The $600 Sony a6100 Is Everything You Need to be a Happy Photographer

A fun but powerful camera.
A fun but powerful camera.
Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky (Gizmodo)

The Sony a6100 has a difficult task ahead: replacing the a6000 as the best budget APS-C camera. It takes on the challenge with quite a few charms, including an ultrafast focus, better ISO, 4K video and longer battery life. But none of that will matter once you start using it. You’ll be too busy having fun.

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The camera

You can almost hear Sony saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” given that the a6100 is almost identical, externally at least, to the excellent a6000. It weighs less than a pound (0.87 lb), though a bit more than its predecessor (0.76 lb). Its size is 4.7 by 2.6 by 2.3 inches. The body is made of plastic, not meta—that’s not the end of the world, but the feel is not as pleasant or solid as what we get in the a6600 or in the models in the a7 series.

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The grip that houses the battery and the memory card doesn’t stick out as much as in the a6600 that’s also just launched. Instead, it’s almost identical in size and form to the original a7 (I know this because I personally own an a7.) The A6100 can be held comfortably with one hand, but from a hardware perspective, photography enthusiasts will probably not like the controls very much.

Besides the mode dial, there are no other dials. No secondary selection dial, no front dial, and no top dial. This forces you to navigate the menus using the same thumb that you use for everything else. Frustrating when you consider Sony’s full-frame cameras or even competitors like the Fujifilm XT-4. The a6100 is half the price of those cameras, but you’re losing out on how fast and granular you can change settings.

In terms of buttons, they’re small and close together, but that isn’t anything new in Sony cameras. The important thing is that once you get used to them, you can recognize them by touch. The worst part of the physical controls is the traditional button used to record video, which is small and lodged into a corner. If someone hadn’t shown me where it was I would have spent a good while looking for it.

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The tiltable screen is the star of the rear part of the camera. Sony has given the a6100 a 3-inch 16:9 touch screen. The format choice seems a little weird at first because it shows the photos (usually taken in 3:2) with two black bands on the sides, but everything makes sense when you record video and the preview fills the screen entirely. It’s just another wink to the wide wide world of video creators in YouTube.

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The screen doesn’t have the best resolution (921,600 pixels) and its refresh rate isn’t particularly good, which means you’ll notice a certain lag when you move the camera and try to track what’s on the screen. Curiously, the lag disappears completely when you record video at some resolutions. Once you press the record button, significant movement on the screen is much more fluid.

To take photos, it’s better to use the electronic viewfinder (1,440,000 pixels) with 100 percent field coverage. What you see in the viewfinder is what you’ll see in the final photo and it’s better with one exception: selfies. If you take the screen and turn it around completely, the image also turns upside down and allows you to see yourself. Additionally, the self-timer shooting feature, with a three-second delay, activates automatically to help you frame the picture.

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Taking a selfie with the a6100.
Taking a selfie with the a6100.
Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky (Gizmodo)

It’s an interesting trick, but it takes a bit to figure it out because to activate it, you have to flip the camera to an extreme angle so that it lays completely vertical. If you don’t fully extend the hinge, the image on the screen doesn’t invert itself. This means that you’re left fumbling around for a few seconds and accidentally touching the menus on the touch screen, until you get the screen in the right position.

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Speaking of things that pop out, the a6100 has a built-in flash that jumps out a bit violently when you press the flash button. It’s not as worthless as most stock flashes. It has an almost 20-foot reach and allows bracketing. Yet if you prefer an external flash, there’s a standard hot shoe for this type of accessory.

The retractable flash, recorded in slow motion.
Gif: Carlos Zahumenszky (Gizmodo)
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In terms of connections, the a6100’s left side hides a compartment with a micro USB port to charge the battery or send photos to your computer via cable. Next to it, there’s a micro HDMI (type D), and video lovers will be happy to know that there’s also a 3.5mm socket for an external microphone. The a6100 is a very complete wireless camera. It has also wifi, Bluetooth 4.1 and NFC. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make the best use of these connections (see below).

The lenses

The Sony a6100 is compatible with Sony type E lenses (APS-C E-mount). Currently, there are five different lenses available:

  • SELP1650: A 16-50 (equivalent to a 24-82.5mm in Full Frame) with a motorized zoom.
  • SEL1655G: A 16-55 F2.8.
  • SEL18135: A very versatile hunting lens (18-135) but not excessively luminous (F3.5 – 5.6).
  • SEL70350G: A 70-350 telephoto lens (equivalent to a 105-525mm) with a 5X zoom.
  • SEL35F18F: A fixed lens equivalent to 33mm with excellent luminosity (F1.8).

