Sony Alpha A5100 Digital Camera Review
The A5100 may be Sony's mirrorless middle child, but it's a great value.
Sony's camera team has been on a tear in the past year and a half, quietly assembling one of the more enviable top-to-bottom lineups on the market. The full-frame mirrorless A7 series won the company a number of awards, but stellar values like the compact A6000 and traditional DSLRs like the A77 II are also strong bets. These are all on top of Sony's best-in-class point-and-shoots, including the RX10 and RX100 III.
Looking to add to what is already a very impressive and thorough lineup, Sony has decided to slip another model between the low-end A5000 and the aforementioned A6000. Enter: the new Sony Alpha A5100 (MSRP $549.99). The A5100 bumps last year's NEX-5T out of the current lineup, ending Sony's "NEX" era forever while borrowing most of the same tech from this year's eye-catching A6000.
Describing the A5100 isn't difficult; it's basically a slightly slower A6000 minus a few creature comforts. The notable absences: You don't get the A6000's EVF (electronic view finder), hotshoe, 11fps burst shooting, or the extended ISO range. That's all a bummer, but it's $100 cheaper than the A6000 and prices should continue to fall. On the other end consider that for just $70 more than the low-end A5000 you get higher resolution images, 60p video, and a host of other improvements.
All three of these new E-mount Alphas are mighty impressive, but can this middle child stand out from the pack?
Design & Handling
An advanced camera that meets novice shooters on their level.
For years budget DSLRs have been trying their best to look like pro-ready DSLRs. All black paint jobs and loads of intimidating dials littered with jargon have been the norm. Not the Sony A5100, which actually looks more like a curvy point-and-shoot than anything a pro would shoot with. Despite this, the A5100 packs a full APS-C image sensor—the same size you'd get with any traditional DSLR under $1,500.
Once you attach a lens and start shooting, the first thing you'll notice is the camera's pleasing texture. Its grip is slightly rubberized, which is a welcome departure from the smooth plastic feel of most budget-friendly cameras. The grip is also much more substantial than the all-plastic grip of the A5000, calling back a bit to one our favorite Sony cameras, the plush NEX-7. It's pleasant to shoot with, even with bulkier lenses that dwarf the body.
The rear control scheme is exactly like the A5000, with three main buttons–menu, playback, and help/trash–in addition to a control wheel. The control wheel pulls double duty as a four-way directional pad, with options for drive mode, exposure compensation, ISO, and display. There is nothing new to note here, as Sony uses the same layout on the A5000 and a slight variant on the A6000.
The top controls feature the zoom lever (good for controlling powered zoom lenses), the shutter release, a power switch, flash release, and a dedicated record button. The zoom lever is responsive, but doesn't zip in and out so fast that you lose your subject–which can happen easily without a viewfinder. It also won't function at all if you're attaching lenses without powered zoom motors; you'll have to manually zoom most E-mount glass as a result. The design is simple and easy to navigate, even if most of your camera experience has been limited to point-and-shoots.
The biggest control change from previous Sony NEX cameras is the "new" menu. When you first pull up the menu you'll be greeted with the familiar tiled options, the same as Sony's used since the original NEX-3 and NEX-5. Unlike older NEX cameras, however, choosing any tile will bring you to the traditional list-and-tab style menu from Sony's Alpha cameras. This menu is far better organized than the NEX menu, and we highly recommend deactivating the tiled opening screen entirely in the setup menu.
Another carry-over from the A5000 is the touchscreen. It flips up 180 degrees to face forward so your subject can see themselves. This is of course great for selfies and group shots, but the screen unfortunately does not tilt downward to aid overhead shots. The panel used here is even nicer than the one on the A5000, and the tilting functionality is something the A6000 doesn't offer.
Sony has equipped the A5100 with HDMI out and a USB connection–for charging and connecting to a PC–in the same bay as the memory card slot. There are left and right microphones that record stereo audio on either side of the pop-up flash and a speaker on the bottom of the camera. The pop-up flash is extra high in order to shoot over longer E-mount lenses, though overall range and power isn't any better than most built-in strobes.
A $700-and-under camera that performs like a far more expensive one.
When it comes to digital cameras, performance begins with the sensor/processor combination. Luckily, the A5100 inherits the stellar sensor and processor from its big brother, the Sony A6000. It also has the same hybrid autofocus system that uses both contrast-detection and phase-detection points to achieve focusing speeds as fast as 0.07 seconds. Last year's Sony NEX-5T also utilized this hybrid autofocus, but the A5100 benefits from more phase-detect points covering a larger portion of the sensor.
The result is a notable uptick in focus tracking speed and accuracy, even in limited light. The one nagging issue here is burst shooting. Despite having the same processor/sensor combo as the A6000, the A5100 can only manage to capture bursts at six frames per second—almost half as slow as the A6000's 11fps max burst speed.
In the lab we always begin by testing color accuracy to find the most accurate modes and diagnose any weak points. The A5100 didn't blow our hair back, performing about average for an entry-level DSLR. The "Standard" mode was the most accurate, while white balance accuracy was typically good.
One area where the A5100 excels, however, is in high ISO shooting. In this test the A5100 truly began to flex its muscles. With a modern APS-C sensor and Sony's superb Bionz X processor (which powers every Sony mirrorless camera from the A5000 up through the full-frame Sony A7S), the A5100 produced usable shots at most ISO speeds. Noise from ISO 100-800 is hardly noticeable–even when shooting in RAW.
