The $350 docu-filmmaking kit: Depreciation is Wonderful

Last week, I went out with some friends for yet another night on the town.  I brought along my Sony NEX-5n with a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 pancake lens and made the short “Tuesday”.

I recently discovered that this combo can be bought for about $350 used on Ebay.   The NEX-5n goes for about $300 (search completed listings here).  The 50mm f/1.8 can be had for about $25 (search completed listings here). The Nikon to NEX adapter is about $15 on Amazon.  Depreciation is a wonderful thing.


Sony NEX-5n

nikon 50mm pancake

Nikon 50mm f/1.8 pancake

The NEX-5n remains the lightest, smallest APS-C body that produces a quality 1080p24 image as well as 1080p60 for smooth slow-mo.  It’s excellent in low light and has an articulated screen.  It’s compatible with almost any lens made (unlike Canon and Nikon), and its APS-C sensor can even be effectively made full-frame if you add the Metabones Speed Booster (read about modification here).  This modification is not currently possible with Canon or Nikon.

Its successors such as the NEX-6 and NEX-5r have improved on photo capabilities and wifi connectivity, but the actual video image is the same.  Or possibly worse: I recently tested the NEX-6 and noticed a slight increase in moire and high ISO noise.  The image was also contrastier, making it harder to grade in post.

The NEX-5n can be your B-camera, your crash-cam, or even an A-camera for bare-bones productions.

UPDATE: Overheating is a notorious issue on longer takes with this camera (and most DSLR’s in video mode), but I’ve been using the fastest Sony 32GB Memory Stick (MSHX32B)  and found that it remarkably allows me to record up to the 30-minute limit! I still get overheating when using the camera continuously for over an hour or so, but this is a big step up in usability for bigger projects.

The Nikon 50mm f/1.8 pancake lens is the cheapest, lowest-profile solution for low light shooting.  You could spend more and get the E-mount 50mm f.1.8 or 35mm f/1.8, gaining autofocus and image stabilization (50mm only).  The only drawback is that you wouldn’t be able to adapt those lenses for use with the Metabones Speed Booster.

I enjoy shooting my daily life without worrying about breaking the bank or my back.  It’s nice to know that technology has come far enough to let me capture a quality image on a shoestring budget.



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Latest Comments
  1. David Peterson
    “But I had my Sony NEX-5n with me, which I could practically hear depreciating as it sat in my luggage.”

    Ha! Sound like you were right! Great news for the rest of us 😉

    • Brandon Li

      Ha, looks like I was right. I’m happy it’s depreciated because now I can get a second unit cheaply.

  2. Justin Nalepa

    Hi Brandon,

    Thanks for the great post. I’m considering getting a light weight b-cam for a documentary with extensive travel in mind. This looks great and the Metabones Speed Booster sounds absolutely amazing. Just wondering from your experience, how does it feel going handheld? Do you recommend any other modifications or equipment to have it ready for a run and gun shooting style?

    • Brandon Li

      Hi Justin,

      The Speed Booster is indispensable. Having an extra stop of low light plus the full width of the lens makes a huge difference in the environments in which I can shoot, and it is actually shorter than the regular adapter. It does add a bit of weight, but I find that the NEX-5n is so light that a little extra weight actually helps stabilize things a bit.

      I try to shoot with a minimum of equipment, so I don’t like using shoulder rigs or stabilizers. The only gear I would say is a necessity for a camera like this is a few Variable ND filters for shooting in bright sunlight. You can also check out these articles on my blog for more ideas on building your docu kit:

      One-Bag GH2 Kit

      What to carry when gunning it to the extreme

      15 tips for run-and-gun DSLR docu-verite shooting

  3. Michael

    Hiya Brandon!

    Really dig the new blog – guess its not that new but…its new. I also dig the work you’ve been doing with both the NEX5n and the RX100…and have a question. Between the two, which would you count on for the most reliable results – AF performance, exposure, “look”, etc.? I’m looking at both but need to select one for video only – I’m a documentary still photographer who wants to add a dedicated camera to my bag. Physical size isn’t as important as ultimate usability and output quality. The RX100 seems to hit all the right notes…

    Your thoughts?

    And many, many thanks for the work you’re doing.


    • Brandon Li

      Thanks Michael! The NEX-5n and Rx100 are really entirely different tools. Here’s my short answer: if you need shallow depth of field, go with the NEX-5n. The RX100 will only give you a little bit of the shallow look, and only at wide angle. But if you just want a fast, reliable video camera, get the Rx100. The NEX-5n has more issues with overheating, is less sharp, and has a less user-friendly menu so it’s slower to set up for different types of shots. You can’t store scene files on the NEX-5n so you have to change everything manually, one setting at a time.

      The Rx100 performs like a high-end video camera in low light. Not as good as a DSLR, but you’ll get a usable image in almost any light.

