Sony NEX-3 Review
Sony NEX-3 Image Quality
Note that the Sony NEX-3 produced very similar test results to the NEX-5 (as expected), so if you've read the NEX-5 review, these NEX-3 test results will be very familiar.
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Very good overall accuracy and saturation, with only minor shifts in hue and intensity.
Skin tones. Here, when adjusted for the correct white balance, the Sony NEX-3 did well, producing natural-looking skin tones. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.
Hue. The Sony NEX-3 did push cyan toward blue, red toward orange, orange toward yellow and yellow toward green, but shifts were relatively minor. (The cyan to blue shift is very common among the digital cameras we test; we think it's a deliberate choice by camera engineers to produce better-looking sky colors.) With an average "delta-C" color error of only 4.97 after correction for saturation, overall hue accuracy was very good; better than average. Hue is "what color" the color is.
The Sony NEX-3 offers six preset "Creative Style" options. You can adjust contrast, saturation, and sharpness for any of the settings.
|Creative Style Options|
Mouse over the links above to see the effect of the presets on our Still Life target. Click on a link to load the full resolution image.
The Sony NEX-3 has a total of seven saturation settings available, three above and three below the default saturation. This covers a pretty wide range of saturation levels, about as wide a range as you're likely to find photographically relevant, apart from special effects that are arguably better achieved in software. The fine steps between settings mean you can program the camera to just the level of saturation you prefer, a feature we look for in cameras.
|Saturation Adjustment Examples|
The table above shows results with five of the seven saturation settings, including the default and the two extremes. Click on any thumbnail above, then click again to see the full-sized image.
|See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images
Exposure and White Balance
Indoors, incandescent lighting
Very warm cast with Auto, but good color with the Incandescent and Manual settings. Slightly above average amount of positive exposure compensation required.
|Auto White Balance
|Incandescent White Balance
|Manual White Balance
Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, color balance was overly warm with the Auto white balance setting. Results with the Incandescent setting were quite good, just slightly warm. The Manual setting was very accurate, though some may prefer Incandescent because it conveys a touch more of the warmth of the original lighting. The 2,600 Kelvin setting which matches the color temperature of our lights resulted in a slightly cool image. The Sony NEX-3 required +0.7 EV positive exposure compensation here, which is slightly above the average amount of +0.3 EV for this shot. (Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.)
Very good results under harsh lighting, with good handling of contrast, detail, and exposure.
|Manual White Balance,
|Auto White Balance,
Outdoors, the Sony NEX-3 performed well, requiring no exposure compensation to keep the model's face bright in our "Sunlit" Portrait shot. The average among the cameras we've tested is +0.7 EV, so the NEX-3 performed much better than average here. Contrast is a little high, as you might expect under such harsh lighting, but the camera does a good job of holding onto detail in both the deep shadows and bright highlights. Despite the apparent brightness, there aren't very many clipped highlights in the model's face and shirt, with most of the clipping occurring in the flowers. Only a few highlights were blown in the House shot at the default exposure as well, also a very good result. Color balance is good, though Auto white balance rendered the model's face a touch too pink and her shirt had a very slight magenta cast to it. We preferred results from the Manual white balance setting, which was very accurate. The Far-field House shot had very good color, if just a touch cool. Overall, very good performance.
Very high resolution, 1,900 ~ 2,100 lines of strong detail.
|Strong detail to
2,100 lines horizontal
|Strong detail to
1,900 lines vertical
In camera JPEGs of our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 2,100 lines per picture height in the horizontal direction, and about 1,900 lines per picture height in the vertical direction. Complete extinction of the pattern didn't occur until about 2,800 lines. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.
Sharpness & Detail
Very good detail and sharpness, with some minor edge-enhancement on high-contrast subjects. Moderately low noise suppression visible in the shadows and areas of low contrast.
|Very good definition of high-contrast
elements with some visible
|Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur
detail in areas of subtle contrast.
