A System Guide to Sony E-Mount and FE-Mount (Nee: NEX)

bythom sony system

Items on same line indicate model updates. Different lines indicate varying model levels.

Sony has pretty much confused everyone at some point with its ever-changing mirrorless lineup. We have had name changes, multiple mounts, different sensor sizes, fast updates, no updates, and even more to contend with.

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 wide line of mirrorless products. Indeed, Sony uses the E-mount that was introduced with the NEX-3 and NEX-5 for a wide range of both still and video cameras.

However, Sony dropped the NEX name in late 2013 and now calls everything Alpha. Plus they came out with a full frame sensor mirrorless system (FE mount) that is a kissing cousin of the original (E mount). So we have some explaining to do.

Generational 411
In the still realm, we now have 4+ 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 Wi-Fi and/or PlayMemories Apps sets them apart as a distinct new breed)
  • Fourth Generation: A3000, A5000, A6000 replace the NEX (APS sensor) models, A7, A7r, A7s add new FE mount models
  • Fifth Generation: A7II, A7rII, A7sII, A6100, A6300, A6500

We also have a plethora of Sony dedicated video cameras that use the E-mount: VG-10, VG-20, VG-30, VG-900, EA-50U, FS-100, FS-700, FS5, and FS7 to name just a few. These range from camcorder like models (VG series) to destined-for-Hollywood models (FS7), with many other video variations 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 within a fixed digit realm tend to indicate more capability. We had 3, 5, 6, and 7 in the NEX model lineup, but his has changed to names such as A3000, A5000, and A6500 in the new lineup. Worse still, the A3000 (and A3500 in Australia) is a different style than the NEX models and the A5000 and A6000 that replaced them. The A7 models are yet a different style, too, being more DSLR-like than the A5000 and A6000.

The full frame A7 went through a bit of a transition, too. The A7II added a sophisticated sensor-based IS system and refined the body design from the original. These changes then were rolled through the entire line, so as I write this, all the A7 models have a Mark II version out.

The Sony Uniqueness
From the beginning, the big draw to the NEX series was the use of Sony EXMOR APS sensors (Super35 sensors for many of the video models). That was doubled with the introduction of the A7 models with full frame EXMOR sensors, and in some cases EXMORs with new and interesting technologies (e.g. back side illumination, or BSI). All else equal, a bigger sensor does have some benefits in low light and in providing potentially shallower 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 Sony designs: the camera bodies are exceedingly small (even the full frame A7 models), sometimes 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 some of the Sony mirrorless 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 further 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 the A7 models as you go for fast lenses or long zooms.

The other aspect of the NEX-to-Alpha change 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 most of the complaints, and subsequent models improved on it. Indeed, the NEX-5R, NEX-6, and NEX-7 all had plenty of direct user control and configuration, and while that was more "modern" than "traditional,” I didn't have any real problems with that design.

More recently, the fourth generation has standardized on yet another Sony UI, this time derived from the RX1. I find the current UI the best yet, and very easy to learn, though the menus still tend to sprawl a bit and could use even further reorganization. I applaud Sony 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.

The bad news is that there hasn’t been UI consistency from generation to generation of Sony mirrorless cameras. I hope that we’ve now locked and loaded on a “final” solution, as the current UI is perfectly fine. But again, the menu ordering could use some attention.

One highlight of the Sony mirrorless line has been sensors. These days we've got state-of-the-art 24mp APS sensors in the E-mount cameras, and they perform remarkably well in low light and are capable of very good resolution. In the full frame FE-mount cameras, we’ve got 12mp, 24mp, and 42mp choices These are essentially the same sensors or relatives to those in Sony's DSLRs (and in some Nikon and Pentax DSLRs).

There's little to complain about with the current EXMOR sensors; perhaps the one drawback 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 Sony user's complaint—is still the available lens set. Early on it was very tough slogging, with only the fairly poor 16mm f/2.8 plus the 18-55mm kit lens available for the E-mount. The kit lenses, even the new 16-50mm one, are kit lenses: decent but definitely not great.The 16mm, unfortunately, had a number of weaknesses (it's big plus was its small size).

Slowly we've gotten more E-mount lenses, but a Sony APS mirrorless user still has nowhere near the choice an m4/3 user has right now, and the gap isn't closing very fast because Sony seems to have stopped added E-mount lenses to concentrate on FE-mount lenses for the full frame mirrorless cameras.

