Sony Alpha NEX-3N
|Kit Lens:||3.10x zoom
|Dimensions:||4.3 x 2.4 x 1.4 in.
(110 x 62 x 35 mm)
|Weight:||13.6 oz (385 g)
includes batteries, kit lens
Sony NEX-3N Hands-on Preview
by Mike Tomkins
Last year, Sony announced the Alpha NEX-F3, a mirrorless camera revisiting its earlier NEX-C3 design, and gifting it with both a built-in flash and a self-portrait friendly tilting LCD. Unfortunately for fans of really small cameras, those changes also added significantly to the NEX-F3's weight and size.
The new Sony Alpha NEX-3N is a direct followup to the NEX-F3, but in some ways it's also a return to the ethos of the NEX-C3. Compactness is key, and the Sony NEX-3N's newly-designed body is almost exactly the same size as that of the C3. In an impressive feature of miniaturization, though, both of the key features added in the NEX-F3 -- its built-in flash and forward-tilting LCD -- are retained in its smaller, lighter replacement. And in a first for an Alpha-series camera, the NEX-3N also includes a zoom lever on the camera body, easing the transition from a compact camera for consumers.
Unfortunately, some compromises have had to be made to achieve the NEX-3N's pairing of features and size. Key among these is the removal of Sony's proprietary accessory port, which significantly reduces the options for Sony 3N owners looking to build a system around their camera body. To hit the NEX-3N's goals for size and pricepoint, Sony also had to dial back the LCD resolution, flash output, and burst-shooting performance.
For more experienced photographers wanting the smallest and lightest possible NEX-series body, those sacrifices -- and especially the sedate burst-shooting performance -- may be a step too far. While the Sony 3N is the smallest NEX-series camera you can buy right now, the NEX-5R comes a close second, and although it lacks a built-in flash, its feature set is otherwise a healthy step above that of the entry-level model. The Sony Alpha 3N, then, is a camera aimed first and foremost at the consumer photographer. For that market, size and price are key, and the NEX-3N bests its siblings on both fronts.
Available from April 2012, the Sony NEX-3N will sell in the US market for just US$500 -- and that's in a kit including the company's E PZ 16-50mm F3.5–5.6 OSS lens. The lens is a nice pairing for two reasons. Not only is it a power zoom, compatible with the NEX-3N's on-camera zoom lever. It's also significantly more compact than the 18-55mm kit lens bundled with most of the NEX-3N's siblings. The Sony NEX-3N will be available in two body colors: black, or white. Alongside the camera, Sony will also offer a new accessory wired remote commander, the RM-VPR1, priced at around US$65.
Walkaround. With dimensions of 4.3 x 2.4 x 1.4 inches (110 x 62 x 35mm), the Sony NEX-3N is significantly smaller than last year's NEX-F3 (4.6 x 2.6 x 1.6 inches; 117 x 67 x 41mm). The nearest model in Sony's current NEX-series line in terms of size is the NEX-5R (4.4 x 2.3 x 1.5 inches; 111 x 59 x 39mm). At a ready-to-shoot weight of 9.5 ounces (269g) without lens, the NEX-3N is also lighter than both cameras, although the NEX-5R (9.7 ounces; 276g) comes very close. The NEX-F3 trails by quite some distance, with a weight of 11.1 ounces (314g) ready to go, before the lens is attached.
Seen from the front, the Sony NEX-3N is about as clean and simple as interchangeable-lens cameras get. Beyond the branding, a small hand grip, and a metal lens mount with release button in the usual place, the front of the NEX-3N is almost devoid of features. The only other detail is a small but extremely bright orange autofocus assist lamp, tucked beneath and slightly to one side of the Sony logo. This sits a little further away from the handgrip than it did in the NEX-F3, making it rather less likely to be accidentally covered with a fingertip.
The handgrip itself is much smaller than that of the NEX-F3, and is no longer topped by a plateau for the shutter button. It's made of hard plastic, and stippled with tiny, textured dots that give your finger purchase. (And I do mean just one finger -- with my large hands, fitting even two fingers on the grip was too uncomfortable. For me, the easiest and least tiring way to hold the camera was with my index finger curled over the shutter button, and my second finger lining the edge of the grip, its tip just wrapping around the bottom of the camera. A two-fingered grip won't be feasible unless you have small hands and relatively slim fingers.)
