Sony Alpha NEX-F3 Review
Design & Features
The Alpha NEX-F3 is a compact mirrorless camera made mostly of composite (AKA plastic) materials. Despite all that plastic, the F3 is well put-together. The camera is easy to hold with one hand (unless you've got a large lens attached), though there's little room for the fingers on our right hand, which end up sitting on buttons or the rear dial. In addition, the movie recording button is harder to press than one would expect. The NEX-C3 is very much a menu-driven camera (hence the lack of direct buttons), and I'll touch more on its interface later in the review.
Comparison the NEX-C3 (left) with the new NEX-F3. Photos fairly close to scale.
As you can see above, the design of the NEX-F3 has changed a bit since the NEX-C3. The F3 has a more rectangular body, and the shutter release button has been moved on top of the grip, whose design has also changed. The back of the cameras look fairly similar, but the LCD swivel mechanism is completely different, as you'll see later.
Images courtesy of Sony Electronics
You'll be able to pick up the NEX-F3 in three colors: silver, white, and a professional-looking black.
While the NEX-F3 is compact when using a pancake lens, it becomes more of a handful (no pun intended) once a zoom is attached
Now let's take a look at how the NEX-F3 compares to other interchangeable lens cameras in terms of size and weight:
Ignoring the giant, SLR-sized Pentax for a second, you'll see that the NEX-F3 is one of the bulkier cameras in this group. The only way you're going to get it into your jeans pocket is with the 16mm pancake lens attached -- otherwise it's riding over your shoulder or in a camera bag.
Let's tour the NEX-F3 now, using our tabbed interface:
Here's the front of the NEX-F3, without a lens attached. NEX cameras use Sony's E-mount, which has a relatively small lens selection at this point. Sony doesn't build image stabilization into the NEX bodies, so you'll want to look for a lens with "OSS" if you want this feature (the kit lens has it). All lenses have a 1.5X crop factor, so the 18 - 55 kit lens is equivalent to 27 - 82.5 mm. To release an attached lens, simply press the button to the lower-left of the mount.
The NEX-F3 sports a 16.2 Megapixel APS-C size sensor, which is as large as you'll find in a mirrorless camera. As I mentioned in the intro to this review, this sensor is newer than the one in the NEX-C3, and is shared by Sony's SLT-A37 Translucent Mirror D-SLR.
All mirrorless cameras have a high likelihood of having dust collect on its sensor, as there's something in-between it and the elements. Sony uses an ultrasonic dust removal system to literally shake dust away. That said, historically I've had more trouble with dust on the NEX cameras than on ILCs made by other manufacturers.
One of the best additions to the NEX-F3 is a built-in flash, which you'll find to the upper-left of the lens mount. The flash has a guide number of 6 meters at ISO 100 which, while not very powerful, is typical for an ILC. If you're clever, you can hold the flash back a bit for "bounce" functionality. Those who want to add an external flash are limited to the single model I mentioned back in the accessories section.
Two more things to see here include the stereo microphones, which straddle the lens mount, and the AF-assist lamp, which is near the grip. In addition to its low light focusing duties, the AF-assist lamp also lights up when the self-timer or Smile Shutter features are being used.
The biggest new feature on the NEX-F3 is undoubtedly its articulating LCD, which can flip upward 180 degrees to face your subject. This makes self-portraits a whole lot easier than before. The live view on the LCD appears as if you're looking in a mirror, so the text on your t-shirt will be backwards (but normal in the actual photo).
This back-angled view of the camera shows you that the screen can also be tilted just a little bit, for shooting with the camera below you.
Something I don't like about the new display is that you can only tilt it downward by 13 degrees, as opposed to 45 degrees on the NEX-C3. That makes it pretty hard to shoot with the camera above you.
Here you'll find the LCD in a more traditional position. This display has the same 3-inch size and 921,000 pixel resolution as the one on the NEX-C3. That makes every nice and sharp, as you'd imagine. One thing I don't like about the displays on the NEX cameras is that they're 16:9, which is great for movies, but not so great for stills (which are 3:2). Outdoor visibility on this LCD was average, which means "not great".
If you want to use something other than the LCD to compose your photos, then you'll be pleased to hear that the NEX-F3 now supports Sony's gorgeous XGA electronic viewfinder. It attaches to the Smart Accessory Port that you'll see in the top view.
Above the screen, on the angled part of the body, you'll find the flash release, as well as buttons for entering playback mode and recording movies.
To the right of the LCD you'll find two more buttons and the four-way controller / scroll dial combo. Since the F3 has virtually no direct buttons, expect to be using these frequently to operate the menu system. The two unlabeled buttons are "soft buttons", whose function depends on the current situation.
