Sony a6500 tested: Solid upgrade for top of the line compact mirrorless

Sony a6500 tested: Solid upgrade for top of the line compact mirrorless

Sony Alpha a6500 Mirrorless Digital Camera (Body Only)One after another Sony has been knocking down the barriers for those considering switching from full-size DSLRs to smaller, mirrorless, APS-C cameras. Better autofocus, high frame rates, and an increasing selection of lenses for its E-mount make the Sony a6000 family an excellent choice. Image quality is also highly competitive, as you’d expect from the company that makes sensors for much of the industry. One of the few remaining Achilles Heels has been its control and menu system, which have been hard to like. That was our biggest beef when we . With our recent field test of the newer we can confirm that Sony has made progress on the camera’s interface, but it is still more quirky than we’d like.

Building on the successful elements of the Sony a6300

The a6300 already featured hundreds of phase and contrast AF points, that wipe out the traditional advantage DSLRs have had in focus speed. Because it doesn’t have a mirror, those sensors can work full time, which allows for fast Autofocus even at its full frame rate of 11fps. Sony claims AF speed of up to .05 second, but that is pretty hard to verify in practice. One reason Sony may have pushed the out only months after the well-regarded was to address an overheating issue the earlier model had when recording long clips of 4K video. Both video and still images benefit from the new in-body stabilization (which works in conjunction with lens stabilization). For 1080p shooting, you can now select frame rates from 1 to 120. The shutter is now rated for 200,000 cycles, and the grip has been beefed up as well. For those of us who rely on geotagging, the a6500 can pull location information from your smartphone over Bluetooth.

Natural light images look great right out of the camera.
, @ 16mm, 1/320s @ f/14, ISO 400

Image quality continues to be a Sony strength

Camera vendors spend a lot of time and effort on tweaking their various in-camera image modes, but most who are spending several thousand on a kit of camera, lenses, and accessories are likely to be shooting RAW and post-processing on a tablet or computer. So the sensor is what matter, and Sony has always built some of the best. Here, both the a6300 and a6500 score a very-respectable 85 on DxOMark’s Sensor tests. That compares nicely with Nikon’s well-regarded DX-format DSLR at 84. Unfortunately, the unique design of Fujifilm’s X-Trans sensor means that DxO hasn’t scored the excellent as a comparison.

Controls are a mash up of point and shoot and rangefinder

Sony has kept the iconic ridged ring that is typical of point and shoot camera controls. However, it has super-charged it with a large number of functions depending on the mode you are in and whether you press its center button first, etc. That means once you become comfortable with its use, you can fairly quickly perform the tasks needed during shooting. For example, in Aperture mode (my typical shooting mode), you can dial in Exposure Compensation by pressing the center button, then the lower portion of the ring, and rotating the ring. That’s not nearly as quick as Easy Exposure Compensation on an Nikon DSLR (turning a single, easy to reach dial), but it is at least doable without taking your eye off the viewfinder.

Even in low-light situations, the does an excellent job.
Here is a twilight shot of the street food scene in midtown Manhattan.
, , 1/160s @ f/5.6, ISO 3200, resized JPEG

Speaking of dials, while the main Mode dial is large and well-placed, the control dial is tucked away where it wasn’t that easy to reach with my thumb. It’s possible it might actually be more convenient for someone with small hands, but it was too close to the grip for my taste. There is also no control dial on the lens mount, which would be another place to add additional shooting control. Intelligent Autofocus modes are quite good, as you’d expect given Sony’s pioneering of various enhanced focus modes over the years. However, if you prefer to move the focus point around yourself with the multi-function ridged dial, it moves quite slowly. That’s frustrating if you’re used to the very-responsive AF “joysticks” on DSLRs. You can touch the LCD to focus or use it as a touch pad while you are looking through the EVF, but neither one was totally satisfactory to me.

The rear LCD is a touch screen, but one that has its own limitations. It seems mostly useful for picking focus points, as it doesn’t respond to the intuitive action of clicking on a setting to change it. I’ve actually become fairly fond of that ability in my favorite Canon point and shoots like the .

This image illustrates the camera’s strength in rendering tonal values and detail in mixed light,
even with my pushing the ISO up artificially high
, , f/5.6 @ 1/3200s, ISO 2000

Sony’s 16-70mm f/4 lens is a good all-around option

When buying into a new camera system, the obvious thing to do is start with a kit that includes a camera body and one or more lenses. In this case, the value option is to get the with . However, if you have the budget and want to upgrade, Sony offers a kit with its . The lens features a constant f/4 aperture, and Zeiss anti-reflective coatings to maximize its quality. That’s the configuration I tested and found perfect for street and “walking around” photography.

The is quick enough for “from the hip” shooting,
that can yield some fun results.
, , 1/250s @ f/5.6, ISO 3200

Good Flash options

The camera has a small pop-up flash that elevates to about an inch above the camera, although you’ll still need to be careful using it with any type of long lens or hood. It’s great for when you’re in a hurry, but anyone spending this much on a camera should probably invest in a good external flash. I tested a unit, which performed well in its default balanced flash mode. It’s reasonable balance of performance and cost (at $328), but  you can move up or down in Sony’s flash product line depending on your needs.

I bounced the Sony XXX flash off the ceiling for this product shot we did for ExtremeTech,
and easily mixed it with a small daylight Ott light to help prevent shadows in the foreground.
, @ 16mm, f/8 @ 1/60s, ISO 1250,

Choosing between the , , , and  

There are now several excellent camera options in the $1k-$2k range, depending on your needs. If you are used to having easy access to all your cameras functions, and want to leverage your investment in lenses, accessories, and flash units, then staying with Nikon or Canon is the logical choice. Nikon has made that possible by finally updating its aging D300 with the very spiffy . Canon users can save a bit on that by purchasing the somewhat-lower-end . However, if you want to go mirrorless, choosing between Fujifilm and Sony is a matter of priorities.

For me, the more traditional controls of the set it apart as the camera I’d prefer to have for general purpose photography, including travel, vacation, and street use. I would probably switch to one in a heartbeat if that was all the shooting I did. But when it comes to specialty lenses, like long telephotos needed for sports and wildlife, Sony offers a much wider range of options. Also, Sony has some of the best “under the hood” camera electronics, so you’re getting a pretty-amazing set of specs and features for your money.

Any of those cameras would be perfect for travel photography, for example on our . For our , you’d need to choose more carefully, as a long lens needs to be part of your solution.

Pixel peeping on the images from any of these cameras will show flaws, especially in low light, compared to a top of the line DSLR like my “daily driver” or the , but you’re trading a several pound, multi-thousand dollar unit for one that weighs in at about one pound and under $2K.

Another example of the ’s accurate rendering when paired with its f/4 zoom.