The Sony NEX-5n uses a 25-point contrast-detect AF system and, in addition to regular autofocus (in either Single-shot or Continuous mode), there’s also a Manual Focus option that employs a helpful MF Assist function to magnify whatever’s inside the focus box to screen-filling proportions for more precise results. Last but not least is a DMF focus mode which keeps the autofocus switched on but also allows you to fine-tune the camera’s results manually using the focus ring on the lens (albeit without any help from AF Assist).
With the AF switched on, point-of-focus options extend to Multiple (determined by the camera) and Central, along with a Flexible Spot setting that allows you to move a single AF box around the screen as you wish with excellent screen-wide coverage offering plenty of scope for creative focusing. Our only minor gripe is that there’s no way to switch between these point-of-focus options quickly without having to trawl through the in-camera menu.
In terms of AF speed, the NEX-5n isn’t the fastest we’ve seen on a camera of this type and is certainly slower than rival CSC models from the likes of Nikon, Olympus and Panasonic. That said, we’re only really talking small margins here (mere hundredths of seconds) and the NEX-5n’s AF speed remains perfectly serviceable, especially in good light. There’s also a powerful little AF Assist light on the front of the camera that can help out when light levels drop too low.
In other areas the Sony NEX-5n’s general performance stacks up pretty well. Flicking the main on/off switch the camera springs to life almost instantly, gaining focus and being ready to shoot in a fraction over two seconds. Processing times between shots are pretty quick too; using the Nex-5n in Single-shot drive mode we were able to shoot full-res/fine-quality JPEGs at a rate of about one a second, with no upper limit on the number of consecutive shots. Shooting in Raw, we were still able to reel off about eight shots inside ten seconds, while in Raw JPEG we managed seven shots inside ten seconds.
Using the camera in its standard Continuous drive mode we were able to shoot 60 full-res/Fine-quality JPEGs in a twenty second burst with no discernable slowdown occurring. Taking our finger off the shutter button, it took only a second or two longer for the camera to process them all too. Switching to Raw, however, we found that the camera did begin to slow down quite considerably after about ten frames. In Raw JPEG, this fell even further to about five frames before the buffer filled. While the Speed Priority Continuous drive mode does indeed shoot at its claimed 10fps, it's worth remembering that both focus and metering are locked to the first frame, which makes it less practical for shooting fast-moving subjects with.
One criticism of previous Sony NEX models is that the lack of physical buttons combined with the less-than-intuitive layout of the in-camera menu can make them a bit awkward to use. To a certain extent this continues with the NEX-5n; you’ll certainly need to familiarise yourself with the quirks of which shooting settings are found inside the ‘Camera’ sub-menu (AF mode, Drive mode) and which are found inside the ‘Brightness/Colour’ sub-menu (Metering, ISO, White Balance). The NEX-5n would benefit hugely from having some kind of ‘Quick Menu’ that could provide direct access – preferably via a dedicated physical button – to the most regularly used shooting settings.
While the NEX-5n is presented as a camera that’s easy to operate, it does take some getting used to before you know instinctively where to find things. Thankfully, these navigation quirks are mitigated somewhat by the NEX-5n’s touch-screen control, which proves pleasingly responsive and easy enough to use despite the fact that the on-screen virtual buttons are a little on the small side. We also like how the NEX-5n offers the ability to assign user-defined functions to the right D-pad key and the two soft function keys.
Image quality pretty much leads the field within the compact system market, with the benefits of the large Sony-made APS-C sensor clearly visible. Low-light shooting is especially impressive with noise kept to a minimum all the way up to ISO 3,200 (and often ISO 6,400). Even the top sensitivity settings of ISO 12,800 and (to a lesser extent) 25,600 aren’t a complete disaster area.
Metering is handled via a 1,200-zone module and proves to be consistently reliable, with just the slightest tendency to underexpose when set to evaluative mode and faced with a high-contrast scene along the lines of bright skies and dark shadows – nothing that a dab of EV compensation (of which /-3EV is available) cannot cure though.
Colour and tonality are, of course, affected by the choice of Creative Style being used. For the vast majority of our time we were out shooting with the NEX-5n we tended to stick with the Standard setting as we found it produced pleasing results with plenty of punch but without the overly saturated tones of the Vivid setting. There are, of course, situations where the other Creative Style (and Picture Effect) settings will come in handy, for example helping to give a scenic image a bit of extra lift on a flat, grey day.
The Sony NEX-5n is a worthy addition to the company’s growing range of compact system cameras. Those looking for a small, portable and well-built CSC with the image quality benefits of an APS-C sensor will find the little NEX-5n ticks all the right boxes. While we still have some reservations over the lack of physical buttons and the slightly awkward in-camera menu, the addition of touch-screen control and custom key settings does help to speed operation up considerably. Of course, for many prospective buyers the big question will be image quality and here we can report that the NEX-5n delivers class-leading results.