Sony a6000 Review: A Solid Mirrorless Camera That's a Small Step Up

Pretty much all mirrorless cameras—Fujifilm X, Samsung NX, to name a couple—with APS-C size sensors can take a damn fine picture these days. The a6000 does its best to stand out with a pinch of style and updated tech, but it's still largely the same as the camera it's replacing, 2012's NEX-6.

What Is It?

Sony's NEX moniker may be dead, but the cameras themselves are still very much alive as the Alpha (a) series. The a6000 is a mid-range mirrorless camera with a 24 megapixel APS-C size sensor, taking Sony's E-mount lenses. It costs $650 for the body only, and $800 with a 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens.

Why Does It Matter?

It's the first camera in Sony's revamped Alpha line to aim higher than entry-level. It replaces not only the NEX-6 but the arguably groundbreaking NEX-7, introduced way back in 2011. Not to mention that Sony's innovative A7 and A7r full-frame cameras have also upped the anticipation of whatever comes next.

Sony a6000 Review: A Solid Mirrorless Camera That's a Small Step Up

Sony a6000 Review: A Solid Mirrorless Camera That's a Small Step Up

Design

While largely reflecting the overall shape of the NEX series, the a6000 has adopted more of the clean, angular lines of the a7 and a7r. That's a good thing, because it distinguishes Sony as one of the only mirrorless camera makers with a great-looking design that's not based on retro styling. Instead, a modern approach is taken while not overdoing it with unseemly curves and ornamentation.

The camera is very rectangular, with a completely flat top that is very distinctive, though maybe not the most functional design in the world, as it makes the upper dials feel a bit buried. What is function is its big shapely grip—the best grip on any mirrorless camera, in my opinion. The details remain true to the form of past NEX cameras, the feel of the buttons, the LCD, the popup flash. If it aint broke, don't fix it.

Using It

The a6000 takes great, high quality pictures. But if you were hoping for a major step up over last year's generation, you might be disappointed. The new 24 megapixel sensor is an increase from 16 megapixels on the NEX-6, but the quality of the larger images is still the same when looking at RAW files. Low light capability is also the same. In fact, we compared the a6000 with the ancient NEX-C3 in low light and saw no tangible difference.

That doesn't mean the a6000 is a bad camera; it's still near the top when it comes to APS-C image quality, able to hold its own with Fujifilm, Canon, or Nikon. But any reports of this camera significantly outshining its predecessors are overblown or just plain wishful thinking.

All of our sample images were shot in RAW with the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, then exported from Adobe Lightroom. You can find the full-size images in our Flickr set.

Sony a6000 Review: A Solid Mirrorless Camera That's a Small Step Up

f/5.6 1/800 ISO 100


Sony a6000 Review: A Solid Mirrorless Camera That's a Small Step Up

f/4.5 1/250 ISO 100


Sony a6000 Review: A Solid Mirrorless Camera That's a Small Step Up

f/2.5 1/160 ISO 1600


Sony a6000 Review: A Solid Mirrorless Camera That's a Small Step Up

Where the a6000 improves over its predecessor are in the more subtle areas of operation. Battery life, for example, is now rated at 420 shots over 360 for the NEX-6. The autofocus system is also bumped up, with faster hybrid phase and contrast detection that has become standard in most new models. The difference is apparent especially with continuous tracking, which, while still not at DSLR level, does a pretty good job as long as you have decent light. Single shot autofocus is snappy, about the same as the full-frame A7 that we tested it against.

Sony has provided consistently good control schemes lately, and the a6000 is no exception. On top you have a mode dial, aperture dial, shutter, and custom function button. On the back is a directional control wheel surrounded by various other buttons. I did have a couple of touchy-feely type issues. There's nothing to differentiate the two top dials when you are looking through the viewfinder, so your thumb has to feel around a bit for the right one. Similarly, the rear buttons are all pretty much flush with the surface of the body, forcing you to hunt around with your thumb. It's nothing that will ruin the experience, but I've always thought the best controls are ones that you can intuitively access without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. Shoot enough with the a6000 and you can get to that point, but it's not immediate.

