Photography and Backpacking – Part 8 of 10

Mirrorless Cameras Blazing the Trail for Backpackers

Our series on Backpacking and Photography is almost wrapped up. On to other things soon, but for now the NEXt installment! Originally this segment was going to be dedicated to a slightly different topic, but I thought due to recent popularity and discussion about mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras I would talk a little about them, focusing on the NEX series by Sony.

 

What’s in a Mirrorless Camera?

The term ‘mirrorless’ is used to distinguish this group of cameras from SLR cameras which have dominated the digital interchangeable-lens camera market in recent years. SLR’s use a mirror to allow the photographer to see through the lens via the viewfinder. When the shutter is opened the mirror swings upward with a quick thrust and the image is exposed on the sensor (or film) producing that nifty mirror slap sound that your friends will envy. SLR’s are great, but the mechanics behind the mirror assembly are somewhat complicated and in turn result in a rather large camera body. Enter mirrorless cameras…

Sony NEX 5N vs. Canon T1i

NEX 5N with Voigtlander 35/1.7 lens, Canon T1i with 35/1.4 lens at nearly 1.5 lbs heavier

By doing away with the mirror assembly, the camera size can be reduced and the lenses can sit closer to the sensor, reducing their size as well. These cameras match closely, although not strictly, with the rangefinder camera design which also lacks a mirror in front of the sensor. Rangefinders are a type of camera that were/are rather popular because of their compact size and the different user experience they offer. Amongst others, manufactures such as Leica, Voigtlander, Yashica, Canon, and Nikon have produced rangefinder cameras over the years. The ‘rangefinder’ is actually the optical device which the photographer looks through to compose and focus. On an SLR the viewfinder displays the view through the lens, on a rangefinder the viewfinder is looking though a separate optical device. This is neither here nor there, just a little back history to cache in your noggin.

NEX 7 and 5N

Note the integrated viewfinder at upper left corner of NEX 7

With the advent of the Electronic View Finder (EVF) suddenly rangefinder-like cameras are emerging on the digital scene (The Leica M9 is a true digital rangefinder with a traditional optical viewfinder, great camera but different subject matter). One might call this the EVIL uprising! [insert menacing laugh here] No, no – don’t run. It’ll be alright. EVIL cameras are actually totally safe, and unrelated to Chupacabra or any other denizens of darkness. EVIL is an acronym for Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens (By the way, I did not coin this term. The ‘EVIL’ acronym could only have been borne from a congress of individuals much more snide than myself). Mirrorless cameras have been around for a while and many of the major brands have at least a few models on the market. The largest segment of them utilize a micro four-thirds sensor (which we talked about earlier in this series). The Sony NEX cameras all utilize the APS-C sensor which is the same physical size as that found in most DSLR’s. The NEX’s however, offer an unprecedented size and weight advantage over other cameras sporting the same sensor, making them at least one of the ideal camera options for our backpacking brethren.

 

The NEX Family

To date (Jan 9, 2012), Sony has released five NEX cameras: The NEX 3, 5, C3, 5N, and 7.  Technically speaking the only EVIL camera here is the NEX 7 which has a built in electronic viewfinder, and an excellent one at that! The 5N allows for the option of adding the viewfinder as an accessory (it is the same technology of the viewfinder in the 7, only external). None of the other models listed provide for this option. Most of the differences between models amount to imaging improvements (including video) and some differences in firmware. Since the product line is still young I do believe that this is one of those rare times when it’s worth getting the latest model (either the 5N or 7 at this point in time). From a standpoint of use for hiking and backpacking, all of them are small and light and should serve the purpose well for anyone wanting to take a step up to a larger sensor. I’m going to talk about the NEX 5N since I own it, and just a little about the NEX 7. Let’s take a quick look at a few key specs…

Side by Side Comparison
- NEX 5N NEX 7
MSRP: $600 $1200
Size: 4.37 x 2.32 x 1.50 in 4.72 x 2.64 x 1.69 in
Weight (no batt): 7.2 oz 10.3 oz
Sensor: 16mp APS-C 1.5x crop 24mp APS-C 1.5x crop
Video: 1080p 60/24 1080p 60/24
Video Mic: Internal Internal or External
Viewfinder: Optional EVF Built In EVF
Controls: Minimalist SLR-Like
Flash: Accessory Built in
Hot Shoe: No Yes
LCD Screen: 3″ 920k touchscreen 3″ 920k screen
Battery Weight: 2 oz 2 oz
Battery Life: 450+ photos 400+ photo

 

Handling

At a glance, the specs hints that the NEX 7 is the more robust camera. The viewfinder and addition of two control dials will make handling feel familiar for anyone with experience using an SLR or rangefinder camera.  Handling the 5N is definitely unique experience and will probably feel most familiar to users who are upgrading from P&S cameras. Optically the 5N and 7 perform similarly. There is a one ‘gotcha!’ with regard to the lenses each camera can utilize, which I’ll talk about a little later in this article (this applies only to non-Sony lenses).

