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Sony Alpha a5000 review

Highs

  • Very high-quality stills
  • Lightweight, good price
  • Selfie-shifting LCD screen

Rating

Our Score 8
User Score 7

Lows

  • Not too many bells-and-whistles
  • Slow burst speeds
  • Relatively low-quality LCD, no touch
  • 1080/60i video, not 60p
The Alpha A5000 is excellent for those of leaving the land of compacts for an interchangeable lens camera, but to achieve its affordable price, there are limitations.

The new 20.1-megapixel Sony Alpha A5000 mirrorless compact system camera (CSC) is very affordable and amazingly light, with a list price of $499 that includes a starter lens. There are many photographers looking to step up their photography by moving to an entry-level interchangeable lens camera (ILC), and the A5000 is certainly appealing for these users. Now, let’s see if this featherweight holds up against the competition.

Features and design

When we received a carton containing the A5000, it was so light we thought it was empty. But there it was, nestled in the bubble wrap. Sony claims it’s the “world’s lightest interchangeable lens camera,” and at 7.4 ounces without the battery and card – 9.5 with – it’s really feathery. Now, in the real world with a lens, it’s closer to a pound but it’s definitely lighter than the $799 Olympus OM-D E-M10 kit we just reviewed, as well as Canon’s EOS Rebel SL1, the world’s lightest DSLR at 14.36 ounces with just the battery/card.

The A5000 is so light that we thought the box it came in was empty.

While the A5000 is hardly the size of a smartphone, you’ll have no troubles carrying this one around all day. We also love the fact the A5000 is light on your wallet since it’s $499 with a lens, among the cheapest ILCs around; while cameras like the Olympus PEN E-PM2 costs less, those are older models that are nearing the end of their lifespan. Interestingly, when the A5000 was announced at CES, the price was going to be $599, rather than the current $499. This just shows how soft the camera market is, as manufacturers prime the pump with low prices to counter falling sales. In other words, their pain is your gain. And when you take a step back, it’s pretty incredible you can now buy an interchangeable lens, 20.1MP APS-C sensor camera kit for less than $500 – the price of some enthusiast digicams with tiny imaging chips.

Since the Alpha A5000 is a continuation of the Sony NEX mirrorless line-up without “NEX” in the model number, it looks just like – you guessed it –affordable NEX editions such as the NEX-3N and NEX-5T. Those two will remain around until they sell out, and then the NEX name will eventually be retired. To give you an idea of the fire sale underway in the industry, the older 16MP NEX-3N costs $389 with a lens while the -5T is $649. The -5T has many more features than the A5000 and is worth a look – especially if prices drop closer to the A5000. Sony has another mirrorless model coming shortly – the A6000 – but it’s a far more sophisticated 24MP APS-C camera that costs $799 with a kit lens.

The A5000 is available in black, silver, or white and measures 4.4 x 2.5 x 1.9 inches. The A5000 is as plain as can be with few keys or dials, so our features tour will be rather quick. The front is home to the Sony E-mount and there are currently around two-dozen lenses to choose from. The kit comes with the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 Power Zoom with built-in optical image stabilization. Since the digital factor is 1.5x, this translates to 24-75mm in 35mm terms. It’s a good starting point but you’ll want more focal length as you get comfortable with it and take advantage of the imager. Also on the front is an AF Assist lamp, a lens release button, and a few low-key decals.

The top deck has stereo mics, a built-in flash, power on/off lever, and a combo zoom toggle/shutter button. There is no hot shoe or mode dial, and almost all of your major adjustments will be done via the menu system (more on this in a bit). The shutter sits atop the textured grip, which feels OK but since the camera is so small, it doesn’t have the depth of larger models. As always, do your own hands-on before buying; we found it reasonably comfortable.

At $499 with a lens, it’s among the cheapest ILCs around.

The key feature on the back is a tilting LCD screen rated a subpar 461K dots; there’s a reason the camera costs relatively little since more expensive CSCs have displays that are rated 921K or more and are touch-enabled. Even with the lower resolution we had few problems in Arizona sunshine once we cranked up the monitor brightness levels but there are definite reflectivity issues. Another cool plus is the fact the monitor moves 180 degrees, so flipping it into selfie position is a breeze.

Other items on the back include buttons to pop open the flash and a red-dot movie button. On the right side are a Menu key and a four-way control wheel with center OK button. The points of the wheel give quick access to Display, ISO, Exposure Compensation, and Burst mode. There are also Playback and Help/Delete buttons. You can customize many of these buttons if you want fast access to special features.

We’ve used Sony NEX cameras since Day One and found the original menu system somewhat obtuse. With the new A5000, things have gotten much more rational. Hit Menu and up pop six sections to adjust: Camera Settings, Custom Settings, Wireless, Application, Playback and Setup. These headings are similar to almost every other company’s linear menu systems and you’ll have no problems finding and making the adjustments you’d like.

Sony Alpha A5000 back screen

On the right side of the Wi-Fi-enabled A5000 is the NFC sensor for quick pairing with your smartphone. The left-side door covers the Memory Stick/SD card slot as well as USB and micro HDMI connections.

