We mourn the passing of one of our favourite cameras of recent years, the Sony NEX-6; thankfully it’s being replaced by something equally brilliant, the Sony Alpha A6000.
Price, rating and specs based on the 16-50mm kit
The old NEX-6 marked a turning point for compact system cameras (CSCs). It was the first model that felt like it posed a major threat to SLRs. With the same size of sensor inside, it could match them for image quality, and its superb 2.4-million dot electronic viewfinder (EVF), elegant controls and dazzling turn of speed left nothing to be desired. All this in a camera that weighed 465g with its low-profile kit lens made us wonder whether SLRs’ days might be numbered.
Since then we’ve seen the premium CSC market blossom with the arrival of the Panasonic GX7 and Fujifilm X-E2, along with some outstanding SLR-shaped models from Sony, Panasonic and Olympus. Most of these are considerably more expensive, though, so the NEX-6 has remained a strong contender throughout its 18-month life span.
Sony has killed off the NEX brand, but the Sony Alpha A6000 is undoubtedly a direct successor to the NEX-6. Externally very little has changed â the odd button and dial have migrated slightly, there’s one additional customisable button on the back and the textured magnesium alloy body has been ditched in favour of an aluminium shell. It still incorporates an EVF, hotshoe, pop-up flash, mode dial and command dial across the top plate â not bad for such a petite camera. The handgrip is slightly bigger than before, and strikes an excellent balance of ergonomic comfort and compact design.
The battery life is up from 360 to 420 shots, but we’re disappointed to see that the battery is charged in the camera, so you can’t charge one while using another. Another retrograde step is that the EVF resolution has dropped from 2.4 to 1.44 million dots, (1,024×768 to 800×600 pixels in more meaningful numbers), and the image is smaller too. It’s not a disaster by any means, but this previously stand-out feature is now merely average.
What hasn’t been messed with, though, is the competitive price. The A6000 debuts at Â£649 with its slim 3x zoom lens, which is Â£100 less than the Panasonic GX7 and Â£500 less than the Fujifilm X-E2 at current prices for their 3x zoom kits.
The big changes are on the inside. The sensor resolution has jumped from 16 to 24 megapixels, and there are more phase-detect autofocus point built into the sensor â up from 99 on the NEX-6 to 179, and now covering almost the entire frame. Phase-detect autofocus is standard in SLR cameras, but building it into a CSC’s sensor enables a hybrid autofocus system that CSC manufacturers are increasingly turning to. We haven’t seen revolutionary improvements in autofocus performance up until now, but this time it’s different.
The top burst speed is quoted as 11fps, and it managed 11.1fps for 46 JPEGs or 22 RAW shots in our tests. It’s a fantastic result, although only slightly better than the NEX-6′s 10fps top speed. However, the NEX-6 dropped to 1.4fps when continuous autofocus was enabled to track moving subjects. With the A6000, it delivered 11.1fps shooting with continuous autofocus. We’ve praised SLRs costing four times as much for managing 6fps, so the A6000′s achievement here is nothing short of extraordinary.
We were sent the Sony FE 35mm f/2.8 lens to test with, and not the 16-50mm which is available as a kit with the A6000. It’s the 35mm lens that we used to get the test results quoted above. We also tested with an 18-55mm lens, which was the standard issue kit lens for older NEX models, and focus was fixed during burst shooting. Since returning the camera to Sony, we’ve been told by Sony’s press team that this issue could have been fixed with a lens firmware upgrade. We’ve also been assured that 11fps shooting with continuous autofocus is possible with the 16-50mm lens.
The menus have been overhauled, and now resemble Sony Alpha cameras rather than the old NEX system. On the whole it’s an improvement. Pressing the Fn button give quick access to any 12 functions you want to put there. The main menu is more logically laid out and quicker to navigate. There are new functions too, such as the ability to vary the size of the Flexible Spot autofocus area. We particularly like Eye AF, where the camera focuses on an eye rather than just a face. It didn’t seem to be willing to do so without encouragement, though. We had to set one of the custom buttons to this function in order to access it, and that meant losing a button for either the AF/MF control, autofocus area or in-camera guide.
