Photography & Video
An extra dial makes all the difference
Earlier this year, I made a pretty drastic change in my camera set up. I left behind my trusty Canon DSLR, and the lenses and accessories that had served me well for six years, and I picked up a Sony NEX-5N mirrorless camera. My reason for making the swap was purely convenience: I was just tired of lugging around my DSLR and all of its accoutrements every time I wanted better photos than my smartphone could offer. The NEX-5N solved this problem nicely — it's remarkably small and significantly lighter than a full DLSR, yet can capture incredible photos even in difficult lighting conditions. It can also shoot great 1080p video, meaning that I no longer needed to carry around a camcorder for video.
But not everything is perfect. The NEX-5N, while able to take fantastic photos and video, doesn't offer me the same level of control — or more specifically the same level of access to the camera's controls as a proper DSLR. That's a consequence of it being more compact, right? Logic dictates that a much smaller camera just too miniature to house all of the little buttons and dials that a DSLR can support.
Perhaps that was true last year, when Sony introduced the 5N. This time around, the company has revisited the model and upgraded it with the NEX-5R. The 5R is very similar to the 5N — it has the same photographic capabilities (16-megapixel APS-C sensor, 1080p HD video capture at up to 60fps, up to 10fps continuous shooting) and a very familiar design. But Sony has addressed some of the biggest complaints of the 5N by adding a command dial and some extra buttons to give photographers more control. The company also threw in some extras like Wi-Fi connectivity, an improved autofocus system, and a more flexible display. I've spent the last month or so with the $749.99 NEX-5R to see if its new improvements make it a better camera than the 5N and if it's still one of the best mirrorless cameras you can buy today.
The 5R has a familiar face, but it's no twin of the 5N
It really takes a trained eye to spot the hardware differences between the NEX-5N and the new NEX-5R. Both are exceptionally petite camera bodies with comically large lens mounts. Both have large, 3-inch articulating touchscreen displays on back next to a command dial and three buttons. Both have smallish, rubberized grips that let you hold the camera and shoot with one hand and include an IR receiver for an optional remote control (you’re still better off using two hands to steady the camera, however). Both have a battery and SDXC compartment accessible from underneath the camera. Both also have a proprietary accessory mount on top for the included flash unit or optional shotgun microphone, and both have dual microphones on top to capture stereo sound. Both also lack any way to use non-proprietary external microphones, which is a frustration.
Only a few key differences separate this year’s model from last year’s version. The most obvious addition is a second command dial situated just under your right thumb when you are holding the camera. This dial, which trickled down from the higher-end NEX-7, lets you control various parameters depending on your shooting mode. In Aperture Priority ('A' on the virtual mode dial), it will adjust the opening of the lens, while in Shutter Priority ('S' on said mode dial), it controls how long the shutter will be held open. The circular wheel on the back of the camera is available to control exposure compensation or shutter speed when the camera is in full manual mode (the main control dial adjusts lens aperture in full manual mode). This single dial on top of the camera makes a profound difference when you are shooting in manual modes, as it gives you direct control to things that used to require a button press and other actions. Translation: you can keep your eyes on your subject and worry about composition instead of fiddling with buttons to change your settings.
Because of this new dial, the dedicated movie record button and playback review button have been shifted to slightly different positions on the camera's top plate. The power switch has been moved to a ring around the now-black shutter button. Next to the shutter button is a new function key that provides quicker access to settings like metering, focus modes, white balance, and image effects and filters.
More buttons and dials really make for a better experience
Other handling tweaks include a dedicated ISO setting button on the 'right' action of the four-way controller on the back of the NEX-5R... and that's it. It may not sound like a lot, but the changes add up to a much more pleasant experience when you want to take control of the camera. It still doesn't provide the same level of control as a full DSLR — or even the NEX-7, which has three control dials — but the NEX-5R is surprisingly flexible when you are out in the field shooting. The dedicated ISO button is a god-send when you are in a situation with rapidly changing lighting conditions, and the Fn button makes it very straightforward to switch between automatic and manual focus modes, which is key since Sony's E-mount lenses lack a hardware switch to do that. A full-size DSLR still puts these controls in easier to reach places — quite literally at your fingertips — but given the size tradeoff, the NEX-5R does a good job at making the best of its limited real estate for buttons and dials.
