Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sony Alpha a5100 review

A small, well-featured compact system camera that's ideal for beginners

Introduction and features
Sony is slowly replacing many of the cameras that used to be branded with the NEX moniker, and the A5100 is the replacement for the NEX-5T. Although the camera is the same shape as its predecessor, Sony has fitted it with the same excellent 24.3 million pixel sensor and Bionz X processor as found in the A6000.
Another key change is the increase in the number of autofocus points to 179 for phase detection and 25 for contrast detection. The NEX-5T also had a hybrid AF system, but it only had 99 phase detection points in addition to its 25 contrast detect areas.
Front view
This gives the new camera far greater coverage and only the outer edges of the imaging frame are not covered. Focusing speeds are quoted as 0.07 seconds, making it just slightly slower than the A6000 and Fuji X-T1, which (with their 0.06 second AF speeds) claim to be the fastest focusing APS-C cameras on the market. 

The sensor is APS-C sized, but features the same gapless on-chip lens structure as the full-frame A7R. This should make it better for capturing more light and therefore good in low-light shooting conditions.
In addition to single AF and continuous AF, the A5100 has an Auto AF mode in which it decides whether to use single or continuous AF, depending on whether it detects the subject to be moving. It's capable of shooting at up to 6fps.
Rear shot
This hybrid AF system also operates in Movie mode and footage may be saved in AVCHD, XAVC S or MP4 format, or in XAVC S and MP4 – simultaneously. This provides the easy sharing capability of MP4 with the high data content of XAVX S.
In addition to Focus Peaking to indicate areas of highest contrast (focus), there is a Zebra display to show areas approaching burn-out, and markers with grid lines and the centre point can be shown on screen to make framing easier.
Like the NEX-5T, the A5100 has a 3-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen that is touch-sensitive and can be flipped up through 180 degrees for taking selfies. Touch-control is again fairly limited, however, as it can only be used for setting the AF point or tripping the shutter.
Front view angle 2
Thanks to the new processing engine, sensitivity range also stays the same at ISO 100-25,600, despite the increase in pixel count.
While the NEX-5T had a hot-shoe with an accessory connection but no pop-up flash, the A5100 has a pop-up flash (Guide Number 6 @ISO 100) but no hot-shoe.
Like the NEX-5T, the Alpha 5100 has Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity, and is compatible with PlayMemories apps to expand its featureset. These can be downloaded from the PlayMemories store directly from within the camera.
rear viewfinder raised
With the appropriate app in place, images can be directly uploaded to Facebook and the like. There's also the possibility to remotely control the camera from your phone or tablet, as well as sending images across to a device for sharing online.
As standard, the A5100 comes bundled with a 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 power zoom lens - this means that you can zoom it from a switch on the camera body itself. There's a decent range of E-mount lenses now available for Sony's cameras, both directly from the manufacturer itself or through third-party manufacturers such as Sigma. Sony has also teamed up with Zeiss to produce a few extra high quality lenses for the E-mount.
Side view
The Alpha 5100 sits at the beginner end of Sony's range of interchangeable lens cameras, so its likely competitors are Panasonic GF6, Olympus Pen Mini, Samsung NX3000 and Fuji X-M1. 

Build Quality and Handling
At 109.6x62.8x35.7mm the Alpha 5100 is smaller than the A6000 (120x66.9x45.1mm) and slightly smaller than the NEX-5T (110.8x58.8x38.9mm) and this has meant the loss of the control dial on the top of the camera.
As a result the Alpha 5100 makes greater use of the navigation controls and it's a shame that the menu (which is the same as the A6000's) can't be navigated via the touch-screen.
If you want to change the shooting mode (for instance from automatic to one of the semi-automatic modes) then you can go through the main menu. I found it quite useful to set one of the custom buttons to this function though, to give you quicker access.

There's also no hotshoe or viewfinder on the top of the camera, so if you're a fan of composing in a traditional manner you'll be out of luck here.
One of my favourite things about Sony cameras is their level of customisation. Here on the A5100, that extends to the central button in the four-way navigational pad, as well as all of the directional keys around the pad.
By default, each of these has its own function (such as left for self-timer or down for exposure compensation), but if you'd prefer to change this system then you can. There's also a button marked with a question mark that you can assign a function to. For each custom button there are 35 different options.
Despite its small size and light weight (224g), the A5100 feels solidly made. It feels most suited to use with the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 lens in terms of proportions - using it with something large like the Zeiss 16-70 f/4 lens makes it feel slightly unbalanced. There's a decent sized grip which has a textured coating, which makes it feel comfortably secure in the hand.
Sony says it has designed the A5100 with one-handed shooting in mind. This is evident by the fact that all of the buttons are grouped on the right hand side of the camera. Around the shutter release, there's a zoom lever, which is useful when using the power zoom lens, as again it means you only need your right hand to operate camera. There is also a switch on the lens itself if you prefer to use both hands.
To start movie recording, you can use a dedicated button on the top of the camera which is set at an angle and helps to avoid accidental knocks. The only button which isn't found on the right hand side of the camera is the flash button - you need to press this to cause the flash to pop up.
Front VF raised
One word of warning when using the flash: if you're using anything other than a short lens, then the flash doesn't raise high enough to clear the lens barrel. The kit lens is fine.
If you're shooting in manual or semi-automatic modes, then you'll need to use the scrolling dial on the back of the camera to alter shutter speed or aperture. While in manual, press the down key to switch between the two parameters.
The addition of a touchscreen makes setting the AF point a much quicker and easier process than on several other Sony cameras, including the A5000. Once you've set the AF mode to Flexible Spot (you can also choose between small, medium and large spot), simply tap the area on the screen you wish to focus on.

