With the Sony A6500, Sony has entered the terrain of semi-professional crop cameras. The camera is significantly higher priced than other Sony APS-C cameras, and is directly competing with other smaller format flagship cameras like Fuji X-T2, Nikon D500, Olympus OMD-EM1 Mk2 or the Canon Eos 7D Mk2.
Furthermore, the Sony A6500 is now similarly (or even higher) priced than the Sony A7II. This leaves open the question for many people as to whether they should really spend that much on an APS-C camera, or if they should get a full frame body instead. The comparison is obvious, and legitimate, because the cameras share a few key specifications – like sensor resolution, mount, and sensor stabilization. Let’s check what sets these cameras apart from each other.
The obvious differences
Size and Ergonomics
The Sony A7II is a substantially bigger camera. This is good and bad at the same time. Of course, the A6500 can disappear more easily in your pocket and adds less heft to the kit, but it really lacks at least 2-3 additional control elements.
As an engineer, who knows controlling restrictions and modular development, I can understand Sony’s intention to use basically the same body style for all A6XXX cameras. This saves a lot of costs and speeds up the release cycles.
As a photographer, I am really disappointed about the decision not to update the body. The A6000 design was okay for a mid range camera, but it really falls behind when I compare it to all other APS-C flagship cameras and also all A7 models. I think that an exposure compensation dial is essential these days because it speeds up operation significantly and the current value is always visible.
Nevertheless, there are a few substantial features that Sony was able to introduce into the line with the A6500 despite staying within these design restrictions (compared to the A6000/A6300):
- Larger grip (Seems like a transplant of the Sony A7II grip)
- Additional custom button (like the one introduced in the A7 generation II). Both custom buttons are now on the top plate of the body
- Bigger shutter button
- Softer eyecup
What does the A7II offer over the A6500?
- Exposure compensation wheel (!!!)
- One more custom button
- One more wheel (essential in M mode to have direct dials for ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed)
- The display of the A7II has a 3:2 aspect ratio (A6500 – 16:9) which offers visibly more space for photography applications.
- Slightly larger viewfinder (0.71 vs. 0.70)
What does the A6500 offer over the A7II?
- Touchscreen to select the focus directly
- Built-in Flash
The compensation dial and the third wheel are important arguments for the A7II in terms of usability and workflow. In comparison to the A6500, the access to important functions of the A7II feels much more direct and flexible. It’s a pity that Sony didn’t introduce a more mature and professional design for such an expensive camera like the A6500, and this leaves me with a feeling of disappointment.
One important aspect of ergonomics is the bodystyle itself. The rangefinder design of the A6500 is nice to use if you prefer to shoot with the right eye but pretty much unusable if you like or have to shoot with the left eye, especially in combination with the touchscreen.
Autofocus, Speed and Action
Speed is the headline feature of the A6500. The camera uses the same sensor as the A6300 and features a new “front end LSI”. The latter is a marketing term for a co-processor that supports the BionzX processor. What you need to know is that the processor should improve a few functions of the camera.
First, the high ISO performance should be improved although the DXO sports value of the A6500 is lower than the one of the A6300. I think this affects just the JPEGs and is not that interesting for many people.
More important is that the camera can buffer 107 RAW images instead of 21 RAW images compared to the A6300. The A6300 was meant as an action/sports camera but it could fire just two seconds at max burst speed. With the bigger buffer of the A6500, it is much more likely to capture the decisive moment.
In terms of speed, the A6500 runs circles around the A7II. The A6500 has a more than five times bigger buffer size (107 RAW images vs. 20 RAW images) and takes more than twice as many pictures in the same tame (11 fps vs. 5 fps).
The AF system is also quite different. Although both cameras have a ridiculous number of phase detection focus points (A6500: 425, A7II:117), the A6500 features more advanced (“4D”-)tracking options as well as Eye-AF. There is a big difference in terms of focus speed, in AF-S mode as well as in AF-C mode. The superiority was obvious in many real life situations although I have the feeling that the AF-C has improved more than the AF-S. In my opinion, the AF still doesn’t feel DSLR-like in terms of reliability but has greatly improved.
One big feature for action photography, that was introduced with the A6300, is the reduced-lag viewfinder operation in continuous shooting. The camera displays a live view image between the shots which helps to keep up with the moving subject while tracking. This reduces the blackout but is not on par with DSLRs or even the new A9.
The touchscreen is one of the most important new features of the Sony A6500. Sony understands the touchscreen as an additional control element, not as an replacement. Therefore, the functionality of the touchscreen is neither providing a smartphone-like experience nor replaces the usage of physical controls in general.
After using it for four months, I have mixed feelings about it. In general, the Touchscreen is a welcome addition because the user gains at least one more free customizable button. I can also live with it’s limited functionality. Generally, I like the direct control over the focus spot as well as the moving of the focus spot when the viewfinder is in use.