I have to admit, being a SLR user, I always considered the NEX a glorified P&S camera until I took the time to really investigate it, and finally purchased one. I decided on the 5N due to it’s small size, weight, and reasonable price! I will admit that it has taken some time to get used to handling it. When I hear others complain about the ergonomics I suspect that they get hung up on it feeling too different and give up quickly. I have heard comments made that it’s not a ‘real’ camera, or that ‘real photographers’ won’t like it. Well, I have to say those comments are ridiculous. This camera is seemingly built directly from the wishlist of a photography enthusiast. I searched for an analogy, and the first thought I came up with was: the NEX 5N is like the Lotus of cameras – it’s a straightforward performance-centric design; comforts or frills that otherwise don’t improve the performance are nowhere to be found. Much of the ultralight backpacking gear that we choose is made around the same principle. At the end of the day if the ergonomics don’t suit you, bailing out is the right answer, but I’d suggest for anyone in that boat to give it a little time before jumping ship.

To be more specific about handling the 5N; I have found that I prefer carrying it on an across-the-chest strap for quick access. My strap is a length of dyneema cord (I picked it up from Lawson Equipment if I recall) with a couple of overhand knots at one end, the other end looped through the other strap loop, and doubled back on itself with a taut line hitch to provide length adjustment.

Ultralight strap fashioned from 2mm cord.

Ultralight strap fashioned from 2mm cord.

Since I acquired the camera (fall 2011) I have only hiked with it a few times (my winter hiking has fallen prey to ‘The Holidays’ thus far). I have spent quite a bit of time carrying it around town, as well as on my hikes and I still like carrying it in this way. I do not (yet) own the viewfinder accessory (which adds an ounce by the way… oh and $350… ouch!). When I want to take a photo I flip the screen out and brace the camera against my chest or stomach, then look downwards at the LCD. At waist level I like to extend the camera downward until the strap is taut which provides a little extra stability. In any event, this method of composing is very stable, and convenient as I’m hiking along and decide to take a photo. The camera is right there, I flip it on, flip open the screen and take the shot. That’s me below in my sweet green Houdini, demonstrating what I just described.

Composing a shot at waist level

Composing a shot at waist level

Composing a shot at waist level

A closer look

The common gripe about viewfinder-less NEX cameras is using them in portrait orientation. The screen does not tilt in a way that the camera can be held like I’ve described above. Therefore, as you’re probably already imagining, it must be held at arms length like a P&S.

Composing a shot at arms length

Composing a shot at arms length

Composing a shot at arms length

A closer look.

I have been experimenting with composing this way, I try to keep my elbows braced against my sides for stability. Before I take the shot I can take a step forward to bring my body to the camera for additional stability. This seems to work fine, but when critical focus is needed (such as using a wide aperture, or working at close distance to the subject) there’s the chance of missing focus. The viewfinder accessory would solve this issue. Since my intended use is mostly landscape photography I don’t use the camera in portrait orientation very often that it has become an issue to me.

The camera is otherwise easy to use. I’ll discuss the interface specifics a little later in the article.

 

Focusing

With any of Sony’s E-Mount lenses, autofocus with the 5N is neato. You simply touch the area on the screen where you want to focus, and viola!… it focuses there. Various settings in the menu allow the camera to track a moving subject as well. The NEX 7 lacks the touchscreen, and therefore does not have the touch-to-focus feature.

An interesting feature (that can be disabled if found annoying) is automatic manual-focus assist. This is another feature that works only with E-Mount lenses. When manually focusing (using the lens’ focus ring) the LCD automatically magnifies the view so you can focus more precisely. An additional button tap doubles the magnification to help you nail the focus.

Manual focusing can again be enhanced by a feature called focus peaking. This is feature works with ANY lens. As the focus ring is turned the areas that are in-focus become highlighted in a color (you choose from several in the menu) that allows you to better judge where the plane of focus is. For all but the most critical focusing this works very well, and speeds up the process of manually focusing a lens. The feature can be activated or deactivated from within the menu; I hope in the future Sony allows this to be programmed on one of the buttons for quick access as there are times I like to turn it off.

Worth noting is that all of the above focusing enhancements work with the viewfinder accessory.

When it comes to manual focusing I have some beefs with the Sony lenses that I’ll talk about in a second. The strength of the NEX series, especially the 5N, is the ability to use practically any other SLR or Rangefinder lens dating back to the beginning of time. With the focus enhancements available, the ease of manual focus with legacy lenses on the NEX is simply awesome.

 

Sony Lenses

Sony offers a small variety of E-Mount lenses to date, and the lineup is growing. Additionally they have opened the doors to third party manufacturers and already Tamron and Sigma have things in the works, among others I’m sure (very exciting!). I’m not going to talk about them in depth. The one lens that most people will be likely to use at some point is the SEL 18-55, or ‘kit lens’ as we lovingly like to call it. This lens can be had for a measly $100 when purchased as a kit with the camera.

The 18-55 is one of the better kit lenses I’ve come across. It has a metal barrel and mount (nice) and plastic guts (typical) that keep it light (again, nice). What I like about it is that it delivers very good quality from 24-28mm, and acceptable quality from 18-24, and 28-35. It’s very sharp at the center, almost to a fault, so it can produce crisp images easily. At 18mm and f5.6 it’s just slightly behind the Sony 16mm pancake, at other apertures it’s better than pancake lens. You get the wonderful autofocus with it and the auto MF assist. All good things.

