Sony Alpha NEX-6 review

The pricey-but-well-rounded Sony Alpha NEX-6 is an excellent camera for mirrorless enthusiasts, but it doesn't quite edge out the entry-level NEX-F3 as our Editors' Choice.
Photo of Sony Alpha NEX-6

The Sony Alpha NEX-6 ($999.99 direct with 16-50mm lens) is more expensive than some of the other cameras in the NEX lineup, but for the price you get an excellent package—a compact body with a big 16-megapixel image sensor, built-in EVF, Wi-Fi, and a power zoom kit lens that retracts when not in use. It costs about $400 more than our Editor’s Choice winner for entry-level compact interchangeable lens cameras, the Sony Alpha NEX-F3 , which is still the best mirrorless camera for casual photographers, but the extra features that are packed into the NEX-6 make it a more attractive option for advanced photographers.

Design and Features
The NEX-6 takes its design cues from the top-end body in its family, the NEX-7 . The cameras share the same 2.75 by 4.75 by 1.7 inch (HWD) footprint, although the 12.2-ounce NEX-6 has about 2 ounces on its sibling. There are a few notable differences—the NEX-6 has a dedicated mode dial with an integrated control dial on the top plate, where the NEX-7 has two top-mounted control dials; the Movie Record button has been moved so it’s less likely to be triggered accidentally, and can now be disabled entirely via the camera’s menu; and the NEX-7′s proprietary hot shoe has been replaced by an ISO standard accessory shoe.

 

The standard kit lens for the NEX-6 is a 16-50mm power zoom design—this allows it to collapse when not in use. It actually makes the camera pocketable, assuming you’ve got some leeway in your pants. The only other APS-C compact interchangeable lens camera with a collapsible kit lens is the Samsung NX1000—its 20-50mm lens adds about 1.6 inches to the depth of the camera, while the Sony power zoom only juts out 1.2 inches when collapsed.

You can frame images via the large 3-inch rear display—it tilts up and down and is extremely sharp thanks to a 921k-dot resolution—or via the built-in OLED EVF. The 2.3-megapixel viewfinder is bright and crisp, and features very high contrast. It’s easy to see if your image is in focus, and if you opt to focus manually you can enable peaking, which highlights in-focus parts of your frame in red, yellow, or white. This makes it possible to focus accurately, even when working with the shallow depth of field that a wide-aperture lens creates. The EVF is identical to the one built into the NEX-7 and is available as an add-on for the NEX-5R and NEX-F3.

The physical Mode Dial is a first for the NEX series—all other models require you to change the shooting mode via the menu system. It’s a welcome change, and it works well in conjunction with the two control dials—one that is built into its base, the other located on the rear of the camera. There are dedicated physical controls to adjust ISO, Exposure Compensation, and Drive Mode, as well as to activate Exposure Lock and video capture. There’s an Fn button next to the shutter release that gives you quick access to adjust other functions—the focus mode, autofocus area, white balance, and metering mode. There’s also a programmable soft key on the rear—by default it activates the Wi-Fi sharing, but you can change its functionality to suit your needs, with its current function displayed right next to it on the LCD.

The pop-up flash is on a hinged neck, which makes it possible to bend it back to point upwards and add indirect light to your scene by bouncing it off of a ceiling. This simple technique can help to make your flash photography look more natural, as it eliminates the harsh light that a direct flash creates.

The menu system can take some getting used to—there’s a lot there, and not every feature is available in every mode. Hitting Menu on the back of the camera brings up six options: Camera, Image Size, Brightness/Color, Playback, Application, and Setup. If you can remember that Focus options are in Camera, Exposure controls in Brightness/Color, and any sort of customization options are in Setup, you should be good to go.

Auto Portrait Framing and Clear Image Zoom options are both located in the Camera menu, but are only active if you’re shooting in JPG mode. The former works automatically, saving a cropped version of a portrait alongside your original shot—both in full 16-megapixel resolution. Clear Image Zoom effectively doubles the focal length of your lens via an in-camera crop, but provides better quality than a traditional digital zoom. It can be assigned to the programmable soft key, although this function will only be useful if you have multiple NEX lenses—it’s not supported when you’re using the 16-50mm power zoom lens.

Wi-Fi Implementation
The NEX-6 is a Wi-Fi capable camera, which allows it to do a few things that most cameras can’t. The first, which is enabled by default, is the ability to transfer photos from the camera to your smartphone. You need to download the PlayMemories Mobile app for your iOS or Android device, then launch the Wi-Fi sharing mode from the NEX-6′s menu—by default this is assigned to the bottom programmable button on the camera’s rear face. This creates a Wi-Fi hotspot, and you need to connect to it from your phone or tablet. Even if both the camera and your phone are logged onto your home network, you have to take this step. On one hand, this approach lets you transfer photos from camera to phone when you’re away from a hotspot, but it would be nice if the app would just work seamlessly when both devices were logged onto the same Wi-Fi network.

