With a built-in flash and an over-the-top, front-viewable rear screen, Sony’s entry-level NEX-F3 is targeted at all family members
Sony NEX-F3 at a glance:
- 16.1-million-pixel CMOS sensor
- Bionz processor
- ISO 200-16,000
- 180° rotating LCD for self-portraiture
- Built-in flash
- Street price £499
The NEX-F3 is the first model in Sony’s third generation of compact system cameras. The first generation included the NEX-5, the world’s smallest and lightest interchangeable-lens camera at the time, and the NEX-3, which was a fractionally larger, plastic-bodied version that sold for a more affordable price.
These cameras had sleek and slender bodies thanks to the fact they did not have electronic viewfinders and the flashgun was a separate device included in the box. While this worked for the body size, the lenses needed to be quite large to cover the APS-C-sized sensor, so they appeared taller than the body. The flagship NEX-7 was added to the second generation, and included both flash and viewfinder in the body, which resulted in a more even match between lens and camera.
The NEX-F3 is the new entry-level model in the range and is a progression from the NEX-3 and NEX-C3 models, but like the NEX-7 it now offers a built-in flash unit. The ‘F’ in its name stands for family, as this camera has been designed to be used by all members, from granddad to granddaughter, and includes a new feature to aid the popular practice of taking self-portraits.
Taking self-portraits may not be the priority for most serious photographers, but among teenagers and holidaymakers looking to immortalise themselves in a time or a place, it is a popular pastime. The rear screen on the Sony NEX-F3 not only flips up to 90° and down by around 10° for waist-level or overhead shooting, but it will also angle all the way up and over the camera to a full 180° for viewing from in front of the lens. While most cameras offering front-of-lens viewing use a combined horizontal and vertical movement to place the screen either at the side or underneath the camera body, placing it over the top is a more natural arrangement for composition and aids viewing. Positioning the screen in this way while in any of the auto modes will automatically engage the auto portrait setting, so when the shutter is pressed there is a 3sec timer that allows the camera to be steadied and thus reduce camera shake.
For those photographers not interested in self-portraiture, the NEX-F3 still has plenty to offer. First, the sensor is a new 16.1-million-pixel CMOS device. This fractional drop in resolution from the 16.2 million pixels of the NEX-C3 is more than compensated for by a 1⁄3EV rise in maximum sensitivity, with the camera now offering an ISO 200-16,000 range. The new sensor also allows video to be captured in full HD 1080 (50i), using the AVCHD format.
As with previous NEX models, SteadyShot Inside is featured in the lenses rather than the body, and is included in the SEL 18-55mm kit lens. The shooting modes, which are accessed from the rear dial, include the regular PASM options, as well as Sony’s iAuto and the new Superior Auto (iAuto+) modes. Like iAuto, Superior Auto analyses the scene and applies the relevant scene mode, but it also employs one of three processing modes (handheld twilight, anti-motion blur and backlight correction HDR) and, if required, will take a burst of three images that can be combined for the finished shot. Metering is offered with centreweighted and spot options in addition to the multi-segment, 1,200-zone evaluative setting.
The NEX-F3 shoots in raw and JPEG formats, or both simultaneously. The ARW raw files are already compatible with the latest Adobe Camera Raw, and the camera comes with the PlayMemories Home software for image management.
The inclusion of a flash is a significant feature for this model, but is perhaps more to do with the intended audience. With higher ISO sensitivities flash becomes less essential, but not having a unit built in may have been off-putting for entry-level users. The flash pops up quite high from the body and can even lean back with the aid of a finger to bounce the light if required. With a guide number (GN) of 6m @ ISO 100, it is slightly less powerful than the GN 7m external unit on the NEX-C3, but refreshes faster at 3secs.
Battery life has been improved through power saving, and now offers a projected 470 shots per charge rather than the 400 shots of the NEX-C3 despite using the same battery. The unit charges in-camera via a USB cable from a PC or wall socket.
Build and handling
The body of the NEX-F3 is larger in all dimensions than that of the NEX-C3, but most notably in its height, which is necessary to encompass the flash unit.
Despite this increase it still weighs 225g and uses the same polycarbonate build with a metal top plate. The larger size is noticeable, but appears much more suited to the lenses, covering their full height, and feels more substantial in the hand.
The grip is fairly shallow yet wide, and has a rubberised texture for a secure hold. Having a built-in flash is more practical as the attachment of the external unit could be fiddly and users would have to make the decision to attach it rather than simply press a button. There is still an accessory port on the camera that can be used to attach the EV1S electronic viewfinder that was released for the NEX-5N.
