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Quick Review: Sony NEX 5N (And Comparison to the C3 and Olympus EP3)

by Chris Gampat on 08/24/2011

With today’s announcement of the Sony NEX-5N (amongst other goodies), I’m now finally able to talk about the brief hands-on experience I had with it after spending a single day and night with it. So does it stack up to the well reviewed Sony NEX C3? And more importantly, does it best the Olympus EP3 when the Sony NEX C3 couldn’t?

Disclaimer: First off, know that I spent time with a pre-production model; and I found this out after I began using it. I was told that I cannot show images from the camera and that I can’t even shoot a video of it to put on my YouTube channel because certain things about it may change.

Every now and then, us Editors will face issues like this and we just have to adhere to their guidelines. With this in mind, I will do the best I can to give you the best experience I can while you read this.

Ergonomics

The Sony NEX 5N (or NEX5n or NEX-5N depending on who you ask) has been announced along with the Sony A77, A65, NEX-7 and other lenses such as the 24mm f1.8. It is the successor to the NEX 5 that we reviewed. New to the outside of the camera is a touchscreen, easier programmable buttons so that you don’t need to navigate the dreaded menus like Leif Erikson searching for America, and that really seems to be all.

What’s majorly different is what’s on the inside—at the heart of this camera is a 16.1MP sensor that is brand new from anything that Sony has previously developed.

The bottom of the camera still harkens to the design of the NEX-5 with the SD and Battery being in the grip of the camera. This is unlike the NEX C3, where the battery and SD card slot are in different areas.

The back of the camera still puts an emphasis on simplicity for the shooter that will mostly shoot in auto settings. For the most part, a more experienced user can just leave the camera in aperture mode and just shoot all day long. Combine that with the new viewfinder that can be attached to the top of the camera, and you’ll get a styling more similar to that of using smaller rangefinder cameras (without the rangefinder of course!)

As stated earlier, the LCD screen is a touchscreen. The display is still second to none and Sony really needs to be commended on creating such a brilliant, clear and attractive LCD screen. My only complaint is that I wish that there was an anti-fingerprint coating like that of the Olympus EP3.

Indeed, when you and your friends get personal fondling time with this little cam, fingerprints will be abound.

Sony has managed to still keep the size of the camera down despite the larger sensor. Depending on your personal tastes, your opinion may vary. In have relatively large hands, and the camera doesn’t feel uncomfortable when using it. As was previous with the NEX C3, you’re best off flipping the screen up and shooting from the hip.

Autofocus

As it was with the NEX C3, the focusing is super fast, but still can’t keep up with the Olympus EP3. The same focusing modes as the C3 are present.

With the introduction of the touchscreen on this camera, one can tap an area on the LCD screen to focus. Unfortunately, tapping the screen doesn’t release the shutter (at least that I could see.) However, this camera can track moving subjects pretty damned fast. With that, you can even feel the motors constantly working to ensure that it stays locked on. While this is good, it can be a drain on the battery life. However, it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. I received the unit at 67% and shot quite a lot throughout the day with it only going down to 47%.

For the target market that this camera is aimed at: you’ll be able to track your kid, dog, or cat running around gleefully all you want.

Here’s a quirk: with my unit, when I disabled tracking focusing, it still seemed to try to focus on objects when I didn’t half press the shutter. If it is meant to do this, I highly recommend that Sony enable the user to turn off all tracking of any sort in a future firmware update.

Image Quality and High ISO Results

During my short time with the camera, I shot in RAW and JPEG. Then I imported the images onto my computer and brought them into Lightroom to take a look at them.

Jesus Christ…

That’s exactly what I said when I looked at the images. The quality with the 18-55mm kit lens is wonderful but when viewing the images at 100% one can tell that this sensor NEEDS to be paired with top notch glass. The dynamic range and color depth seems to be very good, as well as color gradation. By looking at the images, one can see anything from the most subtle blues to the deeper ones. This comes from looking at a photo my co-worker took of me while I was wearing a blue shirt. The colors aren’t as vivid as Olympus’s, but they’re still quite nice.

When I stepped down into the New York City Subway, that’s when I really started to see how well the camera performed. With the ISO levels raised up, I started to see that the noise control while retaining detail was still quite admirable.

Additionally, skin tones are amazingly good for a sensor this sized. When I shot a photo of a pretty girl, I went home and looked at the photos wanting to reach into the screen. No really, they’re that good. They’re not like the Fuji X100 while shooting in Astia mode, but they’re still very, very good. In fact, I feel neither camera could touch the Sony A900 in skin tones at lower ISOs.

Overall, Sony should be commended for what they’ve done with this camera’s image quality.

Now seriously Sony, get on with creating some better glass will you please?!

Metering

Getting a great image only comes if you know how to meter well. In the subway, I started to notice that the camera tended to underexpose my images a bit. That’s not a terribly big deal though, I can always boost them up in Lightroom.

However, in bright daylight, the Sunny 16 rules worked nearly perfect. In contrast, with good lighting on the subway cars, the camera needed to crank the ISO up to 1600 at f3.5 while other cameras I’ve handled haven’t needed to. Based on this performance, I’m not quite sure what to say about the metering. As always, your eyes and knowledge are the best meters.

Vs the C3

So how does the Sony NEX-5N stack up against the C3?

To be quite honest, I don’t see why I wouldn’t buy a C3 instead.

The touchscreen of the 5N is very nice and so is the fact that I can use an electronic viewfinder, but shooting from the hip has become such a joy that I can only justify using the C3. I’d almost never use the touchscreen on this camera because it doesn’t release the shutter the way that the EP3′s does. If it did, this would be a no-brainer option.

See the photo above? It is from the NEX C3 review. The dude is out of focus. What that needed is a tap of the touchscreen and then the immediate shutter release. Not tap to focus and then manually release! Sony missed the ball on this one. Correction, the shutter speed is also too low. So motion blur was also affecting this.

Additionally, the C3 is more pocketable. Sure, the grip isn’t as pronounced, but I can live without it when shooting from the hip.

Vs the EP3

There is a very good reason why reviewers are raving over the Olympus EP3. Besides the stunning good looks worth cheating on your spouse for (don’t tell them I said that!), the focusing system, ergonomics, build quality, and entire design of the camera wins. The image quality isn’t as good as the Sony’s, but with modern editing software, you can turn the EP3′s output into something worthy of being called art.

In fact, the art filters on this camera are so good that I sometimes wouldn’t even bother editing in Lightroom.

Conclusions

Without having my hands on the Sony NEX-7, I can’t help but recommend other options over the NEX 5N at the moment. The C3 is not only cheaper, but provides enough of the features I’ll need and use. The NEX 7 looks really sweet with all the dials, but I still have yet to hold one.

With this said, I can’t really understand why someone would get the 5N over the other two cameras in the Sony lineup. However, I cannot deny just how good a camera it is. Once again though, if the C3 and 5N are this good, I can only dream of what the NEX7 can be like.

You can get the Sony NEX-5n at B&H or from Amazon in body only, black with kit lens or Silver with kit lens.

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