The four-way controller / scroll dial combo are used for menu navigation, adjusting manual exposure settings, reviewing photos, and more. The four-way controller also lets you change the drive mode, exposure compensation, and what's shown on the LCD. Again, more on the user interface after the tour.
There isn't too much to see on the top of the camera. Under the plastic cover on the left you'll find the Smart Accessory Terminal (version 2), which supports an electronic viewfinder, external flash, or stereo microphone.
Next up we have the built-in flash, which is in the closed position here.
The last two things to see here are the newly relocated shutter release button as well as the power switch.
The only things to point out here are the NEX-F3's speaker and I/O ports. The I/O ports are kept under a plastic cover, and include micro-USB and mini-HDMI.
There's nothing to see on the other side of the camera. The kit lens is at the full telephoto position here.
On the bottom of camera you'll find the memory card and battery compartments -- yes, there's one for each. Both are protected by plastic doors of average quality. While you won't be able to access the memory card slot when using a tripod, the battery will be reachable.
The included NP-FW50 battery can be seen at lower-right.
The "view" in live view, with histogram
Being a mirrorless camera, you'll be using the LCD or optional electronic viewfinder for composing your photos on the NEX-F3. The "live view" implementation on the NEX-F3 is excellent, though the widescreen LCD isn't really suited to 4:3 photography. What you will get is a bright and fluid view of the scene, super-fast autofocus, a live histogram, your choice of grid lines, and the ability to enlarge the for accurate manual focusing. Another handy feature for manual focusing is called focus peaking. This feature sharpens the edges of the part of your photo that's in-focus. You can choose the "intensity" of the peaking feature, as well as the color used. As I mentioned in the above tour, the LCD has just average visibility outdoors. In low light, the screen brightens up fairly well, so you can see what you're trying to photograph.
|This is a relatively quick trip through the menu system||The custom (shortcut) menu in action|
Unfortunately, using the NEX-F3 isn't as pleasant as it should be, due to its clunky user interface. As with every NEX model (save for the NEX-7), the interface on the NEX-F3 is totally menu-driven. There are very few direct buttons and no physical mode dial, meaning that you'll be diving into the menu to change just about every setting. Sony thankfully lets you create a shortcut menu (which can hold up to five settings), which is activated by the center button on the four-way controller. While the shortcut menu saves some time, adjusting settings on the NEX-F3 still takes longer than it should.
The bottom line here is that you really need to get your hands on the NEX-F3 in order to decide if the interface is something you can work with. I personally find it very frustrating to use (in case you hadn't noticed), but others may not mind.
The only mode dial on the NEX-F3 is this virtual one
Now lets talk about the items you'll find on the NEX-F3's mode dial. What mode dial, you ask? Why, the virtual one that you get to by pressing a button or two! Here's what you'll find on it:
If you want a "set it and forget it" experience, then set the virtual mode dial to the Intelligent or Superior Auto positions. There, the camera will pick one of eleven scene modes automatically. It can even tell when you're using a tripod, in order to keep noise levels down. If you're using Superior Auto mode, the camera will use multi-shot modes like Anti Motion Blur and Backlight HDR to improve photo quality. Both modes offer Sony's Photo Creativity Mode, which lets you easily adjust background blur (aperture), brightness (exposure compensation), color (white balance), and vividness (saturation), without having to know any technical jargon. Another part of the Photo Creativity Mode are Picture Effects, which include toy camera, pop color, posterization, retro photo, soft high-key (dream-like), partial color, and high contrast mono. Picture Effects are available in other shooting modes, as well.
Something else that you'll find in Intelligent and Superior Auto mode are shooting tips, though they're not as easy to get to as they used to be. If you want easy access to these tips, first you'll need to head into the Setup menu and then Custom Key Settings. There you can assign Shooting Tips to either the right direction on the four-way controller or the lower soft button. Once that's done, the camera will show a question mark next to the button you've selected, which means a tip is available. The tips that are shown are contextual, meaning that they depend on the shooting mode the camera chose. If you want to just browse through all of the tips, they're available in the main menu.
Two of my favorite features on the NEX-F3 are sweep panorama and anti motion blur, both of which are on the virtual mode dial. For sweep panorama, you just pan the camera from left to right (other directions work too), and the camera instantly stitches together a huge panoramic photo. There are two sizes to choose from: normal and wide (there's no high resolution option on the F3), and this feature works in 3D as well as 2D. The results are almost always very impressive. The only thing I noticed on the NEX-F3 is that you need to pan a bit slower than on more expensive Sony cameras, probably because of the 5.5 fps maximum burst rate.
Anti motion blur (and its related feature, handheld twilight) takes six exposures in less than a second, and combines them into a single image. The resulting image is generally sharp and blur-free, with less noise than if you just took the shot at a high ISO. Above you can see a photo of Zoe that was taken at ISO 6400 using AMB. It's not going to win any awards, but 1) it's better than using ISO 6400 alone and 2) it's good enough for a small print.