Sharpness. The Sony NEX-3 captures fairly sharp, detailed images overall, though some edge enhancement artifacts are visible on high-contrast subjects such as the tree branches, roof and trim in the crop above left. Fine detail such as the smaller branches and pine needles show very little edge enhancement. The NEX-3 offers seven levels of sharpening though, so you can always tweak JPEG output to your taste. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.
Detail. The crop above right shows moderately low noise suppression in the darkest areas of the model's hair. Some individual strands are smudged together, though quite a few strands are still visible despite the low contrast subject. Overall, very good results here, especially for a 14-megapixel APS-C sensor. Also keep in mind that the Sony NEX-3's minimum ISO is 200, so we'd expect to see more noise and noise suppression than SLRs/SLDs with a base ISO of 100 for this shot. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.
RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Sony NEX-3 produces fairly sharp, detailed in-camera JPEGs. However, quite a bit more detail can often be obtained from carefully processing RAW files with a good RAW converter.
In the table above, mousing over a link at the bottom will load the corresponding crop in the area above, and clicking on the link will load the full resolution image. Examples include (from left to right): an in-camera Fine JPEG, RAW file processed through Sony's Image Data Converter SR version 3.2 software at default settings, another processed with IDC's sharpening turned up to +100, and finally one converted with Adobe Camera RAW 6.2 beta, sharpened in Photoshop. For the Sony NEX-3's images, I found best results with strong but tight 300% unsharp masking with an 0.3 pixel radius.
As you can see, the Sony IDC version at default settings is somewhat softer than the in-camera JPEG. (Color rendering is also slightly different.) Increasing the sharpness helped, but the resulting image doesn't really show any additional detail. There is also an odd green coloration along some of the white trim on the house that's not present in the camera JPEG, so it's possible IDC still needs some work to properly support the Sony NEX-3's ARW files. The Adobe Camera RAW version sharpened in Photoshop reveals more fine detail, but it also shows a touch more noise. (Keep in mind that the base ISO is 200 for the NEX-3, so noise will be slightly higher than models with a base ISO of 100.)
ISO & Noise Performance
Much better than average performance for 14 megapixels, with very good results up to ISO 800.
Default High ISO Noise Reduction
|ISO 200||ISO 400||ISO 800|
|ISO 1,600||ISO 3,200||ISO 6,400|
The Sony NEX-3's images are quite clean at ISO 200, and ISO 400 is almost as good. Some noise "grain" is noticeable at ISO 800, and there's a bit of chroma noise in the shadows, but the camera doesn't smudge away as much fine detail as most others at this ISO. There's some stronger smudging of fine detail at ISO 1,600, but the NEX-3 still does better than most at this ISO for its resolution. At ISO 3,200, fine detail suffers from more aggressive noise reduction, but there is still some detail left, and chroma noise really isn't an issue. Detail takes larger hit at ISO 6,400 and especially 12,800. There's also quite a bit of chroma noise in the form of purple and yellow blotching, especially at ISO 12,800. Overall though, these are excellent results considering the size of the camera and the resolution offered. As always, see the Print Quality section below for maximum recommended print sizes at each ISO.
A note about focus for this shot: We shoot this image at f/4, usually using one of three very sharp reference lenses (70mm Sigma f/2.8 macro for most cameras, 60mm f/2.8 Nikkor macro for Nikon bodies without a drive motor, and Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/2.0 for Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds bodies). For the Sony NEX-3, we used the very sharp Carl Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 with an E-mount adapter. To insure that the hair detail we use for making critical judgements about camera noise processing and detail rendering is in sharp focus at the relatively wide aperture we're shooting at, the focus target at the center of the scene is on a movable stand. This lets us compensate for front- or back-focus by different camera bodies, even those that lack micro-focus adjustments. This does mean, though, that the focus target itself may appear soft or slightly out of focus for bodies that front- or back-focused with the reference lens. We know this; if you click to view the full-size image for one of these shots and notice that the focus target is fuzzy, you don't need to email and tell us. :-) The focus target position will have been adjusted to insure that the rest of the scene is focused properly.
