Sony NEX-3N £399

1st May 2013 | 09:10

Sony NEX-3N

World's smallest and lightest APS-C CSC

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Like:

Tilting screen; Small size; APS-C sized sensor;

Dislike:

No touchscreen; Limited raw functionality; No accessories port/hotshoe;

Introduction

Sony was one of the first manufacturers to enter into the compact system camera (CSC) arena, and as such it has a reasonable heritage with its NEX series. Although it doesn't quite have the lens range of its Micro Four Thirds competitors, it is still streets ahead of the competition from Nikon and Canon, with each of the cameras in its range now in its third or fourth generation.

The Sony NEX-3N is the company's new introduction to its cheapest and most basic entry-level CSC range. It replaces the Sony NEX-F3 and has a redesigned chassis, which makes it the smallest and lightest CSC to feature an APS-C sized sensor.

Aiming pretty squarely at compact camera "step-up" users, the camera has a 16.1 million pixel sensor, the same device that can be found in the Sony NEX-5R, which was introduced towards the end of 2012.

Sony NEX-3N review

It also features a 180-degree tilting LCD screen, which is ideal for framing self-portraits. That tilting touchscreen also has another handy bonus - as soon as the screen is put into that position, self-portrait mode is activated.

Unlike the Sony NEX-5R, the Sony NEX-3N doesn't feature a touchscreen. This seems a bit of a shame, especially considering the target audience is likely to be used to the convenience of smartphones, but on the other hand it's likely that it would have added a premium to the camera's price, which Sony is trying to avoid.

It comes bundled as standard with an 18-55mm power zoom lens, which is also very small, and helps contribute to the overall small size. This does mean that you are required to use a switch to zoom, rather than the manual focusing operation - while this is handy for video recording, others may miss the manual operability.

Sony NEX-3N review

Sony introduced two new E-mount lenses with the launch of the NEX-3N. A 20mm f/2.8 and 18-200mm power zoom lens bring the total up to a fairly respectable 15 NEX lenses.

One new feature for this level of Sony camera is area-specific noise reduction, which was developed for the top-of-the-line Sony Alpha a99 DSLT. This works to classify dimly lit images automatically and adapt noise reduction as appropriate, such as for flat areas, textures or edges.

This should mean that although the sensor and imaging engine is the same as for the Sony NEX-5R, low light images will be better from the Sony NEX-3N.

Sony NEX-3N review

Also new is Auto Object Framing, which is a follow-on from Auto Portrait framing, as found in several other Sony CSCs and DSLTs. Whereas before this worked to better frame portraits, it can now be extended to pretty much any object, as well as portraits.

Auto Macro Framing is also included, as well as Auto Tracking Framing, which can determine the direction a subject is moving in, to keep continuous autofocus.

Understandably, Sony needs to make this camera distinct from the NEX-5R so as to encourage sales in both lines. So, while the Sony NEX-3N has the same sensor and the potential for better low light performance, the Sony NEX-5R has a better, or faster, autofocusing system that uses on-sensor phase detection autofocusing. This could be problematic if you want to photograph fast moving subjects, such as children.

Sony NEX-3N review

Another difference is that the Sony NEX-3N doesn't have Wi-Fi technology, whereas the Sony NEX-5R does. There's also no hotshoe or accessories port as could be found on the Sony NEX-F3, so you have no way to attach an external viewfinder, flash or any other accessory.

With its low price, small body and lack of direct manual controls on the body, the Sony NEX-3N is operating in a very competitive area of the market, which is currently also occupied by the likes of the Olympus PEN Mini, Nikon 1 J3 and Panasonic GF5.

Thanks to its recommended full retail price of just £399 / US$499.99 / AU$649, the 3N is one of the cheaper CSC options currently available, which considering the large amount of technology and power zoom currently available, should be a bit of a bargain.

Build quality and handling

At first glance, the Sony NEX-3N bears more than a passing resemblance to its older sibling, the Sony NEX-5R. Sony says that it has done this intentionally, since the NEX-5R has sold so well.

Now, we have in the Sony NEX-3N a much sleeker body than the camera it replaces, the F3, with a high quality feel, thanks to the metallic finish. It's also been shrunk down a significant amount, but without being too small so as to feel cheap.

The kit lens, being a power zoom, is also a good chunk smaller than the previous offering, making this a much more convenient option to slip into a bag, or possibly a large jacket pocket.

Sony NEX-3N review

Although the grip at the front of the camera is smaller than on both its predecessor and the Sony NEX-5R, it's still solid enough to give you confidence when shooting one-handed.