When we reviewed the NEX-F3 earlier this year, we commented on the inconsistency of the top-deck control layouts in recent NEX-series cameras, and the NEX-3N brings yet another option to the table. Sony's designers have reverted to a side-facing lever around the shutter button for power control as seen previously in the NEX-C3, rather than the separate controls of the NEX-F3, the front-facing lever of the NEX-5R and -7, or the angled-inwards lever of the NEX-6. Where the NEX-C3 placed only one ring around the shutter button, however, the NEX-3N now sports a second. In a nod to the familiarity of consumer photographers with the on-body zoom controls typical of compact cameras, the Sony 3N's shutter button is also encircled by a zoom lever. If a power zoom lens is mounted, this will offer an alternative to the on-lens power zoom controls. If you're using a manual zoom lens, this new zoom rocker will have no effect in Record mode, but it will serve as a playback zoom control in Playback mode.
The F3's two-port stereo microphone is retained in the Sony NEX-3N, and moves to the top deck, where the separate ports span either side of the popup flash strobe. There's still a bevel between the back and top decks of the camera, and the button to raise the flash now sits at the very leftmost end of this beveled area. It's a stiffly spring-loaded mechanical release with a relatively short throw, and if you press off-center on the small button nothing happens so it sometimes take a couple of tries to raise the strobe. (On the plus side, since it's a mechanical release, the camera doesn't startle you by randomly raising the flash whenever it feels the need!)
The Sony NEX-3N's dedicated Movie button sits in much the same place it did on the NEX-F3, at the very rightmost end of the bevel. It's not a great location for spontaneous shooting, as it's not within easy reach of either thumb or forefinger. Instead, you have to change your grip to reach back for it. A two-handed grip works best for videos, which has the advantage of promoting a steadier hold as well. Finally, the Play button has been moved off the beveled area, and now sits to the left of the shutter button. One remaining item is notable by its absence: the Sony NEX-3N no longer offers an accessory port, and so can't accept external accessories such as strobes, microphones, or viewfinders.
Moving to the rear panel, the familiar soft button and dial layout common to all Sony's NEX-series cameras is retained for another generation. It's sparse, but it's also fairly straightforward and approachable. Labels on-screen next to the controls state their current function, which differs depending on the camera's operating mode. There are a couple of differences compared to previous NEX models, but they're relatively minor. Since there's now a dedicated zoom control on the top deck, the dial encircling the center soft button is no longer labeled for playback zoom, although it can still be used to zoom in and out of captured images if you've become accustomed to this from another NEX camera, and prefer it to the zoom rocker. In Record mode, the right side of the dial -- which also acts as a four-way button control -- now serves to provide quick access to ISO sensitivity control. If you prefer, you can instead use it to call up a configurable function menu, for quick recall of up to six different options, from a fairly extensive list. Or you can disable it altogether by setting all six options to "Not set".
Alongside these controls is the LCD monitor, which along with its articulation mechanism dominates the remainder of the NEX-3N's rear panel. Like that in the NEX-F3, it can be tilted upwards by 180 degrees, allowing it to be seen from in front of the camera. Since there's no longer an accessory port, the only thing that might block its visibility when raised is the flash strobe. That's not really of concern, given that on-camera flash would give an unnatural look for arm's length self-portraits anyway. For tripod-mounted self-portraits, you can simply confirm your framing first with the flash lowered, and then raise it before taking the final shot.
More of a concern is that the LCD no longer tilts downwards at all. On the NEX-C3, you could tilt the monitor downwards by around 45 degrees, and even on the NEX-F3 there was a rather less generous 13-degree downwards tilt. For the Sony NEX-3N, the articulation is a simple hinge at the top of the LCD panel. It's probably more reliable, smaller, and lighter done this way than with the articulation mechanism of the earlier cameras, but it makes the Sony Alpha 3N much less conducive to arm's length shots over a crowd than were its predecessors. There is a workaround, but it's a clumsy one: you can tilt the LCD upwards, hold the camera upside down so that the LCD now faces downwards, and trigger the shutter with your thumb instead of your forefinger. On the plus side, the camera's orientation sensor recognizes what you're trying to do, and tags the images appropriately. You may need to rotate the images on your computer if your chosen software can't understand the orientation tags, though.
