Taking the Sony Alpha α5100 for a spin!
Byline: By Victor Yap
Ever since I tried the Sony NEX 5 range, I know there is no turning back for me. From its APS-C HD CMOS sensor that – if memory serves me right – is considered the biggest in its class, to the 3in tilt-able LCD screen – also the largest in the series at the time. Both offer superb colour reproduction as well as great noise control,ensuring the NEX 5 camera rangeoffers a truly one-of-a-kind user experience. The good and highly memorable sort, of course.
As a photography hobbyist, what I really neededback then, and even now, had been the composition know-how and the technical knowledge necessary to get a decent shot. While the latter is a matter of understanding what to do with the gear, the former is all about practice. That is usually the case for all but I disagree with the concept a little.
You see, to be able to try out new angles and compositions, the camera must – at least – have some features that would allow for the consideration of such ideas. In my case, it is about trying new extreme angles that cannot be fully explored with a straight-up DSLR or micro four-thirds camera. Mind you, I am not referring to the sensors within as that is really fine and dandy. Instead, the fault of creating the disadvantage lies with the non-swivel LCD screen that the Live View mode needs to fully leverage on getting the right angle for that great shot.
Sounds like a mouthful? Perhaps, but I quickly realised what seems to be missing from my current shots when I picked up this little charmer from Sony, the Sony Alpha α5100 AKA the NEX 5 successor.
Design: Comparmentalised Hulk
Ever seen a proper interchangeable lens camera that is the size of a point-and-shoot prosumer? I’m not referring to the simple compacts or the micro four-thirds that are pretty pervasive in the space the α5100 plays in. When I first fiddled with the NEX 5N, it gave me the impression that I’m using a prosumer platform with the added twist of being able to switch lenses. The new Alpha compact continues this feeling and takes it one notch further by hulking up the chassis so as to fit in all the new bells and whistles Sony could throw in. Of course, it had not gone beyond the concept of keeping the frame decently compact. Good on you Sony!
Function: Lock and Loaded
Its small size belies the number of innovations and features the theα5100 sports. Beyond the obvious like the super large 24.3MP Exmor APS-C CMOS sensor, once again the largest in its class, and 180-degree tilt-able display, there is a plethora of functions packed into small frame of this camera. I won’t go into every aspect of this powered compact as that would take up a tonne of paragraphs. Instead, I will focus on the not-so-obvious: the Hybrid Auto Focus (AF), Picture Effects App, Shooting Tutorial, and NFC/Wi-Fi system. The latter will be discussed later on.
From the listed, the easiest to locate and use is the AF as that is part of the primary role of the camera. As it combines the best of AF systems, the α5100 promises speedy focusing for quick-to-snap shots and a massive 179 wide-area focal plane of phase detection hardpoints. Beyond instantaneous photo-taking, the points can be divided into wide-spots and zones for quick area focusing. While there are also centre focus and manual selection modes, tapping the screen will set the hardpoint you want to use. This provides easy composition and panning as the selected spot will track the subject if it moves or when the camera pans. All this is offered by default when a Hybrid AF lens is paired with the α5100.
How about Picture Effects and Shooting Tutorials? Well, they are both exceptionally handy as the two are specifically thrown onto the α5100 to enhance the creativity of its users. The former, which is initiated via an app, adds some pizzazz to the photo-taking process with fun enhancements through a number of modes like ‘toy camera’, ‘spot colour’, ‘miniature’, ‘posterisation’, ‘soft focus’, ‘water colour’, and ‘illustration’. All this can be previewed before the shot had been taken. This partners up really well with the ‘Scene’ Function where camera presets are made available for the user. Complementing the variety of tweaks is the guide that the camera sports as a pre-loaded launcher function. Just press the ‘Help’ button (with the question mark logo) and it’ll fire up for you to browse for a refresher.
Controls: Intuitively Easy
Using the α5100 is fairly simple with the various modes easily accessible and managed by pressing the central button on the main control dial. Just like its Digital Single Lens Translucent (DSLT) brethren, the new Alpha entry packs all the modes that DSLTs (or Digital SLRs) are known to sport. Setting Intelligent Auto or Superior Auto will engage the Picture Effects and close off the manual functions of the camera. Shutter/Aperture Priority and Manual, which can be paired with the built-in apps, allows for manual fine-tuning that enthusiasts and professionals favour. There is also Panoramic and Movie, both of which perform as stated on the tin. Scene Selection, the last on the list of exposure modes, has nine settings that work to elevate the photo-taking capabilities of the α5100. From Portraiture, to Macro, then Night Visuals (Twilight and Night Portrait included), and Sports, this options ensure the new compact Alpha is ready for any spontaneous situation. Just a few quick button presses and it’s good to go.
