Sony NEX-3 Review

September 10, 2010 | Mark Goldstein |


The Sony NEX-3 is Sony's first mirrorless interchangeable-lens system camera, along with the better-specced NEX-5 model that was launched alongside it. Featuring a 14.2 megapixel Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor, 25-point contrast-detect autofocus system, 49-segment exposure meter and 3-inch tilting LCD panel with 921,000-dot resolution, the NEX-3 certainly seems to have what it takes to compete with the already well-established Micro Four Thirds cameras from Panasonic and Olympus, and the newer Samsung NX series. The plastic bodied NEX-3 can also capture fast-moving action at 7fps, shoot 720p HD (1280 x720) video as MPEG4 files and is supplied with a compact clip-on flash that attaches via an accessory terminal. Lenses can be fitted via the new E mount system, but the NEX cameras can also use regular Sony Alpha lenses via the optional LA-EA1 adapter. In the UK the Sony NEX-3 costs £449 body only, £499 with the 18-55mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens or £579 with the 18-55mm f/3.5-6.3 and 16mm f/2.8 lenses. In the US the NEX-3 ships with the 18-55mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens for $599 or the 16mm f/2.8 lens for $549.

Ease of Use

The Sony NEX-3 is virtually identical to the more expensive NEX-5 model, with the exception of its plastic body, 720p movies and lack of an infrared remote receiver (the NEX-5 has a slightly smaller, lighter magnesium body and can shoot full 1080i HD movies). Therefore most of the comments that we made in our Sony NEX-5 review apply equally to the NEX-3.

As when Sony bought into Konica Minolta's DSLR expertise in 2005 and then unexpectedly swallowed the company's camera-making arm wholesale at the start of 2006, launching its own re-branded version in the Alpha 100 that summer, to a degree the NEX-3 again feels like the electronics giant playing catch up. This is because the 14.2 effective megapixel APS CMOS sensor-sporting interchangeable lens camera, also bearing the Alpha name, arrives some time after well-received turns from its direct competitors.

First off the blocks were Panasonic and Olympus. The former's Micro Four Thirds system G1, which started the whole 'compact camera, DSLR quality' race appeared in late 2008, while the latter's retro-styled 'Pen' was announced last summer, winning over not only the minds of photo enthusiasts starved of fresh (or even recycled) ideas, but hearts as well.

Since the beginning of this year we've seen the debut of the innovative lens and sensor swapping GXR system from Ricoh arrive to some praise but largely skepticism, and then Samsung introduce its own mirror-less Micro Four Thirds' rival in the DSLR-styled NX10, a look it shares with most of Panasonic's G-series options (save the mighty DMC-GF1). Both once again maintained compact dimensions but delivered better-than-compact quality.

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Front Rear

So, while it appears that Sony has arrived late to the party, with it already successfully in full swing, in fairness other big names such as Canon, Nikon and Pentax are yet to declare their hands as regards their own 'hybrid' camera - lacking the development and marketing might of Sony - so there are 'worse' ditherers out there.

Examining the playing field as it stands, we'll be looking to establish what there is about the NEX-3 to recommend it over existing trailblazers. For those not wanting to take both compact and DSLR with them on holiday, but go for just the one high image quality best-of-both-world's alternative, is this now the premier option Sony hopes the NEX will be?

The rectangular body shape and blocky grip looked to our eyes closer to the austere 'built in a Russian tractor factory' style of Ricoh's GXR system camera than the immediately appealing retro finesse of an Olympus Pen, or modernist rubber clad curves of the Panasonic G series. The NEX-3 feels solid gripped in the palm, though with a lens attached it's too large for most jacket pockets. It thankfully has a smaller, wider grip which we actually prefer to the NEX-5's blocky affair. With the 18-55mmm kit lens attached the NEX-5 does look and feel top heavy, and that's without fitting an existing Alpha DSLR lens proper, compatibility offered with pre-existing optics via accessory adapter.

The LCD screen can be tilted back and forward - if not, unfortunately swung outwards at 90° - to allow for low and high angle compositions we might not have attempted without. While it doesn't offer the High Definition video shooting of the NEX-5, one of the few differences between the two cameras, 720p with stereo sound will be more than adequate for most of the NEX-3's target audience. It also matches Panasonic G-series options and the Olympus E-PL1 by featuring a dedicated red camcorder-style video record button for instant thumb-operated video access, which is useful.

