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 fingertips 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.
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.
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.
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