We usually use this page to look at the new features that have been added to the camera. But, in truth, there's not a lot that's actually new here: the a6100 is a camera built from elements that are entirely familiar to us. What's significant about this particular model is how they're combined. Or, more precisely, how some features come together to make a camera that's impressively effective at certain types of photography.

Key Takeaways:

  • Autofocus can lock onto subjects (particularly human subjects) with little user input
  • Body risks being intimidating to beginners but limiting for advanced users
  • Menus are difficult to navigate but need not be used too often
  • Wi-Fi works well but you'll often have to operate both the camera and phone to transfer images
  • Battery life is pretty good and USB power banks can be used to power or top-up the camera

Autofocus

Sony calls its new AF system 'Real-time AF tracking' in its marketing materials. It's the best AF system we've ever used for focusing on people. Its cleverness is in how good it is at recognizing people and then reacting accordingly.

If you tell the camera to focus on a person, it will try to focus on their eye. If it can't do that, it'll focus on their face. If they turn away as you're about to shoot, it will keep focusing on them and then focus on their face or eyes when they turn back towards you. It sounds obvious, but there's not currently an AF system that will do this quite so reliably, with no user intervention.

This capability, which isn't apparent by simply comparing the specifications, is the best thing about the a6100. It's also the reason we think it's a vastly better family camera than the a6000 or even the outgoing a6300 and a6500.

How to engage 'Real Time AF Tracking'

The 'Real Time AF Tracking' feature on which this review hinges, isn't active when you first turn on the camera. Nor is it ever referred to by name in the manual or on the camera. Thankfully, you can avoid this potential own-goal with two simple steps:

1) Press the 'Fn' button and change the 'Focus Mode' from 'AF-A' to 'AF-C' (AF tracking is not available in AF-A mode, and AF-C is reliable enough that you can leave the camera in that mode all the time).

2) In the 'Fn' menu, change the 'Focus Area' setting to one of the tracking modes. To do this, scroll to the bottom of the list and then press left and right to select which kind of focus area the camera will use to identify what to track. We'd recommend one of the following:

  • Tracking: Flexible Spot M - If you want to choose what to track, either by tapping the screen or by pointing the camera at your subject (so that the focus point is initially on your subject)
  • Tracking: Wide - If you want the camera to choose what to track. It will prioritize the nearest person or, if there aren't any people, will track something central in your scene and nearby.

Body and handling

The a6100 looks a lot like the a6000 and, indeed, like every other model in the company's current APS-C lineup. Unlike the more expensive models, it's made from plastic. It's a relatively solid feeling plastic, and the camera's grip is coated with a comfortable, grippy rubber so the camera doesn't end up feeling overly cheap.

The grip on the front of the camera is pronounced enough to make it easy to hold comfortably and the top rear dial is well placed for operation when you're holding the camera. We found the dial on the back of the camera and the [REC] button on the right-hand edge of the camera rather less easy to access.

Unlike many previous Sony models, the a6100 has a touchscreen. Its importance can't be over-stressed. Along with the simple, usually dependable AF system, the ability to simply tap on the screen to tell it where to focus makes the camera simple to operate. It's not a smartphone-like experience (this is just about the only thing the touchscreen is used for) but it makes the a6100 much quicker/easier to use than the a6000.

The profusion of little button labels makes the a6100 look much harder to use than it is. The best thing about the camera is how little you need to do to operate it.

The viewfinder is a relatively modest 1.44M dots, which equates to an 800 x 600 pixel view. That's not especially detailed by modern standards, but this camera comes at a price where most of its rivals don't include a viewfinder at all. And, while the a6100 is arguably easier to shoot using the rear screen, a viewfinder is invaluable when shooting in bright light, where it might otherwise be impossible to see the rear screen (or your phone).

Menus and user interface

The a6100's broad feature set means the menus are rather extensive and not always easy to navigate. You can customize a 'My Menu' tab if you need to, though.

Like the many button labels on the back of the camera, the a6100's user interface suffers somewhat from being shared with the company's older and higher-end cameras. Thankfully, if you hit the 'DISP' button, you can get a view that essentially just tells you the things you need to see.

The menus are among our least favorite of the cameras in this class, with a large number of options arranged such that you have to memorize their location. Thankfully, you rarely have to actually use the menus.

The Fn menu can be customized to show different settings for stills and video mode and again minimizes your need to use the full menus.

And, if you do find yourself regularly changing settings then, with a little bit of tinkering, you also have the option to put those settings into either the camera's 'Fn' menu, or into the 'My Menu' tab of the menus, for quick and easy access.

Wi-Fi and Connectivity

The a6100 can transfer images and video over Wi-Fi to a smart device, using an iOS or Android app currently called Imaging Edge Mobile. A Wi-Fi connection can be established either using NFC (tapping your Android phone to the camera), or by selecting the transfer function on the camera and opening the app and trying to re-establish a connection, simultaneously.

The camera's NFC antenna can initiate a Wi-Fi connection if you have a recent iPhone or Android device

The camera will display a QR code that can be photographed from the Image Edge app so that you don't have to type in settings to either device. However, pressing the 'Connect to [Camera Name]' button in the app will not re-establish a connection unless the camera is also set to transmit.

