Sony A5100

Sony A5100

Sony A5100

Overview

I got mine on B&H:

Sony Alpha a5100 Mirrorless Digital Camera with 16-50mm Lens (Black)

Sony Alpha a5100 Mirrorless Digital Camera (Black, Body Only)

Also available on Amazon:
Body with Kit Lens
Body Only

This little camera is probably the best deal in photography right now when you consider image quality vs price. It is amazing. If you don’t need a lens, the body on its own costs under $350. You can also get this with a kit lens for $498.

The Sony A5100 is a small size, mirrorless camera that fits somewhere between a point and shoot and a larger mirrorless (or DSLR sized) body. The body by itself will fit easily in your pocket, but even with a lens attached it still fits easily in any camera bag and travels light.

The A5100 is an evolution of the old Sony NEX 5. I absolutely loved the NEX 5 for travel and I practically wore it out over the last 2 years. I was interested in getting a newer replacement so I thought I’d give the A5100 a try. I am seriously blown away. The body is the same design as the NEX 5 and that’s about it. You get a pretty amazing camera with this new model and the price point makes this a no-brainer.

Touch Screen

Sony have finally given us a touch screen! Its a bit limited in what it will do, but its a wonderful addition. You can only use it for selecting focus and/or firing the shutter – its doesn’t work with the menu system or anything else. Actually this is fine because its exactly what I want a touch function to do. I love my RX-100 mark III, but the missing touch functionality drives me crazy sometimes. Sony have finally delivered this in the A5100.

Sony A5100 Menu Display

Sony A5100 Menu Display

Design

The body size is incredibly small – just a little bit larger than a point and shoot. Lenses are interchangeable on this camera which is one of the great features. This body has the usual E-Mount lens attachment so you can use any of the lenses from the Sony line as well as just about any other lens (more on this in a minute).

There is now a pop-up flash (the NEX 5 required an external flash). The flash is quite nice. Its not the most powerful flash in the world, but its there when you need it. The best feature here is that you can adjust with your finger to bounce the flash if you like. This is a big win over the standard point and shoot flashes that are typically fixed.

The OLED screen on the back is beautiful. It has a full range of motion so you can flip it 180 degrees which is particularly useful if you’re doing video and need a monitor. I’ll come back to this in the video section, but I’m using this camera all the time now. Its portable and easy to setup and quite frankly competes with most video cameras on the market in terms of image quality. It doesn’t do 4k, but the HD on this is beautiful and sharp thanks to the wonderful sensor paired with the fantastic new XAVC-S codec.

The memory card is now located on the side of the body (it was next to the battery in the NEX 5) and the battery door has been slightly redesigned. The camera takes the standard FW-50 batteries that are used pretty much through the Sony mirrorless lineup. Again this is why it makes sense to own this even as a backup if you’re already invested in the Sony system. Everything is interchangeable.

Sony A5100 Back

Sony A5100 Back

Control Layout

The controls are fairly minimal, however the re-designed interface is much easier to navigate with this camera than the old NEX interface. You can get to just about anything in a few clicks which makes the camera extremely easy to use.

The buttons have been re-designed a little bit too which makes them easier to work with. The power is now a switch on the top of the body next to the shutter button. You also have a zoom toggle if your lens supports it. This feature is nice for video application, but I’ve rarely used it for still images.

The movie record button is in the same location, but its now a little bigger and there’s a ring formed around it from the body. This makes it easier to use and less likely to accidentally hit. Very nice job on that.

The back of the camera features the standard Sony layout of controls. You have buttons for menu access, image playback and a help button. The main controls are the main button and control wheel that allow you to access the camera’s main functions.

Sony’s cameras all feature a dial that you can press the top, left, right and bottom to access various features. The top of the dial changes the display. The left side selects the drive mode. Push the right side you can change the ISO settings and the bottom of the dial toggles between shutter speed and aperture depending on what shooting mode you are in.

So to use the dial – you select what you want to control by pressing the dial in that area, spin the dial to adjust the setting and push the button in the middle to confirm. Very easy. Pushing the button in the middle changes shooting modes.

Sony A5100 Lens Mount

Sony E-mount

Lens Mount

The A5100 features the standard Sony E-mount. If you’re familiar with mirrorless cameras then you’ll know that on these types of mounts (E-mount, Micro 4/3), the distance between the lens flange and the sensor is extremely short. This means that you can put just about any lens on these cameras that you like. There are a ton of adapters available which make these cameras just about the most versatile cameras you can buy. I personally use Nikon F lenses, Canon FD and EF lenses, M39 and M42 lenses and even older C mount cinema lenses and they all work flawlessly.

And the other amazing thing is that mirrorless cameras all use screens for previewing your image (they don’t have viewfinders). This means that you can overlay focus information, histogram, etc and actually be far more accurate on these than anything in the DSLR range.

Not only do E-mount camera’s give my old lenses a new life, but they are actually easier to use than they are on my old 35mm cameras.

Sony 16-50 Kit Lens

Sony 16-50 Kit Lens

Kit Lens

The kit lens is okay, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it. Its a little weird and wants to be a video lens with the electronic zooming. The lens collar feels chuncky and downright weird. Sony do this to keep the size small, but its a strange option.

The image quality is fine – as good or better than any Nikon or Canon “kit lens”, but the zooming is electronic and its extremely awkward for still photo use.

