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Posted on Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Dave!Ever since I returned from my "Wild Africa Trek" back in September, I've been saving up for a new camera. I love my Nikon D90, but it's like a boat anchor hanging around my neck when I'm leaning over cliffs, hiking on rope bridges, and otherwise actively goofing off. It's bulky and heavy and has lenses that are equally bulky and heavy, so I find myself leaving it at home more often than not. My iPhone may not take "great" photos, but it's certainly good enough (and at least it doesn't get in my way).

But what camera to buy? I already have a pocket camera, which is okay, but hardly the quality I'm looking for. A next-generation "mirrorless" camera seemed like the way to go. They're much smaller than a DSLR, but produce similar quality photos. At first I was looking at Nikon and Canon, since those were the brands I was familiar with. But the reviews of Nikon's N-1 were less than stellar... and when I played with Canon's EOS-M it was a piece of crap.

Enter the Sony NEX-7. A serious photographer friend of mine has one and won't shut up about how much he loves the thing. I borrowed it for a couple hours and was suitably impressed. Right then and there I knew that Sony was the camera for me. Though I did bypass the NEX-7 for the newer (and slightly less expensive) NEX-6. It just seemed like a better fit for me...

Sony NEX-6

My "review" and random thoughts on the NEX-6 can be found in an extended entry...

For all its capabilities, the NEX-6 is shockingly small. But that's what happens when you remove all the antiquated stuff from the DSLR era (such as the mirror) and replace it with modern technology. Size-wise, I got exactly what I wanted, as it's not too small so as to be difficult to operate... 4.75" x 2.625" x 1.625"... but not so big it's going to get in my way. The weight is ever so dreamy... well under a pound(!)... which will make it an effortless carry. Just look at it compared to my D90, which is almost double the size!

NEX-6 vs. D90

The NEX-6 has a rather large 16.1 megapixel sensor, which is a good thing. The problem is that you need bigger lens openings to cover it, so NEX-6 lenses run larger than other mirrorless cameras. It's a tradeoff I am perfectly happy with. The important thing is that I can absolutely see myself taking this camera out and about more than my Nikon, which is the entire point.

For such a small camera, it's very comfortable to hold. Unlike the NEX-7 which has dual contextual-modal-dials to control your shooting mode, the NEX-6 has a dedicated mode dial (which is much preferred) with a contextual-modal-dial beneath it. The rear display is large and vivid, but not a touch-screen, which is pretty stupid even by Sony's standards (the cheaper NEX-5R has one!). On the plus-side, the screen can angle up or down so you can shoot over a crowd or shoot low without getting on your hands and knees. The camera also has a high-quality electronic viewfinder (with eye cup), which is so much nicer for composing shots. There's a hotshoe mount for a flash that's (thankfully) standard and not proprietary, but it has extra pins in there for Sony-specific accessories (hopefully one of which is a microphone, since there's no port for that). Internal "stereo" microphones sit right above the lens and record decent audio... assuming your lens isn't a noisy one. A Mini-USB port and HDMI video port are under a door on the left... and it's an actual door, not a flap of plastic. The battery and memory card share an opening on the bottom. Getting the memory card in and out can be tricky because it's directly under the door hinge. Surprisingly, the door doesn't click shut, meaning you have to hold it down and manually slide the latch closed. Lastly, there's a standard tripod mount on the bottom.

Thanks to the afore-mentioned dedicated mode dial, choosing how you want to shoot is pretty easy. You get two auto-modes and the usual aperture-priority, shutter-priority, program, and manual options. You also get a sweep-panorama mode that does a decent job of in-camera stitching. The camera itself has no image stabilization, which was a major sticking point for me. Getting back from vacation with a bunch of ruined shots due to camera shake is absurd in this day and age. But Sony has stabilization built into most of its lenses, so I relented. The camera has a built-in flash, and it works surprisingly well (so long as you don't add a lens that obstructs it). The shutter release feels great and is positioned very well. There's a dedicated "movie" button so you can easily shoot video on the fly, but it's camouflaged beneath the strap on the right, so my thumb has a tough time searching for it by feel.

