Sony a6300 compact mirrorless field tested: Amazing tech in a small package

Sony a6300 compact mirrorless field tested: Amazing tech in a small package

I've spent a lot more time shooting with the new since my first look article, and the experience has reinforced my impressions -- both pro and con. On the pro side, the speed and image quality is really amazing. I covered multiple events at Nvidia's tech conference, in a variety of awful lighting conditions, and the camera performed flawlessly at ISOs up to 3200 (where I had Auto ISO set to top out). However, even after some customization of the interface, I found the controls inefficient, especially in dark rooms.

Impressive image quality

The features a new 24MP sensor, that produces great images -- although at high ISOs I had to tweak the noise reduction settings in Adobe Camera Raw / Lightroom to get the best results. I look forward to trying DxO's PRIME noise reduction once Optics Pro adds support for the camera. Raw images are captured in 15-bit precision (this is not the same as dynamic range!), which is nice for potentially preventing artifacts in large, evenly-toned, areas.

One welcome feature for videographers is support for 4K video -- in either 24 or 30 fps, at up to 100 Mbps, or even raw uncompressed if you have your own HDMI-based recorder. Video is produced with the sensor running at full resolution and then downsampling, which Sony says results in better quality than native 4K. 1080p is supported up to 120 fps.

I shot this high contrast scene at +1 to open up the shadows,
but the still did a great job of keeping a reasonable amount of color in the sky.

Freaky fast

This is probably the first "small" camera I've used where the continuous shooting mode was so quick that I had to re-train my finger to avoid accidentally firing off multiple frames. It's 11+ fps is fast enough for just about any application. An 8 fps mode is available that reduces the percentage of time the viewfinder is blacked out. For those who think high framerates are only good for sports and wildlife, it is amazing how much difference there can be in facial expressions in just 1/10th of a second. So, if you can deal with the extra work of looking through multiple versions of the same photo, give high-speed continuous a try! There is a reason you hear the machine-gun-like sound of lots of fast cameras at the beginning and end of every press conference. Getting exactly the right pose and expression matters!

Focus is just as quick, and the combination of hundreds of focus points (425 phase detect and 169 contrast detect) along with a fast processor means that the intelligent AF is also very good. I often left the camera set to its intelligent focus mode, with the focus points it was using highlighted in the scene. That allowed me to easily see if I was getting locked onto the right subject. That works well for rapid action, especially in low-light conditions where it can be hard to see what is in focus with just your eyes. For those times when you're hoping to compose and focus carefully, then turning the intelligent mode off and focusing yourself is of course a more traditional and potentially more accurate way to go.

High frame rates aren’t just for sports. Covering events also rewards getting just the right expression.
, , f/4 @ 1/160s, ISO 2500

Because of the way AF is setup, you can (at least on paper) get full AF functionality when using an adapter to mount Sony's A-mount lenses, or even with a Metabones adapter for Canon's EF lenses -- but I didn't test this myself.

Amateur controls on a pro-quality camera

Sony Alpha a6300 Mirrorless Digital Camera with 16-50mm LensThere is a saying that the best camera is the one you have with you. For most pros, the very best camera is the one they can operate almost without thinking, and certainly without looking. Your fingers should know how to be operating the controls without you needing to peer at the camera, (or for touchscreen-equipped cameras, fiddle with the screen). This is especially true if you are paid to photograph events, sports, wildlife, or anything dynamic -- especially in low light conditions. One mantra all my workshop participants have heard is "If you can't do it in the dark, you're not doing it enough."

Nikon and Canon realize this (and personally I think Nikon does a better job with it, but it’s the system I'm most familiar with, so I'm biased). You can change just about every setting on a pro DSLR from those vendors with your eyes closed (sure, you might not be able to check exactly how far you adjusted something, but if you know what you have your e.v. steps and ISO steps set to, you can change aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and exposure compensation quickly and effectively in almost any situation. (Except when Nikon periodically switches the order of the buttons on the back, which drives me nuts since I have to remember which model camera I'm using or look at the button).

