This is an in-depth review of the Sony NEX-5N mirrorless camera that came out on August 24, 2011 along with the Sony NEX-7 flagship mirrorless camera and three E-mount lenses. I had a chance to test the Sony NEX-5N, along with its kit 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS lens while reviewing the Nikon 1 camera system. My initial intent was to only use this camera for lab tests, to see how it would fare against the new Nikon mirrorless cameras. But after just a day of pleasant shooting with the NEX-5N, I realized that I wanted to take it for a real spin and do a full review instead. In this Sony NEX-5N review, I will talk about my experience with the camera and provide some feedback on its features and capabilities, along with comparisons to Nikon 1 V1 and Olympus E-PL3 cameras.
The NEX-5N is Sony’s fourth mirrorless camera, which replaced the Sony NEX-5 that was released back in 2010. While the added letter “N” might make it sound like a slight update, the similarities between the cameras are only in external appearance – the guts of the camera, as well as some of the functionality went through major changes. From a higher resolution superb 16.1 MP sensor, to touchscreen LCD and fast 10 frames per second shooting rate, the Sony NEX-5N is a whole different animal.
The Sony NEX-5N kit, along with other mirrorless cameras used in this review were kindly provided by B&H – the largest photo reseller in the world that I personally use to buy my photography gear.
1) Sony NEX-5N Specifications
- 16.1 MP Exmor™ APS HD CMOS image sensor
- Updated BIONZ® image processor
- Full HD movie shooting 60p/24p
- Object Tracking AF via Touch LCD
- 11 Picture Effect modes
- Regular and 3D Panorama Modes
- HDR Capability
- Phase Detect AF for E-mount bodies w/ adapter
- Extended battery life for up to 430 shots
- Tiltable 3.0″ Touch LCD with 921K dots
- Optional XGA OLED viewfinder with 2.395K dots
- Intelligent Scene Recognition and Face Detection
- “SteadyShot” Image Stabilization Technology
- Electronic First Curtain shutter
- Up to 10 fps continuous shooting at full 16.1 MP resolution
- World’s shortest release time lag of 0.02 sec
- Peaking AF display for precise manual focusing
- 25-point Auto Focus with wide coverage
- Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) technology
Detailed technical specifications for the Sony NEX-5N are available at Sony.com.
2) Sony 16.1 MP Exmor Sensor
One of the most important attributes in a digital camera is its sensor – the heart of the camera that is responsible for capturing images. The Sony NEX-5N features the excellent APS-C sized 16.1 MP Exmor sensor, which in my opinion, has a great balance of resolution and noise (the same sensor is also used on the lower-end Sony NEX-C3 mirrorless camera). While the latest generation high-resolution sensors on Sony A77, A65 and NEX-7 cameras have their advantages, as I have explained in my “benefits of a high resolution sensor” article, sometimes less can be more. For the type of the camera the NEX-5N is, which is positioned as a mid-level mirrorless camera by Sony, 16.1 megapixels is more than plenty for most photographers that will be looking into buying it.
The biggest advantage of the Sony NEX-series mirrorless cameras compared to other mirrorless cameras on the market such as Micro 4/3 and Nikon 1, is the physical size of the sensor. The 23.5×15.6mm APS-C sensor is currently among the largest sensors used in mirrorless cameras, with the exception of the expensive Leica M9/M9-P rangefinder cameras that have full-frame sensors. Large sensor size means larger pixel size, which translates to better low-light (high ISO) performance and better dynamic range. Sony picked the same 1.5x crop factor APS-C sensor size that is used in their “SLT” camera line, which is bigger than Canon’s APS-C sensors with a 1.6x crop factor and about the same as Nikon’s DX sensors. Here is a chart that summarizes sensor size differences (courtesy of Wikipedia):
Another big advantage of a larger sensor is smaller depth of field, which translates to better opportunities to isolate subjects from the background – an important factor for many photo enthusiasts and pros out there. Coupled with fast prime lenses like the Sony 50mm f/1.8 OSS, one could capture creative photographs with beautiful bokeh – something that is hard to achieve on small sensor cameras.
From small sensor to large – Nikon 1 V1 vs Olympus E-PL3 vs Sony NEX-5N:
At the same time, a larger sensor requires a bigger image circle from lenses, which negatively impacts the size requirements of both lenses and the lens mount (read more on this below).
