Sony NEX-3N Review
Sony NEX-3N Image Quality
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Good overall color accuracy and saturation, with mostly minor shifts in hue and intensity.
|In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located toward the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center. Mouse over the links to compare ISOs.|
Skin tones. Here, the Sony NEX-3N does fairly well, producing reasonably natural-looking Caucasian skin tones, just slightly on the warm side with darker areas nudged toward pink and orange. 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-3N shifts cyan toward blue, red toward orange, orange toward yellow and yellow toward green, but shifts are 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 5.03 after correction for saturation at base ISO, overall hue accuracy is about average (which is good) and remains average across most ISOs, though at ISO 1600 and 3200, there is a bias towards cooler colors. Hue is "what color" the color is.
The Sony NEX-3N 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. Saturation also had little effect on contrast, which is how it should work.
|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, warm with Incandescent, good with Manual, and a touch cool with Kelvin white balance settings. Average exposure compensation required.
|Auto White Balance
|Incandescent White Balance
|Manual White Balance
Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, color balance is too warm and orange with the Auto white balance setting. Results with the Incandescent setting are better but still somewhat warm and orange/yellow. The Manual setting was fairly accurate, with just a slightly green bias. The 2,600 Kelvin setting which matches the color temperature of our lights resulted in a slightly cool, bluish image. The Sony NEX-3N required +0.3 EV positive exposure compensation here, which is about average 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, color, and exposure.
|Auto White Balance,
|Auto White Balance,
Outdoors, the Sony NEX-3N performed very well. Only +0.3 EV exposure compensation was required 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-3N performed better than average here. (Actually, with Dynamic Range Optimization enabled which is the default setting, default exposure is bright so we can't really fault the camera here.) Contrast is a little high, as you might expect under such harsh lighting, but the camera does a pretty good job of holding onto detail in both the shadows and bright highlights, even without the help of DRO. Skin color is good with Auto white balance, perhaps just a hint warm, and switching to Manual white balance did not make much difference. Default exposure is quite good for our Far-field shot, with very few highlights blown, again with DRO disabled. Some very dark shadows in the leaves were lost, but the camera kept the main subject well exposed. The Far-field shot using Auto white balance has very good color, just a touch cool. Overall, a very good performance in harsh lighting, especially considering DRO was off for these shots.
High resolution, ~ 2,200 lines of strong detail from JPEGs, up to 2,300 lines from RAW files.
|Strong detail to
2,200 lines horizontal
|Strong detail to
2,200 lines vertical
|Strong detail to
2,300 lines horizontal
ACR converted RAW
|Strong detail to
2,250 lines vertical
ACR converted RAW
In-camera JPEGs of our laboratory resolution chart reveal sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 2,200 lines per picture height in both the horizontal and vertical directions. Some may argue for higher numbers, but aliasing artifacts start to interfere at this resolution. Complete extinction of the pattern doesn't occur until about 2,800 to 3,000 lines. Adobe Camera Raw was able to extract perhaps 50 to 100 lines more of resolution here from matching RAW files, but the Sony NEX-3N does a good job holding on to high contrast detail at base ISO in its JPEGs. 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
Good sharpness, though fine detail is a little soft, with some minor edge-enhancement on high-contrast subjects. Mild to moderate noise suppression visible in the shadows and areas of low contrast.
|Good definition of high-contrast
elements with some visible sharpening
artifacts. Fine detail is a little soft.
|Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur
detail in areas of subtle contrast.
Sharpness. The Sony NEX-3N captures detailed images overall, though results are a touch soft at default settings, despite using the very sharp Carl Zeiss 24-70mm F/2.8 SSM lens at f/8 for the shot above left. There are some minor edge enhancement artifacts on high-contrast subjects such as the larger tree branches in the image, but they're not excessive and quite normal. Fine detail such as the smaller branches and pine needles show very little edge enhancement, but appear a touch mushy due to slightly over-zealous default noise reduction. 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 fairly mild to moderate noise suppression in the darker areas of the model's hair. A number of low-contrast strands are smudged together, though higher contrast strands are still distinct. We saw similar results with fine detail in the pine needles being smudged. Still, pretty good results here considering the base ISO for this 16-megapixel APS-C sensor is 200 versus 100 for most others. 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-3N produces in-camera JPEGs with good detail, though fine, low-contrast detail is a touch soft. Quite a bit more detail can often be obtained from carefully processing raw files with a good converter, as can be seen below.