The camera can also maintain a Bluetooth connection to your smartphone which it can use to add location tags to your images. Bluetooth cannot be used to speed up the Wi-Fi connection process as can be done on some of its rivals.

Taking control

The camera's Auto mode is pretty clever, in terms of choosing appropriate settings for you, but we'd recommend using 'P' mode if you want to get a little more out of the camera. This lets you push the camera to try to work in lower light (by using a higher ISO setting than Auto mode will use), and, more importantly, lets you adjust the Exposure Compensation, telling the camera whether the scene you're shooting is brighter or darker than it thinks.

If you want to take more control than this, we'd recommend Aperture or Shutter Speed priority modes, but these benefit from a degree of customization: either setting one of the command dials to control Exposure Comp, or setting a button convenient button to access that feature. This is probably a little fiddly to explain here, but it is an option if you do decide you want to get more involved.

Although the a6100 has two dials, both of them have to be controlled with your thumb, so it's not as convenient as a camera that puts a dial under your thumb and forefinger. If you're already a keen photographer who wants to take a lot of control over the camera, this wouldn't be our recommendation.

Battery

To keep size down, the a6100 uses a small NP-FW50 battery. This is rated as providing 420 shots per charge. The precise number you get will vary depending on how much you use the flash and how often you review your images or send pictures over Wi-Fi. It's not uncommon to get double the rated figure, though, so 420 shots should be enough to shoot for a weekend without having to worry too much.

The a6100 can be powered or recharged over its USB 2 (Micro B) port, so is easy enough to keep topped-up, if you're traveling.

Auto ISO

The camera has a rather basic Auto ISO implementation. If you're in P, A, S or M exposure modes, you can tell the camera what range of ISO settings it should use. We'd recommend increasing the upper limit to at least 12,800, to increase the likelihood of getting unshaken shots in low light, and to never adjust the lower limit.

Auto ISO mode will keep the ISO setting as low as it can, but will increase it as the light levels drop, and will try to maintain a shutter speed that can be sensibly hand-held without too much risk of hand shake. However, there's no way to adjust this threshold to take into account how much your subject is moving (something you can do on Sony's more expensive models).

Auto ISO and Exposure Compensation are available in Manual Exposure mode if there's a specific shutter speed and aperture you need.

How it compares

All the major camera makers have a camera for sale around this price, aimed at the novice user and those people looking to learn more about photography.

Sony's lineup is somewhat more complicated by the physical similarities between its models. We've already looked at the differences in the a6000-series in a separate article.

Sony a6100 Canon EOS M50 Olympus OM-D E-M10 III Fujifilm X-A7 Sony a6000
MSRP
(With zoom)
$850
(16-50mm)
$899
(15-45mm)
$799*
(14-42mm)
$699
(15-45mm)
$799**
(16-50mm)
Sensor size APS-C APS-C Four Thirds APS-C APS-C

Pixel count

24MP 24MP 16MP 24MP 24MP

Autofocus system

Phase detect Dual Pixel Phase d/t Contrast detect Phase detect Phase detect

Image stabilization

Lens only Lens only
+ EIS in video
5-axis in-body
+ EIS in video
Lens only Lens only

Connectivity

Wi-Fi w/ NFC.
Bluetooth for location data
Wi-Fi w/ Bluetooth for quick connection Wi-Fi Wi-Fi w/ Bluetooth for quick connection Wi-Fi w/ NFC for quick connection
Continuous shooting 11fps 7.4fps 8.6fps 6.0fps 11fps
Electronic viewfinder
(Res/Mag)
1.44M dot
0.71x
2.36M dot
Mag not given
2.36M dot
0.62x
No EVF 1.44M dot 0.7x
Rear screen 0.92M dot
tilting touchscreen
1.04M dot fully-articulating touchscreen

1.04M dot fully-articulating touchscreen

2.76M dot tilting touchscreen 0.92M dot
tilting
Max video resolution 4K 4K 4K 4K 1080p
Video crop Full width (24p)
1.23x (30p)
1.6x crop Full width Full width Full width (24p)
1.23x (30p)
Microphone socket Yes Yes No Yes No
USB charging Yes No No Yes Yes
Battery rating (CIPA) 420 235 330 440 360
Dimensions 120 x 67 x 59mm 116 x 88 x 59mm 122 x 84 x 50mm 119 x 38 x 41mm 120 x 67 x 45mm
Weight 396g (14oz) 387g (14oz) 410g (14oz) 320g (11oz) 344g (12oz)

* At launch (2017), now listed at $600 with 14-42mm power zoom
**At launch (2014), now listed at $550 with 16-50mm power zoom

Based purely on specs, there doesn't seem to be a lot to choose between these cameras. The main difference is whether the cameras have a viewfinder, with Fujifilm keeping the headline cost down by omitting one.

What this table can't capture is the difference in performance and usability. The most important distinction between the a6100 and its elderly predecessor may not be its ability to shoot 4K video or even, on the face of it, the addition of its touchscreen. Instead, in our opinion, it's the massively improved AF system that requires so much less user input, combined with the touchscreen, and crucially, much more attractive JPEG color.

Another aspect that isn't readily captured in a table is the range of lenses available for each system. This is well worth looking more closely at, before you commit to a particular brand, not just in terms of how many are available, but whether the lenses you need are available.