Speaking of the viewfinder, the 1.4 million dot unit is actually a downgrade in resolution from the 2.4 million dots of the NEX-6. But don't get hung up on the spec. The EVF is really crisp and great, even in low light, where earlier generations were noisy.

If you're considering buying the kit lens with the a6000, there are a few things you should know. It's a fine starter lens in terms of detail, color, and zoom range. It's got nice optical stabilization, and it retracts to a compact size. However, when shooting RAW, the lens exhibits significant distortion at the wide end, as well as harsh vignetting in the corners. That can be easily corrected if you use Lightroom or Photoshop's lens profiles. And if you shoot JPEGs, the problems are corrected in-camera. But it's something to be aware of nonetheless. We always recommend investing in a high quality prime lens with a large aperture, but that's not always possible on smaller budgets, in which case the kit lens is just fine. Unfortunately, the E-mount lens lineup is still lacking compared to the micro four-thirds or Fujifilm X systems, but there are a few great lenses to be found.

Sony a6000 Review: A Solid Mirrorless Camera That's a Small Step Up

image after lens profile corrections

Sony a6000 Review: A Solid Mirrorless Camera That's a Small Step Up

image before lens profile corrections

The a6000's video features have some highs and lows. Detail and color are decent, but suffer from compression artifacts, especially in low light. There is a great selection of frame rates, from 24p to 30p to 60p, where cameras from Olympus and Fuji have more limited options. Overall, you will find better video quality on Panasonic's mirrorless cameras, like the GX7, GM1, or GH4. Autofocus during video works well overall, but falls short of Canon's terrific Dual-Pixel AF found in the EOS 70D. The biggest video misstep here is lack of a microphone jack, eliminating the a6000 outright as a serious option for video shooters. The only way to attach a mic is through Sony's accessory shoe using its own proprietary attachment. That's way too limiting, and really bizarre, considering how cheap and easy it is to include a simple mic jack.

Other obligatory features that did make their way into the a6000 include a popup flash, Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity, focus peaking, face recognition, and the usual scene modes that you should skip over in favor of learning how to control the camera's settings. It's all standard fare.

Sony a6000 Review: A Solid Mirrorless Camera That's a Small Step Up

f/5.6 1/400 ISO 800


Sony a6000 Review: A Solid Mirrorless Camera That's a Small Step Up

f/10 1/500 ISO 200


Sony a6000 Review: A Solid Mirrorless Camera That's a Small Step Up

f/5.6 1/640 ISO 100

Like

That a6000 has a sleek, modern design, with a solid set of controls and a big, comfortable grip. It produces beautiful images and decent video, with fast AF and response time. Controls are logically laid out, and provide a solid set of customizable buttons. The EVF is also great, and sets it apart from other mirrorless options at $650.

No Like

Despite the bump in resolution, image quality remains largely stagnant from previous generations. Some of the buttons could benefit from some tactile differentiation. No microphone jack puts the camera at a huge disadvantage for video shooters. The E-mount ecosystem is still lacking in autofocus lens options, particularly fast prime lenses.

Sony a6000 Review: A Solid Mirrorless Camera That's a Small Step Up

Sony a6000 Review: A Solid Mirrorless Camera That's a Small Step Up

Should You Buy It

For $650, body-only, the a6000 has strong value for the image quality and features you get. It's not a huge upgrade from the NEX-6, unless you really care about giant-sized images or having the latest, speediest autofocus. So keep your eye out for lower prices on that older version.

Around this price point, your mirrorless alternatives are the Olympus EM-10 at $700, which is smaller, with killer in-body stabilization and amazing lenses, but inferior resolution and slightly lower image quality in low light. The same is true for the Panasonic GX7, which, for $800, will get you superior video quality to boot. Fujifilm's X-E2 provides the same features and similar image quality, but is much more expensive at $900 body-only.

It seems like Sony is still in need of a killer feature or two to really set its APS-C mirrorless cameras apart from the competition, but until that happens a6000 represents a solid all-around shooter at a great price. And that'll be even more true if it just kicks its lens production into high gear.