03 December, 2012

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the NEX-6

After a long wait, I finally replaced my X100 with Sony's NEX-7 back in March of this year. I paired it with the 16mm f/2.8 pancake, and despite its lousy low-light performance, it trounced the Fuji X100 in actual usability — it felt like I no longer had to worry about my gear unexpectedly letting me down, which was a big relief. Over time, I came to realize three main gaps in that setup: the low-light performance was mediocre, the lens itself wasn't very sharp, and the lens was simply too wide for the subjects I tend to shoot. I had really liked the 24mm (35mm-equiv) on the X100, but I still wanted a compact package, which is what kept me with the 16mm.

So fast-forward half-a-year to September, when Sony announced the NEX-6 along with its kit lens, the 16–50mm f/3.5–5.6 pancake zoom. Though nowhere near the size of pancake zooms for other systems, it is as far as I know the second-shortest AF lens for E-mount, period, after the 16. And the body promised better low-light performance (having only a 16MP sensor) as well as improved AF performance. I pre-ordered the kit that same day.

The kit arrived a few weeks ago, and I was immediately disappointed. I had my fingers crossed for a way to move AF off of the shutter release, but that wasn't the possible. For me, that means I treat it like a manual-focus-only body, which means I can't benefit from the AF performance improvements. Beyond that, the 16–50 isn't a good manual-focus lens, and the aperture would negate at least some of the low light improvements from the sensor.

So I swapped lenses, which helped some. I got extra reach and framing control while walking around with the NEX-7 during the daytime, and I could switch to the NEX-6 for low-light shooting. I still had to live with the downsides of the 16, but at least I had low-light performance that was a bit better than the NEX-7.

On a whim, I bought the Sigma 19mm f/2.8 prime on a $150 Cyber Monday sale. I finally got it on my camera Thursday evening, and in the 3 days since then, it has completely changed my impression of the camera. The 19mm is sharp, the focus ring speed is really well-tuned, and the focal length is just a lot easier for me to work with. Moreover, because a given subject is now larger in the viewfinder, it's a lot faster and easier for me to achieve critical focus.

This all came to a head last night, when I spotted a car that had slid off a dark mountain road in the pouring rain. After the first rescue vehicle arrived and discovered the vehicle to be empty, I started taking photos. The setup was a joy to use in the darkness, and the small size combined with the speed with which I could adjust settings, adjust focus, and take a shot meant that the camera didn't get too soaked, in spite of the downpour. In a word, the experience felt effortless.

And when I got home, I found that I had taken photos that I would not have been able to take with any other camera I've ever owned — my favorite (saved for a forthcoming blog post) was 1/13s at f/2.8 and 3200ISO. With the X100, I wouldn't have been able to focus (especially in the darkness); with the NEX-7 or D300, 3200ISO would have been unusable. So despite my early frustrations, the NEX-6 has earned its place in my arsenal of cameras.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your story, plus I'm a big NEX-6 fan, too - sold the NEX-7 about a week after getting my hands on the NEX-6.
Great shots in really tough conditions, too.
Just a thought: I switch back and forth between AF, MF, and DMF frequently, so I configured the AEL Button to give me access to AF/MF Select.

Doppler Photo said...

Hey, Mike; I'm glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for the compliments :o)

I don't think I could part with my NEX-7 just yet (hence, why I still have it). I really like the Tri-Navi control scheme, and I particularly find it difficult to quickly change ISO or exposure compensation on the NEX-6, both of which changes are trivial on the -7.

That said, I spent a bunch of hours shooting with the NEX-6 overnight Saturday night/Sunday morning, and I'm really getting to like that setup. I'm starting to nail the focus more frequently, and I'm getting a feel for what kinds of images lend themselves to which part of the ISO range. I again came away with some photos that I feel were only possible due to the -6's specific strengths. So again, I'm happy, even in spite of its shortcomings.

Finally, the problem with any of the AF modes, for me, is that any time AF is enabled, it means that an AF acquisition will happen when you half-press the shutter. This would seriously confuse an aspect of photography that is basically instinctive for me right now — I half-press the shutter all the time, for a variety of reasons, and none of those reasons is "trigger AF." For me, it is more important to maintain those instincts than to use AF with the NEX-6.


Unknown said...

What are the variety of reasons that you half-press the shutter, besides triggering AF? I'm new to photography, so genuinely want to know.

Doppler Photo said...

Hey, Daniel. Here are some of the reasons:
1) If I'm taking any shot, obviously
2) If I'm in any menu, image review, etc and I want to get ready to take a shot. A half-press in many cameras (certainly all of the ones I use) will immediately drop you to the active shooting mode.
3) If I want to lock the exposure in preparation for taking a shot
4) If I need to take a shot reactively, and I want to minimize the delay between me seeing a moment and tripping the shutter

In all of those situations, I may have the focus already set appropriately, and I want to accomplish those various tasks without changing the focus distance. Moreover, I use focus-and-recompose a lot in cases where the subject is difficult to focus on (shooting through trees or a fence or something like that). Once I've got the focus nailed, I don't want to inadvertently touch it, regardless of whatever else I may be doing with the camera.