Something for everyone? Sony uses variations of the same body for everything from its $600 entry-level model all the way through to its $1400 one.

All of Sony's current APS-C cameras come in variants of the same camera body. And the more I have to use them and write about them, the more convinced I am that it's not ergonomically especially well suited to any specific type of user.

The a6000 series cameras all derive, essentially, from the NEX-6, a mid-range/enthusiast camera from 2012. It was a time when Sony was experimenting with NEX body shapes and interfaces, as it tried to create a product that matched the people actually buying the cameras. Having tried stripped-down cameras with icon-based interfaces and odd 'three dials, but all controlled with your thumb' designs, they settled on something in the middle. And then tried to make it work for everyone.

Personally, I'm not sure they've succeeded. I believe they've created a series of cameras that's intimidating to beginners but too simplistic to be enjoyed by more advanced users.

Too complex to be simple

As I wrote in my recent review, the a6100 can be a very good family and travel camera. This is thanks to two main things: the autofocus being really powerful, and the touchscreen meaning you can tell it where to focus without needing to really engage with the user interface.

More than one person I've handed the a6100 to has recoiled and asked me 'what do I press?' which makes me think it would make more sense in the a5100's body.

The problem is that the camera design and user interface seem to have made almost no concessions to this audience. On more than one occasion I've handed an a6100 or a6400 to a novice only to watch them recoil and demand I just tell them which button to press.

The camera body and displays are awash with obscure icons, to a degree that can be intimidating to the first time user. And the menus aren't just consistent with the range-topping a9, they're pretty much directly copied across. You have to have a lot of faith in your user interface to believe that pro sports users and family photographers will be equally well served by it. To me that faith seems, shall we say 'optimistic'?

I'd argue the Fujifilm X-A7 is a much more approachable entry-level camera than the a6100 (and that the X-T30 is a more engaging mid-range camera than the a6400)

Sure, you can stick the camera in 'Auto' mode (or perhaps iAuto+ if you can find it), but 'just ignore all the buttons, labels and stuff, and use it as a point-and-shoot' isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of the camera's design.

The result is a hugely capable but not especially welcoming camera for beginners.

Too simple to be sophisticated

At the other end of the spectrum, you have the a6600, which has impressive looking specs on paper: excellent AF, weather sealing, in-body stabilization and the longest battery life of any mirrorless camera. But the shooting experience doesn't always live up to this spec, in my opinion.

Although the body has twin control dials, they're both controlled with your thumb, rather than the thumb-and-forefinger layout found on almost every rival model. In my experience I have to think more, and re-position my hand to a greater extent when trying to operate the a6600. And, while it does gain some extra custom buttons over the cheaper models, they're located in positions I find uncomfortable to operate.

The addition of a touchscreen means it's no longer such a faff to move the AF point, but I still find the a6400 and a6600 less enjoyable to shoot with than their rivals.

These criticisms, which extend to the a6400 if you're trying to take control over exposure, aren't about trying to make moment-by-moment changes (something my colleague Carey found to present its own set of problems), but more about being able to enjoyably take control over the camera. Maybe it's just me.

As the camera market seemingly contracts back to a state where most people buying cameras are doing so because they enjoy the process of taking photographs, it becomes ever more important to make cameras that are enjoyable to use. The a6400's autofocus is unquestionably better than that of its current peers, but would I rather go out shooting with it over a Canon M6 II or Nikon Z50? No.

One thing common to most $1000+ cameras (including Sony's a7 series cameras): twin control dials controller with the forefinger and thumb. Clockwise from top: Canon EOS M6 Mk II, Fujifilm X-T3, Olympus OM-D E-M5 III, Nikon Z50.

None of which is to say that they're bad cameras. As I say, the a6600 has excellent battery life, impressive AF, in-body stabilization and, most importantly, can take really nice images: we'd actually recommend it for some types of shooting, despite not quite cutting it when pushed to its limits. But it wouldn't be my first choice of camera, if I had to grab something to go shooting with.

And that's a shame because, with the introduction of its 16-55mm F2.8 and support from Sigma's trio of F1.4 primes, Sony's E-mount is starting to look like a credible APS-C system for enthusiast photographers.

Not just on the outside

The problems aren't all just a question of handling. The menus also show little sign of specialization. Across all three models you'll find a host of hand-holding features such as Soft Skin Effect, Smile Shutter and Auto Object Framing buried in the menus. These seem too well hidden to be useful for most beginner users and risk just being distracting clutter for more advanced users.

A horizontal layout with no indication of where different sub-sections live means the Sony menus rely on the users' memory more than most (though Canon's layout is looking similarly overwhelmed). The 'My Menu' option lets you configure your way around the worst of it.

In fairness, Sony has made some effort to arrange, name and color-code the sections of its menus, but it still gives you no real way to find your way to those sections. This means you have to rely more on memory than with most other brands. And even if they did give top-level section indicators, I'm not sure how many first-time users would guess that you enable AF Tracking in video mode using the 'Func. of Touch Operation' in the Setup menu, rather than something from the 'AF' sub-section of the Camera tab. Again, it just doesn't feel like these cameras have been tailored to suit any particular type of user.

Shop-shelf confusion

What are the differences? Which one should I choose?

So maybe I've got all this wrong. Maybe Sony isn't trying to segment the market based on different needs and expectations, but solely by price. Perhaps that's why the body styles and model names are so much less distinct than those of the similarly-priced models from other manufacturers. So rather than making X-A7/X-T100 style models for the beginners, M6 II / Z50 rivals to address the middle ground and an X-T3 competitor for more hands-on users, maybe Sony's just making undifferentiated price variants.

If it's purely a question of 'how much camera are you willing to pay for?' then it makes some sort of sense. But I'm not sure it results in cameras that are particularly well suited to any specific person.


*Richard Butler will not be reviewing the a6600