There's no mode dial on top of the camera, unlike some of the other higher specced cameras in the range. Instead, a virtual dial can be accessed by pressing a button on the back of the camera. This is a little fiddly if you want to quickly change between modes, but given the target audience, it's completely understandable.

In keeping with that, there are also no dials for changing other parameters such as aperture and shutter speed. A dial which doubles up as a four-way directional pad is used for altering aperture or shutter speed, depending on the mode you're shooting in. When shooting in fully manual mode, pressing the downwards button on the four-way dial enables you to change between shutter speed and aperture.

Sony NEX-3N review

If you've used any of the Sony Cybershot, NEX or Alpha range of cameras before, you will likely be familiar with the menu system onboard the Sony NEX-3N. It can be a little frustrating at times, requiring a good sit down with the camera to get your head around the different areas that you need to search through.

For instance, if you want to make changes to settings such as white balance and metering, you'll find these options in the Brightness and Colour sub-menu, while you can change image ratio, and raw format shooting, in the Image Size submenu.

One of the most frustrating things, however - and pretty much all Sony cameras are guilty of this - is the number of options that can't be shot when shooting in raw format. Options including Creative Effects, Auto Object and Portrait Framing and Clear Image zoom are all not available when shooting in raw format.

Sony NEX-3N review

This means you need to head back into the menu system, switch raw format shooting off, then head back to what you were trying to do.

It's a very fiddly system that could be solved quite simply either by having a dedicated raw on/off button on the back of the camera or by having a window pop up if you tried to shoot something with raw format enabled to quickly switch to JPEG only. Better yet - having the ability to shoot these options in raw format.

For the first time in a Sony NEX camera, a zoom lever can be found around the shutter release. This is very similar to those found on compact cameras, such as those in Sony's Cyber-Shot range, and enables you to zoom the lens in and out without having to touch the lens itself. When using a fixed focal length lens, this activates the Clear Image Zooming, if that's turned on.

Sony NEX-3N review

This is especially handy when shooting self-portraits, where twisting the lens might be awkward, or when shooting videos where you want to avoid moving the lens and introducing blur.

The tilting screen is very handy for shooting from awkward angles, and it seems perfect for the target audience. It's a little bit of a shame that it doesn't fully articulate, which would be more useful for shooting vertical images, but that would likely increase the camera's size and weight. As it is, when the screen is fully recessed, it sits flush against the body of the camera and adds to its sleekness.

As with several other cameras in Sony's range, the buttons on the back of the camera are customisable, which is useful for making the camera work exactly as you'd like it to - and it means that if you find that you regularly use one particular setting you can have it ready very quickly.

Performance

In recent months, we have been extremely impressed by the output from NEX cameras, such as the Sony NEX-5R and the Sony NEX-6. As such, we had high hopes for the Sony NEX-3N, which promised to offer similar image quality in a smaller (and cheaper) body.

Happily, we have not been disappointed by what the Sony NEX-3N is capable of producing.

That APS-C size sensor is capable of resolving a fantastic amount of detail, while smudging is practically non-existent at the lower ISOs. Some image detail is lost as the sensitivity starts to nudge towards higher values, such as ISO 6400, but even then detail is still impressively sharp.

Sony NEX-3N review

Noise is kept under control, even at very high ISO values, such as ISO 3200. Zooming right in at 100% does show evidence of some smoothing and noise, but at normal printing and web sizes it's barely noticeable - very impressive for those who like to shoot in low light.

Generally, the Sony NEX-3N's automatic white balance does a good job of producing images with accurate colours, only slightly struggling when in mixed lighting conditions, where it favours warmer tones. In this situation, switching to a more appropriate white balance setting helps to get better colours.

We found that the camera's Multi (general purpose) metering does a good job of producing accurate exposures, not being thrown too much by scenes with areas of high contrast.

Sony NEX-3N review

Colours are represented well, being bright and punchy without being overly vibrant. Skies are reproduced particularly well, not suffering from cyan tones as has happened with Sony cameras before.

You can experiment with the way colours are reproduced by entering the Creative Styles. Here you'll find options such as Vivid and Black and White. These are a good option to use if you want to shoot in raw format, since you'll have a clean version of the image to work with should you choose.

Black and White mode gives a particularly attractive rendering, and you can also make changes to the contrast depending on the look you want to go for.

Sony NEX-3N review

Alternatively, Sony has included a wide range of Picture Effects. While these can't be shot in raw format - so you're stuck with them even if you change your mind - there are some great effects to experiment with here.

With plenty to choose from, such as Toy Camera, Pop Colour and High Contrast Monochrome, several are also customisable. For instance, Toy Camera has different options, such as Cool and Magenta toning. It's worth spending some time getting to know the various options available.