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, a RAW file processed through Sony's Image Data Converter 4 software at default settings, and finally the same RAW file converted with Adobe Camera Raw 8.1, then sharpened in Photoshop using unsharp mask at 250% with radius 0.3.
As you can see, the Sony IDC version at default settings produced similar detail when compared with the in-camera JPEG. (Color and contrast are however quite different, with the camera producing much cooler colors and higher contrast.) We tried reducing noise reduction to a minimum and then sharpening in IDC, but found that generated too many alias artifacts. The Adobe Camera Raw 8.1 conversion has better detail and more natural color, but also reveals a bit more noise. Bottom line: as is usually the case, the Sony NEX-3N rewards RAW shooters with better detail than JPEGs when used with a good RAW converter, though its base ISO of 200 puts it at a slight disadvantage in terms of noise compared to models offering lower base ISO.
ISO & Noise Performance
Very good noise versus detail performance up to ISO 1,600.
Default High ISO Noise Reduction
|ISO 200||ISO 400||ISO 800|
|ISO 1,600||ISO 3,200||ISO 6,400|
|ISO 12,800||ISO 16,000|
The Sony NEX-3N's JPEG images are quite clean at ISO 200, though as mentioned previously some very fine, mostly low-contrast detail is lost to noise reduction already at base ISO. There's also some chroma noise visible in darker areas, as well as demosaicing errors in the hair above the mannequin's forehead, though that's pretty common these days and not really something to be concerned with. ISO 400 is similar, with just a slight increase in smudging. ISO 800 is slightly softer with less chroma noise, though detail is still very good. ISO 1,600 appears progressively noisier as well as a bit softer, as you'd expect, but there's still lots of fine detail left. ISO 3,200 shows a larger step in noise and noise reduction effort, though fine detail is still not too bad. There's still a fair amount of detail left at ISO 6,400, but higher ISOs are quite smudged with not much fine detail intact. Overall though, these are very good results for its, especially considering the price. 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). 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.
Extremes: Sunlit, dynamic range and low light tests
High resolution with excellent highlight and shadow detail. Very good low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness.
|0 EV||+0.3 EV||+0.7 EV|
Sunlight. The Sony NEX-3N handled the deliberately harsh lighting in the test above very well. We preferred the +0.3 EV exposure here, as the default exposure is a touch dim in the face while the +0.7 EV exposure blew a few too many highlights. Contrast is a little high, but shadow and highlight detail are both very good. Despite the bright appearance, relatively few highlights were blown in the model's shirt and face at +0.3 EV, though the red channel is clipped in some of the flowers as is often the case, and in specular highlights where you'd expect clipping. Even fewer highlights were clipped with DRO enabled (see below). There are some dark shadows and very deep shadows are posterized and a bit noisy, however that's not really an issue except perhaps for those trying to recover a severely underexposed image.
For best results, 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 results with Dynamic Range Optimization and High Dynamic Range features enabled.
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.)
Dynamic Range Analysis
A key parameter in a digital camera is its Dynamic Range, the range of brightness that can be faithfully recorded. At the upper end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is dictated by the point at which the RGB data "saturates" at values of 255, 255, 255. At the lower end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is determined by the point at which there ceases to be any useful difference between adjacent tonal steps. Note the use of the qualifier "useful" in there: While it's tempting to evaluate dynamic range as the maximum number of tonal steps that can be discerned at all, that measure of dynamic range has very little relevance to real-world photography. What we care about as photographers is how much detail we can pull out of the shadows before image noise becomes too objectionable. This, of course, is a very subjective matter, and will vary with the application and even the subject matter in question. (Noise will be much more visible in subjects with large areas of flat tints and subtle shading than it would in subjects with strong, highly contrasting surface texture.)
