Friday, May 1, 2015

The Matchup You've Been Waiting For: Sony a6000 vs. Samsung NX500

So the champ is finally meeting a worthy contender.  The champ has a style that is not terribly exciting but it can't be denied that he's an excellent all-around fighter, with no major weaknesses.  In the other corner is the challenger, a talented fighter with an unorthodox style.  He's got a much smaller but growing group of fans who love how he throws caution to the wind.  Everyone is wondering who is going to emerge the winner in this battle.
We're talking of course about the Sony a6000 and the Samsung NX500 (reviewed here).  I have been using the Sony a6000 for about a year, and the Samsung NX500 for about a month.  A lot of people looking for a mid-level mirrorless camera have asked which one is better.  For me, there is no clear winner between them.  It depends on your priorities.  In this post, we'll examine their similarities and differences.

UPDATE: The NX500's firmware 1.10 improved its performance.  Changes are highlighted in yellow.

Note: the Sony a6000 shots here use a custom color profile.

NX500 + kit lens

The NX500's image quality is better.  By that I mean it has less high ISO noise (especially chroma, and color casts in shadow areas).  It has wider exposure latitude, meaning you can push the files in postprocessing with less noise and better color accuracy.  The NX500 also has better ISO invariance, meaning there is less of a difference between shooting at the "correct" ISO and shooting at the base ISO and then pushing the exposure in post processing to match the correct ISO (the practical benefit is to extend the dynamic range).  Subjectively, I also prefer the NX500's colors and tonal rendering.
The a6000's image quality is also limited by its sensor.  The a6000 and NEX-7 are both 24mp sensors, but with any given lens, they have a lower resolution than the same lens on the a3000 (which has only 20mp).
This is not to imply that the a6000's image quality is bad.  Not at all.  The a6000's image quality is also very good.  Its net resolution (sensor+lens) is still ahead of 16mp competitors from Micro Four Thirds and Fuji.  In terms of high ISO, it's definitely sufficient for almost any situation, and I usually don't have to use the flash.  Having said that, it can't be denied that the NX500 image quality is slightly better, although most nonphotographers might not even notice.
I also want to note the difference in the kit lens.  Of course, experienced photographers will scoff at the idea of even considering the kit lens because they don't plan to use it.  However, for many people who purchase interchangeable lens cameras, the kit lens is the only lens they'll ever get.  That is more true for mid-level cameras such as the a6000 and NX500 than it is for pro-level cameras.
The a6000 and NX500's kit lenses are similar in focal length and aperture.  They both have image stabilization and power zoom.  They are even similar in size once mounted on the camera.  Unfortunately, they are optically dissimilar.  The a6000 kit lens is mediocre in optical quality.  It is sharp enough in the middle, but as you move outward toward the edge of the frame, it gets much softer.  This is partly because the image circle of the Sony 16-50 actually doesn't cover the frame completely at 16mm, and therefore it requires extreme lens corrections. 
By contrast, the NX500's kit lens is sharp (for a kit lens), and is definitely much sharper than the a6000's kit lens at the edges.  It also has less vignetting than the a6000's kit lens.  However, at laptop viewing sizes, these differences are not immediately noticeable.

a6000 + kit lens

Sony gets a lot of criticism for its E-mount lens lineup.  It's definitely not as complete as Micro Four Thirds, nor as sensible as Fuji's.  However, it's not as bad as some people make it sound.  There are more E-mount lenses than NX lenses, but there are also more redundancies.  Both have lenses for most major focal lengths between a fisheye to about 135mm equivalent. Here is a list of some of the lenses for each system (doesn't include less common lenses).

