Alright, I managed to get myself a nice new Sony NEX-3N this week, for reviewing purposes, of course, so as usual, let me share my thoughts on the camera – how it feels, how it works, how good (or bad) the images are, and that sort of thing – in a complete and detailed review right here on pixelogist! Alrighty then
UPDATE: I’ve also reviewed the Sony 16-50mm f3.5-5.6 power zoom kit lens that the NEX-3N comes with, so check that out as well!
The Sony NEX-3N is the latest entry-level model in Sony’s fantastic NEX mirrorless series, and replaces the NEX F3 (which in turn replaced the first “3-series” entry-level model, the C3) as the one to go for if you’re looking for a compact, top performing interchangeable-lens camera, on a rather tight budget
With features like a 16 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, ISO sensitivity up to 16000, fast autofocusing, decent continuous shooting speeds, a Sony E lens mount (which accepts a bunch of other awesome lenses), and quite a lot more, all in a super compact body that’s smaller than the Fujifilm X20, and selling for $500 (including the equally compact Sony 16-50mm f3.5-5.6 retractable power zoom lens), it doesn’t get much better than this. On paper, at least. The purpose of this review then is to find out how it actually works, and what it feels like when shooting in real life with the NEX-3N, and most importantly, how good the final images that it takes are. Stay with me till the end if you want to find out – and don’t simply skip to the conclusion!
NOTE: I’m not going to be explaining the concept of mirrorless cameras here – I’ve done that countless times, I feel – so check out my Canon EOS M review where you can find one of my many descriptions of what a mirrorless camera system is!
The Sony NEX-3N was released not long ago, and as far as I know, is only available as a kit with the SELF1650 16-50mm f3.5-5.6 power zoom lens. This is not at all a bad thing, as this slim little lens adds a lot to the overall experience of using the NEX-3N body and keeps the entire camera really compact. It is a power zoom lens, and not a manual (mechanical) zoom that you’d expect with a system camera like this, and one of the benefits of such a lens is that it actually retracts into itself when not in use, which is what makes it as slim as it is. If you want to know more about this lens, check out my review on it – and in case you’re wondering if you can use other E-mount lenses that you own with this body, the NEX-3N will of course be fully compatible with all these lenses
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Specifications You Would Want To Know
- Body: Compact, mirrorless
- Lens Mount: Sony E-Mount
- Resolution: 16.1 million pixels
- Sensor Size: APS-C (22.3 x 14.9mm)
- Sensor Type: CMOS
- Shutter Speed: Max 1/4000 sec, Min 30 sec (and Bulb)
- ISO Range: 200-16000
- White Balance: Auto, 6 Presets, Color Temperature Selection, Custom
- Video: 1080p @ 60fps (and many other lower resolutions/frame rates)
- Video Format: AVCHD, MP4
- Metering Modes: Multi Segment, Center Weighted, Spot
- Exposure Modes: P, A, S, M, Intelligent Auto, Superior Auto, Panorama, Scene
- Built-in Flash: Yes, pop-up
- Hot-shoe: No
- Autofocus: Contrast Detect
- AF Modes: Single, Continuous, Direct MF
- Number of AF Points: 25
- Manual Focus: Yes
- Screen: 3.0” LCD (460k dots)
- Articulated: Yes, Tilt (upwards only, 180°)
- Touchscreen: No
- Optical/Electronic Viewfinder: No
- Max Drive Speed: 4fps
- File Formats: JPEG, RAW
- Connections: USB 2.0, HDMI Mini
- Memory Card Type: Memory Stick Pro Duo/Pro-HG Duo/Pro-HG HX Duo & SD/SDHC/SDXC
- Dimensions (body only): 110 x 62 x 35 mm
- Weight (body only): 269g (with battery and memory card)
- Weight (body plus lens): 385g
I have a full spec sheet on the lens in its own review, but there isn’t much to write in terms of specs anyway. It’s a 16-50mm f3.6-5.6 lens, which, on this APS-C sensor, gives a field of view that is equivalent to 24-74mm on a 35mm camera, and has an MFD of 25cm. It weights 116g. That’s it
When you open the box and take this camera out – or try it out in the store before buying – you’re going to love how small it is. It’s really compact. I don’t remember exactly how small the EOS M was, but this feels even smaller; and comparing the EOS M and the NEX-3N side by side on camerasize.com, I can confirm that the 3N is as small, and smaller in some ways, as the EOS M. That’s fantastic. It’s also pretty light. I guess that makes it feel a bit less-than-premium – the build quality is good, if a bit plasticky – but then again, it’s not a premium camera, is it? It’s an entry-level product, and I think the build quality and overall feel is better than average. And I love the size
One of the main reasons the NEX-3N kit is so compact and is smaller than most other mirrorless systems out there is its super slim kit lens, a retractable power zoom lens that is just around 3cm thick when turned off; it is significantly smaller than other kit lenses such as the Canon EF-M 18-55. Put next to my Fuji X20, the NEX-3N body is smaller, and even with the lens attached, with barrel protruding, it’s just about as thick (or thin) as the X20