High ISO NR = Weak
High ISO NR = Auto
Noise Reduction Oddity. The "Weak" high ISO NR setting smudges the red leave pattern in our Still Life target setting more than the "Auto" setting at higher ISOs. The Auto setting does reduce chroma noise compared to the Weak setting though (lower crops), and we confirmed the filenames are correct. We saw similar behavior with the Alpha 550 (and 500), only this time Sony made the better setting the default for the two NEX models.
Extremes: Sunlit and low light tests
Very high resolution with excellent highlight and shadow detail. Very good low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness. Special modes make it possible to capture low-light images without a tripod.
|0 EV||+0.3 EV||+0.7 EV|
Sunlight. The Sony NEX-3 handled the deliberately harsh lighting in the test above very well. Though contrast is a little high, shadow and highlight detail are both very good. The camera's contrast adjustment also did a good job of decreasing overall contrast without producing strong color variations; see the section below. The default exposure did the best job here, as the model's face was well exposed. Too many highlights were lost in the shirt and face at +0.3 EV and +0.7 EV. Note that these shots were captured with the Sony NEX-3's DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer) control set to Off, so the camera's dynamic range is pretty good even without the aid of DRO. Still, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible. See below for DRO results.
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)
We really like it when a camera gives us the ability to adjust contrast and saturation to our liking. It's even better when those adjustments cover a useful range, in steps small enough to allow for precise tweaks. Just as with its saturation adjustment, the Sony NEX-3's contrast setting meets both challenges.
|Contrast set to lowest,
|Contrast set to lowest,
At its lowest contrast setting, the NEX-3 did a really excellent job of preserving highlight detail, maintaining fairly natural-looking skin tones, and holding nice detail in the shadows. The Sony NEX-3 captures good color outdoors, though just a touch on the cool side. Overall, very good results here, especially when the contrast setting is tweaked. (This is a really tough shot; the Sony does a much better than average job handling it.)
|Contrast Adjustment Examples|
The table above shows five of the seven contrast setting, including the default and two extremes. It's pretty hard to evaluate small differences in contrast on small thumbnails like these, so click on any thumbnail to go to the full-size image.
One very nice feature of Sony's contrast adjustment is that it has very little effect on color saturation. Contrast and saturation are actually fairly closely coupled, it's a good trick to be able to vary one with out the other changing as well. Sony did a good job here.
|Outdoor Portrait DRO Examples|
|DRO Off||DRO Auto||DRO Level 1||DRO Level 5|
(Levels adjusted equally in Photoshop on the right-hand side to show noise)
Dynamic Range Optimization is Sony's name for their dynamic range enhancement technology. DRO divides the image into small areas, analyzes the range of brightness of each area, and adjusts the camera's image processing parameters accordingly to make the best use of the available dynamic range. The Sony NEX-3 automatically enables Auto DRO when using Intelligent Auto mode, or when Portrait, Landscape, Macro or Sports Action scene mode is selected. You can control whether it is enabled in Program Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Manual exposure mode. (It's on by default.) You can also set the level manually, from 1 ("weak") to 5 ("strong"). As one would expect, DRO is only available for JPEG files.
The above images and crops show the effects of DRO disabled, set to Auto (the default), Level 1 ("weak") and Level 5 ("strong") for our "Sunlit" Portrait shot. As you can from the crops, Auto DRO had very little effect on the highlights in this shot, as the images are virtually the same when it comes to clipped highlights. This is probably because few highlights were lost in the first place. The bulk of the difference between different levels of DRO is found in the shadow areas. The stronger the level, the more boost is applied to the shadows. Along with that boost is an increase in shadow noise, though noise is not as much of an issue as we expected for a 14-megapixel subframe sensor.
|Far Field DRO Auto Example|
|DRO Off, 0 EV||DRO Auto, 0 EV|
Here's an example of Auto DRO at work with our Far-field House shot. The difference is very subtle because the original image had very few blown highlights and lost shadows to begin with.