What’s in the box

You’ll find the body and the PZ 16-50mm lens as well as a rechargeable battery, various caps, and a strap. You also get an AC charger and USB cable. Since the battery charges in-camera, get used to plugging it at night like your tablet or smartphone to avoid buying a spare. The power cell is rated a good 420 shots (CIPA rating) so you’ll get a full day of snapping and recording. Also included is a 40-page owner’s manual. No disc is supplied so you have to download PlayMemories Home and Image Data Converter software via Sony’s website for handling files. Download PlayMemories Mobile to your phone (iOS/Android) to share images through your smartphone.

Performance and use

Since the Alpha A5000 is practically dial-free we want to initially focus on the new menu system. Once you power up, you tap the button in the center of the control wheel. Your main shooting modes appear and you just turn the control wheel to pick the one you want. Brief descriptions appear onscreen to help make your decision. Your options are those found on almost every Sony ILC including Superior Auto, Intelligent Auto, PASM, Movie, Scene (nine options), and Sweep Panorama. Once you’ve made your choice, just press Menu to make any other adjustments you’d like. It’s really a no-brainer. Given the price and the easy-to-follow menu system, this Alpha is clearly targeted to those making the move from a compact digicam and wants to take a dip into the vastly superior photographic pool of larger sensor, interchangeable lens cameras.

Unlike the older 16MP NEX 3 and 5 series, the new A5000 has a 20.1MP APS-C CMOS sensor. It also has the newer BIONZ X processor. Realize this is an affordable CSC so you shouldn’t expect a speed demon. This one is rated 2.5 frames per second with continuous AF, 3.5 fps in Speed Priority. If you really want to grab crisp stills of sports action, this one may not be for you but for casual shooters it shouldn’t be an issue. By way of contrast, the new A6000 is rated 11 fps.

A big difference with the A5000 when compared to higher-end CSCs is the focusing system. Here it’s pure contrast detection (25 AF points) compared to the more sophisticated combination of Hybrid AF with phase detection, the technology used in the best CSCs. Is a hybrid system better than the A5000’s? Of course, but we didn’t run into many issues with hunting and grabbing.

We took the camera out and about in our Southwest locales, spinning through the shooting modes, even trying the Auto HDR option. As we were shooting with the A5000 in the field, we reviewed our images on the LCD and were somewhat concerned about detail; the shots just didn’t look very sharp. That impression flew out the window once we enlarged the photos on a quality 27-inch monitor. It was here we could closely examine the results of the new 20.1MP sensor (see samples). Colors in the default setting were rich and accurate. And that detail we worried about in the field was right there to see on the good screen – the camera’s 461K display simply can’t do them justice.

Colors in the default setting were rich and accurate; video quality is good but not outstanding.

Along with the kit Power Zoom we also received two expensive Zeiss primes for our review – the $1,100 Zeiss Sonnar T* 24mm/f1.8 and the $749 Zeiss Touit 32mm f/1.8. You might wonder why we used lenses that cost far more than the kit itself but high-quality glass gives a really good idea of a sensor’s capability – and we like shooting with primes. Neither lens has built-in optical image stabilization so good technique is required as you snap away. As you’d imagine, the results are worth it. We noticed a big difference between the kit and 32mm on a multi-colored Tiffany-type glass shade shot indoors. And getting beautiful, blurred backgrounds was practically a given with the Zeiss heritage. Bottom line? The Alpha A5000 takes very nice stills with the kit lens but an investment in glass would be well worth it.

The camera has an ISO range of 100-16,000. In our tests with Dynamic Range Optimizer off, files were clean up to a fine ISO 1,600, with a gradual decline moving to higher levels. Even the top setting of 16,000 was decent. Now, you can’t expect a super-clean shot at that spec but with a good, wide lens you’ll get solid results in available light. As an aside, camera makers overall have really tamed the noise monster. It’s just another good reason to opt for a larger sensor, interchangeable lens camera if you still have an older compact.

Sony Alpha A5000 movie button

The A5000 uses the AVCHD format for movies with a maximum resolution of 1080/60i versus 60p of higher-end Sony CSCs. Video quality is good but not outstanding, however the stereo soundtrack is quite accurate and distinct. Alas, if you use the Power Zoom, you’ll hear the motor loud and clear if there isn’t a lot of ambient noise. And breezes sound like hurricanes but this is no different than any camera with built-in mics.

Wi-Fi and NFC are hardly news in 2014 but some companies like Sony implement it better. Pairing the A5000 with your smartphone is easy. Basic Wi-Fi just takes about a minute as you enter the password provided by the camera. Sony’s PlayMemories Mobile app is a good one as it offers sharing, remote control, and basic editing. The company offers more advanced apps for additional money, if you want to go there.

Conclusion

With its 20.1MP APS-C sensor and $499 kit price, the Sony Alpha A5000 is a no-brainer recommendation. This would be an excellent move for those of leaving the land of compacts for an interchangeable lens camera. That said the A5000 does have its limitations as we’ve detailed. If you want a better LCD, faster burst mode, and 60p video, look elsewhere. Yet the price value equation here is a good one and the A5000 definitely achieves our Recommended status.

Highs

  • Very high-quality stills
  • Lightweight, good price
  • Selfie-shifting LCD screen

Lows

  • Not too many bells-and-whistles
  • Slow burst speeds
  • Relatively low-quality LCD, no touch
  • 1080/60i video, not 60p

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