What’s not to like then? It’s not exactly the smallest lens in the world. Apart from that, optically it’s alright, but not excellent. The difference between the center and edge performance is moderate at pretty much every focal length; in other words, there is a moderate drop off in sharpness moving away from the center of the frame. Unless you’re printing 8×10 this will likely not matter much (if at all), but coupled with the second issue – performance from 35mm through 55mm, it might start to be an issue. The lack of detail resolution at 55mm is a bummer, and it’s noticeable already at 35mm. The sweet spot of the lens is 24mm. Plus or minus a few mm of that it performs fine. Beyond that range… not so much. My last gripe about the Sony lenses is that they focus by wire. In other words, the manual focus system is linked to the lens electronically; there are no distance scales or focus stops. This leads to a rather disconnected feeling for people who prefer to manually focus most of the time.

5N + Sony 18-55mm

5N + Sony 18-55mm

With that said, I think the majority of users would be quite happy with the 18-55 kit lens. When paired with a lens such as the Sony 50/1.8, or 30/3.5 macro (depending on your needs) it becomes a small, light, and relatively inexpensive kit able to provide a wide, normal, and short-telephoto range of views. I find the Sony superzooms a bit large for hiking, and as a prime lens user I just can’t bring myself to reach for them, but others might enjoy the versatility that they can offer, and the SEL 55-210mm has shown surprising quality.

So what about the Sony 16/2.8? In my opinion, this lens has only one merit – its size. I find its strong signature unattractive, that is, the center of the frame is very sharp and falloff in sharpness is dramatic moving away from the center of the image until about f8. I’m not suggesting the lens is ‘bad’, but it’s better suited for creative shooting than landscape use, and for anyone carrying the SEL 18-55, the 16mm is redundant. On the 5N both the Voigtlander 12mm or 15mm Heliar lenses perform very nicely and offer a better alternative to the Sony 16mm. Either will make a great companion to the 18-55 kit lens. The Zeiss ZM (Leica M-mount) 18mm f4.0 lens performs extremely well on the 5N and is probably the best choice for the serious landscape photographer, although it’s 3x the weight and cost of the Voigtlander lenses, and not as compact. The Leica Elmar 18mm f3.8 is another alternative for those whom have high standards, it’s about the same size as the Zeiss 18mm, and twice the cost of the Zeiss!

5N + Sony 16mm

5N + Sony 16mm

Then of course we have the new Sony-Zeiss 24/1.8. I have not used it. I can only comment to what I’ve seen and been told from friends. I’m sure this lens will make 9/10 people happy, and it better for $1000! Early samples from photographers I know (who are critical of their gear) show that the lens is very good… at close distances, and sadly, nothing to jump up and down about at longer distance. The biggest surprise here, is the lack of chromatic aberration control. To me this is a big disappointment. It seems to fall short of what one typically expects from Zeiss who has a history of producing excellent (and of course expensive) lenses. The catch is… there are really no other lens options (Sony or otherwise) in this focal length that will work well with either the 5N or 7… unless we accept a large SLR lens, a slightly large and more expensive Zeiss rangefinder lens (ZM 25/2.8, 21/4.5), or a small and much more expensive Leica rangefinder lens (Elmar 24, Elmarit 24, Summilux 24, Summicron 28). Backpackers may feel conflicted about this lens, due to the cost, moderate size, and average performance for landscape photography. What makes the Zeiss most difficult to swallow for me, is that the kit lens is at its best at this focal length! I’m hoping some third party manufacture decides to make something like a 24mm f2.8 pancake lens that costs under $500… we’ll see.

Time will give us more lenses. There are rumors of a Sony 30mm f2.0 pancake for 2012, and we know several big third party manufacturers have jumped on the hot ticket otherwise known as NEX. Today the Sony OEM lens lineup is maybe the Achilles heel of the NEX, if there is one, and if that’s the worst of our problems then things aren’t too grim!

 

Alternative Lenses

The NEX has brought joy to all of us who celebrate alternative lenses. Like most things, lenses aren’t made like they used to be, and all of the ‘old’ manual focus lenses are as good as they always have been. The NEX can take just about any lens we want to mount on it. Lately though, I find less desire to mount SLR lenses to my 5N. I have flirted with some of the smaller (Olympus Pen F, OM, and Minolta Rokkor) lenses but at the end of the day the tiny rangefinder lenses (‘RF lenses’) seem right at home on the NEX. Most SLR lens adapters are quite long on their own (as seen below), so even an SLR pancake style lens becomes a different animal on the NEX.

Many SLR lenses in the 24-50mm range are about the same size as the kit lens on the NEX.

Many SLR lenses in the 24-50mm range are about the same size as the kit lens on the NEX.

