Sony has redefined its most junior NEX proposition with the NEX-3N, the smallest compact system camera to offer an APS-C sensor. Matt Golowczynski puts it to the test
Sony NEX-3N at a glance
- 16.1-million-pixel APS-C-sized CMOS sensor
- E PZ 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS kit lens
- 3in tiltable LCD screen
- Full HD video recording
- ISO 200-16000
- Street price £400
- View the sample image gallery
Sony NEX-3N review – Introduction
Sony may not have been quite as prolific as Panasonic or Olympus with its NEX compact system camera (CSC) offerings, but the company has still managed to develop a system that appeals to novices as much as it does to enthusiasts.
While models at the higher end of the spectrum have high-resolution sensors, excellent electronic viewfinders and DSLR-like operation to recommend them, at the other extreme Sony has focused on squeezing a raft of clever functionality into simple compact bodies largely devoid of physical controls.
The previous model that sat at the bottom of the series, the NEX-F3, was something of a departure from this, with its bulky body making it decidedly less compact than some may have liked. Yet now, Sony appears to have reverted to its original intentions with its previous NEX-C3, delivering a replacement with portability very much in mind. Indeed, Sony claims it is the smallest CSC with an APS-C-sized sensor to date.
Perhaps more significantly, the model is also the first from Sony to include a dedicated control for operating the Power Zoom function incorporated into two of its current lenses, one of which being the E PZ 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS supplied with the camera as its standard kit option.
Sony NEX-3N review – Features
The Power Zoom control is positioned around the camera’s shutter-release button, in precisely the same way as it would be on a compact camera. The result is a compact-like shooting experience, where the camera can be held and have its zoom operated with just one hand.
The only other lens currently available that would work with this function is the video-oriented E PZ 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6, although at a weight of 649g it would be considerably more difficult to use without both hands.
In addition to its compact proportions and Power Zoom control, the Sony NEX-3N’s other major draw is its tiltable LCD screen. This can be pulled around a 180° angle to face the front, to facilitate self and group shots.
The 3in display has a resolution of 460,800 dots, which is the lowest display resolution yet for an NEX-series model. The camera isn’t alone in offering this, though, with the similarly-priced Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 and Olympus E-PM2 also making do with the same resolution.
The Sony NEX-3N’s sensor offers the same 16.1-million-pixel resolution as the more senior NEX-5R model, although here there are no phase-detection pixels incorporated into the sensor to provide a hybrid phase/contrast-detection system. Focus is therefore achieved solely through the more standard contrast-detect method, with 25 points on the default multi-area option.
Images can be captured in both raw and JPEG formats, with Sony’s proprietary ARW format used as the raw file type, while videos can be recorded to 50i/25p in full HD (1920×1080) quality.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment is the lack of the accessory port that graced previous models. This means the camera cannot mount any additional flashguns, nor can it accept a viewfinder of any sort.
Also, and somewhat bizarrely, while a small indicator lamp is found next to the memory-card door (to prevent the card being removed while data is being written), this cannot be seen from the back of the camera. There is, therefore, no convenient way of checking whether the camera is still processing images while shooting, which can be problematic when capturing images in quick succession.
Elsewhere, however, there are a number of redeeming features. The memory-card slot is now at the side of the camera rather than at the bottom, which means it can be removed and replaced while the camera is mounted on a tripod.
The battery is also charged through the camera’s USB port rather than through a separate charger, so it can simply be plugged into computer’s USB port as required.
Furthermore, given the Sony NEX-3N’s entry-level billing it’s welcome to find an exhaustive list of shooting tips directly accessible from the main shooting screen, which cover everything from basic holding to capturing panoramas, and even capturing movies with consistent colour balance. None of the tips goes into too much detail, but as an inspirational guide for those getting started it can’t be faulted.
Sony NEX-3N review – Build and handling
The NEX-3N’s dimensions aren’t too dissimilar to those of the previous NEX-C3, although the grip is now defined and separate from the body, rather than flowing more organically into a bulge as before. While this does make the camera somewhat easier to handle, its right strap lug is positioned exactly where the forefinger would naturally lie when holding the camera in a conventional manner. This issue is often encountered on small cameras such as this, where positioning a strap lug anywhere else is usually even more impractical.
There are few surprises in terms of overall build quality, though. Although the camera is a largely plastic affair, it feels as robust as would be expected in this price category. Indeed, in some areas it exceeds expectations – the 16-50mm Power Zoom kit lens, for example, is ended with a metal mount for durability, something that is missing from kit lenses of many other compact system cameras.
Being only around 1in long, the lens makes a perfect partner to the NEX-3N, and as the camera’s grip only protrudes from the body by a few millimetres, the lens ring can be operated with comfort, unlike when it is paired with one of the other NEX-series bodies with more substantial grips. As the ring moves the lens electronically rather than mechanically, it can take a steady hand and a degree of patience when using it to zoom to a particular focal length (this is the same when using either the Power Zoom control on the side of the lens barrel or the Power Zoom control on the camera body itself for zooming).
The flash button isn’t quite as recessed as on other models, which allows the flash to be released from the top-plate with only a little pressure. It’s a shame, however, that the playback button has returned to the position it occupied on the NEX-C3, on the top-plate next to the shutter release button – for the sake of convenience, such a control really belongs next to the display with which it’s used.