I am pulling this out separately because it's just so damn cool... the camera has a level built-in, and it operates on both the rear display and the viewfinder! It's not overly-accurate, but it does help in reducing crooked photos.

The NEX-6 has a lot of shooting options, display options, recording options, and option options. A lot. Wading through them is an exercise in patience, as there's no touch screen and you have to cycle through every last detail. For reasons that I can't even guess, only Apple seems to be able to simplify stuff like this, and Sony has shafted their customers with menu-hell. If you are using the viewfinder, a step in the right direction is to turn on "Quick Navi," which converts the rear display to an info screen...

NEX-6 Quick Navi Display

The display is persistent (you can turn the camera off and on again and it's still there), which makes it actually useful. Even better, you can adjust the displayed settings with the camera's modal dials by holding the Fn (function) button and using the dials. It's a bit awkward and clumsy, but so much easier than trying to navigate menu-hell.

If I have a major criticism, it's that the camera is a bit slow to start up. It feels like 2 full seconds pass between turning it on and being able to shoot. Granted, this is not horrible, but it can certainly feel that way compared to an instant-on DSLR when something spectacular happens and you're rushing to get it on film. Once you've got your mode all set up, taking photos is pretty straight-forward. Half-press the shutter release to auto-focus (which can be tricky, because you can't feel a "stop" when you're there), then fire away. If your scene is well-lit, focusing is blazingly fast. In dim-light? Well, not as quick, but acceptable. Because there's no mirror slapping back-and-forth, you can continuous-shoot ten frames in the blink of an eye... it's frighteningly fast and sounds like a machine gun (why there's so much shutter noise I have no idea). Since keeping focus on a moving subject at that speed would be all but impossible manually, the NEX-6 has subject-tracking, and it works surprisingly well.

All the features in the world don't mean anything if your camera can't take quality images. Fortunately, the NEX-6 easily matches... and sometimes beats... what I was getting from my Nikon D90 (especially in RAW mode) and is actually producing a bigger image (16.1 vs. 12.3 megapixels), so that's a nice bonus. Yes, the NEX-7 has a larger sensor than the NEX-6, but when looking at images from my friend's NEX-7, I'm not seeing a huge difference. There are limits to how many pixels are actually useful when your lens-size is this small, and I think the NEX-6's 16.1 megapixel sensor is near the sweet spot.

I'm just going to get this out of the way... the camera does not allow most any of the cool "creative" add-ons to be used when shooting RAW. You have to switch to JPEG, and that's fine (this is what Photoshop was invented for!). The problem is that the NEX-6 is really dumb when it comes to switching. As in, it doesn't. You have to manually switch to JPEG or you get an error message when trying to use a RAW-unsupported function. I keep looking for a toggle to let the camera automatically switch this, but no joy. Oh well, at least there's an option to shoot RAW in the first place, because I would have never bought this camera without it.

As I mentioned, there are two auto modes. Intelligent Auto and Superior Auto. Both are pretty smart at detecting your scene and adjusting the camera's settings appropriately. Where "Superior Auto" differs is that it can assess when using in-camera extra features like "HDR" would be beneficial. Historically, I avoid shooting auto because I want more control over my shots. But the short time I've spent with the NEX-6 auto modes has convinced me that they are much more useful than what I've seen previously, so maybe I'll be trying them more often.

The NEX-6 takes advantage of it's rapid-fire capabilities in really smart ways. Such as in-camera HDR (High Dynamic Range, which I explain here). Though I prefer to use auto-bracketing to take multiple shots that I can then blend into an HDR image with exacting control, the in-camera HDR is pretty good... subtle, realistic, and with minimal ghosting. In my heart I want to resist this kind of automation, but something tells me I am going to be using this feature often, which will save me time. Sony's auto-HDR kind of one-ups the "Active D Metering" that I loved so much in my Nikon D90, and that's much appreciated. In addition to HDR, the NEX-6 uses its multi-shot capability for low-light noise reduction and blur elimination modes which is very cool.

