An unusually small but full-featured Compact System Camera with a magnesium alloy front and top, the Sony NEX-5N can generate 16.1-megapixel stills or Full HD videos at a blazing 60 frames per second in the new AVCHD 2.0 format. It's also incredibly fast, capable of firing full-resolution JPEGs at 10 frames per second. Thanks to new shutter curtain technology, there's virtually no delay after focus is acquired. Pre-focus and the camera will take a photo 0.02 seconds after you press the shutter button; in this respect, it's the fastest of any interchangeable-lens camera.
The NEX-5N gains other new features, including higher ISO to 25,600, and a port for an electronic viewfinder with incredible 2.4-million-dot resolution. (This accessory is not compatible with any other NEX camera.) The three-inch tilting LCD screen is now touch-sensitive, allowing for camera control with a finger. It's a 16:9 format screen, ideal for videos; but the display area is a bit small for shooting still photos. There's no built-in flash, but a slot at the top of the body accepts the small flash unit that's included, or the more powerful optional HVL-F20S.
While it targets families who want great simplicity, the NEX-5N is loaded with most of the features you'd find in an entry-level Alpha DSLR. These include Dynamic Range Optimizer and Auto HDR (for great highlight and shadow detail), and a very fast 25-point multi-mode AF system. Because the Sony NEX system employs a larger sensor than Micro Four Thirds system cameras from Olympus and Panasonic, the Sony lenses are larger. But they're certainly gorgeous with aluminum barrels; many are equipped with an image stabilizer device that's useful in both photo and video modes.
The NEX-5N is tiny and slim, but with a relatively large hand grip. In order to avoid intimidating novices, the body sports only a few buttons and a four-way controller dial. Press the menu button however, and six icons appear with a wealth of automated functions, advanced amenities and options for great creative control or customization. The Hand-held Twilight and Anti Motion Blur modes are perfect for low-light photography at high ISO. They record six JPEG in a series using a fast shutter speed, and composite them into one, eliminating much of the digital noise.
For this image, the author set the NEX-5N in Sweep Panorama mode, then panned the camera while it captured six shots of a church interior. The camera stitched the images into this ultra-wide composite. Photo by Peter Burian
Sony also provided six picture styles that produce entirely different looks, plus overrides for sharpness, saturation and contrast. A full 11 modes for special effects are also available. In P, A, S or M mode, overrides are available for most of the Picture Effects to vary their effects. Sweep Panorama mode, with 3D if desired, using a conventional lens, is also available. This mode fires many JPEGs while you pan the camera, and stitches the images into a single long 23MP photo with an extremely wide-angle of view. The JPEGs are merged seamlessly and exposure is adjusted for a pleasing overall effect.
This Sony camera is perfect for quick snapshooting. Novices will also appreciate the very intuitive Defocus feature that automatically sets the best aperture for a blurred or sharp background. Selecting more advanced features requires a lot of menu scrolling and clicking because there are so few analog controls. Initially the process can be frustrating. But after a couple of days of testing, I became quite adept with the operating sequences. Even so, I wish that Sony had added an [Fn] button for quick access to the functions often used for serious photography.
The NEX-5N is more versatile in video capture than its predecessors. It can be used in P, A, S or M mode if desired. Many overrides including special effects can be set before filming, but it's also possible to change the aperture, shutter speed and ISO during actual recording. The clips are recorded with the new AVCHD 2.0 compression; stereo sound is available with the built-in mic or an external mic. Sony is the first to offer CSC cameras that can produce 1080p clips at a full 60fps off the sensor, useful for smooth videos of fast moving action. For other situations, the 24fps option produces a more pleasing cinematic effect.
The electrostatic, touch-sensitive overlay on the 921,600-dot LCD allows for using the LCD for inputs, such as selecting features and making settings. You can swipe vertically through menu items, touch the screen to indicate where the camera should focus, swipe to scroll through pics and tap to enlarge photos in playback mode, and more. It does not allow for activating the shutter to take a photo as the Lumix G3 does, however. Touch control is quick and convenient but optional; the physical controls can be used instead, if desired.
In addition to the EVF, flash unit and external mic, Sony offers seven lenses, including the new 55-200mm telephoto zoom and the Carl Zeiss Sonnar 24mm f/1.8 wide-angle prime lens. There's an adapter for using A-mount DSLR lenses with manual focus only and an entirely new LA-EA2 adapter ($450) that maintains all camera features. This large accessory includes a built-in translucent mirror allowing for fast phase-detection autofocus with highly effective predictive AF for action photography.
