Sony Alpha NEX-3 review

The Sony Alpha NEX-3 is the not-so-identical twin of the Sony Alpha NEX-5. There are cosmetic as well as technical differences, but the first thing to understand is the similarity. Importantly, both feature the same E-mount and will accept the same lenses and both feature the 14.2-megapixel Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor, so they both have the same imaging system.

The differences then, lie in video capture and design. The NEX-3 offers 720p HD video capture to the NEX-5's 1080i and the design and build - although recognisably similar - has a softer, plastic, finish. The NEX-5 is the better looking camera in our minds, but whether that sharper finish is worth the £120 price difference will be down to how flush you're feeling.

In practical terms the millimetres of difference (117.2 x 62.6 x 33.4mm for the NEX-3 vs 110.8 x 58.8 x 38.2mm for the NEX-5) make little different to pocketability. The NEX-5 might be the smallest interchangeable lens camera of this type (at launch) but the real dimensions of the camera are dictated by the attached lens, rather than the camera body itself. 

Slim it may be, but even with the compact 16mm F/2.8 pancake lens, you are still looking at slipping it into a jacket pocket rather than into your jeans so in those respects the size doesn't make it a huge winner over the likes of the Olympus E-PL1 or the Samsung NX10; the Olympus, at least, has a locking zoom lens which folds in to a more compact bundle. 

It does offer you a distinct size advantage over a typical DSLR, but once you attach the 18-55 lens in the dual kit bundle we reviewed, you'll be carrying it on the strap most of the time anyway, at which point you'll be left with a device of not too dissimilar size, but lacking the full whack of features a DSLR will give you.

The plastic body lacks the premium finish you'll pay for on the NEX-5, but it seems sturdy enough. A bulge on the right end of the camera provides some scope for a good grip, although we found the strap attachment point was in the way when gripping the camera securely and the scrap often fell over the screen when shooting in portrait. The bulge also houses the battery (good for 330 images) and the memory card, accepting the typical SD/SDHC/SDXC cards as well as Sony's own MemoryStick variety. 

One of the distinctive features of the NEX cameras is the vari-angle display on the back. Measuring 2.7 inches on the diagonal, it has a high 921k-dot resolution, so is ably equipped for composing and previewing shots, as well as navigating the graphically-rich menu system. One advantage the high resolution offers is the ability to render fine text, which means the display isn't necessarily as cluttered as it might be.

The vari-angle works in two ways, folding down from the top - to facilitate shots from a high angle, like over the heads of a crowd - as well as folding up from the bottom to aid in the composition of those awkward low shots. Some screens, like those on Panasonic's G series cameras, will fold away for protection, but in the absence of a viewfinder, that isn't a practical option on the NEX-3. The screen is unfortunately not the best equipped to deal with bright conditions because it is prone to reflections and it also gets incredibly smeary: you'll be spending a good deal of your time polishing the thing up again.

The controls are reasonably conventional at first glance, with the on/off switch encircling the shutter button next to a playback button on the top of the camera. The back of the camera offers a rotating four-way controller with shortcut controls for info displayed on the screen, flash, drive mode (including self timer) and exposure compensation.

An instant movie record button sits on rear edge, falling easily under the thumb, ready to record MPEG4 video in a flash. Two additional buttons sit above and below the circular controller. Both are unlabelled as their function changes as you use the camera. It is here that the NEX-3 puts the screen to use, presenting options on the screen for you to enact using the corresponding buttons.

The most significant of these is the shoot mode dial, which is on-screen, rather than being physical. There is an advantage here: Sony can offer an entirely new shooting mode via a firmware upgrade which they did with the 3D panorama option. The firmware upgrader is straightforward enough to run, but there is currently no Mac support - it is PC only.

The mode dial presents what you'd expect to find on a DSLR, so you have common program, aperture, shutter, and manual modes. These are joined by an intelligent Auto mode, 8 scene modes, and anti-blur mode and finally the two sweep panorama modes, in 2D and 3D. We've seen the 3D panorama in action and it looks like a lot of fun, but you'll need to be able to view the resultant MPO file to get anything from it. For this you'll need a 3D display, like one of Sony's Bravias. You'll be able to play the 3D file from the camera on your TV via the HDMI (a future update to the PS3 will also mean you'll be able to view it via the card reader, if your model has one). 

The great thing about the menus is that the background picture changes as you rotate the virtual dial, displaying a background image fitting to the shooting mode. This carries through to the scene modes too, so you have a representation of night portrait and macro, for example, if you were in any doubt, which is great for novice photographers.

But step beyond the requirements of picking a shooting mode and things start to become much more fiddly. Changing the settings in the PASM modes means re-entering the menus and cruising around. Even with some familiarity with the layout, it's too time consuming to be practical. Trying to balance ISO and shutter speed in a handheld indoor shot? You'll be diving in and out of the menu so much, you'll get sick of it. Also, because the function of the buttons changes there is little feeling of consistency, so it isn't always entirely natural to control. 