That’s not all as the apps, which are tied in to the Picture Effects system, bundled within this interchangeable snapper make it a formidable photo manipulator and sharing hub as well. From simple picture editing to wireless sharing with the Sony PlayMemories Camera App and then engaging Sony Entertainment Network optimised apps that are made for PlayMemories – all of them work to enhance the overall usability of this camera.
Kit: Perfect Pair
Partnered with the α5100 is the 16-50mm kit lens that offers an f/3.5-5.6 aperture rating and advanced Optical SteadyShot (OSS) system. As expected of the successor for the NEX series, the pre-selected lens used is, by default, the most appropriate partner the new camera system would ever need. Beyond the OSS and macro/wide-angle capabilities the lens offers, it sports a semi-manual optical zoom lever for easy fine-tuning of the focus, looks very much like a pancake lens (for easy storage and portable management), and seamless motor functions that make quick work of tracking and adjusting the focus of a targeted subject that is moving.
Tilt-Screen: Outstandingly Bright
Cameras in the enthusiast and professional range always insist on having the best in visual performance for the display. This is to guarantee that there no mistakes are made during the photoshoot proper as this is would affect the entire work process. Colours look great on this 3in panel with black/white and primary hues looking exceptionally vivid and well balanced. I like how the LCD panel is also able to work under direct sunlight.
Night: Beyond Sharp
Small form factor interchangeable lenses are known for noisy performance in dark settings due to the smaller than normal sensors used. Not so with the α5100 as its APS-C system is what one would find on a proper DSLT/DLSR platform. Paired with Sony’s new BIONZ X imaging processor and updated noise reduction system ensures every shot taken had more details, virtually no noise, and smoother toning. Bumping up the ISO level to the upper four digit range and even at 12,800 had minimal noise, vignette errors, and interference in the background. So, so awesome!
Connectivity: Conveniently Smart
Tap to transfer is the name of the game for the α5100. That and using the PlayMemories app, of course. Just switch on the NFC on your smart device (preferably a Sony Mobile type), fire up the app on both the camera and smartphone, and tap away! The welcoming tinkle of the NFC alert will tell you the devices have synced and are now ready to send files over to each other via PlayMemories. Provided the files are manageable in size and the Bluetooth connection is stable, transferring pictures onto the mobile platform is a real cinch. Now there is no need for a computer to do any of this.
Power: Burns Fast
For all the fancy stuff the α5100 comes packing with, there is one fundamental flaw that makes it all flat – the battery. As expected of a camera system that is loaded to bear, the battery does not last beyond a day. On a full charge, it is able snap over 500 shots (with and without flash) and some videos before it fizzled out. Usages in between include previewing photos, transferring files, cycling between lenses, auto-tracking subjects during panning/static shots, and switching around shooting modes and effects used. I’d hope the battery would last a little over a day but being able to keep going for one full day is pretty decent as is. Charging is quick too as I only had to plug it into a convenient microUSB jack to juice it up. Convenience is a great thing, indeed!
Overall: Prime Usage
The α5100 is, by no means, the best compact interchangeable lens camera thus far. With all the advance features and innovative functions it sports, Sony has a pure gold snapper on its hands and from what I have seen, it is unparalleled in the range it plays in. As is, it operates as my primary camera used on the field and for most of my shoots. Now…if only I can find a way to keep it.
- Price: RM2,399
- Dimensions (HxWxD): 110 x 63 x 36mm
- Weight: 283g
- Mount: Sony E-Mount
- Sensor: 24MP Exmor APS-C CMOS sensor
- ISO Rating: 100-25600 (Stills), 100-12800 (Movie)
- AF System: 179-Point Phase-Detection AF, 25-Point Contrast-Detection AF
- Video: 1080p @ 60fps
- Memory Slot: SD/SDHC/SDXC, Memory Stick Pro Duo/HG-Duo/XC-HG Duo
- Display: 3in 180° Tilting TFT LCD
Connectivity: 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, NFC
- I/O: 1x HDMI, 1x micro-USB
- Modes: Multi-segment, Centre-weighted, Spot
- Exposure modes: iAUTO, Superior Auto, Programmed AE (P), Aperture priority (A), Shutter-speed priority (S), Manual (M), Movie (Programmed AE (P)/ Aperture priority (A)/ Shutter-speed priority (S)/ Manual (M)), Sweep Panorama, Scene Selection
- Scene: SelectionPortrait, Sports Action, Macro, Landscape, Sunset, Night Scene, Hand-held Twilight, Night Portrait, Anti Motion Blur
- Additional Features: Smile, Shutter, Touch Shutter, Touch Focus, Self-Portrait Self-Timer, PlayMemories Camera Apps, Shooting Tips, Help Guide, Clock Function, Area Setting, Eye-Fi Ready