A typical SLR lens adapter (left) vs. a Leica M adapter (right)

A typical SLR lens adapter (left) vs. a Leica M adapter (right)

Through some fun trial and error I have narrowed down a few RF lenses that don’t hit the wallet too hard and perform well on the NEX 5N – but before we go further I need to address that ‘gotcha!’ that I mentioned earlier. None of the NEX cameras were specifically designed to work with the RF lenses. It’s been called a happy accident that the 5N works well with many, but not all of them. For the most part, lenses wider than 35mm are where the trouble can occur. In the worst case we end up with images that have blue-purple tint along the edges and corners (referred to as color shift) and loss of detail (usually seen as smearing) in those areas. In some cases the color shift may be present without the noticeable loss of detail, or vice versa. Colorshift can be a bit of a pain in the arm, but it can be corrected in a number of ways via post processing (including the Cornerfix program which was invented to solve a similar issue for digital Leica users). The photos below were taken by my friend Charlie, both using the Cosina Voigtlander 21mm f4.0 rangefinder lens. The first sample illustrates ‘bad’ color shift with this lens on the NEX 5 (not 5N). The second sample is the same camera and same lens – the color shift is still there, but not as pronounced… strange eh?

Colorshift with NEX 5 and CV 21/4.0

Color shift with NEX 5 + CV 21/4.0

Colorshift with NEX 5 and CV 21/4.0 (less obvious here)

Color shift with NEX 5 + CV 21/4.0 (less obvious here due to focus distance, lighting, and color differences in the scene)

The next set of images were taken by me with the same lens as above on my 5N to illustrate the improvement in the 5N when it comes to handling color shift.

Color shift on the NEX 5N with CV 21/4.0

Color shift the NEX 5N + CV 21/4.0


Color shift corrected with editing software

Color shift corrected with editing software

On the 5N, many of the wide angle RF lenses exhibit at least a little color shift. In practice it can be hard to detect many times, some situations are more prone to showing it, such as foggy weather, gray overcast sky, or snow. The NEX 7 has, unfortunately, shown that it pronounces color shift worse than the 5N. The only way to know which lenses are problematic for each camera model is to use them and find out; if you’re new to rangefinder lenses, especially with the NEX cameras, do a little homework before diving in head first. Here are a few suggestions that I have found to work well on my 5N. These are all lenses manufactured by Cosina Voigtlander (“CV”) made to mount to Leica rangefinder cameras, or to an NEX with an adapter. My comments below reflect the lens performance at f8, which in my opinion, is necessary with most lenses to obtain corner and edge sharpness that’s on par with the image’s center sharpness.

  • CV Heliar 12/5.6 (5.7 oz) – Ultrawide view, small amount of color shift, small amount of detail loss at corners.
  • CV Heliar 15/4.5 (4.0 oz) – Ultrawide ~ Wide view, moderate color shift, very good detail in edges and corners.
  • CV Color Skopar 35/2.5 (4.7 oz), Normal view, small amount of color shift, very good detail in edges and corners.
  • CV Ultron 35/1.7 (4.7 oz), Normal view, no significant color shift, very small amount of detail loss at edges and corners.
  • CV Nokton 40/1.4 (6.9 oz), Normal view, no significant color shift, very small amount of detail loss at edges and corners.
  • CV Lanthar 90/3.5 (9.1 oz), Telephoto view, no noticeable color shift, very good detail in edges and corners.

In addition to these the CV 50/2.5 and 75/2.5 have both shown to be very good on the 5N, I have not used them however. By the way, the Voigtlander to Sony NEX adapter for these lenses weighs 2.3 oz and only one is needed.

A visual comparison of the SEL 18-55 vs. several Cosina Voigtlander lenses

A visual comparison of the SEL 18-55 vs. several Cosina Voigtlander lenses

 

My kit consists of the following:

  • NEX 5N + 7.5 oz
  • Battery + 2.0 oz
  • Battery + 2.0 oz
  • CV 15/4.5 + 4.0 oz
  • CV 35/2.5 + 4.7 oz
  • CV 90/3.5 + 9.1 oz
  • Leica-M to Sony-E Adapter + 2.3 oz
  • Memory + 0.05 oz
  • Memory + 0.05 oz
  • Strap + 0.1 oz

Total: 31.8 oz

Just under 2 lbs for the entire kit! To put that into perspective, my Canon 5D and 35L lens weigh 3.5 lbs already. Ugh. All of the lenses I’m carrying utilize 39mm filters (the 15mm lens takes a little McGyver ingenuity as it lacks a filter thread). I only carry one ND filter, and one Circular Polarizer for about a half ounce each. A miniature tripod such as the Pedco Ultrapod (introduced to me by a fellow BPL’er) adds 2 oz, the Gorillapod Hybrid is a little more stable at 6 oz. For a monopod option check out the Titanium Goat (now Ruta Locura) trekking pole camera mount adding a measly half ounce to your load. The NEX allows building a fully featured, compact, and lightweight kit around it… what more could you ask for?

5N + CV 15 + Gorillapod

Not an alien invasion. Just the 5N + CV 15 + Gorillapod perched on a log.

So prime lenses aren’t for everyone, true, true… but they can make a great addition to whatever zoom lens you’re carrying. Primes offer excellent image quality in a small and light package; please don’t discount them simply because of the ‘they don’t zoom’ thing. They don’t have to cost a fortune either. Leica has a history of making excellent lenses that are built to last, however they often have price tags in the thousands of dollars, even used they hold their value well (which is good if you plan to own them). Cosina Voigtlander offers some excellent alternatives to the Leica lenses at prices that are realistic for the average guy or gal. I picked up each of the lenses in my kit for under $300 second hand. Manual focus is another hurdle to overcome, but in all honesty for landscape use, and even photographing people ‘casually’ it shouldn’t pose a problem for anyone who is willing to spend just a little time practicing, especially with all of the nice focus aids on the NEX.

