A System Guide to Sony E-Mount and FE-Mount (Nee: NEX)

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Items on same line indicate model updates. Different lines indicate varying model levels. Bold is current model.

Sony has pretty much confused everyone at some point with its ever-changing mirrorless lineup. We have had name changes, multiple mounts, different sensor sizes, fast updates, no updates, and even more to contend with.

Sony introduced its first mirrorless cameras after m4/3, but not long after. The original NEX-3 and NEX-5 models appeared in Spring of 2010 and established what is now a wide line of mirrorless products. Indeed, Sony uses the E-mount that was introduced with the NEX-3 and NEX-5 for a wide range of both still and video cameras.

However, Sony dropped the NEX name in late 2013 and now calls everything Alpha. Plus they came out with a full frame sensor mirrorless system (FE mount) that is a kissing cousin of the original (E mount). So we have some explaining to do.

Generational 411
In the still realm, we now have six generations of mirrorless models from Sony:

  • First Generation: NEX-3, NEX-5
  • Second Generation: NEX-3C, NEX-5N (5N added an external EVF option)
  • Third Generation: NEX-F3, NEX-7 (7 added an internal EVF and more controls)
  • Third-and-a-half Generation: NEX-3N, NEX-5R, NEX-6 (Normally these might be considered 3rd generation, but the addition of Wi-Fi and/or PlayMemories Apps sets them apart as a distinct new breed)
  • Fourth Generation: A3000, A5000, A6000 replace the NEX (APS sensor) models, A7, A7R, A7S add new FE mount models
  • Fifth Generation: A7 Mark II, A7R Mark II, A7S Mark II, A6300
  • Sixth Generation: A6100, A6400, A6500, A7m3, A7Rm3, A9, A7C

We also have a plethora of Sony dedicated video cameras that use the E-mount: VG-10, VG-20, VG-30, VG-900, EA-50U, FS-100, FS-700, FS5, FS7, and FX-9 to name just a few. These range from camcorder like models (VG series) to destined-for-Hollywood models (FS7, now Mark II), with many other video variations in the middle. Personally, I approve of this kind of bifurcation, but only if the still cameras continue to emphasize still features and ergonomics (with video on demand) and the video cameras emphasize video features and ergonomics (with stills on demand). So far, so good.

As with most systems, higher numbers within a fixed digit realm tend to indicate more capability. We had 3, 5, 6, and 7 in the NEX model lineup, but this has changed to names such as A3000, A5000, and A6500 in the new lineup. Worse still, the A3000 (and A3500 in Australia) was a different style than the NEX models and the A5000 and A6000 that replaced them. The A7 and A9 models are yet a different style, too, being more DSLR-like than the A5000 and A6000. Then the A7C reintroduces the A6xxx style, only for full frame. 

The full frame A7 went through a bit of a transition over time. The A7 Mark II added a sophisticated sensor-based IS system and refined the body design from the original. These changes then were rolled through the entire line, so as I write this, all the A7 models have sensor-based IS. Two of them have been iterated to Mark III, which changed the battery and some other aspects of the camera, while one has made it to Mark IV. Plus now we have a new top full frame model in the A9 Mark II, which is intended to challenge Canon and Nikon’s top DSLRs.

The Sony Uniqueness
From the beginning, the big draw to the original NEX series was the use of Sony EXMOR APS sensors (Super35 sensors for many of the video models). That excitement was doubled with the introduction of the A7 models with full frame EXMOR sensors, and in some cases EXMORs with new and interesting technologies (e.g. back side illumination, or BSI, and eventually the stacked sensor on the A9). All else equal, a bigger sensor does have benefits in low light and in providing potentially shallower depth of field. The downside is that a bigger sensor tends to require bigger lenses, too. 

Which brings up one of the cognitive dissonances in the Sony designs: the camera bodies are exceedingly small (even the full frame A7 models, and even after they got a bit of a size boost in the third generation to accommodate a bigger battery and a larger hand grip). Some of Sony’s A6xxx cameras are smaller than some m4/3 cameras, which have smaller sensors. 