|Far Field DRO Levels|
|Level 1||Level 2||Level 3|
|Level 4||Level 5||Auto|
Above, you can see the effects of the five manual levels of DRO, plus Auto on our Far-field House shot. Auto DRO produced results similar to the manual Level 1 setting, though not identical.
|Outdoor Portrait HDR Examples|
|HDR Off||HDR Auto||HDR 1 EV||HDR 6 EV|
(Levels adjusted equally in Photoshop on the right-hand side to show noise)
High Dynamic Range. The Sony NEX-3's HDR mode takes three images in rapid succession, one at the nominal exposure, one underexposed, and one overexposed, then combines them into one high dynamic range JPEG automatically. Highlight areas from the underexposed image, shadow areas of the overexposed image, and properly exposed areas from the nominal image are combined in-camera to produce an image with increased dynamic range. The camera saves the composite image, as well as the one taken at nominal exposure. The overlaid images are micro-aligned by the camera, but it can only correct for so much movement. If it can't micro-align successfully, an icon indicating HDR capture failed will appear. The user manual warns that for best results, the subject should not move or blink, so it's not really intended for portraits. There is also a manual mode where you can select 1 EV ("weak") to 6 EV ("strong") difference in exposures. As you can see, the Auto setting produced an image that looks quite flat and unnatural, roughly matching the 3 EV setting. The lowest manual setting of 1 EV did a great job however, taming highlights and boosting shadows without additional noise. In fact, shadow noise is lower since the overexposed image would have less noise in the shadows than the nominally exposed image. There may also be some blending going on, which would also average out random noise.
|Far Field HDR Example|
|HDR Off, 0 EV||HDR Auto, 0 EV|
Above is another example of the Sony NEX-3's HDR mode at work. As you can see, both highlights and shadows are well preserved, with no noise penalty. The image does look a bit flat, though. If you look carefully at the full resolution HDR image, you will see some ghosting in the leaves, caused by movement from wind between exposures.
|Far Field HDR Levels|
|1 EV||2 EV||3 EV|
|4 EV||5 EV||6 EV|
Above, you can see the effects of the six manual levels of HDR on our Far-field House shot, plus Auto. Auto HDR produced results similar to the manual 2 EV setting, though not identical.
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here.)
Low light. The Sony NEX-3 performed well in our low light test, producing (very) bright images down to the lowest light level we test at (1/16 fc) at all ISO settings. The metering system struggled a bit at very low light levels though, so we used manual exposure for these shots. Noise is very well controlled up to ISO 800, though as expected, at higher ISOs there are moderate to high amounts of fine luminance noise and some blotchy chroma noise. Auto white balance did a very good job here, producing a neutral color balance at all ISOs and light levels. There is just a hint of some horizontal banding at very high ISOs, but that's not uncommon. Hot pixels can be seen with long exposure noise reduction turned off (the right-most column), even at ISO 200, but they are few and far between.
The camera's autofocus system was able to focus on the subject down to between the 1/4 and 1/8 foot-candle light level unassisted with the 18-55mm kit lens. That isn't as good as most digital SLRs, but good for a camera using contrast-detect autofocus. The NEX-3 was able to focus in complete darkness with its built-in focus assist lamp enabled.
How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.
NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Thanks to their phase-detect AF systems, digital SLRs tend to do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects. The Sony NEX-3 uses contrast-detect autofocus, as is found in most point & shoot cameras, so its low-light focusing ability is less than that of most SLRs with phase-detect systems. That said, though, the larger, more sensitive pixels of the NEX-3's sensor do better under dim lighting than do the tiny pixels of most point & shoots, (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)
|Low Light Anti-Motion Blur (NEX-5)|
|Shutter Priority, 1/30s, ISO 12800||Anti-Motion Blur, 1/20s, ISO 6400|
Anti-Motion Blur. As mentioned elsewhere in this review, Anti-Motion Blur is a function which the Sony NEX-3 has inherited from the company's point-and-shoot camera. Anti-Motion Blur mode shoots a burst of six images with a single press of the shutter button, using high sensitivity 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 equivalent exposure settings.
