Imagine a camera not much bigger than a compact with a sensor as large as a DSLR, all served up in an affordable package and bristling with features for every photographic eventuality. Welcome to the Sony Alpha 5000.
The forebears of this neat little box of tricks were the Sony NEX-5 and NEX-3. These two forerunners were Sony’s response to the trend for making CSCs (Compact System Cameras) that have interchangeable lenses and can shoot images with the same high quality that you’d find on large and heavy DSLRs. Now Sony has decided lose the NEX prefix so this model is simply the Alpha 5000… or just A5000.
Like its predecessors, the A5000 is minuscule but has a lens that dwarfs the camera body. The A5000 takes the Sony E-series mount and the kit lens has a 30-100mm zoom range and a maximum aperture of f3.5, stopping down to f5.6 and the telephoto end of the range. The lens has a knurled focussing ring for manual adjustment and a smart power-zoom switch that can shift the zoom range very quickly with a single push.
Inside the A5000 is one of Sony’s own CMOS APS-C-sized chips offering 20-megapixels of resolution. The backlit design of the sensor means the sensitivity of the A5000 can be racked up to ISO 16000 and still the results are usable, albeit with a bit of smoothing. Processing the signal from the sensor is Sony’s new BIONZ X chip, which is fast and smart enough to apply enhancements to just small areas of the image. Of course there’s an option to shoot RAW and unsullied files alongside the ubiquitous JPEG format if you prefer to keep things pristine and do your own adjustments.
At the rear of the camera is a 3-inch LCD screen that can tilt through 180 degrees for taking self-portraits, overhead shots or candid photos in a waist-level finder mode. There is no optical or electronic eye-level viewfinder and that is something you may find you miss if you’re used to a conventional DSLR camera.
The controls on the A5000 are relatively sparse with just a thumb-wheel, a cursor cluster and a couple of other buttons for accessing menus, help or switching to view mode. You can customise the buttons if you find there are controls you want direct access to. I chose to switch two of the functions to White Balance and Metering modes because I find I use those more than any other.
Pressing the centre button of the control cluster gives quick access to the A5000’s various shooting modes. There’s the usual P,A,S,M choices as well as Sweep Panorama mode and a couple of intelligent auto choices for those who really can’t be bothered with settings. Pressing the Menu button takes you into a bewildering choice of settings, which are very extensive. There are lots of options from digital filters for special effects to the size and type of file you want to record. There’s hardly anything that hasn’t been included so don’t be fooled by the A5000’s small size.
That brings me to my next observation. The A5000 is very small and it does have quite a large lens on its front. The grip is shallow and I must be honest in saying I struggled to hold the camera firmly and once or twice found it fell through my hands due to the smooth surface of the plastic body. The camera itself is very well constructed from high-impact polycarbonate plastic and feels fairly robust. It’s a marvel of Japanese engineering excellence and you wonder how so much technology could be shoehorned into such a small space. There’s also a Wi-Fi function built in so you can beam your shots directly to your computer or smart phone. Sony has also included an NFC chip for connecting with compatible peripherals. Sony has an app store for its camera range and you can download various applications to run on the A5000 for editing photos ‘in camera’.
To power the camera Sony has chosen a small lithium-ion battery that packs a fairly good charge that in real-world conditions will see you getting about two hundred shots from each charge. The battery is recharged via a Micro-USB port, which means you can use almost any USB charger or even a cigarette lighter socket. However, the USB charging means you have to charge the battery ‘in situ’ and you can’t take photos while it’s charging. I would have preferred a separate battery charger to make juicing up a spare battery easier but perhaps that’s not so important for a camera aimed at enthusiastic snappers. There is a battery charger available as an accessory that you can buy as an extra if that really is a deal breaker for you. Next to the USB port is a slot for SDHC cards and there’s also a mini HDMI port for displaying your images on a nice big Sony 4K screen or any other HDMI compatible TV or monitor.
So how did the Sony A5000 perform during the week I spent with it? Well, apart from the slight handling issues, which I did find a bit difficult on account of my large hands, I really enjoyed using it. The A5000 is so light and small you can easily keep it with you all the time, although I would advise a decent carrying case as it’s a slightly awkward shape and it does need adequate protection. While I’m on the subject of protection I should point out that the dinky little lens cap really needs a tether as you/re sure to lose it within a week or two.
Images from the camera were crisp with plenty of snap. Focus was quick and the shutter button is responsive. Framing shots using just an LCD screen may take some getting used to, particularly if you’ve reached the age where you need reading glasses. There’s plenty of information displayed on the screen as you shoot but you can turn some of it off in order to unclutter and concentrate on composition. Shooting in low light was a joy thanks to the very sensitive CMOS sensor and excellent noise control provided by the new BIONZ X processor. There is a small flash, which is more adequate than it looks, but I really enjoyed using the camera in low natural light levels for candid portraiture. Light metering was excellent with a choice of average, centre and spot metering; however, I did find the auto white balance could be a bit temperamental under tungsten and fluorescent lighting.
There’s no doubt that Sony has produced another superb camera to add to its CSC range. You will have to commit to the E-series lenses but they do offer sharp performance and very snappy focusing as well as a good and contrasty result. Colours are well balanced and there’s a choice of colour spaces and colour styles. As you’d expect from Sony, the image quality is superb. Sony makes its own camera sensors in its own CMOS fab plant and it really knows what it’s doing. The company has also shown that it’s better than either Canon or Nikon in producing these nifty little CSC style cameras. If you’re in the market for a high-quality compact system camera then you should take a look at the Alpha 5000 alongside the Panasonic Lumix GX1 and the Olympus PEN EPL-5. In my view there’s all excellent cameras and it comes down to handling and personal preference. I highly recommend the A5000 but do give it a test drive first to make sure it suits your hand size.
The Sony A5000 goes on sale mid-February for £420/€480.