Sony NEX-3 Review
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Sony NEX-3 Exposure Options
The Sony NEX-3 offers much the same exposure options you'd find in a traditional SLR camera, plus a few Sony-specific options. Available exposure modes include Program AE, Manual, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority modes, with shutter speeds from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds, as well as a Bulb setting for longer exposures. The x-sync speed for flash photography is 1/160 second. A fully automatic mode called Intelligent Auto (iA) enables Scene Detection, and places the camera in control of almost all functions, to try to deliver optimum results under a wide range of conditions. Even basic options such as exposure compensation aren't available to the photographer in this mode. The Sony NEX-3 also offers a number of Scene modes, a Sweep Panorama mode, and an Anti Motion Blur mode which merges multiple high-ISO images into a single exposure with reduced noise. See the Modes and Menus page for more details.
The NEX-3 offers an optional live histogram function in all operating modes except Sweep Panorama. Located near the top right corner of the LCD panel, it's rather small, and offers only a luminance readout rather than a full RGBY histogram, but it's still very useful for ensuring your exposures are correct. Another feature that's rather more common, but still very welcome, is the exposure display visible near the bottom left of the LCD when the camera is in Manual exposure mode. This shows the amount the camera thinks an image will be over- or underexposed within a range of +/-2.0EV, based on the settings you have selected, to help you find the best exposure for the subject. (Beyond the 2.0EV range, the value blinks to emphasise that the metering system's limit has been reached.) Together, the live histogram and exposure display make it relatively easy to get suitable exposures even when shooting manually.
Sony NEX-3 Face Detection
The Sony NEX-3 includes Face Detection capability, capable of locating up to eight faces in the scene simultaneously. This information is taken into account when determining several exposure variables -- focus, exposure, flash and white balance. While it doesn't go as far as some cameras that try to recognize specific individuals, the NEX-3 is able to differentiate between adult and child faces, and can be set to prioritize one or other age group when selecting which is the dominant face in the scene.
The NEX-3 also includes a related feature that is now pretty common in point-and-shoot cameras, but relatively unknown in large-sensor cameras. Dubbed "Smile Shutter", this allows the NEX-3 to automatically trigger the shutter, capturing photographs by itself when a smiling face is detected within the image frame. The NEX-3's implementation is perhaps best suited to portraits of individuals, since the shutter is tripped when only one face within a group is smiling. There's a three-step control over the degree to which a subject must smile before the shutter is tripped. and when Smile Shutter is enabled, the NEX-3 also provides a graph at the left of the screen that indicates how close a particular expression has come to passing the required threshold for the shutter to be tripped. In our testing we found the feature a little hit-and-miss, however, consistently spiking to the top of the scale and tripping the shutter for some individuals with barely the slightest smile, even when set to require a big smile.
Sony NEX-3 ISO Range
ISO sensitivity ranges from 200 to 12,800, the widest range of any single-lens direct view digital camera as of this writing (early May, 2010) -- in fact, relatively few full-size digital SLRs to date have even offered ISO sensitivities beyond ISO 6,400. The ISO sensitivity is adjusted through the Brightness / Color menu in one-stop increments.
In all but Manual mode, an Auto ISO mode is available. The function is limited to a maximum of ISO 1,600 in most operating modes, although the Anti Motion Blur and Hand-held Twilight modes will both allow Auto ISO to range as high as ISO 6,400 equivalent if needed. Curiously, we couldn't get Auto ISO to go beyond the base sensitivity of ISO 200 when in Intelligent Auto mode, even by shooting with the lens cap still in place.
Sony NEX-3 Noise Reduction
The Sony NEX-3 gives you only two choices for High ISO noise reduction, neither of which allows the function to be completely disabled. The default is to leave High ISO NR entirely in the camera's control, but if the maximum image detail is desired (or you prefer to do your noise filtering in post processing), a "Weak" option is also available in all except Sweep Panorama mode. A separate Long Shutter noise reduction On/Off setting is available for dark frame subtraction when shooting exposures of one second or longer. If enabled, this approximately doubles the exposure time for each shot, allowing the second dark frame exposure to be captured with the shutter closed. Long Exposure NR can't be disabled in Intelligent Auto or Scene modes, and cannot be enabled for Anti Motion Blur, Sweep Panorama, Hand-Held Twilight, Continuous / Speed Priority Continuous, or Bracketed shooting.
