Hands on: Sony A6100 first look Review

Has Sony just made the perfect mid-range camera for beginners and improvers? Quite possibly...

First Impressions

If you're looking for a mid-range, travel-friendly camera for shooting street photography, sports and family moments, the A6100 is shaping up to be one of the very best options at this price. While its hardware is a little dated and it's a shame Sony hasn't updated some features like the viewfinder, the A6100's impressive new autofocus powers and 4K video recording make it a superb all-rounder that could see it match the popularity of the A6000.

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £840
  • 24.2-megapixel APS-C sensor
  • 11fps continuous shooting with AF tracking
  • 425-point hybrid autofocus system
  • Real-time Tracking Autofocus (with Eye AF for humans and animals)
  • Shoots 4K video at 30fps
  • Microphone jack

The Sony A6000 is the biggest-selling mirrorless camera ever, so the expectations for its successor, the Sony A6100, are right up at Burj Khalifa heights.

Why has the A6000 been so popular? In many ways, it’s been like a Moto G7 of the camera world – an all-rounder that hits a sweet spot of size, price and performance that makes it the default ‘other’ choice for those who can’t stretch to a full-frame camera, but want something more than a point-and-shoot.

The Sony A6100 continues that bang-for-buck trend, but adds one particularly exciting new feature from its more advanced cameras: real-time autofocus tracking.

This feature, introduced on cameras like the Sony A9 and Sony A6400, sees the camera constantly analyse your live scene for faces, eyes or moving objects you’ve chosen, and keep them in perfect focus while switching to the best AF mode. It works really well and is the ideal match for a camera that’s aimed at beginners starting their journey into interchangeable lens cameras.

The Sony A6100 is naturally missing some features from pricier models like the flagship Sony A6600, including a weatherproof build, in-built image stabilisation and high ISO performance, But if you want to shoot stills and basic 4K video, then it’s shaping up to be one of the best, if not the best, sub-£850 options out there.

Related: Best mirrorless camera

Design – the Sony A6100 has the usual low-rise design, for better and worse

Sony has played it safe with the A6100’s design, which remains virtually unchanged from the flat, rangefinder look from five years ago.

While it’ll feel a little cramped for those coming from DSLRs, it’s positively spacious compared to composing on a smartphone, which is the more likely background of a Sony A6100 suiter. It lacks the retro charm and mini AF joystick of something like the Fujifilm X-T30, but it gets the job done.

It’s a bit disappointing that Sony hasn’t updated either the viewfinder, which remains an old-school 1.44m-dot affair, or the 3-inch tilting touchscreen. Okay, this is an entry-level Alpha camera, but at £830 it’s not cheap either. The lack of resolution doesn’t exactly get in the way of taking photos, and there’s no real lag in the EVF – it just feels a little dated for a new camera.

All of the Sony A6100’s controls are easy to find and operate. Like on the A6000, you get a mode dial on the top for switching between exposure modes, plus a blank secondary dial on the corner that changes depending on which of those modes you’re in – so in Aperture priority mode, it controls the aperture.

Sony A6100

Do you miss out on any big physical features compared to Sony’s higher-end Alphas? Not much compared to the range’s middle child, the Sony A6400, which only really benefits from a high-res viewfinder. The Sony A6600, though, brings a larger grip, a bigger battery, in-built image stabilisation and a headphone jack for monitoring video sound quality, albeit at an extra cost of £620.

Those are nice-to-haves, but anyone upgrading from their smartphone or an older camera will find the Sony A6100 is perfectly capable without them. While its design is best described as ‘functional’, and it certainly feels cheaper in the hand than the Sony A6600, the real sparkle comes from the autofocus performance stored inside.

Related: Best travel camera

Specs and features – The A6100’s superb autofocus is among the best around and boosts your hit rate

The A6100 has a surprising amount in common with its more expensive siblings in Sony’s Alpha range, both in terms of its specs and autofocus features.

It has the same 24.2-megapixel APS-C sensor and Bionz X processor combo as the A6400 and A6600. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean identical stills image performance in low light, as its ISO range is more limited.

Sony A6100

Other similarities include 11fps continuous shooting with AF tracking, silent shooting up to 8fps, and a 425-point hybrid autofocus system with 84% coverage across the frame. This means that if you want the main focus of your photo to be off to one side, for example, the AF will be able to cover it, rather than forcing you to use the focus-and-recompose technique.

This feature set isn’t necessarily class-leading for this price, and the cheaper Fujifilm X-T30 does trump it on paper in some areas – including that sensor, which means it’s a shame that Sony has stuck with an older chip rather than match the X-T30’s newer 26.1-megapixel sensor.

But in practice, rather than on spec sheets, the Sony A6100 has one big trump card – its Real-Time Tracking Autofocus. This is the next step up from the Face-tracking and Eye AF that have been around for a few years now, and the cheapest camera you could get it on before was the Sony A6400 – until now.

In short, this feature allows you to think less about focusing, and more about your framing. While other cameras’ autofocus systems do combine data like depth, colour and pattern information to let you track objects, they don’t seamlessly switch between, for example, object, face and eye-tracking in the way Sony’s latest AF systems do. This means that, once you’ve locked onto a person, it’ll maintain that lock even when their eyes or face turn away from you.

I found that this made the Sony A6100 a great street photography camera during my brief time in Copenhagen, letting me pick out cyclists and passersby with continuous autofocus, half-press the shutter to get a lock, then rattle off several shots in burst mode to get a pretty high hit rate. It also promises to make the Sony A6100 ideal for family shots (including pets, thanks to Animal Eye AF) and sports shooting, though I had less of an opportunity to try it out in these settings.

What about shooting video? The Sony A6100 is now much more capable than its predecessor here too. While it lacks the Real Time Eye AF feature for movies (you can only get that on the Sony A6600), it does now shoot 4K video at 30p and has a new microphone jack for attaching an external microphone.

Sony A6100

This makes it a promising option for YouTubers and vloggers, although for a little more you could also get the Panasonic G90, which also comes with a headphone socket for monitoring your audio.

Related: Best vlogging camera

Image and video quality – Improved JPEG colours and promising early signs

In good light, there’s unlikely to be any perceptible image quality difference between the Sony A6100 and the flagship A6600, which again highlights the potential value of the former.

I wasn’t able to side-by-side comparisons, but there’s no clear differences between the shots I took with both new cameras – and this is what you’d expect, given that they both use the same sensor, processor and colour science algorithms.

Sony A6100

Sony says the latter have been improved and I was certainly impressed with the out-of-camera JPEG quality, which captured some of the atmosphere of late afternoon Copenhagen and natural skin tones.

Sony A6100

One area where there might be a marginal benefit in going for the Sony A6600 is in low light, as the A6100’s ISO range stops at 51,200 and Sony says there are likely to be perceptible differences lower down at sensitivities you might actually use, such as ISO 6400. I wasn’t able to shoot much in low light, though, so it’s something we’ll look at more closely in our full review soon.

Sony A6100

Video quality is also promising – compared to its siblings, the Sony A6100 is more of a point-and-shoot video camera, with none of the S-Log2 or S-Log3 profiles for those who like to colour grade their clips afterwards, not to mention to in-built image stabilisation or HDR of the A6600. But it does shoot 4K at 30fps, and the new microphone jack makes it a potential new option for vloggers.

We’ll bring you our full verdict on the Sony A6100’s photo and video quality in our full review ahead of its October 2019 release very soon.

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