For my needs, at least, dSLRs have reached a tipping point. With the release of Canon 1D-X and Nikon having the still-astonishing D3s, the major workhorse companies are both now producing cameras as good as I could possibly want them to be. Can I imagine better? Very easily, but in most ways the improvements are so far up the curve of diminishing returns to be irrelevant. Yes, one day we’ll have cameras that shoot at ISO 1,000,000 — but that doesn’t matter so much when ISO 10,000 allows me to shoot moving people at the very limits of what my own eyes can actually see.
But these systems do have one problem — they’re freaking huge. I’m writing this from airports in Aruba, Miami, and New Orleans, and the whole way I’ve been lugging a 45-pound backpack of camera gear. In one of the tiny side pockets, taking up less space than any of my autofocus lenses? Sony’s latest mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera, the NEX-5n.
Even though the NEX-5n is an update to the “lesser” of Sony’s NEX cameras, it’s been getting a lot of attention, and for good reason. First, like the NEX 5 before it, it’s small. REALLY small. “Glorified lens cap” small. Even though it has an APS-C-sized sensor, as big as the sensors in all but the highest-end DSLRs, its body is no bigger than a point and shoot, especially when paired with the 16mm f/2.8 pancake lens. But because of how close the sensor is to the mount, you can use adapters to put lenses from almost any system on it (at least if you don’t mind losing autofocus.) So it can be as small or as big as you want it to be :
Sony made a couple of improvements over the NEX 5 that seem small at first, but make the camera a surprising joy to use. First is the addition of a touch-screen, which to smartphone addicts makes menu-diving a lot easier, especially when the camera has a small lens mounted. (The trade-off is that you have to do menu-diving for things that I’d rather have be represented by physical dials, such as changing modes, ISO, and white balance.) The second is the support of an optional electronic viewfinder. My need for a good viewfinder is one of the reasons I’d never considered a NEX 5 as an alternative to my Fuji X100, and the articulating high-resolution viewfinder is a joy to use (though it adds to the overall price).
Lastly, they changed the sensor to the same base design that has been praised in the Nikon D7000 for its great color and low noise — competing strongly against the Nikon D700 and 5D Mark II even though it has less than half the light-gathering area! Since the viewfinder allows extremely accurate focusing with wide-aperture lenses and in dark situations presents an image brighter than your eyes can easily see, when you put an f/1.4 or f/1.2 lens on this camera you have a still fairly-compact camera that can absolutely see in the dark. Here, paired with a 58mm f/1.2 Noct-Nikkor, the NEX 5n could easily photograph a street musician sitting in shadow in the dead of night (ISO 2000):
If “workhorse dSLRs” have reached maturity, mirrorless cameras are still in their awkward teens: They have so much potential, but each one brings their own quirks. The 5n is no exception — at different times it left me jumping around excitedly and scratching my head in frustration.
This is the fundamental temptation of the system for me: Since the viewfinder makes manual-focus so easy and accurate except for tracking irregular movement, and since you can put almost ANY lens on this camera with an adapter, I can have a camera that is as simple and compact or as versatile as I need in most situations. With the 16mm pancake I have a point and shoot with great manual control and good performance at medium apertures (it’s not bad wide-open, but nothing to write home about).
Then I can add the E-mount 55-210mm zoom lens, which is about the size and shape of a Red Bull can, and get decent telephoto in a compact kit (at least if you leave off the hood). The 55-210 is a slow lens, being only f/6.3 at the long end, so the ISO capability will help here a lot.
I actually shot this from a fast-moving speedboat, using the “reduce motion blur” function that shoots 10 frames in a second and picks the least blurry one. Generally not my favorite gimmick, since I like to choose my favorite frame, but you never know when you’ll be shooting at 315mm-equivalent from the side of a speedboat.
THEN, of course, I can add an adapter and put on Nikon lenses. With a more pixel-dense sensor, this is a better macro camera than my D3s, paired with the 60mm f/2.8 G:
With the 45mm f/2.8 PC-E, I can create tilt-shift images without a big camera hanging on my neck (select lenses can fit in my small shoulder bag, but my D3s sure can’t):
And with my 58mm f/1.2, I can capture scenes in almost no light at all (and can easily see them with the EVF viewfinder). This was at ISO 3200, f/1.2, 1/8th of a second:
So it’s all amazing, right? Well, like I said, these systems are still in their awkward teenager phase. Most glaring is the flash system. Instead of a normal hot-shoe, it has some proprietary weirdness that makes third-party flashes impossible, and if you’re using that separate viewfinder I like so much, then you can’t use any sort of flash at all! This is essentially the anti-Strobist camera. Also the viewfinder adds to the cost and keeps it from being truly pocketable, so you’ll need to decide whether it’s worth it for you (for me, it is).
The other big thing is that, compared to the competing Micro-4/3rds standard, the current lens system is deeply underwhelming. The only truly compact lens is the 16mm f/2.8, and it’s a decent but not stellar performer. Sony has committed to a lot more lenses coming soon, including a Zeiss 24mm I’m excited about. That lens alone would make this camera a strong competitor against the Fuji X100, but it won’t be cheap.
So the system will continue to grow and strengthen throughout the next year, but the mirrorless competitors aren’t being quiet. Just today, Panasonic released the GX1, which looks like a really strong camera, and Fuji is currently developing a professional mirrorless system that should have an even bigger sensor than the NEX cameras. If you don’t need professional flash, enjoy manual focus, and want a versatile system with a bigger sensor than micro-4/3rds, this camera might be for you, and it has a lot of happy new owners. But it will also be very interesting to see where we are in a year from now, and some of those awkward teenage quirks have gone away.
16mm f/2.8 (three-image pano)
35mm f/1.4, 30-second exposure:
16mm f/2.8 “sweep pano” mode: