Camera Test: Sony Alpha NEX-6 ILC

Get the NEX-7's top features at a lower price

January 13 Camera Test Sony Alpha NEX-6.jpg
The Sony Alpha NEX-6 offers a 16.1MP APS-C Exmor CMOS sensor, built-in Wi-Fi, 1920x1080p60 video capture, ISO 100–25,600, and a 16–50mm f/3.5–5.6 lens, all for $998.Satoshi

What do you do when your award-winning interchangeable-lens compact camera has too many fans that can’t afford to buy it? If you were Sony, you’d take most of what everyone loves about the Alpha NEX-7 and put it into a body that’s a better fit for their wallets—the NEX-6 ($848, street, body only; $998 with 16–50mm f/3.5–5.6 lens).

The new model has a very similar body design, the same lovely OLED electronic view-finder as its pricier sibling, and the same change-on-the-fly soft-key interface common to all of Sony’s E-mount ILCs. It also uses Sony’s new more-standard Multi Interface Shoe in place of the NEX-7’s legacy Minolta hot-shoe.

What’s missing? The NEX-6 dials down the pixel count—to 16.1MP from 24.3MP on the NEX-7—and eliminates the third command dial. As you might guess, fewer pixels mean that the NEX-6 loses the resolution battle to the NEX-7, but it also brings better noise performance.

In the Test Lab
Since Sony doesn’t yet produce a real E-mount equivalent to the 50mm f/1.4 that we typically use as a test lens, we continue to test its NEX cameras with their respective kit lenses. In this case, that’s the 16–50mm f/3.5–5.6 OSS retractable zoom. We set the lens to 35mm (approximately a 52mm full-frame equivalent) and then captured our test images at f/8 as we always do. Under those conditions, the NEX-6 earned a Very High rating in overall image quality from ISO 100 through ISO 3200. At lower ISOs, resolution was the limiting factor, while noise became the limit at higher ISOs.

Although it came quite close to our lower cutoff of 2250 lines per picture height for an Extremely High rating, the NEX-6’s resolution of 2225 lines at ISO 100 managed only a Very High rating. It held on to enough res to remain Very High up to ISO 12,800 with 2000 lines, the bottom edge of that rating.

To compare, Panasonic’s Lumix GX1 with its kit lens served up 2530 lines at ISO 100 and 2180 lines at ISO 12,800. But the GX1’s images were also significantly noisier at its software’s default noise-reduction settings. We suspect that if you applied enough noise reduction to get the GX1 to match the NEX-6’s noise results at ISO 12,800, then the Panasonic would fall behind the Sony in resolution.

A similar scenario plays out with Fujifilm’s X-Pro 1, though this model showed better noise control than the Panasonic and would give the Sony stronger competition at ISO 12,800. The Fujifilm is significantly more expensive, though, and targets a different kind of photographer.

In our color accuracy test, the NEX-6 barely earned an Excellent rating with an average Delta E of 7.9. By comparison, the Panasonic GX1 turned in an impressive 5.8, while the Fujifilm X-Pro1 was one of the rare cameras to receive the one-notch-lower Extremely High rating, with a Delta E of 9.3.

When we factor noise into our overall image quality rating, we look for the span of ISOs for which the noise rating is Low or better. The NEX-6 meets this criterion from ISO 100 through ISO 3200. However, it’s worth noting that up to ISO 1600, the NEX-6 showed Very Low or Extremely Low ratings. This is outstanding for an ILC and it even beats such DSLRs as Canon’s EOS Rebel T4i and EOS-1D X, as well as Nikon’s D4.

In the Field
Even a camera overflowing with noise-free resolving power would be worthless if you couldn’t control it properly. Ergonomics and controls are where the NEX-6 really showed its value.

Despite its small size, the camera has a pleasing grip: While not tall enough to accommodate your little finger (unless you have tiny hands), it nonetheless feels secure when you hold it. We also appreciate the space-saving strategy of placing the mode dial atop the command dial. The latter is easy enough to turn that you’re not likely to accidentally change modes when you meant only to, say, stop down the aperture.

Given that the NEX-7 lets you use three different command wheels independently, we were a little perplexed that the NEX-6 won’t let you assign a function to the wheel on the back of the camera when you are not in manual exposure mode. In that mode, the rear wheel controls shutter speed, but in aperture-priority mode, it controls nothing at all. Why can’t we program it to adjust exposure compensation or ISO? These each are quickly accessible via the shortcuts on the four-way controller, yes, but having exposure compensation at the ready on a command wheel can be a great boon to shooting in autoexposure modes. (Note to Sony: Please consider a firmware update to remedy this.)

In addition to the usual cool Sony features, such as Sweep Panorama (for automatic stitching), Handheld Twilight (for low-noise low-light shots), and Auto HDR, the NEX-6 adds built-in Wi-Fi as well as the same focus-peaking found in the Alpha 99 (see our description of that in the test here) for easier manual focusing.

You can pair the NEX-6 with your iPhone or Android device via a download of Sony’s PlayMemories Mobile app, which allows you to simply and easily transfer images from the camera to your phone for upload to your favorite image-sharing website or app. Once set up, the process becomes pleasingly seamless. On one occasion, we were able to share an image immediately after it was shot, and we already had a request for a print by the time we got home. This helped us prioritize our RAW conversions.

As is typically the case in ILCs of late, the NEX-6 focuses quickly in bright light and slows down noticeably in dimmer scenarios. Switching from the kit lens to Sony’s fancy (and pricey) 24mm f/1.8 sped things up, thanks to the extra light hitting the sensor. The autofocus system did a reasonable job of keeping up with moving subjects once it achieved its initial lock.

Video shot with the NEX-6 compares favorably with footage captured with other APS-C-format mirrorless cameras—there’s plenty of detail and pleasingly saturated colors. Plus, the AVCHD files should be fairly easy to work with in most video-editing software.

The Bottom Line
The ILC market continues to evolve rapidly, and the NEX-6 fills a spot that Sony hadn’t yet addressed. Considering how many photographers we’ve encountered who have described the NEX-7 as being just a little too expensive for them, we’d expect that a fair number of avid shooters will be won over by this model. Sony’s line of lenses still doesn’t match the selection you can get in the Micro Four Thirds format, but recent additions have been promising.

If you are looking for an ILC as a second camera, the fact that the NEX-6 doesn’t have as much resolving power as some models shouldn’t be much of an issue. If it’s to be your main camera, then you’ll have to decide whether the resolution it delivers is enough for you. For most people, the NEX-6’s resolution will indeed be enough, especially for casual, everyday shooting. Even with modest cropping of images from the camera, you can produce very nice prints at 13x19-inches or even greater enlargement—bigger than most non-pros will ever print. And if you don’t plan to print at all, the NEX-6 makes a wonderful companion to your cell phone. But be forewarned: some of your Facebook friends may want you to shoot their weddings and parties after they see what you can capture with this camera.

IMAGING: 16.1MP effective, APS-C-sized CMOS sensor captures images at 4912x3264 pixels with 12 bits/color in RAW mode.
STORAGE: SD/Memory Stick Pro slot stores JPEG, ARW RAW, and RAW + JPEG files.
BURST RATE: Full-sized JPEGs (Fine mode), up to 24 shots at 3 fps; RAW (12-bit), up to 15 shots at 3 fps using an SDHC UHS-I card.
AF SYSTEM: TTL hybrid phase/contrast detection with 99 phase and 25 contrast focus points; single-shot and continuous AF. Sensitivity rated down to EV 0 (at ISO 100, f/2.8).
SHUTTER SPEEDS: 1/4000 to 30 sec, plus B (1/3-EV increments); shutter life not rated.
METERING: TTL metering with 1200-zone Multi-segment (evaluative), centerweighted, spot (size of spot not specified). EV 0–20 (ISO 100).
ISO RANGE: Stills, ISO 100–25,600 (in 1/3-EV increments); Video, ISO 100–6400.
VIDEO: Records at 1920x1080p at up to 60 fps in AVCHD v. 2.0; at 1440x1080p at 30 fps in MPEG-4 MOV format; built-in stereo microphone; no built-in mic input.
FLASH: Built-in pop-up; GN 20 (feet); Multi Interface shoe for dedicated flash or other accessories; flash sync to 1/160 sec.
VIEWFINDER: Fixed eye-level OLED with 2,359,296-dot resolution.
LCD: 3-inch TFT with 921,600-dot resolution; 5-step brightness adjustment.
OUTPUT: USB 2.0, mini HDMI video, composite video, analog audio, and Wi-Fi.
BATTERY: Rechargeable NP-FW50 Li-ion, CIPA rating 270 shots (with EVF) or 360 (with LCD screen).
SIZE/WEIGHT: 4.8x2.8x1.1 in., 0.8 lb with a card and battery.
STREET PRICE: $848, body only; $998, with E-mount 16–50mm f/3.5–5.6 OSS retractable zoom lens.