Speed and Quality
The NEX-5N takes two seconds for a full start-up, but from then on it's fast in all aspects. It's amazing to be able to shoot seven Large/Fine 16.1-megapixel JPEGs at a full 10fps. Granted, exposure and focus are locked for the first frame. The exposure was usually fine for all of the photos, but the lack of continued focusing was sometimes a drawback. High-speed drive is ideal for shooting a series of a golf swing or changing facial expressions, but not for subjects approaching the camera. For these types of shots, use the conventional 3.5fps drive mode instead.
Autofocus is very fast/reliable and remains quick in darker locations, taking a half second, thanks to the built-in focus assist beam. Continuous AF was surprisingly effective in tracking runners approaching my position. Even after shooting a dozen large/fine JPEGs at 3.5 fps, the camera was able to take extra shots immediately, so I never missed a photo opp. The JPEGs made in Standard style without overrides are sharp, clear and colourful. I noticed a tendency to underexpose light-tone scenes and a slightly cool (bluish) White Balance in daylight, both easily prevented with basic overrides.
This photo, taken at ISO 6400 using the NEX-5N's handheld twilight mode, is remarkably free of noise. Photo by Peter Burian
The NEX-5N produces images that should satisfy the most serious photographer. At ISO 100 to 400, intricate details are extremely well-defined and the huge JPEGs are suitable for nice 16x20-inch prints. Images made at ISO 800 and 1600 look great too, quite smooth and colourful; I was able to make very fine 11x15-inch prints from my best JPEGs. At ISO 3200, the Sony is impressive, retaining plenty of detail and colour saturation; my letter-size prints look great.
When used in the Hand-held Twilight or Anti Motion Blur mode, the NEX-5N is better than most cameras, including some DSLRs. It provided amazingly clean, sharp, colourful shots; an ISO 4000 JPEG resembles one made at ISO 800 in a conventional shooting mode.
While it resembles a point-and-shoot digicam, the NEX-5N is a high-performance camera with great speed, versatility and image quality. Experienced shooters may find the menu-based operating sequences tedious, but the new touch-control options make up for the limited number of buttons. Compatibility with the optional high-resolution electronic viewfinder is a real bonus, although this accessory is expensive ($400). As with the E-PL3, the EVF and a flash unit cannot be used at the same time.
The NEX-5N would be even more desirable if the zoom lenses were smaller. Still, it would be a fine choice for novices and for DSLR owners who occasionally want to carry a more portable alternative. If you want to replace your DLSR with a CSC however, check out the even more versatile 24MP NEX-7, with its built-in EVF, more analogue controls including two dials, and a hot shoe for Alpha flash units.
Many touch-screen control options
Amazingly fast 10fps drive mode
Superb high-ISO quality with special modes
Heavily menu-driven navigation is tedious
16:9 LCD; display area for still is a bit small
Optional EVF is pricy ($400)
NUTS & BOLTS
Sensor/processor: 16.1MP (effective) Exmor CMOS (4,912x3,264 pixels); BIONZ processor
Capture modes: JPEG, RAW, RAW JPEG, AVCHD to 1080p or MP4 to 1440x1080
Lenses: All E-mount; A-mount lenses with adapter
LCD/viewfinder: Tilting 3" 921,000-dot LCD touchscreen; optional 2.4-million-dot OLED EVF
Operating modes: iAuto, Anti Motion Blur, Sweep and 3D Sweep Panorama, P, A, S, M, 8 Scene modes, Movie
Features: HVL-F7S clip-on flash included; ISO 100-25,600; 6 picture style modes, 11 special-effects modes; continuous drive to 3.5 fps, or 10 fps with focus/exposure locked; 25-point AF with many options; sensor cleaner; stereo mic with Dolby or optional mic
High-tech amenities: Touchscreen interface, Dynamic Range Optimizer and Auto HDR, Help Guide, Defocus automatic depth-of-field control, Hand-held Twilight scene mode
Power: Rechargeable Li-ion battery for 430 shots
Storage: SD/SDHC/SDXC or Memory Stick Pro Duo card
Size: 111 x 59 x 38 mm (w/h/d, body only)
Weight: 269g (body only, with battery)
Price: $800 with stabilized 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 standard-zoom lens