The power switch and shutter button have been separated, with the latter now sitting further forward on top of the grip. This is a more comfortable position for shooting and leaves the thumb resting on the rear grip pad or poised over the direct movie record and image review buttons. The rear dial now has markings for a left press (for drive mode/self-timer), although the functions of most of the keys can be customised for the manual-shooting modes, allowing quick access to controls that would otherwise involve a trawl through the menu system. This is welcome relief, as it makes controls easily accessible. However, another custom button placed somewhere on the body would be handy.
Noise, resolution and sensitivity
Image: The same image taken at multiple ISO values shows that detail remains impressive up to ISO 6400 and appears almost noise-free beyond ISO 1600
The Sony NEX-F3’s 16.1-million-pixel sensor delivers a decent level of detail, and noise remains well controlled throughout the range. On our test chart the camera scored 26 on the raw file and 24 on JPEG at the base ISO 200 sensitivity. Impressively, these scores remain constant up to ISO 3200 and only drop to 24 (raw) and 22 (JPEG) at ISO 6400.
Noise levels in the JPEG files remain well controlled up to ISO 6400, too, although unprocessed raw files show that luminance noise is present from ISO 400. Only the ISO 12,800 and 16,000 settings become unusable for critical work, but even at ISO 16,000 detail remains impressive, scoring 20 from the raw and JPEG files.
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the Sony Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 24mm f/1.8 ZA lens. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution at the specified sensitivity setting.
White balance and colour
Colours from the NEX-F3’s JPEGs are faithful with plenty of contrast, providing a print-ready image straight from the camera. The creative style settings in the menu, however, provide various alternative colour settings through presets, fine-tuning contrast, saturation and sharpness in each instance.
White balance settings include nine presets with four different fluorescent settings alongside colour temperature and custom settings. For most uses, auto white balance provides accurate colours and remains neutral, although fine adjustment on a four-axis scale can be made to all presets.
As we’ve seen with previous Sony NEX models, the metering performs very well in its evaluative setting in the NEX-F3. The 1,200-zone system provides an even exposure without compensation in most cases, and manages to maintain highlights in all but the most high-contrast scenes.
The spot metering displays a guide on the LCD screen to show the area being metered, but doesn’t give an option to link it to the AF point.
Like earlier Sony sensors, the NEX-F3’s new 16.1-million-pixel device holds huge amounts of detail in shadow areas, allowing files to be pushed by at least a few stops to recover detail or purposefully allowed to underexpose to provide a wide range.
The dynamic range optimiser (DRO) makes use of this to provide a more even exposure, while the Auto HDR function takes three images with different exposures in a burst and then combines them. Both the DRO and Auto HDR can be activated in manual shooting modes, as well as in the iAuto and Superior Auto settings.
Image: The tilting screen is ideal for low-angle shooting, while the dynamic range optimiser helps create a more balanced image
Contrast-detection AF on the Sony NEX-F3 gives accurate and fairly speedy focusing. The focus tracking also performs well, keeping locked on to a chosen subject as it moves around the frame. There are options for single, continuous, multi and centre focusing, although the flexible spot option gives most control with 187 positions available in the frame. Close focusing can still be a little slow, however, and low-light usage still isn’t quite up to phase-detection standards.
LCD, viewfinder and video
Having the bracket of the Sony NEX-F3’s LCD screen extend to a 180° tilt is clever, but it does seem to limit the amount of downward tilt available, and when the bracket is fully extended the ribbon that connects the monitor is left slightly exposed. The bracket appears sturdy, however, and for waist-level shots it is enjoyable to use.
The LCD screen has a 921,600-dot resolution and provides a clear, crisp image for composition and review. Making use of this screen and its bracket meant that I seldom missed having an electronic viewfinder. However, the EVF designed for the NEX-5N is also compatible with the NEX-F3. It has an impressive 2.359-million-dot resolution, if a high price tag of £320.
One of the reasons for the new sensor in the NEX-F3 is its ability to shoot full HD video. Using the AVCHD format, this is available at 1080 (50i), or 720p in the simpler MP4 format at 720p. A stereo microphone is built into the body, while colour modes such as vivid, sunset and
black & white can also be applied to video.
The Sony NEX-F3 is a very capable camera. What it does, it does well, and for an entry-level compact system camera it’s difficult to find anything that is really missing. The only exceptions, perhaps, are touchscreen control and Wi-Fi capability, as seen on the new Samsung models. Before testing this camera, I would have argued that it was an electric viewfinder rather than a built-in flash this camera was screaming out for. However, the quality and flexibility of the screen meant that I was happy to compose without a viewfinder, as its waist-level abilities are more appealing than the self-portrait opportunities it creates.