Above are results comparing a single image at a fast enough shutter speed for most users to hand-hold (~1/focal-length) to that of Anti-Motion Blur, in one foot-candle of light which is about the same brightness as a typical city street at night. Both shots were handheld, and are representative of typical results we got from six iterations. As you can see, the Anti-Motion Blur version is much cleaner and more detailed. Note also that the shutter speed reported in Anti-Motion Blur does not appear to be the actual shutter speed of each image, but some kind of equivalent sum.
(Note, the low light images for this section were taken with a Sony NEX-5, but NEX-3 results should be identical.)
|Low Light Hand-Held Twilight (NEX-5)|
|Shutter Priority, 1/30s, ISO 12800||Hand-Held Twilight, 1/20s, ISO 6400|
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 than Anti-Motion Blur. Anti-Motion Blur hence proves a better option for moving subjects, but Hand-held Twilight can give great results for relatively static scenes.
Here, we can see Hand-Held Twilight mode selected the same shutter speed and ISO as Anti-Motion Blur mode. (We think Anti-Motion blur may be limited to ISO 6400). Compared to the image on the left that was taken in Shutter Priority mode, the lower ISO combined with the averaging of six images in Hand-Held Twilight mode resulted in much lower noise and more detail in the image on the right. However, we found it odd that the NEX-3 didn't lower the ISO and shutter speed further than Anti-Motion Blur mode. See below for real world results.
|Real World Results|
|Anti-Motion Blur, 1/25s, ISO 6400||Hand-Held Twilight, 1/8s, ISO 1600|
|Noise vs Motion Blur|
Outside the lab, the Sony NEX-3's special night modes behaved as expected for a typical night scene. Anti-Motion Blur mode selected ISO 6,400 and 1/25s to reduce blur from movement, but the results were much noisier where motion was present, and softer where the image was static. Hand-Held Twilight mode selected ISO 1,600 with a slower shutter speed of 1/8s. The lower ISO resulted in cleaner, sharper image, but the slower shutter speed could not freeze all the motion in the scene.
Print quality is excellent, able to output 16x24-inch prints from ISO 200 to 1,600 that would look just great on a wall.
JPEGs look very good printed straight from the Sony NEX-3. Enlargement of these 14.2-megapixel images to 20x30 was a tad soft from ISO 200, but better than most 12-megapixel cameras can do. Shots at this size would be fine for wall display, and would sharpen up nicely in a photo editing program. That softness becomes a non-issue at 16x24, though. Color saturation is great and contrast seems a bit high, but not unpleasant.
ISO 400 shots look great at 16x24 too.
ISO 800 shots are also great at 16x24. You can raise your eyebrows now, because that's pretty amazing. Great detail in most areas, only the slightest softness in low-contrast areas, barely detectable unless you squint. Gray shadow areas have some surreal blurring, again if you look closely, but it's a lot better than the luminance noise that could be there.
ISO 1,600 images are a little softer in the low-contrast areas, and some detail starts to suffer, but it's not a problem at arm's length; so even these images are usable at 16x24 inches. Color and contrast are still quite good. The softness goes away at 13x19 inches.
ISO 3,200 images, as expected, start to show some weakness in the darker parts of the image, but high-contrast detail is still quite good at 13x19 inches. Very usable at this size, but naturally better at 11x14.
ISO 6,400 finally demands some reduction from 13x19 inches all the way down to 8x10 before the blotchy dark areas and shadows become acceptable for wall display.
ISO 12,800 suddenly looks quite good at 5x7, a surprise considering how much it seems degraded onscreen. Some colors are faded, but not as bad as we usually see. It makes a great 4x6, too, promising great snapshots in very low light.
Overall, the Sony NEX-3 produces very good prints at very large sizes, impressive considering its lack of an ISO 100 setting. You can print extremely sharp prints at larger sizes than most people print (above 11x14 and up) from ISO 200 to 3,200 without a worry at all.
Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon Pro9000 Mark II studio printer, and the Canon Pixma MP610 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 Mark II review for details on that model.)
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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.
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