This time we take a very quick look at a NEX lens - the new NEX 16-50mm 'kit' lens (with a variable aperture of 3.5 to 5.6) that shipped with the new NEX 6 camera. Normally, kit lenses are hardly anything to get worked up about but this one is a bit special... not because of its stunning IQ or sharpness but because of its design... Sony has finally caught up with the demands of its users and released their first small, compact retractable 'pancake' power zoom - and its even got stabilisation built in too!
First things first though - this is not a comprehensive, technical review for pixel peeping purposes. This is very much a quick, first impressions, 'I've paid for it, is it worth it?' type review. Secondly, this lens isn't even officially available yet as a standalone purchase - this copy was split off from a NEX 6 kit and thus came unboxed and without instructions. I really wanted this lens before Christmas so I was prepared to pay 329 GBP (including next day special delivery postage and packaging) from the nice folks at the Camera Centre in Wales via their eBay auction shop. The boxed lens should be available early in the New Year (2013) and the street price looks to be around 310 GBP at the time of writing.
Sony NEX 5n / SELP1650 E mount Pancake Power Zoom Lens at 50mm, f5.6, 1/50 sec and ISO 200
When I held this in my hand I instantly got a good feeling about this lens - for a 16-50mm zoom, it really is compact (about 3 cm) and light weight (168 grams)! Build quality is superficially high, like all the Sony NEX lenses - it's metal, but thin metal with a high proportion of plastic inside. Still, it feels good, has a metal mount and looks cool in black (although its looks a little odd on my silver NEX 5n - its possible the non-kit version may come in silver like standard 18-55mm kit lens but Sony have neither confirmed or denied that as yet). Once mounted on the camera its looks and feels good in terms of size and weight - this really is this lens's killer feature. Whilst powered down, this combo really will fit into a reasonable sized coat pocket (but not you back jeans pocket unless that pocket is really baggy). For comparison, its just slightly bigger than the NEX / 16mm prime combo... until you power it up that is (see below). The front lens element is protected by an adorable little slimline, dinky lens cap that's like a flat, diddy version of the standard NEX front cap on the kit lens et al. It covers a surprisingly small front element with a filter size of just 40.5mm - not uncommon for m4/3 or Leica cameras according to eBay but unique for the Sony system. The lens does NOT come with any sort of lens hood and due to its retractable design, has no way of attaching one except via the inner filter thread - shame as Sony are normally good about providing such things in the box.
Turning on the camera causes the front part of the lens to quickly extend outwards (from about 3 cm to just under 6 cm), effectively doubling the length - its pretty quick but far from instant. Conversely, turning the power off and the camera sits there doing nothing for several seconds before finally pulling the extended lens back in. There is a single ridged ring at the front of the lens that controls both the fast zoom function and manual focusing - when the camera is set to manual or DMF modes, the shutter button must be pressed to the half way point and held there whilst turning the ring to adjust focus. This feels a little clunky but works OK. In addition the fast zoom function, their is a second slider/rocker behind the front ring that allows you to adjust the zoom at a more leisurely pace. The fast zoom is very fast but a little noisy (not good for video / sound recording), the slider is slow but near silent - both appear to be powered zooms making me wonder how this will affect battery life long term but so far I haven't noticed a big drop off in the number of shots I can get out of a single charge. Both zoom methods work well, although it takes a little getting used to compared to 'normal' NEX zooms where you rotate the zoom ring to physically zoom in and out. The front ring doesn't rotate during focussing or zooming so screw in filter lovers can rest easy (that is if you can find some in 40.5mm size anyway).
I've only had the briefest of plays with this lens on a cold, cloudy November morning here in Kent but overall, image quality is generally OK to good. The 16-50mm focal length range is a versatile one for my sort of shooting and I tried it out throughout the range. At the wide (16mm), mid (30mm) and long end (50mm) things looked pretty good all round, just a bit slow at all but the wide end (widest aperture at 16mm is f3.5 and that rapidly creeps up to f5.6 at 50mm) - its acceptably sharp wide open in the centre and seems OK at the edges and corners - its no G lens but with a little processing (I shoot almost exclusively in RAW) they sharpen up nicely. If I was forced to take a guess, its sharper in the centre at the wide end but sharper across the frame at the mid and long range. Stopping down one to two stops improves sharpness across the frame at all focal lengths but not dramatically so at the wide end.
