With the camera market dominated for so long by DSLRs at one end and compacts at the other, it was perhaps inevitable that we would eventually see the emergence of a new type of imaging tool—the mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera. While expensive full-frame mirrorless offerings have attempted to compete directly with the best DSLRs, more modestly priced cropped-sensor mirrorless cameras have sought to populate the middle ground.
For photographers, and underwater shooters in particular, the benefits are obvious: They’re physically small and lightweight, and quality optics coupled with big sensors and the latest technology means top-notch image (and video) quality in even the most challenging conditions.
Sony’s a6000 series has been among the most popular in the cropped-sensor mirrorless category, with the initial a6000 and then the a6300 winning legions of fans, who, for a reasonable outlay, got a feature-loaded camera offering exceptional performance and images to rival those shot by DSLRs at a similar, or indeed higher, price point.
Outwardly, Sony’s latest offering in the series, the a6500, seems to have undergone only the subtlest of exterior changes, but the company has added a $400 premium on the new model (to an eye-watering $1400), which seems to suggest that there are plenty of changes under the hood that have refined what was, in the a6300, already a formidable imaging machine.
To find out whether Sony has succeeded in upping the ante once again with the a6500, I took the opportunity to test the camera in the new Fantasea FA6500 housing, which is compatible with both the a6500 and its predecessor. Priced as low as $980 in the U.S. and €1040 in Europe (not including tax), the FA6500 mirrors many of the principles of the camera it houses—a sturdy, high-quality build, and a solid emphasis on ergonomics and ease of use—promising a very compact and capable system among the very best in its class.
1. Overview of the Sony a6500
The a6500 boasts the same APS-C-sized 24-megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor that was newly developed for the a6300, but with a major turbo charge. Sony has added a new front-end LSI chip to the sensor, which essentially gives the camera faster processing capabilities.
Like its predecessor, the a6500 is capable of 11fps continuous shooting with full autofocus and autoexposure. But the addition of this chip, coupled with the main BIONZ X processor, allows the camera to increase the buffer for continuous shooting from 21 RAW images in the a6300 to 107 RAW images with the a6500. The camera also features the same lightning-quick 4D FOCUS as the a6300, backed with 425 phase-detect points.
Key Features of the Sony a6500
- 24.2-megapixel APS-C Exmor CMOS sensor
- BIONZ X image processor
- 4D FOCUS with 425 Phase-Detect Points
- Up to 11fps continuous shooting
- ISO range from 100 to 51,200
- UHD 4K video at 24/25/30p with S-Log2, S-Log3 video log profiles
- 5-axis in-body image stabilization
- XGA 2.36m-Dot OLED electronic viewfinder
- 3.0-inch 921.6k-Dot touchscreen LCD
- Built-In Wi-Fi with NFC
Sony’s 16–50mm lens (24–75mm equivalent) is ideal for composing nice portrait shots of bigger macro subjects like this lobster
The a6500 will appeal to the video shooters out there as well. Like its predecessor, the a6500 can record up to UHD 4K at 30p as well as Full HD at 120p, both at an impressive 100Mbps data rate. A new Slow and Quick (S&Q) mode has also been added that can record video at anywhere from 120fps to 1fps and automatically create clips that play back at the slower or quicker rate. For underwater videographers, it’s an easy way to obtain slow-motion clips without the need for post-processing. The caveat is that the bit rate drops to 60Mbps when using the S&Q modes, so if maximizing quality is your goal, you should continue to shoot in the standard high-frame rate modes at the camera’s top data rate.
Another major upgrade to the a6500 is five-axis in-body sensor stabilization. The new stabilization system compensates for five types of camera shake for both movies and stills. While this is of little significance for still shooters underwater, it should help video shooters to produce even smoother footage.
2. Overview of the Fantasea Housing for the Sony a6500
Featuring the company’s newest tech, Fantasea’s housing for the a6500 is the first housing for a mirrorless camera they have manufactured that includes an interchangeable port system. With the ability to choose specific lenses based upon your subject material, this opens up a whole new world of possibilities for a more advanced shooter.
The FA6500 housing features an ergonomic design with access to all essential camera functions. Fantasea have continued their philosophy on safety with the new housing featuring a double O-ring seal and coming with a moisture detector and alarm as standard equipment.
The port connection also features a double element of safety. The port firmly twists into position first and then there is a locking mechanism to secure once the port is correctly installed, ensuring that your system stays watertight after setup.
Highlights of the Fantasea FA6500 Housing
- Full access to all essential camera buttons and functions with clearly marked controls
- Depth-rated to 200 feet (60 meters)
- Shock resistant construction
- Double O-ring protection for a perfect watertight seal
- Interchangeable lens port and lens gear system, allowing for the use of a wide range of lenses
- Double fiber-optic cable port for triggering strobes optically
- M16 port for a variety of connections, including HDMI, vacuum valve or electronic strobe triggering bulkheads
- Moisture detector and alarm, hand strap, and body cap included
- Optional shutter release extension for easy access when using tray and handles
- Compatible with a range of lens ports (PDF) and accessories (PDF)
In addition, the various accessories that are promised for the housing’s M16 port make the system highly customizable. Fantasea will be offering accessories such as a vacuum seal check and an HDMI connection via this port. Users will also have the option to add on a universal flash trigger, which connects directly to the camera’s hotshoe to fire external strobes. This will be a significant improvement over utilizing the on-camera flash to trigger strobes via fiber-optic cables, as shooters will be able to take full advantage of the a6500’s continuous shooting speeds by no longer having to wait for the in-built flash to recharge.
