Sony a6500 First Impressions

by Dan Bracaglia

ISO 200, 1/3200 sec at F4. Shot using the 70-200mm F2.8 G Master lens. JPEG edited to taste in Adobe Lightroom. Photo by Dan Bracaglia

I spent two and a half days shooting in Austin, Texas with the Sony a6500 on a Sony-sponsored press trip. This was the first time most journalists, including myself, had a chance to put hands on the camera, let alone shoot with it. One of my favorite things about these trips is getting to talk to other writers to see how their experiences with the camera compare. While specific opinions on the a6500 varied, there was one aspect of the camera everyone seemed to agree on: the touchscreen on the a6500 is a letdown.

Of course the addition of a touchscreen is not the only thing the a6500 has going for it. The camera also receives 5-axis in-body image stabilization, new menus, a deeper buffer and front-end LSI (which stands for Large Scale Integration - basically an additional chip providing more processing power). Not to mention it retains the 425-point on-sensor PDAF system, the same viewfinder, the same video specification and the same 8 fps burst rate (with Sony's implementation of live view) as its mid-range sibling, the a6300 (11 fps with no live view).

Usability and speed

ISO 6400, 1/1000 sec at F2.2. Shot using the 85mm F1.4 G Master lens. JPEG edited to taste in Adobe Lightroom. Photo by Dan Bracaglia

We spent the first day shooting all sorts of fast action subjects, including basketball. I've shot a lot of college basketball games in my life (close to 100) but this was the first time shooting a game using a mirrorless camera. And you know what? I really enjoyed it! I mainly stuck to the 'wide' AF area, though occasionally switched to the 'Flexible Spot-M' option. In both cases my hit rate was just as good as when using a sports-oriented DSLR: nearly all my shots were in focus! 

I found the responsiveness of the shutter, from the time I pressed it, to the time the photo was taken, near instantaneous. And following the action at 8 fps was no problem, I didn't notice any EVF lag (I switched the EVF refresh rate from it default of 60 fps to 120 fps).

"My hit rate was just as good as when using a sports-oriented DSLR."

In the two days with the camera, Sony managed to cram in not only an opportunity to shoot basketball, but the chance to also shoot skateboarding, tennis, rodeo, lacrosse, live music and flying disk dogs. In each scenario, I walked away impressed with the hit rate. Simply put, for action photography the a6500's AF system, fast burst rate and a deep buffer make it a very tempting/capable choice.

This image was part of a 50+ photo burst. ISO 640, 1/3200 sec at F4. Shot using the 85mm F1.4 G Master lens. JPEG edited to taste in Adobe Lightroom. Photo by Dan Bracaglia

Furthermore, while shooting long bursts, I almost never encountered a 'Writing to memory card, unable to operate' error screen, which is a breath of fresh air having used the a6300. Even after shooting a burst of 50 or so Raw+JPEG files, I was able to hit the playback button and see the most recent image to clear the buffer. The a6500 also features a buffer countdown in the upper left corner so that users know how many images are left before it's fully cleared.

New Menu

Sony makes some of the most technically capable cameras on the market but the user experience has always been a bit rough around the edges. Of course many folks, by dedicating the time to learn and work around Sony's peculiarities, are able to tolerate any U.I. shortcomings and get the most out of these cameras. But for the rest of us, picking up a Sony for the first time can feel confusing, frustrating and uninspiring.

Menu heads are now color-coded and there is a dedicated video sub-section.

The a6500, with its new menu system and faster processing is a major step in the right direction for overall usability. Menu heads are color-coded and there is now a separate video menu. But there is no 'My Menu' style option for customizing a menu page, something offered by most other camera makers. To some degree, we'd have just preferred a customizable menu over Sony's reorganization, to collate most-used menu items that still remain unassignable to the camera's Fn menu.

On a positive note, I encountered far fewer error screens than I'm used to when shooting with a Sony. Still, I did occasionally hit one. And there is nothing worse than trying to dial in a setting only to encounter an 'Invalid operation,' screen. Hey Sony, instead of tossing up an error, why not make a suggestion so that users know what settings to change to avoid more error messages (and include direct access to the setting that needs changing)?

The touchscreen

The camera is somewhat responsive when you tap on the screen to select a focus point but less responsive it's used as a touchpad. When dragging around a point with one’s eye to the EVF, there is a noticeable lag (which we could not show), identical to that shown in this video above when dragging a point on the back of the LCD.

I had super high hopes going into this shooting experience that the a6500's touchscreen was going to be awesome. It's not. It's unresponsive when tapping and laggy when dragging one's finger. Not only that, the touchscreen cannot be used for anything other than moving AF points and zooming in on images in playback. How silly is that? Numerous times I found myself hitting the Fn menu button and then tapping one of the icons on the screen, only for nothing to happen.

Furthermore, the a6500 is a premium camera with a premium price point, but only one top plate control dial. A touchscreen is the perfect answer to a lack of physical control points, but by limiting its use, Sony shot themselves in the foot.

"The touchscreen on the a6500 is the one feature of this camera that does not feel up to par with everything else."

Still, its encouraging to see touch capability make its way into this line of camera. No doubt Sony knows how to make a decent touchscreen: it manufactures smartphones after all, so here's hoping the next generation actually nails the touchscreen. Because the touchscreen on the a6500 is the one feature of this camera that does not feel up to par with everything else.

It's not completely without merit though. I quite enjoyed using the flip-out screen at the skatepark we visited to get super low angles and the touchscreen allowed me to easily choose my point of focus. Still, the focus squares can be difficult to see in very bright or very dim light.