Sony NEX 5n / SELP1650 E mount Pancake Power Zoom Lens at 37mm, f8, 1/60 sec and ISO 200
All seems pretty good until you hit the very wide end (16mm). Here there are some definite image issues - barrel distortion and vignetting. Now, these are not usually things I notice with my other zooms on the alpha system as (1) on my 1680 Zeiss and 1650 f2.8 lens, they are present but not too distracting and (2) I use DXO Optics for RAW processing and this cleans these type of aberrations clean up instantly for my supported lenses... but I was really quite surprised at how pronounced this was here. It can be fixed in post but there were obviously a few compromises made by Sony to get this range in such a compact little zoom. This is less of a problem for the JPEG shooter using a recent NEX with up to date firmware as the lens compensation functions do a good job of removing these effects.
Sony NEX 5n / SELP1650 E mount Pancake Power Zoom Lens at 50mm, f6.3, 1/30 sec and ISO 200
Sony NEX 5n / SELP1650 E mount Pancake Power Zoom Lens at 16mm, f6.3, 1/30 sec and ISO 200
Check out that barrel distortion and vignetting....
I can't comment much about flare or CA other than I tried to induce these aberrations and failed (but the weather was against me on this one). In terms of bokeh (out of focus blur) results were again OK - a little busy at times with some subjects but generally pretty smooth (the lens purports to have a circular aperture) but at these apertures you have to work at really getting that thin a depth of field effect. Overall, bokeh not distracting which I think is acceptable for a versatile kit lens like this one. It should also be noted that this lens is of course stabilised and it seems to work as well as the other OSS lenses in the range (2-3 stops advantage over unstabilised) - sharp shots at 50mm using 1/10 sec are achievable with a little care.
This is very important lens for Sony as it addesses one of the glaring problems the compact NEX system has had from day one... as soon as you stick the kit lens on the camera, its no longer compact! In some ways, this is just the laws of optics kicking in - the NEX's greatest strength has always been the high IQ that the large APS-C sized sensors provided but bigger sensors normally mean bigger lenses are required too. Yet other manufacturer's like Panasonic seemed to be able to bend these laws a little when it came to making retractable zooms for their (admittedly smaller sized sensor) m4/3 cameras. Sony has finally managed catch up and had given us the 16-50mm compact zoom we've been asking for... and its a pretty good one too, though not without its compromises. It's a useful range and the 16mm in particular is a nice touch for wide angle lovers. The powered, dual-speed zoom action is good, IQ is perfectly acceptable in terms of centre sharpness, edges and corners are OK. Its a little slow in terms of apertures once you go above 18mm and its not a budget lens but then it doesn't feel or look like a cheap lens either. The main problem lies with the vignetting and distortion at the wide end but at least those are fixable in post (note to self - hassle DXO to get the SELP1650 added to its databases for DXO Optics asap). Overall, its a good lens.. I was tempted to even say a very good lens and give it top marks but I think the compactness is so new and shiny on my lovely NEX 5n that its blinding me to its several faults so this one gets a big thumbs up for its design but a Silver award overall - nice one Sony.
Finally - a compact zoom for the compact NEX system - its taken a lot longer than users wanted but the NEX lens line up is finally starting to get a bit of breadth and depth and I think this new kit lens will become a cornerstone for the whole system but its not quite perfect - close though.
* UPDATE - 5/2/2013
Sony have released a firmware update for the NEX-5n that improved the stability and start up time of the NEX-5n with the pancake zoom attached. It also applies automatic lens correction profile for the lens so the distortions are reduced when viewing in live view or shooting in JPEG mode - this addresses some of my issues in the cons section. There has also been a dramatic drop in the 'street' price of the lens - I've seen nearly new unboxed 'split kit' (i.e. the lens originally came as part of a deal with a NEX 6 body) copies on ebay for just over 200 pounds - a much more realistic price.
Sample image gallery (at larger image sizes) can be found here.
Current Street Price (November 2012) -
309-330 200 to 310 GBP. Available as part of NEX 6 kit only until early 2013 (*now available as separate boxed lens - Feb 2013) but why not give Camera Centre a call if you want one now.
Tech Specs are available at Sony's website here.