DCRP

Sony Alpha NEX-F3 Review

Conclusion

The Sony Alpha NEX-F3 is an entry-level mirrorless interchangeable lens camera that is easy-to-use, with a broad feature set that both beginners and enthusiasts will appreciate. Add in some of the best photo quality of any budget ILC out there, and it looks like Sony has a winner on their hands. The NEX-F3 is a compact camera -- at least without a lens attached -- whose body is made mostly of plastic. Despite its composite construction, everything is put together pretty well. The F3 doesn't have much in the line of buttons, with nearly every function handled by the camera's menu system. I don't consider that a good thing. The camera uses Sony's relatively small set of E-mount lenses, with support for A-mount lenses with an optional (not to mention pricey) adapter. On the back of the camera is probably the NEX-F3's biggest new feature: a 3-inch LCD display that can flip up 180 degrees (thus facing your subject), which makes self-portraits a piece of cake. The screen is super-sharp, with average outdoor and above average low light visibility. Another new addition to the F3 is a built-in flash, so you no longer need to carry around Sony's small external flash. Should you want to use a more powerful flash, you're limited to the one model that Sony offers. The same accessory port used for the flash also supports a high resolution electronic viewfinder and a stereo microphone.

The NEX-F3 offers the same feature set as Sony's more expensive ILCs. On the point-and-shoot side, you'll find two great auto modes (Intelligent and Superior Auto), which can select a scene mode for you, use multi-shot layering if needed, and even detect if you're using a tripod. Some other fun, easy-to-use features include Sweep Panorama, Anti Motion Blur (for low light shooting), D-range Optimizer (for brightening shadows), and HDR (for improving overall contrast). Both of these last two features can be manually adjusted as well, which often produces better results than using Auto mode. If you need a little help with the camera, you'll appreciate the contextual shooting tips and help screens in the menus. If you want manual controls, you'll find them for exposure, white balance, and focus. The new focus peaking feature makes manual focusing a snap, as it outlines the area of the frame that's in focus. Naturally, the NEX-F3 supports the RAW image format, as well. It's unfortunate that you need to spend lots of time in the camera's clunky menu system in order to adjust most settings. While I appreciate the new shortcut menu, I still think that the NEX cameras need a major UI overhaul. The last feature I wish to mention is the NEX-F3's movie mode, which records Full HD video at either 24p or 60i. You'll have stereo sound, continuous autofocus, and use of the image stabilizer if your lens has one. Manual controls and a wind filter are also available.

Like all of Sony's NEX ILCs, camera performance is very solid. After the NEX-F3's average 1.3 second startup time, it's off to the races. Focusing speeds are very good (though they felt a bit slower than on the NEX-5N for some reason), shutter lag isn't noticeable, and shot-to-shot delays are minimal. The camera has two burst modes, shooting at 2.6 or 6 frames per second, though the buffer fills quickly, so things will slow down quickly (except when shooting JPEGs in normal continuous mode). While battery life is excellent, the camera's internal charging system is very slow, and prevents you from charging a spare (you'll need to buy an external charger for that).

Photo quality is excellent, especially in normal lighting. The one catch is that, like other NEX models, the F3 consistently underexposes by 1/3 to 2/3 stop, so you'll want to bracket to avoid that. While most ILCs clip highlights easily, the NEX-F3 isn't too bad. Colors were nice and saturated in most cases, with the only real exception being in our night tests, where there was a nasty brown color cast. I took all of my gallery photos with the new 18 - 200 mm lens, and was pleased with the sharpness (the 18 - 55 mm kit lens performs pretty well, too). The camera keeps noise in check until ISO 1600 in low light and ISO 12800 in good light (no, that's not a typo), and you can shoot RAW at those settings to squeeze a bit more detail out of your photos. Purple fringing was not a major issue with any of the lenses I tested this time around, and neither was redeye.

If you're looking for a low-priced interchangeable lens camera, then the Sony Alpha NEX-F3 should certainly be on your list. It has great photo quality, a complete set of features, and snappy performance. The only thing I'd recommend is trying one out in person before you buy, as the user interface leaves much to be desired. If it doesn't bother you, then you'll definitely get your $600 worth if you pick up the NEX-F3.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality; low noise through ISO 1600 in low light, ISO 12800 (!) in good light
  • Good value for the money
  • Sharp 3-inch LCD display can flip upward 180 degrees, allowing for easy self-portraits
  • Snappy performance in most respects
  • Full manual controls, including RAW support; focus peaking feature comes in very handy when manually focusing
  • Intelligent and Superior Auto modes make point-and-shoot photography a snap
  • D-Range Optimizer and HDR features improve contrast at the push of the button
  • Fun sweep panorama feature
  • Very fast burst mode shoots at 3.3 fps with continuous AF or 10 fps without it (but not for long)
  • Helpful Shooting Tips and descriptions of each menu option
  • Records Full HD video at 60i or 24p, with stereo sound, continuous AF, image stabilization (if available), and manual controls
  • Optional super high resolution electronic viewfinder, stereo mic, external flash
  • Above average battery life

What I didn't care for:

  • Consistently underexposes by 1/3 or 2/3 stop
  • Menu-driven user interface still frustrating to use, even with addition of custom button
  • Design annoyances: camera's size advantage lost when a lens is attached; LCD's 16:9 aspect ratio not suited for still shooting; LCD doesn't tilt downward very much
  • Buffer fills quickly in burst mode
  • Bare bones playback mode; can't view stills and movies at the same time
  • Internal battery charging is slow, can't be used for a spare
  • Full manual on CD-ROM; quality of manuals is not great

Some other interchangeable lens cameras worth considering include the Nikon 1 J1, Olympus E-PL3, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1, Pentax K-01, and the Samsung NX210.

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera or electronics store to try out the NEX-F3 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Check out our NEX-F3 gallery to see how the image quality looks!

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.