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Sony NEX-3N Review: Stepping up to Mirrorless
by Howard Creech -  10/1/2013

Consumers have shown, over the last few years, that they love compact digital cameras with interchangeable lenses that combine the ease of use and convenience of a point and shoot camera with DSLR features like larger sensors, improved performance, better image quality, and interchangeable lenses. Sony's new NEX-3N's list price is $500--for the camera and a 16mm-50mm/f3.5-f5.6 zoom. That's roughly $100 less than the list price of the NEX-F3--the camera the NEX-3N is replacing--and that should result in a street price of the camera to about $400.00. That brings the NEX-3N into the same price range as upper tier P&S digital cameras and cheaper than top tier P&S digital cameras like the Canon G16. The NEX-3N is a MILC (mirrorless interchangeable lens camera) and a great choice for consumers because Sony's cheapest interchangeable lens camera is actually much more like a P&S digital camera that can change lenses than it is like a DSLR with a selection of popular P&S digital camera features. The NEX-3N is aimed directly at P&S digital camera users who want to move up to a reasonably priced camera that provides more control, better image quality, and interchangeable lenses without any significant increase in size or operational complexity. 

Build and Design
The NEX-3N doesn't look particularly retro, but it does seem to be built to old-school standards. The metal alloy/polycarbonate body feels substantial and well constructed, but it doesn't feel heavy. Weather seals and dust-proofing appear to be more than adequate. The NEX-3N also doesn't look like a compact point-and-shoot digital camera and it doesn't look much like a DSLR either. The body is about the same size as a standard P&S digital camera, but the NEX-3N offers DSLR features like a real handgrip and a zoom lens that is larger and obviously more substantial than the flimsy looking telescoping zoom lenses customarily found on P&S digital cameras. Sony eschewed hot button features like a capacitive touchscreen LCD, a GPS receiver, and built-in Wi-Fi to hold costs down--so if you want those cell phone features on your camera you'll have to look elsewhere --and pay more. While the NEX-3N is noticeably smaller than its predecessor, under the hood the two cameras are remarkably similar - with almost identical specifications. The NEX-3N is pocketable --as long as you are referring to a jacket pocket, but this camera isn't going to slip into the back pocket of your favorite jeans. In my opinion, the NEX-3N is tough enough to go just about anywhere including extreme environments - like shooting winter sports or trekking through canyon country in the desert southwest.

Ergonomics and Controls
Many veteran photographers prefer larger cameras because ergonomics are generally better. Bigger cameras provide larger buttons, a better grip, and more stable handling. I've always loved small cameras and while the NEX-3N may be considered a bit small and too minimalist in the controls department by some, I really liked the like well thought out control array that features only a few essential buttons.  Everything that a photographer needs is included. There are some differences --the NEX-3N's review button is not on the back of the camera, but on the top deck and the exposure compensation function is on the compass switch, directly connected to an easy to use scale that is controlled by the compass switch's rotary jog dial and (very important) the NEX-3N forgets all exposure compensation settings the moment the camera is turned off --so no ugly surprises the next day--it's the best exposure compensation arrangement that I've seen to date.

What I consider the NEX-3N's single worst design misstep is the slider switch used to adjust the zoom on the lens barrel. The switch is located exactly where the typical photographer holds the lens with his/her left hand while using the right hand for the grip and shutter button. The problem with this arrangement is that it neutralizes both of the other zoom controls--neither will work if you have your hand on the zoom slider switch. In the NEX3's future incarnations, this switch should be moved to the bottom of the lens barrel. In addition to the poorly placed zoom slider switch, the NEX-3N also features a standard point and shoot zoom toggle surrounding the shutter button and a zoom control ring on the lens. The zoom control ring (which also functions as the focusing ring in manual focus mode) is a by-wire control, which means that it won't respond immediately to your touch --there will always be a bit of lag time--which makes this zoom control slower and less precise. 

Menus and Modes
Camera menu systems are often criticized for being too complex or for being unintuitive and difficult to navigate--neither of those criticisms can be directed at the NEX-3N, which has an astonishingly simple, remarkably effective, and absolutely intuitive menu system. Push the NEX-3N's menu button and the screen shows six icons: Shooting mode--which leads to a virtual mode dial, Camera--which leads to the basic camera menu, Image Size, Brightness/Color, Playback, and Set-Up. Kudos to the folks at Sony for the best menu system I have seen to date and here's a piece of advice for Sony's competitors--steal this menu system.  Below is a breakdown of the NEX-3N's shooting modes.

Auto: In keeping with its upscale P&S digital camera secret identity the NEX-3N offers two auto modes: Intelligent Auto and Superior Auto.
Scene: the NEX-3N allows users to match the camera's auto exposure system to the scene mode that?s most suitable for the subject.
Program: Auto exposure with limited user input. 
Aperture priority: Users select the aperture and the camera selects an appropriate shutter speed. 
Shutter priority: Users select shutter speed and the camera selects an appropriate aperture. 
Manual: Users select all exposure parameters. 
Sweep Panorama: The NEX-3N allows users to automatically shoot panoramic images.
Movie: The NEX-3N records HD video at a maximum resolution of 1440x1080p @ 25fps.