Nevertheless, I think that Sony should have spent some more time to improve the implementation. The competition does a better job here with more features. The moving of the focus spot with the viewfinder on the eye feels very laggy (even with the latest firmware) and it happens way too often that one corner of the touchscreen gets touched by the cheeks in portrait orientation accidentally. I’ve even lost a number of shots in a wedding shoot because of this issue.
Sensor Size and Legacy Lenses
If you want to use legacy 35mm film lenses, I would always recommend using the A7II, because the lower pixel density is less demanding (and you get better per pixel sharpness), because you can use the full image circle and you can get a decent performing legacy setup for wider angles. I don’t, however, recommend (with a few expensive exceptions) legacy lenses below 20mm: modern options just perform a lot better in that range, especially on crop cameras.
If you need the highest possible level of subject isolation, a full frame camera is also inevitable. There is simply no crop equivalent for a 2.8/24-70 (over the full range of focal lengths), a 1.4/35, a 1.4/85 and obviously not a 0.95/50.
I don’t do video at all, but the A6500 will be a much better tool for that task. (4k, touchscreen, better AF, …)
I don’t want to discuss this aspect too extensively, but it’s obvious that Sony hasn’t announced a single APS-C photo lens since mid 2013. That means, that Sony doesn’t really care about the APS-C lineup or is convinced about the cross-compatibility of FE lenses.
It makes sense to use FE telephoto lenses and also some primes (I’d definitely recommend the FE 1.8/85 for the a6500 for example) but in my opinion a 2.8/16-50 as well as some more compact f/1.4 primes are serious lacks. This is even more relevant since Sony has put the A6500 in a higher price category to compete with the best crop cameras out there but it doesn’t offer a lens lineup which can compete on the same level.
The FE lens lineup on the other hand grows by about a lens a month and one exciting lens follows the next one. There are even a few Sony-exclusive gems that set the FE-system apart from the competition (Loxia 2.8/21 and Sony 4/12-24 for example). If you are looking for the best lenses and want to use them in their native scope, the A7II or even the a7rii is the way to go.
One last thing to keep in mind is that the Sony E-lenses (APS-C) are generally a bit smaller, lighter and cheaper than the Sony FE-lenses. Although I don’t think that the APS-C lineup is nearly as complete as the crop lens lineup of the competitors, there are a few decent and fair priced APS-C primes like the Sony E 1.8/35 OSS and the Sony E 1.8/50 OSS which are smart choices. The gem of the APS-C lineup is the Sony 1.8/24 ZA which pairs good optical quality with fast AF and spectacular close up capabilities.
The not so obvious differences
I refer to DXOmark in that chapter, because it mostly reflects what I see in practical usage.
At base ISO, the dynamic range of the sensors is equally impressive and very good for any type of landscape applications.
At higher ISOs, the full frame sensor pulls ahead in terms of noise performance, this becomes especially visible when the shadows of the RAW images are pushed.
I think it’s noteworthy that the pixel density of the Sony A7II is much lower. The camera is therefore much less demanding in terms of lenses. In many cases, the same lens needs to be stopped down one or two stops to achieve the same level of sharpness on the A6500 as on the Sony A7II.
One last subjective aspect is that I can achieve pleasant colors with my Sony A7II more easily. It could also be possible that I am just more used to that camera.
The A6500 features a redesigned menu system. It’s a bit better but I don’t see a huge improvement. It would not be a reason for me to decide for or against the camera.
Useful improvements of the A6500
Sony improved a few small but really useful things that they didn’t talk much about.
- The camera can detect now if the screen is tilted – This is great because it deactivates the eye sensor when this is the case. Using the A6500 on a tripod or in front of the belly is much more convenient, because it doesn’t turn off the LCD when the hands get close to the eyecup.
- Spot metering with focus point link – The camera can meter exactly on the spot that is currently used for focus. This is a really great addition and makes the metering in dynamic situations much more reliable. Great for portraits, because the face always has the correct brightness level.
- Highlight metering – The camera exposes the highlights of the frame exactly – no blown out highlights. This works well, but you have to work with the images in t
- Bluetooth – GPS was an often seen feature of Sony A-mount cameras a few years ago, but disappeared after the A77. The A6500 enables geotagging with the help of a mobile phone. The camera is able to transmit the GPS position and also the correct date of the mobile device and uses Bluetooth for that. That worked well but the Playmemories app always showed that the camera is missing when my camera was not in reach.
- Autofocusing during focus magnification – The A6500 is able to use autofocus when enlarging a part of the image with the focus magnification. Could be useful for some macro shooters that don’t like MF or have slightly moving targets.
- External Powering – The Camera can be used while it gets charged via USB. This is handy for timelapse and long exposure work.