The NEX-F3 also has full manual exposure controls, as the mode dial chart illustrates. There's also manual white balance (including fine-tuning), bracketing (for exposure only), and support for the RAW format.
|You must always pass through this gateway screen in order to get into the actual menus||A description of each menu item is available, though I wish they didn't cover the middle of the screen|
All of the NEX's settings can be found in its main menu, which is accessed from the gateway screen you can see above. The menu is divided up into five categories (not including the virtual mode dial): camera, image size, brightness/color, playback and setup. While the menus are very pretty -- and feature help "tool tips" for most options -- navigating them is a big pain. Each sub-menu is just one big long list, which means you'll spend a lot of time spinning that rear dial (there's a reason why most cameras have tab-based menus). Something else that bothered me is that, at least for some menu options, the camera kicks you out of the menu entirely after you make a selection, instead of just backing up a step. So, if you were planning on changing more than one setting, you'd have to reenter the menu system.
With that said, here's the list of the most significant menu options related to still shooting:
- Drive mode: here's where you access the burst modes, exposure bracketing, and self-timer; more on the burst modes later
- AF/MF: choose from auto, manual, or direct manual focus; the last option uses autofocus first, and then lets you manually adjust things to your liking
- Autofocus area: choose from 25-point auto, center, or flexible spot; the last option lets you select any area in the frame on which to focus
- Object tracking: as its name implies, this is used for keeping a selected subject in focus as they move around the frame
- Face detection/registration: not only can the NEX-F3 detect faces (up to eight in a scene), it can register specific ones; when those people show up in the frame, they will be given focus priority
- Smile Shutter: taken from Sony's point-and-shoot cameras, this feature will have the NEX-F3 wait until someone in the frame is smiling before taking a photo; the sensitivity is adjustable, so you can really make people smile for the camera
- Auto Portrait Framing: analyzes your people pictures and saves an additional image with more appealing composition
- Shooting Tip List: you can access all the tips on the camera here
- Image size/quality: choose from large (16), medium (8.4M), or small (4M) resolutions, plus JPEG, RAW, or RAW+JPEG; a RAW image will take up approximately 18MB, while a Large/Fine JPEG is just under 7MB
- ISO sensitivity: the NEX has a range of 200 - 16000; there's also an Auto mode, which tops out at ISO 3200
- White balance: choose from numerous presets, set the color temperature, or use a white or gray card in custom mode; the only thing you can't do is bracket for WB
- DRO/Auto HDR: improves image contrast in two different ways. DRO breaks the scene into smaller areas and adjusts the contrast for each of them separately; HDR combines three exposures into a single photo; more below
- Picture Effect: apply special effects like pop color, retro, partial color, HDR painting, and miniature to your stills and videos
- Creative Style: a "style" contains image parameters which include contrast, saturation, and sharpness; there are six presets on the NEX-F3 (standard, vivid, portrait, landscape, sunset, black & white), all of which can be fine-tuned to your heart's content
- Peaking level/color: mentioned earlier, this highlights in-focus areas of a photo when manually focusing; choose the intensity and color used
- Clear Image Zoom: boosts the focal range by up to 2X, with a minimum decrease in image quality; the camera's "zoom" function applies this effect from 1X to 2X; see example below
- Self-portrait self-timer: if you've got the LCD flipped toward you this will automatically activate a 3 second self-timer
- SteadyShot: if you're using a lens with image stabilization, here's where you turn the feature on or off
- Lens compensation: reduces shading (vignetting), chromatic aberrations (purple fringing), and distortion; the first two are on by default, the third is not
- Custom key settings: choose what right key on the four-way controller and the two soft buttons do; if you select "custom" for one of them, you can assign up to five items to that button; creating a custom menu can save a lot of trips to the main menu!
- Help guide display: whether "tool tips" describing each option are shown in the menus
Time for some more info about a few of those features, and I'm going to start with Auto Portrait Framing. Since this is an entry-level camera, Sony figures that not everyone is going to a great portrait photographer. With this feature (and face detection) turned on, the camera will use the rule-of-thirds to crop your photos for tighter close-ups of your subject. Naturally, since the photos are being cropped, the image size drops. Sony has thought of this, and uses their "By Pixel Super Resolution technology" (only in Japan would they come up with a name like that) to interpolate back up to 16 Megapixel.
