With the release of the Sony NEX-F3 camera, Sony Electronics is basically refreshing its entry-level compact and interchangeable camera offering. The overall goal of the release is to offer the latest software updates in terms of effects and image analysis and processing to a form factor that continues to rise in popularity. While the hardware and the image quality itself is not so different from the now retired NEX-C3, the new NEX-F3 camera offers better video recording capabilities and better automatic photo modes, which makes it easier to take great shots without having to touch any settings. Sony says that the Sony NEX-F3 can produce “professional-quality” images, so it’s time to put it to the test to see how it actually performs in the real world.
The Sony NEX-F3 is designed to fit somewhere between a pocket compact camera and a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera in both size and performance. Our test camera has an silver aluminum body and has an overall solid feel. The body itself feels metalic, while the top seems more like plastic, which is not surprising given that there are a lot of openings for the pop-up flash, add-on viewfinder and various buttons.
In terms of ergonomics, your mileage will vary. For example, the thumb rest is definitely not placed where my thumb naturally lands, which is right on the pop-up flash cover. In reality I didn’t this to be a problem, but it shows the challenges imposed by a camera design that is compact, but relatively heavy at the same time. I find that using the intended grip locations don’t provide enough comfort, unless you have very small hands – maybe.
If you put the location of the buttons aside, the controls are very simple and straightforward: Most operations involve one of the 7 buttons, and the multi-directional “joystick”. This is great if you want to use the camera as a “point and shoot”, but if you like tweaking settings manually, the lack of manual (physical) controls may hinder your efforts. The NEX-F3 has been basically designed to provide near-DSLR quality with the simplicity of a point and shoot. Savy users who want to tweak settings themselves are better off with something like the NEX-7, which is for semi-pros.
At the bottom, you will find the battery compartment, the memory card slot and the tri-pd mount. Note that Sony allows the use of Memory Sticks and SD cards, a wise choice as customers tend to dislike being locked with proprietary technologies.
Lens compatibility: Sony E-mount, Sony A-mount and Minolta/Konica Minolta Maxxum lenses confirmed (via LA-EA1/EA2)
Sensor: Sony EXMOR APS-C, 16.5 Megapixel
Max image size: 4912 X 3264
Video recording: MP4 (1440×1080 30fps max), AVCHD (1080i 60p max)
Display with tilt-up at 180 degrees, tilt-down at 13 degrees
Size and weight: 117.3 x 66.6 x 41.3mm, 9.0 oz (255g)
The imaging industry is extremely competitive, and it’s hard to differentiate one’s products from a competitor’s but there are things that I *really* like with the Sony NEX-F3 that are usually not found in other cameras in this category.
Micro-USB charging: while this is hardly anything to do with image quality, charging with a micro-USB port is simply awesome. Why? Because you probably have many micro-USB cables or charger. If you don’t, you can hop into any store that sells electronics stuff and get what you need for cheap.
The worst nightmare for any traveler (and tech blogger) is to lose or fry the proprietary charger. It is often very difficult to get a replacement within hours. With this, no problem, the camera can use the 500mA, 5V standard USB power. I love it.
Flip-up display: the flip up display is most useful when taking self-portrait, which is something that is widely done among friends. Because, it has a high ISO, the camera often don’t need to use the flash, so proximity is not a problem. Secondly, you can now see exactly what you’re going to shoot, so it removes the guesswork.
If for some reason you want to extend the arm to shoot a photo over a crowd, you can simply reverse the camera, and the internal motion sensor will detect it and rotate the photo upside-down to compensate. This is not the most comfortable way of doing it, but it works.
Obviously, these are not the only new features, but I think that they both set this camera apart when compared to many of the competing Compact camera systems out there.
For all the comparison that you will get with the older NEX-C3, the bottom-line is that the C3 is going away, so you may find a deal during the end of life firesale, but for practical purposes, the NEX-F3 is the new NEX entry level.
