Sony Alpha A6500 review
Written by Gordon Laing
The Alpha A6500 is Sony’s most powerful mirrorless camera with an APSC sensor to date. Arriving just eight months after the previous Alpha A6300, the new A6500 unsurprisingly inherits much of that model’s style and capabilities: the same flat-topped compact body with a built-in viewfinder and tilting screen, the same effective autofocus system with fast burst shooting, and the same high quality 4k video with a wealth of features that will delight pro videographers. What differentiates the A6500 from earlier models though and makes it a much more satisfying camera, are the addition of built-in image stabilisation, a touch-screen and Bluetooth for location tagging – all firsts in the A6000 series.
The built-in image stabilisation shifts the sensor to compensate for wobbles in five axes, and works with any lens you attach, even adapted third-party models. In my tests with unstabilised telephoto prime lenses, I typically achieved four stops of compensation for still photos and as importantly enjoyed a nice, steady view during composition. It also worked well when filming movies, again allowing me to handhold with unstabilised primes while also minimizing rolling shutter artefacts previously triggered by simple camera shake. It may not be as eerily smooth as the latest Olympus bodies, but it still transforms the use of unstabilised lenses and is very welcome.
The touchscreen is another feature I’ve been requesting for ages and while Sony’s been very modest with the breadth of its implementation, the most important capability is here: the ability to reposition a single AF area with a simple tap, even when composing through the viewfinder thanks to the optional touchpad mode (and you can also just activate a portion of the screen to avoid your nose from intervening). Bluetooth is also the perfect solution for acquiring and embedding location details from your smartphone, maintaining a low-power, hassle-free link that does its job without intervention.
In the video below, Doug Kaye and I discuss everything you need to know about the Sony Alpha A6500! I also have an audio podcast of this discussion below, or you can subscribe to the Cameralabs Podcast at iTunes.
Check prices on the Sony Alpha a6500 at Amazon, B&H, Adorama, or Wex. Alternatively get yourself a copy of my In Camera book or treat me to a coffee! Thanks!
The built-in IS, touch-screen and Bluetooth may be the headline new features, but there’s other useful upgrades too. The addition of a new front-side LSI (Large Scale Integrated circuit) burns through data faster than ever and coupled with larger buffer memory allows for unparalleled burst depth at this price point. Forget being limited to, say 100 JPEGs or 20 RAW files – the A6500 shot 319 Large JPEGs or 110 RAW files at its maximum speed of 11fps in my tests. That’s almost 30 seconds of continuously shooting 24 Megapixel JPEGs at 11fps, taking it way beyond the buffer of sports-oriented DSLRs like the Nikon D500 and Canon 7D Mark II.
Then there’s the quiet but important inclusion of the option to link spot-metering to the active AF area – a feature highly valued by bird photographers who frequently shoot subjects against challenging backgrounds. Olympus also offers it on the OMD EM1 Mark II, but beyond that you’re really looking at spending a great deal more on a Canon 1Dx II or Nikon D5.
These features all build-upon what was already available on the earlier A6300. Most notably that amazing autofocus system which embeds 425 phase-detect points across almost the entire surface area to effectively track fast subjects at 11fps or 8fps with live feedback. I’ve successfully used the A6300 at the Tour de France and believe me those guys don’t hang around. I look forward to using the A6500 at a future race and using the touchpad to reposition the AF area while composing, and never worrying about running short of buffer depth.
The A6500 also inherits the superb movie capabilities of the A6300, including uncropped 4k (at 24p and 25p), 1080 up to 120p, 4k HDMI output, flat S-Log 2 and S-Log 3 profiles (with gamma display assistance), focus peaking, zebras and more. The A6500 also now gains the S&Q (slow and quick) movie options of the FS series which interpret footage to the desired frame rate, for example, playing 120fps footage at 24fps for a five-times slowdown without having to modify the file.
Sony’s also made some minor but worthwhile physical tweaks over the A6300, thickening the grip, widening the shutter release button and adding a third custom function button.
It’s all sounding rather positive isn’t it? And it’s certainly true the Alpha A6500 is Sony’s most capable and compelling APS-C mirrorless camera to date. But equally there’s a number of limitations or annoyances, some inherited from earlier models, which become less forgiveable as the price steadily rises.
I’ll start with the screen. Yes it’s touch-sensitive now which is great (revealingly leaving Fujifilm now as the odd one out), but like the A6300 it still won’t flip up or sideways to face the subject (ruling it out for vlogging or simple selfies), and remains very dim by default, making it hard to view in bright conditions. You can of course select the Sunny Weather option which brightens the screen, but like the A6300 this becomes unavailable when filming 4k or 1080 at 100 / 120p. So if you’re filming outdoors in 4k or high-frame-rate 1080, you’ll find the screen becomes almost invisible. And while the 16:9 screen shape is ideal for movies, it results in a smaller, letter-boxed image when shooting stills in the native 3:2 shape.
