Big Sensor, Tiny Camera, Nice Results

Centuries ago, a young boy in Japan was preparing for a long journey. “You will need much drinking water,” said his master. “Construct a barrel that will catch the rain.”

After a quick run to his local Pagoda Depot for supplies, the boy built a large barrel, open at the top. When it rained, the barrel filled quickly.

“Good,” said the master. “Now pack it up.”

“But master,” the boy protested. “This barrel is much too big and heavy to take on my journey — it might not even qualify as carry-on! I need a much smaller, lighter container!”

“A wise observation,” said the master.

Sony NEX-5 Alpha
Sony NEX-5 Alpha

“And yet,” said the boy, “a smaller container means a smaller opening, and it won’t catch nearly as much rain.”

The master nodded again. “Excellent, my son,” he said. “Now you understand the trade-off between digital S.L.R. cameras and pocket cameras. The S.L.R. is big and heavy, but it has a huge sensor that collects much light; you can get sharp photos even at twilight. The pocket camera has a tiny sensor that’s blurry in low light, but at least you won’t slip a disk trying to carry it around.”

And for centuries, that’s how it stood. People could buy a big camera with a big sensor, or a tiny camera with a tiny sensor.

Then, in 2008, Panasonic and Olympus rethought the whole problem. They produced a new camera format called Micro Four Thirds. The size of these cameras, and their sensors, is between that of a compact and an S.L.R., and they electrified the photographic community. Already there have been eight models, with 11 available lenses.

Other camera companies were clearly, ahem, inspired by the idea. In March, Samsung released a new hybrid of its own, the NX10, with a sensor about 60 percent larger than Micro Four Thirds. It’s the same size — known as APS-C — that’s found in real S.L.R.’s like the Canon Rebel or the Nikon D90.

Last week, though, Sony introduced another jaw-dropping step forward in the big sensor/small camera race: a tiny machine called the Alpha NEX-5 . It won’t be available until July, but it may be worth waiting for.

Like the Samsung, the NEX-5 contains an APS-C-size sensor — awesome. Yet this camera is amazingly, crazily small. It’s half the weight and volume of a small S.L.R.; in fact, without the lens, it’s about the size of a regular pocket camera (4.4 by 2.4 by 1.6 inches — only an inch thick except at the grip bulge). The lens barrel is actually taller than the camera itself.

Anyway, it’s the smallest interchangeable-lens camera in the world. With lens attached, the tiny NEX-5 looks a little bizarre — even ridiculous, like a mere backplate for a lens. But keep an open mind; it still handles well.

Now, to get this small, Sony had to push the envelope — and pull it, fold it and spindle it. As with most other hybrids, this one has no built-in flash and no eyepiece viewfinder. (A tiny snap-on flash comes with the camera, and a glass viewfinder that works with the standard lens will cost about $200 and will become available in July.)

And there’s room for only six buttons, compared with about 25 on an S.L.R. Yet the camera offers most of the controls of a typical consumer S.L.R., plus some great features from amateur cams.

The price is right: $600. Or you can save $100 and get the NEX-3, which has a plastic body instead of a metal one. For that price you get a non-zooming 16-millimeter lens (24-millimeter film equivalent) . On the camera, this lens is flat enough to fit in a coat pocket, but beware some distortion at the edges of the frame. For $50 more, you can get either camera with a 18-55-millimeter (3X zoom) lens instead. An 18-200-millimeter (11X zoom) lens will be available this fall for about $800.

With an adapter, you can use any of dozens of existing Sony Alpha S.L.R. lenses — but they’re much bigger and, on these cameras, can’t autofocus.

The photos are fantastic: big, bright, sharp, with true color and the sort of gently blurred backgrounds that you can’t get with a pocket cam.

Part two of the parable

This camera is a low-light superstar — not just because of its very large sensor, but also because it inherits, from Sony’s pocket-camera line, the clever Handheld Twilight mode. The camera rapidly fires six shots, then compares them (learning which pixels are part of the scene and which are random speckles) to produce a single, clean photo.

In short, you’ll rarely need that flash. (Sample photos accompany this article on the Web.)

The NEX-5 inherits other features from Sony’s pocket lineup, too. One is Smile Shutter: the camera fires automatically when the subject smiles. Another is the absolutely amazing Sweep Panorama. You swing the camera in an arc — horizontal or vertical — and two seconds later, the camera displays a finished, stitched-together, 220-degree, 23-megapixel panorama shot.

The NEX-5 shoots great 1080i hi-def video (720p on the NEX-3), thanks to stereo mikes, a choice of lenses and that huge sensor. In fact, the NEX cameras continuously adjust exposure and focus while they’re filming. We take that for granted on a camcorder or even a pocket camera, but it’s been a fiendishly difficult challenge for interchangeable-lens makers. (Panasonic’s much bigger, $1,500 Lumix GH1 can do it, but only with one particular lens.)

Sony NEX-5 Alpha
Sony NEX-5 Alpha

More to love: the bright three-inch screen flips up or down, so you can shoot above or below eye level. (Alas, it doesn’t flip forward for self-portraits.) The camera focuses faster than rival hybrids and even some S.L.R.’s.

The maximum burst rate is seven shots a second — a huge perk for sports, nature and variations of a smile. An “Auto HDR” mode combines three photos into one, for a greater range of bright and dark tones than one shot could capture alone.

In Auto mode, turning the dial visibly blurs or sharpens the background, so you can dial in just the depth of field you want. Very, very cool.

Over all, Sony is in its element here, harnessing years of expertise in miniaturization and optics. The NEX-5 would be an easy recommendation, especially as your first interchangeable-lens camera — but there’s one huge caveat: Few buttons means a lot of trips into the menu system.

Now, Sony has completely redesigned the menus, and cleverly, too; the camera uses “soft keys,” like on a cellphone — two buttons beside the screen whose functions change along with the on-screen labels. But this is the iPhone school of menu design: easy to learn, inefficient to navigate.

Most painfully, there’s no physical mode dial. To switch from Auto mode to a scene mode (like Panorama or Macro), you call up an on-screen dial — that’s up to six button presses. Adjust the light sensitivity? Six presses plus a dial turn. Switch to manual focus? Eleven presses. It gets old fast.

Similarly, in playback mode, you can’t view photos and videos together. Switching takes six button presses. Also, Sony is inventing a whole new camera/lens format here — and Sony doesn’t have a great track record with new formats. Remember Betamax? Memory Stick? Atrac? (Me neither.)

Sony says that it had no choice. No existing lenses have built-in stabilization, a completely silent motor (to honor your video soundtrack), and autofocus even during filming.

The hybrid camera market is still young. Micro Four Thirds is still a baby standard (only two companies), Samsung still has just one camera. Sony’s hybrid is generally superior to both.

And now, back to the parable: In the end, the boy began to cross Japan with only a tiny water flask on his back.

The master was aghast. “But you will die of thirst, my son!”

The boy smiled as he continued walking. “I’m not too worried about it, old man. Technology has a way of making all things possible."