#64. Welcoming the NEX-5N

By pascaljappy | News

Nov 16

UPDATE 1: My God, it’s full of Stars!, a first look at astronomy with the Sony NEX-5N.
UPDATE 2: A Slow-Food review of the Sony NEX-5N, using the NEX-5N exclusively with manual lenses.

Some people change cameras often. I do so when mine dies and the event often is an opportunity to turn around, analyse the past and change what needs to be. Read on to see how a little electronic device is set to become my slow-food equivalent of photography. This post introduces a rolling-review of the Sony NEX-5N. Besure to visit other parts of the review through the links above.

Going manual with high-technology gear

The best camera ever made – to me – is the Mamiya 7. It fell 15 feet with me from frozen stairs on to hard snow but continued working unscathed (wish I could say the same). It consistently produced fabulous transparencies that were large enough not to need enlargement and drew you into wonderland under a loupe. And it was as simple to use as cameras can be: center weighted exposure that never failed, always spot on rangefinder focus and better reliability than a metal spoon.

It remains my favourite camera to this day, followed closely by a folding Fujica645 bought used, that unfortunately died on me very quickly.

Fall colours in Winkworth Arboretum, Surrey, England, shot with a Fujica 645

Winkworth Arboretum, Fujica 645

Unfortunately, the world changed and I was weak enough to change with it. Digital suddenly made the ordinary task of developping slides feel like an age long hassle, home printing appeared to be an easily accissble holy grail and the cheapness of shooting was too compelling an argument to ignore. Of the three, only the last turned out to be true for me. At well over a Euro for each picture, medium-format photography was indeed an expensive hobby.

One day, Michael Reichmann reviewed the Canon D30 and declared it to be as good as film up to A4 prints. That article changed me forever and I never looked back. A Minolta dimage 7 was my first digital love and with its angled viewfinder and instant gratification rear screen, it gave me a taste of freedom I was never able to give up afterwards. Gearing up to a Canon 60D with a slew of pro lenses gave me the first hint that maybe this change had been a bit too hasty and based on other people’s needs rather than mine. The Canon was good but sooooo heavy and it seemed to hate highlights even more than Velvia. But most of all, my shooting style had changed. The liberating workflow of shooting and deleting allowed me to try more experimenting (a good thing) but also to become lazy. I honestly don’t think any of my pictures taken over the two years with the Canon were as good as previous ones with my previous film cameras. The Canon was sold with no regrets.

Artistic blur of two guarneri violins in Venice

Guarneri violins in Venice, Nikon D80

A Nikon D80 followed, with a 18-200mm as my only lens. The love lasted only a few days. The freedom offered by the single lens added to the liberating sensation of the digital workflow and my time with that camera displays the same symptoms as with the Canon D60, only moreso. An even greater freedom encouraging experimentation (particularly in blurs such as the picture above and in other posted on this blog such as Ghost in the tube, Supersonic Underground and Royal Albert riot) but an even greater frustration at two weaknesses:

  • Not that great image quality. Let’s face it, the D80 never was high end. The AF hunts, the metering is unpredictable and the file depth is pretty abysmal whenever light conditions are not optimal. Compared to a Mamiya 7 slide, there simply is no comparison, even printed at 8×10. The Mamiya simply is unbelievably good (check out Nick Brand’s 8 foot prints for breathtaking examples of how good that camera system is, in the proper hands). In anything but great light, D80 raw files really lack in tonal depth and crispness (Nikon apparently thinks the whole universe shoots fashion and needs a hefty AA filter).
  • Alienating shooting. That’s entirely my fault, but just as people eating tasteless food systematically engulf too much for their own good out of compulsion, my hiking, tourist visits and even family vacations soon turned into constant “I’ll catch-up with you later” stories as anything was a pretext for a quick – and, more often than not, bad – snap. Up to a point where I simply left the camera at home and enjoyed my outings more than at any time in the digital years.
Strong perspective a photograph of the science museum cafe in London

Science Museum, London, Nikon D80

Adding insult to injury is the fact that, although not being sensitive to brand is a good thing in absolute terms, after 25 years of switching between camera makers and systems, not much is left in the way of lenses. While my best photo pal and Dear Susan S contributor has built two very nice Nikon and Leica M systems for herself, my collection amounts to just about ziltch (German for nada). I do have a promising Panasonic 20/1.7 lying around with no camera to match and an unused 500mm/8 mirror Tamron given by an uncle years ago. But that’s about it. My 18-200 is slowly crumbling to pieces. It’s been round the world several times, has faced tough whether and been dropped in an Incelandic river by said friend 😉 so it can’t really be blamed, but a Mamiya 7 lens is for ever.