Yet the lenses are DLSR-sized for the most part, and that’s particularly true for the full frame Alpha models (FE mount). Those that remember the old Sony R1 remember the "all lens with a handle" design very well, and some of the Sony mirrorless models certainly echo that. This tends to lead to a left-hand-under-lens, right-hand on the grip shooting style, which isn't a bad idea (done right you'll further stabilize the camera/lens). But not everyone likes that. Indeed, those seeking out mirrorless cameras because they're small and light tends to balk at the lens sizes with the A7 models as you go for fast lenses or long zooms. 

The other aspect of the NEX-to-Alpha change that was off-putting to some was Sony's changes in camera controls (UI). On the very original firmware for the NEX-3 and NEX-5, every control pretty much centered around three buttons and one dial, and these were definitely not optimally configured. Firmware updates gave users customization options that pretty much ended most of the complaints, and subsequent models improved on it. Indeed, the NEX-5R, NEX-6, and NEX-7 all had plenty of direct user control and configuration, and while that was more "modern" than "traditional,” I didn't have any real problems with that design. 

More recently, the fourth generation standardized on yet another Sony UI, this time derived from the RX1. I find that current implementation of that UI the best yet, though the menus still tended to sprawl and could use even further reorganization and clarity.  I applaud Sony for not just giving us the same old, same old, but actually trying to put together something that's a little better for those willing to invest some learning time into it. 

The bad news is that there hasn’t been UI consistency from generation to generation of Sony mirrorless cameras. The A7S Mark III introduced an updated menu system with more organization, but that hasn't made it through the lineup yet. I hope that we’ve now locked and loaded on a “final” overall solution, as that current UI is fine (though buttons tend to be in poor positions and too small, and wording and abbreviation clarity still needs refining). 

One highlight of the Sony mirrorless line has been sensors. These days we've got state-of-the-art 24mp APS-C sensors in the E-mount cameras, and they perform remarkably well in low light and are capable of very good resolution. In the full frame FE-mount cameras, we’ve got 12mp, 24mp, and 60mp choices. These are essentially the same sensors or relatives to those in Sony's earlier DSLRs (and in some Nikon and Pentax DSLRs). 

There's little to complain about with the current EXMOR sensors; perhaps the one drawback being that they do tend to overheat in constant video or Live View use, especially in really hot weather. But that's a manageable problem for most. 

My bigger complaint—and it should be every Sony A6### user's complaint—is still the available lens set for APS-C. Early on it was very tough slogging, with only the fairly poor 16mm f/2.8 plus the 18-55mm kit lens available for the E-mount. The kit lenses, even the new 16-50mm one, are kit lenses: decent but definitely not great. The 16mm, unfortunately, had a number of weaknesses (it's big plus was its small size). 

Slowly we've gotten more E-mount lenses, but a Sony APS-C mirrorless user still has nowhere near the choice an m4/3 or Fujifilm user has right now, and the gap isn't closing very fast because Sony seems to have stopped added E-mount lenses to concentrate on FE-mount lenses for the full frame mirrorless cameras. 

With FE, the story is both better and worse. Originally we had four choices, two primes that are terrific lenses, and two zooms that were more disappointing (even the Zeiss 24-70mm f/4). This was later augmented with many additional lenses, but many are the same size as DSLR lenses, so the small/light advantage is disappearing for Sony FE. 

All the zooms (with the exception of the recent 10-18mm f/4 E-mount, the collapsing 16-50mm E-mount, and the 12-24mm f/4 FE-mount) tend to be fairly large, too, meaning that if you opt for an all-zoom kit, you're going to be dealing with at least one or two DSLR-sized lenses. That’s absolutely true if you opt for any of the f/2.8 FE zooms (16-35mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm). 

Overall, I’d say the FE side of the Sony lens equation is now quite good and gets better every quarter, particularly now that there's plentiful third-party support for the mount. The E side, though, seems to have stagnated and needs more attention.

Finally, note that Sony has introduced a few lenses that are primarily for video users (e.g. the 28-135mm f/4). While you can use these on the still cameras, they are clearly designed for video work, with geared rings, true varifocal designs, etc. That tends to make them a bit big and bulky for still users.