Unlike Panasonic, Sony doesn't make bold claims about its autofocusing speeds. While the Sony NEX-3N is capable of locking onto the subject quickly and accurately most of the time, at other times it seems to mysteriously struggle - even while shooting in good light. Autofocusing speeds also dropped when shooting in low light, but not enough to be a concern for those who like to frequently shoot in such conditions.

Sony NEX-3N review

The latest version of Bionz processor is found in the Sony NEX-3N, which facilitates its speed. We found that write times were very quick, with shot-to-shot time, even while shooting in raw format, being more than acceptable.

Write speeds when shooting multiple frames, such as for an HDR effect or when shooting in burst mode, are slower, but you're not waiting around too long for the camera to finish processing.

As the camera has a large (APS-C format) sensor, you can get really creative with shallow depth of field effects, even when using the kit lens with its maximum aperture of f/3.5. Out of focus areas are rendered beautifully, with the drop off in focus looking natural and attractive.

Sony NEX-3N review

Sony was the first company to introduce the now common Sweep Panorama effect. That is, moving the camera across a scene in a sweeping motion to produce a panoramic image. The Sony NEX-3N also has this facility, and it's a fun way to capture ultra-wide landscapes. It can take a bit of practice to get the sort of fluid motion required for a good stitch, but once you've mastered it the results are pretty good.

Surprisingly for a camera of its size, the Sony NEX-3N manages to fit in a tilting screen. Though it's not fully articulated, it does flip up, which is useful for both self-portrait taking and for positioning the screen to avoid glare and reflections.

At 460,000 dots, the Sony NEX-3N's screen is relatively low resolution by comparison to several others on the market, but it still provides a bright, clear angle of view.

Noise and dynamic range

We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.

A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.

For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.

Here we compare the Sony NEX-3N with the Nikon 1 S1, Sony NEX-F3, Panasonic GX1 and Olympus E-PM2.

JPEG signal to noise ratio

Sony NEX-3N review

These results show that the Sony NEX-3N's JPEG files have a stronger signal to noise ratio than those from the Nikon 1 S1 and Panasonic GX1 at every sensitivity, and stronger than those from the Olympus E-PM2 at every setting but ISO 6400. The NEX-3N's JPEG files have a weaker SNR than those from the Sony NEX-F3 at every sensitivity but ISO 200, 12800 and 16000.

Raw signal to noise ratio

Sony NEX-3N review

The signal to noise ratios of the TIFF images (after conversion from raw) from the Sony NEX-3N are stronger than those from the Nikon 1 S1, Panasonic GX1 and Olympus E-PM2 at every sensitivity setting, but weaker than TIFF images from the Sony NEX-F3, except at ISO 200.

JPEG dynamic range

Sony NEX-3N review

JPEG images from the Sony NEX-3N show greater dynamic range than JPEGs from the Nikon 1 S1 at every sensitivity setting but ISO 200, the Panasonic GX1 at every ISO but ISO 6400, and the Sony NEX-F3 at every ISO but ISO 200-400, where the CSCs tie. The NEX-3N's JPEG images show weaker dynamic range than the Olympus E-PM2 at every sensitivity setting.

Raw dynamic range

Sony NEX-3N review

This chart indicates that TIFF images (after conversion from raw) from the Sony NEX-3N show stronger dynamic range than the Nikon 1 S1 and Panasonic GX1 at every sensitivity setting. The NEX-3N's TIFFs show weaker dynamic range than the Olympus E-PM2 and Sony NEX-F3 at every ISO but ISO 6400.

Image quality and resolution

As part of our image quality testing for the Sony NEX-3N, we've shot our resolution chart with the kit lens mounted.

If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 200 the Sony NEX-3N is capable of resolving up to around 22 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.

For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them, check out our full explanation of our camera testing resolution charts.

Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:

JPEG

Sony NEX-3N review

Full ISO 200 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 200, score: 22 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 400, score: 20 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 800, score: 20 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 1600, score: 20 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 3200, score: 20 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 6400, score: 18 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 12800, score: 16 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 16000, score: 14 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Raw

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 200, score: 22 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 400, score: 20 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 800, score: 20 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 1600, score: 20 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 3200, score: 18 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 6400, score: 18 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 12800, score: 16 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 16000, score: 14 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sample images

Sony NEX-3N review

Click here to see the full resolution image

Although the standard kit lens only has a maximum aperture of f/3.5, you can still achieve creative shallow depth of field effects thanks to the Sony NEX-3N's large, APS-C sized sensor.

