For quite some time now I’ve been using a small mirrorless camera as my primary landscape, travel and video camera. What I wanted to know was simple – could a super small and light alternative to my professional gear give me near-professional results. I wrote an introduction to my camera choice in another article (called: going mirrorless) but now that I’ve had it a while I thought I’d do a follow up. This will be my Sony a5000 Long Term Review.
For my paying jobs the big gear still comes out but when I’m on a photo walk or hiking in the Shenandoah Mountains I really wanted something smaller and lighter. The primary camera I’ve been working with for the last six months has been a Sony a5000 Interchangeable Lens Camrea (ILC). In this article I’m going to share my thoughts on what it’s been like for me to work with the smaller camera.
My Sony a5000 Camera
The a5000 is Sony’s entry model for their APSC sensor ILC cameras but it’s been a wonderful performer for me. I own a few other Sony ILC cameras but the least expensive has been my test mule. Perhaps I just feel better about being rough with a $450 camera (including lens) than a $700 camera (or more if you opt for a full frame mirrorless camera). The major differences between the a5000 I’ve been using and the next model up (the Sony a5100) is resolution (20mp vs 24mp), frame rate (3.5 fps vs 6 fps), video capture capability (1080i at 24mbps vs 1080p at 28mbps) and touch screen control (no touch controls vs having touch controls).
While it’s easy to see better specifications for a reasonable increase in price (the a5000 with kit lens is about $150 less than the next model up) I make the decision to go with the less expensive model for a number of reasons.
Number one – less resolution isn’t that big of a deal to me. Most of my landscape images will be shared over the internet, used by clients on websites or in print documentation or printed at sizes up to 13” x 19” at home or 16” x 20” from my print lab. Speaking in terms of resolution the biggest image would be the 16” x 20” print. At 200 pixels per inch you have a file that’s 4000 pixels wide by 3200 pixels tall which is less than 13 megapixels. If I’m resizing my images down to online or print sizes then 20 megapixels is more than enough for my uses.
Number two – frames per second. For sports photographers, photo journalists and some other forms of photography it’s super important to get a super high frame rate. For how I use my small camera I’m usually locked to a tripod and capturing a bracketed set of images (usually just three images). A frame rate of 3.5 frames per second is more than enough. If I’m shooting long exposure shots then the frame rate of a camera becomes completely insignificant.
Number three – higher quality video capture. Again I have to look at specifications based on my typical usage. I’ve been capturing a lot of video lately and it’s all been shared online. When I capture clips of video at 1080i 60 (24Mbps) they’re going to be brought in to an editing program. The end result will usually be output in a smaller size for easy viewing on YouTube (usually at 720p to keep the file size down). The additional capture resolution and file size don’t factor in to how I’ve been using my small camera.
These reasons mean that spending an extra $150 gets me very few major advantages. For some people those extra megapixels, frames per second, video capabilities and user interface are important and for them the extra money is well spent. The next camera up (the Sony a5100) is a very nice camera that I’ve used and really like but it also has a few omissions (EVF, hot shoe, better controls, etc.) that can be had in the next camera up, the Sony a6000, for a little more money.
Note – the one additional feature that made me seriously consider the a5100 (I didn’t mention it above) is the considerably more advanced focusing system. Again, the way I planned to use my first mirrorless camera meant that I could easily survive with the more basic focusing system but the hybrid focusing system works great in the other Sony ILC cameras I’ve been using recently.
My Impressions of the Sony a5000 (Body Only)
The first thing you can’t help but notice about the a5000 is the size and weight. For someone who has always used full size SLR/DSLR cameras It’s a dream come true! It may not have the familiar feel of a full size DSLR but that was never the point. My big cameras are heavy and with my collection of f2.8 (and faster) lenses a camera bag gets heavy fast. The a5000 (with it’s included 16-50mm kit lens) fits nicely in my hand and is light enough to carry around all day every day.
Handling the camera is very pleasant due to the shape that fit nicely in my hand. The grip is on the small side but that’s what happens when you buy a small camera. The important controls are not as intuitive as a full size DSLR but with a little time and practice it becomes pretty easy to make the most common adjustments.