Let's move onto the D-Range Optimizer (DRO) and HDR features, both of which are quite effect. As I mentioned above, the D-Range Optimizer feature handles contrast by breaking the image into smaller segments, and adjusting each section individually. You can leave it on Auto (the default), adjust it manually from level 1 (low) to 5 (high), or shut it off entirely (though I don't know why you'd do so). The test below shows you what happens as you increase the DRO level:
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|DRO Lv 1
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|DRO Lv 2
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|DRO Lv 3
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|DRO Lv 4
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|DRO Lv 5
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As you can see by flipping through all of those pictures, the DRO feature does a great job of brightening up the underexposed areas of the scene. Unfortunately, it doesn't do anything for highlight clipping. That's where our next feature comes in.
In the HDR (high dynamic range) mode, the camera takes three photos in rapid succession -- each with a different exposure value -- and then combines them into a single image with dramatically improved contrast. A photo taken with DRO turned off is also saved. You can let the camera automatically choose the exposure interval (which is the default setting), or you can adjust it yourself, from 1EV to 6EV. The camera shoots so quickly that no tripod is needed in most cases. In the example I'll show you a scene shot with DRO off, and HDR set to Auto, +3EV, and +6EV.
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|HDR ±3 EV
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|HDR ±6 EV
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The first thing you'll notice as you look at the images is how well HDR brightens up the shadows. The higher the exposure interval, the brighter things get, though at ±6 EV things are starting to venture into "art" territory. If you compare the DRO Off and Auto HDR options, you will see a reduction in highlight clipping, specifically around the tree on the left of the hallway. I use the HDR feature myself quite often when scenes have with a bright backlight (at least on Sony cameras), and while the Auto mode works well in most cases, don't be afraid to switch into manual mode, either.
This probably goes without saying, but all of these cool multi-shot features (including sweep panorama) are for JPEGs only - no RAW allowed.
The last feature from the menus that I want to mention is Clear Image Zoom. This boosts the focal range of your attached lens by up to 2 times with less image degradation than regular digital zoom. The example below shows how much zoom you get from this feature, and if you view the full size photos, you can see what happens to the image quality.
|Full telephoto (55 mm)
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|Full telephoto + 2X Clear Image Zoom (110 mm)
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While the boost in zoom power is nice, the drop in image quality makes this feature best suited for smaller prints. The NEX-F3 has a regular digital zoom feature, and if you lower the resolution, you can use it without any drop in quality. You can also combine Clear Image Zoom and regular digital zoom, if you so desire.
How about some movie mode information now? The NEX-F3 records Full HD video (that's 1920 x 1080) at your choice of 24p or 60i (note that the higher-end NEX models also do 60p). Sound is recorded in stereo, and the AVCHD codec lets you keep recording for up to 29 minutes. For both the 24p and 60i resolutions, there are two qualities to choose from (FX and FH), which have bit rates of 24 and 17 Mbps, respectively.
While AVCHD movies look great on your HDTV, editing and sharing them isn't so easy. Heck, just finding them on your memory card is a pain. Thankfully, Sony also supports the MPEG-4 codec, which is much easier to work with. The bad news is that there are two resolutions available with MP4: 1440 x 1080 and 640 x 480 (both at 30 fps), and recording ends when the file size reaches 2GB.
The NEX-F3 gives you access to the same bells and whistles that are available for still shooting. Want to use the Picture Effects (like toy camera or selective color) in movie mode? No problem. The camera can focus continuously, keeping subjects in focus as they move around or if you adjust the zoom. If your lens has image stabilization, that'll be active as well.
If you want to adjust the shutter speed, aperture, or ISO, that's also available -- even while you're in the midst of recording. What you can adjust depends on the shooting mode. If you want the most manual exposure control, set the virtual mode dial to the "M" position. The NEX-F3 also offers a wind filter, which is handy when you're recording videos outdoors. One thing you cannot do on the NEX-F3 is take a still image while simultaneously recording video.
I have two sample movies for you. The first one is a combination of two train videos, and was recorded at the high quality (24 Mbps) 1080/60i setting. The second video was taken at the normal quality setting at the same resolution. Note that I had to deinterlace these for web viewing, and since I'm no expert at that, you may want to download the original MTS files too.
Click to play converted movie (1920 x 1080, 30 fps, 29.2 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Download original MTS files (40.0 MB / 26.6 MB)
The NEX-F3 has an unremarkable playback mode, with no editing features to speak of, for either stills or videos. An annoyance that's been carried over from previous NEX models it that the camera separates stills and movies (even down to the codec level). What that means is that you can't flip through photos and videos at the same time. You have to either go to the playback menu or to the thumbnail screen (and the bar on the left) to switch between stills, AVCHD movies, and MP4 movies.
By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos. However, if you press "up" on the four-way controller, you'll get a lot more, including histograms and a display of over/underexposed areas of your photo.
There's no delay when moving between photos on the NEX-F3. You can use the four-way controller or the scroll wheel to flip through them. I would've liked a way to move from photo-to-photo while the image is enlarged (and keeping the zoom/location intact), but there's no way to do that one the NEX-F3.