View screen
Sony simplified its menu systems across its range of cameras a while back, and here again we find a fairly sensibly arranged menu divided into different tabs. There's still some slightly incongruously labelled options, such as 'audio signals' which allows you to switch off the beep, but it's something you get used to with exploration.
If you have an NFC-enabled device, pairing it with the A5100 is a doddle. Simply tap the two together at the relevant points on both devices and the Sony PlayMemories app will launch automatically if you have it installed - if you don't you will be prompted to download it from the Google Play store.
If you have only a Wi-Fi enabled device (such as an iPhone), then you'll need to connect via Wi-Fi. This is a slightly more laborious process, but once you've connected once it becomes easier.
Menus 2
Remote controlling the camera from the app is useful if you're shooting from a distance, or want to do a group portrait, but it's a shame that you can't control different parameters from the app itself - even more frustrating is knowing that the app is capable of doing this with other cameras such as the QX1.

With the same sensor and processing engine as the A6000, we were pretty confident that the A5100 would also deliver excellent results - in fact it's fair to say that probably the biggest difference between these cameras is handling, not performance.
Colours directly from the camera are bright and vibrant, displaying a good level of saturation. You can adjust how colours are outputted directly from the camera by altering Creative Style. Here you'll find options such as Vivid, Portrait, Black and White and Landscape.
View screen
Each of these are customisable - you can increase the contrast for instance - and have the benefit of being able to shoot these styles in raw format, leaving you with a clean version of the image should you need it.

Detail is rendered extremely well by the 24.3 million pixel sensor, with lots of fine detail found right across the scene. This is especially true when looking at an image at normal printing or web sizes - and even when zooming in at 100%, the impression of detail is still great, giving you good scope to crop an image if you need to improve composition.
In the majority of cases, the a5100's metering system copes well to produce accurate exposures, however you may find in some very high contrast situations it is beneficial to dial in some exposure compensation.
Menu 3
Also very useful is the Dynamic Range Optimiser function; this helps you to get a balanced exposure when one area of the scene is darker or brighter than the rest of it. There are five levels you can choose from, or leave the camera to automatically detect the appropriate level. Shooting at DRO Level 5 is perhaps best avoided as it can leave the scene looking a little fake, but 1-4 are very handy indeed.
Similarly, the camera's automatic white balance does a decent job of producing accurate colours in most situations. That said, it can err a little towards warmer tones under artificial light, and if there are two different types of light in a scene, it's unlikely you'll be able to get a wholly accurate overall picture. Switching to a more appropriate white balance setting can be beneficial if you're finding the warm tones to be displeasing.
View screen
One of the benefits of the new Bionz X processor, Sony claims, is its better ability in low light shooting scenarios. Pleasingly, the A5100 copes very well with high sensitivity settings - at ISO 3200 for instance, you get an excellent overall impression of detail and low noise. If you examine at 100%, you can see some areas of the image have a slight painterly effect, but overall detail is kept fairly well.
If you examine the raw format equivalent of a JPEG image, you can see how heavy-handed the camera's in-noise reduction is. You can set your own level of noise reduction using Sony's raw data converter software, or in third-party software such as Photoshop when Adobe Camera Raw is updated. This is useful if you would prefer to keep detail rather than smooth out noise.
Menu screen
Other than Creative Styles, you can experiment with different Picture Effects if you want to get creative. These can only be shot in JPEG format, but are still worth experimenting with to see if any particularly appeal. I'm a fan of Toy Camera and High Contrast Monochrome, but it will be down to personal taste.
It would be nice to see Sony giving you the option to shoot in raw format here, as you might change your mind about the filter down the line - it's something I keep hoping to see with every new Alpha.
The supplied kit lens is a decent all-round performer, producing sharp images and giving you plenty of flexibility in terms of its focal range. There's a decent number of lenses available now for the Sony E mount if you decide you want to expand your repertoire. A particular favourite of mine is the 50mm f/1.8 lens, which is great for shooting shallow depth of field images, or when shooting in low light conditions.
Lens extended
Another benefit of the Bionz X processor is the increased speed of both autofocusing and general operational speeds. Although not quite as quick as the A6000, or indeed Micro Four Thirds cameras, the A5100 locks onto targets under good light quickly and easily.
As the light drops, so do autofocus acquisition speeds, but it's rare for a false positive confirmation of focus to be presented. Shot-to-shot times are decent, and moving through the menus and screens is also pretty swift.