Samsung is missing a 35mm equivalent, a fast walkaround zoom, and a lens that is longer than 300mm equivalent.  Its most attractive lenses are probably the Samsung 16-50 f/2-2.8 and the 50-150 2.8 (the most compact stabilized ~70-200 for APS-C).
Sony is missing a constant 2.8 standard zoom and a constant 2.8 telephoto zoom.  Some of its unique lenses include the 18-105 f4 (reviewed here), and the versatile ultrawide trio (reviewed here).  The 70-200 f/4 is also interesting because of its reach, although it is huge.
In terms of support, Sony has the benefit of having lenses by Sigma and Tamron, although they have only added a few lenses to the E-mount lineup.  Moreover, there hasn't been a new E-mount lens in a while (Sony seems to want to focus on FE lenses).  Samsung doesn't have third party support (other than Samyang/Rokinon) but they have a lot of resources and are steadily coming out with new lenses for NX.
In terms of performance, NX lenses are generally cheaper and at the same time optically similar or better than their E-mount counterparts, some of which are excellent but others that are optically poor.  Here is a mini-test by Roger Cicala, pitting the NX1 and Samsung 16-50 f/2-2.8 against what he thought was the best APS-C body/lens combination at the time (the Nikon D7100 and Nikon 14-24 2.8).  On the other hand, many E-mount lenses have stabilization whereas their NX counterpart does not (Sony 35 1.8 OSS vs. Samsung 30 f/2; Sony 50 1.8 OSS vs. Samsung 45 1.8).  There is also a greater variation in autofocus speed among NX lenses.  The Samsung 30 f/2 and 60 2.8 for example focus much more slowly than other Samsung lenses.  By contrast, the Sony lenses that have slower autofocus are still fast focusing (e.g. Sony 16 2.8 and 50 1.8 OSS).

Both the a6000 and NX500 have predictable exposure algorithms that preserve highlights.  The a6000's advantage is that its highlight protection mode (DRO Auto) is smarter because it varies the underexposure (to protect highlights) depending on the scene's contrast.  The NX500's SmartRange+ mechanically underexposes by 2/3 stop regardless of whether the scene requires it.
On the other hand, the NX500's advantage is that you can select a minimum shutter speed for Auto ISO.  Alternatively, you can set the minimum shutter speed based on the focal length (using the 1 / focal length rule), adjusting it upward or downward by 1 or 2 stops.  The a6000's minimum shutter speed for Auto ISO is fixed at 1 / focal length, which is often too slow for moving subjects.  For setting exposure precisely, the NX500 also has a Brightness Adjustment Guide, which allows you to set the exposure based on your desired luminance value for any object in the frame.

The a6000 is renowned for having excellent autofocus.  Its AF points blanket almost the entire screen.  The autofocus is quick, accurate, and is able to capture fast-moving subjects.  In dim light, the autofocus does slow down significantly but is still responsive.
The NX500, like the NX1, was designed to have class-leading autofocus.  It has even more phase detection AF points than the a6000 (205 vs. 179), although they cover about the same portion of the screen.  Whereas the a6000 has 15 cross-type AF points, the NX500 has 153.  In actual shooting, the NX500 performs about as quickly and accurately as the a6000.  Where the NX500 has an advantage is when tracking a moving subject.  I get a higher percentage of shots in focus with the NX500 than with the a6000.
However, the NX500 autofocus can be less predictable than the a6000's.  The a6000 consistently focuses on the nearest object within the AF area.  On the other hand, the NX500 seems to focus on the highest-contrast object within the AF area.  The NX500 is therefore prone to focusing on the wrong target when the subject is backlit, when it often focuses on the rim-lit portion (e.g. the ears instead of the eyes).  There are some partial workarounds as discussed in my review but the bottom line is that the a6000 is much more predictable.
The a6000's autofocus is better in low light and with low contrast dark-toned subjects.  Even when light is not that low, the NX500 autofocus becomes very slow and hunts, with AF speed becoming about as slow as a regular point-and-shootWith firmware 1.10, the NX500's low light autofocus speed has improved, although it is still noticeably slower than the a6000.  The a6000 does slow down in low light as well, but only when light is much dimmer.  (Ironically, I suspect that the reason for this is the greater number of phase detection AF points and cross-type AF points that the NX500 has.  Hybrid PDAF points reduce the light that reaches the sensor.)

