Living with Photography: Testing the Sony a6000

By Norman Chan

The following are some testing notes from my time spent with the a6000, after renting it for a video. Tim from The Wirecutter recently ranked the a6000 as his second favorite MILC for under $1000, placing it under the Olympus OM-D E-M10. I can't recommend one over the other, so consider my testing notes extra experiential anecdotes that may help you make a more informed purchasing decision.

For the video we shot with The Wirecutter's Tim Barribeau discussing what makes a great entry-level DSLR camera, I rented Sony's new a6000 mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. It wasn't part of my quest to find a great companion camera for my DSLR, but I wanted to use it on camera to show as an example of a mirrorless alternative to a relatively cheap DSLR. I've only had a6000 for a few weeks, and haven't tested it as extensively as the RX100 II or Fuji X100s. While those and the other cameras I've tested so far this year are technically mirrorless cameras (in that they don't have the flipping mirrors and pentaprism optical viewfinders), the a6000 is the first mirrorless interchangeable lens camera I've really used since my NEX-5R. I was curious about the state of MILCs since regularly using one. Since the NEX-5R came out in 2012, Sony has launched several mid-range follow-ups, and even nixed the NEX moniker with the a5000 and a6000 cameras.

So the following are some testing notes from my time spent with the a6000, based on my relatively limited time with it. It never served as my primary camera as a daily carry or the main camera for any major events; I just put it in my bag alongside the 6D and used it when I had spare moments. The lens I paired with it was the Zeiss 35mm f/2.8--an expensive $800 piece of glass that's more expensive than the a6000 body itself. It's roughly the equivalent of a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera, which is a focal length I've grown quite fond of. Long enough for flat portraits, wide enough to capture small scenes by taking a few steps backward. Together, this is quite a nice kit--definitely not something I would consider entry-level or a camera to learn manual shooting with. It's not a high-end camera, either, lacking a full range of physical controls or a full-frame sensor. It occupies an interesting middle ground--a sub $1000 camera that's aimed at experienced shooters who are either switching to their first MILC or upgrading from something like a first-gen NEX or older Micro four-thirds. It's for people who are considering something like an Olympus OM-D EM-1 or a Canon 60D. In other words, I'm not the target user for this camera.

Tim from The Wirecutter recently ranked the a6000 as his second favorite MILC for under $1000, placing it under the Olympus OM-D E-M10. Having not used it, I can't speak to the Olympus, but trust his judgement. I can't recommend one over the other, so consider my testing notes extra experiential anecdotes that may help you make a more informed purchasing decision. Let's start with the size of the camera.

Sony's a6000 is pretty big for a MILC. It's not as big as any mid-range DSLR from Canon or Nikon, nor is it as big as Sony's a7 line of full-frame cameras. But one of the advantages that MILCs have by eschewing an optical viewfinder system is size, and I think the a6000 approaches the limits of reasonable compactness. The body is bulkier than that of the NEX-5 line, which doesn't have a viewfinder, but still has that comfortable grip. The size of the a6000 also limits the mobility of the articulating LCD, which has a fairly limited range of movement. It's still usable for shooting from the hip, but less so from shooting high above your head and can't be flipped up 180-degrees to face the subject (useful for shooting video).

The OLED electronic viewfinder on the a6000 is actually a "downgraded" version of the one on the NEX-6. Instead of sporting 2.3m dots, it has 1.4m. Having used the NEX-6/7 viewfinder, I think the difference is negligible. There is even an argument to be made that the lower-resolution viewfinder on the a6000 consumes less battery and has lower lag than the original EVF due to the higher refresh rate. I'm still of the opinion that the EVF is far inferior to an optical viewfinder--I noticed pixel ghosting when moving the camera around quickly and some delay in adjusting exposure when shifting from a bright to dark shot. However, I did find myself relying on the EVF a big when shooting with the a6000. It was still better than using the back LCD for visualizing focus peaking. That may say more about the high-reflectiveness and low visibility of the LCD in sunlight than the merits of the EVF.

Even though all of Sony's NEX and now mid-range a-series cameras use APS-C sensors, something that most people forget is that not all sensors are created equal. In fact, unlike with Canon cameras, the sensors in Sony's MILCs have almost always been upgraded between generations. There are a few things that can change with sensor upgrades, regardless of the size staying the same.

