Why the Sony NEX 5R?

Why the Sony NEX 5R? Perhaps the best mirror-less camera for manual focus lenses. ... and not the Fujifilm X-E1, or the Olympus OM-D E-M5, or the Sony NEX 6, for that matter.


My interest in mirrorless cameras was awakened earlier this year when a colleague of mine showed me some sample images taken with a Sony NEX 5N camera and a manual focus (possibly Leica) lens. It displayed amazing detail even in far away objects. What is more, the texture of objects such as leaves and rain drops looked very natural, life like, even under high magnification. Clearly, this tiny and otherwise modest looking camera had a fantastic sensor.

I'm a big fan of old film cameras, collected many (and still use some of them) together with a generous range of manual focus lenses. I could immediately see a great opportunity to breathe new life into those old lenses, blow the dust off them and see what they can do in this new digital setup. (Who would have predicted such a revival? A couple of years ago these lenses were destined to the rubbish bin, and now people pay good money for them. Not surprisingly, in line with the rising popularity of the mirrorless or compact system cameras their prices have appreciated quite a bit in recent months. For instance, last year you could easily pick-up a Canon FD f/1.4 50mm or an Olympus f/2.8 28mm lens for around $50, but not so nowadays.)

Making a choice

When choosing a mirrorless camera, my prime considerations were: quality of image, ease of access to the main functions (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation), and to be able to focus accurately. Things like continuous shooting speed and video capability were of low priority, while I couldn't care about gimmics like 'Intelligent Mode' or picture effects. (Many photographers have been consistently asking for a set of simple functions that are implemented well instead of a whole lot of confusing clutter, but it seems manufacturers don't listen. Their cameras still want to be all things to all users.)

On the grounds of image quality and apparent commitment in the R&D and manufacture of these types of cameras I shortlisted the following brands:

  • Fujifilm
  • Olympus
  • Sony

The first camera I fell in love with was the Fujifilm's X-Pro 1. I just adored the classic look and the optical viewfinder was a great attraction, too. However, as anyone who reads reviews can attest, this camera has several annoying problems and now getting rather old. (In this market even a single year is a long time.) If Fuji ever brings out an improved X-Pro 2 version, I might be tempted.

The XE-1 came out later and has fixed some of the X-Pro 1's problems. (This model does not have an optical viewfinder.) I almost bought one, but when I looked into the EVF and tried to focus manually, I decided to give it second thoughts.

Currently, Olympus' flagship camera is the OM-D E-M5. Its micro-four-thirds sensor is smaller than the APS-C sensor of the other two cameras. While the image quality is on par with the Fuji XE-1 and the Sony NEX, the crop factor is 2x as opposed to 1.5x. This is not a good thing when using film camera lenses, unless your interest lies in bringing subjects closer. To me the ideal sensor size would be 'full-frame' where a 28mm lens is a true wide angle lens, a 50mm lens is a true standard lens, and so on. So far the APS-C sensor comes closest to it.

So, to cut a long story short, what made me favour the Sony NEX over the other ones? Although all three are excellent cameras, the following factors tipped the scale towards the Sony:

  • manual focusing aid (focus peak), in which the outlines of the objects in focus are highlighted.
  • the LCD screen tilts up or down.
  • less expensive than the others.
  • unlike in the case of the Fuji, issues with the sensor (or RAW conversion) were not reported in relation to the use of film camera lenses.

Eventually I bough a new 5R body and after playing with it for a month or so I still think I made the right choice. The controls and menu system of the 5N were much criticised, but the 5R fixed those problems. I typically (i.e. almost always) use the camera in aperture priority mode, and in this case I only need to fiddle with the exposure compensation and/or ISO. Both of these have their dedicated buttons, so to adjust them is a piece of cake. The light meter of the Sony NEX is excellent, so correction is hardly ever needed.

The layout of the Sony NEX 5R's controls is good. However, some buttons are hard to find by feel when you are looking through the viewfinder, because they don't stick out.

If I wanted to select the shutter speed manually, I could assign this function to the unmarked dial on the top. The shutter speeds are displayed on the LCD screen and are easy to read.

Mode selection is also quick and easy to access. It is changed with the rear dial.

This brings me to why I didn't choose the NEX 6. The NEX 6 has a dedicated mode selection dial in place of the 5R's programmable dial. I don't change the shooting mode all that often, so to me this was not a welcome change. At the time of purchase, the NEX 6 was also significantly dearer. Of course, it has an inbuilt electronic viewfinder. Well, I bought a clip-on EVF for my 5R relatively cheaply, second hand. Works perfectly well. True, it sticks out and requires careful handling, but it also has an advantage over the built-in one; I can tilt it and look into it in any angle from horizontal to vertical and I found this very convenient. The LCD screen also tilts and that is great, say when doing candid shots or table-top photography. However, when the ambient light is strong, the EVF becomes indispensable. (Truth be told, nothing beats an optical viewfinder. For this, and some other reasons, I won't be chucking out my DSLR any time soon.)

