Sony's NEX camera vision

Two years after Panasonic and Olympus announced the Micro Four Thirds standard, a mirror-less interchangeable lens camera format, Samsung was next in line to dish out a similar offering in the form of its NX system. Sony, not to be outdone, officially unveiled the NEX-5 and NEX-3 in early May.

The electronics giant launched the NEX-5 and NEX-3 compact interchangeable lens camera systems in Singapore this week, following the Australian launch in May. We caught up with Toru Katsumoto, general manager of the Personal Imaging and Sound Business Group at Sony, and got him to talk more about his vision for the NEX system.

Sony NEX-5

Toru Katsumoto with the NEX-5 camera body. (Credit: Leonard Goh/CNET Asia)

The development

According to Katsumoto, development of the mirror-less system started toward the end of 2008, which was roughly five months after the Micro Four Thirds standard was announced. However, the company didn't set out to go against that format. Rather, it was consumers' feedback for a compact camera that can deliver dSLR-quality pictures that spurred Sony to engineer the NEX system. It took the firm about one-and-a-half years before it unveiled the final products, the NEX-5 and NEX-3, to the public.

Sony NEX-5

The NEX-5 with the A-mount adapter fitted with the Alpha 135mm f/1.8 lens. (Credit: Leonard Goh/CNET Asia)

Design-wise, the duo looks nothing like other mirror-less interchangeable lens cameras. The cameras don't have a lot of buttons or dials, which Katsumoto said will appeal more to consumers who are upgrading from a point-and-shoot. The NEX camera bodies were also designed to be slim so that they remain skinny even when third-party lenses, such as Leica or Canon-branded optics, are attached to them. But he said that Sony will manufacture only the A-mount adapter, and it's up to consumers if they want to use other lenses.

Lenses and sensors

Katsumoto said Sony understands that some photographers like to use plastic optics or pinhole modules to create interesting shots. The company is studying this market and may develop affordable specialised E-mount lenses for these users. But if the lenses are Carl Zeiss-branded (Sony has a working relationship with the German optics manufacturer), it will definitely be more expensive.

Sony NEX-5

A split view of the various components that make up the NEX-5. (Credit: Leonard Goh/CNET Asia)

Sony's Exmor R image sensors in its point-and-shoots have gotten some pretty good feedback, but it won't be implemented in NEX cameras, said Katsumoto. He explained that the pixel size in the APS-C sensors in NEX-5 and NEX-3 is bigger and more receptive to light, compared with the much smaller sensors in its compacts, which require a different circuitry (hence, the deployment of Exmor R CMOS sensors) to make them more sensitive to light.

We asked Katsumoto if it was possible to deploy a 35mm full-frame sensor in a NEX shooter, and he answered that from a technical standpoint it is possible, though modifications would have to be made to the lens mount. This is because the current E-mount is optimised for only APS-C-sized sensors.

On the competition

The NEX system's immediate rival is the Samsung NX10, since both systems employ an APS-C-sized image sensor. However, we are inclined to include Micro Four Thirds cameras such as the Panasonic GF1 and Olympus E-P1 in the list, too. Katsumoto mentioned that Sony isn't worried about competition with other vendors and it wants to concentrate on the imaging possibilities with its NEX cameras. He's hoping that point-and-shoot users will step up to the mirror-less format, then upgrade to a dSLR after that.

Sony NEX-5

A concept model of the E-mount video camera. (Credit: Leonard Goh/CNET Asia)

Katsumoto is also optimistic that NEX cameras will not overtake entry-level dSLRs. According to him, there is still a substantial group of users who prefer the professional look of dSLRs over the casual styling of the NEX-5 and NEX-3. So Sony will continue to better its Alpha dSLRs with improved performance.

The future

Katsumoto had much to say about the future development plans for the NEX system. With regard to the size of the cameras, he commented that the current chassis has been made as small as possible already, but if consumers want something even more compact, the team would definitely work on such designs. However, he said the grip of the camera may feel awkward if cameras are built too small. The proprietary accessory port on the NEX-3 and NEX-5 are also avenues for the company to develop peripherals. For now, there are external flash, optical viewfinder and stereo microphone attachments for the port. Katsumoto said there will be more compatible accessories made for the system in the future. He didn't comment on whether there would be an electronic viewfinder, but we are guessing this shouldn't be too far off on the accessories roadmap.

Via CNET Asia

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