Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sony A6000 Review


Familiarity is a good thing when it comes to tools. Cameras are tools, and too often, people look for wholesale change for change's sake with each new generation. The Sony A6000 is the replacement for the NEX-6, and even though the NEX-6 was a continuation of sorts for the well-regarded NEX-7, the new Alpha-branded series of cameras (A5000/A6000) are the true second-generation of the E-mount. New for 2014, the headline features for the A6000 are:

  • 24.3mp APS-C sensor
  • 179 phase detection points
  • 11 fps with subject tracking
  • Electronic diffraction correction
  • Clean HDMI output
  • NFC and WiFi connectivity

This amounts to a capable camera, considering that the MSRP is just under $800 USD for the body + kit lens option, but do the additional specs actually make for a better camera? (For an in-depth explanation of the A6000's autofocus system, go here, otherwise continue after the jump for the complete review.)


Body and Design


Despite it's small size and angular design, the A6000 is comfortable to hold because of it's deep grip. This is further aided by the fact that the grip is wrapped with a soft and grippy material. The shape and feel of the grip is similar to that used on the Sony A7 or A7R. Your index finger will rest comfortably on the shutter release button, and can easily slide off to tap the Fn button on the right; the default setting for this button is for the AF drive mode. There's a temptation to pull on the rocker switch under the shutter button to control the zoom, but this lever only turns the camera on and off. (Speaking of the power switch, the A6000 retains the annoying power-on delay of the NEX-6,though it appears to have been shortened. Once on, almost all of the other camera functions operate quickly.) All zoom functions are controlled on the barrel of the lens. The thumb rest on the back of the camera is not particularly large, but is comfortable because of the soft-grip rubber. From here, the two buttons that are closest in reach to the thumb are the AEL button and the back Fn button. The Fn button brings up the main shooting menu, which controls all of the major photographic parameters such as ISO, white balance, burst mode, AF mode, etc. At first glance, the back of the A6000 looks as if it is cluttered; that's not actually the case, as the number of buttons is no worse than any other camera in this category. The root of the problem is that the button labelling makes the back look cluttered.

If there is one aspect of the A6000 control layout that betrays the fact that it is still a mid-level cameras liek the NEX-6 and not a serious enthusiast camera like the NEX-7, it's in how the mode and command dials are laid out. At first glance, the A6000 only has one command dial, like the NEX-6. That's not actually true; it has the same double-dial arrangement as the NEX-7... only the dial that is closest to your right thumb is designated as the command dial. This is quite frankly am ergonomic oversight, as you have to reach to right (anatomically speaking, extension and abduction) to operate the command dial. The reason why this is bad design is because the most pertinent controls should require the least amount of contorting to access. By having the mode dial in immediate reach of your thumb, its as Sony was trying to cater to shooters who are indecisive about how they want to take their pictures.

As with the NEX-6, the rear display flips out,m but it can't flip completely upwards to face forwards for the selfie-inclined; that feature is reserved for the A5000. Before you dismiss this as a novelty feature, forward facing LCD displays are extremely useful for those who need to record video of themselves for presentation purposes. The rear display aspect ratio is 16:9 rather than 3:2. Falling somewhat behind the times, the screen is not touch sensitive.



One conspicuous area where the camera has been downgraded is with the electronic viewfinder, which drops from 2.36M dots to 1.44M dots, which is the equivalent of 800 by 600 pixels. The EVF is rated at a magnification of 0.7x, which again, is a downgrade from the NEX-6.  The drop in resolution is noticeable, but not catastrophic because the refresh rate is still fairly high. In competitive terms, the EVF experience is appropriate for the price range and intended audience of the A6000, but will be a letdown for anybody spoiled by the Olympus E-M1.

Sony changed the A6000 menu structure from the NEX-style towards that used in the A7/A7R. This is a welcome ergonomic change. There is still the typical Sony tech-overload going on, but the way that the menus are laid out are much more intuitive to use than in the NEX-6. Almost all of the pertinent shooting parameters can be accessed by the Fn button on the back of the camera, but some functions require too many button presses compared to the ergonomics found on advanced DSLR's.



