Sony a6000 Review
Image Quality and Features
The a6000 uses a 24MP Exmor HD CMOS sensor and promises improved JPEG processing, thanks to its Bionz X processor. This latest version of the company's processor promises three major changes to JPEG processing: more sophisticated sharpening, aperture-dependent sharpening (to counteract diffraction), and context-sensitive noise reduction.
The a6000 offers all sorts of features such as Auto Object Framing, which highlights and then creates a JPEG from what it thinks would be a better crop of your image, and sweep panorama, which does a pretty good job of stitching images together from a continuous pan of a scene. Add to this the dynamic range management DRO+ feature, one of the better in-camera HDR systems and multi-frame noise reduction and you can see the a6000 almost offers too much to sensibly test.
Like most recent Sonys, there are three types of lens correction that can be applied by the camera: Shading Comp (vignetting correction), Chrom. Aber. Comp. (lateral chromatic aberration correction) and Distortion Comp (geometric distortion correction). All three settings provide the option of 'Off' or 'Auto.' However, despite being clustered together (Menu/Settings/5) and offering matching options, their behavior isn't quite consistent.
Distortion Correction is automatically applied with any Sony lens that requires it as part of its design (such as the 16-50mm power zoom), with the option to turn it off greyed-out. When it's activated a tag is added to Raw files, which is applied by Sony's own software and can't be disengaged. Chromatic Aberration correction, by contrast, is always user-selectable; again when it's turned on, a tag is added to Raw files for use by Sony's software. However users of other Raw converters have the choice of whether or not to apply these corrections. In contrast Shading Compensation will be irreversibly applied to the underlying Raw data when it's enabled (and if it kicks in).
As well as an electronic viewfinder, Sony has somehow managed to fit a small built-in flash into the a6000. It's not a terribly powerful unit, nor does it have the ability to control a remote flashgun (as Olympus manages, for instance), but it can be useful to have, when the scene would benefit from a little 'fill' flash. You gain more capability, including wireless flash control, with the use of some external units, but these tend to be rather ungainly on the a6000's small body.
One of the things the Bionz X's processing is supposed to address is Sony's JPEG sharpening, which has tended to be a little heavy-handed in the past. To have a look at how that relates to real-world performance, we've compared the JPEGs to their accompanying Raw files, processed using Adobe Camera Raw with sharpening adjusted to suit the image.
|Out of Camera JPEG||100% crop|
|ACR conversion, sharpening radius 0.8, amount 56||100% crop|
In this first example, you can see the camera JPEG is representing the detail in the grass similarly well, when compared to the ACR conversion with sharpening adjusted to suit this particular region of the image.
|Out of Camera JPEG||100% crop|
|ACR conversion, sharpening radius 0.8, amount 65||100% crop|
In this scene with slightly larger detail, the image will tolerate a little more sharpening. However, even with the sharpening turned up higher in Adobe Camera Raw (to an extent that it's slightly over-done, elsewhere in the image), the results aren't that much better than the JPEG's result. Overall, it seems the a6000's sharpening is a great improvement on it predecessors'.
The a6000 uses Sony's context-sensitive noise reduction. This works well with test scenes and night skies - smoothing out noise in areas it deems to be areas of continuous tone. However, it does appear to be tuned to a degree that can heavily erode genuine detail as well as noise.
|Out of Camera JPEG||100% crop|
|ACR conversion, luminance noise reduction 23, chroma noise reduction 25||100% crop|
As you can see, with some noise reduction chosen to match the subject matter, it's possible to get better results out of processing from Raw. There's considerably more noise left in the Raw conversion, since a single approach is being applied to the whole image, but we'd tend to prefer the increased detail retention this brings.
The a6000 features the latest generation of the company's APS-C CMOS sensors, which have tended to offer lots of dynamic range, particularly at low ISO, thanks to their low read noise.
|Out of Camera JPEG||100% crop|
|ACR conversion, shadows 100%, exposure +0.65EV, selectively brightened shadows||100% crop (of brightened shadow region)|
This is quite an extreme example (and not the prettiest one, at that), but here we've lifted the shadows and applied an additional exposure compensation mask to raise the really deep shadows shown in the crops. This gives the equivalent to a 3.15EV push and, although the crop shows additional noise, should give an idea of how much processing latitude the a6000's low ISO Raw files will offer.
Raw files for download
We don't expect you to just take our word for it - take a look at the a6000's Raw files for yourself, and run them through your preferred software and conversion settings. Here, we provide you with a selection of raw files of 'real world' scenes, and if you want to take a closer look at the studio scene shots you can download original raw files from our 'Compared to (Raw)' page.
- ISO 100 real-world shot (24.3 MB)
- ISO 100 real-world shot (24.2 MB)
- ISO 4000 real-world shot (23.8 MB)
- ISO 16000 real-world shot (23.8 MB)
Overall image quality
The a6000's image quality is generally very good. At low ISOs the greatly improved JPEG sharpening means you tend to get much more usable images than before. Sony's Dynamic Range Optimization feature also helps in terms of getting well-balanced images that make good use of the camera's dynamic range, so it's shame that there's no post-shot in-camera Raw conversion option, to allow you to experiment with different intensities of DRO, after getting a shot.
The camera's color rendition is pretty pleasant - certainly on a par with Nikon and Canon, if perhaps not quite as punchy as Olympus and Fujifilm (both of which we rather like). This is helped by generally reliable white balance, meaning skin tones and skies are conveyed without any unpleasant tint.
We're not quite as impressed with the context sensitive noise reduction, which we think can be a little heavy-handed. And, just as we think it contributed to the posterization that we sometimes saw with the Sony a7, we suspect it's this attempt to define edges that can result in some pretty odd rendering of out-of-focus regions with the a6000. The following, taken from the noise reduction example above, looks almost like it was shot through a textured bathroom window:
|Out of Camera JPEG, 100% crop||Adobe Camera Raw, 100% crop|
In general, though, the a6000's low ISO image quality is very good and the excellent sensor means there's plenty of scope for getting really good results from the Raw files at higher ISOs. The heavily noise-reduced JPEGs work well for social media sharing, since they tend to be downsized so much, so shooting Raw+JPEG and making use of the camera's Wi-Fi ended up being our favorite combination.
The a6000's kit lens isn't great from an image quality point of view, regularly producing images with very poor corners so anyone looking to really get the most out of the a6000 should think about the cost of adding other lenses to their collection. The E-mount lineup is getting stronger all the time and features most of the zoom options that a DSLR at this level would be offered with. However, while there is a good choice of short to mid-length prime lenses, the Sigma 60mm F2.8 DN and rather expensive FE 55mm F1.8 ZA are the only classic portrait prime choices (in the 85-135mmm equiv range), so it's worth checking that the lenses exist to do what you want. The Sony ZA 16-70mm F4 OSS is an excellent step-up standard zoom but it costs as much as the camera does, again.
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