January 3, 2013

The NEX and Antarctica

I want to talk about two things: Antarctica and Sony’s NEX mirrorless camera line, specifically the NEX-5N and the NEX-6.

Mirrorless cameras are the fast-approaching future of consumer / “pro-sumer” photography. Like traditional DSLRs, they offer large sensors and interchangeable lenses, but thanks to the lack of mirror and prism, are smaller and thus more portable. As the cameras in mobile phones continue to get better optics and eat into the point-and-shoot market, it’s easy to see this new type of camera becoming the defacto choice for someone who wants more from their photos.

That being said, the market is still somewhat nascent. Early movers like Panasonic/Lumix and Olympus are on their 2nd or 3rd generation models, but the big players like Canon and Nikon only released their first offerings this past year. (To aplomb, sadly.)

Sony’s mirrorless system, the NEX line, was the one which pulled me in. Sony hardware is generally well regarded, and its cameras are no exception. While they doesn’t have the greatest history of UI design, they usually do better than Olympus or Panasonic, whose software and hardware design I find rather ugly. It turns out the UI on the NEX cameras is pretty bad, but we’ll get to that later.

The NEX-5N

I bought an NEX-5N to try out about a year ago. It’s a strange thing. I’d like to cover it a bit before jumping into the NEX-6 because they are so similar.

The camera body by itself is on par with, or smaller than, most point-and-shoots. It’s almost too small. The camera is practically all lens, but that’s kind of ok, since the lens is arguably the most important part of any camera. You end up with a rather awkward shape though, as some lenses are actually taller than the camera body itself, causing a tilt when you set it down. Other than setting off some weird OCD, this doesn’t really have an effect on use.

Fortunately, I have never found it awkward to hold. The grip fits well in my medium sized hands and the camera feels small, but not uncomfortable – exactly how I hoped a mirrorless would.

The image quality, especially with the kit lens, is fantastic.

The kit lens is not very fast: wide open, its f-stop sits at 3.5. This means it’s unlikely to capture ultra-low depth of field shots that many associate with high-end photography, but it’s still quite good in own right. Any decently lit scene comes out looking good, and daylight shots are really sharp.

The UI was the most lackluster part of the entire kit. Sony’s menu system, while good looking, is difficult to navigate because there’s hardly any information hierarchy, and the hierarchy they do have is practically nonsensical. For example, one of the top level menu options is “Camera” – as if I could modify settings for other devices?


My dad has been lucky enough to travel to world twice-over throughout his life. One place he never got to, however, was Antarctica. He had always wanted to go, but never the time or means. This year, when he found them, he pitched the idea to my brother and I and we were sold. Both my brother and I are avid photographers, so we leapt at the chance to go take photos of one of the world’s most remote and beautiful places.

And is it ever remote. We flew to Miami, then Buenos Aires, then Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world), totaling roughly 18 hours worth of flights. Then we had to travel by ship for two and a half days through the Drake Passage, the place where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Pacific and Antarctic Oceans. This gets you to Graham Land, the Antarctic peninsula, the most accessible part of the continent. The rest is another 2-3 days by boat, and is generally covered in ice anyways.

With all this travel ahead of me, it seemed the perfect excuse to upgrade to the NEX-6.

The NEX-6

Using the NEX-5N from day to day was good, but I really missed the viewfinder from my SLR. Taking shots through an LCD screen in front of your face and not a viewfinder is a very different — and not necessarily desirable — experience. The shots tend to originate from about a foot in front of you, and down by your chest, instead of near your own eye. Sony does sell a OLED viewfinder attachment for the NEX-5N, but it’s expensive, and being an attachment, cumbersome.

The NEX-6 has one built-in, so right away it seemed like a good upgrade for the price.

There are other bonuses too. It’s slightly larger and made of stronger, more professional-feeling materials, making it a bit nicer to hold. It also has a physical mode selection dial, and a manual control dial for whatever mode your in. This makes the entire thing much nicer to use in practice. No photographer wants to have to fiddle with menus or settings in the field.

The sensor is the same as the one in the NEX-5N, which I already know and love.

