Image quality

Key Takeaways:

  • JPEG image quality is generally very good, with attractive color and excellent detail retention
  • Raw performance is solid, despite slightly destructive Raw compression
  • 16-50mm power zoom often supplied with the camera is convenient and small but not always optically consistent, so it's worth considering your other options

Continued iterative improvements and a contraction of the camera market that's all-but eliminated small sensor cameras, mean that most modern cameras produce excellent images. Our previous concerns about JPEG color from a couple of camera brands (including Sony) have broadly been alleviated.

Raw performance, in terms of detail capture, dynamic range and noise is pretty reliably good, and the differences in color rendition are decreasing. There are few brands or cameras producing bad results, at this point.

Our test scene lets you assess cameras side-by-side in excruciating detail, making it possible to tease-out differences that relate to the unavoidable differences in our testing, rather than any differences that will make any difference in the real world. Different sensor sizes can still provide performance differences big enough to have an impact, but in most instances, when comparing cameras with similarly-sized sensors, it tends to come down to a matter of taste (if you can find a difference at all).

One area where there are still differences are in specifics of image processing: noise reduction and sharpening of detail. Sony's latest JPEG engine does very well in this respect: teasing out fine detail and taking a fairly sophisticated approach to suppressing noise without destroying all detail.

Most importantly, both our test scene and our real-world shooting with the a6100 suggests that the camera's color rendition is significantly improved since the original a6000. That camera itself represented a step forward for Sony but the a6100 is much more reliable at producing attractive JPEG images.

We've shot the camera in a variety of good and challenging lighting conditions, and found that it can produce images that are the match for any of its APS-C rivals.

Lenses

The Sony 16-50mm power zoom dates back to 2012 and even as far back as the a6000 we were saying it wasn't great from an image quality point of view. Time hasn't changed that assessment: some copies will undoubtedly be better than others but even with the best ones we've seen, it's perhaps politest to say that it prioritizes convenience over image quality.

The kit lens does its job of providing a small, capable package, but to get the most out of the camera, it's worth considering what else is out there. There's an 18-135mm F3.5-5.6, which adds a lot of flexibility, improves image quality and consistency but adds significant cost and bulk. There's also a very nice 16-55mm F2.8 but it costs nearly twice as much as the a6100 itself, which will probably rule it out for most people.

This image, shot with Sigma's 56mm F1.4 lens, gives a hint at what the a6100 can do (and also shows how well its AF copes with distractions). Sigma 56mm F1.4 | ISO 100 | F2.8 | 1/160 sec Photo: Richard Butler

Beyond these, there is a series of prime lenses (single focal length lenses that can't zoom in or out). These are often smaller than zooms and tend to have a brighter maximum aperture, which can make it easier to blur the backgrounds of your images, and also capture more light, meaning they're more likely to work well in low light, when your smartphone's attempts to simulate blurred backgrounds are less likely to work.

Sony and Sigma make a handful of small, comparatively reasonably-priced prime lenses that are a good match for the a6100. But, whether you decide to buy the a6100 or any other camera, it's worth thinking whether you want to venture beyond the capabilities of the 'kit' lens. If you think you will, look not at just how many lenses there are, but whether the lenses you need are available at prices you're willing to pay.

Click here to read our 'Best Lenses for E-mount' buying guide