Sony also made a few other upgrades to the camera body: the old Mini USB port has been converted to the more modern Micro USB, and is now located under the same plastic door as the Micro HDMI port; and the rigid strap loops have been upgraded to more versatile triangle loops. Again, these aren't huge changes, and probably nothing that will cause someone to buy the NEX-5R over another camera, but they are nice refinements that lend to a better overall experience.
The NEX-5R's display can flip up well beyond 90 degrees for waist-level shooting or even a self portrait, or it can tilt down about 50 degrees for easy viewing of the screen when you are holding the camera above your head (a function I use more often than I ever thought I would). The self-portrait use is a bit kitschy, but I’m sure that some users will find more use for it than I did.
The 5R doesn't have the perfect hardware — I'd love to see even more control dials and would kill for a dedicated electronic viewfinder and a 3.5mm jack for a non-proprietary external microphone — but for the price that Sony is asking, the 5R does offer a lot in its still frame.
Sony is packaging the same 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS lens with the 5R as it did with the 5N and a number of other NEX cameras. There's not a whole lot to say about the lens — it offers a standard range for a wide variety of situations and while it's not the sharpest lens on the block, it produces more than suitable photos for the vast majority of photographers. The Optical SteadyShot function works admirably to combat camera shake at longer shutter speeds, extending the camera's low-light shooting capabilities, and the lens' solid metal construction puts kit lenses from other manufacturers to shame. The NEX-5R's E-mount means it's compatible with any lens that Sony and third-party manufacturers build for the NEX line. That list of lenses is still pretty small compared to the likes of what you can get on Panasonic and Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras, and is dwarfed by the number of lenses available to Nikon or Canon DSLRs, but it is growing and many of the available options are actually quite good.
Touchscreen dreams, broken promises
Like the NEX-5N, the 5R's 3-inch touchscreen LCD display features a high resolution and bright colors. Though the 5N lacks an eye-level viewfinder, I didn’t have any trouble using the LCD display in bright sunlight. Also like the 5N, the 5R's touchscreen kind of stinks as a touchscreen. Since the display uses a resistive panel instead of the more common capacitive technology as found on many smartphone displays, it is not nearly as responsive to touch input as even an entry-level smartphone. The touchscreen is frequently used in Sony’s interface, but because of its poor responsiveness, can be a frustrating experience.
Since touch targets are frequently small on the screen, it can be hard to hit them with your fingertip. Swiping between pictures when reviewing them is an option, but it is very laggy and as a result, frustrating. The 5R also doesn't support multi-touch, so if you try to pinch to zoom on the photos, it simply won't work. Fortunately, you can completely disable the touchscreen and just use the camera's hardware buttons and controls to navigate its interface, which is a much faster option in my experience. The 5R also offers the option to tap the touch screen to focus and to take a picture, but outside of the rare occurrences when the camera is awkwardly mounted on a tripod and the shutter key is inaccessible, I can't imagine why you would use the touchscreen to take a picture. The tap-to-focus feature is useful, but I found it to be slower to respond than I would prefer.
Comparing the displays of the two models side-by-side, the 5R’s appears to be a flipped version of the 5N's, so there is a thicker border on the right side of the screen, while the 5N has the thicker border on the left side. This extra space means that it is less likely for your thumb to stray over to the touchscreen and unintentionally actuate functions on it while you are shooting. The 5R's display also seems to be more color accurate, as my particular 5N tends to have a reddish cast in certain lighting conditions.
The software and interface on the NEX-5R is largely unchanged from that on the NEX-5N. Since the camera doesn't have a traditional mode dial, changing between shooting modes requires use of an on-screen dial, which I find to be a bit slow and tiresome — especially if you are changing modes often. If you are the type of shooter that parks the camera on a single shooting mode — whether that be a manual mode of one of the many automatic options — this probably won't be as big of an issue for you.
For the most part, Sony's interface is logical, but given that the camera features a ton of settings and features, the menus can get a bit unwieldy and require a fair amount of scrolling to get to the setting you are looking for. This isn't an uncommon problem with cameras, but it can be frustrating to have to dig for the "format memory card" setting every time you put your SD card back into the camera.