The zoom range of 16-55mm is very interesting – a pretty unique zoom range for a entry-level kit lens – and while it misses 5mm at the telephoto end compared to most kit lenses you would’ve come across, what you will really notice is the 2mm you gain at the wide end. Very nice indeed, and great for you landscape fellows out there. It feels pretty good in the hand – I’d say it feels as good as the EF-M 18-55mm, the only thing I loved about the EOS M system – and works as well (or better) than a general purpose kit lens should work. It focuses internally, which means nothing moves as you focus, and the focus motor is deadly quiet. Excellent. The barrel extends as you zoom, of course – only to be expected for a lens of this price range – and overall, I’m very happy with this Sony 16-50mm f3.5-5.6! I’ve done a full review on this lens, so check that out if you want more information on it
One of the cool new features of this system is its power zoom lens, and the zooming mechanism on the NEX-3N is very interesting, due to the number of ways (three!) that you can control zoom on the lens. First of all, you can use the ring on the lens barrel, which is placed where you’d find a zoom ring on any kit lens. It’s not a mechanical zoom ring but is an electronic one that controls a motor that zooms the lens for you. I’ve heard people complain that using this ring tends to make the zooming action a bit jumpy, and not really smooth, and it is – if you try to use it like a manual zoom ring. It’s not. So don’t try to use it like one. Get used to it – get a feel for it – and it works just fine. I was able to make 1mm corrections using this ring with no problem at all. If you still don’t like it, you can try option #2, a sort of slider switch under the lens barrel, which zooms in a slower, smoother fashion. More suitable for video work? Depends on what you want, I guess, but yeah…this option works great too. If you don’t like THIS one either, there’s option #3, the most interesting one of all: a traditional point-n-shoot style rocker switch around the shutter button. Surely you’re used to that?! What this also means is that you can use this camera very easily using just the one hand. Nice! Naturally, this rocker works only with the powered zoom lenses in the Sony E series of lenses, which as far as I know only includes this 16-50mm, although there should be more on the way. But anyway, if you can’t find a method of zooming the NEX-3N that doesn’t make you happy, it’s not the camera’s fault!
UPDATE: There’s also a Sony 18-200mm f3.5-5.6 powered zoom lens for the NEX E-mount – although, being released along with the NEX-VG900 full-frame video camera, this rather massive lens seems to be designed with the videographer in mind. However, it’s an E-mount lens, so it’ll work on all NEX cameras, and as it’s a powered zoom lens, the NEX-3N’s zoom rocker will be able to control it – but I wouldn’t dare try shooting one-handed with this humongous thing!
Oh, and if you switch to manual focus, the main zoom ring becomes a focus ring, which works beautifully. Turn on Sony’s famous Focus Peaking feature and manual focusing has never been better!
Ok, so that was quite a lot about the very basics of the camera, right? Sorry about that. To continue with my first thoughts: turning on the camera, the power-on time is excellent. Snap off the lens cap, flick the power switch and you’re ready to shoot in two seconds or less. Less importantly, powering off takes just under two seconds too. Snappy
Taking my first shot with it, in good lighting conditions, the AF system locked focus almost instantly. Compared with other mirrorless systems I’ve used, it’s on par with most of them, and faster than quite a few of them. Very impressive – especially when you consider how some people were commenting with disappointment on this camera’s lack of phase detect AF. In dimmer lighting conditions, the AF speed remained excellent, and never took more than a second to lock focus. More on this in the Performance section but yeah – it’s great to start off a camera test this way
What next? Oh yes. The shutter. The shutter is loud! At first I thought it was some sort of artificial shutter sound that could be turned off the Setup menu, but it turns out that’s the NEX-3N’s actual shutter mechanism. It makes a pretty loud sort of ‘clunk’ or ‘clack’ as the shutter releases. Not a big deal for some, but I’m going to say you street shooters out there wouldn’t really want this camera. It’s a loud operator
The 460k-dot LCD is alright. The 3N’s predecessor, the F3, had a higher resolution 920k-dot screen, so it’s disappointing to see a downgrade on what’s supposed to be an upgrade, but it works alright. It gave me a bit of trouble in bright sunlight, though. I usually have no problem with sunlight and LCDs, but here I often had to shade the screen with my hand, and had to take many a shot where I was guessing the composition, and had to review ‘em in the shade afterwards. I guess I’ve not had this sort of trouble before because I’ve been testing rather high-end cameras lately, and this screen is nothing like the superb LCD found on the RX100, for instance; but when you consider this camera is a mirrorless system camera that costs less than many of today’s premium compact cameras, you’d stop complaining. The LCD is perfectly alright
I don’t usually consider flip/articulated screens a must-have on my cameras, but whenever using one, I always ‘re-realize’ how useful they can be. However, the LCD on the 3N is not fully articulated, nor is it a true tilt LCD. It simply flips upwards 180°. This allows you to take low-angle shots and self-portraits very easily, but for shooting above the head – nope. It’s better than a fixed screen, I guess, but if you’ve put in the hinges for a tilt screen, surely doing the job properly and making it a true tilt screen couldn’t have been that hard?
