A Guide to NEX

Sony introduced its first mirrorless cameras after m4/3, but not long after. The original NEX-3 and NEX-5 models appeared in Spring of 2010 and established what is now a fairly wide line of products. Indeed, Sony appears to be using the E-mount that was introduced with the NEX-3 and NEX-5 for a wide range of both still and video cameras.


Generational 411

In the still realm, we now have 3.5 generations of NEX models:

  • First Generation: NEX-3, NEX-5
  • Second Generation: NEX-3C, NEX-5N (5N added an external EVF option)
  • Third Generation: NEX-F3, NEX-7 (7 added an internal EVF and more controls)
  • Third-and-a-half Generation: NEX-3N, NEX-5R, NEX-6 (Normally these might be considered 3rd generation, but the addition of WiFi and/or PlayMemories Apps sets them apart as a distinct new breed)

We also have a plethora of video cameras with the E-mount and NEX-derived sensors: VG10, VG20, VG-30, VG900, EA50U, FS100, and FS700. These range from camcorder like models (VG series) to destined-for-Hollywood models (FS700), with some other video cameras in the middle. Personally, I approve of this kind of bifurcation, but only if the still cameras continue to emphasize still features and ergonomics (with video on demand) and the video cameras emphasize video features and ergonomics (with stills on demand). So far, so good.

As with most systems, higher numbers indicate more capability. We have 3, 5, 6, and 7 in the model lineup now, and obviously the NEX-3N (and its predecessors) are the low end aimed more at casual and entry level users, with the NEX-7 (and its eventual successors) aimed at the serous enthusiast. The 5 and 6 models bridge the gap.


The NEX Uniqueness

From the beginning, the big draw to the NEX series has been the use of Sony EXMOR APS sensors (Super35 sensors for many of the video models). All else equal, a bigger sensor does have some benefits in low light and in providing shallow depth of field. The downside is that a bigger sensor tends to need bigger lenses, too. 

Which brings up one of the cognitive dissonances in the NEX design: the camera bodies are exceedingly small, often smaller than m4/3 cameras with smaller sensors. Yet the lenses are DLSR sized for the most part. Those that remember the old Sony R1 remember the "all lens with a handle" design very well, and the NEX models certainly echo that. This tends to lead to a left-hand-under-lens, right-hand on the grip shooting style, which isn't a bad idea (done right you'll stabilize the camera/lens). But not everyone likes that. Indeed, those seeking out mirrorless cameras because they're small and light tends to balk at the lens sizes with NEX. 

The other aspect of the NEX world that was off-putting to some was Sony's change in camera controls (UI). On the very original firmware for the NEX-3 and NEX-5, every control pretty much centered around three buttons and one dial, and these were definitely not optimally configured. Firmware updates gave users customization options that pretty much ended the complaints, and subsequent models have improved on it. Indeed, the NEX-5R, NEX-6, and NEX-7 all have plenty of direct user control and configuration, and while it is more "modern" than "traditional," I don't find any real problems with Sony's design. Indeed, I applaud them for not just giving us the same old, same old, but actually trying to put together something that's a little better for those willing to invest some learning time into it. It does take some study on how to configure a NEX model to best suit your tastes, though. 

One long highlight of the NEX line has been sensors. These days we've got state-of-the-art 16mp and 24mp APS sensors in the NEX cameras, and they perform remarkably well in low light and are capable of very good resolution. These are essentially the same sensors as in Sony's DSLRs (and in some Nikon and Pentax DSLRs). There's little to complain about in the EXMOR sensors, with perhaps the one drawback on them being that they do tend to overheat in constant video or Live View use, especially in really hot weather. But that's a manageable problem for most. 

My big complaint—and it should be every NEX user's complaint—is the available lens set. Early on it was very tough slogging, with only the 16mm f/2.8 and the 18-55mm kit lens available. The kit lens is a kit lens: decent but not great. The 16mm, unfortunately, has a number of weaknesses (it's big plus is its small size). Slowly we've gotten more lenses, but a NEX user has nowhere near the choice an m4/3 user has right now, and the gap isn't closing very fast, though the addition of Zeiss optics has added some nice choices at the high end. Worse still, I believe there really are only four Sony lenses that come close to revealing the true performance of the 24mp NEX-7 (24mm Zeiss, 30mm macro, 35mm, and 50mm). That's pretty restrictive for a high-end performance camera.

All the zooms (with the exception of the recent 10-18mm f/4 and the collapsing 16-50mm) are fairly large, too, meaning that if you opt for an all-zoom kit, you're going to be dealing with one or two DSLR-sized lenses.


Don't Go App (pronounced aye-p)

The NEX-5R and NEX-6 feature what Sony calls PlayMemories Apps. The idea is sound, but it is completely unclear if the execution will live up to the expectations. It looks like a Sony-originated and controlled play pen so far, and Sony will need to do a lot more than they've shown to date in order to make this a reason to consider one NEX model over another.  The WiFi addition on the new cameras could be useful to some, however.


Advice

First and foremost, make sure you can live with the existing and known-to-be-coming lenses. If you can't, the NEX isn't the system for you.

Next, take some real time to learn the NEX user interface. Get a NEX user to show you how it really works in practice, and how you customize it to your needs. Ignore anyone who says it's terrible and gets in the way: they don't know what they're talking about. It is different, though. As I noted above, I call it "modern," and some people would rather have a more traditional control system. You need to figure out if that's you. Don't just give up because you don't understand it on first touch. I didn't think I'd like it at first, but with the firmware updates and a lot of field use, I've come to very much like what Sony's done. Not to say there still aren't some kinks that need some work, but the user controls work well if you take the time to master them, IMHO. 

Finally, you have to choose between at-arm's length (NEX-3 and NEX-5 models, though the 5R has and optional EVF you can add) or at-the-eye (NEX-6 and NEX-7 with their built in EVF). Personally, the sweet spot of the NEX lineup seems to be the NEX-6. It offers a built-in EVF for DSLR like shooting, but it's a lower-cost, 16mp camera compared to the top-of-the-line, 24mp NEX-7.


Thom's Experience

I've been shooting with NEX cameras from the beginning. I have a lot of behind-the-camera time on the NEX-5, NEX-6, and NEX-7, and I actually like them as still cameras. I even own a NEX-based FS100 for video. My problem has been and continues to be lenses. The NEX-7 deserves some pro-quality lenses. It has one from Sony (the 24mm Zeiss). But even the NEX-5R and NEX-6 really could use some better lenses, especially at the wide angle end. Samsung's 16mm f/2.5 for their NX (not to be confused with NEX ;~) system far outshines the Sony 16mm f/2.8, but is about the same size. So you can make excellent performing small lenses for the APS sensors, Sony just hasn't opted to do so. If 19mm or 30mm are to your liking, you can mitigate Sony's lack of small, top performing primes somewhat by opting for the Sigma NEX lenses: they're good, maybe very good, though not exceptional. They're still better performers than Sony's 16mm. Fortunately, Zeiss has two new high-end Touit lenses that perform very well, plus at least two other makers have announced similar plans. If you're patient, more lenses are coming, and not too far out. 

The bottom line on NEX is that the jury is still partly out because of the lens gaps. Sony has made some remarkable cameras. But we need more accessories and lenses to fully flesh out what they can do. Don't get me wrong, a NEX-3N with the kit lens takes very good images and is a fine starter mirrorless camera. It's the high-end enthusiasts that need more from Sony and haven't yet got everything they want. I think Sony's gotten the message, and we're likely to see them more aggressively fill out the lens line up in the coming years. I hope so. We need more options than a rush of camera bodies.


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