If you want an autofocus zoom lens, I’d actually recommend the 18-55mm (if you need an inexpensive lens). Its got a manual zoom collar and is much faster and comfortable for shooting stills.

Image Quality

The Sony A5100 features a new, 24.3 megapixel sensor that is, quite frankly, better than any of the APS-C sized DSLR sensors that I’ve used. I realize that’s a bold statement but the colors maintain better contrast, the dynamic range is excellent and the image sharpness is spectacular. And this is all in a $350 body. If you don’t believe me, you need to try it for yourself.

The performance is quite good as well. The camera is very responsive as I don’t feel any shutter lag. The camera is capable of up to 6 frames per second in continuous mode. While that’s not on par with something like the Nikon D4s (its capable of 11 fps), its more than adequate for a camera in this price range.

As I mentioned earlier, the flash power is pretty minimal. However its nice to have for times when you need to bounce in a small room. You could conceivably use visual triggering with a flash system if you wanted to with this same technique, but its just designed for basic flash conditions where you want the ability to bounce.

Auto Focus

I want to talk about auto focus, but also manual focus because this is where mirrorless cameras are really standing out over traditional DSLR’s.

First the Auto Focus has several options depending on the situation you are in. The auto focus system uses fast hybrid AF as well as 179 phase detection points to make these cameras extremely fast and accurate. I set my autofocus settings on continuous/wide and I use the touch screen to select what I want to be in focus. The camera simply tracks whatever I have tapped on and adjusts accordingly. I also use face-detection for when I’m recording my videos and everything just works. There’s no “hunt and seek” focusing from the camera and it adjusts very accurately on moving subjects. When you’re using it for video its not even noticeable.

Video

Video on the A5100 is extremely impressive. There are a few main flaws that keep these from being serious video cameras which I will discuss in a minute, but first the positives.

The sensor and processor do a wonderful job of capturing color, contrast and sharpness. This is beautiful looking video. The A5100 has frame rate options of 24p, 30p and 60p. And now you have 3 codec options of MP4, AVCHD and the new XAVC-S. XAVC-S is an MP4 container that lets you shoot at a bit rate of 50mpbs (more than double the bit-rate of the other codecs) which is much higher than the other 2. It does use more space and requires an SCXC memory card (for write performance), but if you want better image quality it is amazing.

The image stabilization is extremely good as well. Its on par with all of the other Sony cameras. I still prefer the Canon IS, but the Sony is more than adequate for just about any situation. Basically this makes it possible to shoot hand-held video on these cameras. You do need to be still, but it works beautifully.

Now the downside. The Sony A5100 is prone to overheating issues. It uses a CMOS sensor and these get hot. It has an extremely small body which makes heat dissipation difficult. This camera will not stand up to heavy video use. You can mount a DC powered fan to a tripod mount to cool this (I’ve used this as a workaround), but I really wish Sony would find a way to fix this. They are trying to keep the body small so this is the tradeoff.

I usually let the camera “rest” between takes if possible. I just turn it off. You could also use an external recorder, but these situations are not ideal. Its just how it is. Its better than it was on the NEX 5, but its still a problem.

Also, there is obviously the 29 minute limit on all of these cameras thanks to the European video tax. Even if it didn’t overheat, this camera is not good for long interviews and the like. You need a camcorder if that’s what you’re working on.

What I Wish Sony Would Improve

I really love this camera as you can probably tell by now. There are a few areas, however, that I wish Sony would improve on.

First up – start up time. Its a little long. Sony has a hidden sleep mode on this camera. If you’ve powered off in the last few minutes, it comes on fast. But if its been off for a while, it takes 2-3 seconds to power up. That’s enough time to miss a shot. I wish they could improve on this

Second is the video overheating issue. I’d settle for a slightly thicker body if they would put a fan inside. The camera is quite useful for video, but it is frustrating when you’re getting heat issues and the camera shuts itself down.

And finally the obvious which I haven’t stated. The viewfinder on the back doesn’t work well in daylight. It just becomes hard to see if you’re shooting outside. I know Sony provides the A6000 with a view finder, but it would be great to have an option to attach an external viewfinder to the A5100. There is currently not. This is frustrating. I don’t want to own 2 cameras. The A6000 is great, but its missing the touch screen and 180 degree flippable screen.

Is This My Next Camera?

Honestly for this price, just about anyone can get this as either a backup or a main camera depending on what you want to do.

I would even recommend this over any APS-C DSLR on the market. Its that good. That’s right – I’d recommend this over the Canon T series, any of the DX Nikons… anything in that range. Its small, compact and the image quality is better.

I’ll be the first to admit that mirrorless was weird the first time I tried it. If you’re used to a viewfinder, going to a screen can be strange. But I will say that now I’ve gotten used to it – its really hard to go back as so much is missing.

If you’re looking for something more than a compact that fits a tight budget this camera is for you.

If you’re looking to experiment with mirrorless this is for you.

If you’re looking for a basic camera that will take old 35mm manual focus lenses – this is for you.

If you need a nice backup – this is for you.

If you need a lens cap that takes images and don’t mind shelling out $350 – this is for you.

I honestly am using this quite frequently for my day to day image making. Its compact and the image quality is still outstanding.

I got mine on B&H:

Sony Alpha a5100 Mirrorless Digital Camera with 16-50mm Lens (Black)

Sony Alpha a5100 Mirrorless Digital Camera (Black, Body Only)

Also available on Amazon:
Body with Kit Lens
Body Only