3) Camera construction and handling
Compared to the older Sony NEX-5 that only had its front protected with a magnesium alloy plate, the NEX-5N has a sturdier build with both front and top magnesium alloy plates. Sony did a great job designing the NEX-series cameras and the NEX-5N is no exception – I found it ergonomically superior than both the Olympus E-PL3 and the Nikon 1 V1. A big part of it has to do with the grip; the large, rubber-coated grip perfectly accommodated my right hand and made it easy to hand-hold the camera. The grip is designed to have your fingers wrap around it, with your finger tips in between the grip and the protruded lens mount. Here is the view from the top:
Needless to say, the grip is a world better compared to the little bump on the Nikon 1 V1. Looking at the neatly designed top view, you can see just how thin the Sony NEX-5N really is. If it was not for the lens mount and the grip, the camera is thinner than most point and shoot cameras out there, let alone other mirrorless cameras. The angled top panel has a simple, yet elegant design with only three buttons and the on/off switch. The shutter release button is positioned ergonomically well, just like the red video record button.
The back of the camera also has a simple design with a rotary dial + center button and two extra unlabeled function buttons. Why unlabeled? Because their functionality changes depending on where you are in the menu. The multi-purpose dial is similar to the one found on the Nikon 1 V1. While rotating the dial is pretty smooth, the camera might lag a little in playback and other modes. I saw a similar lag when using the touchscreen, which did not seem to be very responsive in some cases.
Speaking of touchscreen, I kind of liked using it for selecting focus in AF and MF modes (especially cool for selecting a particular area when using manual focus), but found it not so useful for anything else. For navigation, I mostly used the buttons on the back of the camera. Unlike the versatile swivel LCD on the Sony A77, the LCD on the NEX-5N only swivels up and down, like the Olympus E-PL3 does. Still better than not having it at all (Nikon 1 V1/J1).
Now let’s talk about the size and bulk. While the camera itself is thin and lightweight (it weighs less than both Nikon 1 V1 and Olympus E-PL3), it has a rather large mount, which translates to bulky lenses. The standard 18-55mm zoom lens that is shipped with the NEX-5N is a massive chunk of glass, as clearly shown the below image:
And here is a comparison between 1 Nikkor 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 VR (left), Olympus Zuiko 14-24mm f/3.5-5.6 (middle) and Sony 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS (right):
As I have already pointed out, a larger sensor requires larger lenses, which is a definite disadvantage for all Sony NEX-series cameras. Except for the 16mm pancake lens, all current E-mount lenses are big and heavy. In a way, this almost defeats the purpose of a compact mirrorless system; something I talked about in my Nikon 1 V1 Review. Unless you have the pancake lens mounted, forget about storing the camera in your pockets – it just won’t fit. At the same time, we need to understand that we cannot ask for a big sensor and expect small lenses with autofocus capabilities.
Another important thing to note, is that the Sony NEX-5N does not have a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) like the Sony NEX-7 or the Nikon 1 V1. The good news is that you can buy an optional, best of class EVF on the market, the same one that is used on the Sony SLT-A77 camera. The bad news is that the optional EVF costs a whopping $350, which is half the cost of the NEX-5N kit. Plus, it eats up the accessory port on the top of the camera, so you cannot use the included flash at the same time. This is where the Nikon 1 V1 has a clear lead – not only do you get a built-in EVF (granted it is not anywhere as good), but you can also use the much more powerful Nikon 1 SB-N5 flash unit. I tried to take a couple of shots with Sony’s tiny flash unit and I ended up taking it off permanently – it just did poorly in comparison.
Although none of the mirrorless cameras I tested have a GPS unit, I wish Sony had it integrated into the NEX-5N. They have been putting GPS into crappy point and shoot cameras, why couldn’t they do it on the NEX series cameras? Sure it would have added to the size and weight, but then it would be a neat feature to have! I love the GPS capabilities of the new Sony SLT-A77 and A65 cameras, I wish every camera had the same capabilities. Unfortunately, Sony does not yet make a GPS accessory for the NEX-5N that you can purchase separately.
Although the Sony NEX-5N is not weather-sealed and offers no dust protection like some of the advanced DSLR cameras, I used it in very cold temperatures below 32°F and dusty environments and it survived fine. The camera battery did not last very long in cold weather, but that’s expected, since any battery drains faster in cold temperatures.
4) Camera Menu System
The simplistic approach with the buttons on the camera means that certain functionality can only be accessed from the camera menu system. This includes the PASM exposure mode selector dial, which is emulated inside the “Shoot Mode” menu. The menus are organized by large descriptive icons and you can navigate through them by rotating the dial on the back of the camera, or by touching the screen. The “Camera” menu contains many options, including Drive Mode (single, continuous, bracket, etc), AF/MF Select, Autofocus Area and Face Registration. The “Image Size” menu is for picking Image Size and Quality, Panorama Size and Direction, Movie Format, Aspect Ratio, etc. The “Brightness/Color” menu contains White Balance, Metering Mode, HDR, ISO, etc. Not sure why Sony decided to stick “ISO” into “Brightness/Color”, because it really should be under “Camera” menu instead. “Playback” menu is for configuring image playback for viewing images on the LCD. Lastly, “Setup” contains important camera setup options, such as Noise Reduction, Lens Compensation, in addition to “Peaking Level” and “Peaking Color” – two very useful functions for shooting with manual focus lenses.