The round dial on the rear of the camera is pretty much the only interface between the photographer and all the settings. In addition to being a rotating dial it’s also four buttons (up, down, left and right) for accessing what Sony feels are the most commonly used features (exposure compensation, drive mode, ISO and changing the on-screen display. Three buttons are also located nearby (menu, image review/playback and a programmable button). I set my programmable button to change between manual and auto focus but there are a number of additional options. After a few months of usage I found Sony’s choices to be pretty spot on.
The lack of a dial near the shutter release can be jarring at first – I am constantly making changes to the aperture setting – but I discovered that using a camera without a viewfinder actually made the rear dial a pretty natural fit. If the camera had a viewfinder the lack of a front or rear adjustment dial would probably be a deal breaker but for this camera it wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be.
Another feature this camera gives up is a viewfinder. Currently only the top of the range ILC cameras feature a viewfinder and, after decades of pressing my face to the rear of my cameras, I thought I’d really miss having one. What I discovered is that it wasn’t as bad as I expected since I’m using this camera on a tripod most of the time. Framing shots with the LCD is actually much cooler than I thought and with the screen being able to articulate it was great for shots captured from lower angles. I still love viewfinders (especially when I’m hand holding) but at this price point it was an acceptable loss.
Speaking of the LCD, at 3″ it’s a great way to compose landscape shots compared to using a small viewfinder and the 180 degrees of tilt are great for low shots as well as selfie shooting. The only let down I had is the low resolution (especially compared to the LCD’s I’m used to using on big DSLRs).
One feature I absolutely love on this camera is the built-in wifi that lets you connect directly to smart phones and tablets. It’s a great way to control your camera wirelessly as well as giving you an option to frame your shots on a bigger screen. The wireless transfer is super cool for dong a quick edit on your phone or tablet and instantly sharing it to social media. I didn’t think I would use it as much as I do and it’s one of my favorite features (especially when on vacation).
One last item to mention is the lack of a hot shoe for using accessories like flash triggers or video microphones. The built in flash is alright in a pinch but does a lousy job with a longer lens or a super wide angle lens attached. I’ve had some success using the built-in flash to trigger my LumoPro off-camera flashes (using optical trigger mode on the flashes) but using the built-in flash was always a last resort for me.
My Impressions of the (included) Kit Lenses
Using the included kit lens was generally positive and the small size (when the camera is turned off) is awesome. I really like the optical stabilization, zoom range (16mm to 50mm) and the power zoom capability (great for shooting video). What I didn’t like was the small aperture (f3.5 – f5.6), the relatively slow motorized zoom (for shooting stills when compared to a manual zoom) and the softness in the corners (typical for almost any kit zoom lens). I also feel the lack of a lens hood is a huge miss on Sony’s part. I rigged something up for my lens but I don’t think anyone else would be interested in the extra effort or expense to prevent flaring (or protect the exposed lens when walking around).
The fact that this kit lens gets down to 16mm is a real advantage compared to other lenses that only get down to 18mm. That extra width is a very nice way to get shots that feel less like a kit lens is being used. Having a 16mm field of view is also extremely welcome when capturing video.
One thing I would have liked with this lens is a little more reach on the long end. A kit lens that can get out to 70mm would be great (but 100mm – 130mm would be amazing). 50mm on the long end definitely has it’s limits and by the time you change lenses to get a tighter shot it could be too late (especially when street shooting).
Whenever I use the kit lens I often find myself at either the wide end (16mm) or the long end (50mm) and almost never in between. The only time I found myself in the middle of the zoom range was when I shot videos.
Performance wise the kit lens is nothing spectacular but I found it acceptable for most shooting situations. Lens distortion and vignetting is off the charts bad when shooting RAW files but those issues can be addressed in post processing or in camera when shooting jpegs (built in lens correction for jpeg images seems to work great). For walking around on vacation or using at family functions it’s a pretty good lens that can more than hold it’s own (as long as you’re not being super critical). A really good professional level lens in this zoom range is going to run you at least $999.00 so whenever I’m using the kit lens I keep my expectations solidly in check.