I love user-configurable set-up controls on a camera. Love them. Being able to quickly switch between the set-ups you like best is a huge time-saver and lessens the chance of missing a shot. Fortunately, the NEX-6 has a Fn (Function) button. Unfortunately, the NEX-6 determines which configurations you can apply to it. So having "RAW Shutter-Priority Bracketed -2" at the touch of a button when I need it is not going to happen. This here is what separates the men from the boys, and Sony is still in potty training. Anybody advanced enough to be using this feature is going to want all the configurability they can get. Crippling this "feature" is not doing anybody any favors, and just seems bizarre to me.

WARNING: The photos you're about to witness are total crap. They were composed and shot in bright light and at odd angles specifically to test the NEX-6 shooting modes... they're not intended to be anything artistic. I took one set of photos of a scene with lots of movement (a river), and another set that had some complex lighting going on (a brass pig). Let's start with the river set...

Manual HDR Shot
This is a manual, bracketed shot (-2, 0, +2) merged into a single High Dynamic Range image.
This is a bit too unrealistic for me, but I pushed it for comparison's sake with the automated tools.

This is the uncorrected image. A bit dark and drab for my tastes, but nothing's really blown out, which is good.

Auto HDR
This is the in-camera Auto-HDR. A bit dark because it's so bright... but REALLY easy to fix.

HDR Auto Adjusted
Here's the same Auto-HDR shot, but with the shadows opened up a bit and the saturation bumped. 5 seconds work!

Intelligent Auto
This is "Intelligent Auto" which is not bad at all.

Superior Auto
This is "Superior Auto," and it's really nice right out of the camera.

And now for the Brass Pig set...

Manual HDR
This is a manual, bracketed shot (-2, 0, +2) merged into a single High Dynamic Range image.
This is pretty close to how I'd want it looking... interesting, but not entirely unrealistic.

Uncorrected image. Shadow detail obliterated, but not too bad for such a tough shot!

HDR Auto
This is the in-camera Auto-HDR. Again, it's a bit dark, but oh so simple to fix.

HDR Auto Adjusted
My 5-second adjustment to the Auto-HDR image to add saturation and open the shadows. Perfect.

Superior Auto
Here's Superior Auto. Given the harsh lighting challenge, this turned out very good. "Superior" even.

Sharpenss Detail
The kit lens (16-50 f/3.5-5.6) Actually does a really good job of capturing details.

Sharpness Detail
Surprisingly sharp. The corners get a little mushy when going wide, but nothing fatal.

I haven't even begun to dig into what this camera is capable of, but all the usual toys seem to be present... face recognition, smile recognition, red-eye reduction, slow-sync, fill-flash, subject tracking, etc. etc. I'm guessing that there's very few (if any) features left out when compared to similar cameras.

The optional bundle lens for the NEX-6 is a 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 Power Zoom. It's not the best lens available, but it's surprisingly decent for a kit model... especially given the $150 you pay to get it included with the camera. It's versatile, and I rather like it. Other NEX E-Mount lenses are available, but your options are limited. I shoot a lot of wide-angle, so I made my first purchase be the Sony 10-18mm f/4. It's really pricey at $850, but the quality is mind-bogglingly good (all things considered) and I love it more than chocolate pudding. My next purchase really needs to be a nice and bright f/1.4 lens for low-light shooting, but there isn't one... at least not from from Sony. The best I can do is an f/1.8 at 50mm ($168) or 35mm ($448) or a Zeiss 24mm ($1098). Needless to say, I'm dying for the Carl Zeiss Sonnar, but that's an insane price to pay for a lens with no image stabilization. Eventually I'll end up with the 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 to give me some range, but that's another $850 I'm going to have to save up for.