First impressions on image quality, after reviewing them on the low-res LCD: very good. I’m obviously going to go into much more detail later on (hopefully without boring you!) but seeing the sort of pictures that this camera takes right in the beginning, it gives a good feeling!
Ok, I’m almost done. Just a few more quick comments, one of which is on the flash – which I really like. I haven’t used it as yet, but the fact that this pop-up flash has a flexible head means there’s the chance for some nice bounce flash effects. Sweet
Another comment I have is on the macro capabilities of the lens. I love shooting close-up – I love getting the extra detail from the subject, while also blurring the background completely – so a camera’s close-up capabilities are very important to me. So if you’re wondering how close the 16-50mm lens can get, it has an MFD of 25cm throughout the zoom range; which means that, naturally, your best macro chances are at the 50mm end of the lens. Shooting at 50mm, around 25cm from the subject, I got some great close-ups. Look at the sample images for more
One final comment, this time a little complaint: as this camera has a retracting lens mechanism and all that, you don’t want to turn it on every time you simply want to view pictures. All compact cameras allow you to view images simply by pressing the Playback button, which turns on the camera in Playback mode without extending the lens, right? Not on the NEX-3N. You need to turn the entire thing on, then switch to Playback mode, and view your shots. The fact that the lens cap can be kept on as you turn on the camera saves this from being outrageously annoying, but I hope a firmware update can fix this
And that’s it. I think apart from the last comment, I had no complaints. That’s fantastic, isn’t it? Oh, and unlike the RX100, the NEX-3N comes with a full printed manual, in no less than three separate languages. Excellent!
Controls & Handling
The NEX-3N looks like most of the NEX series, and I love that. It’s smaller than the rest, though, so people might be concerned about the grip, and of course, that’s a personal thing. I have large hands, and I find the NEX-3N perfectly comfortable to grip – but then again, I rarely have a problem gripping any sort of camera, so yeah, it’s a personal thing, this. Go try it out if you’re concerned – I think it’s fine
I’ll describe the available controls first, and then talk about what they do and how they work:
On top, there’s just a power switch, the shutter button (with the zoom rocker around it), and a Playback button. I guess the flash release button and the dedicated Movie record button are also on top, although one could argue that they’re on the back too
The back panel has the rest of the controls, which consist simply of two soft keys and a four-way controller/control wheel. That’s it. The four-way directional buttons control Display, ISO, Drive/Self Timer and Exposure Compensation – and there’s a Select button the middle. Read on for more on the soft keys
As this is an interchangeable-lens camera, the front has the lens release button – but that’s all on the front
The controls are very similar, and in parts identical, to the rest of the NEX series. Let me break it down for you before I describe them, for those of you unfamiliar with how Sony does things on the NEX cameras:
Alright, so in addition to the usual four-way directional controller, the NEX-3N has two ‘soft keys’. The soft keys are basically Select button that select different things depending on the mode or state of the camera – and what each button selects in the camera’s current state is displayed right next to it, on the LCD. For example, in any of the shooting modes, Soft Key A is the Menu button, but once you’re in the Menu, the same Soft Key A becomes the Back button. Easy, right? Yeah. Soft Key B is not used in the Menu, but the in playback mode it works as the Delete key. When shooting, the Soft Key B is customizable – you can program it to access ISO, white balance presets, metering modes, etc.) but if you use the flexible-area AF mode, Soft Key B becomes your AF Area Select button, and cannot be changed. This is good, as I regularly change my AF point, but this means there’s one less user-defined control
The right key on the four-way controller is customizable too, but as there’s no other easy way to adjust ISO, I recommend leaving it as it is. This means there’s no real customizable button on the NEX-3N if you use this flexible-area AF mode, and that’s disappointing. There’s so much room on the back – next to the Soft Key B, for example – to put in a Q menu or Fn button, which would’ve made this decent interface so much better. The Up key on the four-way controller, which sets Display, is another one wasted, although many camera makers do this, and I don’t understand why. How often do you change the Display settings on your camera? I just set it once and leave it – there’s absolutely NO need for a dedicated button to do this for me. Such a waste!
