Mirrorless


Camera Review: Sony’s a6500

May 10, 2017

By Greg Scoblete

Sony knew it was taking aim at pro photographers with its a7 series of full-frame mirrorless cameras, but a growing number of users have also been clamoring for a more advanced APS-C mirrorless as well. Hence the decision to quickly retool the a6300 into something a bit more professional.

Features

Just like the a6300, the a6500 boasts a 24-megapixel CMOS sensor with a native ISO range of 100-25,600 (expandable to 51,200). Like its predecessor, the camera’s major claim to fame is an over-abundance of focus points. There are 425 phase-detect points and 169 contrast-detect points with a sensitivity range to -1 EV. Burst speeds can hit 11 fps through the viewfinder or 8 fps in live view—same as the a6300.

So what’s new? Sony added in-body 5-axis image stabilization to the a6500, checking off a big box on many a6300 owners’ wish list. The system is good for up to five stops of image correction, per CIPA. Another major upgrade is the buffer memory, which can now accommodate up to 300 JPEGs or over 100 RAW files during burst mode (the a6300 topped off at a mere 44 and 21, respectively). Throw in a touch screen and a $500 premium over the $900 a6300 and you have the a6500.

 

Design

We are huge fans of the a6000-series design. Where rival models from Olympus and Fuji mine analogue-era nostalgia, Sony’s approach is modern and functional. The a6500 is compact, comfortable and highly customizable. Indeed, there are now two custom buttons atop the camera, bringing the total number of external controls that can be customized to 10.

The camera is slightly heavier than its predecessor thanks to improved dust and moisture resistance but it still weighs in lighter than Fuji’s X-T2.

There’s a 2.9-inch display that can be tilted up 90 degrees or down 45 degrees. The new touchscreen supports touch focusing and touch shutter release. It can also help you select AF points when composing through the EVF—you simply drag your finger across the display to highlight your desired AF point. It’s a nice touch (if you will), though not as smooth as a joystick or other tactile control. The menu design has been enhanced slightly too, with color coded tabs and a new, more logical structure to help segregate the camera’s multitude of features and settings.

You can also compose your scene through a .39-inch OLED EVF with a resolution of 2.4-million dots. Its speedy refresh rate of 120 fps ensures a very crisp, life-like view. There’s a mic input but, sadly, no headphone jack.

Image Quality

Despite the $500 price differential, you can expect roughly the same image quality from the a6500 as you can from the a6300. That’s not a bad thing—both models do an excellent job with color reproduction. While the a6500 lacks the impressive dynamic range of Sony’s 42-megapixel full-frame sensor, we were still able to recover a fair amount of highlight and shadow details from the RAW file. (Note that the a6500 only offers a compressed RAW file option.)

Where we did note a slight difference from the a6300 was in ISO performance, with the a6500 faring modestly better. In JPEGs, noise pops in a little at 1600 and more at 3200. Nonetheless, the noise is very well contained and even at ISO 12,800, images look decent. We compared some of our a6500 images at ISO 51,200 to similar shots taken with the a6300 and found more aggressive noise reduction in the former. We think the a6500’s performance at high ISO is slightly better than Canon’s 80D, is roughly identical to Olympus’ E-M1 Mark II but is not superior to Nikon’s D500.

Video is recorded at 3840 x 2160 at up to 30p and full HD at 120p. In 4K video you’ll experience a 1.2x crop of the sensor when shooting at 30p (but not at 24p). As with stills, the a6500’s video performance is essentially identical to the a6300, with excellent color rendition and numerous picture profile options to get you a very color-gradable file. You’ll have a nice selection of exposure aids, including a focus magnifier, zebra stripes and focus peaking.

Performance

The a6500 has an immense array of AF points and can deliver an extremely consistent continuous autofocusing experience for stills. This is an excellent choice for shooting sports or any fast-paced action. There are a bewildering array of AF options that Sony packs into the camera’s menu, so you’ll have to do a bit of fine-tuning to get the AF behavior you desire. The a6500 did struggle in areas of strong backlighting (which isn’t surprising) so it’s not infallible. One thing that also slipped us up is that if you select a focus point on the touch screen, you’ll over-ride your given AF setting. Continuous AF in video was not as consistently fluid as we’ve found in Canon DSLRs with Dual Pixel CMOS AF, but still very good.

The addition of in-body stabilization is definitely a plus, even if it’s not quite as impressive as the implementation of Olympus OMD-EM 1 Mark II (or even that of Sony’s full-frame series). We were comfortable shooting handheld at 1/30 sec. shutter speeds, though handheld video shooting was quite steady.

There had been user complaints about the a6300 over-heating during video recording. Even though we had the a6500 during an unseasonably warm stretch of February, we didn’t have a chance to get into very hot conditions. After 30 minutes of recording indoors, the camera was slightly warm to the touch (particularly the top plate) but only mildly so. The camera automatically ends recording at 30 minutes and after a second round of roughly 20 minutes the camera wasn’t significantly much warmer. Your mileage in warmer climes may vary, though.

Battery life clocks in at an underwhelming 310 shots or a little over one hour of video recording. This is actually a shorter battery life than the a6300 (likely the result of in-body stabilization) and an ongoing liability of mirrorless cameras generally.

Bottom Line

Sony’s a6500 is an incredibly versatile, impeccably designed camera. Price-wise, it sits in a kind of gray zone. It’s cheaper than flagship cameras like Fuji’s X-T2, the Panasonic GH5 and Olympus’ E-M1 Mark II while offering a very competitive feature set. Compared to APS-C DSLRs, opting for the a6500 means you’ll take a big hit on battery life—Canon’s 80D and Nikon’s D500 deliver almost four times as much battery life. But its smaller, more compact build means there will be plenty of room for spare batteries in your gear bag.

If you’re looking at the a6300, you’ll have to decide whether improved stabilization, a touch screen and huge buffer memory are worth the extra $500. The a6500 isn’t a fully formed pro APS-C camera—it lacks dual memory card slots, a headphone jack and additional controls like a front scroll wheel—but it’s still a solid camera.

Sony a6500

PROS: Fast and accurate AF system; 5-axis image stabilizer; improved build quality; highly customizable; excellent continuous shooting; great still and video quality.
CONS: Poor battery life; missing headphone jack; single memory card slot.
PRICE: $1,400

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