In my ongoing quest to test and review a wide range of mirrorless cameras for you, I'm pleased to be able to recommend an excellent camera well under $1000: The Sony Alpha a6000.
I purchased this camera as a holiday gift for my colleague Julie in December 2014, as a package deal with the 16-50mm kit lens, and the E-55-210 telephoto lens, for a complete package price of less than $1000 US.
At roughly half the price of a new Fuji X100T, this is a ton of camera for the money!
Comparing the Three Cameras
For me, the Sony feels the most comfortable in my hand, followed by the Fuji, and finally the Olympus, which is a bit awkward to hold. Your mileage may vary, but in my hand, the Sony simply fits, and the rubber grippy stuff is exactly where it needs to be to hold it steady with one hand.
The Sony also feel lighter to me. It's a real pleasure to hold.
Like the Olympus, the Sony's rear LCD screen tilts out for taking low-or-high-angle shots. This feature is sadly lacking from the Fuji.
On the other hand the Sony and the Fuji have a built-in flash, a feature lacking on the Olympus (which instead comes with a little proprietary hot-shoe flash that you have to carry around).
On her first test-outing with the camera, Julie recorded the following voice memo on her iPhone, capturing her immediate impressions:
"On first use, the camera appears very user-friendly, intuitive, easy to navigate—especially compared to the Fuji and the Olympus. So it's quite a pleasure to use, kind of fun, and it seems to take really great photos without much struggle.
I like that all the adjustments are in 1/3 stop increments. I like that when you're zoomed in on the LCD to review a photo you can zoom with the wheel and also use it to scroll around. Very easy and intuitive.
I'm not sure how much ISO it can handle, at 3200 it's looking pretty grainy on the LCD screen, so I look forward to seeing these enlarged on the computer to see the real quality. But so far it seems great. And from what I can see so far on the LCD screen, this sucker is sharp!"
I love that she took the time to record this during her first shoot, because sometimes our later impressions override our first impressions and we lose track of what it was really like to have it in our hands the first time.
So, the big question of course, is, how is the image quality?
In our limited testing so far (lots of travel and life emergencies meant that Julie didn't even get to unbox the Sony until last week), I can say with confidence that so far, we are impressed.
Of course, it's very hard to beat the image-quality of the Fuji X100 series with that miraculous prime lens. But the price you pay is a fixed 23mm focal length all the time on the Fuji.
The Kit 16-50mm Lens
With the kit 16-50 zoom lens attached, the Sony performs at least as well as the Olympus with its kit zoom lens. (I haven't really given the Olympus a fair test with good glass yet—more to come on that).
The Sony kit lens seems to have a sweet spot in the middle of its zoom range and aperture range where the quality is quite good. But at the extremes, it's pretty poor.
But despite those nice, sharp images at f/8 or f/10 and in the middle of the zoom range at 25-35mm, at full 50mm zoom and wide open f/5.6 aperture, the image quality is shockingly soft. We will detail this with some side-by-side comparison photos soon, when we borrow some high-quality E-mount Zeiss prime lenses to do a direct head-to head comparison with the kit lens on the Sony.
The one great thing you can really say about the kit lens is that it's very light and compact. You can put the camera in the pocket of your cargo shorts or in a tiny purse and go—if you don't mind turning your fancy machine, at wide apertures and long focal lengths, into what is essentially a very full-featured point-and-shoot camera.
The Sony 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 Telephoto Lens
On the other hand, the quality of the Sony the 55-210mm telephoto lens seems excellent (and that lens — normally $350 — is a steal if you get it bundled with the camera). The quality of the photos with this lens demonstrates that the Sony camera itself is capable of great photos—it's just the kit lens that is a bit lacking. We will do extensive lens comparisons in a future review.
The Dumbest Camera Feature Ever
Sony has a reputation for some astonishing blunders in features and software, and this camera didn't disappoint (fortunately its crazy feature can be disabled).
Julie and I were confounded by "extra photos" that kept appearing when we reviewed our photos on the camera. At first we thought we were double-clicking the shutter (or losing our minds). Eventually we found that these extras only appeared when there was a person in the photo. And they always seemed to be a zoomed-in version of the photo we just took. What the...?
After getting home and reading online we found that this is a "feature" called Auto Object Framing, which automatically selects part of your image (by default it does this with any photo with face detection), then crops in on that detected face, up-samples that area to full 24 MP resolution, then saves that crop as an additional image file (as large a file size as the original, yet with no additional information), taking up twice as much space on your memory card! This surely qualifies as the most stupid and useless feature I’ve ever seen on a camera (and that’s saying something). I will crop my own photos, thank you. And I don't need useless duplicates taking up half my storage space.
In Julie's camera, it was enabled by default. Perhaps in a future firmware update the camera will come with this turned off. My suggestion: Disable this feature off immediately (and memo to Sony: fire the engineer that created this).
Sony Alpha a6000 Summary
- Much lower price than many near-equivalent cameras
- Very sharp photos (with a good lens)
- Great hand feel. Light and grippy
- TIlt-out rear screen (but not flip out)
- Built-in flash
- Fast, accurate autofocus
- No touch screen
- Electronic Viewfinder is a bit grainy
- No external battery charger (but you can buy one)
- Difficult to insert and remove memory card
Overall, the pros far outweigh the cons, and our experience so far is that this is an excellent camera for the money.
If you've been waiting for a sub-$1000 mirrorless camera that handles well, takes excellent photos, and that can grow with you as your lens budget grows, this could be your camera.
And remember, if you buy from my Amazon links you buy me a beer!
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