Pro tip: don't bother with the touch interface, just use the control dials
A new feature in the camera's main menu interface is the Application section, which lets you install a variety of apps to take advantage of the 5R’s new Wi-Fi features or do some in camera image tweaking. At the time of this writing, there were six apps available — four free and two paid. The paid apps run for $4.99 apiece and add advanced bracketing and noise reduction functions. I'm not sure there is much value in those apps, as the photographers that are likely to want these functions are using much more advanced software on their computers to already get the job done. Two of the free apps are designed to add effects and make minor cropping and adjustments after the fact.
The other two apps are for directly uploading pictures from the camera to Sony's PlayMemories online service or Facebook and controlling the camera with an Android or iOS smartphone. Once you have gone through the hassle of getting the 5R connected to your Wi-Fi network — which involves configuring the settings using either the frustratingly unresponsive touchscreen or equally fiddly four-way controller — you can sign into either a PlayMemories or Facebook account and upload one or more photos at a time. The whole process is rather tedious and frustrating — it’s really just faster to upload photos online by downloading them to a computer first, which more or less defeats the whole purpose of having Wi-Fi built into the camera. I couldn’t get the Smart Remote app to work with either Android or iOS, so it was a complete bust. Update: We reached out to Sony about this issue and were informed that the PlayMemories app is not compatible with iOS 6 or Android 4.1 or newer. Users of Android 4.0.3 shouldn't have as many issues. Sony says that it is working on an update to the app to correct these issues, but it did not say when the update would be available.
I did have more success transferring images from the camera to an Android smartphone using the PlayMemories app (I had zero success with the iOS version of the app, which apparently needs an update), but again, the process of transferring images takes multiple steps and a lot of patience. In the end, while it was novel to see my images on my Android smartphone relatively soon after snapping them, I ended up giving up and just using the SD card slot on my computer to transfer images and upload them to various services.
All-in-all, the Wi-Fi function, a new feature that I was really looking forward to enjoying on the 5R, is nothing more than a disappointment and frustration. Perhaps Sony will be able to improve it with software and firmware updates, but as it stands right now, it's a pretty awful experience.
The 5N comes with all the same shooting features that Sony has offered on its NEX line for a number of models, including a variety of filters and effects that can be used as you are taking pictures. The fake tilt-shift mode is fun and works pretty well, and the built-in panoramic stitch feature is one of the best I've ever used. Sony offers two completely automatic modes — Intelligent Auto and Superior Auto — which determine the scene that you are trying to compose and adjust the camera automatically for the best results (or at least what the camera thinks are the best results). Frankly, I couldn't really tell the difference between Intelligent Auto and Superior Auto, but Sony says that the Superior mode has more processing to reduce noise and blur. Sony also offers a variety of scene modes for portraits, landscapes, sports, close-ups, and more.
Manual shooters have the standard PASM modes at their disposals via the on-screen menu, and the 5R retains the excellent peaking feature when using manual focus that has been on virtually every NEX camera thus far. The peaking feature lets you easily see when the edges of objects are in focus by displaying a white highlight on the LCD. It’s great for stills, but it’s really awesome when using manual focus while shooting video. Shooters also have control over things like dynamic range optimization and automatic HDR modes, as well as a variety of autofocus modes, including programmable face detection.
From manual controls to Instagram-esque filters, the 5R has it
The new autofocus system is noticeably better than the older model, but still not best in class
Like most of the NEX cameras that preceded it, the 5R is quite the performer, in both speed of operation and quality of output. The camera is very quick to power on and be ready for a shot, and it's capable of firing off 10 full resolution frames per second. Autofocus, which has been a bit of a weak spot for the NEX line, has been greatly improved on the NEX-5R, thanks to a new Fast Hybrid AF feature that combines phase-detection autofocus with a contrast-detection system. Phase detection focus is similar to what is used in a traditional SLR, and excels in dim light, while contrast detection is what you normally see on a compact camera and can be more accurate. It's still not quite as fast as the best DSLRs on the market — or even the Olympus OM-D E-M5 — but it's much better than the 5N and I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly it was able to lock focus on subjects with low contrast and in poor lighting. This improved autofocus carries over to the video mode as well, which offers better subject tracking than we've seen before.
