halfway and, after a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment of focus/exposure adjustment, the AF point/s highlight in green accompanied by an optional beep of affirmation to indicate that the user is good to continue on and take the shot. Do so, and in single shot mode to the sound of a satisfyingly brief shutter click thanks to a release time lag of just 0.02 seconds, a full resolution JPEG is written to memory in about 2 seconds, a marked improvement on the previous NEX-5.
As you'd expect in this price bracket, there is the option to also shoot Raw files, or even more usefully for those who wish to hedge their bets Raw and JPEG images in tandem. These settings are accessed within the Image Size folder and are found within the Quality sub folder. You also get Fine or Normal compression levels offered for JPEGs.
Not everything on the NEX-5N is located exactly where you might expect it to be found. For example ISO settings are discovered within a Brightness menu option that from the look of the icon that denotes it initially appears to be for adjusting screen brightness only. One would reasonably expect ISO adjustment to be found within the Camera folder with the other key shooting options. And so there's a fair amount of familiarisation with the NEX-5N's quirks required up front.
Shoot mode gets its own virtual dial though - so at least selecting the options here, including standard P,A,S,M, 9-strong scene mode, Anti Motion Blur, Intelligent Auto, Sweep Panorama and 3D Sweep Panorama, prove easier. Even in intelligent auto mode users still have the ability to get hands on to a degree by controlling background defocus, with a half moon shaped indicator appealing on-screen to the side of the scroll wheel, defocus at the bottom of the arc, 'crisp' at the top. New to the NEX-5N are further controls for Brightness, Color, Vividness and Picture Effects, all part of the so-called Photo Creativity Touch interface.
The NEX-5N's external backplate is a similarly pared-down affair, the majority of it taken up by the 3-inch widescreen ratio angle-adjustable LCD that stretches from base to top plate. In our review of the NEX-5 we commented that the screen almost begged to be controlled by touch alone, in addition to the regular controls, and Sony has seen fit to introduce just such a system on this new model. For the first time on a NEX camera you can interact with onscreen icons and menus by touching the screen, and also set the focus point, handy for off-centre shooting and tracking moving subjects, although you can't actually fire the shutter as on some rival cameras. Thankfully you don't have to use the touchscreen at all if you prefer a more conventional approach, as you can still use the external controls to fully operate the camera (you can even turn off the touchscreen altogether if you prefer).
To the right of the screen is a trio of controls - the top and bottom buttons unmarked until the screen is activated, at which point their purpose is detailed alongside it. The top-most control is revealed as the 'menu' button, a press of which brings up the shooting icons - six in total - the contents of we've already briefly touched on. Instead of the screen-full of text you might expect to be presented with upon press of the menu control, from top left to bottom right of screen, presented instead are Shoot Mode, Camera, Image Size, Brightness/Colour, Playback and Setup icons.
The user moves through these options and makes selections either via the scroll wheel just below the menu button, which has its own central (and again unmarked) set button, or the new touchscreen interface. As mentioned this wheel is quite responsive to the touch, which, on a positive note, means that tabbing through options is a swift process, but on the other hand it's easy to slip past the setting you actually wanted when hurrying through them as a photo opportunity suddenly presents itself.
|Memory Card Slot||Battery Compartment|
Set at three points around this scroll wheel/pad are a means of adjusting the display, exposure compensation (+/- 2EV selectable), and drive mode (single shot, continuous, continuous with speed priority, so focus/exposure fixed from the first shot), or self timer option (2 or 10 seconds). There's also options to enable the camera to be utilized with the aid of a remote - sold separately of course - and a bracketing control for exposure.
Disappointingly you now have to delve into the Camera main menu system to access the various flash modes. The flash options more unusually include rear sync as well as slow sync, plus the regulars of auto and fill in. Somehwat confusingly the NEX-5N's red eye reduction setting isn't also found here - instead it has to be first enabled via the aforementioned Setup folder if you're shooting portraits with flash.
The bottom button on the camera back provides a means of calling up the on-screen shooting tips, via which Sony no doubt hopes to provide a crutch for new users trading up from a bog standard point and shoot compact. Examples of textual advice, complete with small pictorial thumbnail alongside, include 'increase the ISO sensitivity to make the shutter speed faster', and then, the thoughtful addition: 'higher ISO sensitivity may make noise stand out.' Hand-holding for those who want it then, while others may feel Sony has wasted one of its very few dedicated buttons on a feature that, like the manual, many will choose to ignore.
At the base of the camera we find a screw thread for a tripod directly beneath the lens mount, and, in the nether regions of the grip, a compartment storing both rechargeable battery and optional memory card - here Sony reaching out to a wider audience by offering SD/SDHC/SDXC compatibility alongside its own Memory Stick.
While the right hand side of the NEX-5N - if viewing it from the back - features a continuation of the ridged grip but is otherwise devoid of ports or controls, the left hand flank is where users will find separate covered ports for HDMI connectivity and USB output. Only the USB cable was provided with our review sample; there's no standard definition AV output.