All of the lenses mentioned above have built-in stabilization, which is good news considering the a6100 doesn’t have built-in stabilization in the body. For this review, I was able to try the 16-50 with power zoom and the 18-135. Both are excellent, although since I’m so used to lenses with manual zoom, I find the power zoom on the SELP1650 too weird to handle and too slow to respond. It’s not a bad lens, but my issue is that the feeling you get when you push the motorized control is not the same as the one you get with traditional optical zoom.

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Choosing the first lens for the camera is one of the most complicated moments for all photography enthusiasts. All of them have their strong points, but they also have limitations. In this case, the SEL18-135’s very wide focal distance makes it the perfect lens for all types of photography. The only sacrifice its powerful zoom forces you to make is losing out on a lower and consistent aperture. However, I’ve taken photos in the same (dark) place with two lenses and I’ve barely noticed any difference in lighting in pictures produced by both of them. Even in automatic modes, the Bionz X processor compensates the exposure as well as the ISO to balance the photos.

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If I had to choose, I would choose the 18-135 for the zoom, but the 16-50 lens with power zoom is probably the best choice if you care less about the zoom and more about a wider field of vision for landscapes and want more light when you take photos at night. Besides, it’s a lot lighter and more comfortable to carry.

Using the Sony a6100

The Sony a6100 is the perfect camera for impatient people like me. It turns on in a second, and both its focus and shutter speeds (in a range of natural lighting conditions) are amazing. On paper, the focus acquisition is 0.02 seconds, and the shutter speed is 1/4000 with 11 frames per second. It’s also very quiet. So you’ll have to make the machine gun noises yourself (in a low voice so that people don’t look at you weirdly.) It’s fun.

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The 425 autofocus phase-detection points make it very difficult to confuse the camera unless you try to photograph a white wall. The 425 points aren’t the only appealing element of this camera’s focus system. Sony has added some very useful tricks, like an AF tracking mode feature based on the face of a moving subject, or eye. With just a light press on the shutter, the system selects a person’s eye (it can be the left or right eye, even this detail can be specified in the settings) and follows their movements with total accuracy. It also works with dogs and cats. We don’t have a pet at home, but my daughter, who has fought and won against the best autofocus systems for years, hasn’t managed to beat the one in the A6100.

The autofocus tracking feature works so well that once you activate it, you won’t want to turn it off. However, it’s not exactly intuitive to do that. As with most Sony cameras, the menus and hoops required to jump through for customization are labyrinthine. You have to press the Fn button and select an autofocus mode that’s compatible, like AF-C. Then, you have press Fn again and change the focus area to one with autofocus in real-time like Tracking: Wide or Expand Flexible Spot. If you don’t like the results you get when taking photos of objects, you can always return to the normal mode in the same menu.

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Deactivating autofocus tracking.
Gif: Carlos Zahumenszky (Gizmodo)

But I’m not sure Sony even wants people digging into all those menus. The effectiveness of the autofocus perfectly illustrates the users the a6100 was created for. It’s a family camera designed so that people can enjoy the automatic mode and run around as happy campers taking photos, all with the certainty that Sony has provided them with all the technology they need to take some incredible instant photos without having to mess with the controls too much.

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Yes, I know. You have a phone for that, but no phone (and I’ve been testing high-end smartphones for years) is going to capture moving objects or let you create a rich bokeh in photos with the same quality and security that a dedicated camera does. The reality is that a lot of mirrorless camera users rarely shoot in anything other than automatic mode or buy more than one lens. Sony knows this, and that’s why the a6100 is full of functions that make the automatic mode a true all-in-one mode that’s delightful to use.

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This doesn’t mean that the a6100 is any ordinary point-and-shoot camera. If you’re an advanced photographer or want to learn how to make the most out of your new toy, the a6100 is full of manual modes that you can play with. Doing so has a lot of advantages. The automatic ISO, for instance, always plays it safe to avoid noise, but increasing it in the P, A, S or M modes will allow you to better capture moving objects when there is little light. The manual focus is another feature that automatic mode fans should want to familiarize themselves with as soon as they can. Even the a6100’s autofocus, which is one of the best I’ve seen, can get lost when there are a lot of overlapping objects at different focal distances (think about a situation where you try to photograph a bird with a lot of branches in your shot.) The manual focus allows you to adjust the image with a small window that zooms in on the image so that the sharpness can be perfect.

