Sony Alpha A6500

The Sony A6300 was announced six months ago, and Sony hasn't left it long before bringing out its new mirrorless APS-C camera, the A6500. While this might sound like a premature update, the Alpha 6500 gains in-body image stabilization to further blur the line between Sony’s APS-C lineup and its Alpha 7 full-frame range of mirrorless cameras.

Sony has also equipped its new camera with a greatly enhanced buffer to make it a tempting proposition for shooting action, while there's also the welcome addition of a touchscreen interface. The inclusion of these new features makes the A6500 one of the most fully featured crop-sensor cameras on the market right now.

Key features

  • APS-C CMOS sensor, 24.2MP
  • 3.0-inch, vari-angle touchscreen, 921,000 dots
  • 4K video capture

While the Sony A6500 sticks with the Alpha 6300’s 24.2MP APS-C sensor and 4D focus system (with 425 phase detect AF points), there are welcome improvements elsewhere.

It’s notably the first Sony APS-C camera to come with 5-axis in-body image stabilization, just as we've seen with Sony's second-generation Alpha 7 series of cameras. And the great news is that this not only works with Sony's non-stabilized optics, but can be used in conjunction with Sony's OSS stabilized lenses.

Sony has also overhauled the buffer of the A6500, delivering a considerable boost in performance that sees the camera capable of capturing 307 full-size JPEG files or 107 raws, all at a quick 11fps burst rate – quite an improvement from the A6300's 44 JPEG and 22 raw limit.

That's still a far cry from the Nikon D500's bottomless 200-raw buffer, but it beats out most cameras – including absolutely crushing the Canon 7D Mark II's buffer capacity of 31 raw files.

A faster large-scale integration (LSI) chip and image processing algorithm improve texture reproduction while reducing noise. With this new chipset and code, the A6500 specifically produces less noise in the mid-to-high portions of the camera’s ISO100-25,600 (expandable up to ISO51,200) sensitivity range.

The Alpha 6500 also gains a touchscreen, allowing you to change your focus point on the fly when shooting video. Aside from the newly integrated digitizer, the screen resolution remains at the same 921k-dot resolution.

Likewise, there's the same XGA OLED Tru-Finder, with a 2.36-million dots resolution and 120hz maximum refresh rate, as on the A6300, although the eye cup is a little softer.

The Sony A6500 gains no additional video capabilities over its predecessor. However, users will find themselves well equipped to shoot 4K at 25p and 30p, plus Full HD footage at up to 120p for slow motion action.

In an effort to address the A6300’s infamous overheating issues, Sony has come up with a new ‘Auto PWR OFF Temp’ setting that prioritizes recording over keeping the camera cool.

This effectively turns off the camera's thermal limiter, so that you can shoot 4K footage for 29 minutes and 50 seconds straight. After that you can record another half-hour session, assuming the camera is operating within normal conditions.

It removes a major restriction, but this is only a sticking plaster solution at best. While we haven’t seen the same overheating problems with the Sony A6500, we have noticed it getting decidedly warm in the winter conditions in which we've been testing it, which leaves us wary of how it will perform in warmer months or under a hot sun.

Build

  • Magnesium alloy and plastic construction
  • Practically identical to the Sony A6300
  • 120 x 67 x 53mm (W x D x H)
  • Weighs 453g (1lb)

Outwardly, the Sony A6500 is largely identical to its predecessor. It’s still a half-metal, half-plastic construction built around a magnesium frame, while components such as the power switch, battery hatch and controls are plastic. .

The A6500 is a smidge thicker than the A6300, at 53mm compared with 49mm, to accommodate the in-body image stabilization system; both cameras are 120mm wide and 67mm tall. The extra components also add 49 grams to the weight, bringing the A6500 in at 453g (1lb).

Handling

  • Slightly deeper grip
  • Basic touchscreen integration
  • Controls and menus still need work

A deeper grip is one notable change that we actually appreciate, as it allows us to get a better hold of the camera. Where the A6300 had a single custom function button to the right of the shutter button, the A6500 has two, both located between the shutter button and the mode dial.

The A6500 also gains a touchscreen, bringing added versatility to the camera’s articulating 921k-dot monitor. Unfortunately, it’s only useful for changing the focus point while taking photos and video, although you can also use it as a touchpad to change your focusing point while looking through the viewfinder – a feature we’ve seen on the Fujifilm X-T20 and Olympus Pen-F.

The touch interface is nowhere near as robust as Olympus's or even Fujifilm's. Even more disappointingly, Sony’s implementation hasn’t evolved much since being included in the Sony Alpha A5100. In the future we’d like to see the ability to swipe through photos, pinch to zoom and more interaction with on-screen controls.

