I hummed and hawed about buying the Sony a6500. There were enough negatives that kept coming up on different blogs to keep me from wanting to commit — rolling shutter issues, overheating while shooting video, poor menu design, poor batteries. The list goes on.
I needed this camera to satisfy two roles: b-camera to my Sony FS5 and pocket travel camera for still photos/random video b-roll in 4K. Other cameras that I was considering were the Canon EOS-M6 (too expensive, no 4K video, but otherwise totally underrated), the Fuji X-T20 (short video record time of 10 minutes, a whole new portfolio of lenses to consider, lack of adaptability), and the Sony A7RII (way more expensive, no 120 fps shooting, no high frame rate stills).
Ultimately I decided on the a6500 without being entirely sure, but I am glad that I did.
First of all, I do think the EOS-M6 has better still image quality and user interface. The familiarity of the Canon layout meant that it would be like a scaled down mini version of my Canon 5D3. However, the lack of video function was the ultimate death on that decision for me.
The Sony a6500 won out for me largely because of its video features. 4K video, 120fps 1080p continuous shooting, potential to add the K2M adaptor for XLR audio, lens adaptability, etc, etc. Yet, I was still unsure because at heart I was looking for the best still camera, but for it to fit into my professional life at that price, I needed it to perform well as a video camera too.
I'll start this by saying that after using this camera, going back to the 5D Mark III feels a bit like going back to the stone ages. It's so heavy and loud and slow. The a6500 by comparison is the future whether the purists like it or not. Why Sony decided to include so many features on a mid-range camera is a bit mind blowing, but perhaps it is that — the purists will have trouble with this.
4K video quality is great. The ability to output a clean 4:2:2 video through HDMI is great for commercial type production, and the ability to shoot S-LOG is also great, but looking at internally recorded footage for a sporting event with no picture profile this thing still produces an amazing image. I wish it were possible to shoot slow motion at 120fps in 4K, but that is something that likely won't be necessary for most of my work in the next couple of years. That speed continuously at 1080p is a huge bonus. For sports video shooting this has been the perfect accompaniment. I took it in a kayak in place of my FS5 which allowed me to take some stills and video of swimmers at the ITU Multisport World Championships. The footage was stunning. Because of the continuous 120fps it looked better than what my FS5 could currently produce (update forthcoming), but also allowed me to leave the really expensive rig behind in favour of something more nimble and cheaper — lightening the risk load should it fall in the water.
I've also used this camera mounted to my Ronin MX gimbal as a b-camera. I often have wished that I could use the Ronin more, but due to the time consuming setup it's often left unused. Having the a6500 mounted to the Gimbal permanently during shoot allows me some flexible options for moving shots. It's also much lighter and I was able to run alongside some elite runners and gather some relatively smooth shots at 120fps on the gimbal which proved useful. Again, my other camera was available in it's normal configuration after that.
Being around water for some tourism shooting also had the a6500 in play. With an inexpensive waterproof housing I was able to film some in the water shots on a floating kids waterpark with quality better than a GoPro and cost far less than a proper underwater housing for my other cameras. Video quality again would have easily bested the 5D Mark 3 (perhaps not the Mark IV, but I don't know yet).
All in all, when it comes to video the a6500 is a very nimble all around performer. I wouldn't use this as my main camera for one reason, and that is a lack of a headphone jack for audio monitoring. Yes, you could chance it, but that leaves you open to many potential audio problems. As a second camera, however, this thing is amazing. The audio quality from the onboard stereo mic is also not that bad, and could be usable in certain circumstance, but that is not my focus with this camera.
I think I would still have preferred a Canon 5D3 or 4 for stills or the A7RII, but now we're talking about completely different things in a completely different price range. I'm still learning how to best use the a6500, but I will say it is generally a capable still camera. The images are decent and it performs reasonably well in low light, but not as well as a full frame sensor camera would. Again though, if you learn the limitations of a camera you can make it work for you. I especially enjoy the 11 frames per second continuous shooting which is nothing short of amazing.
While rolling shutter should top this list it doesn't for me. When do you move your camera side to side like they do in all of those tests? If you're not doing whip pans this camera is fine. In fact almost every CMOS sensor camera has a rolling shutter issue. Is this one worse? Yes, probably, however for my purposes it has not been an issue.
The battery life on this camera is absolutely horrendous. That is my number one pet peeve. The batteries are actually supposed to be good, which I'm sure they are, but the camera itself must draw a lot of power. After an hour of off-and-on, non-continuous shooting the battery is sapped. Additional batteries are quite pricey and in my estimation, I'm going to need at least 4 of them to make this camera useful in my professional life. For now I have 2. At least it uses the same battery as other Sony mirrorless cameras like the A7R2.
My second pet peeve is the menu system and I'm sure this is not unique to me. There are so many pages and options and it's a nightmare to navigate quickly. The custom buttons definitely help, allowing you to customize 3 separate shortcuts to required features, but generally speaking it is a complicated menu system.
Overall though, I am very impressed with this camera. It's expensive relative to some of the other options, but it's nimble, portable, and shoots both stills and video at a high quality. Some of the features like 11fps still shooting and 120fps continuous video best even the A7R2. This camera has definitely swayed me in the direction of Sony despite my critiques above. Next up A7R2 or A9?
Chris Stenberg is a Canadian travel photographer, filmmaker and researcher. When he’s not wielding a camera or raising a family you can find him running, biking and boarding in the mountains or eating an apple under a tree in an orchard.