Review: Sony NEX-3

I recently was given the opportunity to test Sony’s new NEX-3 camera – a compact camera featuring a full-sized APS-C sensor. This is a similar concept as the Olympus E-P1 I reviewed last year, but features an even smaller body with a larger sensor.

Sony were kind enough to loan me a NEX-3 for a fortnight recently, so I’ve put this intriguing new camera through its paces.

*Note:* I’m most definitely an amateur when it comes to photography, so this review will focus aspects that someone upgrading from a compact camera might look for.

Body and Build

The NEX-3 has a very compact body. In fact, if you remove the lens, the body itself isn’t much bigger than most compact cameras and is quite a bit smaller than traditional bridge cameras such as the Canon G11.

The NEX-3 compared to the Panasonic TZ-3

The NEX-3 compared to the original iPhone

Once you attach the kit lens, a lot of this size advantage is lost, as the lens itself is several times deeper than the camera body. However Sony also offer a 16mm “pancake-style” lens, that is quite a bit slimmer than the kit lens, making it almost pocketable. Considering the NEX-3 has a APS-C-sized sensor (which is the same type of sensor you’ll usually find in large DSLRs such as the Canon EOS-600D / Digital Rebel TSi series), it’s an amazingly small package for such a tiny body.

The huge APS-C sensor inside the NEX-3

The build quality of the NEX-3 is quite nice overall. The body itself is a hard plastic with a metallic-looking finish. The lens barrel is constructed entirely out of metal and feels very solid indeed.

Even moveable components such as the articulating display and battery and memory card compartments feel very sturdy and you get the impression that this camera could survive a fair bit of wear and tear.

Controls and buttons

The NEX-3 has just 5 buttons and 1 jog-dial which which you’re supposed to control everything. While this may sound positively oppulent to Apple users, the NEX-3 could actually use a few extra to be really useable:

My biggest issue was the lack of a mode-dial: you need to hit menu, select the mode options and then turn the jog wheel. Ironically, this option then gives you an on-screen visualisation of – a mode dial wheel!

This is mitigated somewhat by the dedicated video recording and playback buttons, but given the choice, I’d much prefer to have a fast way to switch between the iAuto, scene and PASM settings.

Articulating screen

This is a feature I didn’t think I’d use much – but in practise it really does come in handy and allows you to take pictures from some interesting angles. The hinge feels very sturdy and when you fold the display back, you almost can’t tell that it’s adjustable.

Performance

Overall I was very impressed with the camera. It takes great pictures with the automatic settings, which will be what most users buy this camera for. Switch it on, point it at your subject and snap away.

Occasionally I experienced minor issues with the auto-focus being a little bit slow or with blown out highlights, but generally speaking I was quite impressed by the results.

Features of Note

Auto-stitching

Sony has included a nifty feature, that allows you to hold the camera at arm’s length and pan around to create panorama images. What sounds terribly gimmicky actually works pretty well in practise. You hold the camera up and an arrow on screen tells you how to move your arm. I basically just held it up and spun around without looking at the screen at all.

The results are pretty good:

While stitching is pretty seamless (no pun intended!) with the software that is available nowadays, it’s nice not to have that extra step and the in-camera software does a nice job of straightening and aligning the images.

Defocus Background

This is a new feature that several Micro-DSLRs have introduced this year. It basically enables you to shoot images with lots of bokeh, without having to bother with focal lengths, aperture or other photography concepts.

This feaure works mostly as advertised: you point the camera at your subject and turn the dial to sharpen or defocus the background of the image, leaving the camera to figure out the rest.

The "Defocus background" menu

This is the type of feature that encourages amateurs by allowing them to take “pro-looking” photos fairly easily. You would think this is the sort of feature that would act as a stepping stone to more serious experimentation with the manual controls of the camera, but unfortunately the NEX-3 doesn’t tell you what values it’s changing to achieve the effect, so you can’t easily re-create it using the manual controls, unless you know what you’re doing.

Flash

Like the Olympus E-P1 and E-P2, the NEX-3 lacks an onboard flash. However, unlike the bulky flash modules Olympus offers seperately, Sony includes a small external flash module, that is small enough to leave attached to the camera for longer periods of time. It uses a clever folding design that makes it fairly inconspicuous when attached to the camera. However, it’s a bit fiddly to attach and a built-in flash would have been preferable.

Accessories and compatibility

As this is a brand new Sony device category, there isn’t a huge selection of accessories and lenses just yet: The NEX-3 works with Sony E-mount lenses (other lenses can be fitted with an adapter, but will not support autofocus) and the smart shoe for flash modules and other accessories is also proprietary. However, as this camera is clearly aimed at a first-time DSLR buyer, that’s unlikely to be an issue for most users and the current selection of peripherals will undoubtedly continue to grow in the near future.

Whilst the bottom of the camera proudly displays the Sony Memory Stick logo, the camera also accepts standard SD cards, so you’ll be able to re-use your exisiting memory cards.

Conclusion

The Sony Alpha NEX-3 is a fantastic camera for photographers looking to move beyond the capabilities of a point & shoot camera, without going all out and getting a “real” DSLR. The easy-to-use menus and helpful features like Background defocus give novice users the benefits of using a camera with an APS-C-sized sensor without the complexity and bulk of a DSLR.

It’s questionable whether the extreme miniturization of the body was really worth the effort, considering the size of the kit lens, however it’s still an impressively compact package that you’ll be able to take nearly anywhere.

Considering this is Sony’s first foray into the “Micro-DSLR” market, this is a fantastic first offering. The NEX-3 offers great overall value for money and is aggressively priced compared to other Micro-DSLR style cameras, whilst boasting the largest sensor seen so far in this class. It’s worth serious consideration if you’re in the market for a compact camera that can shoot excellent images.
Thanks to Sony for providing the Mac-Forums blog with a review unit, find out more details about the NEX-3 on the Sony website, or on Amazon:

Sony NEX-3

Sony NEX -5

Questions? Comments? If you have any questions about the camera, ask it in the comments below, or get in touch via Twitter.