Additional functionality over the A7II that was introduced with other cameras
- Silent Shutter – I have marked this in bold, because it is a real game changer for many types of photography, especially for wedding, portrait, wildlife and street photography. In my case, it was great to take pictures of my sleeping baby because he never woke up. This feature worked flawless most of the time. Interestingly, the best man of a bridal pair became nervous because he thought that I am not taking pictures during the wedding ceremony. People are still used to the shutter noise and it is still a kind of feedback to the model. Therefore, I prefer the silent shutter when I want to be invisible as a photographer. The only issue that I have encountered was banding under artificial light, a well known problem.
- Auto ISO – The original implementation (A7, A7II) of Auto ISO by Sony was a joke. The camera just rested at 1/60 no matter what focal length was used. With the A6500, maximum ISO and minimum shutter speed can be customized. Real Auto ISO, not just a placeholder for a missing function like in the A7II
- More detailed bracketing features
Exclusive functions of the A7II
Okay, this one is a short chapter. The A7II has 1/8000 maximum shutter speed while the A6500 has just 1/4000. This can be sometimes limiting on bright days with fast lenses.
My favorite Setup (Sony A6500)
I have pointed out before, that the Sony A6500 misses some direct dials that the Sony A7II has. Nevertheless, (thanks to Auto ISO) the following configuration worked pretty well for my everyday (mostly portraiture) photography:
- Shooting mode: A
- Top wheel: Aperture value
- Back wheel: Exposure compensation
- ISO: Auto ISO
- C1: Auto ISO minimum shutter speed
- C2: Focus Magnification
- C3: Steady Shot
- Zebra: 100+
- Metering: Spot M
- Metering coupled with Spot
- AF: Spot M or Zone
The Sony A7II and the Sony A6500 are currently quite similarly priced but the comparison showed, that the cameras are very different. The image quality is quite comparable with a small advantage going to the Sony A7II. In my opinion, you should focus on other aspects if you need to decide between both.
Get the A7II if you..
- … are a left eyed shooter
- … you use manual lenses most of the time
- … prefer to have more external controls without using the menu
- … need the maximum amount of subject isolation
- … shoot very often at high ISOs
- … want to make full use of the exciting FE lens lineup (Exciting lenses like the Loxia 2.8/21, the Voigtländer 5.6/10 and the 4/12-24 are not that exciting anymore on a crop body)
Get the A6500 if you
- … shoot action, sports, etc. and want a small mirrorless camera (Otherwise, I believe that a DSLR or an SLT is still the weapon of choice, and the A9 is in a different league)
- … are looking for a smaller camera or a smaller system
- … are tired of many of Sony’s initial design quirks (Auto ISO, menu system, metering)
- … don’t want to read “Writing to memory card, unable to operate”!!
- … want an alternative to the sluggish focus point selection
- … need a silent shutter
- … need an allround camera for every task
- … don’t have a big lens budget but need AF
- … need an internal flash
I’ve bought the camera for two reasons:
- My A7II couldn’t keep up with my baby who was moving around all of the time.
- I was searching for faster and more reliable AF for my portrait and studio photography
- I needed a second body for a 5 week trip to Italy (all images in that post were taken on that trip)
- To get a reliable workhorse for documentations (events, weddings, etc…)
My impression after five months of usage is that the A6500 is an extremely capable and satisfying camera. It feels much more modern and responsive than the Sony A7II. It is a pleasure to use it and I greatly prefer it to my Sony A7II whenever the subject starts to move. The image quality is great for an APS-C camera and I like the landscape and portrait shots that I have taken with it so far.
When it comes to pure landscape photography or creative photography in general, I prefer the bigger body of the Sony A7II and the manual controls on it. Furthermore, the Sony A7II (or any other FE camera) is irreplaceable for my photography with manual lenses.
Nevertheless, I still have the feeling that the Sony A6500 is the right camera in the wrong body. I can see the improvements of the A6500 over the A6300, but the differences are way too small in my opinion. The A6500 is targeted at (semi-)professional photographers but still caged in a smallish and not so ergonomic body.
The lack of a dedicated exposure compensation dial is especially frustrating for my type of photography. Furthermore, the touchscreen implementation has so much potential, but is frustrating to use in the real world. A joystick (such as can be found in the Sony A9 or the Fuji X-T2) would have been a better choice. I can’t get rid of the feeling that Fuji (X-T2) and Olympus (OMD-EM1 Mk2) have put more love and effort into their crop flagship cameras. This also shows in the limited and aging E-lens (APS-C) lineup.
Regarding the AF, I have a significantly higher rate of keepers and more great snapshots than before although I still have the feeling that it could be even better (occasional hunting in low light, accuracy is not always perfect).
Personally, I have decided to leave the APS-C side of the E-mount again. It just didn’t feel as well rounded and reliable as I had hoped to and mostly important I just don’t get used to the A6XXX design after owning several A7 series cameras. I will wait for the A7III and try some different cameras (especially curious about the Fuji X-T2 because of the user interface) until it’s available.
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