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Thursday
Nov272014

The Sony Alpha A6000: an Outstanding Little Travel Camera

It has been about 5 months since my last post, primarily because I've been very focused on my day job. Fret not though! I did get a chance to do some traveling recently, and have been spending quite a lot of time with the Sony A6000. I've used it while camping, hiking, and mountain biking at Lake Tahoe this past summer, it has been to India with me, and I've spent a bit of time shooting some landscapes with it here in San Francisco. Thus, I finally feel confident enough to write up a complete review of my experiences with it. If you can't already tell from the headline, I'm very happy with it, but there are several nit-picks that are worth digging into.

My A6000 Travel Kit

Handling

The A6000 is a camera that handles very well for its compact size. The built-in EVF (electronic viewfinder) is excellent, and is quick to turn on when bringing the camera to the eye. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about the camera startup time - it sometimes takes a full 5 seconds to "wake up" after sitting off for several hours! Curiously enough, this start up delay seems to be much shorter (1-2 seconds) if the camera has been turned on recently. In either case, the A6000 is nowhere near as fast to startup as a modern DSLR, which goes from off to ready in a fraction of a second.

Moving back to the viewfinder, it's worth mentioning that I prefer the A6000's to the X-E2's (see my review here). The major advantage of the A6000 finder is that it works much better in varying light; it's brighter in sunlight, and dims appropriately in low light. The A6000's finder also seems to refresh faster than the X-E2's, and feels much more immediate overall. These two factors really make the EVF shine, and add up to trump the X-E2's EVF resolution advantage, in my opinion. 

The control layout is well thought-out, and nearly all of the button functions can be customized. On my camera, I've configured the AEL button to activate "Eye AF" (more on that function below, in the autofocus section), the C1 button sets the AF drive mode, and the C2 button turns the rear LCD screen off ("Deactivate Monitor" function). Unfortunately the "Deactivate Monitor" function never turns the rear LCD completely off - it simply displays blackness on the monitor, but the LED backlight remains on. This is acceptable in daylight, but in very dark locations the glow from the rear LCD is still noticeable and can be distracting. Fortunately, the monitor backlight does turn off when bringing the EVF to the eye.

Battery life is awful, yielding about 300 shots per charge. This means that I carry 6-8 batteries with me when traveling in order to match the shot output of just two Nikon D800 batteries. I understand that EVFs and constantly-on image sensors draw lots of power, but I would not complain if Sony decided to make a slightly thicker grip to accommodate a bigger power cell. Another power-related complaint I have is related to the charging setup - the camera ships with a cable charger, which means that the battery can only be charged through the camera. It's not possible to leave a second battery charging outside of the camera while you're out taking photos. Fortunately, third-party battery chargers that work well do exist, but it's disappointing that Sony doesn't include one with the A6000.

The software menu layout isn't bad, but it is nowhere near as well-organized as what you'd find on a Nikon or Canon DSLR. Sometimes it takes a bit of hunting to find a particular function. Another gripe of mine is that the camera lacks a front control dial, which is a standard feature on nearly all "prosumer" cameras these days. Another welcome feature would be some basic form of weather-sealing. Finally, I'd also like to see a configurable AF point count. I frequently shoot in single-point AF mode, placing the AF point myself. With 179 AF points, clicking the selected AF point across the viewfinder to move it to a different location can be a bit tedious. As crazy as this may sound, I sometimes prefer to reduce the selectable AF points down to 11 on my D800 in order to speed up the AF point selection process (fewer clicks), particularly since I don't need all of those AF points when taking landscape photos. The same functionality would be very welcome on the A6000.

Autofocus

The AF system is the best of any mirrorless camera that I've ever used. It's incredibly fast and accurate, even in extremely low light. Interestingly enough, I found that the 16-70mm f/4 lens focused faster and more accurately in very dim lighting than the brighter 20mm f/2.8, but I think that is simply a characteristic of that particular lens, and not a reflection of the A6000's focusing system. In any case, I have absolutely no complaints about the AF system. However, it is worth mentioning that I don't shoot any live-action or sports events. One nice AF benefit of mirrorless cameras is that lenses don't need fine-tuning! Since the phase-detect AF pixels are directly on the camera sensor, there is no possibility for AF calibration error that can sometimes occur with DSLR cameras.

A feature that I've grown to use extensively is the "Eye AF" mode that I mentioned in the handling section. This setting quickly detects a subject's face, then focuses on the subject's eyes. This is incredibly useful when taking portraits, and allows for much more flexible, faster compositions: simply compose the shot, then hold the custom function button to ensure critical focus on the subject's eyes.

Image Quality

Image quality is where this camera really shines. The 24-megapixel sensor offers outstanding detail and dynamic range. Unfortunately the RAW files seem to be compressed and are certainly no where near as good as the 14-bit NEFs produced by Nikon cameras. The result of this is some slight banding noise when bringing shadow detail up, even at base ISO. A full-frame equivalent, this camera is most certainly not. However, it's still the best APS-C sensor that I've encountered (although most likely not as good as the D7100, which I have yet to try). In any case, see the images below for real-world examples. Feel free to click-through to view them in higher resolutions on Flickr.