In that sense, then, the NEX-3 could benefit from easier shortcut controls for some of the advanced shooting modes that it offers. As a hybrid model for those who want a little more than a compact camera, the approachable menu with guidance and illustrations may appeal, but as a DSLR user looking for something more compact, the NEX-3 doesn't represent the best option for us.

But there is stacks of technology packed into the NEX-3 as there is on all Sony cameras. You get the regular offerings of face detection as well as Sony's smile shutter. You also get an Auto HDR offering which looks to preserve both shadow and highlight detail by taking three successive shots and merging them together. It works to an extent, but we found that we achieved better results using the D-Range Optimiser on the RAW file in Sony's Image Data Converter software. 

You also get an ISO range that runs from 200 up to 12800. Sony has said that the ISO doesn't go lower because is doesn't need too. A bold claim, but one that is backed by impressive noise control as the ISO rises. You don't get the full advantage of the ISO range in iAuto, but in the manual modes, we found that shots at ISO 3200 were usable, where many from rival cameras aren't. It's a bitter irony that that impressive performance is more difficult to get to than it should be.

Some of the svelte dimensions are achieved by removing some of the core elements you'd expect from a camera. Rather like the first Micro Four Thirds E-P1 from Olympus, you won't find a viewfinder or flash onboard. The only viewfinder is an optional accessory, but the flash was bundled in the box. This screws onto the top of the camera, using the accessory slot and essentially meaning you can't attach anything else.

The flash itself, once in place, is rather neat. It flips up and down to activate it, but it doesn't have a great deal of height and, sitting right over the lens, it will cast shadows on the subject if you aren't careful and a flash extender (riser) is also available to help avoid this problem. Once we'd put it in place, in lieu of any other accessories, it stayed put for the duration of our time with the camera.

We found that the NEX-3 produced excellent images, although the iAuto (and in fact the JPEG shooting) doesn't get the best out the camera. Dive into the RAW shooting and you can eek a lot of extra detail out of the camera that the JPEG compression loses. Fortunately Sony bundle their RAW (ARW) processing software for both PC and Mac, so if you find that JPEG doesn't deliver the results you want, it is fairly straightforward with the RAW files.

There is a tendency to overexpose and oversaturate the reds, which does bring vibrancy to some shots, but we found it occasionally gave results we weren't quite expecting. A range of shooting styles can be applied and although there is no custom setting, you can change the settings of individual modes to get closer to the image look that you want. Exposure compensation, sadly, can't be applied in iAuto.

Focusing is generally swift, although we did find it sometimes picking the wrong focal point. Various focal modes are available, but once you find yourself with the wrong focal point selected, you'll have to dive around the menus again to change any of the settings. Even switching to manual focus involves 5 presses, where for many DSLRs it's just a switch on the lens.

Video shooting of course is the other big change from the NEX-5 and the quality of the 720p footage is good, but not quite as sharp due to the drop in resolution. The video autofocusing works after a fashion, but without a dedicated video settings menu or place on the mode dial, you never really feel you have that much control. Many of the still shooting options are picked up by the video as soon as you punch the button, so if you are in the middle of taking a black and white portrait shot and see something exciting so punch the video button, you'll find you have black and white video too. The frame rate came in consistently at around 30fps and on the top of the camera are stereo mics for your audio. There is an accessory mic which you'll want if you plan on doing any serious audio work as we found the mics were blown away on a windy day.

The dual lens kit we reviewed offers two lenses. The 16mm F/2.8 offers a nice compact option for general shooting, with the F/2.8 going some way to offering you a fast lens for better low light performance. The 18-55 zoom benefits from optical image stabilisation as the NEX-3 doesn't offer in-body stabilisation. The bundled lens hood will fit on both lenses and interestingly there are accessory adapters available for the 16mm lens to convert it into a wide-angle or fisheye lens. The metal bodies of the lenses gives them a premium feel, but the zoom lens offers very little differentiation between the focusing ring and the zoom ring, and we often found ourselves twisting the wrong parts when trying to hurriedly grab a shot.  

Verdict

For all the great advantages that the NEX-3 offers, there is always something that detracts. Great results from advanced shooting are obstructed by the controls. For all the work to shrink the camera in all directions, the lens still governs the pocketability of the NEX-3.

But the biggest thing we found with the NEX-3 was that it didn't quite make this reviewer as excited as something like the Samsung NX10 or Olympus E-PL1. Whilst the NEX-3 is packed with technology, it doesn't have the same sense of fun that some rivals do.

There is no doubting that the NEX-3 is a very capable hybrid camera and if you love the NEX-5, then the NEX-3 offers a more affordable route to much of the same goodness. But we can't help feeling these current NEX models are going to be subjected to Marmite syndrome. Some will love the Sony approach, and some will find it doesn't hit the mark.