Sony NEX-5 at a glance:

  • 14.2 million effective pixels
  • APS-C-sized sensor
  • New Sony NEX system
  • Currently the smallest interchangeable-lens digital camera available
  • Street price approximately £560 with kit lens

The Sony NEX-5 has an impressively small flange depth of just 18mm between the lens mount and sensor. While this helps to keep the size of the camera to a minimum, it also has the potential to introduce optical problems, such as distortion, edge sharpness and chromatic aberrations. Although the NEX-series cameras use the new Alpha E mount rather than the regular Alpha mount, an adapter will be available at launch to allow existing Alpha-mount lenses to be used on NEX cameras.The main problem for the NEX system is the competition it will face from Olympus, Panasonic and Samsung, as these companies have already launched micro-system cameras.

One way Sony plans to make the Sony NEX-5 stand out from the crowd is by equipping it with Full, 1080p HD video. This video is compressed using the full version of the AVCHD codec, unlike the AVCHD Lite codec that is used in the Panasonic Micro Four Thirds range.Sony has a track record of producing stylish electronic goods, and has a successful range of Cyber-shot compact digital cameras. Add to this a pedigree in DSLRs inherited from Konica Minolta when Sony bought that company’s DSLR division and it becomes interesting to see exactly what influence these areas of the business have had on the Sony NEX-5.


Like the Samsung NX system, Sony has decided to use APS-C-sized sensors in its NEX cameras. The NEX-5 has a 23.4×15.6mm, 14.2-million-pixel Exmor HD CMOS sensor capable of producing images measuring up to 4592×3056 pixels. Images can be saved as JPEGs or Sony ARW raw files to SD (including SDHC and SDXC) and Sony Memory Stick Pro Duo or Pro HG Duo memory cards.

Although branded by Sony as part of its Alpha range of cameras, the NEX-5 uses a different mount to that used on its DSLR range of the same name. The new Alpha E mount is slightly smaller than the standard Alpha mount, measuring 58.9mm in diameter compared to the Alpha mount’s 62.6mm.

Standard Alpha-mount lenses can be fitted to the NEX-5 and NEX-3 via the LA-EA1 mount adapter. The adapter allows for auto-exposure in all modes as it can control the Alpha lens’s aperture blades. However, autofocus when using Alpha-mount lenses in this way is not possible, and AF confirmation is not available.

Given that most Alpha-mount lenses are going to dwarf the body of the NEX-5, Sony has thoughtfully included a detachable tripod mount with the adapter. This should help distribute the weight, taking much of the pressure off the lens mount of the NEX-5 when using it with larger Alpha lenses. At launch there will be three Alpha E-mount lenses available: a 16mm f/2.8 pancake, an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS kit lens and an 18-200mm f/3.4-5.6 OSS superzoom. As the NEX-5 does not have in-camera image stabilisation, Sony has employed its Optical SteadyShot image stabilisation in the two zoom lenses, signified by the OSS suffix in the lens designation.

Despite the diminutive size of the camera, Sony has crammed in as many features as possible from its compact and DSLR range. One of the most notable is Sweep Panorama, which Sony has taken one step further than before by allowing the NEX-5 to create 3D panoramas. See Features in use for more information about this.

Also included is Speed Priority mode, which allows the frame rate to be increased to 7fps, although the focus and exposure aren’t adjusted between each frame.

Image: When shooting in the NEX-5’s HDR mode, three different exposures are taken: one for highlights, one for the shadows and one normal exposure. These are blended together to form a single HDR image

Like the Alpha 450, 500 and 550, the NEX-5 has an in-camera HDR function. This has been updated from the version found in Sony’s DSLRs, with the HDR image now made up of three exposures rather than just two. As well as exposures for highlights and shadow areas, the new third exposure captures the scene as the camera would normally do so. This helps to reduce the level of noise in the midtones of HDR images. Plus, the regular exposure is saved alongside the merged HDR image, giving you the best of both worlds.