Sony claims that the included battery will capture about 330 images before needed to be juiced up again, and I'm not going to argue with that. Generally, I was able to go a few hundred shots before needing to recharge the battery, so it should be more than adequate for most users’ needs. Should you be shooting a lot of video, as in over an hour or more, you might want to invest in a second cell to keep as a backup. New for the 5R is a Micro USB charger that plugs into the side of the camera to recharge the battery. Since Micro USB is a standard plug format, you can actually recharge the camera with a variety of USB chargers and backup batteries, but at the same time, you can't charge a second battery while you are using the camera as you can do with the old stand-alone charger.
Sony's big sensor / small body approach works wonders here
Here's something you probably didn't see coming: the image quality from the NEX-5R is virtually identical to that of the NEX-5N. All joking aside, that's more or less to be expected, as the cameras share the same sensor and processing chips. Fortunately, this is a good thing: the 16-megapixel sensor does exceptionally well in everything from bright outdoors to difficult indoor lighting conditions. The 5R can shoot at up to ISO 25,600 for low light, though anything beyond ISO 6400 can be quite noisy and is really only useful for small prints or web output. White balance was generally accurate in the automatic mode, though perfectionists will want to take advantage of the various presets or the custom white balance feature. Sony's conservative metering system, which typically tries to preserve detail in bright areas by making the entire scene a tad darker than it should be, is in full force on the 5R, so I found that I had to brighten up images a little once I got them onto my computer. This can be overcome in the camera with a little exposure compensation while you are shooting.
You can't do much better with another camera of this size
The 5R can shoot 1080p video at either 60 or 24 frames per second — just like the 5N before it — which is saved in the less-than-convenient-but-necessary-evil AVCHD file format. The more ubiquitous MP4 format can be used as well, but you’re limited to shooting 1,440 x 1,080 pixels at 30 frames per second. As with the 5N, video output on the 5R is really, really good, and the top mounted mics do a pretty good job at capturing stereo sound. The audio capture can be improved with Sony's optional (and proprietary) shotgun mic, though that's about as much as you can do, since the 5R still doesn't offer support for third-party microphones. As mentioned, the 5R offers full autofocus while shooting video, something that many of the DSLRs in its price range still do not have.
The NEX-5R nails a lot of what we look for in digital camera image quality: it offers accurate colors, generally reliable white balance, a pretty wide dynamic range, and lots of detail even at higher ISO sensitivities. It's not going to go toe-to-toe with a full-frame DSLR (which generally provide the best image quality you can get in a DSLR, but carry a hefty price tag to go along with it), in any of these categories, but given its price and direct competition in the mirror less category, it's pretty tough to beat. Sony's decision to use a larger APS-C size sensor instead of the smaller sensors employed by Panasonic, Olympus, Nikon, and Canon in their mirrorless cameras pays dividends, and Sony is easily ahead of the competition when it comes to low light performance.
Sony's improvements to the NEX-5R make it an even better value than it was before
With the NEX-5R, Sony has managed to make an excellent camera even better with greatly improved handling and better autofocus, without compromising the great image and video quality found in its predecessor. That isn't to say everything is perfect with the 5R — the touchscreen still stinks and the new Wi-Fi feature is nothing but a tease, but both of those things are easily ignored or disabled if you don't want to bother with them.
Sony is rapidly expanding its line of NEX cameras, and the NEX-5R is now flanked by the NEX-6 above it and the NEX-F3 below it. But while it doesn't have all of the features of the 6 (eye-level viewfinder, pop-up flash, and proper hotshoe for accessories), it handily beats the lower-cost F3 with better video and ergonomics, while still carrying a palatable price for many buyers. The 5R could still benefit from better controls, as its improved scheme is still not up to the level of access that you get with a DSLR. But its combination of portability and near pocketability (I actually was able to keep it in the pocket of a blazer on numerous occasions as I was out and about) with DSLR level image and video quality make it a winner and an easy recommendation. There might not be enough here to force existing NEX-5N owners to upgrade, but it certainly is enough to keep the NEX-5R at the top of the short list of best mirrorless cameras that you can buy.