The kit option includes the E 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 PZ OSS power zoom pancake lens. This is perhaps the smallest kit lens available for any camera system on the market, and is what makes the E-mount cameras so portable. There is a significant reduction of overall volume when compared to the equivalent setup with the Samsung NX-300 or the Fujifilm X-E2. With the lens retracted, the A6000 will fit in a jacket pocket. Zoom operation is either by the control ring on the barrel of the lens or by the rocker switch on the left-hand side. In all honesty, this is not a top-performer optics-wise; there is a lot of electronic correction going on with the camera's JPEG engine. Processing the RAW images shows how much correction the A6000 needs to apply to this lens with regards to geometric distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberration. In all likelihood, this is just about the worst performing lens that you will appreciate, as its optical shortcomings are (somewhat) made up for by the small packaging size.

As with before in the NEX-6, a pop-up flash is integrated into the camera body. Like other similar Sony designs, you can pull the flash upwards towards the ceiling if you want to try for a bounced-flash effect. However, the power is not nearly enough to come close to what a proper speedlight can do.


In addition to WiFi, the A6000 adds NFC connectivity, which is an emerging feature in 2014. Wireless file transfer is something that many consumers look for in a camera because they have grown accustomed to it on their smart devices, but it often ends up being one of those features that is used once or twice and then forgotten. If you have a large volume of data to transfer off of the camera, it can be accomplished faster using the memory card. The PlayMemories App also functions as as a remote camera controller.


The A6000 uses the same NP-FW50 battery found in the NEX-6, A5000 and A7/A7R cameras. Sony has managed to extend the number of shots per charge to 420 (CIPA), which is a 15% improvement over the NEX-6. This is a useful improvement, as battery life is a weak(er) point for all mirrorless cameras. As an unfortunate trend for Sony, the A6000 does not come with a separate charger; the battery charges in-camera via an AC-to-USB cable. This is inconvenient if you use a multi-battery setup to extend your shooting day. To overcome this, there is an external charger (BC-VW1) for this battery, which is available as an optional accessory.

Tripod mount, battery/memory card chamber

Still Photo Focusing


(For an extended to guide to operating the A6000's AF functions go here.)

The ability of the A6000 to track moving objects is stunning for a mirrorless camera. Though on-sensor phase detection autofocus is slowly making its way into many cameras, its functionality is not as effective as in a dedicated PDAF system on a DSLR. Mirrorless cameras in general do not track moving subjects as well as they focus on still subjects; in some cases, like with the OM-D cameras, they focus extremely quickly on still subjects. The NEX-6 had on-chip PDAF, but its actual effectiveness in real-world shooting was mild. The A6000, on the other hand, is a remarkable. Not only does it do proper focus tracking with subjects moving forwards and backwards relative to the camera, it maintains tracking with subjects that move side-to-side across the frame. This takes quite a bit of computational horsepower, because the camera has to integrate the distance data gathered from the phase detection elements with the colour/pattern recognition from the conventional contrast-detect routines. For those of you keeping score, this is the same way in which Nikon's 3D tracking works.

So how does it work? Quite well, but with some minor caveats. Across-the-frame tracking is only available with wide-area focusing, and it doesn't do so with single-point focus selection. The system is quick to acquire focus, and will let you know if it thinks the moving subject that it is tracking is a human face (single large box indicator) or non-human (blinking array of small box indicators. There is a limit to how fast of a moving object that the system will track, but it seems to be right up there with Nikon's 3D tracking system. However, the A6000 has the added advantage of being able to track a moving subject across a larger portion of the image frame, owing to the fact that the location of it's PDAF elements aren't constrained to middle as in a DSLR. However, in terms of focus accuracy, it doesn't seem to be quite as precise or consistent as a DSLR; when focusing on subjects that fill up a large portion of the frame, the camera does well, but proportionally smaller subjects or subjects that move quickly tend to make the focus points drift off of the initial point of lock. E.g., if you focus on the eyes of a quick moving dog, the camera might track it as it romps around, but the point of focus lock will drift off to either the nose or the ears.

