Gear Review:

Sony Alpha NEX camera systems

(The compact answer for the climber/photographer?)


As an international mountain guide I tend to find myself in some pretty spectacular places. The photo opportunities can be downright breathtaking at times. However, while in the mountains my first focus is on safely guiding my clients or efficiently completing a personal climb and not on photography. Lugging around heavy DSLR photography equipment on technical climbs is simply out of the question. For a long time a pocket-sized point and shoot was the only option. As good as point and shoot camera’s can be, many times I wished I had something that had a bit more control with better optics.

Enter the new mirrorless interchangeable-lens category of cameras. Many of them have the same control features, lens optics performance as an entry-level to mid-range DSLR as well as a large sensor…but at a fraction of the size and weight. They come in just about right in between a point and shoot and a DSLR in heft. Thinking this could be my answer, a year ago I purchases a Sony NEX 5N mirrorless lens camera with a 18-55m zoom lens. I couldn’t have been happier with my decision.

The first big test of my new Sony NEX was a guided climb of the Matterhorn in Switzerland. I left it in a Mountainsmith weather resistant, padded case around my shoulder for the entire day. Have to say I barely noticed it, and some sections of the Matterhorn require vertical climbing. When I needed it, there it was ready to go. It also fits nicely nicely in the top pocket of a 30-liter pack (it still wont fit in a pants pocket though!). It comes with me on most of my longer climbs now when a pack is involved and I’ve since purchased a small neoprene camera cover that protects well but is smaller than a regular case…a camera cozy!

Unlike my point and shoot, I have the option of manually controlling my camera with the usual options of full manual, program, aperture or shutter modes as well as ISO and all the other modes you would find in an entry level DSLR. Even in full auto mode the photos came out superior to what my point and shoot could do. Honestly, while on a climb I’m mostly shooting in full auto or maybe aperture mode. But while back at camp or the hut it’s great to be able to switch over to one of the manual modes and have more control over my shots. Not to mention a much better lens.

Next to a DSLR the big thing you lack in a mirrorless camera is, well, the mirror. The lack of a mirror is the biggest reason the camera is made so small. This means you can’t have an optical viewfinder and must use either the LCD screen or an electronic viewfinder, depending on the model. Even though Sony’s EVF is one of the best in class it’s still a bit like looking through a TV screen. I found myself getting used to it though. One other drawback compared to a DSLR is less lens choices since the lens mounts are proprietary, but that is changing (Zeiss lenses are becoming more common for NEX systems now).

Let me state that I am not professional photographer and would be more defined as an enthusiast. However, I am always striving to get more serious about my photography and it’s hard to do that with a point and shoot. I also run two websites that display a lot of photos. The Sony NEX system has been reviewed very favorably by the pros. Here’s a great review of the new Sony NEX 6 by Digital Photography Review.

Sony makes four models of NEX cameras: the NEX 3 entry-level model, the NEX 5 packed with more features, the NEX 6 that offers full DSLR control and the NEX 7 professional model with a larger sensor. The Nex 3 through 6 models come with a 16.1MP APS-C Size sensor and the NEX 7 a 24MP sensor. The NEX 3 and 5 have touchscreen controls and the NEX 6 and 7 have DSLR style controls. I just upgraded to the NEX 6 for full DSLR dial controls and a few more shooting features than the 5. Having to access a touch screen menu while at a belay station was just too tedious. I didn’t see much difference between the 6 and 7 except for the extra megapixels, which I didn’t think I needed (or had the space for on my hard drive!). Check out more technical info at

So far I’m very happy about my choice and feel that I have a compact camera that will grow with me as I get more serious about my photography. Most importantly, I have a high quality camera that will actually come with me on the climb!

by Dave Miller
IAG/CAG owner/director