Apart from that extra step, transferring photos is painless. They show up as thumbnails on your phone, and you can select which ones you’d like to copy over and transfer them at the touch of a button. This works for any files—including Raw images—and if you shoot JPG you can choose between transferring the original file size or a scaled-down 2-megapixel version of the photo in the application settings—you’ll have to dive into your general iOS Settings app to modify this option. Raw images are converted to 2-megapixel JPG format for Wi-Fi transfer, regardless of the size option you choose in the application settings.

The second Wi-Fi component is an app store. In order to access it you have to create an account with the Sony Entertainment Network—this can be done directly from the camera, although you’ll have to navigate through a software keyboard to do so. There are currently six applications available, four of which are free. That Sony has opted to charge for extra functionality on a $750 camera is a questionable choice.

The two paid apps—each priced at $4.99—are Bracket Pro and Multi Frame NR. The NEX-6 supports exposure bracketing, which captures three images in sequence—one underexposed by 1/3 stop, one with correct exposure, and one overexposed by 1/3 stop. This can come in handy during difficult lighting situations, although the 1/3-stop increment isn’t drastic enough to support the same type of HDR image creation using software like Nik HDR Efex Pro or Adobe Photoshop. In-camera HDR imagery is possible, although the effect is not as dramatic. Bracket Pro steps in to change this—you can fire off a three-shot burst, each at a user-set shutter speed, which will allow you to vary exposure as much as you’d like—set the ISO and aperture manually, break out the tripod, and you can get as much exposure separation as you’d like for HDR creation. The app goes further than that, as it also allows you to bracket shots with different apertures for depth of field control, shoot at three different focus points, or shoot an image with and without the flash.

The second paid app, Multi Frame NR, promises to capture images with less noise by taking several short exposures and merging them to create a brighter image; this is a feature that has previously been built into cameras like the Alpha 77 , and charging extra for it here seems like a step backwards.

Downloading the free apps is a no-brainer—though it’d be nice if they were preinstalled on the camera. The Smart Remote Control app lets you control the camera from your phone or tablet—again you’ll have to create a direct connection between the two. Shooting controls are minimal; you can fire the shutter and adjust the EV Compensation, but that’s it.

The Direct Upload app lets you post photos to PlayMemories Online or Facebook. Twitter, Picasa, Flickr, and other popular sites are nowhere to be found—but at least it lets you choose between a 2-megapixel file size and a full-resolution upload. The lack of Twitter support is a major oversight—it’s built into the Wi-Fi functions of the similar Samsung NX1000 camera.

The Photo Retouch app lets you edit JPG photos directly from the camera. You can perform basic editing functions including adjusting the crop and rotation, changing image brightness, softening skin, or adjusting the color saturation of a photo. This is useful if you’d like to tweak a shot before uploading it to the Web.

Finally, the Picture Effect+ app is sure to appeal to the Instagram crowd. Like the Art mode found on the Olympus PEN series, the app lets you apply a number of effects to your photos. These include a miniature mode, multiple black and white modes, toy camera emulation, and hyper-saturated pop art, among others. If you’re the type who loves Photoshop filters or often uses camera phone apps to give your photos a retro look, this is one that you’ll spend a lot of time with.

The Wi-Fi support is hit and miss. There’s a lot of promise, but there are just a few things that are missing. The app store concept is great for over-the-air updates, but the additional cost for certain apps is off-putting. The Smart Remote Control app is a great idea, but basic tools like copying photos to your computer over Wi-Fi and posting images to Twitter are missing. The one good thing about the app store concept is that Sony is able to push updates to its software without having to resort to cumbersome firmware updates. Time will tell if it uses this ability to fill in some of the gaps in functionality.

Performance and Conclusions
The biggest flaw of the NEX-6 is its startup time—the camera requires 2.8 seconds to start and take a photo. The first thought when seeing this result was that it was due to the extra time that the power zoom lens takes to extend, but the boot-and-shoot results were similar when other lenses were mounted. The other NEX cameras that we’ve tested this year—the F3 and 5R—start and shoot in about 1.3 seconds. The camera does do well in shot-to-shot time, grabbing a burst of 11 JPG or 9 Raw photos at 9 frames per second, and shoot continuously at 3 frames per second. Its shutter lag is a steady 0.1-second, which includes the time required to lock focus, a testament to the speed of the NEX-6′s hybrid autofocus system, which leverages on-sensor phase detection and contrast detection to quickly lock onto subjects.