While using the camera menu can sometimes be slightly laggy, I found it quite easy to use, especially when compared to the Olympus E-PL3 camera that has a horrid menu system. I still prefer the Nikon 1 V1 menu system, because it just feels less “cartoonish”, but that’s probably because I am just too used to Nikon cameras. At the same time, the Sony NEX-5N has a lot more menu features than the Nikon 1 V1 and definitely more customization options.
5) Features and Responsiveness
Unlike the Nikon 1 V1, the Sony NEX-5N has a rich set of in-camera features that can be quite useful for everyday photography. The “Lens Compensation” feature found in the “Setup” menu allows fixing len-specific issues like vignetting, chromatic aberration and distortion. Obviously, the amount of lens correction depends on each lens, so Sony included current lens profiles in its camera firmware. New lenses that come out in the future will also be supported via firmware upgrades.
Aside from a boatload of Photo Creativity Modes and Picture Effects, the Sony NEX-5N also has a neat “Sweep Panorama” mode, which is a mode for shooting panoramas. While I personally prefer to manually stitch my panoramas, since I can get a lot more resolution by doing that (see my panoramic photography howto), the built-in panorama feature is a great way to get a quick stitched panorama in JPEG mode. The camera also has a similar functionality to record 3D panoramas. Here are a couple of examples of how the camera can shoot and stitch panoramas:
One feature that I really wish the NEX-5N had, is a built-in intervalometer for time lapse photography. I do not understand why, but even Sony SLT/DSLR cameras are notoriously bad for time lapse photography, because they lack an intervalometer and the only option is to buy an accessory to shoot images in sequences. In comparison, every Nikon DSLR and even the Nikon 1 V1/J1 cameras have this functionality.
As for the camera responsiveness, despite having the world’s shortest release time lag of just 20 milliseconds, it is certainly not as smooth and responsive as the Nikon 1 V1 or the Olympus E-PL3, mostly due to the slight lag when accessing some of the camera menu and when zooming in/out of images. You definitely want to use faster SD cards in the NEX-5N, or you will get quickly frustrated with the lag when reviewing images and videos. The touchscreen is another source of lag, especially if you are used to the smoothness of Apple devices.
6) Sony E-mount Lenses
Sony has been making more and more E-mount lenses for the NEX cameras during the last couple of years, including some fast prime lenses. While the selection of lenses is nowhere close to what Micro Four Thirds has got to offer today, the available lenses do cover a broad range from wide angle to telephoto. Here is a list of all current lenses for the E-mount by Sony:
- Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS
- Sony 16mm f/2.8
- Sony 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS
- Sony 24mm f/1.8 Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* E
- Sony 30mm f/3.5 Macro
- Sony 35mm f/1.8 OSS
- Sony 50mm f/1.8 OSS
- Sony 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS
- Sony 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS
- Sony 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS
With the sensor crop factor of 1.5x, you have to multiply the focal length of each lens by 1.5 to get an equivalent field of view of a full-frame camera. For example, the 55-210mm lens is equivalent to a 82.5-315mm lens, while the 16mm pancake is equivalent to a 24mm lens.
In general, the above Sony E-mount lenses have very good performance characteristics with great sharpness and colors – they perform similarly to Sony A-mount lenses, but without the weight and bulk. One thing you might have noticed from the above list is “OSS” (Optical Steady Shot) on the last 4 lenses, which means that the lenses are stabilized. This is a disadvantage of the NEX-series cameras – they do not have in-camera image stabilization. While it is understandable that in-camera IS might have resulted in a larger body and could have increased the cost of the camera, I still think Sony should have followed the same approach as in their SLT cameras, which is to use in-camera IS instead of lens-based IS. When working with short focal length lenses, in-camera IS is the way to go, especially when using LCD/EVF for framing shots – see my article on lens stabilization vs camera stabilization to understand the differences. Those shorter focal length lenses also would have greatly benefited from in-camera image stabilization in low-light situations.
As for manual focus, unlike the Nikon 1 lenses, the Sony E-mount lenses feature a manual focus ring for smoother and more precise MF operation. Once you put the camera into manual focus mode through the “Camera” menu, you can configure the camera to automatically zoom in when the focus ring is turned. I found this feature to be quite useful, because you can combine it with the touchscreen. By selecting an area on the touchscreen to zoom into, you can quickly move the desired focus area.
The cool thing about the Sony NEX mount, is that you can use many different lenses with it, as long as you have an appropriate adapter. You can use the A-mount Lens to NEX Adapter, which will let you autofocus A-mount lenses for both stills and video, or the basic LA-EA1 adapter, which only allows MF operation. There are many other adapters available for using Nikon, Canon, Pentax and even Leica lenses on the NEX cameras.