Anyway, moving on. There’s no mode dial on the camera, similar to most other NEX cameras, as well as the EOS M. To select a mode (P, A, S, M etc.) you press the center button of the four-way controller, and turn the control wheel to select your mode. It’s very easy, and I have no complaints here, especially since I rarely change exposure modes, but I always favor a physical mode dial nonetheless. On occasion, I found myself searching the top panel when trying to change modes. One can get quickly used to that, though
One thing that I really do miss, however, is an AE lock button. The menu gives you an option to lock exposure when you half-press and hold the shutter button; but as this also locks focus, it can be useful, but not always. There are often occasions when I want to meter HERE and focus THERE. Not possible on the 3N. Of course, you can customize Soft Key B (or the right directional key) to do just this, but like I already said, these two keys are used for other settings (for me, at least) already. So unfortunately, I’d probably turn this ‘focus and lock exposure’ setting off and give up on AEL altogether if I were using this camera
The playback button – I’m not a fan of it’s position. It just doesn’t feel natural to me. Not a real complaint, but yeah. I don’t like it
The menu system is the same as the one used on most (or all) other NEX cameras. If you’ve never used an NEX before, the menu is broken down into different categories, so after a press of the Menu soft key, you get a sub-menu with this selection of tiles: Shooting Mode (another way to change your exposure mode), Camera (drive mode, AF mode, etc.), Image Size (you guessed it), Brightness/Color (ISO, WB, EV, metering, picture effects/styles etc.), Playback (Delete, slideshow, etc.) and Setup. I like this system – it works great on most occasions – and prefer it to the menu found on Sony’s RX100, which bunched up all these into one tabbed menu system, and wasn’t that easy to get around. However, in some instances, where I needed to repeatedly change the same setting after each shot (granted, this mainly happens when test shooting!) I found it a bit cumbersome, involving a process that included around 5 button presses and a turn of the control wheel in between each shot!
UPDATE: After using the camera bit more, I find the menu system (mainly due to the lack of Fn/Q menu type button, really) to be very frustrating indeed. Changing WB presets one after the other require a minimum of 3 button presses, the adjustment via control wheel, and a press of the center Select button. If you change metering mode, then want to change WB, it’d probably add another couple of button presses to that process. And settings like metering mode, flash mode, flash compensation, and such are all equally difficult to access; and since the customizable keys are not really customizable if you shoot with the flexible area AF mode, this really becomes a problem
One last comment on the design of the camera is the memory card slot, which is located on the side of the camera, under the charger/USB/HDMI port cover. The position of this is great, but the lid is not. It doesn’t have a lock, but instead has a little slit, which you need to get under and pry the cover open, with a fingernail. A lock would’ve been much better
And that’s it. I know I went into too much detail but hopefully there are some of you who wanted to read all that!