How I use it
Before we go on, I think that it’s important that you know how I’m using my micro-camera as this inevitably shapes how I perceive its qualities and pitfalls. Also, in the reviews I mainly use the fully-automatic mode or the shutter-priority mode as most people (not all, I agree) want to simply “point and shoot”.
The micro-camera follows me when I roam around trade shows or go on a vacation. I also own a Canon 50D, which is a really good -but bulky- camera. I have clearly chosen the micro-camera for its small size and weight, and I love the fact that it can fulfill most of the duties that my 50D does for me (I insist on the “for me” part).
In both situations, I tend to shoot in difficult lighting conditions, whether it is on a poorly lit showroom or at a dinner with friends. But whatever happens, I rarely use the flash as I personally prefer photos without it. Also, I tend to use my photos only on the web, and I rarely print anything larger than letter-size, if at all.
Photo quality (very good)
I shot most of the photos in the “Superior Auto” mode, which sets up a bunch of things for me, including the use of HDR photography, which is great for high contrast scenes. Overall, I find the quality to be very good and I have to say that despite having a relatively unimpressive 18-55mn f3.5-f5.6 kit lens, the camera performed admirably well in all kinds of conditions, including low-light. In fact the automatic mode of the NEX-F3 is better than the one on my Canon 50D which tries to pop the flash all the time.
I have uploaded a number of sample images to our Ubergizmo Flickr account so that you can see for yourself what the unprocessed photos look like. I’ll shoot more high-resolution if there’s a demand for it, but you will probably get the idea with what we have now.
For a non-DSLR camera, I found the focus speed to be very decent, and while the Olympus E-P3 does feel a bit faster, I don’t think that this would be a make or break deal for me. It was harder to auto-focus in dark settings, even with the AF illuminator. This is common for cameras of this size. Interestingly, my DSLR focused faster even though it had no AF illuminator to help it.
One last point about the auto-focus: I don’t think that it is fast enough for many sports. That’s especially true if the subject goes towards you, or away from you. Again, this is common with those more compact cameras, and if you want to snap sport photos, you will often be better off with a DSLR camera. It’s not that the NEX-F3 isn’t capable of doing it if the conditions are right, but rather that it will have a harder time doing it.
I also liked the panorama mode very much. The software behind the photo stitching works very nicely, and the results are impeccable. I’ve often seen stitching that had defects here and there, but the NEX-F3 does a very good job, so if that’s your thing, you will be quite satisfied.
Sony has improved the video quality by adding higher quality recording mode when compared to the NEX-F3. The camera can record in both AVCHD and MP4. The reason for having two modes is that AVCHD is higher quality, while the MP4 format is more friendly to televisions, computer, tablets, web services, etc… its compatibility is much better. That said, even the MP4 recording more reaches 1440×1080 30p, which is very good. AVCHD can go to 1080i 60FPS. Unfortunately there is no 1080p 60fps, a mode that is available on the NEX-5N.
For casual use, the quality of the video is good. If you want to post something on YouTube, it will come out as a quality video. However, keep in mind that other cameras can record in 1080p 60, which is much better than 1080i and would probably have earned an “Excellent” rating for this section.
Sony has not changed the user interface from the NEX-C3 to the NEX-F3. Obviously, if you have never used an NEX before, I’ll describe the most important parts.
First, in full-auto mode, the shutter and “record movie” buttons are the only ones that you should worry about, so that’s easy. In modes like shutter priority or aperture priority, the wheel gets the job done. If you are in full manual mode, switching from Aperture to Shutter Speed control requires more clicks – and it’s enough so that I would use it only as a last resort in my day to day activities.
The rest of the settings like switching from single shot to continuous, changing the resolution, and setting up the camera in general is fairly easy and relatively clear. The good news is that the default settings were just fine, so if you get lost, you can always reset the whole thing.
It’s a pity that there are no touch-screen controls as they are often faster for selecting things, while physical dials are good at tweaking parameters. Maybe next time.