It's an extremely good system; in all likelihood, class-leading. However, all is not perfect. The default camera settings are for auto-area AF selection, and with that, the camera does fine. However, setting the camera up to manually move the focus point around is unintuitive and requires more button presses than what advanced users would prefer.



Video Focusing


Motion tracking for video is a less successful affair than with stills photography, but still, an improvement over the NEX-6. As you can see in the example below (with the kit 16-50mm lens) its easy to lose focus lock with panning movements that are either too fast or too jerky for the system to handle. That said, the A6000 performs in a manner that is similar to the Canon EOS 70D (which is to say very well) but at a lower price.



Image Quality


Exposure Metering


Like the NEX-6 before it, the A6000 performs exposure metering in a fairly conservative manner. For a comparison, this is how the A6000 compares to the Canon EOS 70D when shooting a grey patch under identical conditions (using the kit lenses):

Canon EOS 70D: ISO 400, f/5.6 1/15s
Sony A6000: ISO 400, f/5.6 1/15s

Subjective Image Noise and Resolution


The following is an ad hoc test using the pop refrigerators across the local camera store. They are done with out of camera JPEG images at default settings. Bear in mind that the lighting conditions are variable with time and weather, so these test images are not directly comparable to tests with other cameras on this blog. Watch the broad colour patches for image noise/grain, the detail in the bottles for edge retention and resolution preservation, and the reflections and highlights for dynamic range.

ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800

As with most APS-C cameras, the cross-over point between care-free and mindful shooting occurs somewhere between ISO 1600 and ISO 3200. The ISO 1600 shot still has a respectable amount of detail retention, with more grain than that seen in ISO 800. At ISO 3200, the broad/hard edges are still intact, but the colour saturation  has gone down, and the decrease in dynamic range makes for harsher highlights. Noise reduction also starts becoming intrusive. ISO 6400 is still usable in an emergency if you are viewing at small sizes or if your subject does not have much in the way of subtle detail, but at this level, some form of post processing will be needed to spruce up the image. At default settings, ISO 12800 isn't particularly acceptable in any circumstance, as the noise reduction gives the impression that the camera is shooting through a layer of frosted cellophane.

Though the 24mp A6000 has 50% more pixels than the NEX-6, that correlates to a 22% increase in linear resolution. Under ideal circumstances this would translate into a slight increase in perceived fine detail, but in this case most of that advantage is blunted by the kit lens, much more so than with kit lenses on other cameras.

Fixed Pattern Noise


Though the state of the art with APS-C sensors is 24 megapixels, there are differences and iterations with each new camera. The following shows what the pattern noise looks like when a black patch from various cameras taken at ISO 12800 is pushed 5EV:

Nikon D7100 ISO 12800
Nikon D7100 ISO 12800 + 5EV
Nikon D5300 ISO 12800
Nikon D5300 ISO 12800 + 5EV
Pentax K3 ISO 12800
Pentax K3 ISO 12800 + 5EV
Sony A6000 ISO 12800
Sony A6000 ISO 12800 + 5EV

