Support Cameralabs by shopping at our partner stores or donating via Paypal
 






Follow my RSS feed at Camera Labs RSS Feed
 
  Latest camera reviews

Canon G1 X Mark II
Panasonic Lumix FZ1000
Panasonic TZ60 / ZS40
Sony RX100 III review
Sony A3000 review
Canon EOS 1200D T5
Sony WX350
Nikon P600
Sony Alpha A5000
Sony Cyber-shot HX400V
Panasonic Lumix GH4
Panasonic TS5 FT5
Sony Alpha A6000
Canon SX700 HS
Canon SX600 HS
Olympus TOUGH TG2
Nikon AW1
Nikon D3300
Fujifilm XT1
Olympus STYLUS 1
Sony Cyber-shot RX10
Olympus OMD EM1
Panasonic Lumix GM1
Nikon D610
Sony Alpha A7
Nikon D5300
Canon PowerShot A2500
Sony Alpha A7r
Canon ELPH 130 IXUS 140
Nikon COOLPIX P520
Nikon COOLPIX L820
Canon PowerShot S120
Panasonic Lumix GX7
Canon SX510 HS
Canon PowerShot G16
Fujifilm X20
Panasonic FZ70 / FZ72
Canon EOS 70D
Sony RX100 II
Canon ELPH 330 IXUS 255
Panasonic Lumix GF6
Fujifilm XM1
Olympus EP5
Panasonic Lumix LF1
Panasonic TZ35 / ZS25
Olympus XZ2
Sony HX300
Panasonic Lumix G6
Sony HX50V
Fujifilm X100S
Canon SX280 HS
Canon EOS SL1 / 100D
Panasonic TZ40 / ZS30
Nikon D7100
Nikon COOLPIX A
Fujifilm X-E1
Canon EOS 6D
Nikon D5200
Panasonic Lumix GH3
Canon PowerShot S110
Panasonic Lumix G5
Sony NEX-6
Panasonic Lumix FZ200
Canon PowerShot SX50 HS
Nikon COOLPIX P7700
Olympus E-PL5
Canon EOS M
Panasonic TS20 / FT20
Canon PowerShot G15
Nikon D600
Nikon COOLPIX L810
Canon PowerShot D20
Sony RX100
Panasonic Lumix LX7
Canon SX500 IS
Fujifilm HS30 EXR
Sony HX200V
Panasonic FZ60 / FZ62
Canon 520HS / 500HS
Canon 110HS / 125HS
Nikon D800
Canon EOS T4i / 650D
Canon PowerShot A3400
Panasonic ZS15 / TZ25
Olympus E-M5
Nikon D3200
Fujifilm X-Pro1
Canon PowerShot A2300
Canon SX240 / SX260
Samsung NX200
Sony Alpha SLT-A77
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Panasonic ZS20 / TZ30
Canon PowerShot G1 X
Sony NEX-7
Panasonic GX1
Olympus E-PM1
Nikon V1
Sony NEX-5N
Canon EOS T3 / 1100D
Canon EOS 600D / T3i
Nikon D7000
Canon EOS 60D
Canon EOS 550D / T2i
Canon EOS 7D

All camera reviews
 
 
   
 
  Best Buys: our top models
   
  Best Canon lens
Best Nikon lens
Best Sony lens
Best budget DSLR
Best mid-range DSLR
Best semi-pro DSLR
Best point and shoot
Best superzoom
Best camera accessories
   
 



Camera Labs Forum

Any questions, comments or a great tip to share? Join my Camera forum and let everyone know!
   
 
  DSLR Tips



 
Free Shipping on ALL Products
Sony Alpha NEX 3 / 5 (firmware v2) Gordon Laing, September 2010
 

Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5 design

Sony's NEX-3 and NEX-5 share a very distinctive design with a thin body sporting a large lens mount pushed up to one side – so with anything other than a pancake lens attached, they resemble a letter L when viewed from above. While the grips on both the NEX-3 and NEX-5 are generous for their body size, you can't help but rest the lens barrel in your left hand. The resulting two-handed operation works very well with the camera and lens held comfortably and securely; it harks back to Sony's classic F-series compacts, although this time the body doesn't tilt – the screen does.