8) Autofocus / Manual Focus Performance and Metering
Unlike the Nikon 1 V1, which uses both phase detect and contrast detect for focusing, the Sony NEX-5N only relies on contrast detect. Because of this, its AF acquisition speed is not fast enough for photographing sports and wildlife. While contrast detect works remarkably faster than most live-view contrast detect implementations on modern DSLRs, it still cannot compete with phase detect AF. In daylight conditions, the AF speed is quite good, but the performance definitely suffers in low-light conditions – the camera starts to hunt continuously, even with its bright AF assist lamp. In addition, the camera has a tendency to occasionally miss focus; you might see some out of focus images even when you thought the camera confirmed accurate focus.
At first, I was a little puzzled by the need for the “AF Micro Adjust” function that can be found in the camera “Setup” menu. The ability to adjust autofocus on lenses is only useful for phase detect systems – it has no value for contrast detect systems that have to move focus back and forth in order to achieve maximum sharpness. But then after I found out that the LA-EA2 adapter has a built-in translucent mirror with phase detect AF capability for A-mount lenses, I realized why this function was included. If you are not planning to use A-mount lenses with this particular adapter, the “AF Micro Adjust” function is useless.
The advertised 10 FPS speed can only be achieved when using a special “Speed Priority Continuous” mode, where the camera’s exposure and focus are locked. The camera buffer fills up quickly after about 10 images in JPEG mode, slowing down to approximately 2 frames per second. If you want to have continuous autofocus with exposure metering from frame to frame, then you will have to use the “Continuous Advance” mode, where the camera slows down to approximately 4 FPS.
The Sony NEX-5N is a very friendly camera for manual focus operation. If you choose to use third party lenses with an adapter, you will love the focus “peaking” feature (can be found in the camera “Setup” menu). I found focus peaking to be a very useful feature, because you do not have to guess anything when shooting in MF mode. The camera will automatically detect sharpness and paint it with a chosen color, making manual focus operation a breeze. In addition, the two zoom levels (4.8x or 9.5x) let you get much closer to the focus area and really nail focus. I used the 9.5x zoom together with the touchscreen to select a desired area to focus on and got great results, both when shooting on a tripod and when hand-holding the camera. This MF implementation is the best I have seen so far on a mirrorless camera – the MF operation on the Nikon 1 V1 is much worse in comparison.
As for exposure and metering, I was rather pleased with the accuracy and of the camera exposure and metering system. In most cases it provided very accurate results, minimizing the use of exposure compensation (I primarily shot in Aperture Priority mode).
9) Movie Recording
Every new camera that comes out seems to have impressive movie features and the Sony NEX-5N is no exception. It can record full 1080p HD movies at 60 fps (AVCHD 2.0) for smooth playback, which is very impressive (better than Nikon 1 V1 and Olympus E-PL3). You can also pick lower resolution MPEG-4 format and slower rates (down to 24 fps) for smaller movie files. Another advantage of the movie mode is that you can fully control the exposure while recording movies – you can easily adjust aperture, shutter speed and ISO when shooting videos in Manual mode. If the scene you are recording is too bright or too dark and you are in one of the P/A/S modes, you can also use exposure compensation to adjust the brightness level. The camera LCD will reflect these changes and you will see exactly what you are capturing. Autofocus and subject tracking both work when recording videos, but the AF speed and accuracy is not as good as on the Nikon 1 V1 camera. As for Sony’s Optical SteadyShot image stabilization, it works pretty well when recording videos, but you have to be careful when panning the camera with SteadyShot turned on, because it will occasionally bump the camera up or down. This is normal behavior and the same thing would happen if you were to pan while taking stills.
10) Dynamic Range / HDR / DRO
A big advantage of a larger sensor is its ability to produce images with more dynamic range. Compared to the Nikon 1 V1’s much smaller sensor, or the Olympus E-PL3’s Micro Four Thirds sensor, the Sony NEX-5N 1.5x crop factor sensor is capable of producing higher dynamic range. DxOMark ranks the Sony NEX-5N at #14 spot in dynamic range, which is higher than any other mirrorless camera on the market, except its bigger brother, the Sony NEX-7 (which is ranked #8). As with all digital cameras, increasing camera ISO also decreases dynamic range, so shoot at base ISO of 100 if you want to preserve the most amount of information on your photographs.
A neat feature of the Sony NEX-5N is built-in High Dynamic Range (HDR) capability, which allows capturing multiple images and then combining them into a single JPEG image. While I personally like to shoot HDR photographs in manual mode in RAW format and then process them to my liking using specialized HDR software tools, the built-in Auto HDR mode can produce rather good results. I am not a big fan of the HDR Painting feature (especially the “HIGH” setting), because it produces ugly/unrealistic tones that many photographers seem to be obsessed with today. There is also a B&W HDR capability, but I did not spend much time experimenting with it, since I do not like in-camera B&W conversation.