By contrast, the , while offering essentially all of the same flexibility, it is trapped behind a variety of small, somewhat-tricky, and not-always-well-placed controls. In fairness to the camera, once you customize the control locations a bit, and get used to their layout, they are definitely workable. But definitely not optimal. For anyone used to DSLR controls, they'll take some getting used to. Some of the annoyances I found:

  • The record button is way off to the right, so you need to practically pull your hand off the camera to push it. You can remap buttons, but it'd be nice if it was handy in the first place.
  • Similarly, the back control wheel (that you can use like a Nikon or Canon command dial) is too close to the side of the camera, so it isn't naturally where your thumb can find it. I _think_ this is because Sony wanted to move the mode dial away from the edge of the camera so it wouldn't get moved accidentally. A better solution would have been a lock on the mode dial (like the one Nikon added to the D7100 to address this issue with the D7000).
  • Instead of buttons for common functions, the camera uses a point-and-shoot style rocker and small, ridged, surrounding ring -- augmented with a couple buttons. With some practice, this is usable, but not nearly as simple to operate as the "push a button & then turn the command dial" interface on most DSLRs.
  • The rocker & ring setup is modal -- meaning that once you press the rocker in a particular direction, you can turn the ring to change that value, or you can press the other sides of the rocker. However, that means you have to remember to press the center button of the rocker to get out of this mode, and allow the other sides of the rocker to go back to their regular function. It makes the system pretty error prone if you aren't looking.
  • Not surprisingly, there isn't a top LCD. That's typical of cameras this small, but is a really handy feature on most DSLRs. Fortunately, most of the necessary information is also in the EVF, so you don't have to look at the LCD every time you want to know how your camera is set.
  • While not a control issue, per se, the SD card slot is placed very close to the battery cover hinge. That makes it a little tricky to pull out. Fortunately, with the availability of super-large cards like the new , you won’t need to swap cards in the field very often. (When traveling with my SD card slot equipped laptop, I typically use full-size SD cards, but when traveling with only a tablet like the Surface Pro 4 or Lenovo Miix 700, I can use a microSD card with adapter and then transfer images easily using its microSD slot). This tiny card holds over 5700 Raw+JPEG files from the a6300!

Super-sweet EVF, lens-based stabilization

The Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) is really nice. It shows up quickly when you put your eye to the camera, and is very high quality. It is always available, unlike on some of the smaller Sony's, where it is a pop-up.

Similar to Canon and Nikon DSLRs, stabilization is not in the camera body, but needs to be a feature of the lens. The a6300 does have a hot shoe, and works with a variety of flashes, including the very-convenient unit.

One advantage of the relatively-large (for a small camera) sensor is a better ability to isolate subjects.
, Sony 16-50mm lens, f/4 @ 1/160s, ISO 100, iAuto mode

Chock full of features

The also has the full raft of features we've come to expect from Sony. Lots of Scene modes, WiFi with NFC pairing, an excellent Panorama mode, downloadable apps, custom settings banks, and an articulating LCD. Most of these aren't that helpful if you're used to shooting Raw and controlling your camera yourself, but for quick shots or for those who want the camera to do more of the work, they offer plenty of options. One interesting feature is an Eye detection mode that builds on face detect to actually look for a subject's eyes to be open and facing the camera before shooting.

The has no trouble capturing color, even saturated, metallic reds like on this show car

Thoughts on the Sony 16-50mm "kit" lens and the

I tried two lenses with the camera. The Sony 16-50 (E-mount) "kit" lens is fine, but I found the motorized zoom a completely un-necessary, and slightly annoying feature. I would have much rather only had the standard zoom ring. The (full-frame E-mount) was excellent. It is not small -- about the same size as a Nikon or Canon equivalent -- but it handles well, focuses quickly, and captures great images. On the APS-C format sensor in the , you get an effective 105mm - 300mm range, which is enough for most applications. It also features a removable lens collar, dual-mode stabilization, and a range limit switch, so it has everything you need for pro shooting with it.

The a6300 takes a couple seconds to power on, but if you remember to switch it on as you pull it up to shoot,
you can get some excellent grab shots like this one of Stanford’s solar car about to start a practice run.

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Is the Sony a6300 right for you?

The is a solid upgrade from the a6000, so if you've been waiting for a chance to up your game, and have the $1000 to spare, you'll enjoy the new model. However, it isn't a massive update, so there isn't any reason to feel you have to make the switch. Similarly, if you are looking to downsize from a DSLR, this is a very cool camera -- if you're okay with the controls. Note, though, that the lenses for this camera aren't any smaller than the lenses for an APS-C-format sensor DSLR, so if you travel with a lot of lenses, the slightly smaller body may not save you much. If you're just getting started in the Sony system, the . Or you can .