Camera Construction and Handling
Structurally, Sony did not change anything on the NEX-5R – it has the same sturdy build as the NEX-5N with front and top magnesium alloy plates. Sony did a great job designing the NEX-series cameras and the NEX-5R is no exception – I found it ergonomically superior to Nikon and Canon mirrorless cameras. 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:
Looking at the neatly designed top view, you can see just how thin the Sony NEX-5R 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 four buttons in total. Sony adopted a DSLR-like power switch with a shutter release in the center, which is a great move towards better ergonomic design when compared to its predecessor.
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 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-5R only swivels up and down. Still better than not having it at all like on Nikon 1 cameras.
Let’s take a closer look at what has actually changed on the NEX-5R when compared to the NEX-5N. We will start from the front:
Looks like the front pretty much stayed the same, except for the slightly modified grip. Now the top of the camera:
The top, however, went through some drastic changes. First of all, as I have already pointed out above, the On/Off switch has been modified to a DSLR-like button, with the shutter release in the center. As a result, a lot of space has been recovered, which allowed Sony to squeeze in the much needed rotary control dial. This is a huge positive ergonomic change, in my opinion, because it allows quickly adjusting exposure values like shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation without having to press multiple buttons. It adds a “professional” feel to the camera, since a similar dial is used on the NEX-6 and NEX-7 cameras. In addition, Sony added another very useful and much-requested Function button right next to the shutter release button. The function button comes pre-programmed with up to 6 functions, which you can change under Setup -> Function Menu Settings.
The back of the camera stayed pretty much the same, except the right side of the dial now has “ISO” for a quick change of camera ISO. This is another positive change, because one had to either go into the camera menu (Brightness/Color) in order to change ISO before, or assign the ISO function to the right side of the dial.
Now let’s talk about the size and bulk. While the camera itself is thin and lightweight, it has a rather large mount, which translates to bulky lenses. The standard 18-55mm zoom lens that is shipped with the NEX-5R is a massive chunk of glass, as clearly shown the below image:
As I have already pointed out, a larger sensor requires larger lenses, which is a definite disadvantage for all Sony NEX-series cameras. While the 18-55mm might not seem like an ideal lens to showcase the NEX-5R with due to its size, other Sony lenses are pretty similar in bulk in size. The Sony 50mm f/1.8, 24mm f/1.8, 18-200mm and 55-210mm are all huge lenses. The only real small lenses are the 16mm f/2.8 pancake and the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 (when collapsed). If Sony is to make more zoom lenses in the future, they should seriously consider lens design similar to the 16-50mm, which is pretty small in comparison to other lenses. Otherwise, large lenses defeat the purpose of a compact mirrorless system. Unless you have the pancake or the new 16-50mm lenses mounted, forget about storing the camera in your pockets – it just won’t fit.
Another important thing to note, is that the Sony NEX-5R does not have a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) like the Sony NEX-7. 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 NEX-7 and SLT-A77 camera. The bad news is that the optional EVF costs a whopping $350, which is half the cost of the NEX-5R 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 (not that it is good anyway).
Although the Sony NEX-5R 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
Thanks to the updated design of the camera, there is now less reason to go into the camera menu – most of the settings can be adjusted easily through function buttons and the new rotary dial. The center button on the back of the camera now defaults to “Mode”, which allows switching between different camera modes easily. Other camera settings that are not accessible through the various buttons can be accessed from the camera menu system. The camera menu is 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 “Shoot” menu allows switching between different camera modes. 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. A new addition to the menu system with the NEX-5R is “Application”, which allows adding and removing additional applications developed by Sony. Now you can add more functionality to the camera by installing more modules or “apps”. 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 overall.
Features and Responsiveness
The Sony NEX-5R 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-5R 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:
I am not a big fan of this particular feature, because it creates a JPEG file and if the settings are not consistent, it can create ugly panoramas that look like this:
I prefer to shoot panoramas hand-held, one exposure at a time in RAW, then stitch it in Photoshop, as explained in my Panorama Tutorial.
One catch to the NEX-5R is that it does not come with a free built-in intervalometer. While you can buy one for $9.99 from the “App” store, I am disappointed that Sony is trying to make extra money off an app that should have been included with the camera. In fact, I was surprised to see commercial apps in the app store in first place. Why not give all this extra functionality for free with the camera? Sony does not allow third party developers to add and sell apps, so it has a monopoly over what can be sold at what price. Not a great way to promote apps for sure! Personally, I would not spend a dime on any commercial apps. If more people buy them, we might end up with “modular” cameras with stripped out functionality that can only be beefed up after spending hundreds of dollars on additional software. Thanks, but no thanks.
Another thing I noticed between the NEX-5R and the NEX-5N, is that the former got a little better in terms of responsiveness and lag. While it is not perfect and some menu items can get stuck for a second before responding, it has certainly gotten better. Looks like Sony is finally figuring out a way to make things work smooth and nice.
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