Summing it up in one word (or sentence, actually) before I begin, I’d say performance was well above what I expected from this, an entry-level mirrorless camera. Really impressive no matter what area of performance you’re talking about, and everything was always brisk and snappy – never sluggish
Power-on speed is very quick – less than two seconds on my estimation. Very quick indeed. The camera shuts down in less than two seconds too – so if you mistakenly turn off the camera and find you need to take another shot (it happens more often than you might think), you can power off, power back on, and be ready to shoot, all in less than four seconds
Autofocusing, like I said in the beginning, is excellent. Contrast detect AF it might be, but it performs far better than the fancy Hybrid AF system on the EOS M, and does a great job in all sorts of lighting conditions. In well-lit conditions, it’s near instant. In low light, it never takes a second or more. And rarely fails to lock focus. Top class
Shot-to-shot speed is superb, JPEG or RAW. It shoots and – if you turn off the auto image review – is ready to go pretty much immediately afterwards
Burst shooting isn’t super fast, with a max speed of 4fps, but it buffers/writes very fast, so you can continue shooting for 10 seconds or more and the speed rarely drops below this 4fps. Unless you’re shooting sports or some serious action stuff, this is perfectly adequate
Yeah, the Bionz engine is pretty damn good, and keeps the camera moving along very nicely. Menu browsing and all that is fast too, and while it can feel a bit slow when you’re rapidly trying to change settings repeatedly, it’s probably the menu system itself that’s slowing you down, not the speed of the camera itself
Like I said, it’s far better than what I expected, and I’d say it’s on par with cameras costing much more than the NEX-3N does. It never felt like it was slowing me down – the only thing that does that is the menu system/controls – and always feels snappy, and that’s a great feeling to have when you’re shooting
Power Zoom Lens: One of the more interesting features found on this kit is the power zoom lens, and the methods of adjusting your focal length (zoom). It’s not the first power zoom lens to appear on a mirrorless camera, of course – but it’s one of the nicest to use, I have to say, and I’m a fan of it. The zoom ring and the slider switch under the lens barrel give you a very good feel and I found both these methods very comfortable to use, while the point-n-shoot type rocker switch around the shutter button is a fantastic little addition, making one-handed shooting extremely comfortable. It also makes the transition easy for those upgrading to a mirrorless system from a basic compact camera. I’m not a videographer so I can’t comment on how this would work for video but it works fine for photography. If you’re into video, go get a video camera!
Clear Image Zoom: Found on many Sony cameras these days, Clear Image Zoom is basically digital zoom i.e. it crops the image to get a smaller field of view and gives you the impression that you’ve zoomed in more. However, regular digital zoom will cost you resolution; Sony claims that Clear Image Zoom magically manages to digitally magnify the image by up to 2x without losing resolution. Alright, it’s not magic but probably some form of processing, but yeah…that’s what they claim it does. With 16.1MP to play with, if you really want to get a bit more reach, use this – it works well enough – but I usually keep this sort of thing turned off
Dynamic Range Optimization/Auto HDR: The dynamic range of this camera’s sensor is pretty good, and with dynamic range optimization turned on, it’s even better. Have a look at the sample pictures below to get an idea of how well it works. If you want to do a quick HDR – the AE bracketing options are not great on the NEX-3N – the Auto HDR mode is your best bet. I’ve included a sample of how this works too. Try out both DR Optimization and Auto HDR and see what you like best – shots taken with each mode look different – and use that for your high dynamic range shots. I’d recommend keeping DR Optimization on regardless of what you shoot, though. And as you can see from the sample shots below, using DR Optimization and a manual mode like Aperture Priority (or the Auto HDR mode) gives far better results than the Superior Auto mode, which also did a multi-shot HDR but didn’t do it that well
Sweep Panorama: This has got its own dedicated mode on the virtual mode dial, and it does its job as well as any other camera does, in its class or otherwise. Smoothly stitched panoramas are very easy to come by with this camera. Nothing more to say here
Flash: Ok, so it’s a regular little pop-up flash, but like on the RX100, the 3N’s flash is a flexible little thing that can be tilted back with your finger and held there while you shoot, which gives a beautiful, soft and even light to your photograph. It’s nothing like the harsh look you get with even the best pop-up flash fired directly. Fantastic. All cameras should have this sort of pop-up!
