So what about Sony?

"Tip of Timp"

Sony a55, DT 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6 at 55mm (85mm equivalent), 1/80th at f/9, iso 100

Lately I find quite a few photographers are asking me this question.  While Nikon and Canon remain the dominant players (for now), Sony has been making news lately and getting more attention.  Surprisingly enough, once you start looking seriously at Sony you will find they are the most innovative camera company right now, and the convergence of video and still imaging is right up their alley … in the video world they are one of the heavy hitters, where as Nikon isn’t even in the game.  This convergence has allowed Sony to leverage their expertise in video technology into some of their more recent digital camera offerings.

I’m personally not into video much, so I evaluate Sony strictly as a still camera platform.  How good are they?  What you may not realize is the camera side of Sony is actually Minolta, a name respected for many decades in traditional SLR technology.  This division has maintained some semblance of independence, so still cameras are still important to them.  Sony has also partnered with Zeiss in the design of many of their lenses … not that Minolta was a weakling in lens design before.  They’re making some pretty good lenses.  I will admit I do not know where the new cameras fall in line … whether the “Minolta” heritage is involved, or if these new cameras are coming strictly from the electronics giant.  Either way, Sony isn’t  new to the idea of lens design, and many other camera manufacturers use Sony sensors in their systems, including what many regard as the king of the full frame dSLR’s, the Nikon D3x.

To me the most intriguing cameras in the Sony line up fall into what is being called the “bridge” category … cameras which fit between a point and shoot and a dSLR.  A bridge camera typically depends on an electronic viewfinder, sometimes just the LCD on the back and sometimes an alternate one that you use much like the optical viewfinder of an dSLR.  Bridge cameras sport a larger sensor size than a point and shoot such as the 4/3rds sensors of the Lumix and Olympus bridge cameras, or in Sony’s case a larger APC-c size sensor, commonly found in many dSLR’s.  Typically a bridge camera has interchangeable lenses so they offer more more flexibility than a point and shoot , but bridge cameras are smaller and lighter than even the smallest dSLR’s, because they don’t require a mirror/prism viewfinder assembly.

There are many reviews around, but I decided to give two of the more intriguing offerings a quick field test … the A55 and the Nex-5.  The Nex-5 is an offering similar to the Lumix GF-1 … basically hook a small box with a sensor on the back of a lens.  These camera types are very small and very light … often the lens provides all the bulk.  The a55 is more like the Lumix GH2 … it looks very much like a small dSLR and has an incorporated viewfinder meant to be held up to the eye.  Both cameras offer advantages.

"Moroni ... Salt Lake LDS Temple"

Sony Nex-5, E 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS at 75mm (112mm equivalent) , 1/80th at f/9, iso 200

The Nex-5 is a 14.2mp APC-C size sensor  … about 35% larger than the sensor in an Olympus or Panasonic (Lumix) 4/3rds camera. I tested the Nex-5 with the 18-200mm lens, a rather hefty and image stabilized lens that makes this setup interesting.  That’s a wide focal length range … pretty much 1 lens does all.   In camera stabilization isn’t as effective as in lens optical stabilization … at least this is their claim which makes this a nice setup for hand held video.  There is an adapter to allow use of Sony’s “a” series lenses, but there is no image stabilization if you use those.

NEX5 with 18-200mm lens

In hand the lens is comfortable to use.  The camera itself is almost unnoticeable – just this little thing hanging on the back of the lens.  I found myself holding it with one hand at a usable viewing distance and not feeling uncomfortably heavy.  The lens seems well balanced and image quality hand held was very acceptable. It was quite fun to use, and it seems the one lens/camera combo makes this perhaps the smallest decent quality system available.

 

"Windows"

Sony Nex-5, E 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS at 200mm (300mm equivalent) , 1/250th at f/6.3, ISO 200

 

"Utah State Capitol"

Sony Nex-5, E 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS at 200mm (300mm equivalent) , 1/4ooth at f/6.3, ISO 200

 

 

Detail is good for a handheld image... at 1 to 1 resolution

I have read some criticism that the Nex-5 doesn’t have a mode dial, but honestly the camera visually simulates one very well.  Any camera this small just can’t have many buttons or dials … sort of goes against the concept of the camera, and I found it doesn’t take long to get used to the menu system and interface idiosyncrasies.  All in all, this is one very nice all purpose setup. I’ve heard it’s a terrific video camera as well for those looking for shallow depth of field … but I don’t really do video.  I do recommend you check out this video though, which was taken with Nex 5 cameras …

 

The other camera I took along was the a55. This camera looks and operates much like a miniature dSLR, and only when you hold it up and look in the viewfinder to you realize it doesn’t have an optical mirror … for the viewfinder anyway.  It’s APS-C size sensor is slightly larger than the Nex-5 … – 16.2 mp.

Sony a55

 

"Windblown Snow"

Sony a55, DT 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6 at 55mm (85mm equivalent), 1/80th at f/9, iso 100

What makes the a55 unique is an innovative focusing system for a camera of this type.  A “mirror” (more like a piece of optically clear glass) reflects about 1/10th of a stop of light up to a set of focusing sensors very similar to those found in a dSLR. The result is a camera that focus much faster than other cameras of this type … including while shooting video.  This feature makes the a55 attractive for video work, but as a still camera  it was very capable. I found the focusing about as responsive as my Canon 5D Mark 2 … not bad for a camera of this type. I didn’t really test it out with action shots but for the money it’s probably the best in this category.

One real test of any of these cameras is noise performance.  We may be getting to the point that almost all cameras perform adequately for most … not many people need to shoot at ISO 3200.  So I typically test them up to 800 or 1600.  There are plenty of pixel peeping sites out there that will give you lots of details about this camera vs. that, but if they’re all pretty good, then maybe other factors should really be more important than if you can shoot it at ISO 54,000.  So another thing I do is not only test the noise but test how the image looks when I dial out the noise.  I shot some quick tests while in Las Vegas at the WPPI convention just to get a feel … these have been processed in Lightroom and some noise reduction applied.

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

The final image above has some aggressive luminance noise applied in addition to the color noise reduction. While there is a little loss of detail, this show how easily the noise at 1600 can be dealt with in Lightroom.

I only had the kit lens to use for this camera, and it’s not a stellar performer. It’s not bad, but I hope to be able to spend some time with some of the better lenses Sony has designed for this system. It was easy to navigate the various functions, and the camera feels very much like a dSLR when using it. One “what were they thinking” criticism I have is of the articulating rear LCD.  It only swings down.  Not very useful at all.

Who are these cameras for? Anyone who wants great performance but needs a small package. Anyone that likes to do decent video but also needs to do stills. The larger sensor size of these cameras makes them more suited than a 4/3rds system to use for video … after all the depth of field gets smaller as the sensor gets bigger, so these deliver at the same level as all but the full frame offerings from Canon and Nikon (those that shoot video anyway).

"Vegas Strip Pano"

Both cameras offer some “fun” stuff as well. Not really practical for high end work, but certainly useful for many things. One is a built in pano feature. You just press and hold the shutter release while turning the camera in the direction of the arrow, and voila … a second later a pano. The camera captures many images as you move it … this isn’t a 3 or 4 frame stitch, and the results are amazingly good. Yes it’s just a jpeg but fun and certainly useful for some occasions. It also does an automatic HDR … results here will vary depending on subject matter.

All in all some very nice offerings from Sony, certainly useful for many occasions, and a great choice for someone needing a small light setup which is still very capable. No, you won’t be doing a 40″x60″ print from one of these, but then again, that’s a stretch for a full frame dSLR.

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