Sony NEX-3 / NEX-5 Review
Effects / Color modes
Both NEX cameras gain the same six 'Creative Style' image and color parameter presets as previous Alpha cameras - Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset and Black & White. They're all fairly standard, with the exception of Sunset, which uses a similar saturated palette to Landscape and aims to 'create mood' for 'impressive sunsets and sunrises'.
The NEX cameras take an odd approach to flash - they offer neither built-in flash nor a hotshoe for traditional add-on units. Instead they have a small accessory port into which the small supplied flash module can be screwed. It's not a very highly powered unit (just Guide Number 7 at ISO 100), but it's certainly better than nothing. It's enough to provide a little fill-flash or for close-quarters photography.
The lack of hotshoe means there's currently no option for anything more powerful or, more importantly, something that carries its own batteries, but for most situations, it's easy enough to slip in your pocket if you need it.
The biggest difference between the NEX-3 and NEX-5 lies in their video recording capabilities. The NEX-5 offers 1080i recording (or Full HD as it's sometimes known), while the NEX-3 offers just 720p. The other difference is in the compression method used - the NEX-5 records its video in the comparatively sophisticated AVCHD format, while the 3 can only use the more primitive but easily accessible MP4 format.
The latest firmware update introduces the ability to control aperture for movie shooting. Whichever aperture setting has been chosen in aperture priority mode, manual mode or using iAuto's 'Bkgrnd Defocus' option, this is then retained while shooting. In all other modes the aperture is controlled by the camera. With E-mount (NEX) lenses, the aperture will adjust during the video to help maintain correct brightness (though giving the user no control over depth-of-field). With A-mount DSLR lenses the aperture is set (either manually or by the camera) at the beginning of the video and maintained regardless of the change of brightness - limiting the camera's ability to respond to big changes in light level.
You can change the brightness of the video while you're recording via the exposure compensation control (at least if you started out in the PASM modes); however there's no way of locking the exposure at the start of the recording. Also if you've set the camera to shoot stills in the standard 3:2 aspect ratio, you can't even frame videos precisely before you start - press the record button and the display will crop to either 16:9 if you're using HD, or 4:3 for VGA.
The NEX-3 shoots 720p HD video at 30fps (actually the industry-standard 29.796 fps) in MP4 format. The results are pretty good. There is a degree of rolling shutter (as there is with all large sensor stills/movie crossover cameras we've seen), but it's not significantly different from the other cameras in its class.
With the E-mount lenses, the camera will constantly try to refocus and in general does a good job (the steam train video requires quite a lot of re-focusing but it's only visible on frame-by-frame inspection).
|Sample movie: 1280 x 720 pixels @ 29.97 fps
File size: 10.5 MB, 9.5 secs
Using E 18-55mm F3.5-5.6
Click on the thumbnail to view the movie (caution: very large file)
NEX-3 video is really impressive, capturing smooth video with little obvious sign of rolling shutter. The lack of control will limit some users but for point-and-shoot clip capture, it's very good.
The NEX-5 shoots 1080i HD video at either 60fps or 50fps, depending on which region's firmware your camera is running. The camera is actually capturing this data at 30 or 25 fps then splitting it to give the final 60/50 fps interlaced file. It's encoded in the more sophisticated (cleverly compressed) AVCHD format.
There's also an MP4 option which more closely resembles the sensor's original capture behavior. This records a 16:9 ratio image at 30p or 25p but stores it at 1440x1080 resolution (presumably to keep file sizes down), which is then presented as 1920x1080 when it's viewed. It is unable to mimic the 720p offering of the NEX-3.
The NEX-5 video is also good but not significantly clearer or more detailed than the NEX-3's output. It also has the disadvantage of being in the harder-to-handle AVCHD format and being interlaced, rather than progressive scanned (again making it slightly more awkward to work with). Overall, the advantage of the NEX-5 is marginal.
Highlight clipping / dynamic range
The NEX cameras both have a base ISO of 200 and offer a very impressive level of dynamic range in their JPEGs (9.4EV, with 4.0EV above middle gray). That dynamic range is conveyed using this tone curve:
The two features to notice are not just the four stops of highlight dynamic range, but the gentle roll-off at the top of the curve, which gives a gentle transition between very bright tones and totally over-exposed regions. It's a very impressive result and translates to producing very pleasant real-world images - as long as they are correctly exposed. Unfortunately the camera's metering means this isn't always the case.
One problem we immediately noticed when shooting with the NEXs was a clear tendency to over-expose, giving bright images and losing much of the benefit of that extended highlight range. We became convinced this wasn't just a quirk of the pattern metering, but in fact due to the meter's calibration, and decided to test this by looking at the brightness at which the cameras render a neutral mid-tone when left to their own devices, in comparison to the Olympus E-P2 and Panasonic GF1.
We photographed an evenly-illuminated white wall through a highly diffusing 'Expodisc' white balance filter, using the cameras' respective kit zooms in the middle of their range, at an indicated ISO of 200. The cameras all gave essentially the same result regardless of metering mode (pattern, center-weighted or spot) or aperture (wide open or F8).
|Shutter speed chosen at F8
|Luminosity at center of frame||
What this shows is that the NEXs' metering calibration is biased towards giving unusually bright images - substantially overexposed compared to either the GF1 or E-P2 in these tests. This means that you don't always get the full advantage of the impressive highlight dynamic range due to the camera's keenness to produce bright images (which makes 'middle gray' items rather brighter than they should be meaning there's less headroom left for the brighter tones). In PASM modes you can apply negative exposure compensation (and we found ourselves doing so frequently), but no such luck in iAuto.
Overall Image Quality / Specifics
The image quality of the NEXs is generally good with punchy colors and plenty of detail. The criticisms we've leveled at the images from Sony DSLRs are all present - slightly clumsy sharpening, rather over-saturated reds and over-bright metering and exposure - but it's only the last of these that's likely to be a problem for the target group of users.
Despite being able to capture a wide dynamic range with lots of scope for highlights, the camera's apparently miscalibrated metering means it offers little advantage over its rivals - most mid tones are overexposed so that there is only around 3.3EV of highlight dynamic range left to accommodate any bright tones in the image (which is pretty much the standard highlight range figure we see in most large sensor cameras).
At the other end of the graph, the DRO feature (set to Auto by default), does a good job of pulling up the shadow detail to prevent shadows just being rendered as patches of black.
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