Sony Alpha NEX-F3 Review
A little grip goes a long way with Sony's solid, affordable follow-up to the NEX-C3
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The Sony NEX-F3 (MSRP $599.99) is the follow-up to a critical darling: the Sony NEX-C3. The C3 is the most petite offering in Sony's NEX lineup—a range of tiny bodies equipped with outsized APS-C imaging sensors. Some significant internal upgrades have been shoehorned into the new F3, though, and the new shape is worth talking about too.
At first, Sony’s NEX line was hell-bent on designing the slimmest body in town, as if compensating for the fact that APS-C sensor cameras use mostly large, bulky lenses. But the NEX-F3 is actually larger than the previous C3, with a redesigned grip that is far easier to hold than its predecessor's. The F3 uses an otherwise similar formula, with the same menu system as previous NEX cameras, an almost identical control scheme to the C3, and the additions of a built-in flash and new image sensor.
Design & Usability
The Sony NEX-F3 represents a small step away from the initial design philosophies of the NEX line.
Apparently, the NEX-F3 dropped the slim-down diet that the C3 was on, in favor of bulking up with some photo-centric extras like a new, larger grip and a built-in flash. In our view, it's a wise move. The combination of a small body and the bigger lenses that tend to pair with APS-C image sensors simply requires the support of a heftier grip. Also on offer is an articulated touchscreen that can rotate upward to face completely forward (perfect for Facebook shots, don't you know), the same 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens that's paired with other NEX models, and a 16.2-megapixel Exmor APS-C CMOS sensor.
Overall, the NEX-F3 is designed as an easy bridge camera for former point-and-shooters who are stepping into an interchangeable lens system for the first time. As such, it’s very toned down in terms of terminology and physical controls, and menu lists are somewhat abbreviated as well. There is still a small learning curve, though—especially with the unlabeled, dynamic soft keys that can have different functions at any given time. Users may need a little bit of time to adjust, even if they’re used to other entry-level models.
With new features like auto portrait framing, the Sony NEX-F3 is simple enough for point-and-shooters to pick up, point, and shoot with.
In terms of features, there isn’t a dramatic change from the NEX-C3 to the NEX-F3 . While the new model does incorporate a few extra software tricks, the biggest developments for the F3 are the addition of 1080/60i video, the articulating LCD, and the new auto portrait framing mode. While these all contribute to the total package, we don’t think it’s enough to justify upgrading from a C3 to an F3. If you’re deciding between the two, we’d say there’s little in terms of features you’re going to miss by purchasing the likely cheaper NEX-C3 on clearance.
In general, the Sony NEX-F3 offers plenty of manual control, but it’s clear that automatic modes are the main draw. A superior auto mode sets the exposure and also incorporates scene detection, auto-HDR, and image saving, streamlining the process for novices.
Notice too the NEX-F3’s quirky new weapon, the optional auto portrait framing mode; this option kicks in at select times, taking your original image and cropping it according to common photography framing rules. This mode uses Sony’s mouthful of a technology, "By Pixel Super Resolution," to interpolate this cropped image back into the same resolution as your original shot. It doesn’t do any damage to your original photo and the process is entirely automatic. The NEX-F3 also offers a number of picture effects and creative styles.
Sony has tuned the NEX-F3 to produce great-looking photos with as little fuss as possible.
By default, every color mode boosts saturation above the norm, the compulsory noise reduction settings smear away noise at every ISO (along with detail), and images look sharp (thanks to artificial edge enhancement). Of course, most of these gains are not the result of phenomenal physical engineering, but of software processing.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and most of these defaults can easily be bypassed by advanced shooters simply by shooting in RAW, but it’s worth noting that there’s not a JPEG that comes out of the NEX-F3 that hasn’t undergone some level of artificial processing (and it's usually pretty heavy).
That said, this camera managed to take some very sharp images—with a dose of artificial processing, of course. The F3 keeps noise to a minimum too, but it does so by employing some of the heaviest noise reduction we’ve seen in an interchangeable lens camera. Overall, though, image quality is still quite satisfactory, and we think any novice or beginner will be more than happy with the results.