Both the accessory electronic viewfinder and the LCD screen can be tilted up for easy viewing when the camera is held below eye-level. (On this picture the camera is fitted with a Kipon Sony NEX to M42 adapter and an old Mamiya f2 50mm lens. Visible are the level and grid on the LCD screen. The grid is useful, but the level is not sensitive enough.)

Both the electronic viewfinder and the flash (which comes bundled with the camera) plug into the same socket, so they cannot be used together. (Not an issue for me.) For some reason, Sony only makes them in a silverish color, so they look rather odd on a black camera.

So, is the Sony NEX 5R the perfect camera, then?

Well, not quite. I have been using it for a little over a month with manual focus lenses. Obviously, I have not tried all its functions, so my verdict is based on only one type of use. Nevertheless, here is what I can say about it:

  • it was easy to learn to use it. The instruction manual is needed when you set the camera up to fit your style of photography (and to switch off that annoying beep and the help messages that insistently pop-up), but beyond that everything is pretty self explanatory.

    This is an example of the excellent range of customisation options on the Sony NEX 5R. Several displays are available in shooting mode and you cycle through them by repeatedly pressing the DISP button. However, you don't have to go through each and every one of them all the time, if they are irrelevant to your needs. On this set-up menu you can choose the ones you want to enable.

  • the focus peak is very helpful, but not always sufficiently precise. I don't mean it incorrectly signals the plane of sharp focus. What I mean is that it shows you a range where it thinks the image is sharp and that range, or call it the depth-of-field, is too large. In cases like this, one can switch to an enlarged view, and I find that that allows me to focus more accurately. However, this method is slower.
  • still on the focus peak; on occasion I found that the yellow (or red) highlight just did not want to show up no matter what. This occurred more often when I used the EVF. I think the subject has to have certain characteristics (well defined edges, maybe) for the focus peak to work.
  • the tripod mount is a very, very bad design. The screw hole is on a little hump which provides a tiny base for the camera to sit on when mounted on a tripod. I had a lot of problems with this, so I definitely need a solution. A third-party base plate is available, but even that is only good enough for small, light weight lenses. I will have to build one that extends towards the front and supports the adapter or even the lens, when I use a longer lens.
  • another major annoyance is that it takes the camera a looong time to wake up after it went into 'sleep mode'. Let 's say I'm taking a candid photo of some people and have set up everything for the shot, just waiting for the right moment. The camera decides not to wait any longer and goes to sleep, just before the right moment presents itself. I press the button and nothing happens for what seems like a lifetime. The moment is lost.
    Thankfully, the situation is not entirely catastrophic, because the sleep mode can be disabled altogether. However, in this case one has to remember to switch off the camera from time-to-time, otherwise the battery is quickly depleted. Anyway, it is good to see that Sony gave the control freak photographer (that's me) an escape route.
  • two unmarked buttons at the back and the play button on the top are hard to locate by feel alone, because they are flush with the body.
  • the function of the unmarked buttons on the back changes with the context. At any one time their function is indicated on the LCD screen. In my opinion, this works well. I was never at a loss to know what is what.

    Pressing the bottom part of the rear dial brings up the image of an exposure compensation setting scale on the LCD screen. The exposure compensation is adjusted by turning the dial. Quick and easy. Also visible is the 'hump' at the bottom of the camera which serves as the tripod mount. It is far too small.

  • the Sony NEX 5R has a customisable 'function' (Fn) button. However, it is not as useful as one would assume. It is basically a shortcut to a menu of some often used (according to Sony) functions. The customisation is restricted to choosing the first (or default) item on this menu.
  • the camera doubles up as a battery charger; the battery can only be charged while it is inside the camera. This is very inconvenient. Even if you stock up with extra batteries, the camera is out of service while the batteries are charging. The charging time is not short either; it can take more than four hours to charge up a flat battery. To avoid any down-time, you need two cameras!

    The battery has to be in the camera for charging. The cables and USB-to-mains adapter are sold with the camera.

In conclusion, I like my Sony NEX 5R and can recommend it to anyone who is into the same kind of experimenting as I am. It's a great toy - but a serious toy - to play with. In my next post I will show some pictures I took using manual focus lenses.

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