IN CONCENTRATED FORM
A potent threat to the enthusiast-level D-SLR, Sony’s E-mount mirrorless flagship offers all the same capabilities and performance without either the size or the weight.
With the full-35mm sensor Alpha 7 Series cameras continuing to the grab the headlines, it’s easy to overlook Sony’s activities in the ‘APS-C’ format with its original E-mount cameras. Before the A7s arrived, the NEX cameras (Sony has now unified all its interchangeable lens products under the ‘Alpha’ name) represented exactly what the mirrorless design was all about… ultra-compact and highly capable. For a while, the NEX-7 was the undoubted king of the ‘APS-C’ format mirrorless cameras.
The good news is that the spirit of the NEX-7 lives on in the A6300, the new E-mount flagship which packs a lot of into its slimline RF-style weather-sealed magnesium alloy bodyshell. Despite its size, the A6300 still manages to accommodate an EVF, pop-up flash, hotshoe (actually Sony’s ‘Multi Interface’ coupling so it can drive other accessories), a tilt-adjustable LCD monitor screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio, and dial-based controllability. There’s also a good-sized handgrip – with a thumbrest (which conveniently incorporates the video start/stop button) – and the EVF’s eyepiece has a substantial shade so it’s one of the few we’ve encountered not to have issues with stray light. The viewfinder itself is also comfortable sized and uses a 2.359 megadots OLED-type panel which refreshes at 100 fps so there’s no lag. The magnification is 1.07x (0.7x in 35mm format terms) which also helps with comfortable viewing and there’s a strength adjustment
with quite a wide dioptric range. A proximity sensor in the eyepiece allows for automatic switching between the EVF and the monitor screen, although both can be run separately and independently if so desired.
Both EVF and monitor are adjustable for brightness, and the former also for colour temperature. The monitor screen has an adjustment called ‘Gamma Display Adjust’ which provides a colour corrected preview when the flat, low-contrast S-Log profiles are being used to shoot video. It’s worth noting here that the A6300 is as capable a video camera as it is a stills camera, and this aspect of its operation is covered separately in the Making Movies panel.
A little surprising is the absence of touchscreen controls which means navigating the menus and settings in the traditional way. There’s a main mode dial, of course, and the key capture settings are directly accessible via external controls plus there’s eight customisable buttons (with over 60 assignable functions for each) and the option of creating an ‘Fn menu’ of up to 12 regularly-used settings. These make it possible to streamline operations for improved efficiencies and the A6300’s menus, while extensive, are well organised and logical to navigate. The monitor screen can be set to provide an extremely comprehensive info display which includes both a real-time histogram and dual-axis level indicator. Both are also available in the live view screen (EVF and monitor), along with a choice of three guide grids. You can also choose to have the previewing of settings such as white balance or special effects switched on or off.
SENSOR AND SENSITIVITY
The sensor is a Sony-made ‘Exmor’ CMOS – which, incidentally, retains an optical low-pass filter – with an imaging area of 15.6x23.5 mm and a total pixel count of 25 million. The effective pixel count is 24.2 million which delivers a maximum image size of 6000x4000 pixels. Two smaller sizes are available at this 3:2 aspect ratio and a further three image sizes in the 16:9 aspect ratio, all with three levels of JPEG compression (Extra Fine, Fine or Standard). RAW capture is in Sony’s ARW 2.3 format with the option of RAW+JPEG capture which appends a large/fine compressed file. RAW files are captured with 14-bit RGB colour.
Sony maintains its tradition of providing a panorama mode that creates real, full-length panoramas rather than a cropping down of a normal frame... so the maximum image size is 12,416x1856 pixels in the Wide mode and 8192x1856 pixels in the standard mode. The sweep can be set up for left, right, up or down (i.e. the latter two for when the camera is held vertically) and then it’s just a case of keeping the shutter pressed until shooting stops. The stitching is performed in-camera and, in the usual Sony fashion, appears to be very accurate.
The sensor’s sensitivity range is equivalent to ISO 100 to 25,600 with a one-stop extension to ISO 51,200. The Auto ISO range spans 100 to 6400 and is adjustable for both the upper and lower limits. The A6300 has Sony’s ‘Bionz X’ high-speed processor to enable, among other things, 4K video recording and continuous shooting at up to 11 fps at full resolution. Files are recorded to a single, but dual-format memory card slot which accepts either SD types or Sony’s own Memory Stick PRO Duo/PRO-HG Duo devices. UHS-I/ U3 speed SDHC and SDXC cards are supported.