What could be better?
1/Pancake lens: Price aside, I wish that Sony would add is an option to get the pancake lens as a kit-lens instead of the 18-55mm. For sure the 18-55 is a do-it-all lens, but I think that the pancake lens is a great alternative that makes these compact cameras… actually compact.
2/Touch UI: Secondly, a touch interface would great, like the NEX-5 – it would be totally worth it. That said, not everything should be done with the touch screen: we also need a couple of dials to quickly tweak things like aperture, ISO and shutter speed.
3/ direct to PC shooting: given that the NEX-F3 can be charged over USB power, it would be idea for time-lapses and long-exposure photos. All it takes is to add a shoot to disk capability that the Sony Alpha DSLRs already have. This is often considered to be a “pro” feature, but with these cameras, there are a ton of amazing things that regular folks could do as well. Oh, and it would be nice if we could use it as a high-end webcam too while we’re at it.
I tend to think that camera manufacturers artificially limit these features on semi-pro/enthusiast cameras to preserve their DSLR market, but this is a mistake. DSLRs have unique abilities enabled by their sheer size, so camera makers should not hold back on direct to disk shooting.
Who is this for?
Sony has always clearly stated that the NEX cameras are not meant to compete directly with the DSLR space (after all, Sony also addresses that market). Instead, this is a high-quality camera that would ideally be used in addition to a DSLR, which is often too big to carry around everywhere.
Of course, not everyone wants to own both a DSLR and a NEX, so I’m pretty sure that many customers will be just fine with the NEX, but at a price of $600 you will have to ask yourself if an entry-level DSLR may not be a compelling alternative choice. And it may very well be. It all comes down to how small you want your camera to be.
To answer the question, this camera is rather for someone who wants very good image quality, without the bulk of a DSLR. Folks who are just interested in popping the camera and shooting great pictures without asking themselves any questions about settings will love it.
One of the cool things about these cameras (vs. pocket cameras) is that they can be supplemented with accessories. I mentioned the pancake lens earlier, but anyone who shoots photos on a sunny day wishes to have an viewfinder. Unfortunately, the only option for this camera is quite expensive. At $350, you will have to be very motivated before buying an electronic viewfinder (EVF) which costs more than half the price of the camera.
The Microphone is probably one of the more accessible (and useful) accessory for whoever wants to shoot movies with an NEX camera. It should not only make the sound better, but it may help with the ambient noise as well, thanks to its directional nature.
For those who own a Sony Alpha, or want to use more exotic lenses, there’s a lens mount adapter that enabled using the lenses built for the Alpha DSLR systems. Interestingly, this usually makes your camera gigantic, but if you need a very long zoom or a fish-eye lens, this may be the only way.
In the end, the largest added-value of this camera is its ease of use, image quality, the “Superior” auto-mode (Sony’s own feature name) and the ability to charge and sync with Micro-USB. If you have checked the photos and videos that I have posted on Flickr, you can see that the image quality is very good. I have not had any particular issue with the LCD in terms of not being able to see, but again, this may vary depending on your own environment. That said, I doubt that I would purchase a $350 viewfinder for a $600 camera.
Of course there’s ample competition. For instance, you can check my review of the Olympus E-P3 camera, which is great too, but costs $800, which is a substantial difference, and I can’t say that it is 30% better than the NEX-F3, even if enthusiast photographers may prefer its many physical controls.
$600 is not pocket change, but the bottom-line is that if you look at that market, you can go with lower-end cameras like the Panasonic GF3, which is clearly not as good – but is smaller and comes with a cool pancake lens.
The real competitor at this price point is the Samsung NX Series, but it too does not come with a pancake lens, or features that would make it a clear winner as it lacks the built-in Flash and USB charging capability. The Sony NEX-F3 is a top camera in the $600 range, and if you want to snap great photos without tinkering with any settings, it is very much worth considering.
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