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).
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.
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. Choose the next page below.
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