The new touch-screen is also woefully underused. You can’t swipe through images in playback nor pinch to zoom. You can’t tap your way through any menus, even though some of it has tap-friendly tabs and icons, especially the super-imposed Fn menu. It’s inconsistent too, allowing you to tap text-entry on one keyboard style, but not the other. Sure the most important ability to reposition the AF area is there, but there’s little else that exploits it. Sony really needs to look at how Canon, Panasonic and Olympus use their touch-screens.
Then there’s a number of things missing which may be forgiveable on a sub-$1000 camera, but which are notable by their absence on a product at a higher price. The maximum shutter of 1/4000 whether mechanical or electronic is slower now than all rivals. Most cameras at this price have 1/8000 mechanical shutters and even faster electronic options.
Most rivals also now not only have dual memory card slots, but house them more conveniently in the side grip, rather than within the battery compartment where they’ll become blocked on a tripod. Pro videographers will also miss a headphone jack – even as an option on an accessory – and still shooters will note there’s no in-camera RAW conversion option during playback either, a feature I’ve come to love on other cameras.
Increasingly I also feel the downloadable app capability on Sony cameras isn’t as useful as it sounds. The ability to download and install, say, interval shooting facilities may sound great, but many of the optional Sony apps are simply standard features on rival cameras. What makes it worse though is the apps install their own menus which operate independently to the main menu system, which not only causes confusion but may not include the options you know are available elsewhere in the camera. And don’t get me started on having to update the Smart Remote app in the camera to enjoy full exposure and focus control via your phone – many owners won’t jump through the required hoops and will miss out on the full feature set.
I also think the A6500 is crying-out for some high quality e-mount lenses, designed for its APS-C sensor size. I know you can mount full-frame lenses which also of course provide an upgrade path to a full-frame body, but surely one of the joys of owning a smaller format is being able to exploit smaller, lighter and more affordable lenses. I’d love to see bright aperture weather-proof zooms (both in general-purpose and telephoto ranges) and some high quality weather-proof primes, especially at the wider-end. I have no complaints at all with the quality of Sony’s latest FE full-frame lenses, but if I’m only shooting with an APS-C body, I don’t want to pay a premium to lug around something unnecessarily large and heavy. In this respect the systems which only have to worry about one sensor size, like Fujifilm and Micro Four Thirds, have many more compelling options to choose from in terms of size, weight and price while maintaining high quality.
And finally, there’s the issue of lifespan. I’m a firm believer when a new camera comes out, the old version doesn’t suddenly become redundant, but equally that’s little consolation if you’ve just splurged on a new body to find an even better model available less than a year later. The earlier A6300 was launched just eight months before the A6500 and while it remains a great option that’s still on sale, I can’t help but wonder how many buyers would have preferred the A6500. It also begs the question whether an even higher-end option is waiting in the wings, although I personally suspect Sony has already packed the A6500 with everything it can think of for a while.
The flip-side is to ask whether a company should sit on new technology if it’s ready to go. Sony is developing faster than most right now which means we’re seeing new cameras released at a quicker pace than we’re used to. I don’t think it’s a bad thing – in fact I’d sooner the new technology came out as soon as it’s ready – but it is something to bear in mind when buying into Sony.
So before my final verdict, how does it compare to the competition?
Sony A6500 vs Sony A6300
The closest rival to the A6500 is of course the previous A6300, released just eight months earlier and still on sale. Both cameras share the same sensor, essentially the same photo and video quality, the same AF system, the same burst speeds, the same viewfinder, same screen size and articulation, the same Wifi remote control capabilities and essentially the same body design too. To this the A6500 adds built-in image stabilisation, deeper burst depth, a touch-screen, Bluetooth for easy GPS tagging, spot metering linked to the AF point, a deeper grip, extra function button and a wider shutter release. You’re looking at spending roughly 40% more for the A6500 body over the A6300 at the time of writing depending on region, so it depends what value you place on those extra features. I like to shoot a lot with prime lenses which are invariably unstabilised, so having built-in stabilisation is very important to me – this coupled with the touchscreen, deeper burst depth and Bluetooth means I’d personally spend the extra for the A6500. But if you simply want the Sony for its amazing autofocus, fast burst shooting and great quality 4k video, then the A6300 will give you it all at a lower price. See my Sony A6300 review for more details.