Finally, we come to the sides and bottom of the Sony NEX-3N. The right-hand (grip) side of the camera is essentially featureless, with the exception of a lug for the shoulder strap. Unfortunately, this attaches to the camera via a small, metal D-ring with plastic cover. As we've noted in many reviews over the years, these D-rings are prone to metal-on-metal noise with the slightest touch of the shoulder strap, which is easily picked up by the onboard microphone when shooting video. If you plan on shooting a lot of video, you'll want to remove the D-rings and go strapless.
The left-hand side of the NEX-3N is consumed by a large, hinged plastic door that covers both a Secure Digital / Memory Stick Duo card slot, and the camera's only two connector ports. At the top, above the card slot, is a USB data terminal that is also used to charge the camera. Sony describes it as a multi-terminal, and it accepts a new RM-VPR1 wired remote control that provides a remote shutter button with lock, a zoom control, and a video button. Beneath the card slot is a Micro HDMI high-def video terminal, which is now a smaller Type-D terminal, rather than the Type-C of the NEX-F3.
With the card slot relocated to the left side of the camera body, the base of the Sony NEX-3N is cleaner than it was in the NEX-F3. There's still a metal tripod socket, neatly located on the central axis of the lens for easier tripod-mounted panorama shooting. At the left-hand end is a small three-hole port for the speaker, which is unfortunately not a very good location -- you're almost guaranteed to cover it with your fingertip when holding the camera two-handed. At the right-hand (grip) end is the battery compartment door, which is spring-loaded with a small locking switch like that on the NEX-F3. The door still includes a small rubber plug sealing a cutout that allows egress for the optional AC adapter's dummy battery.
Shooting with the Sony NEX-3N
by Mike Tomkins
Earlier this year, I reviewed Sony's Alpha NEX-F3, the camera Sony will be replacing with its new NEX-3N, and I also spent some time with the previous NEX-C3 that precedes both cameras. When our review sample of the Sony 3N arrived in our lab, then, it was perhaps a given that I'd take it out for a spin. I was keen to see how it compared, and whether my concerns with its predecessor had been addressed.
On taking the Sony NEX-3N out of the box, I was immediately conflicted. On the one hand, I mourned for Sony's Smart Accessory Terminal, the proprietary port that lets you connect external accessories to the NEX-series cameras. It's been removed from the NEX-3N design, doubtless in the interests of reducing the body size, but it also reduces the camera's versatility somewhat. There's no longer any way to use an external viewfinder with the NEX-3N, and perhaps more importantly, you can't attach an external strobe. (Which also means that bounce flash is no longer possible; even if you craft your own bounce card, the internal flash is simply not powerful enough for bouncing.) And nor can you add an accessory microphone, so you no longer have any option except an off-camera recorder, if you want to avoid issues with handling noise being recorded along with your high-def videos. That's even more of a concern thanks to the use of noisy metal-on-metal D-rings for the shoulder strap.
On the positive side, though, the Sony NEX-3N is handily smaller than its predecessor, and that's definitely good news. In my book, the more portable a camera is, the more likely you'll have it with you when you most need it -- for the shot you weren't expecting. And the inclusion of Sony's 16-50mm power zoom lens in the kit bundle is a sensible choice, as it improves both the overall bulk, and the wide-angle shooting possibilities. Pick up a second lens for telephoto work, and you're set! And although I didn't find the NEX-3N's tiny hand grip terribly comfortable, I found this flaw relatively easy to overlook, given the NEX-3N's lighter weight. Even without a strap on the camera, I didn't find my hands tiring after an afternoon's shooting in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee.
Perhaps more disappointing to me was Sony's decision to reduce the NEX-3N's specification in several areas, which I can only presume was done in the interests of reducing the cost of the camera. The LCD monitor has a lower resolution than that of the NEX-F3, making it harder to determine whether your focus is accurate when focusing manually, or when reviewing images in playback mode. (Although thankfully, Sony's handy focus peaking function is included, so it's not quite as hard to focus manually as it can be on some cameras.) The flash strobe is also rather less powerful -- and that's harder to defend, given that it's now your only option for flash.
My main concern, though, was for the camera's burst shooting performance. Consumer photographers might not give this a second thought, presuming burst shooting to be something needed only for sports. A good burst mode can make it much easier to get photos of other less predictable subjects, such as kids and pets, though. The Sony NEX-F3's burst mode was already limited in terms of depth, especially for raw shooters. The NEX-3N is even more so, with fine-quality JPEG burst depths in particular slashed in half, compared to the earlier camera. That's also accompanied by a reduction in burst rate from 5.5 to four frames per second even with exposure and focus locked from the first frame, and a sedate 2.5 frames per second with each frame being individually focused and metered.