We wouldn’t normally be too upset about losing the latter, but this in-camera guide is the best example we’ve seen. 34 bite-size nuggets of information are presented over six categories such as Portrait, Night and Macro. Each one explains a photographic technique such as freezing subject motion, photographing food and capturing light trails from stars. In Auto mode, there’s a different set of 10 tutorials under the heading Basic Techniques for Shooting, with advice on how best to hold the camera and positioning subjects off-centre for more interesting compositions. However, if the camera identifies that you’re trying to take a macro, portrait or landscape shot, it offers that set of tips instead. When navigating menus or adjusting settings, the same button also brings up an explanation of the currently selected function. This is a great system that â for once â might actually help people understand the camera’s controls and improve their photography skills.
Wi-Fi is built in, complete with NFC for automatic configuration with Android devices. Remote control from the Android and iOS apps is relatively basic, with the ability to adjust exposure compensation and self-timer but nothing else. Control over the autofocus position would have helped for group self-portraits. It’s also disappointing that the app can’t be used as a remote monitor while recording videos â something previous Sony cameras have allowed. Transferring photos to the app is well implemented, though, with responsive browsing on either device and transfers at a choice of VGA, 2 megapixels or full resolution.
VIDEO AND IMAGE QUALITY
The video mode now includes the ability to stream a clean HDMI output for external monitoring or recording, plus zebra patterns to warn against highlight clipping. This builds on some impressive video-related features in the NEX-6, including 1080p recording at 25 and 50fps, manual exposure control and a peaking mode to help with manual focus adjustment. There’s still no microphone input, although the hotshoe can accommodate the Sony ECM-XYST1M external microphone, which incorporates a minijack microphone input.
Comparing the A6000′s video output with our archived files from the NEX-6, we saw a significant improvement in the fidelity of fine details. It’s not quite up to the standards of current Panasonic Lumix G cameras, but comes very close. Both noise levels and rolling shutter effect were much less pronounced than on the NEX-6. In short, this is one of the best video cameras available at this price. The lack of a touchscreen for adjusting the autofocus point while recording is the only notable drawback.
It put in a stellar performance in our photo tests too. We’ve grown accustomed to praising NEX cameras for image quality, thanks to their APS-C sensors that are larger than the sensors in most other CSCs. However, the A6000′s 24-megapixel sensor is a major improvement on previous NEX cameras, with more detail and lower noise. Colours were lifelike and details were smooth and precise. Noise was barely perceptible in JPEGs at ISO 1600, and far from invasive at ISO 6400. The Fujifilm X-E2 (and its siblings with the same sensor) currently rule the CSC roost for image quality, but the A6000 is broadly on a par with slightly more noise but also more detail.
There’s plenty of crisp definition to this shot â even when shooting with the old 18-55m kit lens
There’s no faulting the rendering of subtle textures here
Skin tones at ISO 100 are detailed and lifelike
There’s not much to criticise at ISO 1250 either â just a slight gloss from the noise reduction
Image quality is beginning to deteriorate at ISO 3200 but it’s still a perfectly respectable snapshot with plenty of detail
The A6000 can’t quite match the Fujifilm X-E2 for low light image quality, particularly with the X-E2′s brighter kit lens. However, the A6000 is smaller, lighter, faster and its video mode is far better. It also costs a whopping Â£500 less.
Compared to similarly priced cameras, there’s not much that can touch it. Nothing else comes close to delivering 11fps shooting with continuous autofocus. It beats all other CSCs at this price for image quality, except for the Fujifilm X-M1 but that model lacks a viewfinder. It even narrowly beats the current generation of Canon and Nikon cropped-sensor SLRs for noise levels. It’s looking more likely than ever that the game might be up for SLR technology.
Sony Alpha A6000