GET THE POINT
A key design aspect of the A6300’s sensor is the provision of 425 measuring points for phase-difference detection autofocusing along with 169 points for contrast-detection measurements. Sony calls this arrangement ‘Fast Hybrid AF’ which is exactly what it is. The phase-detection AF exclusively in the continuous mode to enable subject tracking, but otherwise it employs a combination of both measurements – coarse focusing with phase-detection and fine-tuning with contrast detection. There’s no mention of any cross-type AF sensors, but they’re absence doesn’t appear to compromise the system’s excellent reliability.
There’s the choice of manual or automatic switching between single-shot and continuous operations plus Sony’s ‘Direct Manual Focus’ (DMF) which allows for manual fine-tuning along with autofocusing. There’s a selection of five area modes – Wide, Zone, Centre, Flexible Spot and Expand Flexible Spot – which allow various ways of manual or auto point selection. As is the case on many D-SLRs, the Flexible Spot options allow the focusing zone to be
A KEY DESIGN ASPECT OF THE A6300’S SENSOR IS THE PROVISION OF 425 MEASURING POINTS FOR PHASE-DIFFERENCE DETECTION AUTOFOCUSING ALONG WITH 169 POINTS FOR CONTRAST-DETECTION MEASUREMENTS.
adjusted to one of three sizes to better suit the shooting situation. In the Expand mode a surrounding point is automatically selected if the subject subsequently moves. Continuous AF is supplemented by a Lock-On function which works with any of the area modes to provide more reliable tracking. You can also switch the tracking sensitivity between High or Normal to better match the subject’s movement and the AF drive speed can be set to Fast, Normal or Slow. The face detection AF mode has the options of registering faces for priority selection and automatic shutter triggering when the subject smiles.
Low light/contrast assist is provided by a built-in LED illuminator.
Manual focus assist is provided by a magnified view (up to 11.7x) and a focus peaking display which can be set to red, yellow or white with three levels of sensitivity (high, mid or low). The focus magnifier can be set to operate continuously or for timed durations of two or five seconds. Importantly, Sony allows for both the enlarged view and the focus peaking display to be used together with makes fine focusing adjustments a breeze. Incidentally, the focus magnifier can be engaged in the AF modes too which is very handy for checking absolute sharpness in any area of the frame. The A6300 again illustrates the point that mirrorless AF systems are becoming as capable as any in a D-SLR.
LIGHT AND COLOUR
The A6300’s metering continues with Sony’s 1200-point sensor based measurements with the choice of multi-zone, centre-weighted average or spot measurements and sensitivity down to EV -2.0 (at ISO 100). The standard set of ‘PASM’ exposure control settings is supplemented by nine subject/scene modes which include ‘Anti Motion Blur’ and ‘Hand-Held Twilight’. Both capture multiple frames which are then combined to with the
main object being to reduce the noise which generally comes with using higher ISO settings. Anti Motion Blur uses high ISOs to enable faster shutter speeds while Hand Held Twilight uses higher ISOs to allow shorter exposures. There’s also an ‘Intelligent Auto’ (iAuto) mode which performs automatic scene mode selection based on the analysis of subject data from the AF and AE systems. Additionally, if the ‘Superior Auto’ mode is selected, the multi-shot capture regimes are applied, when required to reduce noise and correct for extremes of contrast (i.e. in strong backlighting).
The auto exposure overrides comprise program shift, an AE lock, up to +/-5.0 EV of compensation (applied in either 1/3 or ½ stop increments), and auto bracketing over sequences of three, five or nine frames. For the first two, the maximum adjustment per frame is +/-3.0 EV while over nine frames, it’s +/-1.0 EV. Exposure bracketing sequences can be combined with the self-timer.
The A6300’s focal plane shutter has a speed range is 30-1/4000 second (plus ‘B’) with flash sync up to 1/160 second. There’s the option of selecting a sensor-based ‘electronic first curtain’ to reduce shutter lag, vibration and noise, but there’s no increase in the top shutter speed. The built-in, pop-up flash has a metric guide number of six (ISO 100) and the on-board modes include red-eye reduction, slow and high-speed sync, first/ second curtain sync, up to +/-3.0 EV of flash compensation, and auto bracketing over three, five or nine frames. The built-in flash can also serve as the (optical) commander for a wireless TTL set-up.