What makes most sense then, is to specify useful dynamic range in terms of the point at which image noise reaches some agreed-upon threshold. To this end, Imatest computes a number of different dynamic range measurements, based on a variety of image noise thresholds. The noise thresholds are specified in terms of f-stops of equivalent luminance variation in the final image file, and dynamic range is computed for noise thresholds of 1.0 (low image quality), 0.5 (medium image quality), 0.25 (medium-high image quality) and 0.1 (high image quality). For most photographers and most applications, the noise thresholds of 0.5 and 0.25 f-stops are probably the most relevant to the production of acceptable-quality finished images, but many noise-sensitive shooters will insist on the 0.1 f-stop limit for their most critical work.
JPEG. The graph at right (click for a larger version) was generated using Imatest's dynamic range analysis for an in-camera Sony NEX-3N JPEG file with a nominally-exposed density step target (Stouffer 4110). At the base ISO of 200 (the optimal ISO) with DRO and HDR settings turned off, the graph shows 11.6 f-stops of total dynamic range, with 8.0 f-stops at the "High" Quality level. Roll-off at the highlight end of the curve was gradual, and at the low end extends fairly nicely, however some steps are spread out, indicative of a tendency of the deepest shadows to break up into discrete levels (posterization) if you try to brighten them too much. Overall, these are are very good results, in the same ballpark as the best APS-C performers to date. Compared to its more expensive sibling, the NEX-6, the NEX-3N scored just slightly higher at the High Quality level (8 vs 7.83), but noticeably better in total dynamic range (11.5 vs 10.5 f-stops), but that's probably just due to slight differences in processing. Note though that this measurement has a margin of error of about 1/3 f-stop, so differences of less than 0.33 can be ignored.
RAW. The graph at right is from the same Stouffer 4110 stepchart image captured as a raw (.ARW) file, processed with Adobe Camera Raw using the Auto setting, then manually tweaking) As can be seen, the score at the highest quality increased significantly from 8 to 9.33 f-stops compared to the JPEG, while total dynamic range increased almost a full stop from 11.6 to 12.5 f-stops. Again, these results are very good, though not quite as good as the best APS-C models. The Sony NEX-6 for example managed 9.92 f-stops at the highest quality level, with 12.7 f-stops total dynamic range. It's worth noting here is that ACR's default noise reduction settings reduced overall noise somewhat (see the plot in the lower left-hand corner) relative to the levels in the in-camera JPEG, which would tend to boost the dynamic range numbers for the High Quality threshold. Also, the extreme highlight recovery being performed by ACR here would likely produce color errors in strong highlights of natural subjects.
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-3N's contrast setting meets both challenges.
|Contrast set to lowest,
|Contrast set to lowest,
At its lowest contrast setting, the NEX-3N did a really excellent job of preserving highlight detail, maintaining natural-looking skin tones, and holding nice detail in the shadows. Overall, very good results here.
|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 Comparison
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. Auto DRO is enabled by default on the Sony NEX-3N. You can also set the level manually, from 1 ("weak") to 5 ("strong"), or turn it off. As one would expect, DRO is only available for JPEG files.
The above thumbnails and histograms show the effects of the various levels of DRO on our "Sunlit" Portrait shot with no exposure compensation. Mouse over the links to load the associated thumbnail and histogram, and click on the links to visit the full resolution image. As you can see from the thumbnails and associated histograms, the Auto DRO setting did a good job boosting shadows and mid-tones without blowing many additional highlights, and the five manual levels give you a good bit of control over the effect.
Above, you can see the effect of DRO settings on our Far-field shot. The default Auto setting produced a good exposure overall, despite the harsh lighting. Nice.
High Dynamic Range. The Sony NEX-3N's HDR mode takes three images in rapid succession, one nominally exposed , one underexposed, and one overexposed, then combines them into one high dynamic range JPEG automatically. Lighter areas from the underexposed image are combined in-camera with darker areas from the overexposed image to produce an image with increased dynamic range. The camera then saves a single composite image, as well as the nominally exposed image. 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. 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.
Mouse over the links to load the associated thumbnail and histogram, and click on the links to visit the full resolution image. As you can see, the Auto setting did a pretty good job, very similar to the 4 EV manual setting. The higher the manual setting, the more highlights were toned-down and shadows opened up, but higher settings can produce flat and unnatural results with this scene.