The NEX 5N is perhaps rivaled only by the Ricoh GXR in terms of lens flexibility. This is an interesting camera that combines the sensor with the lens mount in a module that can be swapped out, called a ‘Lensor’. The Ricoh offers better performance with the rangefinder lenses on its 12mp Leica lensor which has a design similar in some respects to the digital Leica M9. We already know that Ricoh is planning to release a new Leica lensor module based on the NEX 5N sensor (with some special tweaks); If Ricoh decides to release an updated body with an EVF on par with Sony’s… it will be an enticing choice for the backpacker who favors alternative glass, until then we have the 5N.

Here’s a quick tip for using manual focus lenses…

By enabling the Auto-ISO feature and using the Shutter Priority (S) shooting mode, you will effectively have full manual control and auto-iso. This provides dedicated control over the shutter speed (via the dial on the camera) and aperture (via the lens aperture ring), and let’s the camera choose the ISO to use for the proper exposure. Since the 5N has very good high-ISO capability, there’s no need to worry about what the camera chooses in all but the darkest scenes. This configuration should please experienced users who prefer manual control, however users who are learning about manually operating the camera will benefit here also. The camera is still determining the exposure by varying the ISO setting, so it’s a more forgiving learning experience vs. jumping straight into ‘M’ mode (full manual control).

‘S’ and ‘A’ modes will both work with auto-iso, however using the technique with ‘S’ mode above seems to be more reliable.

When hiking briskly, time spent camera-fiddling can be an issue. This technique removes one of the three exposure variables from the equation, and provides a quicker way to set the remaining two since they now have dedicated control. If this still isn’t fast enough, switch to ‘A’ with auto-iso, leaving only one exposure variable to take charge of. By maintaining even this minimal amount of control over the exposure it’s possible to experiment with subject isolation/background blur, or long exposure times (in ‘S’ mode) to create interesting effects on moving subjects like water or clouds. Auto mode is always there of course, but the NEX seems to encourage its user to be creative.

 

Interface/Handling Likes and Gripes

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first…

  • The 5N isn’t perfect. We’ve already covered the quirks in handling while composing in portrait orientation. This is a legit gripe that is really only addressed by adding the $350 view finder. On the positive side of that, some users have reported a preference to the external EVF; due to it being in the center of the camera their face provides additional points of contact while using it (similar to a SLR or Rangefinder), whereas the NEX 7 viewfinder is positioned at the top left corner of the camera where only left-eye dominant users will have the added stability of bracing the camera against their nose/cheek.
  • Focusing manually in bright sunlight can be challenging without the EVF. I try to shade the screen with the brim of my hat, body, tree or rock if I must. By using the EVF or AF lenses this issue is solved.
  • Functions such as activating/deactivating focus peaking are not able to be customized to one of the available buttons. Additionally, when a manual focus lens is mounted the bottom button over rides whatever program setting it has been given and defaults to MF assist… which is pointless since MF assist can be activated by simply touching the screen (NEX 5N only) as mentioned previously. If this button could be programmable with an MF lens mounted it would be a nice improvement… even better if we can assign it to focus peaking on/off!
  • The video record button is located where it tends to get inadvertently activated… annoying.
  • Remote control is implemented as a drive mode, this limits the ability to use other drive modes along with the remote.
  • Exposure bracketing is limited to +/- 0.7 EV. This is not very useful and I cannot understand why it was restricted in this way.
  • None of the current NEX cameras are weather sealed.

Now the good stuff…

  • On the back of the camera we have 2 buttons and a dial/4-way directional pad with a third button at its center. The interface is very simple, there is not much to fumble around with.
  • As far as customization goes, the top button is dedicated to bringing up the menu (which displays 6 large icons with titles). The bottom button can be customized, for example maybe you’d like to put AE Lock (auto exposure lock) on a button setting, no problem. The center button, by default brings up the shooting mode selection. This button can instead be assigned to bring up a custom menu with up to 5 functions of your choice. This is the only button that can access the custom menu. My custom menu includes: ISO, WB, Metering Mode, Dynamic Range Control, and Image Quality. ISO and WB are the functions I access the most. The directional pad ‘right press’ can be customized as well, so I have mine set to bring up the shooting mode dial (there is no physical dial control, it’s a virtual dial displayed on-screen; the shooting mode dial is also one of the 6 icons displayed on the main menu). The level of customization could be improved, but it’s a good asset as it stands now.
  • The ‘left press’ of the directional pad accesses the drive mode (single shot, multi shot, rapid burst, etc…). ‘Bottom press’ accesses exposure compensation, and ‘top press’ switches between display modes. With just a three buttons and the control dial we have direct access to just about everything important.
  • The playback button and video record button reside on top of the camera along with the on/off switch.
  • The touchscreen is very nice, bright, clear, articulates to accommodate for overhead or waist level shooting. The menus and playback can be navigated via the screen too, but the directional pad navigates just as well, if not better.
  • The live histogram is very useful for judging manual exposure and/or exposure compensation for a scene. This is my favorite display mode.
  • There are about 5 display modes but they can be selectively deactivated from the menu. In doing this, when cycling display modes (using top pad press) only the display modes that were left enabled will come up.
  • The EVF is awesome, bright, and very easy to use. It also tilts and can be used like an angle-finder.
  • Manual focusing is (relatively speaking) very easy on the NEX. Exposure is real time (and can be seen on the display/finder) so there is no need for stop-down metering. For those who don’t know what stop-down metering is, it’s photographer slang for ‘a pain in the ass’. Thankfully we don’t have to worry about that with the NEX.
  • Focus peaking adds to the manual focus experience. The NEX could be the gateway drug that tempts its owner to finally give manual focusing a try!