Also something to look forward to is the release of a dome port designed for wide-angle lenses such as the Sony 16mm lens and VCL-ECF2 Fisheye converter; a lens port extension ring designed to help accommodate longer lenses such as the Sony 10–18mm zoom lens; lens gears and light shielding pads designed for a variety of Sony E-Mount lenses; an LCD screen magnifier, compatible with all Fantasea housings; and new and improved fiber-optic cables.
Compact and lightweight, the Fantasea FA6500 housing makes it a breeze to maneuver in the water for the perfect composition
3. The Fantasea FA6500 Housing in Use
Fantasea’s FA6500 housing is very compact and streamlined, and when assembled, it is noticeably smaller than a DSLR setup. As well as being a joy to travel with, it handled beautifully underwater, making it easy to maneuver in tricky environments like wreck interiors. The housing offers full control of all the most important camera settings, and all controls are fluid, easy to adjust and very well marked.
The housing offers two control dials that give you direct access to shutter speed and aperture. Both dials are easily adjusted with the use of a single finger for easy minor adjustments on the fly. Access to ISO is obtained by pressing the right arrow key on the dial on the rear of the housing, but the housing also gives you access to the a6500’s three custom buttons, which can also be set to access ISO settings. The housing’s zoom adjustment knob is located on the left side, and the control is also adjustable with a single finger and proved to be very responsive.
The FA6500 gives you the ability to pop up and put away the camera’s on-board flash while diving, allowing you to switch between flash and natural light photography. When shooting in a natural light situation, it is crucial to be able to put away the camera’s flash in order to have access to the camera’s high-speed continuous shooting function.
ISO access can be assigned to a number of different buttons on Fantasea’s housing, giving users the flexibility to customize their rig to taste
4. Wide-Angle Photography with the Sony a6500
For my wide-angle shooting with the a6500, I used the Sony 16–50mm, which is equivalent to 24–75mm in full frame. I had the lens set to its widest focal length of 16mm for almost all of my dives to ensure I could get closer to my subjects.
The port of the FA6500 housing comes with a standard 67mm thread that allows you to add wet lenses to expand the field of view even further. For this review, I used Fantasea-AOI’s new wide-angle wet lens, the UWL-09F. (Read my review of the lens alongside the UCL-09F super-macro diopter.)
The a6500 performed superbly with a wide variety of wide-angle subjects. With the camera’s lightning-fast focusing abilities and easy access and adjustment of shooting settings, capturing colorful, crisp images was a breeze.
The a6500 showed great transition into the blues and achieved excellent detail even in the background of images
I found that my go-to focusing mode was Single-shot AF (AF-S). With this focusing mode, focus is achieved and locked on a subject with a half-press of the shutter, making it a great option for subject matter that isn’t on the move such as sponges, soft corals and reefscapes.
For blue water shooting scenarios, I found the manual focusing mode proved to be the best option for consistent and accurate focusing. Though this mode is generally used for macro scenarios, I found it useful for blue water shooting when used with the a6500’s focus peaking feature, where the in-focus areas are highlighted on the LCD. This was great for bigger animals in a low-contrast scenario like in the open water. In other focusing modes, I found the camera occasionally searching for focus when confronted with low-contrast scenes.
By shooting with a high aperture, the a6500 was able to control the ambient light in a scene when shooting into the sun. This image was taken with an aperture of f/22
When shooting the a6500 with only natural light, there is an array of custom white balance choices to dial in the color for your image. At depths shallower than 50 feet, I found the camera’s custom Underwater Auto white balance setting produced great images with accurate color schemes. Adding strobes to the setup, the a6500 produced very vivid and detailed images with great transitions into the blue.
The camera’s 11fps continuous shooting with autofocus, with a buffer of 107 RAW files, sounds exciting on paper, and it’s every bit as impressive when used in a real-world scenario. Even with the fastest-moving subjects, it’s almost impossible to miss the perfect moment.
With the continuous shooting of the a6500, you are able record your subject every step of the way, ensuring that you get the perfect composition every time
5. Macro Photography with the Sony a6500
I used the Sony 16–50mm dialed in to the maximum focal length of 50mm for fish potraits and bigger macro subjects like lobsters and eels. With the addition of the Fantasea-AOI UCL-09F, the rig ventured right into the realm of super-macro, easily filling the frame with smaller subjects like flamingo tongues and blennies. With the added diopter, the focusing distance of the setup is reduced significantly, putting you literally within centimeters of your subject.
With the addition of the UCL-09F macro wet lens, the a6500 was more than capable of capturing very small macro subjects like this blenny
A big plus when shooting with the lens is the added aperture stops given to the shooter once the lens has been zoomed in. Maxing out at f/36 gives the shooter a great ability to cancel out the loss of depth of field due to the diopter. This is also a huge benefit to shooters wanting to try more creative photography techniques like a black backgrounds.
