Last Updated on 12/29/2014 by Kevin Lee
The Sony A5100 is a curious little camera. It combines the compact design of the Sony A5000 with the Sony A6000’s 24.3MP sensor and staggering 179-point phase-detect autofocusing system. Sony claims the camera isn’t meant to become a mid year replacement for the Sony A5000, but rather be a new mid-range system taking the place of the outdated Sony NEX 5T.
Well the truth is you should skip right past Sony’s entry-level camera and get the Sony A5100. With a price tag of $548 (or $698 with the 16-50mm kit lens) the Sony A5100 is the best device and most affordable way to get into the mirrorless camera world right now.
Pros and Cons
- Small and compact
- Amazing image quality
- Great high ISO performance
- Complete lack of buttons
- Half baked touchscreen controls
Specs taken from the B&H Photo listing of the camera.
- 24.3MP APS-C Exmor HD CMOS Sensor
- BIONZ X Image Processor
- Gapless On-Chip Lens Design
- 3.0″ 921.6k-Dot Tilting Touchscreen LCD
- Full HD 1080p Video in XAVC S at 50Mbps
- Fast Hybrid AF & 179 Phase-Detect Points
- Up to 6 fps Shooting and ISO 25600
- Built-In Wi-Fi Connectivity with NFC
- Manual Focus Peaking and Zebra Function
- Pop-Up Flash and Power Zoom Lever
- Size: 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.4″
- Weight: 9.98 oz
I’ve seen some small cameras in my day and the Sony A5100 is a tiny little thing even compared to some of the compact Micro Four Thirds cameras. It’s just ever so slightly wider than the Sony RX100 Mark III and with a small lens, like the Sony 20mm f2.8, it’s just as pocketable, too. Looking at the camera dead on there’s nothing to the Sony A5100 except for a lens release button. The lens mount itself, which dominates most of the camera’s front face and causes the top of the camera to bulge out as well.
Along the top of the camera you’ll find the shutter button, a movie button, and the zoom rocker that works in tandem with power-zoom lenses. Toward the left there’s also a button to release the flash, which you can tilt backwards for a bit of bounce flash action.
There’s a real shortage of buttons and unfortunately the backside of the Sony A5100 also only has a few physical controls. On the back of the camera there are buttons to access the menu system and review your images. Otherwise, you have access to a maximum of five programmable buttons split between the four shortcuts along the rotating dial and the help button.
The Sony A5100 also happens to be the very first Alpha-line camera to be equipped with a touchscreen that flips a full 180-degrees for selfies. I only wish it was the same articulating screen Sony put on the RX100 Mark III so it would tilt downwards on top of flipping upwards.
The Sony A5100 feels absolutely like a cheap plastic toy. The only scraps of metal on the entire device include the lens mount, tripod screw, and a metal back plate for the touchscreen. Otherwise, the whole camera is made of plastic and it does not inspire any confidence it would survive a fall. The camera’s white body also scuffs easily even from contact with a camera strap’s split rings. The good news is the A5100 is so tightly packed with tech that body does not creak at all.
Ease of Use
As with the previous Alpha-line cameras, this camera features Sony’s better but still rather complex menu system. Thanks to the lack of physical buttons on the A5100 you’ll spend a lot of time scrolling through the interface to change your autofocus modes and other important controls. Honestly, Sony really needs to add a custom menu tab for user’s personal shortcuts or at the very least could have implemented quick menu on the camera.
Although the Sony A5100 is the company’s first mirrorless camera to get a touchscreen, its functionality is very lacking. You can tap the screen to change the focusing point or take an image and that’s it. What’s more, the touchscreen’s functionality changes depending on the focusing area mode. For example in with the camera set to center focusing, tapping on the screen will target and trigger the shutter. Meanwhile, in flexible spot using the touchscreen changes the autofocus point.
Other camera manufacturers like Olympus and Samsung with much more fleshed out touchscreen functionality, giving users access to exposure controls and more. Menus have always been a weak point for Sony, so hopefully in a few months to a year, the company will patch in more touchscreen controls with a future firmware release or its next touchscreen-equipped camera.
The Sony A5100 is an autofocusing beast just like the A6000 as it inherits the same 179 phase detect point and 25 contrast detect point AF system. The camera even performs well capturing street dancers back flipping towards it. The A5100 only missed focus a few times but it performed admirably even with a slightly lower 6fps burst rate compared to the Sony A6000’s 11fps.
All said, this is still a great camera for families looking to photograph their kids as they run around or street photographers looking for a fast focusing device.
The Sony A5100 performs perfectly in line with the sunny 16 metering tests, making it an excellent option for street photographers.
The image quality of the Sony A5100 is stunning whether you’re looking at this camera as an affordable option or compared to the entire spectrum of mirrorless systems out today. The 24.3 megapixel sensor resolves a wide dynamic range and captures excellent colors.
High ISO Output
In my few weeks shooting with the Sony A5100 I found images to be relatively noise free up to ISO 5000. At ISO 6400 and above the digital grain becomes prominent even when looking at the image as a whole. That said, the noise appears in a nice and tight pattern allowing you to easily smooth it over with some tweaking in Adobe Lightroom. The A5100’s sensor also keeps chromatic noise well under control until ISO 8000, after which the dynamic range starts to fall off as well.
Raw File Versatility
Toning down highlights has been a weak point of many cameras from the smallest Samsung NX Mini to the new Nikon D750, so I was a bit surprised by the ability to turn a bright sky back into cool blues with RAW files out of the A5100. What’s more, you can pull a lot of detail out of the underexposed parts of the frame. These are very flexible files and it would be foolish waste this camera’s full potential by shooting JPEGs even if Sony’s in-camera post processing engine is also very good.
Extra Image Samples
- Very flexible RAW files
- Excellent lowlight performance up to ISO 6400
- Stunning image quality from a very affordable camera
- Meters perfectly
- Blazing fast autofocus speeds
- Battery life tops out around a maximum 4-5 hours
- Sony could and has made a selfie screen that tilts down and up
- Users expecting an EVF and hot shoe will have to look elsewhere
- Touchscreen functionality could use some work
Even without considering the Sony A5100 very affordable price, it’s an incredibly well performing camera wrapped into a tiny package. It’s even smaller than a compact Micro Four Thirds camera like the Olympus E-P5. Yet despite the camera’s diminutive size, the A5100 is one of Sony’s best cameras yet thanks to the APS-C sized sensor and autofocus system it has inherited from the Sony A6000.
Having said that, this small camera feels like a cheap plastic toy in the hand. Photographers who require an EVF and hot shoe will also be better off spending a little more money for the Sony A6000. However, if pocketability is more important to you, then this is a great portable camera that won’t disappoint and will last you for years.
Recommended Lenses and Accessories
- Sony 20mm f2.8: This compact pancake lens pairs perfectly with the Sony A5100 while offering a versatile wide-angle perspective.
- Sony 35mm f1.8: It’s not the sharpest lens in Sony arsenal, but if fast glass and an equivalent 50mm focal length is more your speed, pick up this 35mm lens.
- Tap and Dye Horween Chromexcel wrist strap: Tap and Dye’s wrist straps pair excellently with the small, compact size of the Sony A5100. This also happens to be the strap I used with the camera for a few weeks.