The Sony a6100.
The Sony a6100.
Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky (Gizmodo)
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Overall, the manual modes are definitely worth checking out and the a6100 is well covered in this aspect. The bad news is, as I mentioned above, that Sony has decided to import the a7 series menus into the a6 series. I’m used to them because I’ve been using the original a7 for many years, but I have to admit that they are confusing and somewhat badly organized menus. To give you all an example, there are video settings that aren’t in the video tab for some random reason. Sony urgently needs to give the software in its cameras a good overhaul because it can be frustrating for users that aren’t familiar with it.

If you hate Sony’s menus, there is one light of hope though. A new option called MyMenu lets you create and set up your own settings tab with the options that you use most often. It’s not the definite solution, but it’s something.

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The a6100 lets you setup your own menu tab.
The a6100 lets you setup your own menu tab.
Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky (Gizmodo)

It’s rare to find a modern camera that doesn’t have its own mobile app, and Sony has something new to show. Support for the old application PlayMemories Mobile is gone in the a6100. How then do you connect the camera to a phone or tablet? Now you have a new application for iOS and Android called Imaging Edge Mobile. This new app is supposed to be the professional version of PlayMemories, but it hasn’t quite been refined yet.

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I raised an eyebrow almost immediately after installing Imaging Edge Mobile when it asked me to select my country. If anyone out there knows what criteria the Sony developers have used to order the country list, please tell me, because it’s sure not alphabetic. Additionally, the list includes “World,” “Latin America” and “Canary Islands” as valid countries, which makes me wonder endlessly what this app uses that information for considering that you can select whatever you want and it doesn’t even work to select time zones.

Hmmm... Sony I want to send photos to my phone, not fill out a survey. Hello?
Hmmm... Sony I want to send photos to my phone, not fill out a survey. Hello?
Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky (Gizmodo)
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After spending a few minutes trying to find your country (Spain, for instance, is in between India, Tanzania, Azerbaijan and Belarus), the app assaults you with a survey about your photographer habits and requests you to sign in to another online service whose function I haven’t been able to figure out yet. Fortunately, this is a step you can skip. Once you’re in the main menu, there are three ways to connect with the camera: NFC, on-screen QR code, or SSID.

Connecting to the camera.
Connecting to the camera.
Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky (Gizmodo)
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Once you manage to connect the camera, it stays registered in a list and you can select it whenever you want, although the system makes you interact with the camera, with your phone and basically click too much. You have to go to the camera’s menu and select Send to smartphone, which activates the QR code screen again. This is a step you can skip by simply selecting the camera, but it’s a bit confusing. The camera’s control panel in the phone gives frequent errors in simple tasks like taking a photo.

You only have to connect the camera via QR code one time. If your phone has NFC, it’s even easier.
You only have to connect the camera via QR code one time. If your phone has NFC, it’s even easier.
Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky (Gizmodo)
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Imaging Edge Mobile does what it’s meant to do, but it’s very far from providing a smooth or enjoyable experience. Its functions are clumsily designed and not very intuitive, which is definitely unforgivable in software that’s supposed to be the official way to transfer photos from Sony’s best cameras to your phone. The good news is that its software. It can get better with an update. I’d like to think that Sony will begin improving it over time....hopefully.

The a6100’s stated battery life is 380 shots if you use the electronic viewfinder, and 420 if you use the LCD screen (the a6000 lasts for 360 shots, which is basically the average in APS-C cameras.) In real life battery is not an issue, which is awesome. I spent an entire morning taking photos nonstop and looking at them on the viewfinder. The battery only fell about 40 percent. Obviously, it’s not a gadget that you’ll want to take on vacation without the charger, but you also shouldn’t have to worry about charging it more than you charge your smartphone.

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Examples of photos and videos taken with the a6100

I’ve spent so much time trying out phones that sometimes I forget what it’s like to take photos on a real camera. The truth is that the difference is so drastic that we should all do it more often. I’m not saying that you can’t take good photos on a phone. What I’m saying is that taking good photos with a camera like the a6100 is much, much easier, even if you happen to be completely inept photographers like me.