The image on the left shows the magnification using just the Sony 16–50mm lens, while the image on the right shows the magnification of the system with the addition of the UCL-09F macro diopter
The a6500 more than lived up to its spec sheet with incredibly fast focusing. With focus peaking activated and looking at the LCD rather than through the optical viewfinder, it was very easy to compose a macro subject and achieve perfect focus by just making minor adjustments to the position of the camera.
6. Image Quality and ISO Performance
With the new front-end LSI chip on the sensor coupled with the BIONZ X processor, the a6500 also promises an improvement in high ISO performance for both stills and video.
While the a6500 offers the same extended 100 to 51,200 ISO range as its predecessor, I was more interested to see what the practical limits on ISO were when shooting underwater in natural light. In my tests, the a6500 produced excellent detail, color and contrast in images right up to ISO 1600.
Beyond this, noise became somewhat more intrusive, as expected, but images were still vibrant and detailed, and could comfortably be used for less critical applications, such as publication online.
Shooting inside a shipwreck is a situation that without a doubt calls for a higher ISO than normal. This image was taken at ISO 640, and in the cropped preview, you can see just how much detail is captured
This image of the Ex-USS Kittiwake was taken at ISO 1600, the quality threshold for a lot of cameras. I was very impressed with the cleanness and amount of detail that the cropped preview shows
Taken inside the wreck, his image was shot at ISO 5000. Though there is noticeable noise in the cropped preview, this is still a very decent image, considering the conditions
The a6500 proved to be extremely capable in very low-light situations, producing images at ISOs up to 5000 with a level of noise that most photographers would find acceptable. Looking back at my review of the predecessor, the a6300, the image above shot at ISO 5000 is cleaner than an image taken at ISO 4000 with the a6300.
7. Underwater Video with the Sony a6500
Like its predecessor, the a6500 offers a variety of video modes, with a bit rate of up to 100Mbps, but there are some differences between the modes that have an effect on quality.
The full width of the sensor is used for 4K at 24p or 25p, as well as for 1080p at up to 60p, so the horizontal angle of view remains unchanged—good news for wide-angle shooting. However, when switching to the high frame rate Full HD modes, 100p or 120p, there’s a 1.14x crop you’ll have to live with, while the 4K 30p uses an even smaller portion of the sensor, cropping by 1.23x.
In practice, while the quality was technically reduced when shooting in these modes, I didn’t find this to be noticeable in my final clips. Rather, the crop factors were more serious considerations when selecting video modes.
4K footage is actually downsampled from 6K data recorded from the sensor. In tandem with the high data rate, downsampling produces footage with wonderful detail, and the dynamic range is extremely impressive, especially considering the camera’s low cost in comparison to high-end video cameras.
Highlight reel shot with the Sony a6500 in Fantasea housing
The camera offers multiple custom white balance settings that allow you to dial in and save your desired color correction filters for later use. I also found that the Underwater Auto white balance option worked really well all the way to depths of around 60 feet.
With the a6500, Sony has also added the ability to select and save still images from 4K and Full HD footage directly to the camera. The file sizes come out at 8MP for 4K and 2MP for Full HD, sufficient resolution for sharing on social media, even if they probably won’t have much practical use beyond that.
8. Who Should Consider the Sony a6500 in Fantasea Housing?
After shooting the previous model in the series last year, I knew that this was an imaging machine that could cater to a wide array of photographers, from intermediate shooters looking to upgrade, to semi-pro and even pro shooters needing a backup 4K and stills camera. I’m sure anyone who picks up the a6500 will be impressed by the blazingly fast autofocus, extensive feature set, and superb image and video results.
The a6500 really shines in Fantasea’s housing, which follows the camera’s compact build and gives you effortless control over the camera’s important functions. As a compact rig for shooting in natural light, the Sony/Fantasea combination is particularly good, but the housing is also Fantasea’s most expandable yet, and we’re excited to see how the M16 port maximizes the potential of this rig in the future.
The author with his Sony-Fantasea rig
Sony’s latest tech does come at a price, and individual shooters will have to decide whether the gains in processing power justify the extra outlay, since the other major feature that separates the a6500 from its predecessor—in-body image stabilization—doesn’t play a significant role when shooting underwater. The great thing is that the Fantasea housing has you covered, whether you opt for the a6300 or the new model.
If you want to keep your setup light and compact for travel, I would highly recommend the a6500 in Fantasea’s housing, a versatile rig that can deliver a high-quality final product whether you’re shooting fast-moving big animals, focus-critical macro subjects, or challenging low-light scenes such as wreck interiors.
About the Reviewer: Chase Darnell is an award-winning underwater photographer and filmmaker currently based in Grand Cayman with Cayman Turtle Divers. With the crystal clear waters of Cayman at his full disposal, Chase is in the water daily with a camera in hand to document his experiences. He accounts his images to a simple theory: “More hours in the water equals more life-changing experiences.” For more of his work, visit his website.