Manual Focus/Focus Peaking: Using the zoom ring, which becomes a focus ring in MF mode, to focus manually is an absolute pleasure. It’s smooth, it’s just sensitive enough, and add to that the awesome Focus Peaking MF assistance feature and it’s manual focusing heaven! If you only want to fine-tune the AF, there’s no full-time manual control on this, but there’s a nice DMF mode that allows you just that: autofocus, then fine-tine using the lens ring. Perfect
Intelligent/Superior Auto Modes: These automatic modes are obviously not for the experienced photographer, but for the beginners who would probably buy this camera, these could be fairly useful, and they work well enough – as well as any automatic mode on new cameras these days. I can’t quite differentiate between the Intelligent and Superior Auto modes (why couldn’t they just make them both one mode?!) but apparently the Superior mode is superior in terms of image quality and in ability to handle harder-to-capture scenes. They both do a pretty good job of looking at a scene, judging if it’s a landscape/portrait/backlit/night etc. type of shot and shooting a well-exposed image of it. The Superior Auto mode sometimes shoots a composite of 3 images too, depending on the scene (backlit scenes, for instance) but in my experience, this doesn’t work out that well all the time, as you saw in the above examples of dynamic range optimization – where the Auto HDR shots that the Superior Auto mode took didn’t look nearly as good as the shots taken in manual modes with DR Optimization
More interestingly, these two modes give you a bit of creative control via the Photo Creativity menu, accessed by pressing the Down key on the four-way. This menu gives you control over a few properties of the image, specifically Background Defocus (see below), Brightness, Color (temperature), and Vividness. It also lets you add a Picture Effect (see below again!). Not the exact sort of creative control most photographers would want, but then again, if you want more creative control than this, don’t shoot auto! If you shoot auto, I think you’d be happy with these options
Background Defocus: One of the features of the Photo Creativity menu in the Auto modes, from what I can tell, Background Defocus isn’t a composite shooting mode like Fuji’s Pro Focus mode, which actually blurs the background more than a manual mode would. Instead, it simply tells the camera to shoot the automatic exposure (remember, it’s only available in the Auto modes) with a very wide aperture, which results in a blurry background, but not more so than if you shoot at f3.5 in Aperture Priority mode. I guess this is for absolute beginners who don’t know how aperture affects depth of field. I compared two identical shots, one taken in Aperture Priority at f3.5, and one taken in Auto with Background Defocus set to maximum, and didn’t notice a difference. Yeah, it’s rather useless; I was rather excited by this feature, which is why I talked about it separately here, but it doesn’t deserve the attention. I didn’t bother adding examples here
Picture Effects: The usual filters that people love these days – toy camera, pop color, miniature, the works – are found here. It can be accessed under Photo Creativity in Auto modes, but it’s also available in the menu and can be applied to any shooting mode you’re using
Auto Object Framing: This one’s a complete gimmick, I’m afraid. What it claims to do is to detect a scene (it works in the Auto modes only, of course), capture it, then crop it to form a more ‘professional’ composition i.e. it tries to do your job. That’s a terrible concept, to begin with, but I thought it might at least it help some beginners learn a few things about composition – if it worked. But it doesn’t. I took a couple of portraits, in landscape orientation, and it did crop to portrait orientation, but it tried to do its ‘professional’ thing with what I assume was an attempt at a Rule of Thirds framing, resulting in my subject’s ear being half cut off. No, it’s just a gimmick
Compatibility with all Sony E lenses: Not one of the coolest features, I know, but like many uncool-sounding things, it’s very important. There’s no use going for a camera system if there are only one or two lenses that are available for it. With the NEX-3N, you’re open to all Sony’s E-mount lenses, and there are quite a few of these to choose from! Add on the optional adapter and you can use Sony’s Alpha DSLR glass too! Nice! Sure, lenses are expensive, and if you’re spending $1000 or more on a lens, you’d probably want a better body, but like they always say, spend more on the glass – lenses are more important than the body. A NEX-3N with a Zeiss lens would give you better results than a cheap kit lens and the NEX 6 or NEX 7
Yeah, there are quite a few features on the NEX-3N. There are probably a lot more – check out Sony’s page if you want a complete list – but these are what caught my eye, and these are what I ended up using during the few days of my testing. Some of them (most of them, really) were helpful and were pleasant to use, while a few were absolutely pointless; but yeah, a solid feature list
Sony SELP1650 16-50mm f3.5-5.6 Power Zoom lens
A quick word on the lens for those of you who want more about it without reading my full review: to put it simply, I really liked this super-slim zoom. Build quality is very nice. I think I mentioned earlier that it feels as well built as the Canon EF-M kit zoom, and I stand by that. Most of Sony’s E-mount lenses are built well and this is too. At 116g, it’s very light, and with the body, adds up to a pretty small weight of just 385g. Light but not light enough to feel cheap. It just feels good in the hand
Having such a compact body in the NEX-3N, it would be a shame to ruin it with a large lens, which is what happens to most really compact mirrorless systems, but here the SELP1650 changes things. Retracting down to just around 3cm in thickness, it makes the entire system as compact as the Fujifilm X20! That’s quite incredible
Focusing is internal, which means nothing moves while focusing. The focusing motor is very quiet too. Fantastic. Unfortunately, the loud clack created by the shutter mechanism ruins the quiet operation of the system, but the lens does its job very quietly. The lens protrudes a further couple of centimeters when powered on, and extends a centimeter or so while zooming, nothing more. Very acceptable
It has an MFD of 25cm throughout the range, which makes for some decent macro shots at the 50mm end of the lens, and that’s about it. For image quality, of course – read the next part!
