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Sony Delivers Big-time with the Nex-6

Gear Talk
Sony NEX-6

Sony NEX-6

When rumors of the Sony NEX-6 hit the internet, it was a welcome bit of information for fans who wanted something between the high-end NEX-7 and the more consumer-friendly NEX-5N. There was a real need for a camera that added a few more physical controls for advanced amateurs, for example, who are used to dials and switches to quickly change camera settings, or for a camera with tweaks to the user interface, or – a pretty important feature for me – a viewfinder.

Well, Sony has provided all of those features, and then some with the NEX-6. So, naturally, when we received this shiny new toy, I had to take it for a spin.

Now, the really cool lenses – the 16-50mm and the 10-18mm are very much in demand, and all of our copies were checked out when I wanted to take them for a spin, so I settled on the massive 18-200mm lens and the Zeiss-badged 24mm f/1.8 lens. I shot them in a variety of different conditions, and – spoiler alert – I had an absolute blast.

Operation

First, let’s look at the top of the NEX-6.

The top of the NEX-6

The top of the NEX-6

As you can see, there are two dials up-top, a Mode dial and a silver one, directly underneath it. Depending on the mode you put the camera in, the silver dial can change aperture or shutter speed. The Fn button’s use changed depending on your settings or the mode the camera is in.

Sony aficionados will notice that the hotshoe looks very different from the ones on the NEX-7. After years, Sony has finally gotten rid of the old Minolta hotshoe and gone with an industry-standard hotshoe. No more mucking around with adapters! Presumably, this means you can trigger off-camera flashes in manual mode with a PocketWizard.

The back of the NEX-6

The back of the NEX-6

The back of the camera offers more welcome features. First – the viewfinder. Like the NEX-7, this camera has an EVF, or Electronic ViewFinder. I’m getting more and more used to these as they’re starting to pop up in all of Sony’s new cameras, including their big pro body, the A99.

The EVF is great – it’s fast, responsive, and activates automatically when you bring your eye up to it. That switch, which some cameras take a second to make, is instantaneous on the NEX-6, which is an absolute pleasure. No more looking at a dark EVF, waiting for the camera to switch outputs.

There’s another dial on the back that also serves as a four-way rocker switch. The two buttons above and below it are contextual, and on-screen cues let you know what they’re currently being used for.

Handling

This thing is light. At a hair over 12 oz., it’s remarkably thin and featherweight. The fact that it packs an APS-C sensor (like the Canon 7D or the Nikon D7000) is, well, astounding. With the 18-200mm lens, it’s definitely front-heavy, but not onerously so. Indeed, this is THE camera you want to take with you when size and weight are a big factor (backpackers, I’m looking at you).

With the 24mm f/1.8, the camera looks less like a small matchbox mounted at the back of a wine bottle, and is even lighter. Sony has put some kind of awesomesauce into their products, all of the E-mount lenses and bodies I’ve tried thus far make fantastic strides in size and weight without apparent sacrifices in quality.

The front of the NEX-6

The front of the NEX-6

There’s also a nice handgrip on this camera, with a textured surface that makes holding on to it, even with the (relatively) large 18-200mm lens a cinch. Yes, with that big honker of a lens on, it’s a bit top-heavy, but the 18-200mm is still kind of lightweight, and the grip is large and comfortable enough to hold on to the combo without worry.

Performance

In a word, the NEX-6 is awesome. Not “I’m tossing this for my DSLR” awesome, since I have specific needs that call for a DSLR (and one switch per lifetime is enough for me, thank you). But if you’re just getting started with photography, or need a smaller body to carry around, then you need to rent this camera and give it a serious try. Photographers like Jaime Ibarra are selling older gear and using cameras like the Sony NEX-7 in their workflow, which speaks volumes about the viability of the NEX series as a pro-level tool.

Sony has built in some first-rate features into this camera. For starters, they revamped the autofocus system, adding in both phase-detect and contrast-based AF sensors. Translation for us mere mortals: AF is snappy. Not necessarily Nikon D4-snappy, but for a camera in this class, it’s first-rate. Fast enough, for example, to snag a picture of an egret landing in the wetlands near San Francisco.

Egret landing

Egret landing

At 16MP, the files coming out of the NEX-6 aren’t huge, but they are chock-full of detail. The above shot, for example, is a 1.45MP crop of the original image.