Sweep panorama

Originally a feature found in Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 camera, the NEX-5 features Sweep Panorama. This allows panoramic images to be created by simply moving the camera in a sweeping motion across a scene. The NEX-5 takes a series of images and then aligns and stitches them together to create a panorama of up to 12,416×1,856 pixels in size. The angle of view also varies, but using the 16mm pancake lens, a panorama of up to 226° can be created.

Although the Sweep Panorama feature does occasionally make the odd mistake, it generally works extremely well, with no visible marks where the images have been stitched together. For the NEX-system, Sony has taken the Sweep Panorama mode to the next level and it is now possible to capture panoramic images in 3D. As the camera pans and takes images, it records separate left- and right-eye images.

A video file of the still panoramic image can be created that will show a 3D image when viewed through suitable glasses on a Sony Bravia 3D television.The feature is not currently enabled in the NEX-3 or NEX-5, but this will be remedied via a firmware upgrade shortly after the camera becomes available. I was fortunate to see a sneak preview of the 3D Sweep Panorama feature at the launch of the NEX-5 and was very impressed.

Viewing a 3D panoramic image sweeping from left to right on a large TV added a new dimension to viewing such images. While it won’t change the way we view most images, it will certainly make showing friends and family our holiday pictures a more satisfying experience.

Build and handling

Perhaps the standout feature of the Sony NEX-5 is its size. With the body weighing the same as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 and measuring 110.8×58.8×38.2mm, it is the smallest and lightest interchangeable-lens digital camera currently available.

The impressively light weight has been made possible by manufacturing the body of the NEX-5 from magnesium alloy. The number of buttons and controls has also been kept to a minimum, helped by the introduction of a new control wheel. This works in a similar way to the control wheel on the rear of Canon’s professional EOS DSLRs. It can be moved in a circular fashion to quickly scroll through a range of settings or images, but it can also be pressed up, down, left and right like a standard cursor control found on most digital cameras.

The only other buttons on the rear of the camera are the so-called Soft Keys. There are three of these keys: one in the centre of the control wheel, and two others at the top and bottom on the back, next to the screen.

Without a lens mounted, the NEX-5 looks just like a compact camera. With the 16mm pancake lens attached, it begins to feel like a large compact model. Its grip is large enough to be comfortable, without adding too much to the camera’s size and weight, and it is well balanced.

As the 18-55mm kit lens is around the same size as a standard DSLR kit lens it does slightly unbalance the NEX-5, although it doesn’t really make that much difference to the handling. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to test the 18-200mm lens with the NEX-5, as it isn’t currently available. Given the size of the kit lens, I would predict that the 18-200mm lens won’t be far from the size of a regular 18-200mm DSLR lens, which will make the camera and lens combination even more lens-heavy.

With the kit lens mounted, the NEX-5 feels more like a lens with a compact camera attached than the other way around. It also handles like a compact camera, which can prove frustrating at times. With no shortcut buttons for changing basic settings such as white balance, ISO sensitivity or the metering mode, all the features must be altered using the camera’s menu system.

For someone used to compact cameras, the graphical user interface will seem very slick, straightforward and easy to use. But those more used to a DSLR, or even a camera such as the Canon PowerShot G11, will more than likely be a little frustrated with how many button presses it takes to change a simple setting. That said, Sony has made it very clear that the target market is compact camera users rather than DSLR owners.

With the camera aimed at photographers who aren’t necessarily au fait with photographic terms and technicalities, Sony has come up with a number ways to help guide users in setting up and using the camera. To begin with, it does this through the camera’s Help Guide. When scrolling through menu items, the guide displays on-screen messages explaining what each function does, such as what lighting conditions are best for the currently selected ISO sensitivity. If you find the pop-up Help Guide annoying, though, you can always turn it off via the camera’s menu system.

