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Sony ups the ante on compact interchangeable lens cameras
We knew this was coming. Sony gave us a look at a mock-up in February, at PMA. But now that the NEX interchangeable-lens compact camera system has been announced, we have specs and some pretty impressive claims that I can't wait to put through a reality test.
The competition’s limits
With all the buzz that accompanied the introduction of the Olympus “Digital Pen” series of interchangeable-lens compact cameras last year, when reality hit and reviewers had their chance to put it through its paces, the truth came out: Performance was sluggish, especially AF, and the resolution was limited by the fact that the sensor was about half the size of the APS lens commonly found in a DSLR.
Yes, the short flangeback (distance between lensmount and sensor) design was revolutionary and a game changer. But when Olympus (and shortly afterwards, Panasonic) claimed DSLR quality, that claim required a quantifier: It’s DSLR quality, only if you’re referring to DSLRs with Four Thirds sized sensors—which are only made by Olympus and Panasonic. “Great idea, but I’ll wait for an APS version” is a comment we heard frequently.
The first short flangeback APS sensor-based camera was the Samsung NX10. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on one in the near future and will test it thoroughly, but it has more in common with Panasonic’s EVIL cameras—the Micro Four Thirds-based GH series, with its built-in eye-level electronic viewfinder—than with the eye-level finderless Olympus E-P1, E-P2, E-PL1, or Panasonic G-F1.
Sony remixes the digital camera
So, here come the Sony NEX-5 and NEX-3. First, some basic specs: 14MP, APS-C CMOS sensor, ISO range 100-12,800, body depth less than one inch. At 58.8x32.2mm and 110 grams, the NEX-5 is the smallest interchangeable-lens compact on the market. The NEX-3 is very slightly bigger. The NEX-5 body is clad in high-grade magnesium alloy and comes in black or silver, while the NEX-3 has a gently curved polycarbonate body, and comes in silver, black and red. The NEX-5 can record 1080p Full HD videos in AVCHD or MP4, while the NEX-3 will record 720p videos in MP4.
The NEX’s E-Mount is a totally new lens mount, and Sony has introduced three lenses—a 16mm f/2.8 (24mm effective) pancake prime which I think will be popular among hobbyists and some pros, an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Optical Steady Shot kit lens, and an 18-200mm f/3.5-6.4 Optical Steady Shot extended zoom that Sony says is especially optimized for video. An adapter makes it possible to mount and use any Minolta Maxxum/Sony alpha lens, albeit with autofocus disabled. To keep the camera body small, the NEX camera is the first interchangeable-lens Sony without sensor-based image stabilization. Stabilization has been moved into the lenses.
Sony says E-Mount lenses are designed to focus and adjust aperture silently, enabling AF and exposure adjustment during video shooting. Unlike Sony's DSLRs, there's no room in the NEX body for stabilization, so it's been moved into the lenses.
Borrowing from DSLRs and compacts
To give the NEX appeal to both DSLR users (who are more likely to be drawn to the magnesium alloy bodied NEX-5) and point-and-shooters (who may like the polycarbonate bodied NEX-3 better), Sony borrowed features from both the Alpha DSLR line and innovations found in recent Cyber-shot compact cameras.
First, there’s the sensor, which is the 14MP next-generation Exmor. The same size as sensors found on most DSLRs, it’s 60 percent larger than a Four-Thirds sensor, and this bigger sensor area allows for larger pixels and the potential for better high-ISO, low-light performance. Indeed, Sony claims outstanding noise characteristics at its top ISO of 12,800, a claim I can’t wait to test out when I get an NEX-5 in my hands. Keep in mind that Sony has an excellent track record producing DSLR sensors with outstanding low-light capabilities.
Both cameras are claimed to have intuitive operation, with contextual soft keys whose functions change depending on the shooting mode (see sample screen shot above). There is intelligent Auto, which analizes a scene and chooses the most appropriate scene mode. For less sophisticated users, Background Defocus mode lets you control depth of field, but if you know what you’re doing, simply go to aperture priority. It’s the same thing effectively, but Background Defocus is more visual, less technologically intimidating and more snapshooter friendly.
Another feature borrowed from compact cameras is Sweep Panorama (see illustration, above): Move the camera in a sweeping motion and it captures and stitches together 100 images shot in rapid-burst sequence. NEX uses focal plane shutter instead of the digital shutter used by the Cyber-shot. The resulting images can be as big as 12416x1856 pixels, or 23MP, which is extraordinarily high. (Sony also announced that it’s developing a way for the camera to turn Sweep Panorama-captured images into digital 3D shots that can be viewed on Sony Bravia monitors via an HDMI cable, and they hope to have the technology ready by mid-summer.)
Anti Motion Blur/Handheld Twilight, also borrowed from the Cyber-shot line, has intriguing possibilities when used with the NEX’s larger sensor: The camera captures 6 full-res images in a rapid burst, then combines them for clarity while canceling noise and reducing the blur that comes from handheld, slow shutter speed shooting. Auto HDR, which I noted in my review of the Alpha 550, published yesterday, has been improved. In the NEX cameras, it will capture and combine three shots instead of two (which I felt wasn’t very effective). Sony claims this will boost latitude by up to 6EV. Users will be able to manually select the range of over and under exposure shots.
Other compact camera features are firsts for interchangeable lens camera include Intelligent Focus, Face detection, smile mode.
The NEX system
Sony has not revealed whether or not Minolta/Sony shoe-mount flashes will be usable on the NEX cameras, but my feeling, upon looking at the cameras’ designs, is that this is very unlikely. Sony is offering a clip-on auxiliary flash (which is a good thing; there is no built-in flash, alas) that can be mounted via the NEX’s smart port. But as was the problem with the Olympus E-P1, there’s no way to mount both the flash and the optical viewfinder that can be purchased for use with the 16mm lens.
Lest you missed that important point, Sony is supplying a 15mm optical viewfinder which they say will cover the entire 16mm angle of view, and the entire image will be viewable even if you are wearing glasses. While no electronic viewfinder has been announced, the presence of a smart port where an eye-lever viewfinder would logically go is a pretty good indication that one may be forthcoming.
Sony has kept the cost of the NEX cameras, which will be available in July, low enough to be tempting. The NEX-5, supplied with the 16mm pancake lens, will cost about $650; with the 18-55mm lens, it will cost roughly $700. The NEX-3 (right) with the same configurations will run around $100 less. The 16mm lens will cost $250 alone, and the 18-55 will run $300. The 18-200mm superzoom will be available in the fall, for $800. While Olympus and Panasonic have been steadily lowering their prices, the NEX cameras are very competitively priced.
All in all, Sony’s announcement today is great news for photographers. I look forward to pitting their claims against reality and putting both cameras through as soon as I can get my paws on production models.