Sony's drive to slim down our digital cameras continues apace. Most recently we reviewed the Alpha SLT-A35, which does away with the dSLR's traditional mirror arrangement to shrink down its physical bulk.
Now we have the Sony Alpha NEX-5N, which looks like a regular compact with a dSLR lens bolted on to its face. The similarities go further than that, though, leaving us to question whether this £660 snapper is ripe to replace a semi-pro camera.
Why buy a 5N?
Quite simply, it gives you the best of both worlds, with a compact body and a wide choice of add-on lenses. The NEX-5ND kit that we tested ships with both an 18-55mm zoom and a 16mm prime lens.
The first of those matches the entry-level kit lens shipped with Nikon and Canon's consumer dSLRs, and has a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at wide angle, and f/5.6 at full telephoto. The second is an ultra-wide angle lens, suitable for landscapes if you dial down the aperture and great for portraits at the maximum aperture of f/2.8, at which point it will blur your backgrounds and pull your subject into sharp relief.
There's no powered zoom, obviously, as you set the focal length by turning the ribbed metal barrel. This has a very smooth action and, being constructed from metal with a rigid plastic core, it feels a lot more sturdy than regular consumer-grade plastic lenses. There's a manual focus ring ahead of the zoom control, which isn't physically attached to the end of the lens so it won't turn any attached filters and spoil the effect of a circular polariser or a graduated filter.
Switch to manual focus, though, and you lose the on-screen indicators that show when your subject is pin sharp. By way of consolation, it instead enlarges the view on the rear LCD to help you achieve the result you need.
The menus are clear and well organised, but in breaking them down into broad parent groups Sony has put some features that we'd expect to see on the top level a little further down, making them less convenient to access.
To switch from auto to aperture or shutter priority, for example, takes three button presses and a turn of the rear-mounted rotary selector. Macro takes three button presses and two turns of the wheel, despite the fact that the right-press of the wheel is currently featureless, with each of the functions commonly found on this dial clustered on the other three points: exposure compensation (+/-3.0EV in 1/3EV steps) and playback zoom sit together on the southern point, while burst shooting and self timer sit on west. Once you've switched out of auto mode, moving between shutter, aperture, program and full manual is easier, as you can access these directly by tapping and dragging on the screen.
Sony Alpha NEX-5N has a touchscreen, with chunky menu icons supplementing the regular button-driven selectors. This is a neat compromise, allowing for intuitive features like touch-to-focus, while retaining traditional controls for those who don't like scrolling menus with their fingers. The recently-reviewed, in which we found the finger-driven menus difficult to scroll, was a good example of a camera on which a dual control approach such as this would have reaped significant benefits.
This also lets you make several more creative shooting changes without using the menus at all. An effects icon to the right of the screen calls up brightness, colour, 'vividness' and background defocus controls, each of which is accompanied by a scale through which you drag a spot to change the strength of the effect.
Remove the NEX-5N lens and, as with a dSLR, you'll expose the physical sensor. A 16.1 megapixel chip, it's the same size as that found in a far larger dSLRs, matching the dimensions of a single frame of APS-C film. This should increase the dynamic range of the images it shoots, allowing it to differentiate between a greater number of colours and a wider range of light levels without introducing noise into the image. Examining our results it's clear that this has paid off, with vibrant colours, balanced exposures and crisp edges in largely noise-free pictures.
Macro performance using the 18-55mm kit lens is excellent, with the NEX-5N quickly finding a focus point and setting a shallow depth of field, throwing everything outside of this tight area into blur and giving our backgrounds an attractive bokeh effect.