Sony NEX-3N: Image Quality
Alright, crunch time. It’s not going to matter how compact it is, how fast it focuses, or how awesome the battery life is (it’s pretty awesome), if the images don’t keep up with the competition. However, Sony has never had issues with image quality recently, and definitely not with the NEX system, and the 3N is not about to become the first. I already hinted at very good image quality earlier on, and now I elaborate on that: the image quality is very, very good indeed! The SELP1650, the EXMOR HD CMOS sensor, and the Bionz engine, all combine to produce some lovely images, really
The thing I really liked about the pictures that the NEX-3N takes is the natural quality about them. They’re not over the top, nor are they flat and underwhelming, but they looks really good while remaining natural. That’s a sign of a very good camera. The best of the best produce images that are colorful, contrasty, bright and punchy, full of life, while also remaining natural – faithful to the original subject. And while I’m not going to compare images from the 3N to images from a Leica or something ridiculous like that, I’m going to say the images this NEX produced had this sort of quality about them – colorful, powerful, bright, but natural and faithful too – and looked excellent overall. This sort of image quality will be perfect not only for the market that this camera aims at, but for many of you who consider yourself professionals. It takes really good images. The images are sharp too – and while I think the EF-M kit lens produced images a tad sharper than the ones I took with this Sony 16-50mm, I’m not complaining at all. Just nitpicking. It’s a pretty damn sharp lens. Take a look at the crops, coming up in a bit
Noise control is truly fantastic. I would never hesitate shooting at ISO 3200 with the NEX-3N, simply because images taken at ISO 3200 are clean! In fact, I might even go up to 6400, although here noise is pretty present – but it’s still not too bad. 12800 and 16000 are only for emergencies, but images up to 3200 have no problems with noise whatsoever. And it’s not overdone NR either – look at the sample crops again – you’ll realize that the images still retain a good amount of detail
Auto White Balance does a great job 99% of the time, indoors and outdoors, with artificial light and ambient light. But as with all but the very best of cameras I’ve tested, the auto WB on the NEX-3N struggled in my living room at night. I have no idea what it is about this living room that makes it so difficult for cameras – the combination of curtain color, wall color, and the temperature of the electric lamps, probably – but things often tend to look bad with a camera set to auto WB, and that was the case with the 3N. It produced images with a fairly strong green cast over things, images that were pretty unusable unless they were taken in RAW, to be fixed in Photoshop later – but a quick custom WB setting was all that was necessary to capture this living room perfectly accurately
Or the flash could’ve been used! Ah, the tilting flash! Fantastic, really. It worked just as well as I had hoped it would, allowing for some beautiful, soft lighting indoors, and is just leaps and bounds ahead of any direct pop-up flash. It makes up for the lack of a hot-shoe for an external flash, it really does. I can’t describe it better – have a look at the images I posted in the Features section above, and in the sample pictures below, and see for yourself. The flash is decent when fired directly, but is nothing special – it looks like any other direct pop-up flash – but when bounced, it just looks wonderful!
Lens errors are not very noticeable in JPEGs. In RAW, there’s a very noticeable bit of distortion at the wide end, but as Lightroom has already profiled this lens, it just takes a click to fix. Chromatic aberrations are not noticeable in either JPEG or RAW. It’s not that the lens is perfect – I just don’t pixel-peel purely to discover lens errors. I simply call it as I see it in regular size, and I can’t say I noticed anything glaring here! Something I did notice was a bit of vignetting, even in jpegs, when shooting wide open throughout the zoom range. More on this in the full review on the lens, though – I must leave something to write in that post!
UPDATE: I’m noticing more vignetting now that I’m aware of it, and I must say in some cases it’s rather strong. The only real fault of this lens, if you ask me
What else? Well, another comment on the image quality of the lens: in addition to producing sharp images, the bokeh (or the quality of the out-of-focus blur) in the images taken by this camera at wide apertures I found to be nice and smooth. On cheaper kit zoom lenses, bokeh can be harsh, or simply ordinary. I think the bokeh that this lens produces is pretty smooth and very pleasant
Metering is something I often forget to comment about, which is stupid considering how important it is and how directly responsible a metering system is to the image quality of a camera (unless you’re a complete manual shooter!) and yeah – the multi-segment metering system worked most of the time for me. On a few occasions, shooting backlit subjects, I had to switch to spot metering mode, and that worked fine too. It’s a good metering system
Image Quality: Sharpness, Detail, Noise
NOTE: All night shots/high ISO shots were taken with Long Exposure NR ON and High ISO NR set to Normal. All are approximately 100% crops, and apart from the sharpness tests, each shot is a crop is taken from the center of the frame, and was shot at around f5.6
Image Quality: RAW vs. JPEG
All of the above are approximate 100% crops, and apart from the sharpness tests, all shots are crops from the center of the frame, and were shot at around f5.6. All comparisons are paired with JPEG first & RAW second
And yeah, that’s about it, really. The best parts of the lens and body combine to take images that are sharp, colorful, and natural, with pretty bokeh too – while remaining noise-free up to rather high ISO sensitivities. The lens is not the sharpest of its kind I’ve used – for example, the Canon’s EF-M kit zoom was just a bit sharper, if I remember right – but it’s as good as what you’d expect from a lens in this price category. In fact, apart from the EF-M 18-55mm (which I found to be exceptional, really), in this price range it’d be very hard to find a sharper lens. And in reality, without comparisons or pixel-peeping, it’s perfectly sharp enough. The overall image quality is excellent. Add the superb little flash into the mix and you should really be happy with the quality of photographs this little camera and lens takes!