Sony NEX-3N review

Click here to see the full resolution image

The Sony NEX-3N's noise performance at high sensitivity settings, such as ISO 2500 in this shot, is impressive. When zooming into the image to 100% you can see evidence of some smoothing, but detail is otherwise retained very well.

Sony NEX-3N review

Click here to see the full resolution image

Struggling slightly in the mixed lighting conditions of this shot, the Sony NEX-3N has favoured slightly warm tones when shooting with the Automatic White Balance setting. You can alter this to a more specific scenario if the camera has difficulty.

Sony NEX-3N review

Click here to see the full resolution image

The amount of detail resolved by the Sony NEX-3N is good - view the full resolution image to see how it coped.

Sony NEX-3N review

Click here to see the full resolution image

Sweep Panorama mode enables you to capture wide vistas simply by sweeping the camera across the scene. The camera processes the image for you so you don't have to worry about stitching in post-processing.

Sony NEX-3N review

Click here to see the full resolution image

Several impressive digital filters are available on the Sony NEX-3N. These filters can't be shot when shooting in raw format, so if you change your mind you're stuck with them. Some are more interesting than others, and of course they're all down to personal preference. This is the high contrast black and white setting.

Sony NEX-3N review

Click here to see the full resolution image

Some of the filters have different customisable options. Toy Camera for instance has different toning options - this is the Cool setting.

Sony NEX-3N review

Click here to see the full resolution image

This is the Toy Camera setting with Magenta Toning applied.

Sony NEX-3N review

Click here to see the full resolution image

The Pop Colour filter boosts colours and contrast and suits subjects where you want to emphasise the colour.

Sensitivity and noise images

JPEG

Sony NEX-3N review

Full ISO 200 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 200 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 400 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 800 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 1600 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 3200 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 6400 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 12800 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 16000 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Raw

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 200 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 400 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 800 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 1600 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 3200 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 6400 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 12800 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony NEX-3N review

ISO 16000 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Verdict

Relatively speaking, Sony has been making compact system cameras (CSCs) for quite some time now, and after a few years of experimentation it seems to have really hit the nail on the head with its latest crop of cameras.

We were very impressed by the Sony NEX-5R, and the Sony NEX-3N seems to be a budget version of that. Gone is the clunky design of the Sony NEX-F3, replaced with this sleek and attractive offering that is the world's smallest APS-C sensored interchangeable lens camera.

Although it can be a little frustrating to use for more advanced photographers, it's clear that Sony is aiming this camera at the audience stepping up from a phone camera or compact camera. It's got quite a few things to attract that type of consumer, such as the tilting screen (perfect for self-portraits) and the fun Picture Effects.

It's a great shame, however, not to see a touchscreen implemented here. Those stepping up from a cameraphone would surely appreciate this method for making changes, while it also has its uses when making changes to parameters such as autofocus point.

We liked

There's plenty to like about the Sony NEX-3N, but we've been particularly impressed by image quality. Image detail, colour and noise control is excellent, giving you a camera with which you can enter a variety of different situations and be assured of high quality images.

We disliked

As time progresses we get more and more disappointed when a camera doesn't include a touchscreen, especially when it's produced by an electronics giant such as Sony, which already has expertise in this arena. It surely can't be too long before a touchscreen is de rigueur, rather than an exciting "extra".

Final verdict

The Sony NEX-3N is not a camera for advanced photographers looking for something to replace or sit alongside their DSLRs. Luckily, Sony already has cameras that meet that brief in its lineup.

Instead, what we have here is something that anybody can pick up and be assured of great image quality. It's a shame that there are a few small bugbears along the way with operability - most notably in the frustration encountered when needing to switch off raw format shooting to use so many of the different functions - but overall this is a very competent compact system camera.

This camera is also a good option for those looking to learn a little more about photography, since you do have fully manual controls and the ability to shoot in raw format. Sony still doesn't have the best operation when it comes to what can and can't be shot in raw format, requiring annoying menu diving when you want to use some of the features. We can but hope that Sony works on this either via a firmware upgrade or for the next iteration of cameras.

Perhaps most importantly, image quality is superb. This camera offers one of the best outputs of all the compact system cameras on the market, and joins the NEX-5R, NEX-6 and NEX-7 as a camera that performs very well in a variety of conditions, including low light.

Sony doesn't quite have the same range of proprietary optics as the Micro Four Thirds system, but there is still a good choice available, with third-party manufacturers also making optics for the brand. There's certainly a much wider choice than what is currently available for rival CSCs such as the Olympus PEN Mini, Nikon 1 J3 and Panasonic GF5.

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