   
   


The two NEX cameras employ different body materials and slightly different styling. The more affordable NEX-3 (pictured below in silver) employs a plastic body measuring 117x63x33mm and weighing 297g including battery and card (but no lens). The pricier NEX-5 (pictured above in black) employs a magnesium alloy body measuring 111x59x38mm and weighing 287g, again including battery and card but no lens. The build quality on both is excellent, although the NEX-5 has the edge.

You'll also notice while the NEX-5 is thicker (thanks to a deeper grip), it is slightly smaller and fractionally lighter overall. Compare the two models side-by-side and it feels like Sony's literally filed-down the NEX-3's body where possible to come up with the NEX-5 shape – the upper surface is lower, making the lens mount actually poke over the top a little, while sections have been removed from either side of the tripod mount at the bottom. This all has the effect of making the camera look even smaller, although the savings at the bottom have resulted in a relatively small flat area around the tripod thread.

   
   

Sony Alpha NEX-3 with 18-55mm kit zoom

What you don't realise from looking at photos of the NEX bodies though is just how small they are in the flesh. Place either NEX alongside the Olympus E-P2 or Panasonic Lumix GF1 for example, and the Sony's are noticeably smaller. The two rival models measure 121x70x35mm and 119x71x36mm respectively, and weigh 385g and 341g respectively, again with battery and card but no lens. As such their main bodies are taller, wider, thicker and heavier.

To be fair, the Olympus Micro Four Thirds models all feature built-in stabilisation, and both these and the GF1 also boast proper flash hotshoes, but that doesn't detract from the fact the NEX cameras are smaller in every dimension and lighter while boasting flip-out screens and larger sensors. Sony's design is very impressive indeed and throws down the gauntlet to rivals in terms of size without compromising comfort and stability. Indeed it's amazing to look back at Sony's first non-DSLR to feature a large sensor – 2005's Cyber-shot R1 – and how much smaller the NEX models are without sacrificing practicality. With a lens attached – especially a zoom – you'll still need a large pocket or a bag to carry either NEX, but their compact dimensions remain very impressive.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

We can also breathe a sigh of relief that Sony has (mostly) avoided the usual proprietary cable connections of its compacts, instead fitting the NEX bodies with standard mini USB and mini HDMI ports behind flaps on the left side. Like the latest Alphas, there's no AV output to standard definition TVs, so it's HD-only in Sony's world, and unfortunately there's no standard microphone input either, but there is at least an external microphone accessory, more of which later. We're also pleased to report the NEX cameras feature card slots which can take either Memory Stick PRO Duo or SD media, including the latest SDXC versions and wireless Eye-Fi cards; ironically the dual-format nature of the slot means inserting Sony's own slightly smaller Memory Stick PRO Duo cards can be fiddly, but we're just happy to be able to use SD too.

The card slot is located in the battery compartment, with both the NEX-3 and NEX-5 using an NP-FW50 Info Lithium pack which reports the remaining battery life on-screen as an accurate percentage alongside the usual bar icons. Sony claims the battery is good for 330 images under CIPA conditions, although as always you may burn through it quicker depending on use. We got close to the target with just under 300 still images from a fresh charge (albeit none with the flash), including several minutes of video and plenty of playback on-screen.

Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5 controls

 

While Sony's NEX bodies are a triumph of miniaturisation and industrial design, their control systems may leave some owners scratching their heads. To keep things really simple for its target audience, there's no mode dial and only the bare minimum of buttons. On the top right surface you'll find the shutter release, power switch (approximately one second to startup), playback and movie record buttons, while on the back are a control wheel and two unlabelled buttons. That's it, although at least the absence of a mode dial means there's no chance of accidentally turning it during transportation.

