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Using the NEX-5N/Handling

The NEX-5N is a well built, solid camera that fits comfortably in the hand and fells quite secure with it's large hand grip (compared to to other mirrorless compacts). The articulated screen makes it easy to shoot from a low vantage point without having to bend down. The screen can also be tilted downward to make it easier to shoot from above. Overall Sony has done a good job with the NEX series, creating a line of cameras that are capable of taking DLSR quality images in a package that is light and easy to handle and unintimidating to users upgrading from compacts.

The 5N retains the NEX-5's shape, but adds a soft rubber coating to the grip. The squarer body (compared to the NEX-3/C3) is easy to hold and feels quite secure, even when using the camera one-handed.

Electronic Viewfinder

The new optional EVF (FDAEV1S) accessory for the NEX-5N adds a much-requested eye-level viewfinder to the NEX series. At $349 it's not a cheap addition, but for those who prefer to shoot through a viewfinder you now at least have the option. The OLED element is the same that is used in the A77 EVF, which promises to offer an increased level of contrast (3,500:1) and detail over any other previous EVF.

OLED technology differs from LCD significantly in terms of theoretical dynamic range capability. LCD screens work by filtering light projected from behind the screen, and while this works well for representing mid-tones it struggles at creating dark blacks, as the liquid crystal screen can not block all of the light. In contrast each dot in an OLED screen uses it's own light-emitting element, which can produce a brightness range that extends from the maximum output of the element all the way to black.

At 2,359k dots, the resolution is more than double what you would usually find on even the best camera screens. This level of resolution in such a small area means that the pixels are nearly indistinguishable. The EVF also integrates seamlessly with the NEX-5N, automatically switching between the screen and the view-finder when the EVF's built-in proximity detects your face. Besides displaying the view from the sensor the EVF also shows all of the relevant shooting information on screen including focus peaking. Playback and menus are also viewable through the EVF as well.

The FDAEV1S EVF adds a bright, high-contrast eye-level viewfinder to the NEX-5N. Unfortunately it is not compatible with any of the previous NEX models.

The debate of EVF vs OVF is a complicated one but these new EVF offerings from Sony present possibly the first example that we've seen that may be 'good-enough' to actually compete with the visual clarity of a true OVF. Indeed there are some directly noticeable advantages to shooting with an EVF such as live exposure simulation, for example. When shooting through an OVF you will see the scene as your eye sees it and not necessarily as the camera will record it. With an EVF you can quickly see if you are going to over or under-expose. The EVF, like the NEX-5N's screen can also articulate upwards (90 degrees) which helps greatly when shooting from a low vantage point.

Specific handling issues

There are very few aspects of the NEX-5N's handling that we don't like. As with the NEX-C3, the operational handling issues that affected the usability of the original NEX-3/5 (pre-firmware v3 update) are no longer relevant. In fact the NEX-5N is quite easy to shoot with, once certain customizations are set (you can read more about our perferred set up on the (Features Page).

Direct Manual Focus (DMF) allows manual adjustment to the focus after the camera has already found a focus point using AF. To use this feature, first you half-press the shutter button to lock the AF. While continuing to hold the half-press, focus can then be fine-tuned using the focussing ring on the lens. As soon as you move the focus ring, the screen zooms in to the AF point picked by the camera to assist in manual focus. This is a useful feature, but there are two issues which keep it from being truly effective. If the camera fails to find focus, it won't then allow you to adjust the focus manually as you would normally be able to. You are then left with the choice of either trying to acquire AF again, or switching to Manual Focus mode. This is particularly frustrating because it is precisely in this sort of situation that manual focus override tends to be most useful.

The added touchscreen in the 5N allows quick access to the menu and operational controls but is also susceptible to accidental control. In quite a few instances we found that the camera had been inadvertently set to tracking focus when the camera was at our side. In a shooting situation that requires quick reaction this can cause you to miss critical focus as the tracking focus struggles to find its subject.

Performance

Overall performance

Regardless of which shooting mode you're in, the NEX-5N is an able and responsive camera. From power on to first shot is a little less than 2 seconds. The NEX-5N's auto focus system is relatively quick, although not the fastest contrast detection system that we've ever used (that honor belongs to recent Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds models). We've found that, given good light and contrast the AF system is quite reliable. Automatic white balance works well in a variety of lighting situations and even produces good skin tones under notoriously troublesome tungsten light. The 5N's Multi-Metering mode consistently delivers a good exposure in most environments.

The addition of an electronic first curtain shutter also increases the overall speediness of the 5N. By eliminating the need to raise the shutter first before exposing the sensor the lag time to shot has been reduced to 20ms. As you can see in the Continuous Adv. mode section below there is a measurable difference in the maximum framerate that can be achieved with the EFC shutter enabled.

Continuous shooting modes

The NEX-5N has three continuous shooting modes: 'Continuous Adv.', 'Speed Priority Cont.' and AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing). In 'Continuous Adv.' mode, the camera will continuously shoot images at approximately 4 fps, with 'real time' focus and metering. In 'Speed Priority Cont.' the 5N will shoot at a higher frame rate of approximately 10 fps but focus and exposure are locked from the first frame for all subsequent images. To generate the timings shown below, we shot with the camera's burst mode set to Continuous Adv. and Speed Priority Cont., with a SanDisk Extreme Pro SDHC card.

Continuous Adv.

SanDisk Extreme Pro SDHC card
  Measured
EFC on
Measured
EFC off
Max frames @
full speed
JPEG 4.1 fps 3.8 fps Until card full
JPEG + RAW 4.0 fps 3.8 fps ~5 (then ~1 fps)
RAW 4.1 fps 3.8 fps ~8 (then ~1 fps)

Speed Priority Cont. (nominally 10 FPS)

SanDisk Extreme Pro SDHC card
  Measured
EFC on
Measured
EFC off
Max frames @
full speed
JPEG 10 fps 10 fps 10 then ~ 2 fps
JPEG + RAW 10 fps 10 fps ~5 (then ~0.7 fps)
RAW 10 fps 10 fps ~7 (then ~1 fps)

Maximum framerate in Continuous Advance mode is about 4 fps, and in Speed Priority Continuous mode the 5N gives a measured framerate on par with than the indicated maximum of 10fps. It's also important to note that the Speed Priority Cont. mode is limited to approximately 10 frames (when shooting in JPEG only) before the buffer fills up, after which the continuous shooting speed drops right down to about 2 fps.

Autofocus performance

The NEX-5N relies on contrast detection to determine focus. In general this method is not as fast as the phase-detection systems found in DSLR cameras but in recent years the gap has closed dramatically. Unlike phase detection, contrast detection focussing systems must 'hunt' back and forth to establish maximum contrast, which denotes accurate focus. In low-contrast, low light scenes, this hunting takes longer, and as such, shooting with the 5N in this sort of environment can be time consuming and in some cases AF is simply not possible.

With the additional SLT lens adapter (LA-EA2) for Alpha mount lenses AF performance is greatly enhanced, thanks to the adapter's built-in phase-detection AF module (the same as that used in Sony's SLT-A65). The adapter also allows for continuous phase-detect AF while recording video (which you can read more about in the movies page of this review.)

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