When Sony announced the NEX-6 with its built-in viewfinder, it was great news for people who wanted an NEX-7 but didn't want to drop all that cash on one. We're in the process of testing the NEX-6 to see how it measures up to the rest of its competition, but here are some real-world sample images to help you get an idea of what to expect. All images are unedited unless otherwise noted. Some were shot in JPEG and some were shot in RAW and exported to sRGB JPEG using Lightroom 4. All images were taken using the 16-50mm F/3.5-5.6 pancake lens. Boxes of apples in bright sunlight diffused by a white tent at the farmer's market. Tech specs: Aperture: F/5.6 **Shutter Speed: 1/640 sec ** ISO: 400 **Focal Length: 21mm ** Edits: +1/3 exposure added in Lightroom 4 Original file
This was shot at 1/60th sec in order to give the person walking by motion blur. Again, the light bulbs themselves are blown out, but the untweaked color balance looks good, even with those gnarly fluorescent lights. Tech specs: Aperture: F/4 Shutter Speed: 1/60 sec ISO: 500 **Focal Length: 16mm ** Edits: None **Original file **
More gross fluorescent light and again the NEX-6 gets it right. Or at least very close. The big grey walls give a nice opportunity to see how the NEX-6 performs at ISO 2000 in JPEG mode. You can see things getting a little muddy in the full-res version, but there's plenty of room for sharpening and noise-reduction to be applied. Tech specs: Aperture: F/4 **Shutter Speed: 1/60 sec. ** ISO: 2000 Focal Length: 16mm Edits: +2/3 stop exposure added in Lightroom 4 **Original file **
Shot in RAW, this file came out of the camera with a nicely-shaped histogram, but it had a lot of extra room at both ends, so the whole thing looks a bit flat. Not unexpected for a RAW file, but it was a bit more than usual in this case. Tech specs: Aperture: F/6.3 Shutter Speed: 1/100 sec ISO: 100 **Focal Length: 50mm ** Edits: +1 stop exposure in Lightroom 4 **Original file **
A dark street with mixed light color temperatures is a true torture test for any camera, especially at ISO 3200. Tech specs: Aperture: F/3.5 **Shutter Speed: 1/15th sec ** ISO: 3200 **Focal Length: 16mm ** Edits: None **Original file **
Here's an example of how the NEX-6 handles skin tone under flat light. It was overcast, but bright so it's shot at ISO 100. Again, the original file is a little flat, even for a RAW file. Color accuracy, however, seems pretty excellent, though. Tech specs: Aperture: F/8 Shutter Speed: 1/125 sec ISO: 100 **Focal Length: 27mm ** Edits: None Original file
Taken in the early evening, this street scene is mostly dark, but still retains a lot of shadow detail. The bright light inside the store gets blown out a bit, but can be recovered a little in post, even though this was shot in native JPEG. Tech specs: Aperture: F/5.6 **Shutter Speed: 1/80 sec ** ISO: 3200 **Focal Length: 50mm ** Edits: None Original file
A shiny plastic statue in a high-contrast area. It needed a little bit of brightening out of the camera (which seems to be a theme, at least with the sample I was using) but it kept a lot of detail in both the highlights and the shadows. Tech specs: Aperture: F/7.1 **Shutter Speed: 1/100 sec. ** ISO: 100 **Focal Length: 27mm ** Edits: +2/3 exposure added in Lightroom 4 Original file
Some leafy greens shot in the shade. Again, color reproduction looks pretty good. Tech specs: Aperture: F/5.6 Shutter Speed: 1/320 sec. ISO: 400 **Focal Length: 50mm ** Edits: None Original file
A friendly skeleton who proved to be a very cooperative model. He was in the shade in late afternoon. Tech specs: Aperture: F/5.6 **Shutter Speed: 1/160 sec. ** ISO: 250 **Focal Length: 50mm ** Edits: None Original file
These apples were not under any kind of cover so there's a lot more contrast in the frame. There are only a few very small areas where the highlights clipped and they were recoverable for the most part in post since this is a RAW file. Tech specs: Aperture: F/5.6 **Shutter Speed: 1/2000 sec. ** ISO: 400 **Focal Length: 16mm ** Edits: None Original file
A basket of bell peppers in direct sunlight. The shiny skin and red color make them tricky subjects. But, the meter seemed to nail this tricky shot closer than it did with some of the easier situations. Tech specs: Aperture: F/5.6 **Shutter Speed: 1/400 sec. ** ISO: 100 **Focal Length: 35mm ** Edits: None Original file
A box of action figures for sale at midday in the shade. Tech specs: Aperture: F/6.3 **Shutter Speed: 1/80 sec ** ISO: 125 **Focal Length: 50mm ** Edits: None Original file
A decaying red pepper shot in the shade in late afternoon. Tech specs: Aperture: F/5.6 **Shutter Speed: 1/80 sec.**** ** ISO: 125 **Focal Length: 50mm ** Edits: None Original file