With the camera powered-off, you'll understandably wonder where the menu button is, but switch it on and you'll see the two unlabelled buttons on the rear acting as soft-keys, with their current function – along with that of the control wheel and its centre button – indicated on-screen. This has the potential for great flexibility, not to mention customisation, but again Sony's opted to keep things simple. Indeed for the vast majority of the time when shooting, the top button is configured to access the menu (or go back a step), while the bottom one is dedicated to context-sensitive tips. Indeed it can be quite a shock when you notice one of them actually change to offer something else.

The control dial tilts to double-up as a joypad: pushing up switches the display mode, pushing right sets the flash options, pushing down sets the exposure compensation when shooting or enters an index view during playback, while pushing left sets the drive mode. What you won't find though is any means to directly setting the sensitivity, white balance, AF mode or any number of other options considered common to enthusiasts. To access these, you'll need to enter the menu system, which we'll cover in detail lower in the review.

Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5 flash and accessory port



 

Like the Olympus E-P1 and E-P2, Sony has saved space by not trying to squeeze a flash into either NEX body. Unlike all the Micro Four Thirds models to date though, neither NEX body has a standard flash hotshoe. Instead each features a small proprietary accessory port under a hinged door on the top surface, and is supplied with a small flash unit which slots in and is secured in place with a slightly fiddly thumb-screw.

The flash unit is hinged at the base, allowing it to work a little like a popup model on a DSLR. Flip it up and it'll clear the lens mount by about 30mm, allowing it to minimise red-eye compared to flashes built-into bodies. Flip it down and it sits flat and fairly discreetly on top of the lens barrel, adding little to the overall size. In order to clear the larger barrel of the 18-200mm lens though, an optional extension adapter should be fitted to further raise the height of the flash.

   
 
   

The standard flash unit is quite a nice implementation, but with a guide number of 7 can't hope to match the power of external flashguns mounted onto a proper hotshoe. For casual snaps and fill-ins, it's fine, but those requiring more power and reach will need to look elsewhere. It'll be interesting to see if Sony releases a larger flash unit for the NEX cameras, but the small port and mounting area will certainly limit the potential size. Note: Sony previewed a larger mockup flash unit for the NEX cameras at Photokina in September 2010.

The NEX port can also be used to mount other optional – and equally proprietary – accessories, including an external microphone (see movie mode page) and optical viewfinder matched to the 16mm pancake lens. It's a shame the NEX-3 and 5 weren't equipped with standard microphone jacks, but many Sony camcorders aren't either, and to be fair, there's nowhere to mount a standard shotgun mic. Hopefully there'll be a lapel microphone accessory in the future, or better still, an adapter with a standard jack, but we're not holding our breath.

Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5 screen

 
 
 

Sony has equipped the NEX-3 and NEX-5 with screens which stand out from the competition: they're large, very detailed, and perhaps most impressively of all given the tiny size of the bodies, can vertically tilt for easier composition at high or low angles.

The panels measure 3in and sport 920k pixels, delivering a very detailed image and fine edges to fonts in the menu system. The picture is crisp and looks great indoors, although can quickly become hard to view under direct sunlight.

This is where the screens on the Olympus models come into their own, as while they're neither as detailed nor vibrant as the Sony, they are more easily visible in direct sunlight. Those shooting in bright conditions (or who want the additional stability of holding a camera to their eyes) may be interested in the optional optical viewfinder, although this only matches the coverage of the 16mm pancake; there was no electronic viewfinder accessory at the time of writing.

Sony Alpha NEX shooting in 3:2 mode
 
 
Default view when shooting in 3:2 aspect ratio  

 

Following a trend on many compacts, the actual shape of the NEX screen is 16:9, despite the sensor delivering a narrower image at its native aspect ratio. So when you're shooting in the best quality mode, the actual 3:2 shaped image measures 2.6in on the diagonal; it's shifted up against the left side of the screen, leaving a black strip measuring about 1cm wide on the right side.