All the usual toys are there, including a histogram view. What's not available is a way to skip between photos when you've zoomed into the photo you're looking at. You have to zoom all the way back out and only then can you move to the next photo... at least from what I can find. This is categorically stupid. All those fucking dials and buttons and Sony can't have a skip-while-zoomed feature? The only thing saving this from being a disaster is that there's a "cancel zoom" button that takes you all the way back out, but still... so stupid.

The camera comes with built-in Wi-Fi connectivity but, without a touch-screen, it's a pain in the ass to configure. This gets you some added functionality when it comes to directly uploading photos and iPhone connectivity (remote fire!)... assuming you can get it to work. Because, holy crap, my Nintendo 3DS portable game does it better. Ultimately this "feature" is pretty useless (unusable?) though.

THERE ISN'T ONE. And it was almost enough to make me not buy the NEX-6, because I consider it STUPID, STUPID, STUPID that a GPS unit is not standard on all modern cameras. My fucking POCKET CAMERA that cost a couple-hundred bucks has a GPS. Why doesn't a camera costing $800 have one? I'm sure Sony will trot out some bullshit excuse about it affecting battery life, but I just don't give a shit. Turn the GPS off by default and let your customers decide if the battery drain is worth using the thing. It's just mind-boggling that something as profoundly useful as a GPS unit to tell you where you took your damn photos doesn't make the cut... but half-baked, nearly-useless WiFi does. Monumentally idiotic. I swear, my next camera WILL have a GPS or I'm not buying a next camera.

One of the interesting things about the newer NEX cameras is their ability to purchase "apps" which extend the features of your camera. For the most part, I think it's nickel-and-diming the customer to pay $5 or $9 for something that could have been included with the onboard features but... eh, whatever. Ultimately it's not so much the cost of the apps that piss me off, but the horrible hassle it is to actually purchase the damn things. Setting up an account isn't so bad, but I can't get the "Confirm Purchase" buttons to work. It doesn't matter if I'm using a computer or am purchasing directly in the camera... when I press "Confirm Purchase," NOTHING HAPPENS. It's incredibly annoying that Sony is so fucking inept at this. If you're going to force me to pay for something, at least take a page from Apple and make it easy for me to spend my money. Otherwise you're just pissing off your customers.
UPDATE: For reasons completely unknown, the app store is finally working again... at least directly on my camera. Still having problems tethered to the computer.

The electronic viewfinder cuts into the battery quite badly (you go from 360 to 270 shots!), but it doesn't bother me enough to stop using it. I'll carry a second battery to shoot all day and be fine with that. What does bother me about the battery? Sony doesn't include a charger. Instead you get a USB cable and a power adapter to charge the battery in-camera. This is a load of bullshit. It wouldn't have cost that much more to include an actual charger instead of the cable/adapter idiocy (which takes FOUR HOURS AND FORTY MINUTES TO CHARGE THE FUCKING BATTERY). Talk about nickel-and-diming the customer. Having to spend an extra $40 for something that even the cheapest cameras already include is a big "fuck you" from Sony, and I'm really offended by it.

From what I can tell, the NEX-6 has a buffer for around 10 shots in RAW. After that the camera slows to a crawl as it struggles to transfer its buffer to the memory card. Fortunately, the camera supports Class 10 UHS (Ultra High Speed) cards, which will get you back to shooting as quickly as possible, though I'm not sure if Sony maxes it out to the top speed the cards are capable of.

In addition to the stupid USB cable, adapter and battery, you get a neck strap. That's it. There's no memory card, but you do get a CD with some software on it that I will never use.