Sony NEX-3N review – Metering
Image: Although the original image appears slightly underexposed, using the DRO function to lift shadow areas retains more highlight detail than dialling in exposure compensation
Most of the time the NEX-3N can be relied upon to deliver accurately exposed images. The types of conditions in which many other cameras would normally be fooled into underexposure – such as when the scene is dominated by brighter skies – give the camera little difficulty, typically underexposing only by a touch. Studying the histograms of problematic scenes shows that the camera attempts to lose as little detail in highlights as possible – for this reason it’s useful to keep the dynamic range optimiser on to help fill in any shadowy areas.
Sony NEX-3N review – Autofocus
The NEX-3N’s autofocus is fast enough for most conditions, although there is a slight shift as the lens moves back and forth to determine correct focus, which means it’s not quite as instantaneous as some other compact system cameras. Focus in low light is aided by an AF assist lamp, which is bright enough to take care of most tricky situations, and although the object tracking function doesn’t actually continually focus on the subject – instead, tracking its movement before focus is initiated by the user – the camera does well to stay with the subject as it moves around the scene.
Sony NEX-3N review – Dynamic range
Dynamic range is about what we would expect from a camera with a 16.1-million-pixel, APS-C-sized sensor. Images captured during this test only showed highlights losing their details in more challenging conditions (such as a dimly lit interiors containing brighter external details through windows). In more typical conditions the NEX-3N does well to balance details across the tonal range, but keeping the dynamic range optimisation function on its auto setting is advised, as it tends to make an appropriate adjustment.
The Image Data Converter software that comes with the camera contains basic tools for recovering detail in both shadows and highlights and, unless used inappropriately, it manages to do so without introducing any noise or other artefacts.
Image: Such a scene can cause a camera to overexpose for the shadows, or underexpose to save the highlights. The NEX-3N has done neither, instead providing the right balance between the two
Sony NEX-3N review – Noise, resolution and sensitivity
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the Sony E PZ 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS 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.
The NEX-3N resolves around 24 lines per mm at its base sensitivity of ISO 200 – this is on a par with similarly priced enthusiast compact cameras, although the benefits of the larger sensor are realised at higher sensitivities where the camera only drops to around 20lpmm. Obviously, noise is far more prevalent here, but in terms of detail retention the camera is impressively consistent.
Some coloured patterning can be observed in shadow areas even as low as ISO 200, although this is true of many similar cameras. The in-camera noise reduction option doesn’t affect too many finer details when used at the lower end of the ISO range, but once the four-figure ISO values are reached, processing raw images manually yields better results.
Distortion at the 16mm end of the 16-50mm kit lens is severe, to the extent that raw images containing linear details appear as though they were captured using a fisheye lens. Fortunately, the camera’s distortion correction option corrected this sufficiently in JPEGs. Some pincushion distortion can also be witnessed at the lens’s other extreme, although it’s nowhere near as problematic.
Sony NEX-3N review – White balance and colour
In natural light the NEX-3N manages to capture images with consistently accurate white balance, in turn producing lifelike colours. For this reason, images captured in sunnier conditions can benefit from the vivid creative style, which injects a slight vibrancy into blue skies and foliage. Impressively, the camera’s fine auto white balance performance continues under artificial light, as well as conditions in which both natural and artificial sources are present. The only time the camera appeared to be producing a slightly different result to that expected was inside a church lit with a combination of natural light and halogen spotlights, although the difference was slight and not beyond a reasonable margin of error.
Sony NEX-3N review – Viewfinder, LCD and video
Given its small size and launch price of just under £400, it’s not surprising that the NEX-3N fails to offer a viewfinder of any kind. It is, however, a pity, as the camera’s 3in, 460,800-dot LCD screen is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the NEX-3N’s performance, and not because it cannot resolve the details of rival cameras with 921,000-dot displays.
Its main issue is visibility when used outside of fair, balanced conditions, particularly when viewed at an angle. This is less of a concern when in landscape orientation as the screen can be tilted to the most suitable position, but in portrait orientation it’s problematic. The screen’s viewing angle appears to be far too narrow for it to be usable in a variety of conditions, and with no electronic levelling function to hand it can be difficult to frame images accurately (the grid line options help here, but as they not illuminated they can be difficult to see themselves).
Video quality is good, with pleasing levels of detail and low noise when used in fine conditions. The zoom can also be operated during recording, although unlike many other models, the camera does not slow it down in any way to maintain focus, which means it can take a while for the camera to finally bring subjects into focus once the zoom has stopped. The action of the zoom can also be easily picked up by the camera’s on-board microphones.
Sony NEX-3N review – Our verdict
Sony has delivered a capable, pocketable camera with the convenience of a compact. While the Power Zoom control makes perfect sense when used with a compatible lens, only two such lenses exist. The lack of an accessory port also suggests that Sony is targeting the NEX-3N at a user with little intention of building up a system.
That user is unlikely to be concerned by the camera’s metering or white balance systems, or the detail produced by the lens, but may take umbrage at the lack of a more prominent indicator lamp and the lacklustre performance of the LCD screen. For this reason, the camera is perhaps best suited to those who won’t be using it often for burst shooting or in challenging shooting/lighting conditions.