This space is used to label the functions of the control wheel and soft keys, although this text often runs over the edge of the image; the main shooting information is superimposed along the top, left and bottom sides of the image.

The benefit of using a 16:9 screen on most compacts is the ability to fill it when shooting HD video – or of course when switching to a 16:9 mode for stills. But bizarrely Sony does neither by default and instead crops the existing 3:2 image area to deliver a 16:9 shape with thin black bars above and below it (see below left). So instead of filling the screen, the live 16:9 image is actually smaller than when shooting in 3:2. Thankfully, delving into the main Setup menu reveals a Wide Image option which can be set to Full Screen, after which 16:9 images will occupy the entire area during composition and playback (see below right). This really ought to be the default option for 16:9 compositions.

Sony Alpha NEX shooting in 16:9 modes: default view / Full Screen option
Default view when shooting in 16:9 aspect ratio
  Full Screen view when shooting in 16:9 aspect ratio


Moving onto the tilting screen, this gives the NEX cameras a genuine advantage over those with fixed panels. They can tilt upwards by just shy of 90 degrees, allowing comfortable shooting at low angles or at waist height; it's also great for discreet shooting. In the other direction, the tilt is closer to 45 degrees, but this still allows you to compose fairly easily with the camera held high overhead. It's a shame the screen can't twist out to the sides or back on itself for protection, but these would have almost certainly have added to the size of the camera. Tilting the screen can also reduce the problem of visibility in harsh light.

Issues with visibility aside, the NEX screens are a delight to use. The combination of a detailed image during composition or playback with the flexibility of the tilting mount makes them preferred over screens on rival models.

Sony Alpha NEX-3 / NEX-5 menus and user interface

 
 
 

The upper side of the control wheel is labelled DISP, and pressing it cycles through a series of display options. When shooting, the default screen shows a clean image superimposed only with the shooting mode in the top left corner and the exposure at the bottom (with exposure compensation in the PASM modes). Press DISP and additional details including the shots remaining, photo and video quality and battery life are shown running along the top. If you're in the PASM modes, the shutter speed and aperture are now complemented with a graphical scale, illustrating their relationship.

Press DISP again and more details are added running down the left side, including the drive and AF modes, along with the face and smile detection modes. In PASM modes, sensitivity is tagged on the bottom and a second column added alongside indicating the metering, AF area, white balance, Creative style and DRO mode. Since that adds up to a fair number of icons, the previous graphical representation of the aperture and shutter is sensibly replaced by their simple values at the bottom. Press the wheel upwards and you're returned to the cleanest of the three views.

 
 

No amount of pressing the DISP button will reveal an alignment grid or live histogram though. For those you'll need to delve into the Setup menu to enable them.

The grid splits the image into the usual three by three pattern, with additional cross-hairs near the corners indicating the coverage of the movie mode should you start filming. Without the grid enabled, you'll need to start filming in order to frame your clip.

The live histogram is positioned in the upper right corner and responds very quickly, although in another daft decision, it disappears while you adjust the exposure compensation – ironic since that's exactly when you need it.

This is however a minor annoyance compared to the process of adjusting any of the shooting settings. Most cameras these days, including Sony's own Cyber-shots, offer a superimposed function menu system which delivers quick access to things like the image quality, sensitivity and white balance. Indeed the NEX user interface tantalisingly looks like it's going to do the same on the view which reveals all the icons on the left side. You'd be forgiven for thinking a button would let you highlight the desired icon before turning the control wheel to adjust its settings. Surely that would make sense, right?

   
 
   

 

Sadly not. There's no such menu system on the NEX, at least not on the model we tested running firmware version 2. Sure, the control wheel rocks to deliver direct access to the drive mode, flash mode and exposure compensation setting, but for everything else, you'll need to enter the menu system. But even then things aren't as simple as they could be. Rather than having a single menu for shooting settings, they're spread over five sub categories: Shoot Mode, Camera, Image Size, Brightness / Colour and Setup.