Through the Glass, Looking

Upon arrival of the NEX-6, I was sadly disappointed by the kit lens. The new 16-50mm “Power Zoom” lens is smaller and has a wider focal length than the NEX-5N, but it features an annoying electronic motor which controls the zoom and eats battery. What’s worse, and more important, is the image quality. Wide shots have noticeably bad blurriness on the right side of the photo, as can be seen in the cropped image below. (Retina readers, my apologies.)

Although I could have gotten along fine with the 18-55mm lens from my NEX-5N, I had only a few hours before my flight and in a moment of panic I decided to spring from the Sony 24mm f/1.8 Zeiss lens — a wide, speedy lens I knew I could count on. It was possibly the best panicked decision I have ever made.

Its sharpness and clarity was superb. I was so impressed with some of the photos, I wanted to compare it to a Leica. On price, the Sony Zeiss lens costs about $1,100. The comparable Leica 24mm f/1.4 Summilux-M lens is more than 6x as expensive. Given that, you may be surprised to find out that the Sony lens is as good as, if not better, than the Leica:

I have held the new Sony Zeiss e Mount 24mm to a very high standard. The 24mm f/1.4 Summilux is a world-class benchmark lens, one of the finest fast wide angle lenses made. It is of course a full frame lens, while the E mount Zeiss covers APS-C. Also, the Zeiss is an autofocus lens, so in some ways we’re comparing peaches and apricots. Also, there is more than a $5,000 price difference between the lenses.

Given all of the above, the 24mm Zeiss stands up to the Leica Summilux very well indeed. It bests it in some areas, holds its own in some, and falls slightly behind elsewhere. Overall this is a stunning performance.

That’s from Michael Reichmann at The Luminous Landscape, who ran exhaustive tests against the two.

Trial by Travel

The benefits of using a mirrorless system show up before you even leave the house. The NEX-6 fits so well in almost any carry-on, and USB charging meant I didn’t need to bring an extra charger; I knew from my experience with the 5N that the battery would last long enough to get me through a day of heavy shooting, at least. In the SLR days, most people would carry a dedicated extra bag for all their camera gear. Not so with the NEX — all I took was the camera itself, the charging cable, and an extra zoom lens, all of which fit easily in my messenger bag.

Because the flight to Buenos Aires is so long, we decided to stay a couple days to see the city a little bit and break up the travel. It’s a massive city, so we knew there was no chance to enjoy all it had to offer, but we did what we could. My favorite thing was El Avaneo, a bookstore converted from an old theatre.

The NEX-6 preformed admirably. Because of its unassuming size, it’s easy to take everywhere and it doesn’t attract much attention.

The viewfinder helps composition so much, it’s hard to believe I was ever trying to shoot without one. It was sunny and hot in BA, and trying to use an LCD in daylight is difficult even with the best of screens. The viewfinder totally alleviates all of that strain. It activates when you put your eye up to it (there was no noticeable lag, the proximity sensor is great) and the LCD screen shows the same thing. However, you can set the LCD screen to only show camera settings instead of a live display, which is very helpful.

The viewfinder would prove especially important in Antarctic, where, on a sunny day, it’s so bright you’d think were showing up to the Oscars with Anna Kendrick on your arm.

Lens Fun

One of the big appeals of SLRs and mirrorless systems is the ability to change lens to adapt to what you’re trying to shoot. I figured I’d want to take close ups of whatever wildlife we would encounter so I brought along another NEX lens: the 55mm-210 f/3.5-5.6 lens. It’s the cheapest of the Sony zooms, and it shows. It’s not very sharp, nor that fast, nor that zoom-y (other telephotos go to 300mm) but for the price, it’s also not a bad deal.

Ushuaia is the city “at the end of the world” — a small, very rural town supported primarily by Antarctic tourism. It’s not a beautiful city, but the surrounding landscape is. I couldn’t stop taking photos even before landing. Being from Canada, you may think I’ve seen my share of snow capped mountains, but I realized while there that I’ve never actually been as far north as I have been south. I wonder if this is what Yukon is like? Another trip for another day, I suppose.

The Main Event

Let me tell you about Antarctica. I could tell you what you might expect to hear: It’s beautiful, cold, and mesmerizing. All of things things are true. But there’s another word I want to use to describe it: Magical. I know it sounds corny, but stay with me.