ISO 640, 1/1600 sec at F5.6. Shot using the Sony 10-18mm F4 lens. JPEG edited to taste in Adobe Lightroom. Photo by Dan Bracaglia

Using the touchscreen as an AF touchpad was also a disappointing experience. The responsiveness is not fast enough, the points are hard to see and there is a noticeable delay when dragging one's finger around (pretty much the same experience as just using the touchscreen).

There are three touchpad area modes: 'Whole Screen,' 'Right 1/2 Area' and 'Right 1/4 Area.' The 'area' refers to which portion of the screen will activate touchpad AF and are meant to help avoid accidentally changing one's AF point with say, your nose. When using 'Right 1/2 Area' for instance, only the upper half of the right side of the screen will engage the touchpad. And when using 'Right 1/4 area' only the upper quarter of the right side of the screen will engage the touchpad. Honestly, I was hard put to tell the difference between 'Whole Screen' and 'Right 1/2 Area' in actual usage, since once activated as a touchpad, the entire screen appears to be active. This often meant large and multiple swipes to move the AF point large distances or precisely. Also when I put the camera in 'Right 1/4 Area' I found it nearly impossible to get the touchscreen to work at all!

Simply put: the experience is very unrefined compared to, say, any Panasonic with an EVF.

I also found it pretty difficult, though possible, to use touchpad AF when shooting through my left eye. There is an option to turn the touchpad off when shooting vertically, so as to not change one's AF point with their nose. But seeing how unresponsive the touchscreen is, I never ran into this issue. I guess that's one plus of the lack of responsiveness. Users can choose whether to just use the touchscreen, just the touchpad, both or neither.

Using the Touchscreen during video capture

Like all Sonys, the 'Lock-on AF' area modes are greyed-out when shooting video. And as such, there is no simple way, by default, to tap-to-track when recording video. You can tap-to-track using the 'Center lock on AF' mode, but to engage it you must either assign a button or add it to the Fn menu. And the 'Center Lock-on AF' option seems to use an older/less reliable tracking algorithm compared to 'Lock-on AF'.

Image Stabilization

ISO 3200 1/2 sec at F4.5. Shot using the 24mm F1.8 Zeiss lens. JPEG edited to taste in Adobe Lightroom. Photo by Dan Bracaglia

It's exciting to see image stabilization make its way into Sony's APS-C mirrorless line. Initial impressions using image stabilization to shoot stills are positive. The above image was shot at 1/2 sec using the 24mm F1.8 lens (it did take several attempts to get a sharp image). Ordinarily I could probably hold a shot steady, with no IS, down to about 1/20, or maybe on a good day, 1/15 sec. So right there we're seeing around a 3-stop advantage using IS at a normal-ish equiv. focal length in real world shooting.

Using IS while recording video made it easier to shoot hand-held at wide to normal focal lengths, like in the clip above. However at longer focal lengths the IS system is very jumpy. You can see an example of that in the clip below.

Having just finished testing video IS on both the Panasonic FZ2500 and Panasonic G85, I'm not all the impressed with the Sony's video IS performance. Of course both the cameras mentioned use smaller sensors, which in theory should be easier to move around. But more to the point, those cameras offer something the a6500 does not: an option to combine mechanical IS with electronic (digital) IS. Although digital IS tends to slightly crop (and then upscale) footage and therefore costs some image quality, it can lead to impressively glidecam-esque footage.

Physical Improvements over the a6300

The a6500 (left) features two top plate custom keys and toothier dials compared to the a6300. The battery door on the a6500 (left) has also been redesigned. It seems less flimsy than that on the a6300. The camera also gains a deeper grip.

The a6500 gains some very minor physical improvements over the more basic model, including an additional top plate custom function (C2) button. The C1 button has moved to the top shelf, and is now eminently more usable than the one that provided almost no haptic feedback on the a6300. A comfier grip, more similar to that offered on the a7 II models. The control and mode dial also have a nicer tooth to them and the bottom battery door has been redesigned and now feels more secure.

The Takeaway

Make no mistake, the Sony a6500 is a very good camera. It's lightweight, fast and capable. Still, I can't help but think Sony may have benefited holding off on the release to spend more time refining it. After all, it is the company's top tier APS-C mirrorless offering (this despite one top plate control dial). Because some aspects of the camera operation just feel unrefined.

For instance, when shooting 4K video, the screen automatically dims. There is no way to use the 'Sunny Weather' option: it's simply greyed out. This makes the a6500 nearly impossible to use in bright sunlight while shooting 4K video with the LCD. And I'm told the reason is to mitigate overheating, which seems like an imperfect fix for a known issue, and one that creates a new issue entirely. 

ISO 1600, 1/800 sec at F2.2. Shot using the 85mm F1.4 G Master lens. JPEG edited to taste in Adobe Lightroom. Photo by Dan Bracaglia

The image stabilization is useful when shooting stills, but initial impressions in video mode have us less impressed. The new LSI processor goes a long way to making the a6500 a more usable camera than the a6300. The buffer depth is certainly impressive. The new menus are also a step in the right direction. Still, there is room for improvement in terms of organization of items and adding a customizable page.

Two days shooting with it proved to me that the a6500 is the most usable Sony APS-C camera on the market and certainly a refinement over the mid-level a6300. I was impressed at how capable it is for sports and action (almost no noticeable EVF lag) and it can certainly capture some lovely-looking 4K video (just watch out for rolling shutter). But the touchscreen, one of the main things you get for the extra $400 over the a6300, is simply not good enough. And for that reason, while I like the a6500, I don't love it.