And finally, the finally, my trusty D80 is now officially bonkers. Something in its electronic pipeline has gone badly awol and it’s been pushing out files like this for the past year:

A photograph of a steam boat on lake major in Italy

Steam boat on Lago Maggiore, Nikoon D80

which, seen at 100% gives you this sort of pixelation or whatever it is:
Enlargement of a Nikon D80 picture in low light showing high noise Enough was enough.

Enter Sony NEX

During my time with the D80, I bought a second Mamiya 7 with three gorgeous lenses, shot a few rolls and … never processed them. It’s simply too much hassle and there are no labs for medium format work in this neck of the woods any more. The Mamiya and lenses were sold for a profit (thank you eBay) and I decided upon a new slow-photography / lens collection building approach. Mirrorless cameras were appearing, their small flange distance promising universal compatibility but not always good behaviour with M-mount lenses. So I decided to look at the almost as good and far cheaper Leica-R range and my Mamiya money got me a Summicron-R 50/2 (a true bargain at Schouten) and an Elmarit-R 19/2.8 II as well as a Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8 and a Cosina Voigtlander Colour-Skopar 35/2.5 PII from La Petite Boutique Photo (believe me, the owner is a *very* patient and nice guy ;)).

A picture of a lone pine at sunset with a Sony NEX 5N camera and leica lens

Lone pine at sunset, Sony NEX-5N

All I needed was a camera.

The Sony NEX-7 stole my heart immediately. It looks like a miniature Mamiya 7, appears to handle slightly similarly, with enough pixels to redecorate a wall and compatibility with old russian TV lenses, Leica platinum card gear and thousands of other interesting possibilities. My mind was made up … until tests made at The picture desk revealed the ugly truth about the sensor’s apparent lack of lust for M-mount lenses. Back to square one, with a dying camera in hand and a lifetime trip coming in three weeks.

Four alternatives were considered:

  • The Olympus EP-3. What a stunning little camera! Review pictures at Gakuranman just blew me away with saturation and richness.
  • The Sony NEX-5N. Not so enthusiastic at first. Sloppy ergonomics and a bit of a gadget.
  • The Ricoh GXR with M-A12 module. Spotted on Luminous Landscape with simply incredible highlight control (that turns out to be heavy and skilful file manipulation).
  • The Fuji X100. Single lens, but a good waiting solution until Fuji releases their next interchangeable lens X cameras.

After much introspection, pain and invaluable words of advice from Michael Reichmann and Sean Reid, I opted for the NEX, my least favourite to begin with.

So there you have it: one (almost) control-less camera and four manual lenses. For me, it makes perfect sense. The focus peaking allows even more pleasant focusing than a range finder (we’ll see about accuracy over time). And the lenses allow manual selection of the diaphragm, just like in the good ol’ days. The sensor is apparently very good, good enough for excellent 24″ prints, some say. Not Mamiya 7 territory, but getting closer, and big enough for me.

So what’s it like?

Tiny. The Elmarit, with its huge sunshade and adapter positively dwarfs the camera. The whole thing feels a bit unbalanced in the hand but not too badly and focus peaking is great.
The camera’s been here two hours but that’s enough to realise I cannot live without a viewfinder. The EVF on this thing is apparently top notch, but it costs an arm and a leg and possibly a kidney as well if you have small limbs. It better be great!

“File quality?”, I hear you ask. It’s taken 2 (two) pictures so far, one of which appears on this post. I’m not blown away, thus far, but just realized it was taken at ISO1000 in JPEG. Let’s not draw hasty conclusions just yet. More to come from me soon. Stay tuned.

A fairy tale bridge in North Wales imaged in HDR with a Nikon D80

Fairytale Bridge, Nikon D80

How do you feel about modern cameras and the way you make picutres?

UPDATE 1: My God, it’s full of Stars!, a first look at astronomy with the Sony NEX-5N.
UPDATE 2: A Slow-Food review of the Sony NEX-5N, using the NEX-5N exclusively with manual lenses.

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