Sony is hoping to win one over on the competition by pitching the NEX-3 as one of the world's smallest and lightest interchangeable lens camera, at 239g and 33.4mm 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 12800 equivalent setting. Impressive stuff, and matching the sort of spec we're used to seeing on mid range DSLRs. So how does it perform?

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18-55mm Lens 16mm Lens

Like Panasonic's directly competing GF1 (and unlike the Olympus Pens) there's no in-body image stabilisation offered by the NEX-3 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.

For sure the provided lens is one of the most important components of the NEX-3's set up, but with or without it screwed on to the front via Sony's new E-mount (as opposed to standard Alpha mount utilized by the rest of the DSLRs in its family) the camera design looks a little 'basic' compared to competitors - certainly when viewed from the front.

Sony branding and DSLR-style lens release button aside, all we find on the faceplate is a small porthole-shaped window for AF assist/self timer lamp, rectangular CR3 battery-sized and shaped handgrip with lightly ridged surface for a firmer hold.

The top plate looks similarly functional rather than fashionable. The NEX-3 is turned on or off via a thumb-flick of a chunky, nicely rigid switch to the far right which surrounds the responsive shutter release button, rather than via the recessed button we usually find on cameras with a smaller form factor. Do this and it's a wait of 2-3 seconds before an image materializes on the LCD allowing the first shot to be framed - slightly slower than we expected in this regard, and certainly no match for a DSLR proper. To the left of this switch is a dedicated playback/review button, and just below the switch, on the slope that melds into the back plate, 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 latter Panasonic G-series camera and the E-PL1, this proves essential with regard to spur of the moment filming.

Also positioned atop the camera are a left and right (stereo in combination) microphone, each sitting either side of the lens mount, with the clip-on flash/accessory port positioned in between. To the right of this is also a small built-in speaker, for reviewing audio in the field.

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Front Flash

Incidentally, should you already have a lens attached, screwing the flash into position proves a tad fiddly and also not very secure - there's no tightening nut via which it is secured into place as on the NEX-5. Though the flash can be stored flat to the body to aid portability and adds hardly any additional weight or bulk, when in use the head needs to be manually raised at a angle of approximately 45°. Certainly overall it's a more elegant solution than the flash that's an optional extra with the Olympus E-P1 and E-P2, resembling an airport control tower imagined by the makers of 60s/70s era Thunderbirds. And, even with bundled lens and flash, the NEX-3 is a cheaper option than either of those two more swish-looking alternatives were on launch.

Press the shutter release button down halfway and, after a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment of focus/exposure adjustment, 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 a slightly sluggish 4-5 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.

As we commented about the NEX-5, not everything on the NEX-3 is located exactly where you might expect it to be found. For example ISO settings are discovered within a brightness option that from the look of the icon that denotes it initially appears to be for adjusting screen brightness only. One would reasonably expect ISO adjustment to be found within the 'camera' folder with the other key shooting options. And so there's a fair amount of familiarisation with the NEX-3's quirks required up front. The Shooting mode gets its own virtual dial though - so at least selecting the options here, including standard P,A,S,M, 9-strong scene mode, intelligent auto and Sweep Panorama, prove easier. Even in intelligent auto mode users still have the ability to get hands on to a degree by controlling 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.

The NEX-3's external backplate is a similarly 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/Colour, Playback and Setup icons.

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Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

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 four points around this scroll wheel/pad are a means of adjusting the display, calling up the various flash settings (accessible only if the flash has first been attached of course), exposure compensation (+/- 2EV selectable), and drive mode (single shot, continuous, continuous with speed priority, so focus/exposure fixed from the first shot), or self timer option (10 seconds). The flash options more unusually include rear sync as well as slow sync, plus the regulars of auto and fill in. The NEX-3's red-eye reduction setting isn't found here - instead it has to be first enabled via the aforementioned set up folder if you're shooting portraits with flash.

The bottom button on the camera back provides a means of calling up the on-screen shooting tips, 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 others may feel Sony has wasted one of its very few dedicated buttons on a feature that, like the manual, many will choose to ignore.

At the base of the camera we find a screw thread for a tripod directly beneath the lens mount, and, in the nether regions of the grip, a compartment storing both rechargeable battery and optional memory card - here Sony reaching out to a wider audience by offering SD/SDHC/SDXC compatibility alongside its own Memory Stick.

While the right hand side of the NEX-3 - if viewing it from the back - features a continuation of the ridged grip but is otherwise devoid of ports or controls, the left hand flank is where users will find separate covered ports for HDMI connectivity and USB output. Only the USB cable was provided with our review sample; there's no standard definition AV output.