on November 9, 2011
(Minor updates below added in June 2012). I bought the NEX-5N in mid-October 2011 just before a trip to Europe. The bottom line: it takes superb photos without flash, especially in truly adverse lighting conditions (wine caves 1,000 years old, for example). As others have written, the camera with the 18-55 zoom takes extremely high quality photos - there's no quality penalty to get the benefit of the small size and light weight vs. a top DSLR. So I think it could be used happily by both people trading up and people trading down. But the camera does have quirks, some serious. Many other reviews cover the overall high points of the camera, so I'll focus on a few review elements I think need reinforcement.
The NEX-5N has a full auto mode, but I hope most buyers will take the trouble to learn the camera's full capabilities, because the camera can produce some amazing photos once liberated from auto mode. However I have to say that the learning curve is steep, not just because the camera has a lot of capability, but also because the user interface is a real pain in the neck until you adapt to it. The lack of dedicated controls, a consequence of the small size, creates a lot of complexity in daily use.
Here's a specific example to illustrate some of the potential frustrations. The camera can take an auto-HDR (high dynamic range) photo. It will instantly merge three shots that it auto-brackets (in steps you specify) to yield a picture that would take several minutes to produce if you had to merge three shots yourself using editing software. Great ability, but here are the steps if you haven't customized the menus: 1. turn off raw if you were using it, which requires at least 3 menu presses. 2. press menu again and select the "brightness/color" controls. 3. scroll to and select DRO/Auto HDR. 4. scroll to and select HDR. 5. if desired, press "option" and then change the HDR exposure differential for bracketing (ranges from 1 EV to 6 EV). 6. Press OK twice. In total, you have to go through 6-9 key presses to get the camera ready to take an HDR photo. Then to go back to normal shooting, you have to go through all the steps over again. Your subject has to be no livelier than a sloth to allow this to work out.
You can avoid many of those steps by customizing the menu buttons. This requires first understanding what the camera can do and how you will use it, which will realistically take a few days of experimentation. Then you have to futz with programming the menus for a while until you have the customization set the way you want it. Then you have to get used to the new customized menus. In other words, there's a steep initial investment to get usable access to all the power the camera possesses. Most DSLRs have serious learning curves as well, so to me this isn't a reason to avoid the NEX-5N. But it is something to be prepared for. I found that I was taking low-light photos that I couldn't have taken with any DSLR I'm familiar with, so I ended up being quite happy with the camera, but I did some cursing at it before I got to that point.
The best features:
1. Extraordinarily good native low-light capability, plus several modes that enhance that underlying natural capability of the camera and lens: examples include hand-held twilight mode, anti-blur mode, auto-HDR, and dynamic range optimization. All four are different. It really benefited my photos once I figured out how those modes differ and when to use them. My shooting may not have been typical -- I was spending hours a day in ancient wine cellars, gothic cathedrals, and the like, but even for snapping a low-light shot in a restaurant with friends (no flash), the camera was great.
2. The size and weight are unbeatable. I bought a Kata Grip-10 DL camera bag, which on paper was supposed to be a skosh too small for the camera, but it worked out perfectly. I could wear the Kata bag on my belt, zipped closed with camera inside, flash attached, a spare battery, spare SD card, and the "raincoat" that shipped with the Kata bag, all fairly inconspicuously.
3. The tilt screen makes a real difference.
The features the jury is still out on:
1. The detachable flash was on my list as a problem until I actually used the camera. The last two weeks I left the flash attached all the time and that worked fine, although I found I almost never used the flash. When I did use it, it overexposed the main subject almost every time, so I dialed back the flash output slightly. Once I get the optional viewfinder, I think I'll be able to put the flash aside and not miss it much.
2. Movies. I am not a big movie shooter so this was not a critical item for me. I hoped I would receive a camera after the "clicking noise" was fixed in manufacturing, but no, mine does click during video recording. Sony is kidding themselves if they really think the clicking noise only occurs when people are moving the camera in an unnatural way. It's almost constant. But I will send it in and from all I've read it will be fixed quickly, and the newer units supposedly won't have the problem. So I'm not agonizing about that. UPDATE: I originally wrote that I couldn't get large movies shot in AVCHD mode to transfer to a computer using Windows 7, and when an SD card that contained a mix of AVCHD movies and stills got close to full, the stills wouldn't transfer either. I didn't lose any pics or video but I worried. Updating -- since my original post, this problem seems to have gone away. It's possible that there was a hardware problem with my built-in card reader, which got swapped out during a computer repair and now transfers seem to work ok. Since I didn't see others reporting the same problem, I assume the hangup was at my end.
