GoCast #21 – Why I bought a Sony NEX 5n

For a long time I have wanted to have a small portable camera to be able to take with me everywhere I go. I never bought a point and shoot because they just felt too limited. Even the Canon G12, as nice as it is, only does 720p video and doesn’t have interchangeable lenses. This has always left me with my larger, bulkier DSLR bodies. I have always traveled a bit but this year is completely insane with trips every other week almost all year-long. I love having a camera with me, but it can get to be quite a pain to lug all my stuff around. With mirrorless cameras becoming more and more popular, the photo quality, video quality, interchangeable lenses, and other features have tempted me for a long time, however, picking one out has been an exercise in frustration.

What is a mirrorless camera?

Cut Away View of the NEX 5n

A normal DSLR uses a pivoting mirror on a mechanical mechanism. When you are looking through the viewfinder it is very similar to looking through a periscope with two mirrors to deflect the image from the lens, up to the top of the viewfinder, and then out the back where you can see it. When you press the shutter, the mirror moves out-of-the-way and allows the image to hit the sensor at the back of the camera. In a mirrorless camera, there are no mirrors, and this much less bulk to the camera. The viewfinder is the LCD on the back, just like a typical point and shoot. The big difference from a point and shoot is that the current models of mirrorless cameras actually use the same APS-C sized sensors as in prosumer DSLRs given great ISO performance and fantastic picture quality.

My Requirements

My requirements may be different from yours but I want to explain mine and why they mattered to me to help you to put together your own requirements list.

Picture Quality

1/32nd – f5/6 – ISO 400

Mirrorless camera sensors range from point and shoot size to larger APS-C size.  While higher end cameras have up to 23 megapixels, I wanted something fairly close to my primary camera, a Canon EOS 7D which is 18mp, so something in the 15-18mp range was right where I wanted to be. The ISO performance of of the APS-C sensors has been getting better all the time so I wanted to go with a larger sensor, and not a smaller one like you would find in the Nikon 1. The Sony NEX 5n comes in at a respectable 16.1 megapixels and images from it are very good.

Video Capability
While video may not be a consideration for everyone, it was for me. Not only did I want video capability, but I wanted at least 1280×720 (720p) video at 60fps. While a handful of cameras claim to do 60fps, their sensors only can do 30fps so to double the frame rate the camera interpolates the in-between frames. The result of this pseudo-frame rate is that slowing the video down really doesn’t work well.because you don’t have enough data to work with. The Sony NEX 5n creates very edit-friendly AVCHD video files at 60fps in 1920×1280 (1080p). Along with edit-friendly video and 1080p at 60fps, I also wanted auto-focus during video and manual control over the video settings. These are some pretty steep requirements, but the NEX 5n actually covers them quite nicely.

Flash Attachment

Accessory Flash
An available flash was one of my biggest debate points. With high ISO performance, along with the general intended use,  was flash really important?  I tossed this question around to a few people and the opinions were pretty split. What I do know is that my last phone, a Samsung Vibrant, did not come with flash and that was really my only complaint I had about that phone. Because not having a flash has bugged me for two years, I decided that a flash was important. It didn’t matter if the flash was built in, an add-on, or a hot shoe, just so long as the ability to add a flash was there. The Sony NEX 5n comes with an add-on flash that plugs into the accessory port. While the flash is not powerful, and cannot be angled for bounce, at least if I want to take a picture in a dark room, I can.

Price
While the Sony NEX 7 has better specs than the NEX 5n, the NEX 7 has a price tag of $1,350 which is almost double the $698 price of the NEX 5n. Given many very similar specs, I just couldn’t justify the price difference for a higher megapixel sensor and an optical viewfinder. I set my budget with a top end, out the door price of $800 and the Sony NEX 5n delivered with an out-the-door price just under $750.

16mm f/1.8 Pancake Lens

Additional Features
For still photography, some form of image stabilization is always nice. While the Sony NEX 5n does not have image stabilization built into the camera, some of the lenses, including the 18-55mm kit lens included with the camera, have Sony’s Optical SureShot image stabilization. While it probably isn’t that important on a small lens like an 18-55, having it is certainly better than not having it. As we like to say, its better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

A good choice of lenses is certainly a consideration and a really nice collection of lenses available for the NEX 5n. A very popular lens for the NEX 5n is the 16mm f/2.8 pancake lens. With a super wide-angle and super large aperture, you can get some really great shots with it. Other excellent choices are the 30mm Macro and 50mm f/1.8 OSS. If you need some long focal length there is the 18-200 f/3.5-6.3 OSS or the 55-210 f/4.5-6.3 OSS.

Extra Icing On The Cake

1/100 Sec – f/5.6 – ISO 125

This section could be called “Things the NEX 5n has that are nice to have but where in no way requirements”. Probably the most stand-out feature here would be the articulated display. On the NEX 5n, the screen only tilts up and down. Tilted up, it will tilt at almost a 90 degree angle allowing you to focus and compose while looking straight down at the camera.  In the tilted down position the screen moves up, and then can be angled down at about a 45 degree angle which is more than enough even for extreme over-the-head shots.

Summary

1/320th – f/5.6 – ISO 400

This purchase took us on a day trip to downtown Los Angeles to Samy’s Camera. I was helped by Patrick in the camera section who was very knowledgeable about the different mirrorless cameras.  After giving him my wish list, his narrowed the field down a bit until I gave him my maximum price point which narrowed it down to the Sony NEX 5n. If I have any issue at all it is that the camera came with a battery that was so dead the camera wouldn’t even turn on. I didn’t expect a full charge, but I would have liked to have popped off a few shots as some friends and I did a little photowalk around downtown Los Angeles while we were there.

Is the Sony NEX 5n the perfect camera? No, but I have yet to find it. I could get really nit picky but the biggest issue is that the controls are not familiar to me. I have had the Canon 20D, 30D, 50D, and 7D and I intuitively know the controls. For example, to adjust the ISO on a 7D I press one button on the top and dial the ISO, on the NEX 5n you press the Menu key, then left, left, down, OK, up or down to find ISO, click OK, scroll to the desired ISO, and click OK…not really steps you can do without looking at the camera. Again, this is getting really picky, I read through the manual on the drive home (I wasn’t driving) and looked through a few more things while the battery was charging, and I can adjust any of the settings fairly quickly.

I will have to say that there is one thing that actually did disappoint me somewhat, the camera did not come with a body cap or an end cap for the lens. With the 18-55m lens, if I want the small travel configuration it is going to be to take the lens off but without a body cap, I am most certainly not going to travel with the sensor exposed. This was a quick fix with a set of RainbowImaging caps for a total of $5.14. That is such a simple thing that those should have been included in the box.

The only remaining question is…if Canon announces a mirrorless camera soon, with adapters to use my existing lenses, and the body is in the sub-$800 price point, will I sell the NEX 5n off to buy the Canon…let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.

KerryG

Kerry Garrison lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with his wife and two dogs. With 10 years of experience shooting products and 5 years of experience in the wedding industry, Kerry brings a good deal of technical know-how and can explain topics in easy-to-understand terms.

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2 Responses

  1. Lisa says:

    I enjoyed reading your review. I recently purchased the 5n and couldn't agree more with all of your points. The pros definitely outweigh the cons! One thing in particular I am having to get used to is the lack of a viewfinder, but the LCD screen is becoming more familiar. Like you, I was comfortable with the Canon dials, but am enjoying the learning curve that Sony offers. I had the 40d for the last 4 years and am amazed at how much better image quality I have with the nex-5n right out of the camera!

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