Auto HDR

Both NEX models offer Sony's 'Auto HDR' feature that takes multiple shots of the same scene at different exposures, then combines them to produce a single image that incorporates a larger range of tones than would be possible from a single exposure.

Unlike previous Alpha cameras, the NEXs take three images - one of the 'correct' exposure plus one over-exposed image to capture shadow detail and an underexposed image for highlight detail that would otherwise be missing. The breadth of the exposure gap between these three shots can either be chosen automatically by the camera or set manually.

Auto HDR - Auto Auto HDR - 1.0EV

We think the Auto HDR feature is rather good - it enables users to easily capture high-contrast scenes without losing all the highlight and shadow detail. The results can be slightly flat and low contrast (an inevitable result of trying to squeeze greater tonal range into an image), but this can be rectified with a bit of a 'curves' tweak if you like - which you couldn't do with a conventional image if the highlight or shadow information had never been captured.

Sadly Auto HDR isn't available in iAuto mode (it'd be a real benefit to users who just want to capture a scene rather than worrying about how high contrast it is), and it requires a lot of button pressing, particularly if you want to manually select the extent of the effect.

Understandably, because the end result is a composite of three exposures, there can be ghosting effects where subjects have moved between the three exposures.

Auto HDR - Auto 100% crop

Hand-held Twilight/Anti Motion Blur

In addition to multi-shot modes to boost dynamic range, both NEX models feature a pair of multi-shot modes for shooting in low light. Anti Motion Blur mode appears on the virtual control dial, while Hand-held Twilight mode is accessed through the SCN position on that dial.

The distinction between the two modes is subtle and they're both based on the principle of taking six images and combining them to minimize differences between shots. This has the two-fold effect of both reducing noise (which will change between shots and be cancelled-out), and minimizing movement.

The key difference between the modes is what kind of movement you're trying to minimize: camera shake or subject movement. Hand-held Twilight mode is designed for taking photos of static scenes and the image processing concentrates on canceling out noise. Anti Motion Blur mode tends to use higher ISOs to keep a high shutter speed high in an attempt to minimize subject movement, and its processing will try to select elements from the frame with the least subject blur if the principal subject has moved too much during the exposures. Hand-held Twilight also chooses darker exposures (often over 2EV below the normal metered value), whereas Anti Motion Blur tries to produce an image of the same brightness as normal metering.

Handheld Twilight mode: 100% crop Manual mode (matched exposure): 100% crop

The results we got from Anti Motion Blur weren't brilliant - our hand-held shot in manual shooting mode shows less shake than the Anti Motion Blur version. It also didn't do terribly well at identifying movement in the scene (on one attempt we got semi-transparent half-closed eyelids, which was too unflattering to publish), or reducing motion blur. You might be better off just taking six attempts at shooting the shot - one of them may be sharper than the results the camera will produce.

Hand-held Twilight Matched exposure (Manual mode)
100% crop 100% crop

Hand-held Twilight mode was more of a success. Even though the manual mode version is similarly sharp in places, the Hand-held Twilight mode has clearly done a good job in reducing noise in the scene. The result is an image that's far more likely to be usable than a normal hand-held shot, even if you do manage to hold the camera steady.

Sweep Panorama

The NEX cameras also include the Sweep Panorama mode that we've seen in previous Sony compacts - it takes a series of frames and stitches them together to form large panoramic images. The system in the NEX takes lens angle-of-view into account and allows you to choose between two widths - standard and wide. You can also choose the direction in which you want to move the camera - left, right, up or down (the latter pair being arguably most useful for constructing horizontal panoramas with the camera held in the portrait orientation). This gives four possible image sizes of widely varying aspect ratios:

Left / Right
Up / Down
8192 x 1856 (12.5 Mp, 4.4:1)
3872 x 2160 (8Mp, 16:9)
12416 x 1856 (22Mp, 6.7:1)
5536 x 2160 (11.4Mp, ~10:4)

Overall this gives you a lot of choice over just how wide you want your panorama to be. But in typically frustrating NEX fashion these options reside in different submenus ('Camera' and 'Image Size'), and require about 20 button presses if you want to change both together.

You get a limited degree of control over the camera in sweep panorama mode - the options available are focus mode, exposure compensation, white balance, creative style and metering pattern. However you're limited to Auto ISO, and (not surprisingly given the processing power that would be required) can't invoke Dynamic Range Optimization.

Unlike the implementation in Sony's Cyber-Shot compacts, you can stop a panorama at any point to avoid including something unphotogenic or the person standing next to you, but the camera simply records a blank region between your stopping point and what would have been the end of the image (so you may as well have shot the full image and cropped).

Shooting sweep panos is something of a hit-and-miss affair - it's near-impossible to predict exactly what will end up in the processed image, so it pays to set the lens quite 'wide' to help ensure everything you want makes it into the final shot. You also have to be careful with panning speed - too fast or slow and the camera will complain and stop you in mid-sweep. But when things go well the results are well worth it - the stitching is very impressive, and for static subjects the seams are essentially invisible.

'Normal'/'Left', 8192 x 1856 px. 18-55mm lens @ 18mm
'Normal'/'Up', 3872 x 2160 px. 18-55mm lens @ 55mm

There are, inevitably, problems with moving elements, which can give unpleasant double images (look at the people in the foreground of the first panorama above), and with parts of the scene close to the camera (such as the railing at the left). Neither of these will come as any great surprise to experienced panorama shooters. You can also run into problems if you move the camera too fast, especially with the 16mm prime; the examples below show stitching errors and panning blur.

'Normal'/'Left', 8192 x 1856 px, 16mm lens
'Normal'/'Left', 8192 x 1856 px, 16mm lens

The camera will also go to extraordinary lengths to continue stitching even if you're not panning remotely straight, so you can create some interesting effects too:

'Normal'/'Left', 8192 x 1856 px. 18-55mm lens @ 18mm

Overall, the sweep panorama mode can be quite fun but it's a little prone to suddenly stopping recording (either because you're panning too fast or too slow, it doesn't warn which), and filling the end of the picture with grey. It also appears to struggle if you pan a bit too fast with wide-angle lenses, where the joins between images tend to be quite obvious.

3D Sweep Panorama

With NEX Firmware version 2 comes the 3D sweep panorama mode that was promised at the time of the cameras' launch. Occupying a new position on the virtual mode dial, this essentially creates a stereo pair of panoramic JPEGs which can be played back on Sony's 3D Bravia TVs. The camera records both a conventional panoramic JPEG, and alongside it an 'MPO' file containing the stereoscopic image pair that's precisely double in size.

In 3D mode you gain an additional 16:9 option in the Image Size menu, alongside Normal and Wide settings with similar aspect ratios as before; all three produce images that are 1080 pixels high to match HD TVs. You get the same limited exposure controls as before, but the camera will only allow you to pan left-right (or vice versa). The image sizes created are as follows:

1920 x 1080 (2Mp)
4912 x 1080 (5Mp, 4.5:1)
7152 x 1080 (7.3 Mp, 6.6:1)

Unfortunately, we have no way of assessing how well the 3D effect works.