Sony NEX-F3 Review
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The Sony NEX-F3 is a new entry-level compact system camera. Successor to the NEX-C3 model, the NEX-F3 features a 16.1 megapixel Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor, full HD AVCHD (50i/25p) video recording, 5.5fps burst shooting, 25-point contrast-detect autofocus system, 49-segment exposure meter, 3-inch tilting LCD panel with 921,000-dot resolution, built-in pop-up flash, a range of Picture Effects and extended 470 shot battery life. The Sony NEX-F3 is available now in silver or black with an 18-55mm standard zoom lens for about $600 / £530.
Ease of Use
The Sony NEX-F3 is quite similar in design to last year's NEX-C3 model, so a lot of the comments that we made in our Sony NEX-C3 review apply equally to the new NEX-F3. The rectangular body shape lacks the immediately appealing retro finesse of an Olympus Pen, or the modernist curves of the Panasonic G series. Despite weighing just 225g (without the lens and battery fitted), the NEX-F3 still feels solid gripped in the palm, though with a lens attached it's too large for most jacket pockets. It now has a bigger, more bulbous grip than the NEX-C3, with the shutter release button moving from the top of the camera to the top of the grip. The camera inevitably looks bigger as a result, but we really liked the new location of the shutter button, falling very naturally under your right fore-finger whilst also helping to support the rest of the camera. With the supplied 18-55mmm kit lens attached the NEX-5 does look and feel top heavy, an inevitable consequence of the APS-C sensor and the NEX system as a whole.
The 3 inch LCD screen can now be tilted back and forward through a full 180° - if not, unfortunately swung outwards at 90° - to allow for low and high angle compositions we might not have attempted without. You can even fully turn it to the front, proving very useful for self-portraits, although you can't close it inwards against the camera body to help protect it. The NEX-F3 now offers the High Definition video shooting of the rest of the NEX series, full HD AVCHD (50i/25p) with stereo sound to be precise, which will be more than adequate for the NEX-F3's target audience. It also features a useful dedicated red camcorder-style video record button for instant thumb-operated video access.
Sony is hoping to win one over on the competition by pitching the NEX-F3 as one of the world's smallest and lightest interchangeable lens camera, at 225g and 33mm in depth counting its camera grip and lens mount. Low light sensitivity without flash also theoretically looks set to show rivals a thing or two by ranging from ISO 200 to a maximum ISO 16000 equivalent setting. Impressive stuff, and matching the sort of spec we're used to seeing on mid-range DSLRs. There's no in-body image stabilisation offered by the NEX-F3 unfortunately, so this is via lens only, the optically stabilized 18-55mm zoom offered as part of a kit deal. Though we did get occasional softness, this appears to work well - at least as effectively as the in-camera or lens based anti-shake methodology deployed by rival brands.
The NEX-F3's design looks a little spartan compared to competitors, particularly when viewed from the front. Sony branding and black plastic DSLR-style lens release button aside, all we find on the faceplate is a small porthole-shaped window for the AF assist/self timer lamp, the curved battery-sized and shaped handgrip with a dimpled surface for a firmer hold, and two small holes either side of the lens for the stereo sound. Oh, and the "APS-C" moniker just in case you want to brag about the size of your sensor to your Micro Four Thirds friends.
The top plate looks similarly functional rather than fashionable. The NEX-F3 is turned on or off via a thumb-flick of a chunky, nicely rigid switch to the far right, rather than via the recessed button that we usually find on cameras with a small form factor. Do this and it's a wait of 1-2 seconds before an image materializes on the LCD allowing the first shot to be framed - slightly slower than we expected in this regard, and no match for a DSLR proper. To the left of this switch, on the slope that melds into the back plate, is a dedicated playback/review button, and alongside is the dedicated movie record button. Press this and the user is instantly recording video, whatever alternative shooting mode might previously have been in use; like the same control found on the Panasonic G-series and Olympus PEN cameras, this proves essential with regard to spur of the moment filming.
Also positioned atop the camera is the new integrated pop-up flash, which borrows a lot of design cues from the flagship NEX-7 model and is a big improvement on the NEX-C3's rather "unique" clip-on flash/accessory port. To the left and completing the top of the NEX-F3 is an accessory port for attaching optional accessories like the rather pricey FDA-EV1S electronic viewfinder or the ECM-SST1 microphone.
Press the shutter release button down halfway and, after a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment of focus/exposure adjustment, the AF point/s highlight in green accompanied by a beep of affirmation to indicate that the user is good to continue on and take the shot. Do so, and in single shot mode to the sound of a satisfying shutter click, a full resolution JPEG is written to memory in about 2 seconds.
As you'd expect in this price bracket, there is the option to also shoot Raw files, or even more usefully for those who wish to hedge their bets Raw and JPEG images in tandem. These settings are accessed within the Image Size folder and are found within the Quality sub folder. You also get Fine or Normal compression levels offered for JPEGs.
|Pop-up Flash||Tilting LCD Screen|
Not everything on the NEX-F3 is located exactly where you might expect it to be found. For example, the ISO settings are buried within a Brightness menu option that from the look of the icon that denotes it initially appears to be for adjusting the screen brightness only. One would reasonably expect ISO adjustment to be found within the Camera folder with the other key shooting options, so there's a fair amount of familiarisation with the NEX-F3's quirks required up front.
