Sunday 7 July 2013

My thoughts about the Sony NEX6

In mid 2012, Sony announced the RX100: a compact camera competing in size against the Panasonic LX5 and Canon S105 yet trumping them both in picture quality with a larger, 1-inch sensor.  A few months later, they followed up with the announcement of the RX1: a "pocketable" camera with a high quality fixed focal length lens and a full-frame sensor.  Unfortunately for me, its premium build and optics are matched by its equally premium price tag.

At the same time, Sony also announced the NEX6, a compact 16-50mm zoom *and* an ultra wide-angle 10-18mm zoom.  At last, Sony's NEX system had matured into something meeting essentially all the criteria for my perfect camera system: a compact body with a high quality sensor and an ultra wide-angle zoom.  As an added bonus, the NEX6 even has a view finder.

At that point, it suddenly occurred to me that Sony really "gets" enthusiast photographers.

Early this year, I could resist no more and using a European trip as the excuse, I ordered a NEX6 kit with 16-50mm lens and a 10-18mm ultra wide-angle.  It's been a few months now and I have had the opportunity to give it a few workouts and can write down some of my thoughts.

My main reference point is the Nikon D90.  I have been using the D90 with 16-85mm and 10-24mm Nikkor lenses for a few years now.  The D90 was and still is an immensely competent camera.  A whole five years after its introduction, its sensor captures pictures whose quality is still respectable even compared to those from current generation DSLRs.  It is responsive enough that there is virtually no perceivable delay from pressing the shutter button to taking the photo.

In comparison, the NEX6 is far smaller and lighter.  The NEX6 and 16-50mm together weigh less than just the Nikkor 10-24mm lens alone.  When packing for a trip, the Nikon system takes up 2/3 of my carry-on luggage.  The Sony takes up only a fraction of the space required for the Nikon.

Better still, it would appear that Sony have achieved this miniaturisation feat while making very few compromises.  The sensor produces beautiful pictures.  It is definitely no worse than what I would have expected from the Nikon and very likely better.  I don't notice many ergonomic compromises either.  The grip is comfortable and the important buttons fall within easy reach of my fingers and thumb.  It even beats the Nikon with its tilting rear screen which makes it possible to see the screen whether I am taking a photo from near the ground or high above my head.

There are a few things I miss from the Nikon though.  I prefer the two control dials split between the forefinger and the thumb.  The Sony has both its dials on the back and on many occasions they have the same function.  However, ergonomically I find little else to complain about.

The Sony on-camera software features feel light years ahead of the Nikon.  It has a selection of cute modes including in-camera HDR, multi-shot noise reduction for low-light and stitched panoramas.  Having an electronic view finder also means that you get to preview some of the filter effects before you take the photo.  This is useful for black and white.

Yet there are some niggling annoyances about the Sony software.  I often find that it takes too many button clicks and dial twirls to navigate through the layers of menus in order to do simple things such as "format SD card" or "set exposure bracketing".  Also, I still do not understand why there are separate "stills playback" and "video playback" modes and why I have to manually switch between them.

Perhaps what annoys me the most about the software is that many of the fun in-camera processing features do not work with RAW files.  You get to choose to record RAW files *or* use the in-camera processing feature, but not both.  This means that if you find that an HDR photo did not come out as well as you expected, there is no way to recover the original three exposures.  As an enthusiast, I hate having to make this "processing before or after" choice.

Finally, I would say that the 16-50mm and 10-18mm lenses are a huge step towards an enthusiast friendly system but they are still lacking compared to the Nikkor equivalents.  I found that the extra zoom reach of the Nikkor 10-24mm was extremely convenient compared to the more limiting 10-18mm of the Sony.  At 24mm, the perspective looks almost normal whereas at 18mm the perspective is still decidedly wide.

The 16-50mm zoom is compact because of its motorised folding and unfolding but this comes at the expense of responsiveness.  When you switch on the camera, it takes an extra half second to unfold the lens.  Also, when the camera sleeps to save power, the lens folds in, and when you wake it, the lens will unfold but only back to its widest zoom setting.  It effectively loses whatever zoom setting you had carefully chosen before.

Conclusion: I would say that Sony definitely "gets" the *features* that enthusiast photographers want, however, Nikon still understands better how enthusiast photographers really *use* their cameras.