My Impressions of the Included Accessories
In addition to the body and lens you’ll find a few more items in your box. There’s a small “W” series battery, a short USB cable (for transferring pictures and charging the camera), a USB wall charger and a camera strap (not pictured). I wasn’t impressed by the camera strap so it was quickly replaced with a Black Rapid Metro strap (which is AWESOME!). If you plan to carry your camera all day then I highly recommend trying a good quality camera strap.
The included battery is not too bad considering it’s super small size. Unfortunately it won’t last you very long before dying. When you’re using a live-view LCD to frame your shots (especially in bright sunlight) the small 1020 mAh battery will be taxed for sure – especially if you’re capturing bracketed sets. I love the built-in wifi system but when you use it the battery will last even less time. It’s rated for 420 shots but that’s not many shots when you’re out for a full day of shooting if you’re shutter happy. I highly recommend buying some extra batteries.
With the included charger you’re stuck charging batteries with the camera (much like charging a mobile phone or a camera without removable batteries). Personally, I’ve always preferred external chargers so I can continue using the camera while I’m charging a backup battery. When I picked up my additional batteries I also purchased a Sony wall charger that I really like. I may not like charging batteries with the camera but it does let me charge two batteries at once (something I often do after a long day with a lot of shooting). Finally, with a portable USB battery charger (I use one to keep my iPhone charged when traveling or hiking) you can easily charge a battery in the camera when you’re away from electrical plugs.
Real World Results
One thing I’ve never done much of is pixel peeping or photographing test charts. While the information you get from a technical testing is important it has always taken a back seat to real world results. So what I’ve done with the a5000 is go out and use it like a regular person on a vacation as well as for more serious work (shooting landscapes and HDRs, for example).
As a travel camera the a5000 is absolutely awesome. The lower resolution (“only” 20mp) means a SD memory card can hold more pictures than the higher resolution options. On my Lexar 32gb cards I could easily store 1,500 RAW images and that’s enough for several days of pictures (even for someone like me that captures a lot of bracketed sets). I really enjoyed the small size and the light weight of the system – especially when compared to my big professional sized DSLRs. Here’s a few shots I took on a beach vacation to North Carolina:
And when I stepped up the challenge with some serious landscape shooting the a5000 didn’t disappoint. To squeeze the most out of the small camera I used a number of external accessories (tripod, remote trigger, L-bracket, lens filters, etc.) and when good technique is applied you’re rewarded with image files that look great. For the professional crowd the kit lens is definitely soft (especially in the corners) but it’s decent enough to create images in some very difficult situations. Here’s a difficult landscape shot (at sunrise) captured in the Shenandoah National Park with the a5000:
Lens flaring is a big issue with the kit lens (this occurs when you have a super bright element – like the sun – in the borders of your shot). Sometimes this can be dealt with in post production but if you’re not into serious editing the flaring from the kit lens is pretty noticeable. Also, flare is something that can’t easily be removed from video captured with the kit lens.
I wasn’t thrilled with the slow speed of the (included) kit lens. At the wide end you’re looking at f3.5 (and it’s pretty soft there) so finding focus in extremely low light can be challenging. Manual focusing helps but it’s still not as easy as what I experience with a larger DLSR and a f2.8 (or faster) lens. Getting things in focus for night time shots was extremely difficult with the kit lens, but not impossible. Using a faster lens helps but it’s still very difficult. Here’s a look at a long exposure night time shot captured with the a5000 and a 16mm f2.8 lens:
What I love the most about this little camera is how it can be such a fun camera in normal usage but also deliver the goods when I want to get serious. Since I picked up the a5000 I’ve used it for shooting night time shots, sunrise shots, travel shots and a whole lot of video. In fact – video has quickly become one of my favorite uses for the a5000.
When I started looking in to going mirrorless it was because I was tired of the large size of my big DLSR’s and lenses for everyday use or when going on longer hikes. The a5000 was meant to be a first step for me to see what I thought of the sacrifices I’d be making to move away from professional gear and into serious consumer gear. The results I’ve experienced so far tell me the mirrorless solution is not just a good idea in theory, it works in the real world.
