The included screw-in accessory flash HVL-F7S has a maximum guide number of 7 at 100 ISO, providing comparable power to most compact cameras. It's not the most powerful flash available, especially when compared to most accessory flashguns but it's quite compact and great for shooting relatively close subjects and portraits.

This portrait, taken at a distance of about 6ft and an equivalent focal length of 82mm, shows the flash's ability to light the subject evenly at a reasonable distance.

In this example the flash has helped to render a bright and punchy image, however the highlight areas (like reflections in the glasses) are a little bit over-powered.

Overall image quality

For those upgrading to the NEX-5N from a point and shoot compacts, one of the most noticeable changes will be the increase in image quality. The step up to an APS-C format sensor alone provides the potential for greater depth of field control and the 5N's 16.1MP CMOS sensor offers markedly superior low light performance over compact cameras with a 1/2.3" or 1/1.8" sensor, and indeed matches the best results we've seen from its APS-C DSLR competition.

The sensor in the 5N is very capable and produces excellent image quality at its low and medium ISO sensitivity settings and acceptably detailed images up to its maximum ISO sensitivity setting of 25,600. You'll have to control ISO sensitivity manually to reach that level, in iAuto mode the maximum ISO setting of the 5N is capped at 3200. Thankfully though, this is an increase from the previous limitation of 1600 ISO in earlier NEX models.

The AWB system in the NEX-5N is very reliable in a wide range of lighting environments. Metering and exposure are generally spot-on, capturing images with good contrast and minimal highlight clipping. This is a welcome improvement over the NEX-3/5 with original firmware, which displayed a thoroughly unwelcome tendency to serious overexposure. We have had no such problems with the 5N.

Low Light / High ISO

In the lower half of the ISO range the NEX-5N performs much like we would expect and indeed very similarly to the NEX-C3. Noise is well controlled at this sensitivity and images shot at sensitivities lower than 3200 are perfectly acceptable for medium sized prints as well as for full screen viewing on a computer. The NEX-5N's JPEG processing engine does a good job of managing chroma noise without sacrificing saturation. In fact, chroma noise is all but absent in images shot at ISO 3200 and lower.

ISO 3200, 1/60s, f/5.6 100% Crop

At ISO 6400 and up the noise reduction system in the 5N seems to focus more on preserving high-contrast detail at the expense of some 'graininess' in the low contrast areas. However, at low magnifications on screen or in small prints, this helps to retain the perception of sharpness. At ISO 12,800 low-contrast detail has been largely lost to noise reduction, but high-contrast edges remain well-preserved.

ISO 12,800, 1/160s, f/5.6 100% Crop

Offering a native 25,600 ISO is a truly ambitious feat, even semi-professional cameras like the Nikon D7000 struggle with noise reduction at this level of sensitivity. As you can see below the NEX-5N does a remarkable job of managing chroma noise in particular without suffering too much saturation. High-contrast detail is still reasonably well preserved, however low-contrast detail has been all but removed by noise reduction at this point.

ISO 25,600, 1/100s, f/5.6 100% Crop

Overall, the JPEG noise reduction in the NEX-5N is capable of producing reasonably good results, even in fairly low light situations. In some cases when shooting in low light you may be better served by using the 5N's 'Hand-held Twilight' mode which can give you both better detail and less noise than using a high ISO setting alone. For more information about this mode please take a look at our 'Hand-held Twilight' example from the NEX-C3 review.

Shadow Noise

The Sony NEX-5N's imaging sensor is similar to the one found in the C3 which produces very low read noise at base ISO. This lowers the noise floor that usually limits dynamic range and means that when working with the 5N's raw files it is possible to retrieve more information out of the shadows than you might typically be able to with 'conventional' sensors.

To illustrate this we have compared the NEX-5N with the Sony NEX-5, which uses a 'last generation' 14MP CMOS sensor. We have taken the base ISO Raw shots of our studio test scene and developed them in Adobe Camera RAW with a +3.0EV digital exposure compensation to lift the shadows. We've then taken crops from the darkest areas of our scene to compare the level of shadow noise on the both cameras. Applying digital exposure compensation makes shadow noise more visible in both cameras, but as you can see in the crops below, the NEX-5N shows much less noise in the shadow areas, and more detail than the NEX-5 which allows for more true detail to be recovered when processing from Raw.

Sony NEX-5N - ACR+3.0EV Sony NEX-5 - ACR+3.0EV
100% crop 100% crop
100% crop 100% crop