Like on all recent Sony cameras, the NEX-5N also has a feature called “Dynamic Range Optimizer” (DRO), which is similar to Nikon’s “Active D-Lighting”. DRO applies a tone curve to images and does a decent job at recovering shadow details. This is only truly useful for JPEG images though, because the tone curve is not applied to RAW images.
Let’s see how the camera does in ISO performance against other cameras.
11) ISO Performance at low ISOs (ISO 100-800)
Some technical junk:
- White Balance: Auto, changed to “Custom”: 4660 Temp, +26 Tint in Lightroom
- EXIF information is preserved in the images
- Tested with Sony 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS kit lens
- Aperture: f/8.0
- Manual Focus
- DRO: Off
- Long exposure NR: Off
- High ISO HR: Off
- Image Format: RAW
- Imported images into Lightroom and cropped to 100% – no resizing was performed in Photoshop
- No exposure adjustments were performed in Lightroom (besides White Balance)
- Lightroom sharpening: 25, 1.0, 25, 0 (default)
- Lightroom export: sRGB JPEG Quality 80
Let’s take a look at how the Sony NEX-5N performs at low ISOs. Here are some 100% crops at ISO 100, 200, 400 and 800:
Both ISO 100 and 200 look very clean with no visible artifacts, even in the shadows.
ISO 400 adds a tiny amount of noise. At ISO 800 we see even more noise, but the image still looks very good with no loss of details anywhere in the image, including shadows.
12) High ISO Performance (ISO 1600-25600)
Let’s see what happens when ISO is boosted to much higher levels:
ISO 1600 increase the amount of noise and the grain size now looks bigger and more noticeable, especially in the shadows. Increasing ISO to 3200 nearly doubles noise and now we are starting to see some artifacts in the shadows. Both ISO levels are very usable though and a single pass of noise reduction software will deal with it pretty well, since most details are preserved.
Further increasing ISO to 6400 adds a lot more noise and now we are at a point, where we are starting to lose details in the shadow area. And by ISO 12800, the image looks pretty much unusable to me, although down-sampling the image might produce acceptable results for the web. The last available ISO level is 25600, which is way beyond my comfort level:
I would never use such high ISO level on the NEX-5N, because there is a heavy loss of detail and color throughout the image.
Overall, I am very impressed by the ISO performance of the Sony NEX-5N, especially its high ISO performance. Let’s see how it fares against the Nikon 1 V1 and the Olympus E-PL3.
Compared to Olympus E-PL3
Let’s take a look at the ISO performance of the Olympus E-PL3 that has an older Micro Four Thirds sensor. The base ISO of the Olympus sensor starts at ISO 200 and it can go all the way to ISO 12,800. Please note that the E-PL3 has a 12.3 megapixel sensor, so I had to move my camera setup back and forth to get a similar field of view. No image resizing and rescaling was performed in Photoshop – these are 100% crops. All images were shot at the same shutter speed and aperture values.
13) Sony NEX-5N vs Olympus E-PL3 Low ISO Comparison (ISO 200-800)
Here is a comparison of both cameras at ISO 200 (Left: Sony NEX-5N, Right: Olympus E-PL3):
At ISO 200, both cameras look about the same.
Again both perform about the same at ISO 400, although the Sony NEX-5N looks a tad cleaner to me.
Increasing ISO to 800 adds more noise to both images, but the Sony NEX-5N again looks a little cleaner with less grain.
14) Sony NEX-5N vs Olympus E-PL3 High ISO Comparison (ISO 1600-12800)
Now here is where things get interesting. The Olympus E-PL3 gets significantly worse at ISO 1600, which is clearly visible across the frame, especially in the shadows; the grain is much bigger in size.
The situation is much worse at ISO 3200 for the Olympus. Large grain specks appear all over the image and in the shadows. Image detail is lost by a great deal, while the Sony NEX-5N still looks rather clean and very usable. I would say ISO 3200 is pretty much unusable on the Olympus E-PL3.
Increasing ISO to 6400 shows just how bad the Olympus looks in comparison. Olympus should have set ISO 3200 as the maximum ISO value, because anything above that looks plain ugly. And even worse, we also have ISO 12800 to showcase:
Nothing to say here, the image from the Sony looks rather clean compared to the one from the Olympus.