The auto white balance control is supplemented by ten presets – including four for different types of fluoro lighting and one for shooting underwater – a custom measurement and manual control temperature setting over a range of 2500 to 9900 degrees Kelvin. Finetuning is available over the blueto-amber and green-to-magenta ranges and, additionally, there’s a set of a CC filters; seven steps each for blue, amber, magenta and green (and they can be combined). White balance bracketing is also available with adjustments made over three frames.
The image processing for JPEGs starts with a set of ‘Creative Style’ picture presets, now numbering 14 which; in addition to the staples such as Standard, Vivid, Portrait and Landscape; include more esoteric offerings such as Clear, Deep and Light. The adjustable parameters are for contrast, sharpness and saturation, with the B&W and Sepia presets simply deleting the colour control. There is no provision for storing a customised ‘Creative Style’ as a new preset.
There’s a choice of 13 ‘Picture Effect’ special effects which again include all the staples – such as Toy Camera, Retro Photo, Miniature and Soft Focus – plus others such as Watercolour, Illustration and Rich-Tone Monochrome. Many are adjustable and the effects can be applied in any exposure mode. There are a number of frills such as the ‘smile shutter’ mentioned earlier, but also ‘Auto Object Framing’ – which basically crops in tighter when, for example, shooting portraits or close-ups – and ‘Soft Skin Effect’ which automatically retouches portraits and can be set to one of two levels. Usefully, ‘Auto Object Framing’ creates a new file so you don’t lose the original composition.
There’s also a set of ‘Picture Profiles’ which are designed for use with video recording and so covered in more detail in the Making Movies panel.
For corrective purposes, the A6300 has both long exposure and high ISO noise reduction adjustments, ‘Dynamic Range Optimiser’ (DRO) processing and a selection of multi-shot HDR modes. The DRO options comprise auto correction – based on the contrast range of the scene – or five levels of preset correction. The HDR options also include an auto mode – when the camera captures a sequence of three frames with the correction applied automatically, again based on the brightness range in the scene – and a selection of preset exposure adjustments, this time from +/-1.0 EV to +/-6.0 EV. These frames are subsequently processed to combine the underexposed highlights with the overexposed shadows and the correctly exposed mid-tones. Auto bracketing is also available for the DRO processing. In-camera lens corrections are provided for vignetting, chromatic aberrations and distortion.
WHAT’S PARTICULARLY IMPRESSIVE IS THAT FULL AF (AND AE) ADJUSTMENT IS MAINTAINED AT 11 FPS AND, OVERALL, THE AUTOFOCUSING PERFORMANCE IS ONE OF THE A6300’S STRONG POINTS.
SONY’S HERITAGE IN VIDEO IS CLEARLY EVIDENT IN THE A6300’S IMPRESSIVE SUITE OF MOVIE-MAKING CAPABILITIES WHICH INCLUDE MANY PROLEVEL FEATURES AND 4K RECORDING.
The image playback modes include 12 or 30 thumbnail pages, zooming up to 16.7x and a slide show with adjustable display times. The review screens include a thumbnail with highlight and shadow warnings, a full set of RGB and luminance histograms, and the key capture info, including the ‘Creative Style’ and DRO/HDR settings.
Not surprisingly, the A6300 has built-in WiFi with the convenience of NFC touch-and-go connectivity and, in addition to wireless file transfer, there’s the option of remote camera control from a mobile device via Sony’s ‘Smart Remote Control’ app. The camera actually has a built-in interface for directly accessing Sony’s PlayMemories camera apps which include the option of adding new features to the camera such as an intervalometer. Neat.
SPEED AND PERFORMANCE
Loaded with our reference 128 GB Lexar Professional SDXC UHS-II/ U3 (Speed Class 3) ‘2000x’ memory card, the A6300 fired off a sequence of 46 JPEG/large/extra fine frames in 4.236 seconds which represents a shooting speed of 10.86 fps… as close to the quoted 11 fps speed in the Hi+ continuous mode as really makes no difference. For the record, the test file size averaged 22 MB. It should be noted here that, at 11 fps, the EVF doesn’t keep up so you get a rather staccato display of the captured frames (i.e. minus any live view) which could be an issue with fast-moving subjects that you’re trying to track. Sony’s solution is to offer a speed setting which enables live viewing and this is still at a respectable 8.0 fps. What’s particularly impressive is that full AF (and AE) adjustment is maintained at 11 fps and, overall, the autofocusing performance is one of the A6300’s strong points. In any situation it’s fast and reliable, but there’s many options for fine-tuning its operation to suit specific types of subject, shooting or movement. Here, then, is further evidence that mirrorless camera AF systems are catching up with the best in the D-SLR world. The A6300 doesn’t have quite the same low-light AF reliability as, say Nikon’s D500, and nor is it quite as ‘intelligent’, but it’s still very, very capable.