Sony A6500 vs Fujifilm XT2
Another key contender in the premium mirrorless market is Fujifilm’s XT2. Like the A6500, it’s based around a 24 Megapixel APS-C sensor with embedded phase-detect AF and also shoots 4k video, but there are many differences to weigh up. In its favour, the XT2 has a larger viewfinder image, dual memory card slots in the grip side, a 3:2 shaped screen that can also angle out sideways for easier framing in the portrait orientation, a dedicated AF joystick, an AF system that works in lower light levels, a PC Sync port, and faster 1/8000 mechanical and 1/32000 electronic shutters. In its favour, the A6500 has built-in image stabilisation that works with any lens, a touch-screen, a broader AF system that felt more confident and consistent in my tests, faster burst shooting with the mechanical shutter (11 vs 8fps or 8 vs 5fps with Live View), deeper bursts, longer 4k recording times (29:59 per clip vs ten minutes), flat S-Log profiles for internal recording, spot metering that can be linked to the active AF area, Auto ISO that’s aware of focal length, deeper AEB, power over USB, and Bluetooth for easier / lower power location logging.
From this feature comparison the A6500 comes out on top, especially considering the body price is a little cheaper too, but there’s more to consider. First is the optional battery grip for the XT2 that increases 4k recording times to half an hour, triples the battery life, adds a headphone jack and accelerates the mechanical shutter burst speed to 11fps. This allows the XT2 to match the shooting speed and 4k recording times of the A6500, albeit increasing the overall cost to around one third more than the A6500.
But for me much of the choice is also how you feel about the look, handling and output. I personally prefer the controls and styling of the XT2 over the A6500 and also prefer its JPEG quality out-of-camera; I should also add the Fuji X catalogue includes lots of APS-C lenses that are compact, high quality and affordable. These all draw me to the Fujifilm, but its lack of built-in IS and a touchscreen, both of which are present on the A6500 at a lower price, are frustrating limitations. The bottom line? Both are great cameras, but when choosing between them, consider not just the features but also the handling, output and overall system. See my Fujifilm XT2 review for more details.
Sony A6500 vs Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II
Another contender in the premium mirrorless market is the Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II. Like the A6500 it’s designed to be quick, records 4k video, features built-in stabilisation and an embedded phase-detect AF system. In its favour, the OMD EM1 Mark II has superior stabilisation in my tests, a fully-articulated side-hinged screen, greater use of touch-controls, the choice of Cinema 4k in addition to 4k UHD, dual memory card slots, an AF system with all cross-type sensors, a higher capacity battery, and will actually shoot faster bursts – even with AF – if you switch to the electronic shutter. In its favour, the A6500 employs a larger and higher resolution sensor (24 Megapixel APS-C vs 20 Megapixel Micro Four Thirds), a broader and denser array of embedded AF points, Bluetooth for low-power location tagging, flatter movie profiles, and even deeper buffers (although the EM1 Mark II is already pretty capable at long bursts).
Like the Fujifilm though, it’s important to take handling, output and lens selection into account too. Again I personally think the Olympus controls are superior to the Sony and I feel the processing of in-camera JPEGs is better too – and while the Sony sensor is larger and better at high ISOs, you may not need them as much on the Olympus thanks to its better stabilisation. As for lenses, there are lots of small, light and high quality options in the Micro Four Thirds catalogue.
Ultimately I can’t say anymore until I fully test the EM1 Mark II, but while it is looking like a very powerful camera, it’s priced comfortably higher – around one third more at the time of writing. See my Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II review-in-progress for more details, and also check out my older Olympus OMD EM5 Mark II review.
Sony A6500 vs Panasonic Lumix G80 / G85
My final suggestion for a premium mirrorless alternative is Panasonic’s Lumix G80 / G85. I’m keeping this short as I haven’t tested it at all yet, but the feature-set with built-in stabilisation, a large viewfinder, fully-articulated touchscreen and high quality 4k video make it well worth considering at a price which comes in around one third less than the A6500. See my Panasonic Lumix G80 / G85 preview for more details, and check back for an in-depth comparison when I’ve tested it.
Sony A6500 final verdict
The Alpha A6500 is Sony’s best all-round mirrorless camera with an APS-C sensor to date. The original A6000 was the first mirrorless to confidently take-on sports and fast action. The A6300 then improved the focus and live feedback even further, while adding weatherproofing and great quality 4k video. Now the A6500 gives it broader appeal by adding built-in stabilisation, a touch-screen, deeper buffer and Bluetooth for hassle-free low-power location tagging. The built-in IS may not be quite as good as Olympus, but greatly improves composition, still shooting and movie filming with unstabilised lenses, and while the touch capabilities are under-used, you can at least tap to reposition the AF area or pull-focus while filming. While it’s the continuous autofocus and fast bursts that continue to set it apart from rivals, the upgrades have made it a much more compelling camera overall than its predecessor. Sony needs to do some work on its controls and user interface, not to mention updating some features that should be standard at this price, but they don’t hold it back from a highly recommended award.
Check prices on the Sony Alpha a6500 at Amazon, B&H, Adorama, or Wex. Alternatively get yourself a copy of my In Camera book or treat me to a coffee! Thanks!