Just like Olympus and Panasonic, the Sony NEX-F3 offers a range of eleven creative Picture Effects, including posterisation, partial colour, retro, high-key, mono and toy camera. These effects can also be applied when using the Intelligent Auto shooting mode. The Soft Skin mode automatically retouches portraits, removing any minor blemishes and wrinkles for a more conventionally good-looking appearance.
The Shooting mode gets its own virtual dial, so at least selecting the options here, including standard P,A,S,M, 9-strong scene mode, intelligent auto and Sweep Panorama, proves easier than some of the other key settings. Even in Intelligent Auto mode users still have the ability to get hands on to a degree thanks to the Photo Creativity mode. This provides easy-to-understand control over a number of key parameters via a series of interactive on-screen sliders, with the real-time preview on the LCD providing instant feedback to the beginner target audience.
In addition to controlling the background defocus, with a half moon shaped indicator appealing on-screen to the side of the scroll wheel, defocus at the bottom of the arc, 'crisp' at the top, you can also change the vividness, brightness and colour of the image, plus add a Picture Effect or the Soft Skin Effect, and set the self-timer and burst shooting options. You can even apply more than one option at a time and go back and individually change them if you wish. One important proviso about the NEX-F3's Intelligent Auto mode is its rather inexplicable limitation of the ISO speed to a top setting of ISO 1600, which artificially limits the usefulness of the camera in low-light.
The NEX-F3's external backplate is a pared down affair, the majority of it taken up by the 3-inch widescreen ratio angle-adjustable LCD that stretches from base to top plate. To the right of this is a trio of controls - the top and bottom buttons unmarked until the screen is activated, at which point their purpose is detailed alongside it. The top-most control is revealed as the 'menu' button, a press of which brings up the shooting icons - six in total - the contents of we've already briefly touched on. Instead of the screen-full of text you might expect to be presented with upon press of the menu control, from top left to bottom right of screen, presented instead are Shoot Mode, Camera, Image Size, Brightness/Color, Playback and Setup icons.
The user moves through these options and makes selections via the scroll wheel just below the menu button, which has its own central (and again unmarked) set button. As mentioned this wheel is quite responsive to the touch, which, on a positive note, means that tabbing through options is a swift process, but on the other hand it's easy to slip past the setting you actually wanted when hurrying through them as a photo opportunity suddenly presents itself.
Set at three points around this scroll wheel/pad are a means of adjusting the display (top), the exposure compensation (bottom) and the self-timer/drive mode options. The right position can be configured to suit your way of working - I chose to assign the ISO to this button. In addition, the button below the navigation wheel and the center button can also be assigned to a custom function of your choice, making the NEX-F3 much less cumbersome to use than the NEX-5 and NEX-3 when they were first released (a later firmware update provided similar functionality for those models).
By default the bottom button on the camera back provides a means of activating the new Clear Zoom function. This effectively digitally doubles the zoom range of whatever lens is attached, using Sony's new Pixel Super Resolution Technology to increase the magnification. The Auto Portrait Framing mode uses face detection and the rule of thirds to automatically crop and create tightly framed portrait shots. The same Pixel Super Resolution Technology ensures that the resulting image is still a full 16 megapixels in size, and the original uncropped image is also saved for easy comparison.
|Memory Card Slot||Battery Compartment|
The list of shooting tips has been less helpfully relegated to the main menu, via which Sony no doubt hopes to provide a crutch for new users trading up from a bog-standard point and shoot compact. Examples of textual advice, complete with small pictorial thumbnail alongside, include 'increase the ISO sensitivity to make the shutter speed faster', and then, the thoughtful addition: 'higher ISO sensitivity may make noise stand out.' Hand holding for those who want it then, while more experienced users can reconfigure the button to something more useful.
Peaking is a feature that provides a level of hand-holding for manual focus users. When turned on to one of the three levels (low, mid, high), this essentially draws a coloured line (red, white or yellow) around the areas of highest contrast in the image when you're manually focusing the camera. Used in conjunction with the magnified focus assist, this makes it a cinch to focus accurately on a specific part of the subject, something that the majority of digital cameras have struggled with. It can even be used in the movie mode, again providing a real boon to your creativity.
At the base of the NEX-F3 we find a screw thread for a tripod directly beneath the lens mount, and, in the nether regions of the grip, separate compartments storing the rechargeable battery and the optional memory card - here Sony reaching out to a wider audience by offering SD/SDHC/SDXC compatibility alongside its own Memory Stick. Unfortunately using a tripod with the NEX-F3 blocks the memory card slot.
While the right hand side of the NEX-F3 - if viewing it from the back - features a continuation of the dimpled grip but is otherwise devoid of ports or controls, the left hand flank is where users will find a separate covered port for HDMI connectivity and USB output. Only the USB cable was provided with our review sample; there's no standard definition AV output. There's also a small built-in speaker for reviewing audio in the field and protruding metal strap eyelets on either side of the camera.