I used Imatest to check the sharpness of the bundled 16-50mm (24-75mm equivalent) lens. It’s not the best in that regard—at 16mm f/3.5 it only hit 1,666 lines per picture height, shy of the 1,800 lines required for a sharp image. It didn’t resolve that number until stopping down to f/8. It’s a bit better at the midpoint of its zoom, 33mm f/5, where it just hit the 1,800-line mark. At 50mm f/5.6 it’s once again soft, recording only 1,663 lines. The collapsible 14-42mm (28-84mm equivalent) lens that Olympus bundles with its Micro Four Thirds cameras is sharper. On the PEN Lite E-PL5 that lens captures 2,263 lines at its widest, 1,867 lines at its midpoint, and 1,821 lines at its telephoto extreme.

The lack of sharpness is but one compromise brought on by the extremely compact design. If you use the lens in JPG, the NEX-6 applies a good amount of in-camera distortion correction to your images. But if you opt to shoot Raw, which is not an uncommon practice for shooters investing in a $1,000 camera, there is an incredible amount of barrel distortion—at its widest, the lens is practically a fisheye, as it shows 9 percent barrel distortion. I was able to correct this by moving the distortion correction slider to about 80 (out of a maximum 100) in Lightroom, but until Adobe releases a lens profile that is tuned to each step in the camera’s focal range, Raw shooters will be forced to make these corrections manually. Distortion is a nonissue at 33mm and 50mm in either Raw or JPG mode.

Imatest also measures the noise in photos, which can rob them of detail and make images appear to be overly grainy. The NEX-6 keeps noise under control through ISO 6400, an impressive result. Even better: Images captured at this setting are full of detail—even in JPG mode. Raw images at ISO 6400 show are grainier than JPG counterparts, but show even more detail and exhibit a tight noise pattern that is not unlike film grain—applying 25 Luminance Noise Reduction in Lightroom creates an image that has more detail than the JPG counterpart, and a very acceptable amount of grain. Without a doubt, the NEX-6 is up there with the best cameras in terms of high ISO image quality—it beats our top-end mirrorless Editors’ Choice, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 at both ISO 3200 and 6400 in terms of detail and noise.

The NEX-6 records AVCHD video in up to 1080p60 quality, and also supports 1080p24 and 1080i60 capture. The footage is outstanding, and the camera’s autofocus is as quick as when taking stills. You can hear the lens focus a bit, but it’s not overbearing, and the power zoom function allows for smoother zooming than a manual zoom lens.  There’s no dedicated battery charger included; instead you’ll have to charge the battery in-camera via the micro USB port and an included AC adapter. A second battery and a dedicated charger are recommended, especially if you take a lot of photos. Memory Stick Pro Duo, Memory Stick Pr-HG Duo, and standard SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards are supported.

Even though the NEX-F3 represents a better value for more casual shooters, it’s not unfair to say that the NEX-6 is the finest compact interchangeable lens camera body that Sony has released to date. The NEX-7 starts faster and has a higher-resolution 24-megapixel image sensor, but the NEX-6 does a better job in lower light and is priced $350 less. The compact kit lens does have a few issues with sharpness and distortion, but the same is true of the standard 18-55mm lens bundled with other NEX cameras—and that lens makes the camera too deep to slip into your pocket. The built-in EVF is excellent, and shooters who demand an eye-level finder will welcome it—you can add an external one to the NEX-F3 or NEX-5R, but that’s a much less elegant solution. The NEX lens system is still growing, and is still lacking when you get to extreme telephoto optics. A Micro Four Thirds camera like the Olympus E-PL5 or the OM-D E-M5 would be a better fit if you need a long telephoto—the best you’ll get for the NEX is a 315mm equivalent, whereas you can go as long as 600mm with Micro Four Thirds.

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Specifications
Dimensions 2.75 x 4.75 x 1.7 inches
Interface Ports micro USB, mini HDMI
GPS No
Megapixels 16 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.11 seconds
LCD dots 921600
LCD size 3 inches
Lines Per Picture Height 1666
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Memory Stick Pro Duo, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 25600
Type Compact Interchangeable Lens
Sensor Type CMOS
Optical Zoom 3.1 x
Boot time 2.3 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 24 mm
Weight 12.2 oz
Lens Mount Sony E
Video Resolution 1080i, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 16
Image Stabilization In-Lens
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 75 mm
Shutter Lag 0.1 seconds
Sensor Size 23.5 x 15.6 (APS-C) mm
EVF Resolution 2359296 dpi
Viewfinder Type EVF

Verdict
The pricey-but-well-rounded Sony Alpha NEX-6 is an excellent camera for mirrorless enthusiasts, but it doesn't quite edge out the entry-level NEX-F3 as our Editors' Choice.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
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