The JPEG/large/extra fine image quality is also exceptional, particularly in terms of the crisp
reproduction of fine detailing, but also the colour fidelity and the tonal gradations. In the standard ‘Creative Style’ preset, the colour saturation is very accurate across the spectrum, but obviously there’s scope for tweaking if you prefer a bit more punch. The dynamic range is also pretty good without any expansion processing, retaining tonality well into the brighter highlights. Sony’s DRO – which primarily adjusts the tone curve to enhance the dynamic range, but doesn’t increase the ISO (so noise isn’t increased) – helps extend detailing into the darker shadows with affecting the highlights. The five manual settings give finer control, but in practice the Auto DRO processing works effectively, particularly in contrasty situations.
Noise is well managed up to ISO 1600, but definition and saturation start to reduce at ISO 3200, but both this setting and ISO 6400 are quite usable albeit with some reduction in the size of the reproductions possible before the softness and smearing becomes apparent. Overall, though, the high ISO performance is a good as it gets with a 24 MP ‘APS-C’ size sensor.
The A7 cameras, especially the later Mark II models, maybe seem to be the brighter stars in the Sony mirrorless firmament, but the A6300 definitely deserves a place here as the more compact – and essentially cheaper – alternative. Only the original A7 costs less and the A6300 is, of course, a much newer model with all the improvements and enhancements this brings. Panasonic’s GX8 is cheaper too, but it doesn’t have the same video capabilities and, although it’s becoming less of an issue these days, its sensor is smaller. The GX8 handles better and is nicer ergonomically, but the A6300’s niggles here are mostly minor and, as a complete package, it’s just as desirable with superior autofocusing and marginally faster continuous shooting. Fujifilm’s X-E2S is arguably the closest ‘APS-C’ rival and the Sony outshoots it in quite a few areas, including by being more compact. What about lenses? Well, it’s true Sony has been putting most of its efforts of recent times into the FE size mount (which is compatible, but obviously these lenses are bulkier), but the dedicated ‘APS-C’ E-mount system is pretty extensive and there’s some Zeiss models too, so the choice is good, although it lacks the ‘exotica’ starting to turn up in other mirrorless systems. Nevertheless, the A6300 is still well served as far as lenses are concerned.
Aside from the absence of touchscreen controls (which probably won’t be an issue for some people), the Sony A6300 is an immensely capable camera that’s well equipped to take on the comparable enthusiastlevel D-SLRs.
Its autofocus system is a big plus, but this camera is competent in every department and yet another strong argument for taking the mirrorless route.
Sony’s new Alpha E-mount flagship has a neatly-styled magnesium alloy bodyshell with weather sealing.
The hotshoe is actually Sony’s ‘Multi Interface’ coupling and so can power a range of accessories. The LCD monitor screen has a 16:9 Aspect ratio and adjustments for tilt, but curiously, no touch controls. The rear panel control layout centres around a multi-action control wheel. The menu button could be better sited though, as it gets a bit lost where it is.
The EVF has a nicely deep eyecup to eliminate stray light and enhance comfort. Despite the A6300’s compactness, the top plate accommodates (from left) an EVF, hotshoe, built-in flash, main mode dial, and input wheel. The pop-up flash has both low-speed and high-speed sync modes and can serve as the (optical) commander in a wireless TTL set-up.
Zebra patterns can be employed to warn of overexposure. Manual focus assists are a magnified image (with a handy timer option) and a peaking display. Usefully, the two can be combined.
Comprehensive info display in the monitor screen includes a real-time histogram and dual-axis level indicator.
The menu system is extensive, but comparatively easy to navigate.
The monitor screen can be set to provide an extremely comprehensive info display.
Connection bay lacks a stereo headphone output. The A6300 has built-in WiFi with the convenience of NFC touch-and-go connectivity and wireless file transfer.