For a camera with such a huge amount of options, the manual is pretty skimpy (PDF Link). It's also printed on flimsy recycled paper in tiny type, making it tough to read. Yes, all the functionality is listed in there but, unless you're wanting to learn how to do the most basic stuff, you're not going to get much of an explanation. There's an online booklet in full color that's a lot better, but it's combined with instructions for the NEX-5R, which can get confusing (PDF Link). If you're experienced with DSLR photography, you'll probably do fine... eventually. Otherwise, Amazon has one book available now (Link) and another coming in September (Link) which will probably be much more helpful.

Overall, I am thrilled with the Sony NEX-6. It's small, light, easy to use, has loads of great features, performs admirably, and the photos you can get out of it are fantastic. Having an electronic viewfinder is a huge plus. This is exactly the thing to get me to start using something other than my iPhone when I travel.

Not to say that everything is perfect...

  • Relatively slow to start up. Definitely could be faster.
  • Shutter release is a bit sloppy, making it difficult to find the half-press focus stop.
  • Not including a battery charger is lame, and the in-camera charging is a joke. Battery life could be better, but if you turn the camera off when not using it, it's okay.
  • Menu system is a nightmare, but offset somewhat by the "Quick Navi" display.
  • The 3-step bracketing limitation is bizarre given the rapid-fire multi-shot capability of the camera. Why not 5-step bracketing? Or 10-step? For manual HDR shooters this is a critical omission.
  • RAW mode not supported by many of the "creative" functions.
  • User-configurable function set-up controls are pick-and-choose... not truly user-configurable.
  • Lack of a GPS is absurd in this class of camera in this day and age.
  • Apps are a nice idea, but the App Store is a major problem because purchase by computer requires that the camera be tethered and, more importantly, IT JUST DOESN'T WORK!. Even in camera I can't buy anything. A really shitty failure by Sony, considering the apps should have been free in the first place.
  • Documentation is lacking, and online alternative inexplicably merged with the NEX-5R for added confusion.
  • Memory card slot located directly under the battery door hinge, making it difficult to grab and remove.

None of them are deal-breakers (with the possible exception of no GPS), but I'm hopeful that Sony at least fixes the bracketing and adds TRUELY configurable Fn set-ups with future firmware updates.

In the meanwhile I'll just have to suffer through. Though I don't think that will be too difficult... this is the best camera I've ever owned.

NEX-6 16.1 MP Camera
Sony • $748 @ Amazon

16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 LENS
Sony • $348 @ Amazon ($200 rebate when bought with the camera)

10-18mm f/4 LENS
Sony • $848 @ Amazon

UPDATE: I've gotten a few questions I thought I'd answer here in case anybody Googling this has them too...

Has there been any problems adapting to a mirrorless camera? Not really. The operation is very similar, so the only big difference is the electronic viewfinder. No, it's not as good as a traditional through-the-lens "live" viewfinder... especially in the dark... but I'm so adept at Photoshopping to get what I want out of an image that I am not overly-concerned about having a dead-accurate view. 98% of the time, the digital viewfinder is perfectly good.

You say you like the image quality compared to your DSLR, but what differences do you notice? When I first got the NEX-6 I took it out with my D90 and shot the exact same scenes in a multitude of AUTO settings. Overall, I definitely prefer the brighter, more balanced shots directly out of my D90 on AUTO more than the shots directly out of my NEX-6 on AUTO... I don't know if this is a metering issue or a lens issue, but the NEX-6 produces noticeably darker images out-of-camera than any other camera I own (including the one on my iPhone). If I were an amateur shooter with no Photoshop skills, this would be very upsetting. But I usually shoot MANUAL and RAW, which is a different game entirely. Under those circumstances, I give the edge to the NEX-6... partly because the sensor is bigger and the images are more detailed, but mostly because the images are easier to push where I want them to be in Photoshop (if that makes any sense). All this being said, I know that the NEX-6 would never compare to a modern, high-end pro DSLR for anything serious but, for the travel photography I wanted it for, it's better than what I need.

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  1. Sybil Law says:

    WANT! You should buy me one. For my belated birthday.

