As I slowly climb my learning curve with the technical camera, I'm being introduced to its stumbling blocks of various kind. One of them, and quite major, is that I find difficult to compose and eventually focus with a wide angle lens in low light conditions. The converted reflection of a scene on the ground glass is simply too dark to work with it. Also, when I want to preview how the image might look like, there is no viewfinder for almost an instant feedback. It obviously takes considerable amount of time to set the system up, put a dark cloth over my head and see what the final result could look like. If I don't like what I see, I need some 5 minutes to pack it back. For these reasons, I decided to look for a small camera to use for sketching designs and previewing scenes.
It's been some time since I last seriously researched digital cameras of any kind so I found myself heavily surprised what tremendous progress the segment did over recent years. Unlike smaller cameras, large DSLRs offer did not seem to move much and my good old D700 would still keep up but it's far too big for what I was looking to use it for. In short, I needed a compact device with sizable display and relatively big sensor resolution that would be capable of making decent images in case I'm lazy or slow to pull Linhof off. This specification disqualified all classic compact cameras (though I was initially thinking of getting the best one from within this category) as well as DSLRs. I ended up searching through a very interesting and fast emerging segment - mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras. It promised high quality outputs from a compact body. There are several models from few brands to choose from and I looked at Panasonic G series, Olympus PEN and Sony NEX system. On top of these, my heart inclined to Fuji X-100 rangefinder but it was somewhat too bulky for my needs compared with the others. To cut the story short, I decided to go with Sony NEX-5n and two lenses - 16mm pancake and 18-55mm zoom that will mostly stay home. The main reasons were three: it was the smallest and lightest (vs top of the line Panasonic Lumix GF3 and Olympus E-P3), it possesses APS-C sized sensor (23.4 x 15.6mm compared to four thirds system of the other two (17.3 x 13.0mm)) with highest resolution of 16MPx (vs 12 and 12.2 respectively), which is supposed to perform better especially in low light conditions, and finally for the large display resolution of 920k dots. Also, the comparisons and reviews confirm that the NEX-5n sits on the top of the competition table across most indicators, including the image quality.
The body of NEX-5n is really small for APS-C sensor. It will easily fit any pocket with 16mm on. It's gonna be harder with 18-55mm but I knew it. It's still not too difficult to accommodate into my Linhof bag. I did not need much time to get familiar with controls, the two programmable buttons help greatly to set the camera on what you're up to. I have preferred traditional way of controlling the camera but this one also offers a touch interface that I yet need to explore as I found it far less native than an iPhone touch screen (I realize we talk different devices and I seem to be more conservative when it comes to cameras). The display is large though (3.0") with excellent resolution - important to assess focus when enlarged 1:1. From what I read, the video output is excellent hence I feel tempted to test it when the right opportunity comes. Other than that I did not bother to explore any features such as auto programs because the camera provides for a full control option and I'm going to use it in Aperture Priority mode with manual focus, shooting into RAW.
I took it for a walk the other day to the nearby park to see whether it can serve the way I intended. When turned on, the camera is ready for use within a second. The AF seems to be working significantly faster than when I manually focus my Linhof. That's good. I won't comment on its real speed as I do not plan to photograph sport or animals but for what I need it for, it's bloody fast even in manual focus mode and on a tripod. I shot couple of dozens of testing photographs and I have to say I'm impressed by accuracy of exposure metering even in more difficult lighting conditions. It tends to underexpose rather than allowing burnt highlights, which is always much better of the two. Most importantly and lastly, I was not running any laboratory tests but final image quality after conversion from RAW was astounding when viewed at 100% and when realized what is the size of the camera. Could not see much difference from my Nikon D700 files and unlike the bulky DSLR that I'm uninspired to carry when I go for a scouting hike only, it was a real joy to experiment with this little toy. I have been incredibly skeptical to 'non-traditional' camera makers (i.e. other than Canon, Nikon, Pentax) and my old experience with one of early Panasonics only confirmed my view. However, I now have to say that over years I ignored them, Sony and Panasonic, and perhaps some other brands too, seem to have jumped so high that in some categories that Nikons and likes have a serious problem to keep up.
And yes, remember that the best camera is the one you have with you. Sony NEX-5n has the potential to be my best camera in many occasions. I guess I'm going to give it a chance to be much more than a scrapbook that I originally meant it for.
PS. This is not the thorough review, you can find plenty on the web. I more look at a specific use of the camera for my own needs in hopes that there might be some people around who were thinking of the same. What I missed but would like to give Sony credit for is absolutely excellent quality of full HD video that I might be tempted to do now, as well as the option to connect serious Zeiss A-mount lenses through a mount adaptor. Though this makes the system almost as bulky as DSLR, I like the idea of upgrading when needed.