 

Image Quality

Maybe the best part about the NEX cameras is the image quality they offer. The 5N sensor is excellent, as is that of the NEX 7. Compared to compact sensors, both of these cameras offer superior noise control, better color reproduction, and higher dynamic range. All of which result in better photos out of the camera, and files that provide more leeway in post-processing. I think as of today there are few, if any, cameras that can challenge these at their respective price points and form factors.

Out of camera JPEG’s look very nice, but to get the most from the files shooting with RAW format is the way to go. The NEX 7 offers about 22% more resolution than the 5N (measured along the diagonal), it’s not as dramatic an increase as it initially seems when comparing 16 and 24 MP, then again when printing at 13×19 inches, the 7 has enough resolution to provide 300 pixels per inch for a very crisp print, even at ‘closer than usual’ viewing distances. For digital viewing there is no logic that could justify more than 6 megapixels, so either of these cameras clearly exceed that requirement. Speaking of big RAW files, 5N users can expect to fit about 250 of them on an 8GB chip.

Windmill at the Ranch

Windmill at the Ranch

I’ve found the images from the 5N to be of excellent quality, which seems to concur with all of the photographers I know who use it as well as most of the major online reviewers. I use my Canon 5D as a benchmark, and the results between the two are very similar, which says a lot for the 5N. It also says a lot of the 6 year-old 5D still keeping up with the latest and greatest! The old Canon may be ever so slightly ahead of the 5N in terms of detail resolved (hardly enough to matter) but one place the 5N excels is in shadow detail and the ability to lift the shadows in post processing without excessive noise creeping in or ‘banding’ artifacts appearing. I quickly paused while hiking to take the photo below. This was shot under heavy canopy and even at ISO 3200 it was a bit under exposed. I was able to bring detail back from the shadows salvaging this image. It might not be a wall hanger, but at least I have this nice little memory of my hike.

Snapshot of a babbling brook.

Snapshot of a babbling brook.

Shadows lifted in processing.

Shadows lifted in processing.

As for the NEX 7, from what I have seen it compares similarly with the 5D mark II, so again we find a high level of performance in the 7. I think there is little to choose between the image quality of the 5N and 7, apart from the extra resolution which will mostly matter to those of you who regularly print larger than 8×10. The choice between the two bodies will likely come down to handling, features, perhaps cost – at least it should, in my opinion, and not image quality.

 

In Summary…

The latest NEX cameras from Sony have proven that an interesting and capable camera doesn’t have to come in a heavy package.

Users who are upgrading from a point and shoot will probably find the NEX 5N to feel a little like a familiar friend. Right out of the gate it can be used much like a P&S camera, though that shouldn’t give the impression that its features or performance are crippled. Automatic exposure mode, creative effects, and pre-programmed modes (indoor, sports, night time, etc…) are all there, in addition to some interesting features such as in-camera dynamic range control, and an automatic panorama feature. By offering full manual operation as well, the 5N provides a platform to explore photography from a creative perspective, and encourages exploring manual focus with the focusing aids it provides.  Last, but certainly not least, the image quality of the 5N sets it apart from other compact cameras and elevates it to the level typically found in DSLRs (in some cases beyond). The NEX 7 provides all the same but in a package that will handle much more like a rangefinder or SLR, and will make for a familiar transition for anyone coming from a similar camera.

With more lenses coming down the pipeline, and more iterations of the NEX camera body (a full frame NEX7-like body is rumored for 2012), it’s not a platform that is going to be here today, gone tomorrow. At a recent BPL meetup hike there were already several NEX cameras in the small crowd of 30~ish hikers, and the general public loves these cameras as much as anyone else – expect Sony to respond accordingly!

I’m totally pumped about reducing the weight of my photo kit thanks to the NEX. I love photography, but I’m not a serious landscape photog. I don’t mind getting up to watch the sunrise, but I don’t have the mental wherewithal to wake hours before sunrise, in the darkness, hike up a ridge or to a lake, and setup my camera for the supreme view. This was the revelation that led me to wonder why the heck I was lugging a bunch of heavy camera gear with me in the first place, especially given the otherwise light load in my pack. I have been more than pleasantly surprised by the NEX 5N; I expected to give up quality along with the bulk and weight that I shed with my DSLR when, in fact, the experience with my 5N has me more inspired than ever to keep my camera with me and I look forward to capturing all of the interesting moments that the future will bring!

Hike It. Like It.