Sony NEX-3 White Balance Options
White balance modes on the Sony NEX-3 include Auto, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, and Flash. A direct Kelvin temperature setting is also available, ranging from 2,500K to 9,900K, as is a Custom white balance setting, for setting white balance from a white or grey card. The NEX-3's proprietary external flash strobe can be used when determining a custom white balance, and unusually, the camera also provides a Kelvin readout of the measured color temperature -- a great feature which lets you dial the temperature in directly if you're shooting in familiar conditions. The effect of changes in white balance settings is shown in real-time, on the LCD monitor or EVF.
In all of the preset white balance modes, you can fine-tune the color by pressing the bottom Soft key. You're then presented with a menu that allows blue / red adjustment within a range of -3 to +3 arbitrary units for all but the fluorescent mode, which offers only a -1 to +2 unit range. In Kelvin white balance mode, there's also a color filter function which offers a magenta - green filter within a fairly wide range of -9 to +9 arbitrary units.
Custom white balance is set by selecting Custom Setup from the white balance menu, and pointing the camera at a neutral white or grey card under the lighting you'll be shooting in, filling a frame in the center of the display with the reference target, then pressing the Shutter button.
Sony NEX-3 Metering Options
The Sony NEX-3 offers three metering modes, selected via the Metering Mode option in the Brightness / Color menu: Multi-pattern, Center-Weighted, and Spot. All three modes operate on data from the camera's CMOS image sensor. The default Multi-segment metering mode divides the image into 49 segments, and compares these to determine exposure. Center-Weighted gives precedence to the center of the image while reading the whole frame. Spot metering is useful for high-contrast subjects, as it bases the exposure reading on the very center of the image, letting you set the exposure based on a small portion of your subject. Face Detection and the related Smile Shutter can only be enabled if the metering mode is set to Multi-pattern. You can lock an exposure reading by half-pressing the Shutter button, but this also locks focus in Single-shot AF mode. The only options to separate focus and AE lock are to either use Continuous AF, or to focus manually.
Sony NEX-3 Exposure Compensation & Bracketing
The Sony NEX-3's Exposure Compensation adjustment increases or reduces the overall exposure from -2 to +2 exposure values (EV) in one-third stop increments, and like White Balance, the effect of Exposure Compensation is simulated on the preview. In addition, the NEX-3 offers -2 to +2 EV of flash exposure compensation, in 1/3 EV increments. A Continuous Bracketing feature captures multiple shots with different exposures. See the Drive Mode section on Continuous Bracketing below for more details.
Sony NEX-3 DRO / HDR
The Sony NEX-3 offers two different functions aimed at handling high-contrast scenes, each functioning in a rather different manner. The Dynamic Range Optimization (DRO) function adjusts the tone curve of captured images, bringing out shadow detail without adversely affecting highlights. As well as an Auto DRO mode, there are also five different levels of DRO available. Alternatively, Sony has included a high dynamic range (HDR) mode, similar to that seen in certain of its digital SLRs. The HDR mode captures three separate images with varied exposures (one more than the two images captured by the company's DSLRs), and then combines the three images in-camera, creating a single image with significantly increased dynamic range. The NEX-3 can either automatically select the exposure variation, or a value can be selected manually in 1EV steps within a range of 1EV to 6EV.
The DRO and HDR modes can't be used together, and each brings its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Since DRO only works from a single shot, it must operate entirely within the dynamic range available from the image sensor, where the HDR mode is able to capture a significantly greater dynamic range than is possible in one shot. Since DRO is effectively amplifying the signal in shadow areas of the image, it also brings increased noise (or increased noise reduction) in the shadows. HDR mode, meanwhile, is suitable only for relatively static subjects, given that it requires multiple exposures. Thanks to microalignment capability, Sony's HDR mode is at least able to deal with the slight changes in framing caused by shooting handheld, but subject motion or camera shake will likely cause unacceptable artifacts in HDR images.
Both DRO and HDR can be disabled altogether if desired, although the default on the NEX-3 is for DRO Auto mode to be left enabled.
Sony NEX-3 Anti-Motion Blur
Another function which the Sony NEX-3 has inherited from the company's point-and-shoot camera line is its Anti-Motion Blur mode, which merits its own position on the Shoot Mode menu. Anti-Motion Blur mode shoots a burst of six images with a single press of the shutter button, using as high sensitivity as is necessary to offer moderately fast shutter speeds, with which to freeze motion blur. The NEX-3 then combines all six source images into one image with reduced noise in static areas, as compared to a single shot taken with the same exposure settings. Cleverly, Anti-Motion Blur mode is able to deal with moving subjects, by making the assumption that the first frame includes your intended subject. Areas of subsequent images which match up with the first image are factored into the final result, but areas that don't match -- either due to subject or camera motion -- aren't used in creating the final image. This does, however, mean that the moving subject doesn't benefit from the same degree of noise reduction as the rest of the image.