  2. claire says:

    Thanks for sharing!

    Re: “RAW mode not supported by many of the “creative” functions.” I think that’s generally true for current cameras. I think they assume if you’re shooting RAW, you’d do those effects in post where you’d have more control.

  3. Ren says:

    You’ve sold me on mirrorless, but no GPS is now a non-starter for me. I’ll keep waiting. Thanks for the info, though!

  4. Looks fabulous! I’ve been using Sony cameras for years and really like their image quality. Looking to dump my DSLR too, so this definitely is on my radar now.

  5. Matt says:

    Dave – I thoroughly enjoy your camera reviews. I love my D40 but agree it can be a bit of a boat anchor. I am always thinking about a mirrorless camera as a compromise, such as your Sony. The other I’ve had my eye on is the Fuji X100S.

    Until then, 99% of my photos will be on my iPhone 5, which is the best camera because it is the one I always “have with me”…

    • Dave2 says:

      I was looking at both the Fuji X100 and the obscenely expensive Sony fixed-lens alternative, the RX1. I was very close to going bankrupt and getting the Sony RX1 just because the big sensor and the amazing Zeiss lens are almost too good to be true… but ultimately decided that I needed changeable lenses. When I travel I’m often in situations where I simply have to have a wide-angle or telephoto lens or I’m not getting the shot… so paying a fortune for a fixed lens just wasn’t an option. Still want one though. If I ever get rich, I’ll buy it. These cameras are so small and light that it would be pretty easy to carry both! I think the Fuji is a little wider, which is nice, but that Zeiss on the Sony is the killer feature for me.

      Let me know if you get that Fuji, as it looks like a great camera, and I’d be interested to hear what it’s like to shoot with!

  6. martymankins says:

    My aging Canon SD 780 IS still goes with me all over and I’ve seriously looked at getting the SD 1400 IS – mostly due to the fact that it takes the same batteries as the SD 780 (and I have 6 of them I carry with me when I travel).

    But I do want something else that’s not much bigger than a point and shoot and I didn’t like the Canon EOS M when I recently tried one out at a local Best Buy. I might have to take a look at this Sony for future use.

  7. andrew brown says:

    Thanks for your review, it was an interesting look at the 6. I bought one last week and I think it’ll make me too lazy ever to go back to film. The menu is very weird, but I was reading about house numbering in Japan and that has helped me understand just how many different ways there are to look at similar questions !
    My Nikon F’s are about 40 years old and if the Nex-6 lasts as long I will say it’s done pretty well.


  8. Andres says:

    You misstate that the nex-7 has a larger sensor than the nex-6. They both have aps-c sensors of the same size…only the pixel count is different (as well as pixel density and size of the individual photosites.)

    • Dave2 says:

      I wasn’t talking physical size… the sensor in the NEX-7 can capture more information, which makes it larger. It’s like an SD card… an 8GB and a 64GB are the same physical size… but the 64GB is larger.

  9. Ren says:

    Well, apparently I lied. I have a Panasonic GX7 arriving on Thursday. Like your Sony, it doesn’t have GPS. At least it has a touch screen. 🙂

    Six months later, how do you find yourself typically carrying the smaller camera?

    • Dave2 says:

      SEE! Now you’re where I’m at! I simply cannot believe that all cameras that are pro-sumer or better don’t have GPS functionality! It’s insane! And yet, my frickin’ PHONE and my POCKET CAMERA have GPS included. What the heck?!?

      But, at the time I purchased my new camera, there wasn’t a GPS camera that would work for me. After reading your comment, apparently there STILL isn’t! Blargh.

      The only reason my Sony NEX-6 is ever NOT tucked into my backpack top-pocket is if I have work equipment to carry there. Like I did on my recent trip to Atlanta. Otherwise? It’s everywhere I go. And it’s the difference between night and day… I easily take ten times the photos I used to.

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