Let the Nex 6 episodic review begin !!!

disclaimer time. This is the start of a series of blogs about my impressions of the Nex-6 camera and some of the lenses you can use with it. I paid full price for the camera body at Precision Camera in Austin, Texas. I was not offered any financial or product consideration or quid pro quo from either the retailer or from Sony or any party related to Sony. I am answerable for my purchase only to God and my wife. If you don't like my opinions about the camera or the review, go write your own.

Let's get the critical stuff out of the way first and that would be: Why did I buy a Nex 6 when I already own a Nex 7, and how do I like the way it feels and handles?

Many years ago, in a moment of extreme photographic hubris, I took a trip to Paris with Belinda and brought along with me only one camera. It was a Leica M3. I'd bought it a couple weeks earlier from a well known camera technician and Leica specialist who told me he'd stripped the camera all the way down, and restored it to "like new" condition before thoroughly testing it. I also brought along one 50mm Summicron lens and a freezer baggie full of film.  On our first night in Paris a screw came loose somewhere inside the camera and got itself wedged into the film advance gears and that was the end of that Leica's usefulness for the trip. Since we would be there for two weeks and one of the main reasons for our  trip was to take some fun and interesting photographs it seemed obvious to me that I had only two choices: Find a trustworthy camera repair person in Paris and convince him to repair a Leica overnight for someone he'd never met before and would probably never see again, or, go to the FNAC store and buy a suitable camera to use for the rest of the trip.

I chose the second path and bought a Contax Aria with a little Zeiss zoom lens. A nice camera but nothing special and soon divested of when I got back to Austin. (The Leica was repaired and returned to me within an hour of presenting it to the original seller with my critique. We are still friends and still do business together. Everyone deserves to be able to make one non-fatal mistake....).  The point of my long story is that it's never a good idea to leave home for a wonderful trip, excursion, event, job, etc. without a back-up camera. A redundant tool that can be instantly pressed into service should your primary tool become unresponsive.  No one likes an unresponsive tool.

As most of my readers know I bought a Sony Nex 7 earlier this year and have been thoroughly enjoying it. It's a great camera. But as I continued to accrue lenses for it I started to think it would be wise to have a good and very similar back-up for the original, just in case. And, as I'm planning some out of town trips in the next few months for the express purpose of photographing I figured I'd go ahead and commit to a second Nex body. Logic says that it's good to get two identical cameras and it makes perfect sense: afterall, you bought the first camera for a reason. I bought a second Nex 7 which developed a problem and I sent it back to the dealer. I had the choice of having them refund my money or having a new body shipped to me. At the time the idea of also buying an a99 was percolating in my head so I just had the seller credit my card for the camera.

I went out to buy the Sony a99 yesterday and, as I was waiting for everything to get sorted and written up I made the mistake of asking to play with the store's demo Nex 6. It was great. It's so much like the Nex 7 but it feels and generates files that seem a little crisper (but we'll get on to that...). The finder on the model I fondled was identical to the one on my Nex 7 and the menus, not counting silly stuff like wi-fi and apps, were nearly identical to the ones I've become accustomed to on the 7.  You only live once I thought and added both the Nex-6 and the Sigma 19mm lens for the Nex cameras to the total tally. I'd purchased the 30mm Sigma just the day before.

If the Nex 6 tested out to my satisfaction and the files were good and rich and sharp I would have satisfied my photographer paranoia and I would be ready to do some day trips and weekend trips for the sole reason of shooting images with the comforting thought that I was as prepared as any boy scout. If you are tired of reading I'll skip right now to the conclusion: Based on my half day of shooting and then looking carefully at a hundred or so files at 100% in Lightroom I would say that I am very, very pleased with the Nex 6 and am glad to make its acquaintance.  It complements the Nex 7 and they overlap each other in very complementary ways.  For more detail, please read on.

This image of the Nex 6 was taken with a Sony a99 camera and the Sigma 70mm Macro lens. It is a direct, out of camera Jpeg. It was shot in the studio at ISO 6400. I've included a 100% (unretouched) crop below for your  pixel peeping pleasure....