A Shooting Tips feature is also available. This is a basic guide covering various aspects of photography from how to hold the camera to how to prevent motion blur. While the tips are fairly basic, they are ideal for those wanting to learn how to do more than point and shoot. However, those who already have experience using DSLRs will probably never use the function. At present, the bottom Soft Key is used to activate Shooting Tips, but given the lack of buttons on the camera I would suggest it would be better suited to being a function button. This would give inexperienced photographers the option to use this button to activate the Shooting Tips, while the more confident can use it to access a regularly used setting, or better still, a ‘My Menu’ feature.

Photographic terminology has also been kept to a minimum. Instead of an aperture adjustment, the NEX-5 has a Background Defocus control. Again, this is probably far easier for point-and-shoot photographers to understand than having to explain how a camera’s aperture works, but it also fails to explain its relationship with shutter speed and ISO sensitivity.

I understand why Sony has kept the controls to a minimum in an attempt to avoid intimidating compact camera users. However, in doing so the company may have alienated those who would have considered the NEX-5 as a secondary camera. Thankfully, the two Soft Keys aren’t labelled on the camera’s body; they are instead labelled on-screen. This means that it may be possible for Sony to change the function of at least one of the buttons via a firmware upgrade, which could make it far easier for enthusiast photographers to change settings quickly.

White balance and colour

Given the intended market, it is a fair assumption that the white balance setting of the NEX-5 will mostly remain in its AWB mode. In bright sunlight and overcast conditions the AWB mode did a good job of correctly setting the appropriate white balance. However, when set to AWB and under tungsten lighting, the automatic mode seemed to do very little to reduce the orange/yellow colour cast. Switching the white balance to the tungsten setting quickly rectifies this issue and, for fine-tuning the strength of any of the preset white balance settings, ±3 strength adjustments are available.

Photographers who require even more control over the white balance will be pleased to hear that the NEX-5 features both a custom white balance setting and the ability to manually set the white balance by setting the colour temperature and magenta/green colour level.

In early Sony Alpha cameras, the only way Adobe RGB could be selected was via the Creative Style options. Like the latest Alpha DSLRs, the NEX-5 has the option of choosing between sRGB and Adobe RGB colour spaces separately from the Creative Style options. This means that any one of the six different Creative Styles can be selected independently of whether the camera is in the sRGB or Adobe RGB colour space.

Despite there being six Creative Styles, including black & white, portrait and vivid, there is no custom settings that can be saved. However, each of the six Creative Styles can have its contrast, saturation and sharpness adjusted to suit your particular taste.


Like the AWB mode, the camera’s exposure will mostly be set using the NEX-5’s 49-zone, multi-segment metering setting. In almost every situation in which I used the multi-segment metering mode, the NEX-5 produced well-exposed images that are suitable for printing or displaying straight from the camera. When photographing landscapes in overcast conditions the NEX-5 exposes for the foreground, lightening it enough to see details but stopping short of doing it so much that skies become completely blown out.

While the exposures from multi-segment metering mode are very good, there is always going to be some compromise in scenes of particularly high contrast. In these situations the NEX-5 tends to sacrifice highlight detail to make sure that midtones are correctly exposed. If the camera hasn’t produced the desired exposure, then thankfully the exposure compensation setting is one of the few features that is quite rightly deemed worthy of its own shortcut button. However, there is a catch. Exposure compensation can only be applied in P, A, S and M exposure modes, and not when using any of the NEX-5’s scene or iAuto modes.

For those wanting to use the NEX-5 as a point-and-shoot camera, its Intelligent Auto (iAuto) feature is extremely handy. It works by identifying certain characteristics of a scene and then adjusting the exposure and colour settings accordingly. For example, if it detects a face in a scene it will switch to portrait mode and face detection will be used for focusing. Similarly, it can recognise a backlit scene and automatically adjust the exposure for this.To get the best possible exposures in scenes that are more difficult to meter, centreweighted and spot metering modes are also available.