Sony NEX-3N Product Gallery
Sony NEX-3N Sample Image Gallery
What I liked/didn’t like
- Superb image quality – one of the best in its class
- Lens produces nice, sharp images with very pleasant bokeh
- Images are noise-free up to ISO 3200
- Very fast autofocus system – again, one of the best in its class, I’d say
- Awesome little pop-up flash that tilts for great bounce flash effect
- Extremely small size and weight
- Very well designed power zoom lens with great options for zoom control
- Excellent dynamic range optimization mode
- Very good sweep panorama
- Fast power-on speed
- Great manual focus mode along with superb Focus Peaking
- Excellent battery life (went through my entire 3 days of tests on a single charge)
- At $500 for the kit, this is top value for money
- Lack of Fn or Q menu button
- Frustrating menu system (made so by lack of Fn or Q menu button)
- Lack of customizable buttons – if you use the camera like I do, the two customizable buttons cannot really be customized
- No AE lock – big negative for me
- Loud shutter – again, a big negative for the street shooter in me
- No hot-shoe – not a problem for me, I love the pop-up flash
- Rather strong vignetting at wide apertures (although this is a fault of the lens, not the body)
And yeah, that’s the Sony NEX-3N reviewed for you. Looking immediately above at the pros and cons, you’d notice there are more positives than negatives. That’s always a good thing. A few of the negatives are significant, though. Significant enough to change my mind if I was trying to decide between two cameras for a purpose
In fact, I would consider adding this to my collection, as it’d make a great little camera for discreet street shooting; however, a few of these issues – namely the loud shutter, the lack of Fn/Q buttons, and the lack of an AEL – are responsible for me deciding against keeping this
However, for the beginner, these issues might not be that much of an issue. The menu system and lack of function buttons might cause even the newest newbie a bit of a problem, but the loud shutter and lack of an AEL shouldn’t really be an issue. And if a beginner is going for an entry-level camera and can’t spend more than $500, I’d definitely recommend a mirrorless system camera like this rather than a high-end compact, which would cost as much or more. The high image quality, as well as the shallower depth of field, that the large APS-C sensor cameras are capable of, can really allow new photographers to express themselves better, while the handling of this sort of camera also helps them develop from point-and-shoot users to system camera users – and the design of the NEX-3N in particular makes this transition very easy
If not for these few issues, I’d recommend the NEX-3N as a budget choice for any grade of photographer. The images it produces are really good – sharp, natural, colorful, noise-free, and all that – the lens is well-built and really nice to use, the flash is superb, and I generally enjoyed using it; but having said issues, I find myself only recommending it to beginners who are looking for a cheap but really good camera to kick off a photography hobby or career. For those experienced photographers out there, if you’re looking for a cheap backup camera and you know you can handle the little issues outlined here, I can recommend it to you as well! But know these little problems before buying
Alright, that’s it then. It’s been a long one, hasn’t it? I hope it was helpful! If you have anything to say on this camera or on this review, please leave a comment – I always love hearing from you. Questions, thoughts, ideas, criticisms…anything, really! Oh, and if you’re buying this camera, as always, please use my links and help pixelogist stay online! Until next time
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By Heshan Jayakody All content in this post is my own
- Best mirrorless cameras for less than $1,000 (reviews.cnet.com)
- Sony SELP1650 16-50mm f3.5-5.6 OSS: Review (pixelogist.me)
- Gary M. Kaye: Sony Alpha NEX-6 Almost the Top of the Heap (huffingtonpost.com)
- Sony NEX-3N review: superior shooting on the cheap (engadget.com)