Users with the older NEX-C3 shouldn't bother with an upgrade. New users who can find the C3 on clearance should certainly go for it, but the NEX-F3 is a potent performer at a price that the competition has yet to beat.
Sony’s NEX line faces a dilemma: they provide DSLR-size sensors in small camera bodies, but these cameras also require large lenses, unlike the mirrorless competition. Sony's response to this challenge has been to endlessly advertise the thinness of its bodies and blithely ignore the lens issue, perhaps hoping that if they don't acknowledge it, it'll cease to be a problem. Happily, the Sony NEX-F3 has sidestepped the issue in another way: by adding a substantial grip.
The F3 reportedly uses the same sensor from the NEX-C3, with some slight processing differences. It has a slightly faster shooting speed, a built-in flash, and a few extra in-camera features. Still, it’s the grip that is the most glaring difference between this year's model and last year's. The new grip simply makes shooting more comfortable and enjoyable. True, lenses like Sony’s 16mm pancake lens or the standard 18-55mm kit lens hardly necessitate a large grip, but longer telephoto lenses feel much more secure (and the resulting shots are sharper) on the NEX-F3 than on last year’s C3.
The new grip shows that Sony is taking the camera’s function more seriously, yet the NEX-F3 is designed for entry-level users. The menu is simple and operation is mostly automatic, with manual control that you can learn as you go. When shooting in JPEG, most of the image quality decisions are set automatically. Noise reduction is slathered on at every ISO setting, without the ability to deactivate it, and it's overly aggressive.
All of that is perfectly fine for shooters who just want their photos up on Facebook, but enthusiasts looking for a compact, affordable alternative to a larger DSLR will want to shoot RAW. Otherwise, the $599 NEX-F3 is a solid follow-up to the successful NEX-C3, making it the best entry-level compact system camera on the market.
The Sony Alpha NEX-F3 is a solid entry-level DSLR designed to offer the simple usability point-and-shooters expect, but it also manages to squeeze in the the raw picture quality expected by DSLR vets.
Sharpness & Stabilization
The NEX-F3 produced some very sharp images across the focal range with its 18-55mm kit lens.
In our test chart, the edges of our targets looked crisp at the middle apertures, and only slightly soft at wide or narrow apertures. Generally speaking, this is the behavior you'd expect from any respectable lens. The main failing of the 18-55mm kit lens seems to be chromatic aberration, which blurs edges with a mix of blue and orange fringing. This also reduces contrast and apparent sharpness.
To combat this, the camera boosted contrast where possible, which occasionally left some digital-looking white halos around high-contrast objects. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but unless you want a dramatic oversharpening effect, we recommend turning sharpness down when possible, or simply shooting RAW.
Color & Color Modes
The Sony NEX-F3 traded strict color accuracy for vivid, oversaturated images.
We found that the Sony NEX-F3, like many entry-level Sony cameras, produced distinctly oversaturated colors by default. Even modes that are supposed to produce more accurate, natural colors (such as portrait) were overdone compared to what most cameras would output. At the default saturation level, the best color accuracy we could achieve still resulted in an error of 3.06 (we generally like to see less than 2.7 from an interchangeable lens camera). Even when we turned down saturation manually, we could only force color error to drop to around 2.8 in the standard and portrait modes.
Furthermore, every default creative style color mode resulted in an image with saturation boosted well above the ideal. The lowest saturation we saw was still 115% of the ideal. For reference, most cameras only cross 115% of saturation in their “vivid” color modes, where colors are intentionally boosted to extremes.
The Sony NEX-F3’s vivid, sunset, and landscape modes all pushed saturation north of 130%, which is just ridiculous. The resulting images really pop, but you’d be loath to take a portrait with any of those modes, unless you want your tanned subject to look like a Roald Dahl character.
There are also six color modes called “creative styles.” These include standard, vivid, portrait, landscape, sunset, and black & white. Each mode enables changes to contrast, sharpness, and saturation on a +/- scale, with the defaults set to zero (save for black & white, which has no saturation to adjust). We found the standard mode to be the most accurate, with a color error of 3.06, and portrait came in close behind at 3.49. The other modes don’t specifically target or benefit from color accuracy—average color error is over 4. These modes all feature oversaturated, rich colors.