Like other mirrorless camera systems, the NEX-5 is reliant on contrast-detection autofocus. Although slower than the phase-detection focusing found in DSLRs, the contrast-detection system performs well in most situations, and while the NEX-5’s focusing isn’t as snappy as that on a DSLR, it is comparable to the AF speed of other micro-system cameras.

In bright conditions the NEX-5 has no trouble focusing, but it is a little more fidgety in low light. In extremely low light, a built-in AF illuminator emits a red beam to help focus the lens. There are three main AF modes: Flexible Spot, Multi and Centre. Flexible Spot allows for one of 187 AF points to be selected, while Multi automatically decides the focus points for you, and Centre focuses in the centre of the scene. Face detection is also available, which identifies and tracks faces and prioritises focus on them.

As well as having standard AF and manual focus, the NEX-5 also has a very useful Direct Manual Focus (DMF) mode. 
In this setting the camera will autofocus as normal, but turning the lens focusing barrel switches the camera to manual focus. When in manual focus a 7x magnification view is displayed on the rear screen, which allows for very precise focusing to take place.

Although not the fastest MSC we have seen (so far that title goes to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2), there are some interesting focusing features in the NEX-5. The AF illuminator will prove extremely useful for many photographers, and the DMF mode is great for fine-tuning focus for landscape and macro photography.

Noise, resolution and sensitivity

Image: The Sony NEX-5 does a good job of controlling colour noise even at high sensitivities. However, there is a slight loss of image detail caused by noise reduction

With a maximum ISO sensitivity of 12,800, the Sony NEX-5 has the highest sensitivity of any MSC that is currently available. At the camera’s lowest sensitivity of ISO 200 there is no noticeable colour or luminance noise, although the raw files do display slight signs of coloured moiré patterning. This colour patterning is only noticeable in very fine areas and can be easily removed by applying a colour noise filter to the image.

In terms of resolution the NEX-5 performs as well as most DSLR cameras, reaching 24 on our resolution chart. However, I would have expected it to be a little higher given its 14.3-million-pixel sensor. Where the 14.3 million pixels seem to come in to their own is at higher ISO sensitivities. Even at ISO 3200, the NEX-5 still reaches 20 on our test chart. At this sensitivity JPEG files show minimal colour noise, although there is a slight speckled effect from luminance noise.

At the maximum ISO 12,800 sensitivity, images look surprisingly good. Viewed at 100% they have a slightly smudged appearance and detail is lost, but the noise reduction has done a good job of keeping colour noise to a minimum. As most people won’t use the extreme ISO settings and will rarely be printing images larger than A4 in size, the NEX-5 produces good photographs.

Unfortunately, the small flange back and wideangle focal length of the 18-55mm lens has introduced distortion and a slight softening of detail towards the edges of images. Chromatic aberrations are also sometimes noticeable. However, the biggest worry is the distortion, which gives the impression that objects are being slightly pulled towards the corners.

Left: These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using matching 105mm macro lenses. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting. Right: This graph shows the brightness values recorded by the test camera when it is used to photograph a stepped graduation wedge. The wedge has transmission values in 1⁄2EV steps ranging from 0 to 12EV. The camera’s exposure is set so the 12EV section in the wedge has a brightness value of 255. Software analysis of the image then determines the recorded brightness values of all the other steps and calculates the camera’s dynamic range.

Dynamic range

Our dynamic range test shows that the Sony NEX-5 has an impressive dynamic range of 12.5EV. This is slightly better than many current DSLRs, which have a range of around 11.5-12EV.

LCD, viewfinder and video

With 921,000 dots, the 3in widescreen LCD is on a par with the screens of Sony’s Alpha DSLRs. It also borrows the tilting action of the Alpha 380 and 550 screens, which allows it to tilt up almost 90° and down by nearly 45°.