First is megapixels--splitting up that sensor into a more dense grid of pixels to produce a larger photo. The a6000's sensor has 24 million pixels, so its photos are a bit bigger than the 16MP sensor found in the NEX-5 line and NEX-6. More pixels doesn't mean a clearer image, but if you're shooting RAW, you can crop in closer with a larger photo and use noise reduction to get the most out of that image. More megapixels on a large sensor also has its uses if you're shooting a batch of images and combining them in post-processing, as with astro-photography.

Second is the auto-focus capabilities. Sensors don't just have the pixels that capture light, they host phase-detect auto-focus points that MILCs combine with contrast-detect capabilities to speed up auto-focus. The a6000 is touted as having one of the best autofocus systems of any MILC, with 179 densely positioned phase-detect AF points that cover a large area on the sensor. That compares with the 99 phase-detect AF points on the NEX-6, which only covered about 50% of the frame. In practice, the new AF system gives you much faster auto-focusing when tracking moving subjects (as DPreview shows). But for single frame shooting of still subjects, that extra auto-focus speed really isn't all that beneficially, or even noticeable, to be honest.

Third is actual image quality itself--how accurately the sensor's light buckets can capture photons. In a vacuum, I found that the a6000 shot really clear and vibrant photos through ISO 1600, which is not surprising for a modern MILC. When shooting RAW, I would consider photos shot up to ISO 6400 usable, especially if it's just for web. Above 6400 (a6000 goes to 25600), gain noise and discoloration looked harsh. Auto-ISO bracketing lets you set the minimum and maximum ISOs, so I kept mine at 6400.

f/2.8, 1/200, ISO 6400

You could also rate sensor image quality improvements in terms of stops--whether you could get the same exposure with a newer camera at a lower ISO than with an older camera, all other settings being equal. Comparing the a6000 to the now two-year-old NEX-5R, the image quality is definitely improved. Maybe not a full-stop better, more like a third stop better. That means the image I would have to had shot at ISO 1600 on the 5R I could get at ISO 1250. In a direct comparison of the same scene shot at ISO 6400 on both cameras, you can see the grain looking less noisy on the a6000 than the older NEX.

a6000 (left) vs. NEX 5r (right)

Other notes:

Continuous drive mode is much more of a burst on the a6000 than my experience shooting on the Canon 6D. 11FPS shooting takes some getting used to, since the camera is a bit trigger happy. It's too easy to shoot 10 photos in one go when you were only intended to shoot 3-5, and then you have to wait for the memory buffer to unload onto the SD card, which takes another 10 seconds.

Built-in Wi-Fi is once again standard on Sony's new alpha MILC cameras. The apps are still a ripoff, but I can't get enough of transferring photos to my smartphone while on the go. NFC pairing works well too.

There are technically two dials on the a6000--the control dial on the back and a lone customizable manual dial on the top. Both are clickly, but the top dial is in an awkward position for my thumb to easily maneuver to, and the control dial too often activates a directional button function (drive/display/ISO, exposure) when I'm rotating it. I long for a manual control dial that my shutter finger can comfortably reach.

The display looks good indoors, and I'm fine that it doesn't have touch. Touch on these small LCDs is overrated, in my opinion. I'm more happy that Sony got rid of its confusing NEX menu system, switching it a traditional BIOS-like menu that is easy to parse.

Overall, I found the shooting experience with the a6000 to be very comparable to that of the Fuji X100s. Both their bodies are similar in size, and they have good EVF systems. I think I like the Fuji more, even though it has a fixed lens, because its lens is small enough that the camera is pocketable. The a6000 is most definitely a bag camera and not a jacket pocket camera.

If I were in the market for a mid-range MILC, I would probably pick up the last-gen NEX 6, even with its technically inferior sensor. I still feel like MILCs should have a size and price advantage over DSLRs, and the NEX-6 has recently been discounted to $520, including a power zoom kit lens. Plus, I'd be much more comfortable spending around $500 on a solid MILC to improve my skills than invest $800 on a higher-end Sony camera with still a relatively limited lens ecosystem. The faster AF system on the a6000 is only useful if you plan on shooting a lot of movement and action, and my subjects are primarily stationary anyway. The camera you choose should match both your skill level and the type of photos you shoot.

Below are some sample photos from my time with the Sony a6000, which I'm returning to BorrowLenses at the end of this week. I think it's a fine camera--it's just not one I would buy for myself at the moment.

f/2.8, 1/800, ISO 100
f/2.8, 1/60, ISO 160
f/2.8, 1/320, ISO 100
f/2.8, 1/100, ISO 100

Are you in the market for a new compact mirrorless interchangeable lens camera? Let me know which models you're considering and why.