Sony NEX-6 Review: First Impressions

I just bought a new camera. It’s a Sony NEX-6. Today, I had my first chance to get out and take some photos with it, on a day out in Exmouth. I’ll share my first impressions of the camera below, but before that, the photos I took:

Why the Sony NEX-6?

When choosing, my main camera was a Nikon D90. I have the 35mm f1.8 lens and the 18-200 VR zoom. The 35mm f1.8 tends to live on the camera most of the time. The zoom is wonderfully flexible, but I love the limited depth of field the little lens can give, I like the way it can get good pics in lower light, and I love the way it makes the camera so much smaller and lighter. It’s still a big heavy lump, but smaller and lighter.

I found myself sometimes leaving the D90 behind, because it’s too big and heavy. Most of the time I’d have it with me, but still fail to take some shots, because swinging my backpack around and getting the camera out was just too much effort. And I’d only have to put it away again.

I wanted something smaller and lighter, that could perhaps go in a coat pocket, and hang around my neck reasonably unobtrusively. I still wanted it to be able to take the sort of shots I was used to. The two things don’t often go together. Limiting depth of field, and getting decent low light results, both tend to need a big sensor. A big sensor tends to mean a big camera.

I’d kind of wanted such a thing for quite a while, but they’re expensive. I recently succeeded in staying on the planet for 40 years without dying or falling off. As a way of celebrating the occasion, my parents gave me gift money. I decided it would buy me the camera.

Sony’s NEX range are small cameras with interchangeable lenses, and big sensors. They use APS-C sensors, which is the same size my D90 uses. The lens range is pretty good, and getting better.

The key features the NEX-6 has for me are:

  • The big sensor. Makes limiting depth of field possible with the right lens, and makes for nice image quality.
  • The right lenses available or due soon. The kit zoom is good to start with, but I want to know a longer-range zoom will be available later, and at some point I’ll want something with a nice wide aperture.
  • External controls. Some of the lower-end NEX cameras lack real buttons and dials. I’ve been using cameras for long enough to be quite attached to them. I don’t like having to venture into menus too much, for something as common as changing aperture, or switching mode.
  • The kit zoom is small and light. The NEX-5R is a smaller camera, but with the standard kit zoom it comes with, it’s bigger overall.

I was very tempted towards the NEX-5R. It’s smaller and lighter, and has a touch screen that the 6 lacks. The extra size, though, loses you the space for a viewfinder and a standard hotshoe, and you lose the mode dial. Going in to the menu to switch from auto to aperture priority, for example, seemed like it would get annoying quite quickly. Full auto mode is pretty handy for the times you just need to lift the camera and get the shot, but I tend to use aperture priority or shifted program modes more when I have time to think a little.

So the decision was made. I bought from Wex Photographic. I’ve always found them good. It arrived on Friday.

First Impressions

The very first impression as I lifted it out of the box was that it felt very solid. Quite dense. The buttons all have a real feeling of quality about them too, moving with decisive clicks. It feels like a step up in quality, even after the D90. The D90 is not a crappy camera.

The box was similar – a small card box that felt surprisingly heavy.

First Outing

I only managed a few test shots on Friday, but I did spend a bit of time familiarising myself with the menus, and getting it set up as I thought I might like it. What? It’s not like I was sitting up until 01:00 reading a camera manual.

Yes. I was.

Today, we spent the day in Exmouth with my parents, so I had a lot more chances to play.

How it Feels

I wasn’t sure if it would feel like a chunky compact or a small SLR. It has a viewfinder and interchangeable lenses, but it’s small and has a screen active all the time for framing.

It mostly feels to me like somewhat chunky, and very advanced, compact. So far, I’ve tended to use the screen almost all the time, not the viewfinder. Occasionally, though, it’s just felt right to use the viewfinder.

Controls

I’ve used the mode dial a lot, which makes me very glad I chose the NEX-6 rather than the NEX-5R. There have been situations where the touch screen would have been useful, but I would have really missed the mode dial.

Settings that do require using on-screen menus actually feel better than I’ve come to expect. The screen is wider than the images, so there’s space at the right-hand edge to show you what the unlabelled buttons will do, and the direct visual feedback on what you’re changing makes it feel quite natural. Click the bottom of the wheel, for example, for exposure compensation, and an arc appears in the right side of the screen, with the exposure compensation values shown from -3 to +3, and the current value is highlighted. It makes it visually clear what turning the wheel will do, and in what direction. As you adjust the value, the image on the rest of the screen gets brighter or darker, in real time.

Modes and Effects

There are a lot of modes, and a lot of effects available. I’ve only played with some of them so far. I think my favourite is the Rich Monochrome mode. It fires three shots in a row, and combines them to make one black and white image with really rich, smooth tones. It seems to work well.

There’s an automated HDR mode, which produces HDR pictures. I hate HDR pictures. There’s a selection of other modes with heavy vignettes, overblown colours, rough high-contrast monochrome, etc. Lots of ways to take a perfectly high quality image and ruin it. I like that sort of thing. I blame it on Instagram.

WiFi

I’ve transferred images from the camera to my iPhone during the day, and posted them with Instagram. It’s not the most polished experience, but it works ok. Images seem to get transferred at a smaller size, which is probably for the best for most purposes, but it would be nice to have the choice. With my workflow, the same images then end up in Aperture from both the phone and the camera, so I have to watch I don’t end up using the low-res version there.

FAILs

I unplugged the camera’s USB connection when it was just establishing a connection to the computer. It didn’t like that, and wouldn’t start up again until I pulled the battery out to reset it.

It has once complained that it didn’t have a lens, then quickly realised it had.

There’s a remote control app, that lets the iPhone control the camera remotely, watching the viewfinder on the phone’s screen, and taking photos. It worked when I first tested it. Now it won’t work at all.

None of these are hugely serious problems, and I rather expected some of the WiFi and Apps stuff to be a little on the flaky side. They do suggest that perhaps a firmware update would be a good plan for Sony, though, as they iron out some of the issues. It’s nothing I wouldn’t live with so far, though.

The Day One Verdict

I like this camera. A lot. I like the pictures that have come out of it. I didn’t expect much with the squirrels, as I’ve been in the same situation at the same place with the Nikon D90, and come away without any pictures I was really happy with. Even there, the NEX managed well. There’s a lot more to learn, and both the camera kit and I will grow. I’m enjoying the process so far.

More Thoughts

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