15) Sony NEX-5N vs Olympus E-PL3 Summary
As you can see from the image crops above, both cameras perform about the same at very low ISO levels below ISO 800, although the Sony NEX-5N already looks cleaner at ISO 400. Starting from ISO 1600, the difference in performance gets much bigger, with the Olympus performing very poorly at ISO 3200 and above. Not sure why Olympus included ISO 6400 and 12800, because they look really bad and completely unusable – the images from the Sony NEX-5N look clean in comparison. Another important factor to note here, is that the Sony NEX-5N has a 16 MP sensor, while the Olympus E-PL3 has a 12 MP sensor. The above comparisons are at 100% view on both, with a similar field of view. This is another huge disadvantage for the Olympus E-PL3, because once you down-sample the NEX-5N images to 12 MP, the performance differences are even greater! This example shows just how good the Sony NEX-5N sensor really is in comparison. Unfortunately, Olympus decided to use an aged Micro 4/3 sensor on the new E-PL3, which is why there is such a huge difference. The new Micro 4/3 sensors on such cameras as Panasonic DMC-GH2/G3 perform much better in comparison. Unfortunately, I could not obtain a GH2/G3 sample on time to perform additional comparisons.
When it comes to autofocus performance, the Olympus E-PL3 seems to perform better, especially in low-light situations. It also does not have the same lag when browsing the menu and reviewing images and video. Speaking of the menu, the menu system of the Sony NEX-5N looks a world better than the crappy menu system of the E-PL3. I have already written about this in my Nikon 1 V1 Review, but the menu system in the E-PL3 is one of the worst I have seen so far in a digital camera. Granted it has many more options than the Sony NEX-5N, but I have not seen a menu system this confusing and ugly. Olympus seriously needs to hire a better GUI designer and simplify its menu system. I should not have to dig inside the camera menu to try to find a way to reverse the rotary dial orientation.
The Sony NEX-5N is also ergonomically superior than the Olympus E-PL3, not only because of its much more comfortable grip, but also because of the better and simpler button layout. The only ergonomic advantage of the E-PL3, in my opinion, is that it has a traditional PASM mode selector on the top of the camera. While I personally do not mind accessing the menu to change the camera mode, I know many photographers actually prefer to have a dedicated dial instead. Another advantage of the Olympus E-PL3, is that it uses a standard flash hot shoe, so you can use many different types of flashes (including Nikon SB speedlights) and radio accessories such as PocketWizard to trigger off-camera flash. Where Olympus right now truly has the true lead is in the lens department – it has a wide array of lenses that cover everything from wide angle and macro to portraits/telephoto.
Compared to Nikon 1 V1
Let’s see how the Sony NEX-5N compares to the Nikon 1 V1, which has a much smaller 2.7x crop factor sensor. I had a hard time matching up images, because there is a huge difference in resolution – the Nikon 1 V1 sensor is 10 MP, while the Sony NEX-5n is 16 MP. Therefore, the Sony crops below look a little bigger.
16) Sony NEX-5N vs Nikon 1 V1 Low ISO Comparison (ISO 100-800)
Here is a comparison of base ISO 100 on both cameras:
At base ISO 100, both cameras seem to perform about the same, although the shadows on the Sony seem to be a little brighter, probably because of higher dynamic range.
ISO 200 seems to be a little cleaner on the Sony NEX-5N.
The same with ISO 400 – the Sony NEX-5N is a tad cleaner.
And even at ISO 800, the NEX-5N has a slight advantage over the V1.
17) Sony NEX-5N vs Nikon 1 V1 High ISO Comparison (ISO 1600-25600)
Unlike the Olympus E-PL3, the Nikon 1 V1 does a great job at ISO 1600. There is very little grain in the image, but it still looks worse than the NEX-5N.
Increasing ISO to 3200 adds more noise to both images, but the Sony NEX-5N still looks better. Grain is smaller and a little more manageable than on the Nikon 1 V1.
Nikon’s maximum ISO boost is 6400 and it is the last image that I can compare to the Sony NEX-5N, which has two extra ISO levels. Again, the cameras are comparable, but the Sony NEX-5N seems to be slightly better. Both cameras seem to retain good colors at high ISOs.
17a) Sony NEX-5N vs Nikon 1 V1 Down-Sampled High ISO Comparison (ISO 800-6400)
Comparing sensors with different resolutions can be challenging. The above comparisons show pixel-level performance, which is typically in favor of a lower resolution sensor. Without a doubt, a camera with more pixels per inch equals more noise due to simple physics – the smaller the pixel, the more the noise. Let’s see what happens when images from both cameras are normalized, which in this case means the Sony NEX-5N 16 MP image gets reduced to 10 MP. Since there are many different ways to down-sample an image in Photoshop, I tried a few different methods and came to a conclusion that the regular “Bicubic (best for smooth gradients)” resizing algorithm results in the least amount of noise, which is what I used for the below images.
