Today we’re going to take a look at one of Sony’s funky mirrorless camera systems, the NEX-6. I’m going to run through some of its features, what’s great about it, what’s not so good, and then explain if it’s right for you as a traveller or general photography enthusiast.
But first: Sony.
They’re not normally a company I get terribly excited by, what with their crazy belief in forcing proprietary, incompatible products down our throats. Stupid memory card types, I’m looking at you.
I have to say, though, when it comes to cameras they are doing some seriously innovative stuff at the moment.
Take the crazy new QX10 lens, which turns any smartphone into a “proper” camera just by clipping it on, or the company’s new drool-worthy full-frame mirrorless cameras.
Nikon and Canon should be quaking in their boots, or at least doing something more innovative than adding a number onto their existing offerings now and then and calling it a new product.
Anyway, let’s talk about the NEX-6, which is a part of a small family of cameras with the NEX label. Given their success, more will no doubt follow.
The Sony NEX-6
The NEX-6 is a compact, interchangeable-lens, mirrorless digital camera. Let’s break down what those buzzwords mean for you.
First up, it’s compact. Not quite as compact as a point and shoot, but compared to a DSLR, this thing is almost pocketable. Here it is sitting next to a popular smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S3.
It’s also light, with the body weighing in at a mere 287g. That’s around a third the weight of the “portable” full-frame Canon EOS 6D we reviewed a few weeks back, which weighs in at 770g body-only.
Next up, and the key difference between this and a “proper” SLR, is the fact that it is mirrorless. What that means, as the name suggests, is that it doesn’t have a mirror between the sensor and the lens.
Again, not wanting to get into too much detail, one of the reasons an SLR is so bulky is that there is a mirror between the sensor and the lens, which directs the light up to the viewfinder.
The good thing about this is that when you look through the viewfinder, you get to see what the camera is seeing.
The bad thing is that it takes up space.
A mirrorless camera doesn’t have this problem, with the light going directly from the lens and onto the sensor. This does come with a disadvantage though.
You see that viewfinder? It’s electronic, meaning there’s a tiny screen in there. This camera doesn’t have an optical viewfinder like you would find on an SLR.
Some would argue this is an advantage, in that you get a real-time idea of exposure levels and so on, but personally I’m not convinced. Plus, it eats up the battery.
Let’s talk about that sensor, the heart of any camera, and in my mind, the reason why the NEX-6 is so fantastic. I’ll start by pulling up the sensor size diagram I used in the 6D review.
You might have heard of the four-thirds, or micro four-thirds systems. This is not one of those. Four-Thirds refers to the sensor size, which as you can see (Four Thirds in red), is smaller than the APS-C Sony sensor (in vomit yellow).
Micro Four-Thirds just refers to the mirrorless version of the Four-Thirds camera system.
Having a larger sensor offers a number of benefits, but the main one is being able to capture more light. As a result, this camera does extremely well in low light situations, and captures beautifully-detailed, crisp images in most other conditions.
The image processor that Sony has put in here is also a technological marvel, working to eliminate noise in high ISO situations (read, low light.) You can shoot comfortably at 6400 ISO with no real loss of image quality (certainly not for images you’ll be sharing online anyway), and it will keep on producing usable photos all the way up to 25600 ISO.
For comparison, my five-year-old Canon EOS 400D with the same size sensor starts to show noise at ISO 400, and is practically unusable at ISO 800. You can see the strides made in camera technology over the last five years.
Of course, having an amazing bit of camera body isn’t much good if the lenses aren’t up to scratch. One of the main selling points of these cameras compared to point and shoots is that you can change the lenses to suit your needs.
Luckily Sony hasn’t skimped on lenses, and there’s a wide range available to suit most needs (and budgets). The more expensive Zeiss lenses offer professional-grade optics to the well-heeled user, whilst the more run of the mill “kit” lenses offer sufficient quality and range to keep everyone else happy.
The one we’re reviewing came in a kit with the Sony 16-50 and Sony 55-200 lenses, and a total price of around €850. It’s kind of amazing to hold a 200mm capable lens that isn’t much bigger than a coke can, especially when you are used to the beasts that Canon and Nikon put out there.