Shoot Mode is self-explanatory: it's the electronic version of the missing mode dial, although you may not immediately find everything you're looking for. For instance while the Panorama and Anti Motion Blur modes are directly available on the virtual dial, the equally useful Handheld Twilight mode is hidden in one of the scene presets. Worse, the clever HDR mode isn't here at all, instead residing as one of the DRO options in the Brightness / Colour section.

   

Let's go through the other sections in turn. The Camera menu is where you'll find the drive mode, flash mode, AF / MF switch, AF area, AF mode, Smile and Face detection options.

This is also where you'll find the panorama shooting directions and a couple of display options.


Image Size is naturally where you'll set the quality for stills, movies and panoramas. Brightness / Colour is home to exposure compensation, ISO, White Balance, Metering, Flash compensation, DRO mode and Creative Style. Setup contains things like the histogram and grid options, along with noise reduction and Steadyshot modes, in addition to the usual formatting, date, and firmware version. A sixth menu covers playback options.

   
   

If splitting these settings across various menus and forcing you to press lots of buttons to access them wasn't bad enough, there are also inconsistencies in adjusting them. Some settings popup a sub-menu of options as you'd expect (see quality options far left), but others throw you back to the main shooting view with the options now selected with a graphical wheel (see ISO, left).

This looks pleasant enough, but means if you want to adjust anything subsequently, you'll need to delve back into the menu system. A simple operation like changing the ISO followed by the white balance could involve a lot of clicks, during which time you can't help but wonder why Sony's forcing you to do this when almost every other camera it sells is so much quicker and easier.

Equally confusing are the number of items which are mysteriously greyed-out in the menus. We all understand a greyed-out option is unavailable for some reason, but that reason is not always obvious with the NEX menus. One of the worst examples is when you find the HDR mode greyed-out, which only after trial and error do you discover is because the image quality is set to RAW. Surely it would be more helpful for the HDR option to explain it only works with the camera set to JPEG, or even make the change for you. Since you have to jump through many hoops to adjust settings, you'd also be forgiven for wanting to save time and perhaps configure both the still and panorama settings while you're in the Image Size section. Well sadly not because the panorama settings are greyed-out unless you're currently in the panorama mode, at which point the still image settings become unavailable. You can't even adjust the normal and 3D panorama settings at the same time.

   
 

 

Now to be fair, the user interface isn't all bad. Sony helpfully presents an easy way to adjust the depth of field in Intelligent Auto mode without you having to understand apertures and f-numbers. In Intelligent Auto, the control wheel is labelled 'Bkground Defocus', and pressing the central button presents a curve with 'defocus' at the bottom and 'crisp' at the top.

Turning the wheel then lets you choose the amount that will be in focus, while the actual exposure values are discreetly updated towards the lower left corner. Crisp may not be the best word to describe the minimum aperture, as it'll result in softening due to diffraction, not to mention run the risk of camera shake at slower exposures. But it's no worse than any other beginner-friendly version of Aperture Priority, and should a novice stumble into the Priority modes, the actual values are still complemented by graphical representations of their impact or application.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Best of all though are no fewer than 85 pages of context-sensitive tips, several of which are shown running down the left side of this page. Press the lower soft-key labelled Shooting Tips and the NEX will helpfully show a selection of tips relevant to your current shooting situation. What's really clever is how it's dynamically linked to the conditions recognised in the Intelligent Auto mode. Position the camera close to a subject and the Intelligent Auto mode switches to macro, and cleverly, many of the tips subsequently describe shooting close-ups. Likewise, point the camera at people, landscapes or twilight scenes and as the Auto mode reconfigures itself, so do the tips. They're decent tips too, well-written and illustrated with before and after shots, and if you'd like to read them all in turn, you can access the entire list in one of the menus.