As expected, the results are in favor of a high-resolution NEX-5N sensor:
The differences are obvious right at ISO 800 – the NEX-5N looks very clean with smaller grain. In fact, if you take the ISO 1600 sample from the NEX-5N and put it against the ISO 800 sample from the V1, you will see that NEX-5N still looks a tad better, which means that there is more than a stop of difference between the two, when down-sampled to the same resolution. The NEX-5N images will also look sharper due to this down-sampling technique.
The same story with ISO 1600 – NEX-5N looks very clean in comparison.
When putting NEX-5N ISO 3200 against V1 ISO 1600, the image from the NEX-5N is still a tad cleaner, so there is still over a stop of difference between the two.
ISO 6400 on the V1 has plenty of large grain, while the same on the NEX-5N looks cleaner with smaller grain.
Again, this test shows what happens when both cameras are at 10 MP – the extra 6 MP of resolution on the NEX-5N results in over a stop of high ISO advantage.
18) Sony NEX-5N vs Nikon 1 V1 Summary
I specifically added two different tests at 100% magnification and down-sampled to 10 MP, because it is the only fair way to compare sensors with different resolution. Looking at an image at 100% view will always put the camera with a higher resolution at a disadvantage, although it is not really true in this particular case, because the Sony NEX-5N has a much bigger sensor. Still, the maximum print size from a 10 MP sensor will always be smaller than the maximum print size from a 16 MP sensor, so it is best to normalize the latter to 10 MP and then look at its noise performance. As you have seen from these comparisons, the NEX-5N has over a stop of advantage compared to the V1 when down-sampled. Don’t forget that the sensor of the NEX-5N is over 3 times larger than the one on Nikon 1 V1, so the V1 stands its ground really well with its tiny sensor. A larger size sensor also means larger lenses – and that’s Sony’s biggest weakness. It has a very compact camera body, but much bigger camera lenses (with the exception of the 16mm pancake lens). When shooting with mirrorless cameras, the Nikon 1 V1 with its 10-30mm kit lens fit my jacket pocket much easier than the Sony NEX-5N with the 18-55mm kit lens.
At the same time, a large sensor also means two things: shallower depth of field and better dynamic range – two major factors that work in NEX-5N’s favor. Sony has a few other advantages, such as swivel / touchscreen LCD, in-camera editing, HDR, panorama and 3D modes, but lacks a serious feature that the Nikon 1 V1 has, which is a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF). An excellent high-resolution OLED viewfinder can be purchased separately, but for $350 more; plus it eats up the same socket that can be used for mounting a flash unit. I also really like the ergonomics of the NEX-5N when compared to the V1. The grip is great, much better than the little bump on the front of the V1.
Sony’s menu system is very good, but has a lot more options than on the Nikon, so beginners might find the Nikon 1 V1 easier to operate. Nikon’s stronghold is its hybrid autofocus, which works faster than Sony’s AF. So the Nikon 1 V1 is clearly better at tracking and shooting action / sports. On the other hand, Sony lenses have a manual focus ring and manual focus operation is much easier.
Comparing these two cameras, I would say that they are targeted at different audiences. The Sony NEX-5N suits photo enthusiasts and pros that shoot landscapes and portraits, because of a larger sensor, more megapixels, shallower depth of field, higher dynamic range and great image quality / ISO performance. The Nikon 1 V1, on the other hand, is a great everyday camera that can shoot action and sports – something soccer moms and birders will appreciate.
Compared to Sony A65/A77
Since I have been simultaneously testing the Sony A77 and A65 cameras, I could not resist the temptation to compare the Sony NEX-5N ISO performance against the highest resolution APS-C sensor in the world. The Sony NEX-7 mirrorless, A65 and A77 DSLRs all share the same 24 megapixel sensor, so the below crops should be about the same for these three cameras. The translucent mirror on the A65 and A77 cameras does actually block some light, so the NEX-7 might actually perform a tad better. Again, matching field of view was difficult, so the below images appear slightly larger. Let’s take a look!
19) Sony NEX-5N vs Sony A65/A77 Low ISO Comparison (ISO 100-800)
The base ISO performance of the A65/A77 cameras seems to be on par with Sony NEX-5N performance. Noise levels are relatively low both in highlights and shadows.
ISO 200 is also clean on both with a slight advantage on behalf of the Sony NEX-5N.
ISO 400 shows more noise on the Sony A65/A77.
At ISO 800 we start seeing bigger grain on the Sony A65/A77 sensors and the Sony-NEX5N looks much cleaner, especially in the shadows.
20) Sony NEX-7 vs Sony A65/A77 High ISO Comparison (ISO 1600-16000)
The Sony A65/A77 sensor looks similar to the Olympus E-PL3 in terms of pixel-level performance at high ISOs. Anything above ISO 800 is grainy, including ISO 1600. As can be seen from the above crops, the Sony NEX-5N has much less and smaller grains in the image. But mind you, we are comparing 24 MP versus 16 MP!