One slight downside of this camera is some features only work with some lenses. Optical image stabilisation, for example, requires a supported lens, as does the fast hybrid autofocus system. Not a deal breaker, but something to bear in mind when choosing a lens.
Ok, so I’ve waxed lyrical about all the good things. By now you may even be reaching for your credit card, eager to make a purchase. Well, hold on just a second. This bed of roses does have a few thorns, which I’ll cover now along with some other thoughts.
First up, the menu system and general navigation is frankly disastrous. Sony touts the “intuitive DSLR-style operation with dual dials and Quick Navi interface” as part of its marketing spiel.
This marketing spiel is, in the humble opinion of this reviewer, comically wrong. Sure, there are two dials. And for changing basic settings, like the aperture, you do just move the dial. Just like an SLR.
But try and do anything a little bit more complicated, like enabling bracketing, or switching to manual focus, or enabling that scene mode you know you saw once in a menu somewhere, and be prepared to get frustrated.
It’s not that it isn’t all there. It is. It’s just that the menu system makes very little sense. Options are hidden in sub menus. Navigation isn’t consistent. Switch to RAW mode, and options just completely disappear, with no hint that you need to disable RAW shooting to bring them back.
It gets in the way of taking the shot, and that’s a serious issue on a camera.
Of course, you don’t have to use the gimmicks. You can shoot in any of the more “advanced” modes (aperture priority, shutter priority, and full manual mode), and ignore all the bells and whistles.
It seems a shame to have all these bells and whistles on offer, though, and then make them nearly impossible to use properly.
One positive thing: this camera has two (!) automatic modes. I’m not normally a fan of automatic modes, but I will attest to the fact that you can shoot superb photos in the automatic modes 90% of the time, and never have to worry about what all the dials and buttons do.
This is what I suspect the majority of users will end up doing, just because the menu system is so opaque. It’s just a shame, as there is so much more you could do with this camera if it would only take you by the hand and show you, instead of lay barbed wire across your path. Sort it out, Sony.
Ok, now for a bit of positivity. There are loads of little features that make this camera a joy to use. You can activate an onscreen level, for example, if you find your horizons are regularly wonky.
There is built in Wi-Fi, for getting your pictures off the camera as well as to load up various apps that Sony has developed. There’s a pop-up flash, which whilst not necessarily the best in the world, is generally ok, plus a hot shoe for more serious flash work.
It takes standard SD cards (as well as a variety of proprietary Sony formats), so you aren’t stuck in Sony’s silly memory card ecosystem.
It charges via standard USB straight into the camera. This has the advantage that you don’t need to lug around additional cables, but the disadvantage that you can’t use the camera whilst charging a spare battery. External chargers are easily available, though, and given it’s only rated for around 300 shots on one charge, I’d advise picking one up.
The electronic viewfinder (in addition to the LCD screen) is about as good as these things can be, although in my mind nothing can really replace the optical version. Still, it’s a bright OLED offering 100% coverage of the scene you are looking at, with nearly 2.4 million pixels arranged across 1.3cm.
So, if daylight is making the rear screen hard to see, you’ll still be able to get the shot by putting your eye to the viewfinder.
If you don’t need a full-frame digital camera like the EOS 6D, and you were thinking instead of getting a mid-range SLR (like Canon’s Rebel range, for instance), I’d strongly urge you to reconsider and look into getting something like the NEX-6 instead.
There are two main reasons that folks invest in an SLR. One is the enlarged sensor, and the other is the interchangeable lens. This camera offers both of those advantages, in a highly portable package.
Unless there are specific lenses for those other camera systems that you must have, or you absolutely cannot live without an optical viewfinder, then I would highly recommend picking this camera up instead.
For travelling, the portability and discreetness is an absolute no-brainer. If you can live with the menu system and other minor niggles: go for it.
- 16.1 MP APS-C sized sensor
- 10fps shooting
- 3 inch LCD screen
- Built-in Wi-Fi
- ISO range up to 25600
- Body only weight: 287g
- Video: 1080p at 50fps