With FE, the story is both better and worse. Originally we had four choices, two primes that are terrific lenses, and two zooms that were somewhat more disappointing (even the Zeiss 24-70mm f/4). This was later augmented with many additional lenses, but the number of terrific lenses is still minimal, IMHO. If you’re going to buy a Sony mirrorless camera, you need to be patient for lens support or search out third party lenses. The good news is that Zeiss and others are stepping in to fill some of the gaps, and most of their offerings have been excellent.

All the zooms (with the exception of the recent 10-18mm f/4 E-mount and the collapsing 16-50mm E-mount) tend to be 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. That’s particularly true if you opt for the f/2.8 FE zooms (24-70mm and 70-200mm).

Overall, I’d say the FE side of the Sony lens equation is now acceptable and getting better. The E side seems to have stagnated and needs attention.

Finally, note that Sony has introduced a few lenses that are primarily for video users (e.g. the 28-135mm f/4). While you can use these on the still cameras, they are clearly designed for video work, with geared rings, true varifocal designs, etc. That tends to make them a bit big and bulky for still users.

Don't Go App (pronounced aye-p)
The NEX-5R and NEX-6 introduced a feature that Sony calls PlayMemories Apps. This is now present in all fourth and subsequent generation Sony mirrorless cameras (A5000, A6100, A6300, A6500, and all A7 models). The idea is sound, but it is still completely unclear if the execution will ever live up to the expectations. It looks like a Sony-originated and controlled play pen so far, and Sony needs to do a lot more than they've shown to date in order to make this a reason to consider Sony mirrorless over another. The Wi-Fi addition on the new cameras should be useful to some, however.

First and foremost, make sure you can live with the existing and known-to-be-coming lenses. If you can't, then Sony mirrorless isn't the system for you. That’s more true for the E-mount models (A5000, A6xxx) now than the FE-mount models (A7, A7r, A7s in both generations). Third party lens support has appeared for both mounts and it’s helpful, but there are still a lot of lens gaps in the Sony mirrorless world.

These days you have two choices: APS or full frame sensor. While you can use E-mount lenses on both and FE-mount lenses on both types of cameras, so far the Sony choices really don’t make for a good mix-and-match system (e.g. one full frame body as the main camera, an APS body for backup). So choose your sensor type first and foremost.

That also chooses a body type (DSLR-style) if you choose full frame. But if you choose APS, you have to choose between arm’s length type (A5000), or small rangefinder type (A6xxx).

Personally, the sweet spots of the Sony lineup for me are the A7II (24mp full frame) and A6300 (24mp APS). Both are pretty aggressively priced, and highly competent. But if you’re going all out, then the A6500 and A7rII are the models you probably want today.

Thom's Experience
I've been shooting with the Sony mirrorless cameras from the beginning. I have a lot of behind-the-camera time on the NEX-5, NEX-6, NEX-7, A6000, A6300, and A7/A7s/A7r, and A7rII, and I actually like them all as still cameras. I even own a E-mount-based FS-100U for video.

My problem has been and continues to be lenses. The E-mount deserves more pro-quality lenses. It has one from Sony (the 24mm Zeiss). But Sony really could use many better lenses on the APS side, especially at the wide angle end. Samsung's 16mm f/2.5 for their NX (not to be confused with the no-defunct NEX name ;~) system far outshines the Sony 16mm f/2.8, but is about the same size. So you canmake 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 original Sigma NEX lenses: they're good, maybe very good, though not exceptional (and now hard to find). They're both far better performers than Sony's 16mm. Fortunately, Zeiss has high-end Touit lenses that perform very well for E-mount, plus at least two other makers have announced similar plans. If you're patient, more lenses are coming, and not too far out.

A7 model users will slightly better lens support, though perhaps not every focal length and aperture combination they want. As I noted, the two original primes (35mm, 55mm) are exceptionally good, the original zoom (28-70mm) just decent. The f/4 zooms (16-35mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm) are very good to excellent. The f/2.8 zooms (24-70mm and 70-200mm) are excellent, but big. The Zeiss Batis and Loxia series are where you probably will find the prime lenses you want to fill your bag, but they can be pricey.

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