By Richard Butler
While shooting with the Sony a6000, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what aspects of photography I enjoy, and about what I demand from a camera as a consequence. Every day I read comments about how 'Camera X' is best because of the capability of its sensor or 'Camera Y' is, because of the lenses available for it. These are mostly arguments that relate either to specifications or the image quality that a camera produces. But what of ergonomics, handling, user-interface and shooting experience?
I found myself wondering whether the truism about 'the best camera is the one you have with you' shouldn't really be something like: 'the best camera is the one you enjoy shooting with enough to have with you.' The point being that, for me at least, the process of taking the photo is almost as important as the final result. Of course I want the results to be as good as possible, but I also want to enjoy the time spent using a camera, as well as the images I come back with.
The icon-swamped rear plate of the a6000 made me worry that I was about to face the same disorientating, rather distancing, shooting experience I had with the original NEX models.
I needn't have worried.
So what has this questioning got to do with the a6000? Mainly that I didn't really like the original NEX-3 and NEX-5 and some of their more recent descendents. I admired them from an engineering point of view, I respected the fact that they offered one of the best balances of size, price and image quality, but I never enjoyed shooting with them. So before I started shooting with the a6000, I wanted to think about why it mattered to me how fussy and fiddly I found the Ur-NEXs, or whether I should have just worried about the pictures...
It turns out I needn't have worried. The a6000 is good in all the ways that previous E-mount cameras would have you expect: it's small, it fits nicely in the hand and it takes really nice pictures. The specifications are excellent - the viewfinder is really good, and the inclusion of a built-in flash, Wi-Fi and one of the best APS-C sensors in a small body make the a6000 pretty attractive. But the nicest discovery was that, with a bit of playing around with the settings, the a6000 is more than just a refreshed and rebranded NEX: it's also camera I found rather pleasant to use.
After generations of improvements, the 'simplified' user interface of the early NEXs, that I always found distinctly enthusiast-unfriendly has evolved into something rather more conventional. And it's all the better for it. All the buttons now have defined functions, so there's no need to keep checking the screen to find out what button 'B' is about to do if you press it.
The a6000 also gains a more conventional menu - which has been harmonized across Sony's latest interchangeable lens cameras. It looks like the older Alpha menus, which are easier to navigate (and semi-memorize) than the NEX menus were, particularly in setup tab, which is now split into six pages, rather than a looping, seemingly infinitely scrolling list.
The four-way/dial on the back of the camera is one of the better examples of its type - it's quite stiff, with well-defined detents as you try to turn it, meaning it can be operated with more precision than is usual. However, since you end up having to control both this and the primary control dial at the top right of the camera with your thumb, it's not quite the same a having a full twin-dial camera. There's a reason the twin-dial arrangement (with thumb and forefinger controlling different functions) has become standard on just about all high-end DSLRs and mirrorless cameras and I would personally prefer to remove the exposure mode dial if it meant gaining a second control wheel. As it is, though, the a6000 comes close.
Another aspect I liked about the a6000 was its 16-50mm power zoom. It's one of the nicest electronic zoom lenses to use, thanks to its responsiveness - turn the ring when it's in zoom mode and the lens moves quickly enough that there's no real disadvantage or disconnected feeling, compared with a manual zoom.
The image quality isn't great - plenty of my images have soft edges, inconsistent corners and all the other defects that tend to come from kit zooms (collapsible or otherwise, pretty much regardless of brand). However the convenience of the lens shrinking down, making the camera impressively small, and the added utility of those extra 2mm at the wide-angle end of things compared to a standard 18-55mm made the camera feel really flexible.
The electronic first curtain shutter option in the camera's menus is well worth engaging. Not only does it do away with half of the camera's pronounced double click shutter sound, but it also eliminates any concerns about 'shutter shock' vibrations that have limited the image quality of many of the a6000's rivals.
Perhaps all my soul-searching came about not just because I didn't get on with the NEXs, but because the a6000 can give an awkward first impression - the back of the camera is an off-putting sea of button labels, both dials are set to control exactly the same thing and one of the custom buttons is set up to access a text-heavy photography guide. A little playing around in the menus lets you set the rear four-way/dial to control exposure compensation, set the C2 button to do something useful and start thinking about what features you want to put into the Fn menu.
Not all problems can be completely overcome, sadly. As someone who likes to be able to specify the AF point, I was often disappointed with how the a6000 handles it since, even after button customization, it often requires at least two button presses before you can select the focus position (the optimal number of button presses being zero, for a high-end camera). Once 'Flexible Spot' is already selected as your focus point mode, then you only have to press the central button to start moving the point, so this is only a a real irritation if you regularly change focus point selection modes.
It's also worth noting that Sony has removed the on-screen level gauge offered by the NEX-6. It's hard to imagine this represents a significant cost-saving for Sony, and it's a feature some users really like, so it's a little disappointing to see it absent from this model.
|A combination of image stabilization and ISO 16,000 allowed me to hand-hold this shot at dusk. The camera's Wi-Fi meant I was also able to share the moment.
I'm not confident that my 'phone would have done as well, in the situation.
Another annoyance, though a less critical one, was that I found the Wi-Fi system to be slightly unreliable. With my phone connected to the camera's Wi-Fi signal, the app would sometimes stick on 'Searching Device,' and never transfer my chosen image. I'll make sure I try with some other 'phones, as I continue testing the camera, but it didn't always seem to get on with my ageing iPhone 4. Still, I wouldn't have noticed this glitch were it not for me making regular use of the feature.
Finally, as we've criticized before, the a6000's eye sensor is not as well implemented as some of its rivals. It's very sensitive, meaning the rear screen will regularly black out if I accidentally moved anything (a hand, my jacket), too close to the viewfinder. Trying to frame a shot with the camera pressed near to a wall, the camera was very keen to keep switching to the viewfinder, in exactly one the circumstances I really wanted the tiltable screen to work. Other cameras are less sensitive or are clever enough to disengage the eye sensor if the screen is extended - something that would really benefit the a6000.
Overall, shooting with the a6000 has taught me something about myself: I value cameras that give me a sense of control over the proceedings, that makes me feel I'm playing a role in the resulting photographs. But it's also taught me the value of stepping back long enough to appreciate the cumulative effect of the incremental changes made between camera generations. I wouldn't say the a6000 is suddenly my favorite camera - or even my favorite in its class - but it's the first E-mount camera I've used where my enjoyment of the camera is in proportion to my enjoyment of the results.