Lots of detail in this 1.45MP crop

Lots of detail in this 1.45MP crop

This was a burst of about 7 images taken at the NEX-6′s highest RAW-shooting burst rate, which is about 8fps. It can do 10fps under certain conditions, but those appear to be limited to JPEG output only. Also, at 8fps, the focus and exposure are locked, so there is some careful focusing involved to get a good series in burst mode.

I was actually surprised at how well the combo of the NEX-6 and the 18-200mm performed. This is a combo I’d consider taking on a hike where a massive telezoom and a DSLR would just not be practical.

If, you know, I hiked.

So the camera does really well with AF, detail, and speed. How about High-ISO performance?

Here’s a confession. I left this thing in Auto-ISO mode. Then I shot this from a hotel window in San Francisco.

The San Francisco Night

The San Francisco Night

Taken with the 24mm f/1.8 lens at f/1.8 and 1/15th of a second shutter speed, the camera’s built-in meter set the ISO to 3200. Take a look at the 100% crop below.

100% crop

100% crop

Is there noise in this image? Yup. Lots of it.

Here’s the thing though, folks. Noise, I think, has gotten a bad rap. I also think there’s good noise and bad.

What I think of as bad noise are rough, speckled, flecks of color, banding in the shadows, and a general unevenness to the image. Good noise is like film grain, is more even, and has an almost enhancing quality to it.

The noise is in the NEX-6 falls very solidly into the latter category. Despite its existence, it doesn’t detract a darn thing from the image. Yes, you loose some detail, but this isn’t a D4 or a 1Dx, folks.

Moreover, a touch of luminance noise reduction in Lightroom helps bring the noise down significantly.

Noise reduction in Lightroom

Noise reduction in Lightroom

Noise really isn’t a problem with this camera. I’d be happy shooting it at ISO 3200 when the situation called for it.

Conclusion

Sony is on a tear of late with their cameras, coming out with one striking model after another. The NEX-6 is somewhat surprising in that some of its features, like the built-in WiFi (which I didn’t have a chance to test) and the faster autofocus, might just make this camera more attractive than its older, more “pro-level” NEX-7.

The good news? You can try them both by renting them from us. And, as a reminder, we’ve got a great partnership with Sony where you can receive up to 15% off the purchase of a Sony camera and lens when you rent it from us as a trial first.

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. You can find his portfolio on his website at sohail.me as well as on 500px and Flickr.

Comments

  • Kenn says:

    My experience with the Nex6 is that at ISO 3200 if there is more light …there is very little n oise…but if the light is low through the whole image such as yours from the hotel window…well the noise is horrible…I think this noise is pretty bad looking…I think the noise produced by the Nikon 1 v1 is more acceptable…it is also faster to focus…actually looking forward to the V2 and your blog on that…take care and have a great Thanksgiving

  • I got the Nex 6 and 16-50 about a week ago. I love it.

    I liked the idea of being able to use my smartphone as a remote viewfinder. But I don’t think the wifi to smartphone remote shooting feature is very useful as it takes a long time to connect the two. So I can’t use it on a spur of the moment opportunity. It would also be nice if the remote gave more control over the camera.

    I do like the ability to transfer images to my phone and browse the camera’s images on my phone.

  • [...] these, there is no shortage. You have the awesome Sony NEX-6, which I’ve raved about in the past. There’s also the Sony RX-1, the Panasonic GF3C, the Fuji X-Pro1, and the subject of this [...]

  • […] These full frame cameras sport 24 MP sensors and fixed 35mm f/2.0 Carl Zeiss lenses. They shoot full HD 1080p video and have incredible low-light performance. The “R” version lacks an optical low-pass filter, which is ideal for catching extra detail in landscape shooting. The only bummer about these? You’re stuck with that lens. However, on the full frame sensor the 35mm is a great walking-around focal length and the all-metal Zeiss construction is top notch. Another great small-form-factor offering from Sony is their NEX series of mirrorless cameras (with some sample images here). […]

  • […] These full frame cameras sport 24 MP sensors and fixed 35mm f/2.0 Carl Zeiss lenses. They shoot full HD 1080p video and have incredible low-light performance. The “R” version lacks an optical low-pass filter, which is ideal for catching extra detail in landscape shooting. The only bummer about these? You’re stuck with that lens. However, on the full frame sensor the 35mm is a great walking-around focal length and the all-metal Zeiss construction is top notch. Another great small-form-factor offering from Sony is their NEX series of mirrorless cameras (with some sample images here) […]

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