The Sony NEX-3's implementation of Anti-Motion Blur does have one important difference from the similar mode found on its point-and-shoot siblings. Where the existing cameras have been able to use an electronic shutter to capture the source images, the NEX-3 must instead rely on its physical shutter. The act of firing the NEX-3's shutter is surprisingly loud, given that there's no reflex mirror entering into the equation -- we've seen some DSLRs issuing similar noise levels (or possibly even a little less). The net result is that with six frames captured in a rapid burst, the NEX-3's Anti-Motion Blur mode can have bystanders turning around in expectation of seeing a paparazzo in their midst. ;-)
Sony NEX-3 Hand-held Twilight
Another function that's closely related to Anti-Motion Blur is Sony's Hand-held Twilight mode. Another feature inherited from Sony's Cyber-shot point-and-shoot cameras, Hand-held Twilight is extremely similar to Anti-Motion Blur, but with one important difference. Hand-held Twilight will generally opt for significantly lower (but still hand-holdable) shutter speeds, allowing it to select lower ISO sensitivities, and resulting in less image noise. Anti-Motion Blur hence proves a better option for moving subjects, but Hand-held Twilight can give great results for relatively static scenes.
Sony NEX-3 Sweep Panorama
The final mode inherited from Sony's Cyber-shot point-and-shoot lineup is the NEX-3's Sweep Panorama function, with which it can automatically capture a burst of images, and stitch them into a single panoramic image in-camera. Again, since there's no electronic shutter to rely on, the focal plane shutter noise means you won't be catching anybody by surprise, That said, the feature functions pretty well if you've a reasonably steady hand, and your subject matter isn't too close to the camera. If your subject matter is too close to the camera, or your panning isn't smooth and straight, the seams between separate images can become fairly noticeable.
Focus and exposure are locked from the first frame of the panorama, so you'll want to pick your starting point carefully. From there, you can pan left, right, up, or down, simply sweeping the camera across your subject matter after pressing the shutter button. Two panorama sizes are available -- standard, or wide. Standard horizontal panoramas are limited to 15 megapixels, and vertical panoramas to 8.4 megapixels. In Wide mode, horizontal panoramas are 23 megapixels, and vertical panoramas are 12 megapixels. A darkened mask over the left third of the LCD display shows an area of the frame that won't be included in the final output image, and an on-screen message warns you if the NEX-3 wasn't able to track your panning, prompting you to recapture the panorama. (Depending on how much was captured, the NEX-3 sometimes retains a partial panorama with the uncaptured portion of the image left as a flat grey.)
Sony NEX-3 Drive Modes
The Sony NEX-3 offers a variety of shooting modes through the Drive Mode option under the Camera menu, which can also be accessed by pressing the left-arrow button in Program, Priority or Manual modes. Drive options include Single Shot Advance, Continuous Advance, Speed Priority Advance, four different Self Timer modes, and Continuous Bracket. Single-shot, as you'd expect, captures a single image with each press of the shutter button. Continuous Advance captures images at 2.6 frames per second while the shutter button is held down, for as many as nine RAW or 38 Large / Fine JPEG shots, adjusting focus and exposure between shots as necessary. Speed Priority Advance boosts the frame rate significantly to seven frames per second, by simply fixing exposure and focus from the first frame in the burst. Burst depth in this mode falls to 15 large / fine JPEG frames.
The Self-timer mode offers a choice of either two or ten second timers, as well as a 10 second timer that captures either three or five images in a rapid (sub-one second) burst. Finally, Continuous Bracket mode lets you take a sequence of three shots with either 0.3 EV or 0.7 EV exposure variation steps, with the sequence order being to shoot the metered exposure first, followed by the underexposed and overexposed frames.
Sony NEX-3 Creative Styles
Finally, the Creative Style option on the Brightness / Color menu allows photographers to set the NEX-3's color mode. Six preset options are available -- Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, and B/W. For all six choices, Contrast and Sharpness levels may be adjusted in seven steps. In addition, all but the black and white mode offer seven-step control over saturation. A separate Color Space option under the Setup menu lets you choose between sRGB and AdobeRGB color spaces, with sRGB being best for viewing images on a computer, and Adobe RGB the best choice for printing images.
Recommended Software: Rescue your Photos!
Just as important as an extra memory card is a tool to rescue your images when one of your cards fails at some point in the future. We get a lot of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. Memory card corruption can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. A lot of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digital camera reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...
Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Sony Alpha NEX-3 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!
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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.