Sony A3000 Field Test

Thinking beyond the mirror box

By Jason Schneider | Posted: 06/25/2014

Have the tech mavens and marketing gurus at Sony finally managed to deliver a high-performance APS-C-format DSLR -- complete with stabilized 18-55mm zoom kit lens -- for the truly astounding price of US$300? (Street price as of this writing in June 2014.) Well, that all depends on how you define a DSLR, and whether you're willing to put up with the inevitable compromises that have gone into designing this ingenious entry-level camera.

The A3000 is aimed primarily at folks stepping up from point-and-shoots and (dare I say it?) cell phone cameras, who are likely to be attracted to its DSLR form, functionality and interchangeable lenses. It's really more of a mirrorless compact like a Sony NEX, though, dressed up to resemble a Translucent Mirror "SLR" like the (now discontinued) Sony Alpha A37.

Still, with a high-resolution 20.1-megapixel Exmor APS HD CMOS image sensor coupled to a BIONZ image processor, Full HD (1080p) video capture at 60i or 24p, plus features such as HDR, Dynamic Range Optimizer and Sweep Panorama, it might tempt an enthusiast -- especially one who already owns an E-mount mirrorless camera. And it even accepts Sony Alpha-mount lenses via an optional Sony LA-EA2 Adapter ($400 list) which adds phase-detection autofocus to the camera's 25-point contrast-detection AF system.

When you pick up the Sony A3000 the first thing you notice is how light it is. It weighs under 22 ounces complete with lens, battery, and memory card, and it balances quite comfortably in your hands thanks in part to its deep, ergonomically contoured handgrip, which is surmounted with a well-placed angled shutter release surrounded by a large, clearly marked On/Off switch. The textured finish on the body and the grippy leather-like inserts on the grip and rear thumb-rest give it a "serious" appearance that is belied by its somewhat plasticky feel, but on the whole it makes a good first impression. As you'd expect the controls are simple, and, for the most part, straightforward, especially for those familiar with the Sony NEX line.

The SLR-style mode dial atop the camera has the usual Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and Manual modes. There's also a Scene mode that lets you access a range of settings including Night Scene, Anti Motion Blur, and Hand-held Twilight. These are selected by pressing what Sony refers to as Soft Key C: the button in the center of the control wheel, which also works as a 4-way toggle switch for selecting display, drive mode, ISO, and exposure compensation. After pressing it, you spin the dial to make your selection, then press the soft key again to activate your setting. Why is it referred to as a soft key? Because its function changes from mode to mode, and is indicated at the right-hand side of the LCD monitor.

In addition, there's a choice of two Intelligent Auto settings for shooting on auto-pilot. The second of these, iAuto+, creates a composite of several images -- great for capturing good exposures of high brightness range scenic and portrait images, but not for action. And finally, there's a Panorama icon for selecting Sweep Panorama mode, a cool feature common to most current Sony cameras.

To the left of the mode dial and the to the left of the pentaprism-like flash are little buttons that both, in a way, reflect cost concessions. The first is marked FINDER/LCD, and pressing it transfers the display between the 3.0-inch LCD monitor, and the eyepiece of the electronic viewfinder. The second button pops up the flash manually. Having to remember to press the button to get the display where you want it is a little annoying, and many other EVF cameras do it automatically by means of a proximity sensor that detects when you're holding the camera to your eye. It's also likely to be a turnoff for novices comparing the A3000 to its competitors at the store counter.

Unfortunately, no matter where you frame your scene, display performance of the A3000 is underwhelming. I'd go so far as to say that it's the camera's most serious shortcoming.

The EVF shows a 100% view of the scene you're framing, but at quite low resolution. Sony describes it as having a dot count of "201,600 dots equivalent", suggesting that it's actually a field-sequential LCOS chip with full color at every pixel location, but only one color -- red, green, or blue -- at any given moment in time. That means an actual pixel count of just 67,200 pixels, or something in the region of 280 x 240 pixels. Perceived resolution is a bit higher thanks to the full-color LCOS design, but blinking and some subjects can provoke a rainbow effect that's a little distracting.