I suspect that many enthusiast photographers will be disappointed that the camera has no built-in viewfinder. An optical viewfinder, the FDA-SV1, is available for use with the 16mm lens, although its high-quality design commands a price of £159.99. At the launch of the camera I was told there were no confirmed plans to release an EVF.

One of the strongest features of the NEX-5 is its video capability. Video is captured in 1080i (1920×1080-pixel interlaced resolution) and is saved in the full AVCHD codec. Sound is recorded in stereo via two microphones on the top of the camera. These microphones do pick up the sound of the lens zooming, but I could not hear the lens focusing. An external microphone, the Sony ECM-SST1, can be fitted to the accessory port of the NEX-5 and costs £99.99. As it sits further away from the lens, it should not pick up the sounds of the zoom.

Video quality itself is very good, with image wobble kept to an absolute minimum when panning. In fact, when panning I had to wobble the camera quite vigorously before vertical lines began to tilt.

Image: As well as the standard 3:2 image ratio, the NEX-5 can capture 16:9 ratio images, which takes full advantage of the camera’s widescreen LCD

The competition

Image: Olympus Pen E-PL1

There are now four companies vying for our attention in the micro-system camera market: Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony. Of these, the Micro Four Thirds system cameras produced by Olympus and Panasonic are the most established, with the Olympus Pen E-PL1 probably the most direct competition in terms of size and price.

Samsung’s NX10 has proved itself quite a capable little camera, with a simple menu system and excellent handling. Although it looks more like a DSLR in design, its price, size and simplicity may suit someone looking for a little bit more than a compact camera.

Image: Samsung NX10

Our verdict

At first glance it is difficult to know what to make of the NEX-5. Its unconventional looks make it seem something of a novelty, but it is actually an extremely powerful camera.

Compact camera users should find it much easier to use than a DSLR. However, I think Sony has missed a trick by not including a function button that would help speed up the use of the camera for existing DSLR users.

Although the lack of an optional EVF seems like an oversight, I didn’t actually miss having one, although I will admit that I did hold the camera to my eye a couple of times while testing it.

I am excited to see exactly where Sony will take the NEX system. A video camera that uses E-mount lenses is already in the pipeline, but I wonder if we will see a slightly larger NEX camera aimed at more advanced photographers.

For now, the NEX-5 is the smallest micro-system camera available and is perfect for those looking to upgrade from a compact digital camera, or experienced photographers who want something smaller with which to point and shoot. As a replacement or substitute for a DSLR, enthusiast photographers may find it a little frustrating, but the NEX-5 is capable of great things.

Sony NEX-5 – Key features

Accessory port
There are currently three accessories that can be used with the port: the flash, the Sony ECM-SST1 external microphone and an optical viewfinder that is available for use with the 16mm lens.

A small flash comes supplied with the NEX-5 and attaches to the accessory port on top of the camera. While this helps to keep the size of the camera to a minimum, it can be fiddly and take a few seconds to attach it.

Direct video record
This button can be used to start and stop video capture.

Jog dial
Similar to the dial found on professional Canon EOS cameras, the rear dial can be used to quickly cycle through settings.

Included with the Sony NEX-5 is Sony Image Data Converter SR and Image Data Lightbox SR. These two pieces of software allow you to organise and edit both JPEGs and raw files.

There are currently three Alpha E-mount lenses for the NEX system: an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS, a 16mm f/2.8 pancake and an 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS. All three lenses are finished with a brushed aluminium surface and cost around £270, £220 and £690 respectively.

Lens adapters
Two lens adapters are available that attach to a bayonet mount on the end of the 16mm pancake lens. They are the VCL-ECU1 Ultra Wide Angle converter and the VCL-ECF1 Fisheye lens converter.

Anti-dust system
The NEX-5 is fitted with an anti-dust system that vibrates the low-pass filter, which is fitted in front of the sensor. This takes place each time the camera is turned off and is designed to dislodge dust particles from the filter so they don’t appear in images.