The 6 looks a lot like the 7 everywhere except in the material of the body covering and the switch of the Tri-Navi dials to more conventional mode and concentric control dial. I worked with both during the day and didn't have problems changing back and forth. Both cameras are more comfortable in my hands than any of the micro four thirds cameras I've used except for the the Olympus Pen EP 3 which is the prettiest and more ergonomic Pen camera that company has ever made.

Part of my newfound prejudice in favor of the Nex 6 is the fact that I coupled it with the 30mm Sigma lens. It's a lens that comes close to my all time favorite focal length of 50mm on a full frame camera and, I've come to find out, it is exquisitely sharp. It may be the best cheap lens I've ever purchased. I haven't had time to test the 19mm Sigma yet but if it has the same DNA as the 30mm lens I will be delighted. You can judge for yourself from the photos presented below but I will tell you that, looked at large (100%) it make the original 18-55mm Sony kit lens look a bit anemic.

While the system performance is important, and is the only set of parameters that can be objectively measured, I find it difficult to use a camera whose feel I don't enjoy. Here's where everyone is different. What I like in a camera others may not, and vice versa. I'm right eyed so the finder on the top left of the camera feels just right to me. I have small to medium sized hands and if you have large hands you may find the button placement too tight and the grip too small. But for me these cameras are functionally well imagined. The bigger DSLT's are a whole different ballgame and evoke a different way of holding and working that has its own feel and structure. Not better or worse, just different.

This is a 100% crop from the shot just above, included to show the performance of the a99 at ISO 6400 with no retouching or post process noise reduction.

What are the things I like about the Nex 6?  Well, first off the less dense sensor in this camera is better at doing files in low light and at higher ISOs than the Nex 7. How much better? How about a stop and a half. While I'm sure that some of the improvement comes from a newly redesigned 16 megapixel sensor I'm equally sure that Sony is catching up with Nikon on figuring out how to introduce in camera noise reduction that is less smeary than the last generation and also has more monochromatic noise and less chroma (color splotchy) noise. Both of these things give us files that appear less noisy and more detailed and, for the most part, that's a good thing. So why not just get rid of the Nex 7 and get another Nex 6? Good question but I have the suspicion that the Nex 7 files are better at the other end of the spectrum; at the lowest ISOs.  Both cameras are really great imaging machines. If I needed the most resolution and detail with the  widest dynamic range I think the Nex 7 will be the leader. I'll test them head to head someday just to see but for now I'm happy to own a low noise camera and an uber-detailed camera. As I said, they cross over each other nicely.

I came into the kitchen last night and one small halogen can light was on at low intensity over the work table. I hand held the camera with the 19mm lens on  it (no image stabilization) and shot a few frames using the auto-ISO function. The white balance is very, very good for a low intensity halogen source while the  exposure, using manual metering, is both right on the money and exactly as I saw it (pre-chimped) in the electronic viewfinder. See the image below for a 100% crop.

100% crop of the frame at ISO 2000. Nex 6 and 19mm Sigma.

While this generation of Sony Nex cameras (the Nex5R has the same basic sensor) is not going to kick sand in the face of something like a Nikon D4 it certainly is as good as the Nikon D7000 or any of the other Sony chip toting APS-C cameras and perhaps better than a number of them. I'll say right up front that I found the files to be relatively noise free up to 800. Very good up to 3200 and usable even at 6400 (albeit at smaller sizes when in the nose bleed territory). But as a general, all around town camera, working at sane ISO's like 100, 200, and 400 it is the IQ equal of any APS-C camera on the market today at just about any price. That's pretty darn good.  So, good noise handling and good hand handling. Let's go on.