      Autofocus on either is comparable provided you’re using native E-mount lenses on the NEX-5n. Same goes for image stabilization.

      One more thing to consider: if you already have a DSLR, you can adapt almost any lens to the NEX-5n (minus autofocus, auto iris, and image stabilization in most cases). You might be able to get away with just adapting your existing lenses to the 5n and use them for video.

      • Michael

        Wow, that was fast…and thanks.

        Is the AF in low light better on the RX100…vs the 5n with the kit lens?

        Again, sincerest thanks.

        • Brandon Li

          They both kind of suck for AF in low light. With the NEX-5n you have the advantage of a touchscreen, so you can just touch your focus point, but it’s still pretty useless. If you’re going to just use the NEX-5n’s kit lens, the RX100 outperforms it in sharpness, low light, stabilization, and menu usability by a considerable margin.

  4. Sean

    Really love your site! I recently bought an RX100 to be able to shoot sizzle reels stealthily and I’m now looking into getting an NEX-5 to complement it on a road-doc. Do you know if there is a difference in terms of low-light performance between the N and the R models? I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford the metabones speedbooster just yet so any little bit of extra performance counts haha.

    • Brandon Li

      Are you talking about NEX-5n vs Rx100? In that case, you get rougly 1 2/3 stops advantage by using a 5n versus an RX100, given the same aperture. If you’re talking about the NEX-5r, don’t use that for video. It has too weak an anti-alias filter and has excessive aliasing and moire. Also, it is more contrasty than the 5n, making it harder to achieve flat, low-contrast looks. Overall it has a more “video” look.

      • Sean

        Thanks for the info — 5N it is!

  5. M

    Are you still shooting with your GH2 kit or have you moved on? I sold my Canon 5dmk2 while I wait for some new options and am on the fence about a investing a small doc kit now that the metabones speedboost is here.

    I have a set of Contax/Zeiss lenses to play with and am wondering which route to go in the mean time? Sont Nex5n or pick up a cheap hacked GH2?

    • Brandon Li

      I rarely use the GH2 these days. Not that it is a bad camera, but I find that it’s just not good enough in low light for most of the docu-verite work I do. The NEX-5n with Metabones Speed Booster is two stops brighter. I also really enjoy the super-shallow depth of field.

      Main GH2 advantages for docu work:

      -unlimited record time
      -mic input
      -high bitrates (good for broadcast or cinematic work)
      -doesn’t overheat

      Main NEX-5n advantages:

      -shallower depth of field
      -2x better in low light (4x with speed booster)
      -richer color, wider dynamic range

      Note that the NEX-5n is a horrible choice for interviews. It can only record 30-mins at a time, sometimes has overheating issues, and doesn’t have a mic input. It also will show compression artifacts when shooting slow motion, so it is better for web output than broadcast or cinema.

      • Brandon Li

        Also look into the Nikon D5200 – excellent color and sharpness, no moire or ailiasing, great in low light, clean HDMI out (which means you can record un-compressed video to an external recorder like Atmos Ninja). Not compatible with Canon EF mount lenses or the Metabones Speed Booster (and never will be because of the limitations of physics).

    • Brandon Li

      Hi Rob, the NEX-5r has rather poor video, unfortunately. They reduced the anti-aliasing filter, which leads to sharper pictures but far more moire and aliasing artifacts in video.

  6. Oliver

    Hi Brandon

    Thanks for a great and inspiring site. I recently got the Kipon adaptor and some great 1960s Nikkor manual glass, really loving it.

    One question though, I’m having problems getting my mac to import the video shot with the adaptor. Videos shot with native e-mount glass show up and can be imported direct into iMovie, but the ones shot with the adaptor on there on the card, but iMovie won’t let me select or import them. No idea whether you use Mac/PC/Linux, but did you run into this problem, and how did you get round it? (there’s probably better software out there for dealing with AVCHD on a mac right?)


    • Brandon Li

      Hi Oliver,

      I can’t see any reason why the adapter would affect your video file. It only affects the lens, not the recording. I have never had a problem even remotely similar to this.

      I would recommend never using iMovie for anything, ever. Final Cut Pro X is fairly easy to learn and use, especially if you are familiar with iMovie. It allows you to preview and import AVCHD files via a simple interface. If I were you, I’d upgrade my software.

      • Oliver

        Hi Brandon

        Thanks for your reply, you’re absolutely right, I downloaded the FCP X trial and it imports the adapter-filmed videos no problems. I was thinking FCP X was a little OTT for my needs, but it does have some nice features. (Kind of interesting though that iMovie differentiated between videos shot with native glass, and those with the adaptor. I wonder whether there’s a flag in the video file indicating this….)