The thing about visiting Antarctica is that doesn’t feel real. Your entire life, you grow up knowing there’s this massive white continent at the bottom of all the maps that no one goes to because it’s simply too challenging, too inhospitable. You don’t ever expect to see it with your own eyes, so when you do, and it feels like nothing you’ve ever experienced, it feels like magic. It feels like an optical illusion, like a trick is being played on your brain.

Antarctica has this quiet beauty that was accurately described to us as a “loud quiet”. Unless you’re near a penguin rookery, the only thing you hear is the wind, and the occasional calving of ice, which, depending on your distance, can be extremely loud.

Calving: Imagine your house, but made of ice. Now take 4 or 5 of those. Stack them vertically, and attach them to a much, much larger piece of ice. Then imagine it coming unattached, and falling into water below. The sound is like thunder, but longer and growlier. It’s magnificent.


Every day on our trip, we did landings to different parts of the peninsula or the nearby islands. On one day, the weather was particularly nasty, and our zodiac (the small boat you take from the big boat) had to deal with some serious chop. The wind whipped up the waves and got us soaked. Our bright yellow waterproof parkas meant this was a nonissue for our health, but the same couldn’t be said for the NEX-6.

I had hoped the stronger body would have also come with a bit of weather sealing, but that was not the case. While the camera and lens survived a bit of rain and unintended splashing, I found alarming amounts of water in the battery compartment shortly after. I cleaned everything diligently, and experienced no problems, but I felt like I cheated death.

The NEX-6 features wifi connectivity, for some crazy reason. It sounds good in theory (wireless photo transfers, finally!) but it falls apart in practice because the software is so bad. A downloadable app — yes, the camera has apps — allows you to directly upload photos to Facebook, which might be of interest to some, but the sign up process is so convoluted and frustrating, I doubt most people will even bother. Another app lets you send photos directly to your iOS device, which is actually pretty cool. Sadly, the implementation makes it unlikely to ever be used: The camera creates an ad-hoc network the iOS device must join each time, instead of just sharing a common network. Good for transferring in the field, but not much anywhere else. Further, the required iOS app is flaky at best. The Apple camera connection kit is still a much better option.


There’s one last (literally) hidden feature of the NEX-6 that justifies the upgrade: A built in, pop-up flash. The NEX-5N ships with a flash as an attachment, but you have to either leave in on all the time or remember to bring it with you. In other words, it’s a pain.

This little addition makes late night (or early morning — it doesn’t really matter when it never gets totally dark) party photos that much more fun.


Go to Antarctica. It’s cold and it’s hard to get to and you’ll be extremely disconnected, which is a good thing. You might need it. We all do, every now and then.

As someone with a lot of experience with various cameras, I used to get frequently asked for camera buying advice. Now that everyone has iPhones, I rarely get asked for that help. However, I know that I’ll have no issue absolutely recommending the NEX-6 to anyone looking to take higher quality photos. Despite its annoying menu system, it’s a beautiful and fun camera. It’s genuinely difficult not to enjoy, no matter where you take it.

Grab the body-only version of the NEX-6 and avoid the kit lens. Go instead for the standard 18-55m f/3.5-5.6, or the Zeiss if you’re willing to spend more.

Final Notes

I’d be remiss to not mention the new NEX-5R and the older NEX-7.

The NEX-5R is essentially a 5N with WiFi, a control dial, and faster focusing. It’s the most current version of the NEX-5 series of cameras.

The NEX-7 is much different. It has been out for about as long as the NEX-5N as the pricier older brother – Its generally $250 more than the NEX-6. It shares many of the same features of the NEX-6 (viewfinder, manual controls, etc), but the primary difference is the sensor. The added cost gets you a lot more megapixels – 24.7 to the NEX-5N’s 16.1. The body size is also significantly larger, to the point where it feels more like a small SLR. At the time, it didn’t think it was really worth it, but I could understand the appeal.

There’s also the lower-end NEX-F3, but it lacks important manual features that most serious photographers would probably want. I bet it’s a nice camera though, if you don’t mind the crummy UI.

The full set of photos from my trip can be found on my Flickr.