Sony Alpha A5100 Digital Camera Review

on Wednesday, November 19, 2014
    Sony's camera team has been on a tear in the past year and a half, quietly assembling one of the more enviable top-to-bottom lineups on the market. The full-frame mirrorless A7 series won the company a number of awards, but stellar values like the compact A6000 and traditional DSLRs like the A77 II are also strong bets. These are all on top of Sony's best-in-class point-and-shoots, including the RX10and RX100 III.

    Looking to add to what is already a very impressive and thorough lineup, Sony has decided to slip another model between the low-end A5000 and the aforementioned A6000. Enter: the new Sony Alpha A5100 (MSRP $549.99). The A5100 bumps last year's NEX-5T out of the current lineup, ending Sony's "NEX" era forever while borrowing most of the same tech from this year's eye-catching A6000.
    Describing the A5100 isn't difficult; it's basically a slightly slower A6000 minus a few creature comforts. The notable absences: You don't get the A6000's EVF (electronic view finder), hotshoe, 11fps burst shooting, or the extended ISO range. That's all a bummer, but it's $100 cheaper than the A6000 and prices should continue to fall. On the other end consider that for just $70 more than the low-end A5000 you get higher resolution images, 60p video, and a host of other improvements.
    All three of these new E-mount Alphas are mighty impressive, but can this middle child stand out from the pack?

    Design & Handling

    An advanced camera that meets novice shooters on their level.

    For years budget DSLRs have been trying their best to look like pro-ready DSLRs. All black paint jobs and loads of intimidating dials littered with jargon have been the norm. Not the Sony A5100, which actually looks more like a curvy point-and-shoot than anything a pro would shoot with. Despite this, the A5100 packs a full APS-C image sensor—the same size you'd get with any traditional DSLR under $1,500.
    Once you attach a lens and start shooting, the first thing you'll notice is the camera's pleasing texture. Its grip is slightly rubberized, which is a welcome departure from the smooth plastic feel of most budget-friendly cameras. The grip is also much more substantial than the all-plastic grip of the A5000, calling back a bit to one our favorite Sony cameras, the plush NEX-7. It's pleasant to shoot with, even with bulkier lenses that dwarf the body.

    The rear control scheme is exactly like the A5000, with three main buttons–menu, playback, and help/trash–in addition to a control wheel. The control wheel pulls double duty as a four-way directional pad, with options for drive mode, exposure compensation, ISO, and display. There is nothing new to note here, as Sony uses the same layout on the A5000 and a slight variant on the A6000.
    The top controls feature the zoom lever (good for controlling powered zoom lenses), the shutter release, a power switch, flash release, and a dedicated record button. The zoom lever is responsive, but doesn't zip in and out so fast that you lose your subject–which can happen easily without a viewfinder. It also won't function at all if you're attaching lenses without powered zoom motors; you'll have to manually zoom most E-mount glass as a result. The design is simple and easy to navigate, even if most of your camera experience has been limited to point-and-shoots.

    The biggest control change from previous Sony NEX cameras is the "new" menu. When you first pull up the menu you'll be greeted with the familiar tiled options, the same as Sony's used since the original NEX-3 and NEX-5. Unlike older NEX cameras, however, choosing any tile will bring you to the traditional list-and-tab style menu from Sony's Alpha cameras. This menu is far better organized than the NEX menu, and we highly recommend deactivating the tiled opening screen entirely in the setup menu.

    Another carry-over from the A5000 is the touchscreen. It flips up 180 degrees to face forward so your subject can see themselves. This is of course great for selfies and group shots, but the screen unfortunately does not tilt downward to aid overhead shots. The panel used here is even nicer than the one on the A5000, and the tilting functionality is something the A6000 doesn't offer.

    Sony has equipped the A5100 with HDMI out and a USB connection–for charging and connecting to a PC–in the same bay as the memory card slot. There are left and right microphones that record stereo audio on either side of the pop-up flash and a speaker on the bottom of the camera. The pop-up flash is extra high in order to shoot over longer E-mount lenses, though overall range and power isn't any better than most built-in strobes.


    A $700-and-under camera that performs like a far more expensive one.

    When it comes to digital cameras, performance begins with the sensor/processor combination. Luckily, the A5100 inherits the stellar sensor and processor from its big brother, the Sony A6000. It also has the same hybrid autofocus system that uses both contrast-detection and phase-detection points to achieve focusing speeds as fast as 0.07 seconds. Last year's Sony NEX-5T also utilized this hybrid autofocus, but the A5100 benefits from more phase-detect points covering a larger portion of the sensor.
    The result is a notable uptick in focus tracking speed and accuracy, even in limited light. The one nagging issue here is burst shooting. Despite having the same processor/sensor combo as the A6000, the A5100 can only manage to capture bursts at six frames per second—almost half as slow as the A6000's 11fps max burst speed.

    In the lab we always begin by testing color accuracy to find the most accurate modes and diagnose any weak points. The A5100 didn't blow our hair back, performing about average for an entry-level DSLR. The "Standard" mode was the most accurate, while white balance accuracy was typically good.
    One area where the A5100 excels, however, is in high ISO shooting. In this test the A5100 truly began to flex its muscles. With a modern APS-C sensor and Sony's superb Bionz X processor (which powers every Sony mirrorless camera from the A5000 up through the full-frame Sony A7S), the A5100 produced usable shots at most ISO speeds. Noise from ISO 100-800 is hardly noticeable–even when shooting in RAW.
    If you have to push the ISO above 800 we advise using some noise reduction, whether in the camera or–if shooting RAW—in a program like Adobe Lightroom. The in-camera noise reduction lowered noise percentages at the higher ISO levels, with an increasingly aggressive penalty to fine detail. You can shoot through the entire ISO range (100-25,600) without crossing a 2% noise ratio, but we recommend capping it at ISO 1600 if you want to keep your shots from turning into a low contrast puddle. Below you can see how the camera handles noise at higher ISO speeds and judge for yourself.
    One area where Sony continues to improve is in video shooting. The A5100 matched the A6000 in our video testing, with subtle improvements due to autofocus speed. In our resolution tests the A5100 resolved around 600 line pairs per picture height horizontally (LP/PH) and 575 LP/PH vertically. In low light the A5100 dropped around 450 LP/PH both vertically and horizontally–which is to be expected with less light to work with. Surprisingly, the A5000 got as low as 3.5 lux in our low-light sensitivity test with the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. The super low light video is incredibly noisy, but in extreme circumstances at least you can see what you've shot.


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