The Sony NEX-5 is an intriguing little digital camera that gives you a lot of bang for your buck: its currently the world’s smallest and lightest with an interchangeable lens. This camera has amazing quality for something so small. It gives you compact camera design with the sensor size and internals of a DSLR – its sensor is roughly the same size as that of a Canon 550D. As I already own a Canon 7D and am very familiar with the 5D Mark 2 and the 550D I was interested to see how it stacks up. I could talk about its still images, but let’s be honest; I know we are all mainly interested in its video potential.
There are only two lenses currently available for the NEX series cameras. I chose the 16mm f2.8 pancake lens, which isn’t great, but is hardly terrible either. My main reason for purchasing the NEX-5 was that I already own a Sony A900 full frame DSLR and several Alpha lenses (Carl Zeiss 24-70mm f2.8 and the Sony G series 70-400 f4 to 5.6), so with an LA-EA1 adaptor I could use the same lenses. The only downside is that when you put an Alpha series lens on the camera you can only use manual focus and aperture is fixed wide open in video mode.
The NEX-5 uses Sony’s AVCHD codec. I know a lot of people have complained about this codec in the past, but it has improved. It is a lot easier to deal with than the H.264 codec used on the Canon DSLRs; it is a simple process of attaching the camera with the supplied USB cable and turning it on. Once you launch Final Cut Pro you just launch log and transfer and in come the clips. Working in international news I find it far quicker and far easier to import than H.264.
So how does it stack up as far as video quality goes? I was sceptical at first as most of the small compact cameras that can shoot video are terrible and I knew before I purchased this camera that it had a lot of limitations. With the standard NEX lenses it has auto focus and can also auto track. The auto tracking isn’t spot on but it is still fairly good. Once you attach an Alpha series lens it’s back to manual focus only. The Carl Zeiss lenses that are made for the Sony Alpha series are very, very good optically and I was intrigued to see how these lenses would go hooked on to the NEX-5. The lens clicks straight on to the adaptor and away you go. It does look very strange to have such a heavy, big lens on a tiny compact camera, but I was surprised to find it wasn’t too awkward to use (and it is, of course, much easier to use when put it on a tripod). The NEX-5 comes with a very impressive LED display that is super sharp and it also adjusts up to a 45-degree angle – perfect for low angle shots. Unfortunately it doesn’t rotate down so it’s no good if you hold the camera up high in the air.
Even in manual focus mode it is easy to use. The focus assist button is very handy and remarkably easy to use to get crisp focus. Unfortunately you can only use this feature before you start recording video. You can’t adjust aperture once recording either but you can adjust aperture compensation by + or – 2 stops if you’re not happy with the auto aperture.
I found that even with all these limitations the NEX-5 is easy to use and the picture quality is very good, much better than I expected. The images are very sharp, with fantastic vivid colour reproduction and nice shallow DOF with a fast lens. It has a maximum record time of 30 minutes instead of the Canon’s 12 minute limitation. While it still has a very slight Jello effect when panning very fast it’s nothing like what I’ve experienced with the Canons. It’s true it doesn’t do progressive, only interlace – which may put some people off – but in the news business very few of us shoot progressive anyway. The auto iris function during video record is pretty impressive and does a great job in even high contrast situations. There are no audio inputs either but the on-board microphone is fairly good. There is also a hot shoe attachment to mount an optional Sony microphone.
The NEX-5 basically uses the same sensor that is in the new Sony NEX-VG10 camcorder that Dan has already written about. We’ll see how that camera compares in due course. Would I recommend this camera? Yes, but only if you already own a Sony camera and have a few good Alpha series lenses. The NEX-5 is a brilliant little camera given its size and abilities. Yes, it has limitations and yes, we would love full manual control and an audio input, but you have to remember this is a $600 compact.
It is good to see that Sony has finally entered the game even if it is from a different direction. With the upcoming release of Sony’s new prosumer camcorder and other releases from different companies, the DSLR video features we all love are quickly moving into proper video cameras that we all want.
About Matthew Allard, Aljazeera Senior Field Cameraman, Kuala Lumpur:
Matt has been a Camera/Editor in TV news for 20 years, previously working for both Channel 9 and Channel 10 in Australia. Twice Network Ten Australia’s cameraman of the year as well as being a Walkley Finalist for outstanding camerawork in 2006 (for coverage of the Cronulla Race Riots) and a Logie Finalist for outstanding news coverage 2006 (Bali 9). He has covered news events in more than 30 countries, from major sporting events to terrorist bombings. Based out of the Kuala Lumpur broadcast centre in Malaysia he is an avid user and follower of new technology, shooting stories on HD broadcast cameras as well as new Canon DSLR’s.