Hands On With The Sony a6500

The Sony a6500 APS-C camera is a direct descendent of the company’s consumer-oriented NEX line, sharing ergonomics and a design sensibility that were developed to serve the needs of the advanced amateur, despite recent models being jam-packed full of pro-level features. The company’s emphasis on making the a6000 series (which has included the a6000, a6100, a6300 and now the a6500 in two years) the most powerful APS-C-based camera system has given the consumer tremendous power at an affordable price. Sony a6500

The trade-off in Sony’s quest to produce an APS-C camera with professional features is that while the lineup is continually improving internally, there has been no attention paid to the ergonomics or controls on the camera. From a design standpoint, very little has changed since the NEX-5T gave way to the nearly identical a5000 in 2013, nor has much changed in the models since that branding and focus transition.

Many like the design of the a6500 and its predecessors, but there are equally many, myself included, who wish the company had as much focus on usability as it does on features and image quality. And while advances in technology are always welcome, with the a6300 turning just eight months old when the a6500 was announced, some users are left wondering if they jumped aboard the Sony train too soon.

The Heart Of The Matter

It’s not a stretch to say that the Sony a6500 packs more technology per square inch than any other camera that has ever been on the market. The a6500 has a 24-megapixel APS-C sensor with performance enhancements from Sony that allow it to capture 11 fps (or 8 fps with C-AF) for more than 300 shots. The claimed autofocus rate is 0.05 seconds, and the company has indicated that they feel it’s the most accurate tracking AF on the market. The internal 5-axis stabilization gives the camera the equivalent of five stops of boost, while the ISO ranging to 25,600 (expandable to 51,200) gives it a wide range of possible shots.

DL Byron Port of Seattle
The image quality on the Sony a6500 rivals that on full-frame professional cameras and reveals incredible detail and tonal range, as seen on these cargo containers on a ship in the Port of Seattle. Photo by DL Byron, SonyMirrorlessPro.com

The 425 AF points are now able to be controlled by a touch-sensitive LCD screen, even during shooting, with the camera using the screen like a virtual control pad. Slide your finger around the screen during shooting and the AF point follows.

Like the a6300, the a6500 is particularly aimed at video shooters, capturing full 4K with no pixel binning and no line skipping, and the camera is capable of sending uncompressed 4K to an external recorder across the HDMI port—something even many pro-level SLRs can’t do.

The camera can shoot video with up to 14 stops of dynamic range thanks to the S-Log2 and S-Log3 color spaces, and uses Sony’s XAVC-S codex to maintain parity with the company’s other video offerings. For internal 4K recording at 100 Mbs, a UHS-I SDHC/SDXC card must be used.

If those terms don’t mean much to you, suffice it to say that the a6500 was designed to have the best video capabilities in the APS-C market. It captures video at 6K (more than twice the resolution needed for 4K) and resamples the image for incredibly high-res 4K. In an interesting twist, the a6500 can record from 1 fps to 120 fps in a mode Sony calls “Slow and Quick” for everything from 60x high-speed action to slow motion at 5x normal speed.

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From The Tree

As with the rest of the a6000 series, the image quality from the a6500 is excellent, especially when the camera is coupled with high-quality lenses from the Sony/Zeiss partnership or connected via adapter to high-end glass from Canon, Sigma, Leica, etc. Reviewing shots taken at a recent press event with the Sony a6500 and Sony a99 II, it’s impossible to tell which camera created an image at first glance. Resolution, color fidelity, saturation and noise are all excellent in the a6500.

The AF system is the same as that in the a6300, but the processing and the buffer have increased, giving the camera much bigger burst capabilities, which is one of the main reasons to grab an a6500 instead of the a6300.

The focusing speed and tracking on the a6500 remain excellent, though confusing. There are a number of different focus modes, from wide to Lock-on spot, and they all have shooting situations in which they excel and some in which they’re the wrong choice. It takes an experienced user to really figure out the perfect mode for a scene, but once you know what focus mode you want, the camera is incredibly accurate.

The other major improvement is the five-axis stabilization. The fact that Sony can fit image stabilization into this system just eight months after the a6300 was released shows exactly how quickly miniaturization can occur. There really isn’t a competitor that has image stabilization in an APS-C body, and while the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II has stabilization that meets or exceeds that in the a6500, it does so with a smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor.

On the video end, the 4K footage we’ve seen, both in our testing and in the samples posted online, shows that the camera rivals the output of cameras even at a pro level. By sampling 6K video down to 4K, the a6500 can create an incredibly sharp video file, and the S-Log2 and S-Log3 settings mean it’s possible to get great dynamic range out of the sensor when shooting video.

The image stabilization is incredibly helpful when shooting video, and while it won’t completely eliminate camera operator motion, it does make for a much smoother final video.

Like Father, Like Son

Like the previous APS-C cameras from Sony, the a6500 isn’t always easy to operate. While a few custom function buttons have been added to the body, and the grip is much more sculpted than the a6300 or the original a-series cameras, it’s still a very small body, especially for someone with large hands. The grip protrudes less from the front, which removed the space for the top custom function button, which has moved to the back. That said, the small size means that nearly every control can be executed one-handed while the free hand is used to stabilize the lens.

The new touch-screen focus selector is nice—it’s something I wish more cameras utilized—but it’s a bit “laggy.” It felt like there was a delay between moving the finger across the screen and having the focus points move along with it. I’m hoping this is addressed in firmware, as it doesn’t seem like the a6500 is lacking the power to handle the task of tracking the touchpad. The camera, currently, won’t do Lock-on AF with touch-screen focus, which reduces some of the benefits of having the touch screen.

For those who often bump into the trackpad with their nose, there’s a setting that shifts the control area to the right half or right quarter of the screen, though it’s still pretty easy to move the AF selector nasally.

For most users, especially video shooters, the touch screen will be most useful to select a tracking point and the excellent AF will do the rest, but it makes the value of the new touch-screen functionality questionable. I’m hoping it’s addressed in firmware soon.

Another issue inherited from the a6300 is overheating when shooting long clips of video, although the a6500 handles it better. (While we haven’t tested this directly, our friends at the excellent The Camera Store TV did an independent test with several a6300 and a6500 bodies, and the a6500 could shoot several times longer than the a6300 before shutting off in the new high-temperature mode.)

Finally, although video quality is spectacular on the a6500, there’s no headphone jack to monitor audio output, which means that video shooters will really need to use an external audio recorder. That relegates the a6500, in most cases, from a primary camera to a B-roll camera, as no video pro is going to risk getting the audio levels balanced incorrectly.

What To Buy

The Sony a6300 remains in the company’s camera lineup at a price of around $1,000 while the a6500 carries a price closer to $1,400. Even if you’re a casual shooter, that $400 is money well spent for the stabilization and the larger buffer. That said, if you’re not looking to do 4K video or capture action sports, for that same $1,400 you could buy the Sony a7 II and get a full-frame sensor. The AF speed and capture rate on the a7 II don’t keep up with the a6500, but the full-frame sensor provides better image quality.

If you bought an a6300, my advice is to hold onto it unless you need the five-axis stabilization. If you’re always shooting landscapes on a tripod, you don’t need that functionality. If, however, you’re capturing fast-moving subjects and need a burst rate that keeps up, or shooting handheld in low light, you’ll want to eBay that a6300 and upgrade. Or, you could wait a mere eight more months and see what Sony releases next.

You can follow David Schloss on Twitter and Instagram @davidjschloss

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