It was a lovely day in Austin. A bit overcast but not too warm and not too cold. Belinda joined me for a Sunday walk around downtown. I carried the 6, equipped with the 30mm Sigma and old a spare battery in one pocket.  Here's what I observed as we walked and I stopped from time to time to shoot a few images:

The camera seems to wake up slower than the 7. Some have conjectured the slow start may be lens dependent, and since I bought the camera without the new kit lens and have only use the Sigma I can't be sure. But I know that from the time I flip the "on" switch till the time the camera is ready to shoot can take four or five seconds. With this in mind I rarely turned the camera totally off but preferred to let ut fall asleep. When the camera was awake it focused very quickly. A bit quicker than my 7 and not much slower than a typical mid-level, conventional DSLR. 

In many daylight scenes the camera seems to like to underexpose by 1/3 to 2/3s of a stop in order, I suppose, to protect the highlights. I liked most of my daylight scenes best with a +1/3 stop adjustment. Of course, when I'm shooting in manual I mostly judge the exposure by the look of the image in the EVF and what I'm seeing in the live histogram.

A few reviews have nicked the 6 for not being perfectly white balanced under artificial light conditions but I think this is mostly ramped up criticism coming from writers who feel hell bent to be "balanced."  And by that I mean they feel that they have to come up with some negatives in a camera review to balance out any analysis of a camera that's overwhelmingly good. My experience with the camera, both under florescent light and tungsten light is that it is exceedingly good at coming to a convincing white balance. Probably better than a number of regular DSLRs, with the added benefit that you can see what the camera is choosing for a white balance in the EVF as you are analyzing the scene, even before you shoot it. It's a simple matter to dial in a more accurate WB in real time. But hardly necessary. All of the images in this report were done with AWB in Jpeg and they are as accurate as I can remember.

While I know that most advanced photographers like to shoot raw I tend to shoot my casual photographs in Jpeg. I usually set the camera to the largest file size and the lowest compression (highest quality) and rarely am I unhappy that I have foregone the ritual RAW dance. I am beginning to think of RAW files as something that only needs to be done on very critical shoots and by owners of OVF cameras who don't have the luxury of both pre-chimping their shots and having a good, reliable review/preview image to view. The screen on the backs of most cameras is rarely reliable because of all the ambient light falling on it. Rear screens are really only usable for reliable file review if you both to carry along and use something like a Zacuto or Hoodman loupe. With an EVF your view of the image is sheltered from the ambient light and different light color temperatures giving you a much more accurate rendition of how the scene will look on your monitor back in the studio.

I've been using the Nex system since mid Summer and I have two real complaints, one which is solved by spending more money and the other time will be solved by time and the building success of the system. The first is the meager number of exposures you get per charged battery.  With batteries that have been charged three or four times I'm getting around 500-600 exposures. I'd like to get more because I'm a pretty promiscuous shooter. That problem is solvable by buying more batteries. I have six between my two Nex cameras and that more than enough for a comfortable weekend of shooting or a long commercial job.

I take off Sony points for making 6 owners charge their batteries in camera with one of those silly-ass USB chargers. But my work around was to buy two aftermarket batteries, complete with their own charger so now I can charge two batteries at a and still be able to shoot. Yes, the batteries seem to all perform exactly the same.  

The second problem really is a paucity of fun lenses with which to shoot. But those seem to be dribbling and drabbling onto the market at a quickening pace. The new wide angle Sony zoom is a great addition which I'm sure I'll buy at some point but what I really want are more fast, long lenses. I'd love to see a 70mm 1.8 and maybe a 90mm f2.0.  In the meantime I am very happy with the 50mm 1.8 OSS and I am happy with my brief experiences with the Sigma lenses.  Additionally, I've had mixed success with Olympus manual Pen FT lenses and Fotodiox lens adapters. All the longer lenses work well at wide open to middling apertures but the shorter lenses (20 and 25 mm) seem to have magenta patches that start around f8 and get worse and worse as I stop down. It probably has to do with the angle at which the light strikes the sensor lenses. I don't really know.