Above, you can see the effect of HDR settings on our Far-field shot. Watch out for ghost images from subject movement during the capture sequence, though, as can be seen in some of the shots above.
Low Light. The Sony NEX-3N performed well in our low light test, producing bright images down to the lowest light level we test at (1/16 fc) at all ISO settings. Noise is very well controlled up to ISO 1,600, though as expected, at higher ISOs there are moderate to high amounts of fine luminance noise, though chroma noise is kept in check. Some hot pixels can be seen especially with long exposure noise reduction turned off (the right-most column) at moderately high ISOs, but nothing out of the ordinary. We didn't detect any significant banding or heat bloom issues even at the highest ISOs.
Auto white balance produced a somewhat cool color balance at most ISOs and light levels but still performed reasonably well, though there's sometimes a shift towards red at high ISOs and low light levels.
The camera's autofocus system was able to focus on the subject down to below the 1/16 foot-candle light level unassisted with an f/2.8 lens, and the NEX-3N was able to focus in complete darkness with its built-in focus assist lamp enabled. Excellent performance here.
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 larger sensors, compact system cameras like the Sony NEX-3N tend to do better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects. (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.)
Good 24 x 36 inch prints at ISO 200; makes a good 16 x 20 inch print at ISO 800 and a usable 4 x 6 at ISO 12,800.
ISO 200 produces great 24 x 36 prints viewing from a normal distance, while a 20 x 30 inch print looks wonderful. At 30 x 40 inches, prints start to show some pixilation, but the viewer would have to be extremely close, thus this size would be fine for wall display.
ISO 400 allows for great prints up to 20 x 30 inches, while 24 x 36 inch prints are suitable for wall display. ISO 400 prints look very similar to ISO 200, but are just slightly less detailed.
ISO 800 images look good at 16 x 20 inches with great colors and fine detail. Noise is practically non-existent. At 20 x 30 inches, prints would be suitable for wall display.
ISO 1600 makes a good 13 x 19 inch print with a nice level of fine detail and very low noise. Colors also looked pleasing and accurate. At 11 x 14, prints look even better! Noise starts to appear in the shadows if you look closely, but noise in the highlights and midrange areas are very low.
ISO 3200 prints start to show some noise in the shadows, but it's very minimal and can produce a nice 8 x 10 inch print (5 x 7 inch prints look even better). Despite the shadow noise mixed with noise reduction, the prints looks great and fine details are still noticeable.
ISO 6400 makes a decent 5 x 7, with nice detail and colors. High ISO noise is starting to make an appearance, particularly in the shadow areas.
ISO 12,800 images are fairly heavy on noise reduction and lack fine detail at larger sizes, but still produces a decent 4 x 6 inch print. Colors still look okay. The images have a tough time producing details in the red fabric area.
ISO 16,000 images were too mushy on fine detail and high ISO noise reduction was very apparent, and therefore we would recommend avoiding this ISO level for use in prints. The noise reduction looks pretty heavy and creating a mottled sort of look in the shadow areas and around the edges of the bottles in our test shot.
The Sony NEX-3N produces excellent results for large prints at the low ISO levels, all the way up to wall-mountable 30 x 40 inch prints at ISO 200. Additionally, this camera did surprisingly well at controlling noise at higher ISO levels for the most part with a sophisticated noise reduction system. It wasn't until you got to ISO 6400 and looked very closely at the shadow areas that you began to see noise as well as noticeable degradation in fine detail. At the extreme ISO levels like 12,800 and 16,000, colors look decent, but fine details take a big hit. Nonetheless, the camera still managed to produce an acceptable 4 x 6 at ISO 12,800. Overall, this consumer-level mirrorless camera does very nicely with printed images. The low ISO photos match pretty closely with its higher-tiered sibling, the NEX-6, however the higher ISO prints from the NEX-3N appear to have heavier noise reduction applied (at least by default). Overall, the NEX-3N is a solid performer, producing great low-ISO prints at large sizes, while still doing a nice job with prints at high ISO levels.
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.)
The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Sony Alpha NEX-3N Photo Gallery .
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-3N 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!
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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