The D7100 sensor is from Toshiba, whereas the D5300 and K3 are sourced from Sony. The pattern noise that you see is partly due to read-noise, the noise that is introduced by the sensor circuitry when the signal is read off of the chip, and partly due to dark current, the noise that is innate to the circuitry itself. Fixed pattern noise tends to affect the grain of the final image; most of the image noise that you see is attributable to "shot noise", which is a inherent to the quantum property of light. Shot noise has a very fine grain, and is generally perceived to be film-like in appearance. Older digital cameras tended to have very splotchy pattern noise characteristics, which lead to the ugly digital look of early high ISO images. Modern cameras generally have tighter pattern noise characteristics, resulting in more natural-looking images. However, in the set of samples above, arranged from earliest to latest by date of release, you can see that there are different implementations. The Nikon's show the most grain-like pattern noise, with the D7100 being the most conspicuous. The implication of this is that the noise pattern of the D7100 "works with" tight detail; in other words, the fine grain of the noise is conducive to the subjective appearance of how fine detail is rendered. The downside to this is that the D7100 is prone to visible banding in the deep shadows when the exposure is pushed too far in post processing.

On the other hand, the A6000 has the most smoothed-over pattern noise appearance. Bear in mind that there is more circuitry on the A6000 sensor than on the other cameras because of the additional wiring necessary to make the phase detection elements work. This appearance is quite artificial; it appears that there is some sort of system-level noise suppression going on. However, the technical details of this are beyond the scope of this blog. The upshot is that the A6000 gives clean looking high-ISO shots with a broad grain; the resulting high ISO images are clean and smooth, but the Nikon images will likely be perceived as being more "detailed", if not noisier. For the intended audience, this is a good balance for the A6000.

Comparisons


The A6000 pretty much picks up where the NEX-6 left off. Even though the NEX-7 was the flagship E-Mount camera, the NEX-6 had the advantage of being released later and with more technological improvements. The A6000 merges both of those lines together into a mid-level serious-shooter's camera, but one that will appeal to casual shooters who don't want to settle for the entry-level A5000. As an enthusiast's camera, the A6000 can hold it's own against the rest of the APS-C competition, DSLR or mirrorless. The A6000 with the kit 16-50mm pancake lens is small enough to still be compact, but as is befitting a Sony product, it's feature laden for its size and cost. The value proposition of any mirrorless camera depends on where your needs fall on the size-to-performance scale. If your inclination is towards smaller size, the A6000 is a strong contender; if you need faster aperture lenses, then the size advantage diminishes.

Left to Right: Sony A5000, A6000 and Canon G1 X Mark II

Sony A6000 vs Canon G1 X Mark II


Despite being two different types of machines, the A6000 and the G1 X Mark II were released at approximately the same time in spring 2014, and sell for roughly the same price. However, the Canon, despite being the fixed-lens compact camera, is actually larger and heavier than the Sony. In it's favor is the bright f/2-3.9 24-120mm equivalent lens, but the sensor output is merely average by current standards in terms of noise, dynamic range and resolution. The kit lens on the A6000 is a pedestrian f/3.5-5.6 through its zoom range, but the small size on the Sony body make the overall package more appealing to shoot with as a general purpose take-anywhere camera. If you are a particular type of shooter who is keen on optically crafting your images, the Canon is the camera for you, but otherwise, the Sony offers more value for the money, and has a potentially longer service life due to the fact that you can expand its functionality through additional lenses.

Sony A6000 vs Sony RX100M2 (and RX100M3)


The RX100 cameras (version 1 and 2 at the time of this writing, soon to be joined by a third version) appeal to a different type of photographer than the E-mount cameras. Most people looking for a RX100 are drawn to it because of its extremely small size; for the most part, these shooters are looking for the simplicity of not having to deal with interchangeable lenses. However, the RX100M2 and the A6000 are all grouped closely together in price, and have a strong possibility of sitting close to one another on a store shelf by virtue of them being Sony products. If you are undecided between these cameras, it might be because you are leaning one way or the other in terms of the size/performance tradeoff.  Even though the RX100 cameras have brighter lenses, the larger sensor size of the A6000 makes up for its slower kit lens in terms of safe hand-holding shutter speeds. However, no matter how fast the lens or how effective the image stabilization, no smaller sensor camera can match the dynamic range and tonality of one with a significantly larger sensor., and as good as the RX100M2 is, it cannot truly take the place of a APS-C camera.