My recommendation to anyone buy one of the Sony Nex cameras is to pick up the primes.  Pick up the primes. I don't have first hand experience with the 16mm, but that's mostly because I've heard so many complaints about it. I can vouch for the two Sigmas, the 19 and the 30mm and I've heard great things about the Zeiss 24mm.  Again, if the system proves to be a marketing success I'm sure that the third party lenses will begin to arrive, en mass, in a short amount of time.

In the meantime I'm also having good success with the Nex 7 and regular series Alpha DSLT lenses, via a Sony adapter.  I use the 35mm DT, the 50mm DT, the 85mm 2.8 and even the longer zooms on the Nex 7 (and soon on the Nex 6) without any fringing or discoloration. I like using the LAEA-1 adapter since it adds no mirror or glass between the camera and the lens but I do find that particular adapter might as well give up the pretention of providing AF because it's slower than third world mail and hunts more than Cajuns. I take advantage of Sony's well implemented focus peaking and focus all of the adapted lenses manually. It works very, very well. In cases where I'm making important shots I use the focusing magnifier to fine focus at much greater magnifications and this makes the process dead accurate. 

Using auto-ISO in Aperture preferred priority the 6 does a good job of matching up ISO with shutter speeds that I can handhold with great sharpness and I like that. On the Nex 6 the auto-ISO goes all the way up to ISO 3200 and even there the camera makes really good files. What good is capping the ISO at a lower ISO if unsharpness from handholding the camera ruins the image anyway?

 The image above and the three images just below were shot at the W Hotel this afternoon. Most of the images are from the conference and event spaces on the second floor and are in low light. The camera was set to f4 and, via auto ISO, set shutter speeds of around 1/60th and ISO of anywhere from 1600 to 3200. All of the images were perfectly exposed by the camera. Pretty cool. I'm not so thrilled with all the white furniture in the space or the really forced modernesque paintings, loaded with lots of sharp angles and diagonals. Seems like a blend of 1999 and high school art class at the Star Fleet academy but I can't blame the W's bad taste on a little Sony camera...

So the real question that seems always implied when people get carried away and start buying these little cameras is--------Why would you buy these when you already have camera bags full of real cameras that can already make amazing images? Why buy a slower, less featured camera?

It's not just fashion. Really. These cameras do some things that we used to value in the days of yore. They are small and light which makes them easy to pack and carry around. A significant value is that they don't look like big professional cameras so no one really pays any more attention to them than they do to a cellphone camera. Advantage? I spent a half hour rummaging around the W Hotel and was never stopped or questioned by the staff. They saw the small camera and just assumed, "tourist/guest." That in itself is extremely valuable. I'm betting I could get into places which would be off limits for "pro cameras" and still be able to make convincing and technically good images.

The cameras a visually and aurally quiet. There's still some shutter noise but it's a fraction of the noise that conventional moving mirror camera make.

But it's mostly because, when used properly, there's no difference in the files between these small, easy to use cameras and their best lenses and the images that come squirting out of the slamming noisy V8 "professional" cameras----just a lot less drama and chaos. 

Absolutely freaking good automatic color balance under an avalanche of mixed lights. And darn nice candy.

The bottom line is that cameras and photography are changing faster than we ever imagined. All the things we thought were prerequisites to good photographs are dissolving in the proof of new technologies. The sensors in the Nex 6 and Nex 7 may be the very best on offer in ANY APS-C camera on the market today. The EVF finder is a powerful tool for both still photographers and (even moreso) for video makers. And I haven't even touched on the glitzy stuff like the built in HDR or Multi-Frame Noise Reduction or the ten frames per second mode, or the 60 fps full HD video modes, and the wonderful color rendering from these cameras.  We'll do that on another blog. 

For now I give the Nex 6 my highest award:  I bought one for myself. Yes, I could run an imaging business with it.  Optimally? Maybe not. Successfully? Better than with the tools we had for ten times the money just five years ago, and we made a lot of people happy with those.

Oh look. Out of coffee. I'm off to see a dress rehearsal. A different kind of scouting.

More to come.

Amazon current has the Sigma 19mm and 30mm lenses for Sony on sale for $149 !!!