Both the a6000 and NX500 have focus peaking and manual focus assist (magnifying the manual focus point to assist focusing).  However, the NX500's implementation is not as good as that of the a6000.  First, when you are using manual focus assist on the NX500, you cannot move the magnified area to another part of the frame.  For off-center subjects, you therefore have to use focus-and-recompose, which is a less accurate method of focusing.
Second, focus peaking on the NX500 is temporary and works only when you're adjusting the manual focus.  When you stop adjusting manual focus, it disappears.  On the a6000, you can choose to display the focus peaking even when not adjusting manual focus.
I also like the a6000's clever implementation of its AF lock.  You can assign "MF Toggle" to a customizable button.  Pressing that button will instantly switch to manual focus, simultaneously locking the focal distance and displaying the focus peaking (therefore it can be used to help view whether the depth of field is adequate).  On the NX500, pressing AF-lock is just that: locking the focal distance.  It does not change to manual focus, nor does it show focus peaking.

Both the a6000 and NX500 have a similar size and somewhat similar feel.  The major difference between the a6000 and NX500 is the tradeoff between an electronic viewfinder (a6000) or touchscreen LCD (NX500).   I don't use the a6000's EVF often but it's handy for bright sunlight, or when using long lenses.  On the other hand, the NX500's touchscreen and Hybrid UI make it very easy to choose the AF point and to change settings.  The NX500's LCD can also flip 180 degrees for selfies.
Another difference is that the a6000 has more customization options for its controls (more customizable buttons; customizable Fn menu).  On the other hand, the NX500's command dials (top and rear) may work better for some people than the a6000's dials (the wheel that doubles as the directional pad is easily nudged).
One clear advantage of the a6000 is the raw buffer.  The NX500's raw buffer is only around 6 shots.  The a6000's raw buffer is around 22 shots.  Fortunately, the NX500 clears its buffer very quickly.  On the a6000, you'll have to wait a few seconds for the buffer to clear.

Both the a6000 and NX500 can send photos to your smartphone, and can use remote live view with your smart phone.
The a6000 has a built-in flash that can be lifted for bounce.  The a6000 has a 1/250 sync speed when using a manual flash such as a Yongnuo YN560, but when using TTL, its sync speed is 1/160. 
The NX500 has a 1/200 sync speed but its hotshoe is standard.  It can use any flash or flash accessory with a standard ISO foot, and its flashes can be used on other cameras with a standard ISO hotshoe.  The a6000's Multi-Interface Shoe allows the a6000 to use most standard ISO flashes and flash accessories, but a6000 flashes cannot fit on other cameras with standard hotshoes.
The NX500 can record internally in 4k but the video is cropped, approximately 1:2, limiting its usability.  On the other hand, the NX500 can shoot 720p at 120fps.  Neither the a6000 nor NX500 has an external microphone input, although the a6000 has an external microphone accessory that plugs into its hotshoe.
With all the factors going back and forth between these cameras, are you confused?  Sorry, but I did warn you that there is no clear winner between them.  In my opinion, the a6000 is either excellent or at least competent in nearly all areas, while the NX500 has some significant strengths but also some weaknesses.  My suggestion would be to see whether either camera has a dealbreaker, or conversely, a must-have feature.  Check out the lens selection as well, to see which one has the lenses you need.
a6000: no fast telephoto other than 70-200 f4; Sony may have stopped designing new E-mount lenses; sensor has lower effective resolution.
NX500: slower AF in low light or low contrast; somewhat limited raw buffer (18 frames); cannot move manual focus point.
Dealmakers (must-have features):
a6000: reliable autofocus performance
NX500: highest image quality for mirrorless APS-C (for now); lenses generally cheaper, with good optical performance.
If at this point, you're still undecided, perhaps it means that for your particular needs you can't go wrong with either of them. :)
P.S. Good luck to both Pacquiao and Mayweather.  May the best man win.

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