Sony's drive to slim down our digital cameras continues apace. Most recently we reviewed the Alpha SLT-A35, which does away with the dSLR's traditional mirror arrangement to shrink down its physical bulk.
Now we have the Sony Alpha NEX-5N, which looks like a regular compact with a dSLR lens bolted on to its face. The similarities go further than that, though, leaving us to question whether this £660 snapper is ripe to replace a semi-pro camera.
Why buy a 5N?
Quite simply, it gives you the best of both worlds, with a compact body and a wide choice of add-on lenses. The NEX-5ND kit that we tested ships with both an 18-55mm zoom and a 16mm prime lens.
The first of those matches the entry-level kit lens shipped with Nikon and Canon's consumer dSLRs, and has a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at wide angle, and f/5.6 at full telephoto. The second is an ultra-wide angle lens, suitable for landscapes if you dial down the aperture and great for portraits at the maximum aperture of f/2.8, at which point it will blur your backgrounds and pull your subject into sharp relief.
There's no powered zoom, obviously, as you set the focal length by turning the ribbed metal barrel. This has a very smooth action and, being constructed from metal with a rigid plastic core, it feels a lot more sturdy than regular consumer-grade plastic lenses. There's a manual focus ring ahead of the zoom control, which isn't physically attached to the end of the lens so it won't turn any attached filters and spoil the effect of a circular polariser or a graduated filter.
Switch to manual focus, though, and you lose the on-screen indicators that show when your subject is pin sharp. By way of consolation, it instead enlarges the view on the rear LCD to help you achieve the result you need.
The menus are clear and well organised, but in breaking them down into broad parent groups Sony has put some features that we'd expect to see on the top level a little further down, making them less convenient to access.
To switch from auto to aperture or shutter priority, for example, takes three button presses and a turn of the rear-mounted rotary selector. Macro takes three button presses and two turns of the wheel, despite the fact that the right-press of the wheel is currently featureless, with each of the functions commonly found on this dial clustered on the other three points: exposure compensation (+/-3.0EV in 1/3EV steps) and playback zoom sit together on the southern point, while burst shooting and self timer sit on west. Once you've switched out of auto mode, moving between shutter, aperture, program and full manual is easier, as you can access these directly by tapping and dragging on the screen.
Sony Alpha NEX-5N has a touchscreen, with chunky menu icons supplementing the regular button-driven selectors. This is a neat compromise, allowing for intuitive features like touch-to-focus, while retaining traditional controls for those who don't like scrolling menus with their fingers. The recently-reviewed Canon Ixus 1100HS, in which we found the finger-driven menus difficult to scroll, was a good example of a camera on which a dual control approach such as this would have reaped significant benefits.
This also lets you make several more creative shooting changes without using the menus at all. An effects icon to the right of the screen calls up brightness, colour, 'vividness' and background defocus controls, each of which is accompanied by a scale through which you drag a spot to change the strength of the effect.
Remove the NEX-5N lens and, as with a dSLR, you'll expose the physical sensor. A 16.1 megapixel chip, it's the same size as that found in a far larger dSLRs, matching the dimensions of a single frame of APS-C film. This should increase the dynamic range of the images it shoots, allowing it to differentiate between a greater number of colours and a wider range of light levels without introducing noise into the image. Examining our results it's clear that this has paid off, with vibrant colours, balanced exposures and crisp edges in largely noise-free pictures.
Macro performance using the 18-55mm kit lens is excellent, with the NEX-5N quickly finding a focus point and setting a shallow depth of field, throwing everything outside of this tight area into blur and giving our backgrounds an attractive bokeh effect.
When photographing more conventional subjects, such as flowers and plant life, its macro credentials helped it to render an extraordinary level of detail -- right down to the level of pollen on the stamen of a dandelion.
It performed just as well in regular wide-angle shooting. Here, the exposure was generally very well controlled, with little in the way of burned highlights, and plenty of detail in shadow areas. There was no evidence of any mis-registration of different light wavelengths, which can cause balanced white light to fragment as it does when passed through a prism, and thus give fine detail such as branches, the edges of buildings and windows an unwanted fringe.
This image of a boat on the water was taken as the sun began to set, yet the level of detail is commendable, with the fence in the background rendered just as clearly as the boat itself, both in areas of direct sunlight and shadow. It perfectly preserved the grain on the boat's unpainted woodwork, and rendered fine detail, such as the blades of grass on the lawn behind the boat, without any trouble.
The same was the case in this image of punts on the Cam, where the brickwork in the buildings that form its banks is particularly well picked out. Although some detail is lost in the white stone bridge in the background, we were impressed that this didn't demonstrate any burned highlights, despite being the only directly illuminated flat surface within the frame.
Details remained sharp right into the corners of our images, which is commendable as it's far harder for a camera to accurately focus the incoming light at the edge of the frame than it is at the centre. There was no evidence of any vignetting either, where the level of light reaching the sensor could have been suppressed in the corners, resulting in a first-class performance overall.
Moving to our indoor still life test, we were equally impressed by the level of detail captured under all three lighting conditions: studio lights, ambient light and flash, with printed characters retaining a particularly impressive sharpness.
The flash isn't an integral component but a bundled add-on that ships in a small plastic case to keep it safe when not mounted on the camera. This screws into position beneath a removable cover, and flips up to direct the bulb at the subject in front of the lens. It's a neat solution that helps the NEX-5N retain its slim, clean lines, but not as convenient as having a built-in flash as you would with most compacts and dSLRs.
The 5N's movie options are few and far between, but you can opt for wind noise reduction and choose whether or not to record a soundtrack. Movies are recorded in AVCHD format at 1920x1080 pixels and, most impressively, the NEX-5N can sustain this at 50fps.
Results were excellent. As with our stills results, colours were vivid and detail was extremely well captured. We were also impressed by the microphone, which did an impressive job of capturing general ambiance once we had shielded it from the passing wind.
We can't fault the 5N's build quality. It's comfortable to hold for extended periods, courtesy of a chunky handgrip that neatly offsets the weight of the lens by also housing the battery. The battery itself has an impressive life. We charged it at the start of our tests, and after three days of fairly intensive use it still showed 53 per cent of its power remaining. This is helped by the fact that it doesn't need to shift a heavy lens as you're doing all the zooming and framing yourself, but it's nonetheless something to be commended.
Around the back, the LCD screen is articulated, so you can tilt it down to take high-angle pictures over a crowd, or low-angle shots between their feet.
When compared with the choice open to Canon and Nikon users, the range of native lenses for the E-mount system is small at the moment, but Sony has released the spec as an open standard, which will no doubt attract third-party manufacturers to develop their own units to fit the body. It's also easy to source E-mount adaptors for Nikon G-mount, Minolta MD mount and Canon FD lenses, the latter of which can be picked up cheaply on auction sites, greatly enhancing the flexibility and utility of the NEX-5N and compatible models.
That rather leaves us wondering why you'd choose a conventional dSLR over the NEX-5N, assuming you haven't already bought into one manufacturer's body and lens system. It's smaller, more convenient and much more fun to use. In many cases it's cheaper, too, which in our book makes it very highly recommended indeed.