Don't Go App (pronounced aye-p)
The NEX-5R and NEX-6 introduced a feature that Sony calls PlayMemories Apps. This was present in all fourth and most fifth generation Sony mirrorless cameras (A5000, A6100, A6300, A6500, and all A7 models until the Mark IIIs). The idea was sound, but it was completely unclear if the execution would ever live up to the expectations. It looked like a Sony-originated and controlled play pen, and Sony needed to do a lot more than they showed in order to make this a reason to consider Sony mirrorless over another.  

When Sony removed PlayMemories from the A7 Mark III models, the A9, the A6400, and later models. they didn’t bring some of the function back to the camera (e.g. Time-lapse). The Wi-Fi inclusion on all the recent cameras should be useful to some, however. 

Further, now Sony's full developer kit for writing external apps for the cameras only applies to the very latest models (A7C, A7S Mark III, A7R Mark IV, and A9 Mark II). 

First and foremost, make sure you can live with the existing and known-to-be-coming lenses. If you can't, then Sony mirrorless isn't the system for you. That’s extremely true for the E-mount models (A5xxx, A6xxx);  the FE-mount models (A7, A7r, A7s, A9 in all generations) now have an almost complete lens set from very wide angle to moderate telephoto (especially if you count the Zeiss lenses). Third party lens support has appeared for both mounts and it’s helpful, but there are still a lot of lens gaps in the Sony mirrorless world.

These days you have two choices for cameras: APS-C or full frame sensor. While you can use E-mount and FE-mount lenses on both types of cameras, so far the Sony choices really don’t make for a good mix-and-match system (e.g. one full frame body as the main camera, an APS-C body for backup). So choose your sensor type first and foremost. 

That also chooses a body type (DSLR-style) if you choose full frame. But if you choose APS-C, you have to choose between arm’s length type (A5xxx), or small rangefinder type (A6xxx). 

Personally, the sweet spots of the Sony lineup for me are the A7 Mark III (24mp full frame) and A6400 (24mp APS). Both are pretty aggressively priced, and highly competent. But if you’re going all out, then the A6500 and A7R Mark IV or A9 Mark II are the models you probably want today.

Note: Sony has kept virtually all of the fourth and fifth generation cameras available as new even after launching the sixth generation. That means you have some excellent lower-cost options if you don’t mind going back a generation or two. The original A6000 and A7 that kicked off the fourth generation are both decent cameras, though not at the levels of the current ones. But you can find them at extreme discount, so it’s one way of sampling the Sony systems without committing large sums of money.

Thom's Experience
I've been shooting with the Sony mirrorless cameras from the beginning. I have a lot of behind-the-camera time on the NEX-5, NEX-6, NEX-7, A6000, A6300, and A7/A7S/A7R,  A7 Mark III, A7R Mark II, A7R Mark III, A7R Mark IV, and A9 Mark II. I own an A7R Mark IV and a basic set of very good Sony lenses.

My problem has been and continues to be lenses for the APS-C cameras. The E-mount deserves more pro-quality lenses. It has one from Sony (the 24mm Zeiss). But Sony really could use many better lenses on the APS-C side, especially at the wide angle end. Samsung's 16mm f/2.5 for their NX (not to be confused with the now-defunct NEX name ;~) system far outshines the Sony 16mm f/2.8, but is about the same size. So you can make excellent performing small lenses for the APS-C sensors, Sony just hasn't opted to do so. 

If 19mm or 30mm are to your liking, you can mitigate Sony's lack of small, top performing primes somewhat by opting for the original Sigma NEX lenses: they're good, maybe very good, though not exceptional (and now hard to find). They're both far better performers than Sony's 16mm. Fortunately, Zeiss has high-end Touit lenses that perform very well for E-mount, plus at least two other makers have announced similar plans. If you're patient, more lenses are coming, and not too far out.

Full frame (A7 and A9) model users will find much better lens support, though perhaps not every focal length and aperture combination they want, particularly in the telephoto range. As I noted, the two original primes (35mm, 55mm) are exceptionally good, the original zoom (28-70mm) just decent. The f/4 zooms are a mixed bunch: the 12-24mm is good, 16-35mm is good, the 24-70mm poor, and the 70-200mm very good. The f/2.8 zooms (16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm) are all excellent, but big. The Zeiss Batis and Loxia series are where you probably will find the prime lenses you want to fill your bag, but they can be pricey.

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