If you’re wondering why compact system cameras like Sony’s Alpha NEX-5R are gaining in popularity, it’s because they are ideal “next step” models. They offer the flexibility of interchangeable lenses without the overwhelming feeling one gets when handling an SLR. Despite a few shortcomings, the small-bodied NEX-5R is easy to use like a point-and-shoot but captures great-looking images – images so good, in fact, that more advanced users might at times even forget their DSLR.
Features and design
The Sony NEX-5R ($500, body only) is the latest interchangeable lens camera in Sony’s NEX-5 line, replacing the NEX-5N. It’s available in either black or white finishes and comes with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Optical SteadyShot lens for $100 more. From a design standpoint, the NEX-5R is essentially a point-and-shoot body with a nice grip and a huge lens. From straight on, the camera is barely visible when shooting with one hand it looks like you’re just taking photos with a lens. The body alone weighs in at 9.7 ounces; when the flash and lens are attached you’re looking at over a pound of solidly built camera.
All around, the camera is thoughtfully designed. The hand grip contour and placement of the most commonly used buttons easily allows for easy one-handed operation. The top of the camera houses the on/off switch, shutter release, a function button, the playback button, movie record button, and a wheel controller.
The top of the camera is also where users will find the “hot shoe,” which in this case is a Sony connector called the Multi-Interface Terminal. This is where users will plug in their flash or viewfinder. Yes, flash or viewfinder, as the Sony NEX-5R has no built-in flash. An accessory flash is, however, included with the camera. Unfortunately, this means that users opting to use an external viewfinder will need to choose between using the flash or a viewfinder. This may turn off pro-style shooters, since many prefer composing with a viewfinder rather than an LCD display; casual users accustomed to using an LCD to frame their shots won’t be bothered.
The back of the camera has a 2.6-inch resistive touchscreen LCD with a 921k-dot resolution. The display tilts up and down at an infinite number of angles, which is helpful in sunny situations, shooting from waist level, and composing self-portraits.
The remainder of the controls is located next to the touchscreen. There are two soft buttons with functions that change depending on what camera mode you’re in, a four-way controller, another soft button in the center of the four-way, and a jog wheel.
When it comes to features, Sony packs a lot into a small package. The NEX-5R has a 16.1-megapixel, APS-C-size (think compact DSLRs) Exmor HD CMOS sensor, which is the same type found in both the NEX-F3 and NEX-6. The sensor has an ISO sensitivity range of 100-25,600. Continuous drive shooting operates at 3 frames per second, capturing up to 11 RAW or 15 JPEG images in a single burst.
Design wise, the NEX 5R is essentially a point and shoot body with a nice hand grip and a huge lens.
The NEX-5R’s kit lens is an 18-55mm, f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens. There’s some noticeable distortion at widest angles, but the camera has a built in distortion compensation feature that works well to remove the distortion from your final images. You have to enable this feature via menus, and we left it on for most of our shooting. As an interchangeable lens camera, you have a selection of Sony and third-party E-mount lenses to choose from.
The NEX-5R features built-in Wi-Fi that offers two options. The first is for directly uploading images via wireless hotspots or a smartphone. The second, called Smart Remote Control, allows a user to use their smartphone as a secondary LCD and camera controller. To use Smart Remote Control, a user must first install an “app” from Sony’s proprietary Sony Entertainment Network.
Unfortunately, before you can install anything you need to head to a browser and create an account on Sony’s Entertainment Network. There’s no way to do this in-camera. Once you’ve created an account, you can download and install apps. While the Smart Remote app is free (along with a few others), there are a handful of pay-for apps ranging from $5 to $10. The usefulness of most of these apps seems questionable, with names such as “light shaft” and “cinematic photo.” Some of them, such as the $5 “bracket pro,” raises an alarming question: If the user is already spending $500 on the camera, why is Sony also taking the opportunity to squeeze micro transactions out of a proprietary app store? If the camera is capable of advanced bracketing features, they should just be built into the stock software. Ditto all the other apps, useful or not.
What’s in the box
In the box you’ll find the camera, the 18-55mm lens if you opt for the kit, external flash unit, Sony NP-FW50 lithium battery, camera strap, lens hood, Micro USB cable, and an AC charging adapter. There’s no battery charger included (an optional accessory), so the only way to charge the battery is in-camera.
Performance and use
It took a while getting used to shooting with the NEX-5R but once we did it was a pleasure to use. While the on-camera controls are pretty well thought out, the menu system is very confusing when you first use it. The first level of icons is clear enough, but once you dig down, everything else is shoved under that sub-menu. Some additional hierarchy or other order to the menu system would have been nice. Once you find your way around though, the NEX-5R is pretty straightforward to use.
Some camera control is offered via the touchscreen. The screen is resistive, which means you must apply pressure in order for the screen to sense your touch. The resistive nature of the screen combined with the precision necessary to hit some of the small icons makes using the screen to control the camera difficult. For the most part, we eschewed screen control and relied on traditional button control and navigation. One area where the touchscreen is really useful is for touch shutter release. Touching an area of the screen focuses the camera on that point and snaps a photo. Other than that, however, we didn’t really use the touchscreen functionality at all. One other warning about the LCD: The default brightness renders the screen practically unusable in daylight, so you have to go into the menus and manually set the screen to a sunny day brightness mode. It would have been nice if the LCD had a built-in light sensor to auto-adjust brightness depending on the amount of ambient light.
When it came to performance, we found the autofocus to be a little bit sluggish. It wasn’t as fast or accurate as the autofocus system in the Nikon 1 J3 that we recently tested, especially in lower light situations where there was some AF seek.
The images produced by the NEX-5R and its kit lens are impressive. The built-in metering system does a really nice job, even in high contrast situations. Images were sharp and filled with detail, even up to ISO 3,200. Images start to lose detail starting at ISO 6,400, but for Web uploads there’s definitely an acceptable tradeoff of quality versus performance. The camera produces such nice images in low light that you never really notice the slow maximum aperture of the kit lens. Color reproduction was accurate with all images having a nice natural tone to them. Video quality was also very good, even in low light. The autofocus function in video mode was fairly quiet and smooth.
Overall, the Sony NEX-5R is a very capable interchangeable lens camera. It produces very nice images and overall is thoughtfully designed. There are times that it will totally make you forget about the DSLR you have sitting in your camera bag, and is one of the best interchangeable lens cameras that we’ve tested so far. Unfortunately, some minor annoyances keep it from earning a higher score and an editors’ choice award. The first is the somewhat slow autofocus, which seems to lag behind some of its peers. The second is the organization of the camera’s menus, which makes it difficult to find some features and controls. And finally, we don’t like the direction Sony is going in with its app-store-like approach.
- Produces great images, even in low light
- Good (non-menu) controls
- Tilting touchscreen
- Slow autofocus
- Confusing menus
- Silly “app store” concept