 

NEX 5N Gallery

So, I’ve updated the gallery recently (June 2012) to show a handful of photos I’ve taken with the NEX 5N since owning it. Most of these were taken with Cosina Voigtlander lenses, a few with the kit lens. With the exception of a few jpegs (in-camera HDR) these were all RAW files developed in Adobe Lightroom. I have organized them by location rather than the previous grid layout. Clicking an image will open a larger version in Flickr, which may or may not have crunchified the photo with its sharpening algorithm. In any case, I hope you enjoy!


Trinity Alps



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Sapphire Lake

Old Machinery at Sapphire

Point Reyes



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Breakers

Durango



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Silver Lake



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Lakeside Siesta

The Scoob

Lost Coast



Limbo Trees 2 B&W

Dark and Damp Trail

Beginning of the Descent

The Bench

SP at Buck Creek

Pt. Reyes Family Time (all with 18-55 kit lens)



Ultralight Kiddos

Creeper

Moosebump

Freshwater

Beach / Coast Camp

Epiphany

Worshipping Bluw Hour

Full Moon Rising

Costa Rica



Flora, Costa Rica

La Fortuna waterfall

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Buddhist Statuary



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Cambodian New Year, People Watching

Cambodian New Year, People Watching

Misc Urban



Pumphouse

Port of Stockton

Port of Stockton 2

Pattern Storage

Keep Out.

Tanks

Lights Out

For more resources on this subject I suggest the following reads:

Backpacking Light Article on the NEX7 by Ryan Jordan

NEX Lens Impressions thread at Backpacking Light

NEX Images Thread at Fred Miranda

Very Best Wides for the NEX 5N at Fred Miranda

NEX 5 vs. Panasonic GF2 by Hendrik Morkel (alternatives to the NEX 5N or  NEX 7)

Prime Lenses Listed by Weight and Focal Length (Google Spreadsheet)

NEX Blogspot (all things NEX)

NEX Rumors (news and fun speculation)

Previous Articles of this Series


23 comments to Photography and Backpacking – Part 8 of 10

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  • […] much like the NEX cameras. For those not familiar with NEX you can read until you fall asleep about my NEX 5N setup here. In a nutshell, the 4-way control pad on the back offers direct access to several commonly used […]

  • [...] detailed my previous setup pretty well on this post. Here’s the summary of the actual kit with the items I have since [...]

  • [...] what I am familiar with. [Jacob: I've included some additional comparison to the NEX7 since I have talked about it in the past and it's a close competitor in the EVIL mirrorless camera [...]

  • Shadow

    well think you convinced me.
    my old cannon SLR caught fire a year a go and been looking for a good replacemnt
    think i am sold on the NEX-5 seres.
    i would prefer the NEX-7 but it looks like they will be relesing a new version later this year sadly that is too late to do me much good on the big trips this year.

    what do you think of the kit lenses that come with them right now?

    • Jacob D

      The NEX 5N and the 5R are pretty solid choices. The kit lenses are OK, it really depends on your expectations. They have strong areas in the zoom range and weak areas as well. I believe I commented on the 18-55 in the article.

      The kit lens paired up with a fast prime (like the Sony 50/1.8) would make a nice combo for a hiking kit. Unless you print at 8×10 and larger it won’t make a ton of difference. If you only post photos online and they’re downsized quite a bit it will also hide the weakness of lesser lenses.

  • [...] Having given my thoughts on the NEX 5N earlier this year, I still believe that the NEX represents the best of all worlds. By compromising a little bit everywhere else it delivers IQ that edges out the closest competition (Olympus OM-D) and leaves many others far behind it. I especially like that I can use M-Mount lenses on my 5N (and just about any other SLR lens I want to) which make it very compact for backpacking and travel. Sony, Sigma, and Zeiss are now all making autofocus lenses for the NEX. In addition to the many manual-focus legacy lenses out there, Samyang is making a line of lenses for NEX. Earlier this year the NEX native-mount lens lineup was sub par, right now it’s adequate, next year at this time it’s going to be getting a lot closer to awesome. [...]

  • Eric

    Love that you’ve updated the post with some additional photos especially those great shots with the kit 18-55. I’m really interested in getting a little wider lens and love use older manual focus lenses on my NEX. Trying to convince myself that I need not just want that CV 15/4.5!

    • Jacob D

      Hi again, Eric. For non-critical work, the 18-55 is an awesome lens. By far the best kit lens I’ve ever laid hands on. It’s main weakness is 35-55mm, which are not focal lengths that I use regularly. For me the lens is more like an 18-35, and the sweet spot is definitely at 24mm so I try to keep it there. At 18mm the results are similar to the Sony 16mm… sharp at the center with mushy corners.

      Sony really, really needs to get their act together with the lenses though. I have a feeling this fall we’ll see at least a couple of lenses trickle out in time for the holidays. Here’s a link to a translated ‘road map’ (more like a vague idea) of what Sony has planned for lens releases in 2012/2013. There are 8 new lenses slated to be released but no hard specs.

      http://photorumors.com/2012/02/08/sony-nex-e-mount-roadmap-2012-2013/

      I would make fast use of a high-end wide angle zoom. Speculation seems to point to an 11-16, 12-24, or 16-35 (I’d prefer the former). Next on my list are pancake primes. If Sony can get moving in that direction it will stop my eye from wandering to Olympus, Panasonic, and Samsung for their wonderful m4/3 lenses – especially now that the sensor technology is leveling the playing field.