  7. Chris

    Hey Brandon. I was just curious. Did you use the speed booster in this video?

    • Brandon Li

      Hi Chris, I didn’t use the Speedbooster on that one. It was just a 50mm f/1.8.

  8. Patrick Brooks


    Primarily based on the information from this site I just got a NEX 5N off eBay. It comes with the kit lens and video shot with that looks rather good. However I am interested in using the adapter and Nikon F lenses as you describe. The main thing I wonder is… how you keep things in focus manually using the video screen as a guide because I am unused to shooting withoyt a viewfinder and the video (particularly in direct daylight where you can’t see anything) seems too indistinct for one to know if stuff is in focus or not. Any tips?

    • Brandon Li

      Hey Patrick,

      Congrats on your purchase! To keep focus with Manual Lenses, you can use Focus Peaking in the Setup menu. This outlines all the high-contrast in-focus portions of the frame in yellow. Also, you should use the “wide view”, which is buried in the setup menu somewhere. It basically enlarges the image on the LCD so that there are no black borders around what you’re filming. Makes it much easier to set focus manually.

      • Patrick Brooks

        Thanks, I will try that.

  9. ken enomoto

    Hey Brandon. Love your work on the site. You shoot so beautifully. Now that rx100 M2 is out ….
    what do you think. Should I get the newer rx100 M2 or stick with the old rx100? I want to be able to shoot vids in low light situations….at night, outside or in. From what I’ve read the old rx 100 does better without the backlit sensor. But the new model has 24 and 30 p frame to shoot vids in.
    So. What do you think. I was seriously considering nex 5n but ……don’t know anymore.
    want the best for low light vids..slow mo and everything.

    • Brandon Li

      Thanks Ken! I’m not expecting the mkII to have better low-light performance than the mkI, but the 24p option is really nice. But the NEX-5n will still provide a more cinematic image because it’s a true S35mm sensor, and the RX100 is essentially S16mm. Depends on how much you love shallow depth-of-field. Plus I’ve been seeing the 5n body go for as little as $260 on Ebay recently.

  10. ken enomoto

    Hi Brandon. So finally decided to get a Sony nex 5r instead of rx100. A great deal here in L.A. at Samy’s for $450 without TAX. Which is like $400. wowow I have an issue that is troubling though.
    At first, I attempted to take photos…which were fine but when shooting vids in a dim lit house, I saw specs of Red and white dots on the LCD screen. I said to myself. Maybe a bad or dead pixels 0n the LCD. 5 vids about a minute long each. There they were …those dots. But when taking photos were fine.
    I proceeded to check the high speed SDXC card class 10 with 40 write and read.
    Pushed it,in and out. After those dots were gone. Go figure.
    Do you think those dots and blemishes were from the FLASH CARD.
    They sure looked like bad or dead pixels on the sensor. Watched it on my PC and there they were.
    Going back to get an exchange tomorrow regardless but maybe a bad flash card?
    thank you
    Keep up the great beautiful work that you do.

  11. ken enomoto

    Hi. What was I thinking. Couldn’t be the flash card for I saw it with my naked eye those dots as I was shooting. Sorry.
    Got a replacement today.
    All is well.
    Shooting the night sky with it. Amazing how milky way photos looks.

    take care

    • Brandon Li

      Hi Ken,

      It’s most likely a dead or “hot” pixel – I’ve had those problems with my D5200’s and need to send one in for repair. Never had an issue with the 5n, though dust on the sensor has been a problem.

      Glad you’ve gotten a replacement. Have fun shooting!

  12. Jason

    What effects did you use to get that cinema look?

    • Brandon Li

      Hi Jason, you might be referring to the film burns I laid over the image. Here’s a link to download some for free:

        • Jason

          Thanks Brandon! I have been following your blog ever since I came across it on the internet, and I have already bought a 50mm Nikon E series f1.8 lens for my films. I can already tell a difference in the quality. Here is my short film I created when I first got the lens: Let me know what you think. I used Gorilla grain and some film burn effects. This was shot on the 5R though. I am thinking about getting a 5N to see the difference. Love your blog and the videos!!!

  13. Alexi Tanguay

    Thanks for the article.

    I just bought a 5-N body for $150, an adapter and a 50mm f1.8 from Nikon!

    It works like a charm!

    • Nid Collins

      Hey Alex, is it normal for the image to be zoomed in by default with this lens?

  14. Orwa Mohamad

    Hi Brandon,

    I really like your videos and I’m following you on Vimeo and Instagram. I’m just starting into film-making and I’m looking for a camera to buy. Unfortunately, I’m on a tied budget and I was surprised and happy when I saw that I can make such great videos with the NEX-5N. So I’m considering buying it with a view finder, adapter, and a Nikon lens. Would you still recommend the 5N or should I buy something else?

    Thank you

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