Image Quality

Our latest test scene simulates both daylight and low-light shooting. Pressing the 'lighting' buttons at the top of the widget switches between the two. The daylight scene is manually white balanced to give neutral grays, but the camera is left in its Auto setting for the low-light tests. Raw files are manually corrected. We offer three different viewing sizes: 'Full', 'Print', and 'Comp', with the latter two offering 'normalized' comparisons by using matched viewing sizes. The 'Comp' option chooses the largest-available resolution common to the cameras being compared.

Raw

In terms of detail capture, the a6500 is, unsurprisingly, identical to the a6300, which is to say that its very good. 24MP APS-C is demanding enough on lenses that it's become common not to include an optical low pass filter. With the sharp lens we use for studio testing, false color from moiré can be seen in high-contrast fine detail.

The a6500's noise level also matches that of its sibling, which puts it among the best we've seen if you look across a range of APS-C cameras.

JPEG

The a6500's JPEG engine is all about detail retention, and it's industry leading in this regard. Default sharpening is aggressive in a very pleasing manner, adding lots of emphasis to fine detail. It's so good you're unlikely to do any better by sharpening the Raws yourself. Even the fine patterns in the banknote are brought out without being overwhelmed by haloing (overshoot) around edges, meaning the sharpening radius is well judged. Artifacts in fine natural (non-repeating) detail, do appear from time to time, but generally it's not an issue.

Low light shooters will be impressed by the level of detail retained at higher ISOs, thanks to Sony's class-leading noise reduction that retains fine detail while keeping noise levels in check. The a6500 retains more detail than the a6300, and similar levels compared to the Fuji X-T2 but with less noise. It's an impressive result, in no small part due to the context-sensitive system that applies lower levels of noise reduction to areas with recognizable detail and texture. This approach is subtle enough that the boundary isn't too obvious even with details such as the white lines on our test chart that tend to show transitions between high and low NR areas. The new processor is clearly allowing for a more sophisticated analysis in distinguishing where noise reduction should and shouldn't be applied, and the upshot is that texture and fine detail are well preserved even in very challenging conditions.

Unfortunately, the story isn't so positive when it comes to color, arguably the greatest weakness of Sony's JPEG engine. Color has been tweaked from the 6300, but it still lags compared to rivals. Yellows are still much more green than most other brands, blues seem slightly more muted, albeit perhaps realistic. Greens are a touch cool compared to other brands, and appear slightly desaturated relative to the 6300. Skin tones are a touch more red and not quite as 'earthy' as Canon's response (which we consider a benchmark). In real world shooting skin tones can occasionally look washed out and greenish. 

Dynamic Range

The a6500's sensor appears to be capable of capturing plenty of dynamic range. Brighten a series of increasingly dark exposures and you'll see it's only a little more noisy than the best of its APS-C peers, keeping it a little ahead of the rest. This suggests the sensor itself performs very well.

ISO 1600, 1/800 sec at F2.2. Pushed +1.65 stops in Adobe Camera Raw. Photo by Dan Bracaglia

Our ISO Invariance test shows that very little noise is being added by the sensor (an ISO 100 shot pushed has very similar levels of noise to an ISO 3200 image, because most of the noise present is shot noise). That means that, for the most part, you can save yourself (potentially stops of) highlight headroom by underexposing by keeping ISO low - holding exposure the same - and then selectively boosting shadows and midtones while protecting highlights in post.

However Sony's lossy Raw compression limits the system's overall capabilities. Because the Raw files don't retain all the captured information, they can start to reveal the missing data if pushed hard enough. This effect, which will be particularly visible at high-contrast edges, limits the ability to shoot at low ISO and push the Raw files (which retains more highlight information), rather than shooting at high ISO, as well as the flexibility of the Raw files if you need to lift shadows or add contrast.