Sony NEX-3: A Beautiful Design, But How Does It Stack Up?
Today we're looking at Sony's foray into the hybrid camera market. Sony's NEX models pack a big sensor into a tiny body, and even the cheaper NEX-3 gives its rivals a run for their money! Join us after the break to see how it stacks up against the competition, complete with plenty of example shots!
Hybrid cameras are really capturing the imagination of both the public and the manufacturers. For photographers, they promise SLR controls, versatility and image quality in a compact body, while for manufacturers it's an opportunity to develop a whole new market.
Sony's two hybrids, the NEX-3 and NEX-5, follow the same principle as the hybrid cameras from Olympus, Panasonic and Samsung. They dispense with the mirror in the digital SLR design and offer a 'digital' viewing system instead. SLR-style hybrids like Panasonic's G-series and the Samsung NX have both an LCD on the rear for composing shots and an electronic viewfinder (EVF), while compact-style hybrids like the Olympus Pen and these Sony NEX models just have the rear LCD.
The other differences amongst hybrid cameras relate to the sensor size. Olympus and Panasonic use Micro Four Thirds sensors which are just a little smaller than the APS-C sensors used by Sony and Samsung. It doesn't appear to make any significant difference to picture quality in normal shooting, though in theory the APS-C cameras might show an advantage at high ISOs.
There is a significant price difference between the NEX-3 and the NEX-5, but surprisingly little difference in their specifications. Both use the same 14.2-megapixel CMOS sensor, the same high-quality 3-inch 920,000-dot LCD and the same interchangeable E-series lenses.
The principle differences are in the movie modes and the body material. The NEX-5 shoots full 1920 x 1080 HD movies, while the NEX-3 only shoots standard 1280 x 720 HD. And the NEX-5 has a metal body, while the NEX-3's is made of plastic.
Is this enough to justify the price difference? It depends on how much you want full HD movies. Unless you're a really keen videographer, the standard HD movies of the NEX-3 are likely to be perfectly adequate, and the large sensor size means that the video quality is very good even at this resolution. Besides, keen film-makers will want more manual control than either camera provides, so the NEX-5 is hardly a huge step up.
As for the body construction, that's soon forgotten. The NEX-3 and NEX-5 are extremely similar to look at and to handle. The NEX-3 has a slighly different grip and is fractionally thicker, but everything else about these cameras, including the control layout, is identical. Frankly, it's difficult to tell them apart.
But they're very different from other hybrid cameras. Firstly, they're exceptionally small. Without a lens fitted, the NEX-3 is barely bigger than an enthusiasts compact like the Samsung EX-1 or Panasonic LX3. This shot of the underside shows just how thin the NEX-3 body actually is.
When you fit a lens, it's a different story, and this cutaway shot gives a real sense of the relative sizes of the camera body and the lenses. Nevertheless, Sony's still to be complimented on the way it's crammed an SLR-sized sensor into a compact camera body.
The other striking things are the small number of external controls and the size of the fold-out LCD display on the back. Actually, given the size of the display, there really isn't much room for external controls anyway, and this does have an impact on the handling - more on this shortly.
What's inside the NEX is even more impressive. The list of features includes Sony's innovative Sweep Panorama, now with a 3D mode. To shoot a panorama, you hold down the shutter button and sweep the camera in a single movement across the scene. The camera automatically shoots a series of overlapping shots as you do this, then stitches them together in the camera when you release the shutter button.
It really is amazingly effective, though to view the new 3D panorama effect you're going to need a 3D-enabled Sony Bravia TV and a pair of 3D electronic shutter glasses. So while the NEX-3's 3D mode has grabbed lots of headlines, it's something only a relatively small minority of users will be able to enjoy.
Equally impressive (and probably more useful) is the 7fps continuous shooting mode. This is very high for a camera with this price and resolution, helped no doubt by the lack of a mirror inside the camera. Sony's done well, nevertheless, to design a focal plane shutter that can keep up with these speeds and a BIONZ processor that handle all that data.
Sony's SteadyShot anti-shake system is a little less convincing. It uses a sensor-shift system to cut camera shake at slower shutter speeds, but while it does presumably have an effect, our camera still produced plenty of shaky shots at 'marginal' shutter speeds. It doesn't seem as effective as lens-based stabilisation systems, that's for sure.
There are some interesting exposure options, too, including Sony's DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer) for reducing loss of shadows and highlights in high-contrast lighting, and an Auto HDR mode which combines a series of shots taken at different exposures to produce a single high dynamic range picture. It does work, though the images are a bit flat-looking, presumably as a result of the tonal compression needed, and you can see this in the shot below.
HDR fans should note that the NEX-3 doesn't appear to use the local adaptation methods used by HDR applications to produce stronger contrast and colours and a photo-realistic look, though its images would probably make good RAW material for further HDR-style manipulation.
All this makes the NEX-3 sound quite high-end, but it's not. Quite the reverse, in fact. Despite its many sophisticated photo features, it's really designed with beginners in mind. The camera, its controls and its user interface are more like Sony's Cyber-shot compact cameras than a digital SLR.
This is reflected in the 'Background Defocus' option, added by Sony in an attempt to demystify the connection between lens aperture and depth of field. In effect, all it does is adjust the lens aperture, but Sony's simply described it in terms of what it does rather than what it is.
It's been used here to make the nearby railings sharp but blur the background, but this would have been achieved just as effectively by switching to aperture-priority mode and using the widest lens aperture available.
This is a point worth making about the NEX-3 in particular and 'consumer' cameras in general. Sooner or later, surely it's got to be easier to just tell people what aperture settings do, rather that try to dress them up as new or differently-explained features?
