If you were to take the Sony a7 / A7R (which everybody seems to be raving about) and shrink it down to a 1.5x crop sensor size, you would have the Sony A6000. Using the same e-mount of Sony’s new full-frame mirrorless system, the A6000 is a tiny little thing that aspires to pack a professional punch.
Does it match up to the hype of it’s full-frame siblings? Spoiler alert: At ISO 100, you bet it does! It also comes pretty close throughout the rest of its ISO range, as well as in feature set, sheer performance, and overall construction. In short, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce the miniature , 1/3 priced Sony a7!
Initial Opinion & Sample Images
The very first thing I notice when I pick up the Sony A6000 is that it feels great; I don’t feel like I’m playing with a toy / beginner camera. The metal control dials and overall metal feel / look inspires confidence.
Check out the ISO / sharpness 100% crop samples below. For those of you who might not be familiar with inspecting 100% crops and determining what is what, allow me to translate what you’re about to see into my own real-world assessment: These images are going to be gorgeous up to ISO 1600 or 3200, or even 6400, depending on your own personal standards for grain. They’re surprisingly comparable to the likes of the full-frame D610 and Sony a7, two current-generation full-frame sensors that share a 24 megapixel resolution spec. (We’ll post comparison samples against the Sony a7 and the Canon 5D Mk3 in our final review!)
Long story short, in my opinion, this camera’s sensor gives me everything I absolutely demanded from my full-frame cameras just ~5 years ago, especially considering that was at 12 megapixels! Sure, today’s full-frame cameras are better, but how much better? And is it worth the price / weight difference to you?
Sony claims that their new Bionz X image processing is doing something extra special to the fine detail in these images, and I’d have to agree- despite not being AA-filter-less like the Nikon D7100 and Pentax K-3, the fine detail in these images is fantastic and I didn’t even have to use sharpening in this test! (There is also no luminance noise reduction applied, by the way).
Yep, that is some pretty impressive detail at ISO 3200!
The one thing that some purist RAW shooters might argue about is Sony’s use of noise reduction in RAW images. Most noise reduction is only applied to JPG images, of course, however debate always seems to surround Sony cameras regarding their use of NR (noise reduction) on RAW images too.
Sony claims that their new Bionz X processor can selectively reduce noise for shadowy or detail-less areas that might be out of focus, while preserving sharpness in areas of important detail.
RAW or JPG, all I know is that this sensor is delivering the goods in a way that is consistent with most other high-end cameras out there, even the full-frame ones that cost $3-6K. Great detail retention in well-exposed / bright areas, but slightly mushy as you progress towards shadows and black.
While we’re on the subject of image quality, however, I feel I should point out one caveat with the kit lens that ships with the Sony A6000 – At 16mm, Sony is relying very heavily on software to correct for lens limitations.
On the left edge you can see the corrected, flawless corners with zero distortion and vignetting. Thankfully this lens profile was offered by Adobe right away, because on the right portion of the image you can see the massive barrel distortion and annoying vignetting. (Thankfully it’s not like you’re losing any of your original image, as the corrected view is also what you see in the viewfinder when shooting)
This might never be an issue if you shoot JPG and/or always use the RAW profile, of course. And for the record, corner sharpness is really quite decent, especially if you stop down a little bit.
Incredible Image Quality
Sony has been working on this particular 24 megapixel sensor for a while now. I think we first saw this sensor, or another version, in late 2011 with the Sony A65 / A77, and then with the Nikon D3200 that came out in early 2012. Since then this sensor has found its way into numerous Nikon DSLRs including the D7100, D5300, and D3300 which also lack an AA filter, for extra sharpness. (Or you might say, for slightly less loss of detail when cramming 24 megapixels into a 1.5x crop sensor…)
Simply put, it is no surprise that this sensor is downright amazing. As you can see from the examples, it comes very close to matching Nikon’s own recent adaptation, which is a pretty impressive feat considering the history Sony has with failing to match Nikon’s noise reduction / RAW conversion algorithms at high ISO’s, especially at 24 MP. (cough) A900 vs D3X (cough).
It’s not just about having low noise at high ISO’s, of course. The dynamic range from this 24 MP sensor is incredible, in fact, it’s hot on the heels of the current DR champion, the Nikon D800. Shadows just keep going and going, especially at lower ISO’s, and highlights have great recovery too.
Color is very subjective, but suffice to say, I would consider this camera’s image quality adequate for any professional job. You might find that you prefer the colors from this or that camera, and in my opinion Sony could stand to improve the overall “oomph” of their colors and tonality, but like I said, that’s all very subjective and also very easy to improve in post-production. Some people really like Canon colors, I personally prefer Nikon colors, so to each their own. There are certainly going to be much more technical, quantitative reviews out there soon.
Simply put, unless you’re taking pictures of the milky way on a moonless night or trying to hand-hold at ISO 6400 or 12800 for dozens of weddings every year, …you’ll find it pretty hard to covet a full-frame sensor’s image quality. (Disregarding differences of DOF and focal range options, of course!)