Sample images
Generally, the camera's metering system copes well to produce balanced exposures. Click here to see the full resolution image.
Focal length
At its widest point, the camera's kit lens gives a 35mm equivalent focal length of 24mm, making it ideal for capturing a wide view. Click here to see the full resolution image.
At the telephoto end of the optic, you get a 75mm equivalent. Click here to see the full resolution image.
The amount of detail reproduced by the A5100's sensor is impressive. Click here to see the full resolution image.
Dynamic range
Use the Dynamic Range Optimiser if the scene has high contrast to produce a balanced exposure - but it can look a little unrealistic if you use it at its strongest. Click here to see the full resolution image.
The A5100 has coped well here with the different lighting conditions in the scene to produce accurate colours. Click here to see the full resolution image.
low light
In low light situations, using the camera at ISO 3200 is still reliable, producing a great overall impression of detail. If you examine at 100%, you can see some examples of image smoothing. Click here to see the full resolution image.
Colours are beautifully vibrant, direct from the camera. Click here to see the full resolution image.
With its tilting screen and small size, the A5100 is discreet enough to be used for street photography. Click here to see the full resolution image.
A good range of decent lenses are available for the Sony E mount now - this was shot with the excellent 30mm f/3.5 macro lens. Click here to see the full resolution image.
Use the A5100 to take ultra wide angle photos with the excellent Sweep Panorama function. Click here to see the full resolution image.

Picture Effects

A range of different effects are available, as follows.
No Effect
No Effect
Toy Camera (Normal)
Toy Camera (Normal)
Toy Camera (Cool)
Toy Camera (Cool)
Toy Camera (Warm)
Toy Camera (Warm)
Toy Camera (Green)
Toy Camera (Green)
Toy Camera (Magenta)
Toy Camera (Magenta)
Pop Color
Pop Color
Posterization: Color
Posterization: Color
Posterization (B/W)
Posterization (B/W)
Retro Photo
Retro Photo
Soft High Key
Soft High Key
High Contrast Mono
High Contrast Mono
Soft Focus
Soft Focus
HDR Painting
HDR Painting
Rich-tone Mono
Rich-tone Mono

Having been in the CSC game for some time, Sony has once again produced another extremely capable camera.
You can generally rely on Sony cameras to produce excellent images, and happily, the A5100 is no different. Images are bright and punchy directly from the camera, while the amount of detail resolved by its sensor is also particularly impressive.
Pitched at first time interchangeable lens system buyers, it's a good camera to get you started, with the kit 
lens being a great all-round performer if you choose to only stick with one lens for the time being.
Those further up the experience scale may be a little bit disappointed by the lack of a hot-shoe or built-in viewfinder, as well as the lack of direct control buttons such as a mode dial. On a more positive note, at least you can set all of the buttons to work how you want them to, giving you a good degree of control.
It's great to see that Sony has included a touchscreen on this camera. While there was one on the 5T, there wasn't on the A5000. With a camera that doesn't include too many direct control buttons or dials, having the touch sensitive screen to set autofocus point is a good timesaver.
What's slightly more annoying though is that you can't use the touchscreen for anything else, such as changing settings or navigating the menu - this seems like a bit of an odd omission.
There's a fair amount available here to appeal to the creative photographer, but again it's frustrating that once again Picture Effects cannot be shot in raw format. You do have the option to shoot Creative Styles in both raw format and JPEG though, which is something at least.
It's nice to see the inclusion of Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity. If you have an NFC enabled device, it's so easy to use the pair together. While it's a little more fiddly using Wi-Fi, it's handy for remote shooting and sending images across to a smart device. On the other hand, the fact that you can't control much from the app is particularly frustrating when this capability is included with cameras such as the QX1.
Including technology from further up the range is a fairly common occurrence for camera manufacturers, but it's great to see some of the best features from the excellent A6000 trickling down the line - namely the sensor and Bionz X processor. Now we need to convince Sony to send some of the technologies (a touch-sensitive screen for instance) up the other way to the higher end of the range.

We liked

The A5100 produces excellent images, which is the most important thing about any camera. They're bold and punchy, while the amount of detail is fantastic. Even if you never upgrade from the kit lens, you're bound to be very pleased with what the camera can produce.

We disliked

There's not a great deal of direct control buttons and dials here, and removing the hotshoe means that you can't attach an external viewfinder - which seems a shame. Then again, the beginner audience for this camera may not be bothered by such features. It would be nice to see the touchscreen used for more than just setting the AF point, though.


Sony has produced another decent, well performing camera. It's not the most exciting compact system camera on the market, but it does have a good range of functions and features that should appeal to a wide range of people. The Sony E Mount system is also becoming a well established system, so it's a nice one to get started with if you're thinking long-term, too.
Overall this would also make an excellent system camera for travelling with, if you want something small and light that you can still rely on to produce fantastic pictures.

 source:-Sony Alpha a5100 review