With that said, if your reflexes are up to the task or you don't shoot a lot of moving subjects, the burst performance concerns are worth overlooking. Admittedly I've only an afternoon's shooting under my belt so far, but my initial feeling is that the NEX-3N's image quality, like that of its predecessor, is pretty pleasing. Autofocus and exposure generally seemed accurate, and although I'm still not a fan of Sony's menu system and playback-mode interface, overall the NEX-3N is a fairly approachable camera with a generous array of shooting aids to help consumers get the shot they're after.
And while the grip isn't the most comfortable, I did appreciate some of the other physical changes to the Sony NEX-3N's design. Even for somebody like me who largely shoots with DSLRs, the new on-camera zoom rocker is a nice addition. I'm not a huge fan of fly-by-wire lens rings in the first place, and zooming with the rocker just felt more natural for an electronic zoom, letting me focus on the framing and my subject instead. Of course, not everybody will disagree with me, but if you don't, you can still use the controls on the lens, as well. And I do mean controls, plural. The lens itself bears both a fly-by-wire zoom ring, and also a slider on the lower-left quadrant of the lens barrel.
Zoom control, incidentally, is perhaps a little bewildering. You're provided with no less than three ways to control the zoom, none of which can be disabled, and none of whose function can be changed. That's something I'd like to see Sony address in a firmware update; the lens ring could be better used, in my opinion, for controlling variables such as focus, shutter speed, or aperture. I actually disliked it as a zoom control, because there's no feedback "feel" in the fly-by-wire system (although the lens does vibrate as the zoom motor drives it to its new focal length), and it has a very short throw indeed. More often than not I found myself bumping one of the duplicate controls, and wishing it wasn't there -- but at least one of them has to be there for the lens to support other NEX-series cameras, which lack an on-camera zoom control. (As of now, that's all of them other than the NEX-3N.)
But as I said, I did like the new control on the camera body, and it's perhaps not fair to ding the camera for the lens' design, even if it is part of the kit bundle. I also appreciated the new shutter button position, and the return to a power control integrated into the shutter button cluster.
Among the new firmware features, perhaps the most interesting is the updated Auto Framing function, which has been seen on several of Sony's recent interchangeable-lens cameras. It's a feature clearly aimed at consumers, who may well not be acquainted with -- or fully understand -- some of the basic compositional rules that are second nature to more experienced photographers. The function's underlying algorithm examines pictures as they're captured, then decides if the composition could be improved. If the algorithm believes this to be the case, it will crop the image so as to best match its internal composition rules, then use a pattern-matching digital zoom function to enlarge the image back to full resolution. The end result, suggests Sony, is an image that's more pleasing, yet not of obviously lower image quality to the photographer. More experienced photographers will doubtless disable the function, but consumers may well find appeal -- and perhaps learn how to improve their photos from seeing the camera's choices.
In previous cameras, Auto Framing worked only for portraits, keying off the camera's face detection functionality. (Indeed, it has until now actually been called Auto Portrait Framing.) In the NEX-3N, it also works for non-portrait photos, and even for portraits has been tweaked. According to Sony, it will now recognize the subject in macro and action photos, and crop to improve composition with these subject as well. I was able to confirm this when shooting macro photos, as the camera would occasionally crop my image for me. With my example macro shot, where I intentionally placed the subject dead-center in the frame, the camera's composition is undeniably more pleasing. It also recognizes portraits with two faces, but to my eye, the crop here places the faces too close to the top of the image, giving it an unbalanced feel. (You can see the pre- and post-crop shots for both images in the gallery.)
Unfortunately, I haven't so far been able to get a photo of a moving subject to trigger the function, despite trying a variety of subjects, either panning with the subject or keeping the camera still, and with my own framing ranging from relatively pleasing to intentionally bad. If it's triggered, though, it will apparently recognize the direction of subject motion, and take account of this in determining how best to crop the image.
And so, I return to my initial question: does the NEX-3N better its predecessor? My answer, so far, is a definite "maybe." There are more than a few changes I like, and equally, several that concern me. As yet, I've not had it long enough to form a strong opinion either way, but the image quality shown by its predecessor (and in my brief time with the Sony 3N) -- coupled with its more affordable list price -- suggest it is worthy of further investigation. Watch this space! (And in the meantime, don't forget to have a look at our gallery and sample lab photos.)
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