A relative asked me how I liked my Sony Alpha 6000 digital camera. I like it a lot, for many reasons! Instead of trying to talk really fast, I’m compiling my thoughts here.

So - what is the A6000? Let’s start with the lens format. This is an E mount camera, compatible with any E mount lens. The ability to swap lenses is why it's better than your iPhone.

Most cameras with interchangeable lenses are DSLRs. A DSLR has a mirror inside that enables an optical viewfinder. However, the A6000, along with every E mount camera, is mirrorless, so there’s no optical viewfinder - just a digital one. This isn't a big deal for most people.

This picture (taken with a Canon T3i) shows how compact the A6000 really is

What matters is this: The omission of a mirror makes the camera cheap and compact. Depending on the lens, you can probably cram an A6000 in your coat pocket. Plus, the design has fewer moving parts - ideal for reliability.

35mm, 1/640 at f/2.0

You know what else is handy? Reallydamnfastshooting (11 shots per second) and continuous autofocus to follow your subject mid-pounce. Sony says it's the fastest autofocus in the business, and I believe them. The video mode is top-notch, but who needs it when you can take 11 still shots per second?

Shooting at 11fps is ideal for capturing "the" moment...

Shooting at 11fps is ideal for capturing "the" moment...

...and 10 other moments every second that you don't really care about.

...and 10 other moments every second that you don't really care about.

Mastering the shooting modes is simple. The interface is intuitive, even though the buttons are cramped on the small body. What you hold feels extremely well put-together. Small details - machined metal surfaces, engraved lettering - are nice touches on the attractive design. The camera presents like a miniaturized DSLR, eschewing plasticky cost-cutting measures that plague most mirrorless competitors.

Pictured with the E mount 50mm f1.8 mounted, plus the 55-210mm f4.5-6.3 and 35mm f1.8 - all with Sony's superb OSS stabilization.

Cheap, convenient, capable and easy to use…what’s the catch? Well, the APS-C image sensor here (much like most DSLRs under $1,500) is 33% smaller than that of a full-frame DSLR. This means the A6000 will capture less light light and only 66% of the field of view that a professional-grade DSLR would, ceteris paribus. For any lens you buy, multiply the focal length by 1.5x to get what you can expect from the A6000’s cropped sensor (e.g. a 50mm on the APS-C will give you the same FOV as a 75mm on a full-frame DSLR). Whether the reduced light and FOV will bother you depends on how pro you want to get, particularly in low light.

How do you offset that disadvantage? I’m able to solve most low-light problems by removing the lens cap. Beyond that, be sure to pick the right lens for the job. I think the bundled master-of-no-trades lens greatly limits the A6000. Get the camera body alone, then pick a lens that suits your style.

The first lens I bought was Sony’s 55-210mm zoom. 210 x 1.5 = 315mm, which is a lot of zoom! You can capture faraway subjects, or dramatize your outdoor portraits by making the background look huge.

The second lens I bought is my walkabout - Sony's 35mm 1.8f fast prime. It’s not cheap, but it’s versatile and compact. Don't worry about the lack of adjustable zoom - with 24 megapixels, you have plenty of resolution to crop if you need to. I used this lens for most of my Washington vacation photos.

For portraits, I picked up a Sony 50mm 1.8f, another fast prime. If you can get space between you and your subject, this lens can save you big money over the 35mm. I haven't had a chance to use it a lot so far - "at home" pictures will have to do. Pets are always willing test subjects.

Albertine and I briefly compared the A6000 and her Canon Rebel T3i - a comparably priced but more traditional crop sensor DSLR.

For the Sony:

  • Faster focusing and shooting
  • Easier to carry and faster to whip out of a smaller bag
  • Better video
  • Blobbier bokeh
  • Better dynamic range (more detail in extreme light/dark)

For the Canon:

  • Cheaper and more readily available lenses
  • Edgier bokeh
  • Optical viewfinder
  • Looks more legit

If you're doing action shots, there's no contest - Sony takes your cake. If you're doing more portrait-y stuff, it's not as clear. Here are some test shots with comparable lenses - the Sony had a 35mm f1.8 while the T3i was fitted with a 40mm f1.8. I threw in a couple shots with Albertine's new 6D (50mm f1.8) as well...though that shouldn't be a fair contest.

Most minute differences in color between the cameras could be ironed out in Lightroom. The T3i seems more ~dramatic~ in how color seems to bleed through the image. It shoots nostalgic photographs right out of the box. To get the same inspired effect, the Sony requires some Lightroom magickery. The 6D, being a full-frame DSLR, captures more light than the other two - but using the 50mm lens that was designed for crop sensors on it leads to some blur around the edges.

Of course there's more to image quality than that - you can find other websites if you want to zoom in on split hairs. Overall, I'd say the image quality of the Sony punches above its price point with accurate (if not dramatic) color and superb sharpness.

Of course there’s crap I don't like about it too.

First of all - E mount lenses are expensive. They're high quality, but it’s disappointing there aren’t more entry-level lenses that could get the job done.

Secondly - if you’re an aspiring semi-pro, nobody will take you seriously with a camera this small. This doesn’t bother me, but it’s something to consider if you’re trying to send a professional signal to clients.

Thirdly - as we alluded to earlier, the APS-C crop sensor means less light, all else equal. It's better than my old Micro Four-Thirds Lumix and worlds better than a typical point-and-shoot, but don't expect beautiful, creamy portraits at night. Left to its own devices, the little Sony will compensate by pumping up the ISO and/or exposure. You'll have to pick your poison between graininess or motion blur.

Fourthly - say you get hooked, and you want to purchase a full-frame body for better low-light/indoor performance. With a typical DSLR from Canon or Nikon, you can keep using your existing lenses and just upgrade the camera body (probably keeping the old body as a spare). Not so easy with E mount. While Sony's full-frame (A7) is physically compatible with E mount lenses, it needs fancier FE format lenses to leverage the enlarged sensor, and those cost big money over the E mount lenses you've already accumulated. You could just use the FE lenses on your A6000 to begin with, but they add cost and bulk over the standard E mount kits.

Finally - startup and memory card access speeds are not especially quick compared to all the other functions on the camera. They’re not terribly slow - just not as fast as I’d like for it to be the ultimate “holy-cow-it’s-a-whale” camera. ("holy-whale-it's-a-cow", maybe)

In summary: It's hard to find better image quality at this price point, let alone this portability factor. It's a fast, fun, willing companion that you can carry just about anywhere. Just be ready to pony up for the right lens, and steal your friend's full-frame DSLR when you need to work in low light.