Sony has pretty much confused everyone at some point with it’s ever changing mirrorless lineup over time. 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 cousin of the original (E mount). So we have some explaining to do.
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 WiFi 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
We also have a plethora of video cameras with the E-mount and NEX-derived sensors: VG10, VG20, VG-30, VG900, EA50U, FS100, FS700, 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 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 had 3, 5, 6, and 7 in the NEX model lineup, but his has changed to names such as A3000, A5000, and A6100 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 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 had been 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. BSI). 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 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 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 A5000 and A6100 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 it is more "modern" than "traditional,” I didn't find any real problems with that design.
More recently, the fourth generation has tended to standardize 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 tend to sprawl a bit and need some 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 36mp choices These are essentially the same sensors as in Sony's DSLRs (and in some Nikon and Pentax DSLRs), with the exception of the 12mp option, which is new. There's little to complain about with the 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 16mm f/2.8 and the 18-55mm kit lens available for the E-mount. The kit lens, even the new 16-50mm one, 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 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. There, the story is slightly worse. Originally we had four choices, two primes that are terrific lenses, and two zooms that are more disappointing (even the Zeiss 24-70mm f/4). This has been augmented with some 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) 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 introduced a feature that Sony calls PlayMemories Apps. This is now present in all fourth and subsequent generation Sony mirrorless cameras (A5000, A6100, A7II, A7rII, A7sII). 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 WiFi 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 FE-mount models (A7II, A7rII, A7sII) than the E-mount models (A3000, A5000, A6100), but I’d argue it’s still true overall. Some third party lens support has appeared 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, 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 DSLR-style (A3000), arm’s length type (A5000), or small rangefinder type (A6100).
Personally, the sweet spots of the Sony lineup for me are the A7II (24mp full frame) and A6100 (24mp APS). Both are pretty aggressively priced, and highly competent.
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, and A7/A7s/A7r, and A7rII, and I actually like them all as still cameras. I even own a E-mount-based FS100U 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 some 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 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 (and now hard to find). They're still better performers than Sony's 16mm. Fortunately, Zeiss has two new 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 find a bit less lens support than they want at present, though Sony’s roadmap through 2015 lists 14 lenses. As I noted, the two original primes (35mm, 55mm) are exceptionally good, the two original zooms (28-70mm, 24-70mm Zeiss) just decent.
The bottom line on Sony mirrorless is that the jury is still partly out because of the lens gaps and deficiencies. 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, an A5000 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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