Rest assured, the obligatory puppy shot is nice and sharp!
Amazing Autofocus Capability
I’ve been briefly playing around with mirrorless cameras since, well, when they first started appearing on the market! Each time I was moderately impressed by them, but when I’d get into a serious low-light situation they would begin to utterly fail at focusing. Not as in, “hit-or-miss”, but as in “miss-or-miss-or-miss-or-miss-or…” Well, you get the idea.
Even some of the other very recent mirrorless cameras, such as the Panasonic GH3 and Olympus E-M1, seemed to start dropping the ball in low light quite a bit more than my pro DSLRs.
However, I’m not yet ready to say that I feel like the Sony A6000 is matching or beating traditional DSLR phase-detect autofocus in extremely low light. (The latest Nikon and Canon flagships are rated to -3 EV, which I frequently find myself shooting in at weddings. Basically, imagine trying to AF in less light than that of a full moon!)
I will reserve final judgment until I have taken the A6000 out on a few more jobs. However, even if my final verdict returns as “still slightly inferior to pro level phase-detect,” (which it certainly might), I will probably still deem the A6000’s AF to be a better choice for most photographers because whatever it might still lack in speed or low-light reliability, it definitely makes up for in customization and sheer versatility. You can adjust the size of the AF points, (small, medium, large) and you can move them all over the viewfinder. With most full-frame DSLRs, on the other hand, you can’t even reach the rule-of-thirds areas, or if you can it is with an inferior non-cross-type AF point!
Oh, and did I mention the awesome face-detection and focus tracking capabilities? It works incredibly well, and it is also nice to have “marching ants” to help confirm manual focus. I must say I’m looking forward to the next generation of hybrid autofocus engines that we’ll hopefully see in ALL cameras soon.
By the way, forget flagship sports DSLRs, how does the autofocus in the Sony A6000 compare to a DSLR that is similarly priced? In a word, OUCH. It beats the pants off my Nikon D5300, which is supposed to have a pretty good 39-point AF system and yet has been considerably un-reliable even despite being serviced / calibrated once by Nikon. Maybe my D5300 is a slight lemon, or maybe it’s been bumped one too many times, but for now I’m inclined to say that for under $1,000-$1,500 you won’t find a better AF system than the Sony A6000 offers, period.
I bought that Nikon D5300 I keep talking about because, to be honest, I was tired of lugging around huge pro cameras all the time. The only problem with this is, up until now pretty much every lightweight entry-level DSLR on the market is made almost entirely of plastic and lacks weather sealing. (Except the Pentax’s!) The latest generation of mirrorless cameras aimed at pros aspires to change all this, and the A6000 is no exception. Metal dials, noticeable metal construction, and a solid feel overall are very welcome in such a lightweight package.
As I mentioned, having a camera that feels this robust in this small of a package has mostly been unheard of in the beginner / compact DSLR world. You had to choose between either ruggedness, or compactness. The A6000 definitely changes that, and it does so in a bigger way than its full-frame A7 siblings do. (The A7s weighs about the same as a Nikon D610 / Df!)
I don’t really need a camera to be that much more compact than a beginner DSLR already is, of course; however with such space savings I would probably just wind up buying 2-3 of these tiny cameras for various professional purposes or timelapse photography. (I could easily fit two of these A6000 bodies in the lens compartment of my 85mm f/1.8 in my rolling camera case!)
I was pleasantly surprised by the level of customizability that the A6000 offers. Mainly, to be honest, simply because I’m just not used to cameras in this price range being so nicely adaptable for, let alone directly aimed at, professional users. There were a handful of limitations, which I’ll get into next, but suffice it to say that I was able to customize the Sony A6000 in a way that allowed me to consider it usable in professional environments such as weddings or action sports. And in my opinion, those are the two most challenging environments that you can find for camera testing, so that says a lot! Most casual users will find the A6000 can be customized however they like, with only a few minor restrictions.
Yep, battery life on mirrorless cameras is annoyingly short. This is no surprise. To be honest, I can’t really compare the A6000’s battery life very specifically against other mirrorless cameras out there. They’re all pretty sad and I wouldn’t recommend buying one mirrorless camera over another unless the battery life is significantly different. As far as I’m concerned, they could all stand to be dramatically improved by some sort of new technology, or hey, why not just a larger battery? I’d be fine with a slightly larger grip to contain a slightly larger battery.
Slight Lag Times Here And There
For all the speed that the A6000 boasts, a few basic operations are annoyingly slow. Mainly, zooming in to 100% takes ~1-2 seconds which is a major buzz kill when shooting in extremely active situations. Scrolling from image to image while zoomed in to 100% also takes an extra second or more, compared to the Nikon DSLRs that I’m used to.
There’s also a fraction of a second that you have to wait when switching back and forth between the viewfinder and the rear display.
