I still use a DSLR. Unlike my colleague Dan Seifert (and a handful of other staffers at The Verge), I've never been willing to sacrifice the speed and control of my Nikon D7000 to get a smaller, lighter camera. It's really not an image quality issue — Sony's NEX lineup typically takes excellent pictures, as do a number of Micro Four Thirds cameras. I carry the back-breakingly enormous D7000 around because it's so incredibly easy to control thanks to myriad buttons, dials, and wheels.
I'm the exact user Sony had in mind as it designed the latest round of NEX lineups, particularly the NEX-6. The company's successfully found a place between a point-and-shoot and a DSLR, but now its sights are set squarely on the five-pound chunk of D7000 body and lenses in my backpack.
That's why, in addition to the NEX-standard APS-C sensor, 18-55mm kit lens, roomy touchscreen, and lightweight body, the NEX-6 offers a level of manual control previously only available on the expensive NEX-7, and it might be even better. When my colleague Dan Seifert reviewed the NEX-5R, he found it to be a great option for people who just want to point, shoot, and take pictures. But this model appears to finally be capable of replacing my DSLR — and at $1,000, it's surprisingly affordable if it can do so. I couldn't wait to review the camera, and find out once and for all if it's time to sell my D7000 and get cozy with something smaller.
After all of two seconds of holding the NEX-6, my D7000 had already started to look fat and ugly. The same thing happens every time I review a mirrorless camera – they're designed to be comfortable to hold, carry, and use, while most DSLRs are all function and no form. The NEX-6 and its tiny 16-50mm kit lens weigh only a hair over a pound, and the camera itself is barely over an inch thick. The whole setup fits neatly into my jacket pocket, and I hardly noticed its heft.
Many smaller cameras are actually harder to handle, just because there's less to hold onto, but the NEX-6 has a big, leathery grip on its right side that makes it totally usable in one hand. On top of the grip are the power switch, shutter release, and a programmable Function button (I used it for quickly changing between manual and automatic focus, which is pretty handy). There's a full-sized hotshoe on top of the camera, next to a flexible pop-up flash that you can point up or down rather than just blasting it at your subjects. It's the same flash as you'll find on the NEX-7 or F3, and it's the only internal flash I find myself actually using.
The back of the camera is hard to tell apart from its brethren — there's a five-way dial, two menu buttons that correspond to on-screen options, and a dedicated button for starting video recording. I like that there's no separate mode for shooting video — you just hit the button and it starts recording with whatever settings you've already chosen. There aren't as many buttons here as on many DSLRs, but most of the key options are certainly within reach.
Really, though, the NEX-6 is all about a dial. The full-fledged PASM mode dial on the right side of the camera's top edge, on top of the scroll wheel (itself new to the most recent NEX models) by itself transformed how I used the camera. I tend to shoot either in Aperture priority mode or Manual mode, and on previous NEX models switching was a clumsy process that required digging into the camera's menu system each and every time. Having a physical dial means I can keep focused on what I'm shooting, rather than what mode I'm entering or leaving, or how to find it — it also makes the NEX-6 a LOT easier to just hand to someone and have them use, since the dial's so familiar and you don't have to teach them a series of taps and scrolls to get through the menu system.
Smaller cameras aren't always easier to hold, but this is
A love song for a mode dial
The scroll wheel encircles the mode dial, and its function is dependent on the mode you’re in. When the top wheel set to Aperture priority mode, scrolling the bottom dial changes aperture; same goes for shutter in S. In Manual mode, the dial controls aperture, and shutter speed is managed by the wheel on the back — that one can take a minute to figure out, but is totally intuitive once you realize the back wheel spins. The mode dial itself is a little hard to spin, and really requires two fingers to move properly, but that's for the best since changing shooting modes by accident can cause huge problems.
The control layout is the best Sony's ever put on a NEX model, full stop. It's better than the unmarked wheels on the NEX-7, which are remarkably powerful but occasionally confusing and unintuitive — having a mode dial and two control wheels is what most photographers are used to, and for good reason. Even some more advanced controls like ISO and exposure are accessible via the hardware buttons on the back, and I found myself almost never having to go into the menu system at all. If you ask me, that's the goal with a camera — the less I have to scroll through menus and options, the better. The UI is the same as it ever was, by the way, a functional camera interface that occasionally tries too hard to hold your hand and teach you how to use the device.