As a full time photographer I’ll still use my professional gear on a regular basis. But when the end result is a great image nobody ever asks about the camera/lens used. A great image is a great image. When you apply good photography techniques the Sony a5000 can give you results that are nothing less than exceptional (especially when you consider the low price). With a few accessories the a5000 really performs.
Video with the a5000
If you like using your still camera for video I think you’ll love the the a5000. There are some serious pro features included (focus peaking, zebra pattern, wind noise reduction) and the capture quality was impressive (AVCHD 1920×1080 at 60i up to 24mbps). You’ll have full control over your settings and can even make changes to them while it’s capturing a video (this was a surprise for the low price).
The quality of your video will depend more on your lenses than the camera body (depending on your level of seriousness). The kit lens is OK but you’ll probably find the 50mm end a little short and when using the power zoom you’ll capture the zoom motor noise in your finished video (especially if it’s a quiet scene). The lens shortcomings for still pictures are still there for video (especially corner softness) but overall the kit lens did a pretty good job.
While it has some great video features there are a few shortcomings (no microphone input is the biggest omission) but for beginners it’s more than good enough. For short clips I was seriously impressed by the video capabilities of the a5000. Here’s a short video I captured during my 2015 North Carolina vacation (using the a5000 and the kit lens):
To get the most from the a5000 (for video) you’ll want to pick up a few accessories. I recommend using a tripod with a video head (I use a Manfrotto fluid head for small cameras) and an external LED video light (for indoor video work). I also use a Vello ActionPan to keep things steady when I’m out capturing moving video clips. With a few additions – and good technique – you can get awesome video results from the a5000.
What video professionals give up with the a5000 is the ability to use hot shoe accessories (like an external microphone) and an external HDMI recorder (I use an Atomos Ninja 2 to get 10 bit 4:2:2 video up to 220mbps). For pros these omissions are deal breakers but most people who buy this camera probably won’t care.
When I picked up my Sony a5000 kit (with a 16-50mm power zoom lens) I was hoping it would let me take great pictures without the weight of my professional camera systems. The a5000 did that and more. Since it is small and light I’m encouraged to bring it along all day, every day on vacations or when traveling. The smaller resolution (20mp) lets me capture more images on a card and the picture quality is much better than I expected from a camera that costs less than $500 (I’ve seen them as low as $300 in the used/open box market). I love the built-in Wifi and found myself using it a lot more than I expected. For such a low price it’s a steal that gives you a good entry to the world of interchangeable mirrorless camera systems.
What I found myself missing with the a5000 was a viewfinder – not a deal breaker but something I definitely missed when the camera wasn’t on a tripod. I also wish it included a hot-shoe for using external flashes (or using some of Sony’s multi-interface accessories).
The physical size is definitely small and it lacks the number of dials/buttons you’ll find on a more advanced camera. It’s a very simplified user experience that is more like using a point-and-shoot camera than a full-sized DSLR (and for the target customer that’s probably a good idea). I liked the reduced size, most of the time, but the lack of user controls was bummer when I was out on photo walks.
The shutter speed (around 3-4 frames per second) wasn’t great – and considerably less than I’m used to having – but not a terrible frame rate for most people. The a5000 was never meant to be a serious sports or wildlife camera so it’s ok to give up a few frames per second, in my opinion. For anyone looking for more fps the next model up (the a5100) will almost double the speed (up to 6 fps) for less than $200 more.
One last item I disliked was the lack of a proper lens hood for the included kit lens. I picked up a generic one but I really would have preferred something from Sony that was designed to look and work with the included lens.
All that said – for an entry level mirrorless camera I was willing to overlook the omissions. For a small travel camera that doubles as a decent video camera I found it more than good enough for me.
For the money I HIGHLY recommend the Sony a5000 as a first mirrorless camera or for advanced photographers (especially Sony shooters) who are looking for something smaller than a big DSLR to use when traveling or on vacation.
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