ISO 3200 is even worse for the 24 MP Sony A65/A77 sensor – noise levels are very high with large grains and there is visible loss of details across the frame. Some colors are also lost as a result. The Sony NEX-5N looks much cleaner in comparison (again, with less total pixels).
And ISO 6400 looks pretty unusable for my taste when viewed at 100% on the Sony A65/A77 cameras. Too much detail and colors are lost.
It is unfortunate that Sony is allowing ISO 12800 and 16000 on the A65/A77 sensor for marketing purposes. These images look horrid and completely unusable at 100%.
20a) Sony NEX-5N vs Sony A65/A77 Down-Sampled High ISO Comparison (ISO 800-6400)
Let’s see how the sensors compare when both are down-sampled to 10 MP:
Down-sampled, the noise performance at ISO 800 looks very good on both cameras – images look very clean. Let’s see what happens at ISO 1600:
Again, noise performance is very similar on both cameras.
ISO 3200 looks a tad cleaner on the NEX-5N.
And the same is true for ISO 6400 – NEX-5N looks a little cleaner in comparison, with a little more details to work with.
21) Sony NEX-5N vs Sony A65/A77 Summary
I won’t go into feature differences between these cameras, because we are not comparing apples to apples here. But one thing is clear – high resolution and small pixel size equal more noise for the new Sony sensor, when viewed at the pixel level. When down-sampled and resized to 10 MP, however, both the Sony NEX-5N and the Sony A77/A65 look more or less similar. Why is there such a difference? As I have explained in my “benefits of a high resolution sensor” article, having a high resolution sensor does not automatically mean that it is not a camera for low-light situations. Most people make the mistake of comparing image samples at 100% view, in which case a high resolution sensor will always show more noise and grain. However, once you normalize the image by resizing/down-sampling it, those noise differences might start to disappear, which is what we are seeing in this comparison as well. On top of that, with a high resolution sensor you have the option to shoot at base ISO and get lots of resolution, while you could never efficiently up-sample an image to get more resolution out of it. Hence, a higher resolution sensor gives you two benefits: the option to down-sample the image to reduce noise (when necessary) and the option to provide high resolution and clean images at base ISO. Does this mean that the Sony A77/A65 cameras have a superior sensor compared to the NEX-5N? Yes, I believe so, but only if you need the higher resolution (most people don’t). Lastly, the Sony NEX-7 should provide even cleaner images when down-sampled, because it does not have to boost the sensor sensitivity the same way the A77/A65 cameras have to – there is some loss of light when it passes through the translucent mirror employed in those cameras.
Overall, I am very impressed by the Sony NEX-5N – it is a high-quality camera with excellent image quality characteristics. As you can see from the previous sections of this review, the Sony NEX-5N easily beats the Nikon 1 V1 and the Olympus E-PL3 in terms of image quality and high ISO performance. Despite having the highest resolution among the three, it provides cleaner images at almost all ISO levels, especially above ISO 1600 and that’s at 100% view! Once down-sampled to 10 MP, it blows the Nikon 1 V1 out of the water and puts the Olympus E-PL3 high ISO performance to shame. True, sensor size does play a huge role here, which at the same time results in a lens size disadvantage for the Sony NEX-series cameras. However, what is more important for you – higher image quality or smaller camera system size?
The Sony NEX-5N has its share of problems. Despite its impressive image quality and high ISO performance, the camera’s biggest weakness is its AF performance. While contrast detect has gotten better over the last several years, the Sony NEX-5N is just nowhere as responsive as the Nikon 1 V1 for fast-action photography. Occasional focus errors are typical, but the worst is its low-light AF performance, where in very dim conditions the camera seems to continuously hunt for focus, even with the AF assist light turned on. These AF issues might not be a big deal for landscape and portrait photography, but will definitely be problematic for sports, indoors and other fast-action photography. Lastly, the lag that is clearly noticeable when using the touchscreen or accessing some of the menu items is rather annoying, which I very much hope Sony will address with future firmware updates.
Despite these shortcomings, the Sony NEX-5N is a great camera for those that do not want the weight and bulk of a DSLR system. While it is not comparable to a DSLR in terms of features, autofocus, speed and versatility, it certainly is comparable to some of the best APS-C DSLRs in terms of image quality. Hence, if you already own a DSLR and would like to have a smaller and lighter stills & video camera for travelling and hiking light, the Sony NEX-5N is definitely a camera I would recommend to consider.
23) Where to buy and availability
24) More image samples
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Quality
- High ISO Performance
- Size and Weight
- Metering and Exposure
- Movie Recording Features
- Dynamic Range
- Packaging and Manual
Photography Life Overall Rating