Sony A6000 vs NEX-6 and NEX-7


If you have the NEX-6 or the NEX-7, then the A6000 falls into the category of "you get better value if you skip generations." The combination of increased resolution and improved motion tracking make for a compelling camera, but the NEX-6/7 are already capable cameras. Sony cameras are generally adaptable with non-native lenses and are capable with video. The A6000 improves on the NEX-6 with clean HDMI output; if this appeals to you, then you likely know what you need for video capture. However, if you are new to the Sony E-mount system, the price differential between a new Sony A6000 and an outgoing NEX-6 is fortunately not too great, making the A6000 one of the most affordable and capable of the APS-C cameras on the market for a first-time buyer to step into.

Sony A6000 vs a DSLR


Though no mirrorless camera can match its contemporary in the DSLR world in terms of AF tracking, battery life and lens selection, the Sony A6000 comes ever so much closer. If you are looking at a mid-level consumer DSLR like the Canon T5i or the Nikon D5300, the A6000 is definitely worth a look as it offers comparable image quality and focus performance at the same price, but in a smaller package. Admittedly, there is something to be said about expectations; the f/3.5-5.6 kit zooms on DSLR's are considered pedestrian, but on the Sony, because it it designed around the mission of being smaller and lighter, the 16-50mm power zoom does not feel like a cheap part attached to the camera body to meet a price point.

As with any system, your choice of camera will eventually determine your upgrade path in terms of lens purchases. Sony's lens selection is fairly well developed considering the amount of time on the market thus far. In North America, Sony roughly third in terms of market share behind Canon and Nikon, making lens availability a reasonable thing. Be aware that the Sony E-Mount system is afflicted with the same disease that affects all cameras offered in either black or silver versions (Leica and Fujifilm as well); if consistency matters, then you will need to double check that the lens that you want is available in the colour that you are looking for. The tester unit used for this review looks svelt with the matching black lens; it looks awkward with a silver lens mounted on the front.

Concluding Thoughts


The A6000 is a refreshingly familiar camera. You have to think about that for a moment; when you pick up a Canon or a Nikon DSLR, each new iteration builds on the previous generation. You expect certain things from each brand; the buttons should more or less be in the same place, and even though new features are added over time, the general feel of the menus should be consistent. That's staring to be the case with Sony. The A5000 and A6000 are the first "second generation" cameras for the E-mount, and for a company that is often guilty of proliferating its lineup at the cost of understandable simplicity, it's comforting to see that Sony is building on the the success and familiarity of the previous NEX cameras.


The downgrade in the EVF capability is an unfortunate concession to cost cutting, though. Most people will be able to overlook this step backwards, but it's unfortunate in light of the increasingly capable viewfinder options available in other mirrorless cameras (especially the Fujifilm X-T1, albeit at a higher price).

This isn't a perfect camera, and as is normal for a Sony camera, it does feel at times that it leans more towards "gadgety consumer electronic product" than "serious enthusiast photography." THis also isn't helped by Sony's rather sparse documentation. However, quirks and shortcomings aside, there is a lot to like about the A6000. You have to make compromises between photographic quality and portability, but the A6000 manages those compromises competently.




With thanks to Broadway Camera

2 comments:

  1. "as is normal for a Sony camera, it does feel at times that it leans more towards "gadgety consumer electronic product" than "serious enthusiast photography.""

    Excellent summation. I tried a rebel kit and a sony a6000 in store and I didn't lik the experience of using the sony. I couldn't put my finger on why I didn't like it - but you sum it up well - the sony is a gadget, the canon is a camera. Needless to say I bought canon.

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  2. what a beautiful blog! I'm all for the Nikon D5300
    - Way more lenses to choose from
    - a proper external mic jack for better quality video
    - much better battery life
    http://hzz.hubpages.com/hub/Sony-A6000-vs-Nikon-D5300-the-best-mirrorless-vs-the-best-DSLR-Under-1000" target="D5300 vs A6000

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