      The CV 15/4.5 is a sweet little (and I mean tiny) lens, but if you can wait – I would. Having to use Cornerfix with it is a pain in the arm.

      • Eric

        Using Lightroom is really useful for figuring out what focal ranges I use the most. With the 18-55 kit I’m either at 18mm, somewhere between 21-28mm, or at 55mm over 75% of the time. I really like my Pentax-M 50mm/f2 and was looking to get something a little faster for greater depth of field and received the Sony 50/1.8 SAM w/ LA-EA1 for Christmas. The Sony is quite sharp but manual focusing just isn’t the same experience as with manual focus lenses. I’ve started to look into some older Minolta Rokkor lenses in my preferred focal ranges; specifically the MC Rokkor-PG 50/1.4 and MC/MD Rokkor 24mm/2.8 w/ 55mm filter thread. Not the most svelte package compared to your setup but I think it’ll get me to where I’d like to be.

        • Jacob D

          Yes, I much prefer MF on non-autofocusing lenses. Focus by wire is my least favorite of all. Some of the Rokkors have got killer optics. I know of a couple of guys who put the 50/1.4 to amazing use on the NEX. As you’re probably aware there are lots of version of Rokkor lenses. I believe there are also 49mm filter versions of both of those lenses, not sure how the optics compare to the 55mm versions. There are multiple Rokkor threads on the Alt Gear Forum over at FredMiranda.com. Another lens you might consider is the Oly OM 21/2.8.

  • Paul

    Hi Jacob,

    Stumbled across this article while researching mirrorless cameras for backpacking. I am currently the owner of a Nikon D90, I’ve had it for about 3 years and love it, however, I find myself not wanting to take it backpacking, it feels like an albatross around my neck.

    Do you feel like the Sony Nex-5n is comparable to my D90 as far as image quality goes? I mostly just shoot landscape shots.

    Thanks for your two cents.

    • Jacob D

      Paul, sorry for the late response. I’m not familiar with the D90 as my ‘other camera’ is a Canon 5D. I do know that the Nikon D7000 has the same sensor as the NEX 5N (Sony makes all of Nikon’s sensors). So you should be able to compare the D90 v D7000 and have an idea what the image quality of the 5N will be like. The handling will be totally different than an SLR of course.

  • Steve

    It would be great if you could do a similar evaluation of the new E-M5, which would seem a hiker’s dream given its weathersealing, built-in EVF and range of excellent compact and fast primes. To me, it’s the combined size/weight of body+lens that matters, small bodies alone are less relevant.

    • Jacob D

      Hey Steve. Actually, I hope to do just that. It’s amazing to see the dynamic range its m4/3 sensor has. I’ve seen some images where amazing detail was recovered from highlights and shadows so it looks to be a winner in that respect. I think any weight advantage over the 5N will be lost due to heavier body, but even if it comes in at the same kit weight, it’s already very light. My only concern is cramped ergonomics. Among the compact EVIL cameras, the NEX-7 seems to have better laid out controls. I think the EM-5 will be a better choice than the NEX-7 overall, and a good alternative to the 5N.

      Sandra D has been thinking about replacing her Canon Rebel body with the EM-5… so if/when that happens we will be sure to add our thoughts on it to this series.

  • Scott T

    Very informative post, full of valuable practical material. I especially appreciate the run-down on alternative glass. Have you noticed the prices rising on rangefinder lenses since the time you purchased? After reading this article, I scoped out CV 35/2.5 prices and couldn’t find anything under $400. Wondering if all the new E-mount and m43 users are driving the prices up?

    • Jacob D

      Thanks Scott! I have not noticed a significant market price increase on m-mount lenses over the last year. Photography forums are the best place to buy used. Sorry to be brief, I’m traveling at the moment.

  • Balazs

    Could you tell something about display performance in cold weather? Shooting arounf 0F? Thanks.

    • Jacob D

      That’s a good question! Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much from personal experience. Even in the Sierras (which is my local mountain range) day time temps don’t dip that low. I did speak to an individual from Lithuania who used their NEX 7 in sub zero temps and reported no issues with the display, or any other aspects of camera operation, accompanied by photos of frost that formed on their lens while shooting.

  • [...] Mirrorless Cameras – Blazing the Trail for Backpackers Part IX: [...]

  • Wow, this is an excellent part to this series Jacob. I thoroughly enjoyed the gallery set of photographs. Do you have an online portfolio of your work? I’m even more disappointed that I won’t be attending GGG this year, I really wanted to pick you brain a bit.

    • Jacob D

      Hey Eugene. Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      Photography is a just a fun past time for me; I don’t have a gallery of work, although I am working to have some photos displayed in a local artists gallery. That would be neat, but no assurances yet. I (we) do have a family photoblog with many of our photos, and things like trip reports, and news of happenings with family and friends. It’s on the web, however we keep the URL hidden from Google as we like to keep it as private as possible, since it’s more of a family thing.

      As for the Gathering of Gear Geeks… hopefully you’ll make the next one! Besides myself, there are a few guys (Eric, Adam, Cameron, Tony, etc…) and gals (Kat) that like to take photos, among others there I’m sure. It’s a great group of people.

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