Usability and Handling
This beginner-orientated approach is, in fact, the NEX-3's single biggest drawback. Inexperienced users might be quite happy to click through screen after screen of menus and icons, but keen photographers won't. It just takes too long to change everyday settings that they'll take for granted.
For example, on a regular SLR, you can usually change the white balance by pressing a button and turning a dial. On the NEX-3, you have to press the Menu button, click on the Brightness/Colour icon, scroll down the menu to the White Balance entry and click on it. Then you're returned to the picture you're trying to take, and the main dial now displays the camera's white balance choices - you still have to turn the dial to select the one you want.
You have to go through the same tedious process if you want to change the ISO, the metering pattern or various other everyday options. And once you've made your choice and taken the picture, the main dial reverts to its original function (changing the shooting mode), and you have to backtrack through the whole process if you want to cancel the change you just made.
The NEX-3 doesn't actually have a mode dial, just this multi-function control dial on the back and two context-sensitive 'soft keys', one above it and one below. The function of the controller and these two buttons changes according to what you're doing, which is very efficient as a piece of minimalist external interface design, but disorientating and time-consuming if you're used to a conventional D-SLR or hybrid.
Sony clearly wants to tempt casual photographers into moving up from a compact to the NEX-3 or NEX-5. That's fine. The NEX will work just like a bigger, better version of their old camera.
However, unlike other hybrids, it's not designed to tempt enthusiasts who've already got a D-SLR and want something smaller to carry around with them. On paper, the NEX does everything - and more - that an SLR or any other hybrid does, but in practice the everyday photographic controls you'll want to use are just to difficult to get to.
That really is a shame, because the feel of the controls is superb, and they're matched by the quality of the LCD display. It's clear, bright and - thanks to its 920,000-dot resolution, extremely sharp. The fact that it flips out for waist-level viewing and overhead shots (a smaller angle, but still useful) is just a bonus. Other cameras might have sideways-flipping LCDs which can contort over a wider range of angles, but this single-axis tilt movement is simpler, easier to use and all you need for the vast majority of shooting situations.
Even the lenses have a quality feel which, you have to say, is lacking in Sony's D-SLR lenses. The silver finish looks and feels really smart, and the zoom and focus rings are smooth too.
But what is the point of this silly clip-on flash (above)? It plugs into an accessory socket on top of the camera (this can also take external stereo mics for better sound in movies). It's better that having no flash at all, but are going to carry it round with you all the time just in case you need it?
Maybe in the next version Sony will build a flash into the body. Let's hope so - it's interesting that Olympus relented with its Pen models, and did indeed include a pop-up flash in the E-PL1.
Picture Quality and Lenses
The NEX-3's handling might be the cause of a few problems, but its image quality is everything you'd hope for from a 14-megapixel APS-C sensor. Despite the camera's size and design, the quality is just what you'd expect from an SLR.
The NEX-3 is especially impressive at high ISOs, and Sony's sensor design and noise reduction has clearly taken a big step forward. The quality at the ISO 12800 maximum is pretty poor, but at ISO 6400 it's not bad and at ISO 3200 it's very good.
Colours, contrast, white balance and exposure accuracy are all very good indeed. The Sony coped particularly well in mixed indoor lighting, producing healthy-looking skintones and nice clean whites.
The 18-55mm kit lens is slightly less impressive, though. It offers good sharpness but plenty of distortion at the minimum focal length, which has produced the bowed horizon in the picture above, and noticeable chromatic aberration towards the edges of the frame, too. It's certainly not bad, by kit lens standards, but it's not the best, either.
The 16mm pancake lens sold with the NEX-3 in its cheapest configuration, and as part of a twin-lens kit, is interesting. It's a pretty short focal length (24mm equivalent) for the type of user Sony seems to be targetting, but its slim profile means that a NEX-3 with this lens fitted is no bigger than a large compact.
There's also an 18-200mm superzoom in the NEX lens mount, which would extend the camera's versatility even further, though it's a big lens and would make the shape and handling distinctly odd - the NEX-3 looks and feels distinctly unbalanced even with the 18-55mm lens fitted.
Sony's had to develop a new 'E-mount' for the NEX cameras which is not the same as the 'a-mount' used for its digital SLRs. There is an adaptor (show above) which can be used to mount alpha lenses on the NEX, but you lose the autofocus.
NEX-3 Vs. Rival Hybrids
So where does the NEX-3 stand in regard to other hybrid cameras? Technically, it's quite similar, even superior, but the way it's designed makes it very different. It's fine for compact camera users who want an easy transition into higher-quality photography, but it's a lot less suitable for more experienced users looking for a second, more portable camera.
This means that the Olympus Pen series and Panasonic's GF1 still have an edge, even though they use a slightly smaller, slightly lower-resolution sensor. The NEX-3 has many strengths for keen photographers, but they're undermined by its controls and its user interface.
The NEX-3 truly does deliver SLR quality in a body barely larger than a compact camera's. When you add a lens, though, it bulks up considerably. This, and the tiresome control system, do blunt its appeal. It's good, but it's not great. As for the NEX-3 versus the NEX-5, well that depends on how much you want the full HD video. If the answer is 'not particularly', the NEX-3 is just as good but a whole lot cheaper.
- Very small body
- Good image quality, especially at high ISOs
- Full HD movie mode with optional stereo mics as add-ons
- Excellent tilting 3-inch LCD
- Tedious and time-consuming interface
- Tiny body wasted when you fit a zoom lens
- 18-55mm kit lens OK but not the best
- Clip-on flash