Sony Alpha NEX-5: Going from DSLR to SLD

If you've been following along since my move to San Francisco, I have been in this minimalism phase where I prefer owning less. I sold many gadgets and things I owned — from a 50-inch plasma HDTV to PlayStation 3 — except for my laptop of course. The last remaining piece was my Nikon D90 DSLR and its many accessories. I also had a Kodak Zi8 HD video camera for shooting video on the go. Several months ago I finally consolidated my video and camera needs by picking up a Sony Alpha NEX-5 after selling the D90 and Zi8.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 on a suction cup mount
Sony Alpha NEX-5 (with Tiffen UV filter) on a suction cup mount

I was initially going to publish a sizable review on the Sony NEX-5 camera but life happens and months passed without me saying a peep about it. I figure I should at least talk about it a bit after 6 months of ownership. First off, what is the NEX-5 all about? Is it just a high-end point-and-shoot? Not in the least.

Note: This is not a full review, just some brief thoughts. If you have any specific questions, please ask in a comment below.

I have found the NEX-5 to be a viable and small replacement for a full-blown DSLR. It's not a P&S camera, rather something called an EVIL or SLD: Electronic Viewfinder in Lens, Single Lens Display or Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera depending on which acronym suits your fancy. The NEX-5 uses a 14.2MP APS-C format image sensor; the same size used in the Nikon D90. That's impressive for a camera of this diminutive size.

Sony NEX-5 Ferrari 360 Modena sighting
360 Modena on Great Hwy near Ocean Beach. CCCLX is also the name of an Xbox piracy group...
Sony nex-5 ferrari 360 modena 100 percent
NEX-5 quality is good enough for me! Same picture at 100%

The Bad

There are a few downsides to the NEX-5. First, it carries an SLR-like price. The NEX-5 with the 18-55mm E-mount lens goes for 699 USD. Second, there are not many E-mount lenses available. Officially, just three from Sony: 18-55mm, 16mm "pancake" f/2.8 wide-angle and an ~800 18-200mm. The NEX-5 does not have in-body image stabilization so you'll want to opt for lenses that have OSS. Third, attachments like flash (included and not too powerful), optical viewfinder (optional) and external microphone (optional) use a proprietary Sony interface. No chance of using your own high-quality external microphone for compact HD video recording.
Sony NEX-5 recording closeup HD video
NEX-5 recording closeup HD video with the display angled up

As a note, the 18-55mm lens is a tad wide-angle so you'll have to correct that in post-processing. Adobe Lightroom detects the NEX-5 lens in use and can apply a quick fix. This might not be the case if you are using a third-party adapter and lens.

The Good

Fortunately, the NEX-5 has a great deal going for it. Sony sells a mount adapter so you can use A-mount lenses, of which there are many available. It is only with this Sony adapter that you get auto-exposure and auto-focus control with A-mounts (you will need to upgrade to the latest firmware). You can also use many third-party adapters to use pretty much any lens you wish, but chances are you will have to run it in full manual mode.
Panorama with the Sony NEX-5
NEX-5 Panorama

Next, the flip-up display is very, very handy! You can angle it up to be almost perpendicular or angle it down about 45 degrees; a pretty good range of motion. Third, I actually like the interface for controlling the camera settings. Easy to navigate with the jog wheel. More important though, the NEX-5 supports nifty features like built-in panorama, HDR and low-light modes. And of course, you can always opt to shoot in RAW. Fourth, this thing is tiny and supports SDHC memory cards.. that seems to be a first for Sony and their dreaded Memory Stick format.

MUNI Train in HDR
Muni in NEX-5 HDR. Click for original.

Below is an example of NEX-5 audio and video quality. It was a clip I took of Zuck at Startup School. You'll notice that sometimes the camera has to hunt and peck to find optimal focus. Part of the time that is me forcing it to re-focus by tapping the shutter button. I could have used it in manual mode if I wanted too. It doesn't help that the lens was almost completed zoomed in here, limiting the adjustable focus range. Please keep in mind that I'm not a good cameraman, by far.


Overall, I am rather happy with this camera. Good-enough-for-me quality photos sprinkled with nice value-adds like panorama mode made it an easy sell for me. I only own the NEX-5 and 18-55mm lens. I had considered buying the A-mount 16mm lens but it has bad reviews (soft edges IIRC). My first option would be the Sony LA-EA1 adapter paired with a Sony SAM SAL50F18 50mm f/1.8 (75mm-equivalent focal length). I give the Sony Alpha NEX-5 8.5 out of 10 Stammys. I just wish some things weren't as proprietary: E-mount and the accessory mount. Good luck finding a compatible strong bounce flash.

If you're looking for a full review of this camera be sure to check out DPreview but keep in mind Sony has since added functionality through several firmware updates. If you want to see some more example shots taken with the NEX-5, this active flickr group is the best place to visit.

Thoughts? What camera gear suits your needs?