Display/Viewfinder
The NEX-3N features a large bright 3.0-inch LCD monitor with 460K resolution. The wide-viewing angle TFT LCD monitor is sharp, bright, hue accurate, and fluid. The default info display provides all the information this camera's target audience is likely to need. The LCD gains up (automatically increases brightness) in dim lighting and brightness can also be adjusted to the individual shooter's preferences. Finally, the NEX-3N's LCD flips up to face the front--flip the screen up, hold the camera at arm?s length in your left hand (with your left thumb on the shutter button), use the LCD to fine tune your pose and then press the shutter button. The LCD doesn't tilt or swivel, so this feature is only useful to folks who like to take pictures of themselves.



Performance


In general, the NEX-3N is fairly quick. From off to first picture capture is about two seconds. The NEX-3N is a competent camera that is capable of producing consistently very good to excellent still images and very good to excellent HD video. The NEX-3N's performance was dependably competitive (equal to or better than) any MILC's from other manufacturers at this price point.

Shooting Performance
The NEX-3N features a 25 point TTL Contrast Detection AF system with Center AF, Multi-point AF, and Flexible Spot AF. The NEX-3N's AF system analyzes the scene in front of the lens then calculates camera-to-subject distance to determine which AF point (in multi AF mode) is closest to the primary subject and then locks focus on that AF point. The NEX-3N's AF system is consistently quick to acquire the subject and locks focus with reliable accuracy.

The NEX-3N captures images and video via its 23.5 x 15.6mm (APS-C) Exmor HD CMOS sensor.

The NEX-3N saves images and video clips to Memory Stick PRO Duo, Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo, Memory Stick XC-HG Duo, SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards and provides the ability to save images in either JPEG or RAW formats.

The NEX-3N's built-in flash (the camera doesn't feature a hot shoe) is directly above the lens. The pop-up mechanism raises the flash slightly above the lens axis, so redeye will be a problem. However, it will be slightly less of a problem than the built-in flashes of the P&S digital cameras that most NEX-3N customers will be graduating from. 

Sony claims the NEX-3N is good for 480 exposures with a fully charged NP-FW50 Lithium-ion rechargeable battery.  The battery charges in the camera and requires about two hours for a full charge. Based on my experiences with the Sony NEX-3N I suspect that 480 exposures on a single charge is a bit optimistic. I charged the camera twice --once when it arrived and then again after about 300 exposures.  The battery still had approximately 25% of its juice when I charged it the second time, but I didn't want to risk running out of power during an afternoon full of shooting festival activities. My guess is that realistically the NEX-3N is good for between 350 and 400 exposures (including video clips) on a single charge and those are still very competitive numbers.

Lens Performance
The Sony NEX-3N is sold in kit form with an E-mount PZ 16mm-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS zoom lens. This designed specifically for the NEX-3N zoom is significantly more compact than the 18mm-55mm kit lenses bundled with most of the NEX-3N's larger and more expensive siblings. Unlike the new Canon EOS M which provides an optional adaptor so that Canon's DSLR lenses can be used, the NEX-3N can't mount Sony A mount lenses--only E mount lenses can be used. The Sony E f3.5-f5.6/16mm-50mm zoom that came with my test camera did show some very minor corner softness, but center sharpness is impressively good. In fact, those graduating from P&S digital cameras will be amazed at just how much difference there is in basic optical quality between most P&S zooms and any half-way decent interchangeable zoom designed to cover a larger sensor.   

Video Quality
The NEX-3N records 1440x1080p @ 25fps HD video. The sample video that accompanies this review was shot on a bright summer day in the mid-afternoon.  The video is fluid, hue correct, and the resolution is excellent.



Image Quality
The NEX-3N's default images show very good color, balanced contrast, and impressive overall sharpness. Image quality is dependably excellent outdoors in good light and slightly better than average indoors - although indoor images seem a bit darker than they ought to be. Shadow detail capture is better than expected and highlight detail capture is noticeably better than average for cameras in this class.

There is some very slight chromatic aberration (purple fringing) visible at full size, but CA is remarkably well controlled. There is a slight tendency toward minor overexposure, in all auto modes, but this is easily managed by either selecting a smaller F-stop after switching to Aperture Preferred mode or utilizing the NEX-3N's "best in class" exposure compensation system and the P&S fan's favorite mode--Program mode.

Sample Images






Conclusion


Bridge cameras "bridge" the gap between two different types of camera. The NEX-3N tries to bridge the gap between compact point-and-shoot digital cameras and enthusiast oriented interchangeable lens cameras. The third generation NEX-3N was designed to meet the needs of a wide demographic. This camera should appeal to serious shooters looking for a compact camera with lots of creative potential, casual shooters looking for an easy to use interchangeable lens camera that automatically makes all exposure decisions, and amateur photographers looking to move up from their P&S digital camera to something with a bit more sophistication and flexibility.

The NEX-3N is capable (with very little effort on the part of the user) of consistently and dependably delivering high quality images and excellent HD video. The NEX-3N successfully combines the P&S simplicity and ease of use of a compact digital camera with the larger sensor and lens interchangeability of a DSLR. To put that another way --the Sony NEX-3N makes the switch from P&S digital cameras to interchangeable-lens cameras as simple and painless as possible. 

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