Magnification of this smallish 0.2-inch EVF is only about 0.7X, and while the view is reasonably bright and detailed is does give you that constricted "tunnel" effect that is fairly common on entry-level DSLR viewfinders. The tiny eyepiece window, which measures only about 5/16 x 1/4-inch, doesn't help and while the dioptric adjustment range of -4 to +3.5 diopters is commendable, the flat striated eyesight adjustment wheel on the left-hand side of the eyepiece housing makes adjusting the eyepiece precisely a real challenge.

And it's worth noting that what looks like a rubber bezel around the eyepiece is actually hard plastic -- neither the most comfortable option, nor the friendliest for eyeglass-wearers.

The 3.0-inch LCD, meanwhile, is reasonably large and bright, but it too has a low resolution of 320 x 240 pixels, and its coarseness is emphasized by the relatively large size of the screen. It's not atrocious, and it's just but it does limit your ability to assess fine details when viewing a magnified captured image. Sony clearly feels it to be the better option for image review, though, because it simply won't allow you to view already-captured images on the EVF. The LCD is your only option for playback.

Incidentally, in order to zoom images, you have to press the Menu soft button, open the Playback menu, then select and activate Enlarge Image. You then control the degree of enlargement by turning the back rotary control. It works fine once you get the hang of it, but it's a nice example of the camera's unconventional control concept. You wouldn't expect to find Panoramic Direction in "Image Size" either, nor Metering Mode, Auto HDR, and ISO in the "Brightness/Color" menu, but there they are. At least you can set the sensitivity more directly by using the four-way function of the rotary dial to toggle the ISO menu.

Whatever the A3000's drawbacks may be, none of them affect the camera's overall picture-taking performance, which is truly impressive -- especially when you consider its price. Based on shooting a wide variety of subjects at light levels ranging from dim, dark interiors to outdoor scenes in brilliant sunshine, I found the camera's imaging performance to be consistently excellent at ISO settings ranging from 100 to 800.

Even in the ISO 1600 to 6400 range, I found very good detail, definition, color saturation. and very low noise. Of course at high magnification with these elevated sensitivities some artifacts were visible, but the pattern was tight and even and detail and color saturation were well maintained. Images shot at the top sensitivity of ISO 16,000 were definitely noisy and marred by noise-reduction smoothing, but still useable at lower print sizes.

While the A3000 doesn't provide phase-detection autofocus without an accessory, the 25-zone contrast-detection AF system proved to be reasonably fast and very accurate in all but the dimmest light, and it acquitted itself quite well with low-contrast subjects.

The Sony A3000's metering performance is likewise commendable, yielding accurate exposures with all but the most severely backlit or high-contrast subjects in Program and Aperture-priority modes, and using multi-pattern metering. It performed even better in terms of exposure accuracy in the iAuto modes, especially iAuto+ or Auto HDR, both of which can really save the day whether you're a novice or a seasoned enthusiast.

A truly prodigious array of features are on offer in the Sony A3000, including Auto Object Framing (a second alternative image is captured based the camera's built-in "composition" algorithms), Face Detection and Recognition, Clear Image Zoom (an enhanced virtually lossless 2X digital zoom capability that increases the maximum effective focal length to over 160mm), and a wide range of Creative Style modes (including Vivid, Sunset, and B&W). And despite its low price, the A3000 has quality touches that include a stainless steel lens mount and a hefty metal tripod socket.

Perhaps most important of all, the standard kit includes a reasonably sharp kit zoom lens. It's an 11-element, nine-group design with a seven-bladed diaphragm, and incorporates four aspheric elements to deliver pretty good image quality, considering the pricetag -- especially if you stop down a little. And it will focus down to 6.8 inches (25cm) for a maximum 0.3X magnification -- not really a macro lens, but probably enough for many purposes.

While it may have its foibles and compromises, the Sony A3000 still represents an excellent value. In terms of sheer imaging performance per dollar, it's a pretty amazing offering. Anyone seeking a lightweight, competent camera that provides the DSLR shooting experience at minimal cost would do very well indeed to put the Sony A3000 on their short list!


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