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Playing with the focus

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Color and dynamic range

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Zoom with the 16-50 lens

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Zoom with 18-35 lens

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16-50 vs. 18-135

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Automatic focus with tracking

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Burst shooting

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JPG vs. RAW

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Video in 4K a 30 FPS

Video in 1080p a 120 FPS

Sony a6100 vs. a6000 vs. a6600

The a6100 is meant to replace the a6000, and that means that its debut is not going to be easy. Its predecessor is probably Sony’s most successful camera with interchangeable lenses (without counting the fabulous but super expensive full-frame cameras in the A7 series). In the six years since it’s been in stores (it was released in 2014), the a6000 has sold more than half a million units. The key to this success has always been a low price.

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So the a6100 enters the market with a small handicap. It’s more expensive than its predecessor. When it was launched in October 2019, its initial price was $750 (only body) and $850 with a lens equivalent to a 16-50mm.

From left to right, the a6600, the a6100 and the first a7.
From left to right, the a6600, the a6100 and the first a7.
Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky (Gizmodo)
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Luckily, we haven’t had to wait much time before the market forced Sony down from the cloud it was on. As I was finishing this review, the a6100 could be found for between $600 and $750. It’s still more expensive than the a6000, but the price fits the idea of a low-cost camera with interchangeable lenses a lot better. The question is: is it worth buying the a6100 if you already have an a6000? Is it better to buy an a6100 if what you’re looking for is a camera with interchangeable lenses with a low price? The short answer to both of those questions is yes, and although both cameras will live side-by-side in the market for a while, the A6100 has a few tricks up its sleeve that makes it worth your while to spend a little more. The majority of these features are related to the latest Bionz X image processor.

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What differences are there between the a6100 and its big sister, the a6600? There are a few important ones, but they’re the kind of details you’ll only care about if you use the camera professionally. The a6600, for instance, has an NP-FZ100 battery with a stated battery life of more than 800 shots compared to the about 400 of the a6100 and its NP-FW50 battery. Plus, the a6600 is weather sealed.

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Yet the two biggest differences between both are that the a6600 has image stabilization in the sensor and also counts on continuous tracking and eye autofocus when recording video. Those features position the camera as a device for a more professional audience with more serious requirements, especially when it comes to video. It’s also a more expensive model. Its initial price was $1,400 (only body) or $1,800 with a 18-135mm lens. At the moment, you can find it a bit cheaper (between $1,200 and $1,500) but it’s still an expensive camera for the average enthusiast.

Verdict

The Sony a6100 isn’t perfect, but it offers so many good things for such a low price that it turns into a deal that’s difficult to reject. Right now there are few mirrorless APS-C cameras that offer the same for that price. The closest you’ll find are the Fujifilm X-A47 or the Canon EOS M6 Mark II, which are very similar to the a6100 but they don’t have an electric viewfinder (something I find unacceptable). That being said, aesthetically the Fujifilm is a lot nicer. The Olympus OM-D EM10 III, to name another rival, comes with stabilization in the body, but its sensor is a lot smaller (it’s a Micro Four Thirds camera with 16MP) and it’s bigger and heavier.

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The Sony A6100.
The Sony A6100.
Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky (Gizmodo)

While its sensor is not full frame, the a6100 has demonstrated that it can handle itself more than well in dark situations thanks to its enhanced ISO and its image processor. Additionally, it has an ultrafast focus full of intelligent options so that you won’t lose any detail. That makes the A6100 an especially enjoyable camera if you’re one of those people that like to shoot photos nonstop in automatic mode. The manual controls are excellent once you overcome the learning curve for the menus. Nonetheless, it’s probably not a camera you will be interested in if you’d characterize yourself as a professional.

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You get all of this for a little less than $600. There are cameras from the a6 series that are a lot better (the a6600 is glorious) but for the price of those high-end cameras in the APS-C line, you can buy yourself an a6100 and an 18-135 lens that will give you years of photographic joy.

README

  • Lengthy battery life for its size.
  • Ultra-fast AF with plenty of features for automatic mode enthusiasts.
  • Sensor is really excellent at grabbing life. You’ll not suffer from full-frame envy.
  • A fun family camera with decent pro settings to learn from. Perfect for beginners with big dreams.
  • Camera menus and phone app are quite clunky.
  • Probably best APS-C choice in town for the price.

This review originally appeared in Gizmodo en Español. You can read it in Spanish here.

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DISCUSSION

vashht00
HumanoidTyphoon

You say the 35mm is 33mm equivalent, think you meant to put 53mm. Sony mirrorless cameras are pretty nice, I had the nex 7 a while back and I used the RX100 mk 2 a lot. I did’t really like Sony’s controls, it’s probably gotten a lot better but I remember diving into menus a lot.

I switched to Fuji and I like their cameras more due to the nicer physical controls.