While Sony's figured out how to put DSLR-like controls on a much smaller camera, it unfortunately can't achieve the physics-bending required to get an optical viewfinder onto a mirrorless camera. (The mirror on a DSLR is used to deflect light into the viewfinder, and then it flips up when you hit the shutter so light can get to the sensor — that's why the viewfinder goes dark while you're capturing a shot with a DSLR.) Instead the NEX-6 has an electronic viewfinder, made up of a 2,359,296-dot OLED display — the EVF is probably the most obvious differentiator between Sony's high- and low-end cameras. Sony's EVFs are easily among the best on the market, with sharp and clear screens, and electronic viewfinders are able to show information and options that an OVF can't — you can scroll through menus and change options without ever taking your eye off the viewfinder. But it's like looking at the world through a TV versus looking through a window: the picture looks nice, but it's not the real scene. The EVF makes pictures out to be slightly brighter and higher-contrast than they actually are, and gives everything a slightly cartoony feel. I eventually learned to compensate, and could figure out what a shot would look like, but it's really hard for me to get over the fact that what I'm seeing in the viewfinder isn't what the scene looks like, or how the camera will capture it.
The sharp, 3-inch, 921,600-dot LCD on the back of the camera gives a much more accurate picture, and as with most NEX cameras it quickly became my default way of using the camera — I'm a die-hard viewfinder user in general, but I didn't mind it too much in this case. The screen articulates so you can hold it above your head or below your waist and still see the display, though it's not as versatile as the NEX-5R's 180-degree tilt that lets you take self-portraits. Also unlike the NEX-5R, it's not a touchscreen. That's mostly an insignificant loss, especially since the NEX-6's controls are so robust already, but I did miss being able to tap to focus — it's a handy way to get more control without switching into fully manual focusing mode.
Wi-Fi is a good idea in theory, but not when it's implemented like this
Every camera manufacturer seems to have decided on the importance of Wi-Fi at exactly the same time (except for Nikon, which has been slightly ahead of the curve), and each company is trying to figure out how best to integrate wireless connectivity into their products. It's still early days in that respect, but I already know one thing for sure: Sony hasn't cracked the code yet.
There are two basic pieces to Sony's wireless strategy. The first is a simple share-to-smartphone option, which connects with the PlayMemories Mobile app for Android and iOS. It works, technically, but it's a mess: you have to connect your phone to the camera via a direct Wi-Fi network, using different passwords all the time, and then every time you want to send more pictures you have to re-engage the whole clunky process. It's a faster way to get your photos on Instagram, I suppose, but it's not nearly as good as it could be. There’s also no way to wirelessly send photos to your computer, which strikes me as a huge oversight and a missed opportunity; I’d love to be able to just put my camera down on my desk and have it send everything right to my laptop.
The second piece is essentially an app store that Sony built into the NEX-6. There are six apps available for the camera, all made by Sony, that add bracketing features or direct uploading to various services. The apps are okay — four are free, two cost $4.99 — and I really like the idea of an app store for a camera that lets you get new features without buying a new model or dealing with clunky firmware upgrades. But six apps does not an app store make, and I'm skeptical that Sony's going to be committed enough to make this really work.
Otherwise, you don’t get much outside of Sony’s standard Sweep Panorama mode, and a few scene modes and filters. There are two Auto modes — Intelligent Auto and Superior Auto — though for the life of me I can’t tell why. Superior Auto is clearly, well, superior, since it’s able to access more noise-reduction features and scene modes. The only other things I used frequently were HDR and the focusing peaking feature, which does a nice job of displaying exactly what’s in focus in your shot.
No burning tire tracks, but it's still plenty fast
The NEX may not technically be the fastest NEX ever, though it feels like it to me. The camera can turn on and capture a photo in about three seconds, and takes about a half-second between shots in single-shot mode. It can shoot five or six per second in continuous mode — actually it can go even faster, up to about 10 per second, but for most people I'd recommend sticking with the plain-vanilla continuous mode, which re-focuses before every shot and is still plenty fast. The NEX-6 is fast without being mind-blowingly so, but the intuitive and powerful controls make it feel zippier than any NEX I've used before. Moving through menus is smooth and fast, and since there's no touchscreen I didn't have any of the lag issues we experienced with the NEX-5R.