If you have to push the ISO above 800 we advise using some noise reduction, whether in the camera or–if shooting RAW—in a program like Adobe Lightroom. The in-camera noise reduction lowered noise percentages at the higher ISO levels, with an increasingly aggressive penalty to fine detail. You can shoot through the entire ISO range (100-25,600) without crossing a 2% noise ratio, but we recommend capping it at ISO 1600 if you want to keep your shots from turning into a low contrast puddle. Below you can see how the camera handles noise at higher ISO speeds and judge for yourself.
One area where Sony continues to improve is in video shooting. The A5100 matched the A6000 in our video testing, with subtle improvements due to autofocus speed. In our resolution tests the A5100 resolved around 600 line pairs per picture height horizontally (LP/PH) and 575 LP/PH vertically. In low light the A5100 dropped around 450 LP/PH both vertically and horizontally–which is to be expected with less light to work with. Surprisingly, the A5000 got as low as 3.5 lux in our low-light sensitivity test with the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. The super low light video is incredibly noisy, but in extreme circumstances at least you can see what you've shot.
Video, stills, and features that exceed the asking price
If you're familiar with previous E-mount Alpha/NEX cameras, there's not a lot here that'll surprise you. There's a mix of creative modes, manual controls, and high-resolution video and still shooting modes. There aren't a ton of advanced controls, of course, but there's more than enough for novices to sink their teeth into.
You also get the instant sharing option with built-in WiFi and NFC (near field communication). These allow you to use the PlayMemories Camera Apps to share images over your favorite social media sites, transfer images to mobile devices, and even use your mobile device as a remote control for the camera itself. One problem? Several of the PlayMemories apps cost extra money despite adding only basic functionality that other cameras include for free. Want timelapse shooting? Hope you're ready to cough up an extra $9.99.
As we briefly mentioned above, the A5100 has also inherited the selfie screen from the A5000, flipping to face your subject (in many cases, yourself) to help frame that perfect shot. It also has incorporated the "Smile Shutter," so you don't even have to click the shutter release–just smile and the camera does the rest. Some, like myself, would argue that smiling is much harder than clicking a button, but who are we to ruin all the selfie fun?
For you video enthusiasts, not only is the A5100 capable of Full HD 1080 recording at 60p, but it also records in the greatly improved XAVC S format, which is similar but far superior to AVCHD. This codec can record at a higher data rate of 50 Mbps with compression that retains high video quality. The new processor even allows you to record AVCHD or XAVC S with a lower-res MP4 video simultaneously to the same memory card. This means you can have a high quality video for editing and an MP4 file to quickly upload to something like Facebook or Youtube that will compress your video files anyway.
Still shooters haven't been left out in the cold, though. There are several scene modes that allow you to get the exact shot you want no matter what the situation is light-wise. There are actually nine modes in total, ranging from portrait, to sports/action, to macro, and even night scene. You can use these in conjunction with the 10 different effects–posterization, pop color, retro photo, partial color, high contrast monochrome, HDR painting, rich-tone monochrome, miniature, watercolor, and illustration–to enhance or change the photo's mood entirely. You can also use the posterization, pop color, retro photo, partial color, high contrast monochrome, toy camera, and soft high-key effects to shake up your videos, as well.
For beginners or those with designs on more advanced photography, the A5100 is a great option.
Sony's A7-series mirrorless cameras have been earning plaudits for their pro-quality video and full-frame sensors, but the low end of Sony's mirrorless lineup is arguably just as impressive. The A5100 is a perfect example, providing nearly all the stellar performance of the mid-range A6000 with the compact size and maneuverability of the A5000. While we don't expect pro-level cameras to be this size anytime soon (if ever), we do think that this is a great transition system for anyone upgrading from a point-and-shoot.
While the A5100 and A5000 both have the same target user, the A5100 (at $700 on Amazon with 16-50mm lens) offers better overall performance than the A5000 (roughly $400 on Amazon with 16-50mm lens)—that's not a small price gap. The A5100 gets you a better sensor, improved video options, on-chip phase detection autofocus, a wider ISO range, and a better display with touch, but $300 can get you a much better lens to go with your new camera.
The A5100 would be a slam dunk choice for advanced shooters, but there's also the A6000 ($748 on Amazon with 16-50mm lens) to consider. The A6000 is slightly larger than the A5100 with a beefier grip, a hotshoe, and an amazing EVF for only $100 more than the A5100. It also captures photos at up to 11 frames per second—nearly twice as fast as the A5100.
So why pick up the A5100 at all? Well, for slightly less money than the A6000 you'll gain a full-tilt selfie-friendly touchscreen and practically the same image quality as the A6000. The A5100 also gets the edge in the video department thanks to recording multiple formats of video with the XAVC S codec—including 1080/60p at 50Mbps as opposed to the A6000's use of AVCHD/MP4 for its 1080/60p video.
It's a tough choice, but we'd recommend advanced photographers opt for the A6000. If you're not interested in action photography or an EVF—or simply want a cheaper option—then our recommendation is to wait; the A5100 is a great choice, but you'll probably be able to find it for under $500 body-only soon.
Even at full price, it's hard to beat the value offered by Sony's range of mirrorless cameras. With sub-$600 cameras offering compact frames, this kind of stellar performance, and easy-to-use features, there's no mystery as to why point-and-shoots are being put out to pasture once and for all.
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