3. The LCD screen on its default setting ("auto") is hard to see in bright sunlight, BUT there is a setting you can scrabble your way to with many clicks that will brighten it significantly. This setting makes the LCD usable even in bright sunlight, but it also messes up the color rendition of the LCD, adding an orange hue and oversaturating the other colors. It also seems to drain the battery at a vigorous clip. So there are two approaches you can use: turn on the super-brightness setting just for the key times you need it and then remember to turn it off again, or buy the apparently wonderful EVF viewfinder (for more than three bills!) and use the LCD much less overall. I haven't tried the viewfinder yet but I'd like to. It eradicates a lot of the price advantage of the NEX-5N vs a DSLR, however.
The features that are not so good:
1. Focus can be slow in low light. That's largely due to the lack of phase-detection focusing, which isn't easily addressed in this type of camera. The focus-assist light eventually gets it right almost every time, but it might take a second or even two.
2. If you set the camera to Auto-ISO, you can't control the highest ISO the camera will use. It will range up to ISO 3200. It's great that the camera takes pretty clean shots at ISO 3200, but that's no excuse for omitting a way for the photographer to limit the top ISO to a much lower number if he or she needs lower noise. Even many inexpensive cameras offer that option.
3. Menus are complex and cumbersome and require lots of clicks to change settings, as previously described. In addition, by default the camera is set up to provide "advice" every time you click a menu key, overlaying your menu choice with a paragraph of information you didn't request. This is helpful for about three minutes and is then a big pain until you figure out how to turn it off.
4. The shutter makes the same sound as a DSLR and can't be changed, so there's no shooting stealthily. Since there's no mirror to make a slapping noise, I'm not sure why the shutter is as loud as it is. I wish Sony would change this if possible.
5. The touch-sensitive screen is, in my opinion, a failed opportunity. It's way too easy to touch something by mistake and change a setting inadvertently. On a small pocket snapshot camera, touchscreens may be useful. And in theory the touchscreen could be good on the NEX-5N too, I suppose, but I found it messed me up, so I turned off the touch capability. You may be more dexterous than I am so this may not bother you.
6. The only thing I missed by deactivating the touchscreen was the "touch to focus here" capability. That was good when I meant to use it, but also terrible when I didn't mean to use it. Linked to that issue: focus tracking. Sony advertises that the NEX-5N will track a moving subject once you touch the spot on the LCD screen you want it to track. But it doesn't work. It just makes the focus jittery and unpredictable. The focus will not reliably track anything. Sony should have improved that before going live with it. The concept is great.
6. The movie mode button is badly positioned within a hair's breadth of where your right thumb, or sometimes part of your right index finger, can rest on the camera. I recorded at least ten unwanted movies a day just brushing the movie button without meaning to. The biggest problem this created was that when I went to press the shutter to take a still photo, nothing happened. Only then did I realize the camera had been recording my useless mutterings for the last three minutes. So I lost a few still shots from having to stop the movie recording and get back to stills.
7. Minor points: the default settings for DRO and HDR are too weak to make a difference, so at first those look like failed offerings. But they just need to be tweaked to a stronger setting and they work fine.
8. Update: My son owns a Canon T3i so we've compared pictures taken with the two cameras, although not in any truly rigorous way. The Sony NEX-5N build quality is higher than the T3i (less plastic), the rotating barrel feels more solid, and mostly importantly, the resolution of the Sony seems better. If you read online lens reviews, the Sony 18-55 kit lens seems higher quality than the kits lenses that come with even DSLRs costing a lot more.
Summary: While the list of negatives I've enumerated seems long, on balance I think the strengths of the NEX-5N substantially outweigh the weaknesses. In the world of ILC cameras, the NEX-5N seems to be in a league of its own when it comes to pure image quality. To a serious photo enthusiast or professional, image quality is where everything starts and ends. The NEX-5N takes exceptionally high quality photos, especially in low light. The NEX-7 has additional strengths including even higher image quality in good light, but apparently doesn't quite match the NEX-5N's low noise in low light according to other reviews, and it costs a lot more. I'm happy with the NEX-5N.