I was able to take about 250 photos and shoot 15 minutes of video before the NEX-6's battery gave up the ghost, which is solid for a mirrorless camera but definitely behind a camera like the D7000, which I've pushed beyond 800 shots before it died. Fortunately, battery life is less of an issue than with most cameras because the NEX-6 charges via a Micro USB port. You won't need to carry around huge external chargers or constantly remove the battery — there's a good chance it'll work with your phone charger, and even if not a Micro USB charger is always easy to find.
You'd have to spend an awful lot more for notably better pictures
The last NEX camera I tested was the NEX-F3, the low-end model in the lineup. I generally liked the images it produced, but wasn't blown away, and given that the NEX-6 shares its 16.1-megapixel APS-C sensor, I was a little worried. But as Dan also found with the 5R, the NEX-6 takes excellent pictures – it's certainly on par with a similarly priced DSLR. It's not as good as a full-frame DSLR, of course, but pictures are every bit as good as most mid-range devices I've tested like the Canon T4i or the Pentax K-30. I'm particularly impressed with its dynamic range, which was the F3's Achilles' heel — I've definitely seen cameras with more range between the brightest and darkest spots of an image, but the NEX-6 does a nice job of splitting the difference and giving you an image that's occasionally the slightest bit dark, but always looks good.
Even in low light, I'm happy with the NEX-6's performance. Its ISO range technically goes up to ISO 25,600, though I never recommend shooting that high —you can actually see the software working in the moment after you shoot a photo at that level, and what it gives you is an incredibly soft, mushy image. ISO 3200 covers most situations, though, and photos shot at that level look great — it's the upper range for shooting in Auto, and having that kind of performance gives you a lot of freedom when you're shooting. Photos are pretty much noise-free up to about ISO 1250, but unless you're printing billboards I wouldn't worry until at least ISO 3200.
Colors are accurate, details are crisp, and I'm particularly impressed with how sharp images are throughout the picture. Part of that is definitely due to the new 16-50mm kit lens Sony designed for this camera — it's much smaller than the giant 18-55mm lens that has come with older NEX cameras, and it also offers smooth and quiet power zooming. It's a really good, sharp lens, and feels impressively high-quality for a kit lens that's only a $150 premium over the body-only price. Speaking of lenses, Sony’s E-mount ecosystem definitely still lags behind the Micro Four Thirds lenses available to Panasonic and Olympus owners. And, of course, all are positively dwarfed by what Canon and Nikon offer. But Sony’s ecosystem is growing, and with a kit lens this good many people may not need to buy more lenses anyway.
NEX cameras have always been solid pint-sized camcorders, and the NEX-6 upholds the tradition. It shoots 1080p video at 60 or 24 frames per second, in the AVCHD format that's kind of a pain to deal with but is increasingly common in these cameras. You can also shoot MP4 footage, but the only HD option is 1440 x 1080 — your best bet is probably to just deal with managing AVCHD. Video generally looks great, but beware if either you or your subject is moving quickly — the NEX-6 shows a lot of the rolling shutter effect, turning solid objects into wavy, wobbly jello as you move quickly. But as long as you're not sprinting down the street, you should be okay.
Sony's NEX lineup is kind of a microcosm of the camera industry in 2012. Once you graduate from a point-and-shoot up to a mirrorless camera or a DSLR, odds are good that you're going to get a camera that takes great pictures. What you're paying for within the market is resolution, low-light performance, and controls. The NEX-6 doesn't take meaningfully better images or video than the NEX-5R, but it does offer a much more powerful and usable controls system that will be much more comfortable for an experienced photographer.
I still think the NEX line is the best in its class, thanks to a combination of small bodies, big sensors, and solid performance. (Micro Four Thirds cameras do have a much bigger lens ecosystem, though.) If you want a camera to use in Auto and take great pictures, save $250 and buy the NEX-5R — it shoots just as well. But for my needs, at $849.99 body-only and $999.99 with the new 16-50mm kit lens, the NEX-6 might be my favorite mirrorless camera yet. It's certainly the first one I've tried that feels like it could replace my DSLR — even more so than the NEX-7, which is wonderfully fast in Manual mode but a little clunky at other times. The only big thing still holding me back is the lack of an optical viewfinder, but the more I use the NEX-6 the more I’m comfortable using the LCD instead, so though I’m not sold I’m willing to be converted.
The NEX-6 takes great pictures and good video, it doesn't break my back to carry around, and I don't worry about missing shots while I scroll through menus. That's a pretty killer combination, if you ask me.