The rear LCD screen by itself is also still terribly dim, and nearly unreadable in the sun, which is a big problem for monitoring video recordings – you’ll probably have to resort to reading zebra stripes.

Luckily, in most situations (for stills at least) you can rely on using the EVF to accurately frame and expose shots. Sony has also managed to reduce the black-out time between exposures to a mere millisecond, which came in handy for tracking hockey players in near real time during sports shooting tests.

Otherwise the control layout of the Sony A6500 remains unchanged from its predecessor, and that means all of our complaints about the A6300’s fiddly controls – from accidentally clicking in the wrong direction on the rear dial to the recessed movie record button – still stand.

Menu systems also continue to be a sore spot with Sony. Although the A6500 has a better-organized and color-coded menu structure, it’s still a chore to tab through almost half a dozen pages to find specific settings. 

We reckon this could be easily fixed by simply adding a favorites section, similar to Fujifilm's system. Thankfully, though, you can pin most things to the quick menu.

As with most modern cameras, the Sony A6500 can transfer images over to a smartphone, while your phone can act as a smart remote. However, the camera automatically converts JPEGs from raw images as it sees fit – we'd much rather have an adjustable in-camera raw converter, as we've become accustomed to on Fujifilm, Olympus and Panasonic cameras.

Autofocus performance

  • 425 phase-detect AF points
  • 169 contrast-detect AF points
  • 0.05 sec AF speed

The Sony Alpha 6500 inherits the densest AF system we've seen on an interchangeable-lens camera from the A6300, coming equipped with the same 4D Focus system we loved so much in that camera. 425 phase-detect AF points combined with 169 additional contrast-detect points enable the camera to find focus lighting fast.

Combine that with the 11fps continuous shooting speed and a greatly enhanced buffer and the A6500 is a serious sports and wildlife camera, competing strongly with DSLR legends like the Nikon D500 and Canon 7D Mark II, as well as with other higher-end mirrorless cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II.

Testing out its sports shooting capabilities at the aforementioned hockey game, we were able to capture tons of action in sharp detail. The AF system did a spectacular job of finding focus and staying locked on, even with the players flying around the rink and moving between one another – and its task was made especially challenging as we were shooting through a sheet of protective plexiglass smeared by the impact of a thousand pucks. 

Aside from shooting sports, the Sony A6500 also proved perfect for following fast-moving cars at Sony's specially laid-on track day event.

The 307-shot memory buffer means you can shoot continuously for over 30 seconds, even at 8fps

Performance

  • 11fps burst shooting
  • Buffer of up to 307 JPEG/107 raw
  • BIONZ X image processor

As we’ve mentioned, the Sony A6500 is a veritable speed demon, thanks to processing speeds being comprehensively boosted. 

The A6500 has been treated to the A99 II’s potent processing engine. This gives the A6500 a burst shooting buffer of up to 307 JPEGs when shooting at 8fps, giving you 35 seconds of firepower. Alternatively, at 11fps the camera can capture 200 JPEGs in a single bout or 107 raws.

A fast fps rate on its own isn't enough to enable sustained burst shooting; you need generous buffer capacity too, especially when you're not quite sure when the key moment is going to happen. And the Sony A6500 is well endowed in both respects.

The A6500's multi-zone metering system didn't get thrown by tricky lighting, metering perfectly perfectly on the dot without any overexposure or underexposure. 

As with most Sony cameras we've tested in the past, the A6500's auto white balance can be a little sticky and doesn't change instantaneously, although it does adapt faster than previous models. There are about a dozen white balance modes, including three custom settings which you can meticulously tweak to the right color temperature and tint.

Battery life on the Sony A6500 is average at best. Although it's rated for 350 shots, we only got through about half an evening of shooting images and a few minutes of 4K footage. You'll need to pick up a few spare batteries, especially if you plan to shoot Ultra HD movies, which drains the camera at a rate of 1% per minute of video.

Image quality

  • ISO100-25,600 (expandable to 51,200)
  • 6,000 x 4,000 image size

Sony’s 24.2MP APS-C Exmor CMOS sensor delivers outstanding performance in the A6300, so it’s little surprise that it’s been carried over to the A6500.
In terms of image quality, the Sony A6500 is an amazing camera for stills. 

Colors are also faithfully reproduced, although the Fujifilm X-T2 and Canon 7D Mark II still have an edge in this regard.

