Operations and controls
The first thing you notice about the NEX is not just that it has very few buttons, but that several of them have no markings. As such, you have to keep an eye on the on-screen prompts which tell you each button's current function. It's a very different approach to that taken by DSLRs, which tend to have a wide range of buttons marked with specific functions, and may well help the NEXs seem less intimidating to beginners.
Sony says it is mainly promoting the NEX series as cameras aimed at point-and-shoot users and its interface is certainly consistent with that. The Intelligent Auto mode is pure point-and-shoot stuff with limited options (you can't even use exposure compensation). However, it is possible to take control over the depth-of-field, or 'Bkground Defocus' as it's called here, which offers to make the most of the camera's biggest feature - its large sensor.
|This is the standard Intelligent Auto screen. From here you can select the drive mode or point and shoot. Alternatively you can press the center button in order to adjust 'Bkground Defocus'|
|'Bkground defocus' offers a results-orientated way of changing the camera's aperture.||There are also shooting tips that advise on how to get the most out of your shots.|
|As well as iAuto, there are a series of scene modes. When SCN is chosen from the virtual mode dial, you are presented with a second virtual dial detailing all the modes.||Once selected, each mode has shooting tips, often explaining how to get the same results when using iAuto mode.|
Sony has made clear that it is targeting users who will rarely (if ever) take their camera out of iAuto mode and, as such it should be considered to be the primary means of controlling the camera. And in general it's pretty good - if you don't want to worry about anything other than framing your subject, then the camera will quite happily worry about everything else for you.
We'd have liked to see the ability to apply some exposure compensation (to take an image slightly brighter or darker than the camera has chosen), because the iAuto mode is rather prone to over-exposure. However, even if you don't expect many people to want to take control over the camera settings, we feel that the camera should at least make the most of its capabilities and iAuto doesn't do this.
Disappointingly iAuto mode only allows the use of Auto ISO, where the camera chooses how sensitive to light it needs to be, which has an upper limit of ISO 1600. Sony proudly advertises the camera's highest ISO setting as 12,800 (way above the level at which any compact camera can produce good images and a real advantage of a large sensor), and yet iAuto mode limits you to a setting eight times less sensitive. Useful features such as Auto HDR are also unavailable (Sadly the clever Auto+ mode from the SLT series cameras that makes use of the multi-shot modes as needed isn't present).
Menus and displays
|The main menu of the NEX breaks all the camera options down into six categories.|
|Shoot mode brings up a virtual mode dial, allowing you to select from the automated modes and the PASM user-controlled modes. This 'dial' is one step back from the PASM modes but has to be reached from the main menu in iAuto, making it a little difficult to orientate yourself sometimes.||The 'Brightness/Color' category includes White Balance, Metering, Dynamic Range Optimization, ISO and most other regularly used shooting settings.|
|The 'Camera' category includes drive mode, AF area mode and AF drive mode. In this instance, Direct Manual focus (DMF) mode has been chosen, making the Autofocus Mode option unavailable.||Selecting a setting often brings you back to the shooting screen with a virtual dial on the right hand side. This happens regardless of how many options there are on this 'dial' so, when the icons are similar, it can be hard to keep track of how many options you're choosing between.|
|Each menu option has a Help Guide description. These can be turned off if you prefer.||One of the options in 'Setup' is the ability to select the menu background color.|
Having so few buttons on the back of the camera prevents anybody being intimidated by its complexity, but in turn risks creating difficulties for users who want to take a little more control. In the A, S and M modes you get direct control over aperture or shutter speed via the dial and exposure compensation by pressing the bottom of the dial/four-way controller. As is usual for Sony cameras, there's no program shift in P mode - you get what you're given.
|The record screen is very similar to that of the Automatic modes. Pressing the DISP button (Up on the control dial) cycles between three levels of on-screen information.||If you rotate the dial to change aperture or shutter speed (in the A, S or M mode), you have to then confirm your choice using either a half-press of the shutter or a press of the center button, to return to normal shooting screen.|
|Firmware version 03 brings the ability to customize the functions of the central and lower buttons. This greatly improves the ability to change key shooting settings. It's an upgrade well-worth installing.||Once configured, you can press the center button to access up to three parameters you've chosen and then use left and right to cycle through them. This can be used to give fast access to commonly changed features. such as metering mode, white balance and ISO.|
|For many of the settings, such as white balance or the DRO/HDR modes you can still access the sub-settings from the main shooting screen.||Sadly, image quality isn't one of the options that can be assigned to the central button so, if you've been shooting RAW, you can't switch back to JPEG mode to access HDR mode.|
Using the settings options introduced with firmware version 03, it's possible to assign ISO one of the buttons on the back of the camera and build your own, personalized list of three other functions you want rapid access to. This has two effects - giving simple access to the key shooting functions and also removing the one of the inconsistencies between the PASM modes and Auto mode (by which the virtual mode dial was a different number of steps away, depending on which mode you were in).
After extended use by several people in the office, these would be our suggested settings. Obviously the exact option you chose will depend on your shooting style and needs but we believe most enthusiast photographers will find these a good place to start:
|Soft Key B (lower button)||• MF Assist. Because the lower button reverts back to area selection in AF area selection mode, we'd suggest MF Assist, rather than ISO, since it's impossible to need MF Assist and AF area selection at the same time.|
|Soft Key C (center button)||• ISO is pretty much essential, since it gives you direct control over sensitivity and allows easy access to the settings above 1600 that Auto ISO won't use.
Beyond that, although there are seven other options, we found ourselves mainly using two of the following three:
• White Balance
• Autofocus Area (for easy switching to an off-center AF point, given the previously mentioned drawbacks of focusing and recomposing)
• DRO/Auto HDR (the full capabilities of these modes are only available when shooting JPEG only, but they're nice features to be able to control and have easy access to).
As a result of this customization, despite the limited number of external buttons, the NEX cameras are quite enjoyable to shoot with - you rarely have to delve into the menu system while you're shooting.
There are separate playback modes for movie and stills playback (you can switch between the two either through the menus or via the tabs that appear in thumbnail view).
|Three playback screens are available. There's this image-only option, one with basic shooting settings around the edge (much like the record screen)...||... and this view with full settings and image histograms for assessing exposure.|
|Turning the control dial zooms into the images. Alternatively, pressing upwards on the dial goes to a thumbnail view...||...that fits six images to a page and, more importantly, allows you to switch from still to movie playback.|