San Francisco, CA (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

Leh, Ladakh (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

Khardung-La, Ladakh, India (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

Stakna Gompa, Ladakh, India (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

The Chaos of Old Delhi, India (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

Blue City, Jodhpur, India (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)
The Taj Mahal, India (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

The Himalayas (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

Ecosystem

The Sony E-mount ecosystem is worth discussing here, as buying into any interchangeable-lens camera means buying into an ecosystem of lenses. Two things really stand-out about the E-mount ecosystem: lack of lenses, and high prices. While the A6000 itself is an incredible bargain, the same unfortunately cannot be said about some E-mount lenses. My favorite all-around E-mount lens, the 16-70mm f/4 OSS, comes in at $1000, which is very expensive given its parameters. It's a superb lens, and offers outstanding image quality with excellent range in a small package, but it's priced higher than comparable full-frame lenses made by Nikon and Canon. The 24mm f/1.8, a fast 35mm equivalent, is priced at an outrageous $1000, which is $100 more than Sigma's superb 35mm f/1.4 for full-frame.

Fortunately, most of the available E-mount lenses are quite good (excepting the kit lenses like the 16-50mm), but the selection is fairly mediocre. For example, I want to use the A6000 for underwater work, but the only macro lens available is a 30mm f/3.5, which is both too slow and too wide for wildlife macro work. Where is the proper 90mm f/2.8 macro? It really seems like Sony has focused on consumer-grade lenses, and are only now starting to cater to more advanced photographers. Fortunately a few other manufacturers are also making lenses for the E-mount system, and most of them are very good. One notable bargain is the Rokinon/Samyang 12mm f/2.0, which is supremely sharp across the frame, even at f/2!

The Milky Way Above Tahoe (Sony A6000 + Rokinon 12mm f/2.0)

Leh, Ladakh, India (Sony A6000 + Rokinon 12mm f/2.0)

Conclusion

For me, the A6000 represents an ideal compromise. It offers superb image quality in a small package, and that's what makes it such an outstanding little travel camera. Despite all of my gripes above, this is really the first affordable mirrorless camera that delivers enough image quality that I don't feel guilty leaving the D800 behind. In fact, for many longer trips, I will often choose the A6000 over my D800 because of the size and weight advantage. To illustrate the difference, the complete A6000 kit that you see in the photo above (camera, plus four lenses: 16-70mm f/4, 35mm f/1.8, 12mm f/2.0, and 20mm f/2.8) weighs less than a D800 + 24-120mm f/4 VR combo.

For many readers like myself, I think the A6000 will make an ideal second system, perfectly complementing a large full-frame setup, and filling the need for a light travel kit. For others who are newer to photography, I would certainly recommend investigating the A6000 as an excellent alternative to the standard APS-C DSLRs offered by both Nikon and Canon - just be weary of the fairly barren and expensive lens ecosystem that you're buying into. It pays to do your due diligence here, and to be certain that any lenses you might want do exist.

Pros

  • Superb sensor, delivering top-level image quality in the APS-C category.
  • Fast, accurate autofocus that works surprisingly well in very low light.
  • Incredible value: top-of-class image quality with entry-level pricing.
  • Small size and weight: perfect for traveling.

Cons

  • Immature lens ecosystem with abnormally high prices and poor selection.
  • Very slow startup time.
  • Abysmal battery life: ~300 shots per charge.
  • Doesn't ship with a separate battery-only charger.
  • A few "prosumer" features like a front control-dial and weather-sealing would be nice.
  • RAW files don't seem very RAW - some compression and slight banding when recovering shadows.

Reader Comments (4)

I agree in most points.

I have no problems with banding in raw files, maybe some firmware fixed it. Raw files are excellent, fully comparable with pro APS-C nikon cameras.

Also, Sigma makes 19mm, 30mm and 60mm prime lenses. The are rather slow at 2.8, but very light and extremely inexpensive. Also, 5 year warranty and made in japan.

Thank You for your article.

January 15, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterrattkin

Nice review and pictures.

I agree with you on most pros of this camera but for cons I'd say just look at the price point and the quality/features it is delivering! With this, all those cons don't exist (given the price), as all these nice-to-have prosumers features cost money and Sony would probably introduce them with a7000.

As for the lens line up, I guess E mount system is just evolving and Sony seems serious about it. Also don't forget that with an adapter you can put on your Nikon/Canon/Sony A mount lenses on it :) Sont has this awesome translucent mirror adapter available as well if one wants to spend money, otherwise adapters are as cheap as 20 bucks.

January 26, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterinspire

Thanks for the great review, my camera history is D7000 >> Nex-7 >> D800
My relationship with the Nex-7 was a love hate one, I loved the compactness and the go anywhere aspect, but found the controls small and tricky to control at times.
After reading your blog last week, I've just committed to selling my Sony RX100 and an old Nikon Lens, and I have just purchased the A6000 (Yes I know the A7000 is round the corner (rumour)) but I wanted a small lighter option to my D800.

Ive only got the standard 16-50mm lens and ive just brought the Sony 10-18mm for wide angle stuff as I had it on my Nex-7 and loved it.

Ill probably buy a fast prime next, but I cant wait to get out with a lighter bag! Thanks for the great write up!

March 14, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJames

Thanks so much for this great post, Michal! I am planning for a trip to Europe this summer and have just purchased my a6000 with two lenses, the Sigma 19mm f/2.8 and the Sigma 60mm f/2.8. I still haven't been able to shoot with it as much as I'd like, but I agree that on first impressions, the RAW files are not what I'm used to with my D800. Of course, I can't expect them to be given the various and vast differences between the two cameras, but I am very much trying to become comfortable and confident with the performance of the a6000. Perhaps I will purchase the 16-70 f/4 and return my Sigma lenses or even look into just getting the Rokinon 12mm f/2 for the ultra wide angle I'm looking for. In any case, thanks again and gorgeous images, btw!

- Chris

March 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterChris

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