We were impressed by the flexible dynamic range and impeccable sharpness, and the Sony A6500 also performed stunningly at night in our tests, with clean usable files at ISO6400.

Thanks to the upgraded LSI, we were able to push the sensitivity envelope to ISO12,800 and even 25,600 and still get usable results. Noise is still evident at these ISOs, but it’s nothing a little noise reduction can’t help with. Ultimately though, the A6500 has a high ISO output that's dramatically cleaner than its predecessors.

Video quality

  • 4K 25p/30p video capture
  • 1080p 120p/60p/30p video capture
  • S-Gamut/S-Log shooting

The Sony A6500 basically comes with everything the videographer could want. 

You have 4K (3840 x 2160) at 25p and 30p recording in a Super 35mm format. In this mode, the camera uses its entire sensor to capture 6K source to avoid cropping. The oversampled video data is then crunched down to a final 4K output with enhanced depth and detail. 

Full HD 1080 recording is also available if you want to deal with smaller files (about half compared to Ultra HD video), and the option to go up to 120p means you can capture slow motion video. 

Video professionals will also be glad to hear that the Sony A6500 samples 4K footage at 4.2.0 internally and 4.2.2 externally over HDMI. Plus it has all the flat picture profiles you would want for grading footage later.

Built-in stabilization is something we felt was sorely needed on the A6300 for video, and now that it’s finally here it puts the A6500 on par with Sony's A7 series. While Sony has a few zoom lenses that offer optical stabilization, building it into the sensor makes it that much easier to slap on a prime lens and start shooting, without a monopod or other support. 

Despite all these improvements, however, rolling shutter is still very apparent, so don’t buy this camera to shoot your next big freerunning video, or move it from side-to-side too quickly.

We're also disappointed that, as on the A6300, there's no headphone jack on this camera. In order to monitor your audio you'll need to keep a close eye on levels on-screen, or plug in an external monitor with an audio-out.

Verdict

We might be able to count the Sony A6500's five new features on one hand, but they add up to a much faster and robust camera than was the A6300. Of course, it would've been nice if these features had debuted in the A6300; however, if you’ve been waiting for an APS-C Sony with nearly the same capabilities as the company’s full-frame A7 Mark II, this is it.

Despite our reservations about the fiddly controls and dense menu system, no other camera does as much as the Sony A6500 does, and while being more affordable to boot. It keeps up surprisingly well with many higher-end DSLRs and mirrorless cameras for sports – and if you’re looking to get serious with video, you won’t find a much better option.

Competition

Fujifilm X-T2

Who would have thought Fujifilm would be the Sony A6500’s greatest rival? But, offering a 24.3MP sensor and 4K video (with F-Log shooting through an external recorder), the Fujifilm X-T2 is a strong competitor.

Still, this flagship DSLR-styled camera has some knocks against it, including a 169 phase-detect AF system that lags behind that of the A6500, no high-speed movie mode and fewer video options overall. You’ll get much better ergonomics and more saturated colors by going with Fujifilm, but is that worth the higher price tag?

Read our full review: Fujifilm X-T2

Panasonic Lumix G80 / G85

Panasonic's Lumix G85 (or G80 if you're outside the US) is a cracking mid-price mirrorless camera with a vast range of compatible lenses. Its 16MP Micro Four Thirds sensor isn’t as sharp as the Sony A6500’s, but by ditching the optical low-pass filter it gains a small edge. AF performance in video is nearly on par, and the touchscreen integration isn’t half-baked. The Lumix G80/G85 is also the better vlogging camera, thanks to its flip-forward display.

Read the full review: Panasonic Lumix G80 / G85

Nikon D500

Nikon's flagship APS-C DSLR isn’t just the long-heralded replacement for the Nikon D300S, it’s also arguably the best camera in the company’s arsenal. Equipped with a 20.9MP sensor and 10fps burst rate, it’s just a step behind the Sony A6500 – though it has the advantage of a 200-raw buffer. Although it has a sparser 153-point AF system, it’s still one of the best systems out there right now. That said, if you’re looking for something that shoots video as well you’re better off looking at Canon.

Read the full review: Nikon D500

Canon EOS 7D Mark II

Although the Canon 7D Mark II brings the smallest 65-point cross-type AF system to the table, it’s a proven workhorse in the sports shooting world. 10fps shooting combined with a professional autofocus makes this an excellent camera for both amateurs and professionals alike. The 7D Mark II is also a terrific all-round camera, bringing solid HD video capture backed up by Canon’s unbeatable dual-pixel AF system.

Read the full review: Canon EOS 7D Mark II

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Kevin Lee

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