The NEX user interface is certainly a roller-coaster ride. When it's good, such as the context-sensitive tips, it's a leader in its class, but when it's bad, such as trying to adjust a number of settings quickly, it can become incredibly frustrating. The important thing though is to put it in perspective. Camera reviews are generally written by camera reviewers who typically run through a huge variety of settings when evaluating a new model. In order to reveal the difference between various settings, such as the ISO sensitivity or Creative Styles, we may have to run through the entire range in a matter of minutes or even seconds. A camera which makes this process difficult will quickly frustrate us. As such, it's not surprising to find many reviews of the NEX concentrating on the negative aspects of the user interface as it often feels designed to infuriate camera reviewers.

The important question is whether you'll have a similar experience as a typical photographer. If you're the kind of person who frequently changes settings between shots like the sensitivity and white balance, then you will find the current NEX user interface slow and potentially frustrating; indeed it could become a deal-breaker.

But if you don't change your settings that often, it's not that big an issue. Indeed during normal use, we tended to leave the camera either set to Intelligent Auto or Aperture Priority. In the former, the camera did pretty much everything by itself, and in the latter, the f-number was always easily adjustable. We of course understand different photographers have different needs, but in general use, how often would you adjust the sensitivity, white balance and AF modes? Many photographers may set the camera up, then leave the settings untouched for general use, in which case the laborious user interface becomes a minor issue.
 
It should also be said even if you do change your settings frequently and find the interface infuriating, you may still be willing to accept it for the camera's plus sides; indeed despite cursing every time we needed to perform rapid sensitivity comparisons, we remained won over by the NEX overall. That said, Sony – or a cunning hacker – will make many friends if they develop an alternative user interface for the NEX which makes it easier to change common settings. A super-imposed function menu, such as those on Sony's own Cyber-shot compacts, would improve the NEX by leaps and bounds and open up the market to enthusiasts who may have been put off.

Being able to customise the lower soft key to offer direct access to your most used setting would also be a significant improvement; after all most of the time it just sits there offering the shooting tips which more experienced owners will quickly outgrow. Even just a little more consistency would be good – for example with the AF set to Flexible Spot, the lower soft key always lets you make readjustments. It would be a big improvement if the same applied when adjusting other settings, like the ISO and White Balance, because as it stands you need to re-enter the menu system to tweak or correct either. Note Sony has promised customisable controls with a firmware update expected in mid-October 2010.

   
   
   
   

Just when you hoped things might get back to normal, the NEX user interface has one more surprise: during playback you'll be able to click through your still photos as expected, but no amount of scrolling left or right will reveal your movies. This is because still photos and movie clips are exclusively organised on different tabs, and to see these tabs, you'll need to push the control wheel down for the thumbnail view. This presents the usual nine thumbnails, but on the far left side are the tabs allowing you to view either photos or video. Once the video tab is selected, you'll see your movies, but not the still photos.

An option in the Playback menu allows you to choose whether play button defaults to the photo or video view, but you'll still need to subsequently fire-up the thumbnail view to switch between them. While there's an argument for keeping photos and video separate, it can be annoying when you want to view all your material sequentially without starting a slideshow. Having to change tabs to see your video is also hardly intuitive if you're coming to the NEX without having fully read the manual.

   
   
   
   

When viewing photos, the DISP button cycles between three views: one that's clean, one with basic shooting information, and one with a thumbnail (with flashing highlights) alongside RGB and brightness histograms. Pressing the button in the centre of the control wheel enters the enlarge mode, after which you can spin the wheel to zoom in and out. If Wide Image is set to Full Screen, 16:9 stills will fill the screen, although 16:9 movies will do so during playback regardless of this setting.

Panoramic images are initially displayed during playback in their entirety as thin strips, but pressing the centre button on the control wheel magnifies them to fill the height of the screen (or width for vertical pans) before scrolling to reveal the full image.

Now let's check out the Sony Alpha NEX Features, including their lenses, focusing and shooting modes and sensor. If you're only interested in their video capabilities at this point, you can skip straight to our Sony Alpha NEX Movie Mode page.


If you found this review useful, please support us by shopping below!
All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2014 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

/ How we test / Best Cameras / Advertising / Camera reviews / Supporting Camera Labs