I don’t really mind the on/off delay, surprisingly, even though it’s there, however others might, and all of this adds up to me being just a little bit frustrated when using the camera in really active conditions. It wouldn’t be a deal-breaker, I’m sure I could get used to it, but then again I have to wonder if Sony and other mirrorless cameras won’t overcome these lag times within a generation or two, which would make me feel silly. Simply put, I dislike adopting new technology that I don’t think is perfected yet.
Customizability and general functionality is another area where I feel that the A6000 is brilliantly designed, and yet annoyingly limited at the same time. Other reviewers / testers talk about how the A6000 is a step forward compared to previous Sony NEX and similar mirrorless cameras, and for that I am grateful. However, this is definitely not the best Sony can do.
The best way I can describe how I feel about the A6000 would be this realization I had while I was shooting with it: “Wow, this camera is awesome, but dang, it sure goes to show what Canon and Nikon can do with over a half-century of camera design wisdom!”
That pretty much sums it up. I feel like Sony is going full speed with these new cameras, and they simply have to in order to catch up with the perfection that we’re used to with our Canons / Nikons. Well, you know what I mean. If Nikon and Canon were to make their own A6000 tomorrow, it would probably feel PERFECT to me, and have every feature, customization, and interface nuance that I love. Sony, on the other hand, is still a generation or two away from offering exactly the style of functionality that allows me to really make a camera “sing.”
It is hard to put a finger on exact functions that feel limited, though. But for example I can only switch the aperture / shutter duties of the two control dials in a very simple 2-option manner, I cannot change the “+/-” direction like I can on my Nikon, let alone the massive level of dial customizability that the Pentax K-3 offers.
I also cannot customize the individual buttons perfectly enough; for example, I’d really like to be able to move my AF point around without having to first hit a focus point selection button, (twice) and I would love to be able to turn OFF the use of command dials in moving focus points around.
And so on and so forth. If you personally have your own little customization preferences that are deal-breakers for you, please feel free to comment below and I’ll see if I can advise you in greater detail!
The A6000 Versus DSLRs
Precious few of the advantages offered by a DSLR over a mirrorless camera will be found in the l0w-end beginner DSLRs of today. You get an optical viewfinder, and the familiarity of certain functions that come with it. However, I gotta be honest, if I were just now getting into photography today, and possibly considering a camera in this price range within the next 12 months, the desirability of beginner DSLRs would be near-zero for me at this point.
In the mid-range however, it becomes tricky. As a hobbyist photographer shooting your kids’ sports games / gymnastics practice, or animals at the local wildlife sanctuary, …would you rather have a Canon 7D, or the Sony A6000? The A6000 has a blazing 12 FPS frame rate and a pretty sizable buffer, killer AF, a great viewfinder with basically zero general shooting lag. The Canon 7D, on the other hand, has access to innumerable lenses that are very well-suited for such types of action photography. And to be quite honest, for action sports I prefer a sizable camera that I can really wrap my fingers around comfortably for hours on end.
Flagship DSLRs, of course, are simply on a different plane compared to a ~$700 mirrorless camera. So the Nikon D4s and Canon 1DX aren’t worried at all, yet. However it seems clear to me that it won’t be long before the A6000’s style of hybrid autofocus is ready to revolutionize even the flagship sports camera market. If I were a pro sports photog, I’d buy an A6000 now as a walk-around camera just to familiarize myself with the style of shooting in my spare time!
Who Should Buy The A6000?
Considering that all my cons really only pertain to shooters who are conscious of high-speed functionality and complex / obscure customizability, I’d say that any casual shooter and even most pros would do well to buy the A6000. It is the epitome of advanced control and incredible image quality in an affordable, compact, robust package.
I would give more weight to the cons I mentioned earlier, but I feel that many of them are simply due to an “old dog learning new tricks” type of situation with me and my familiarity with existing DSLR systems, plus a little bit of severe OCD with respect to camera customization.
Travel photographers, adventure photographers, and landscape etc. photographers will probably love the A6000, especially with incredible wide angle lenses becoming available for the system such as the Rokinon 12mm f/2 and 10mm f/2.8.
You might also consider the Olympus E-M1 if you want something equally compact yet even more robust and weather sealed. You might consider the Panasonic GH3 / GH4 if you want something that offers a very promising video platform that will probably be more widely supported for cinema.
The Jury Is Still Out
So Close, And Yet So Far
If I had to rate the Sony A6000 right now, I’d probably give it 4/5 stars. I’ll admit, it has everything going for it and really deserves 5/5 stars for most types of photographers who are just getting into photography and/or may have never even known what a traditional SLR camera was like to operate. However I still get that “I know what I’m missing” feeling a little too much for me to personally give it more than 4/5 stars. Too many things could be dramatically improved with just a little firmware update, or increased (software-based) customizability.
This therefore gives me a lot of hope for the future. Considering that the Sony A6000 costs less than the Nikon D5300, and 1/3 of the cost of a Sony a7, I’d say that for anyone interested, this camera is a winner.
We’re looking forward to taking this camera out into the desert for some night photography in the next week or so, and we’ll post our final verdict as soon as we can!