Sony NEX-F3 £530

17th May 2012 | 04:03

Sony NEX-F3

An entry-level CSC with a tilting screen and built-in flash

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Like:

Good at high ISOs; Excellent dynamic range; 180 degree swivel screen; Auto HDR mode; Customisable controls;

Dislike:

AF struggles in low light ; Articulated arm could be improved;

Introduction

Technology moves fast, and Sony has never been a company to rest on its laurels. Just under a year ago, we tested the Sony NEX-C3, which was an extremely compact interchangeable lens camera, with an emphasis on ease of use. That compact system camera (CSC) has now been revised and replaced by the NEX-F3, which retails for around £529 in the UK and $599 in the US with the standard 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 optically stabilised kit lens... So what has changed?

Nothing massively obvious has been changed with the APS-C sized CMOS sensor in the NEX-F3. A resolution of 16.1MP is ever so slightly lower than that produced by its predecessor. As a result, Sony has managed to squeeze in a slightly higher maximum sensitivity setting of IS0 16000, which should be handy for shooting in very dark conditions, or for forcing high shutter speeds in less than ideal light.

As is the same with other NEX system cameras, the large APS-C sized sensor provides more surface area for detecting light than smaller sensors found in compact cameras and some other CSCs, so it should perform well at high sensitivities, in theory.

Sony NEX-F3 review

Beginners and advanced photographers should feel at home with the range of exposure modes offered by the Sony NEX-F3. A wide variety of automatic modes complement the usual manual and semi-manual exposure modes, so this camera should appeal to a wide range of shooters.

The NEX-F3 is a little more bulky than the camera it replaces, because Sony has added a deep finger grip to improve handling, as well as a built-in pop up flash.

Sony NEX-F3 at a glance
Sensor: APS-C 16.1 million pixel Exmor CMOS
Video resolution: 1920 x 1080
ISO range: ISO 200-16000
LCD screen: 3-inch
Dimensions: 117.3 x 66.6 x 41.3mm, 225g (body only)

This camera will appeal to demanding users who like the idea of a more compact camera but don't wish to compromise on image quality or exposure control. Although the NEX series of compact system cameras are certainly smaller and lighter than an equivalent DSLR, this camera couldn't really ever be classed as pocketable, unless you have very large pockets.

The lightweight magnesium body on its own weighs a svelte 225g, but as this camera uses a relatively large APS-C sized sensor, the lenses themselves are on the big side. Even so, it shouldn't be a burden to carry, even if it is too large for your jacket pocket.

Sony NEX-F3 review

An ever-expanding range of lenses are available for the Sony NEX system, including superzoom lenses, fixed primes, macro lenses and even a fisheye converter lens. Owners of Sony and Minolta DSLR lenses can use one of two adaptors to attach lenses to the NEX-F3.

The LA-EA1 adaptor enables any lens to be mounted, but only facilitates autofocus with SAM and SSM optics. Older screw-driven lenses can be used with the LA-EA2 adaptor, which includes its own focusing motor. This is great if you have already invested in a range of Sony or Minolta optics.

Sony NEX-F3 review

If you enjoy capturing high quality video, you'll find the movie recording capabilities of the Sony NEX-F3 of interest. Full HD video can be captured at up to 25 frames per second in AVCHD format. Unfortunately the ability to attach an external microphone has been reserved for cameras higher up the NEX range.

Rivals include the Panasonic Lumix GF5, Olympus PEN E-PL3 and Samsung NX1000.

Build quality and handling

A welcome change on the Sony NEX-F3 over the NEX-C3 is the deep finger grip, which is covered in a textured rubber material. The grip makes the camera much easier to hold, and even though it adds more bulk to the camera, the increased size is a compromise worth making.

The black metallic plastics used on the exterior of the camera look smart and durable and the NEX-F3 is still impressively lightweight, tipping the scales at a measly 225g.

Sony NEX-F3 review

Controls follow the now familiar NEX layout, with a knurled thumb dial on the rear providing quick access to menus and rapid manual adjustments. A one-touch video recording button located next to the on-off switch is deeply recessed, which should prevent videos being recorded accidentally.

Two 'soft' buttons can be remapped manually by the user, to provide quick access to common adjustments, such as ISO, exposure compensation, dynamic range tools or a number of other commonly adjusted features. The ability to set the camera up how you prefer is a great feature of the NEX control system.

Sony NEX-F3 review

The 3-inch screen can easily be flipped out by lifting either one of two tabbed areas. As the screen is folded out, a thin, flexible ribbon cable is exposed at the top of the screen. These cables can be very fragile, so seeing this exposed may not inspire confidence in the tilting mechanism's longevity.

A 1080mAh NP-FW50 Li-Ion battery, which is standard across the NEX range, provides more than enough power for a typical day's shooting. Shooting a mixture of shots with and without flash, the battery lasted for around 550 shots during testing.

Features

Thanks to the large APS-C sized Exmor CMOS sensor, the Sony NEX-F3 sports a sensitivity range of ISO 200-16000, which should provide ample flexibility for taking pictures in a wide range of lighting conditions.

Sony's Bionz processor has been implemented to keep the camera responsive, which promises to help reduce noise in images' output by the sensor at high sensitivities and enable continuous shooting at speeds of up to 5.5 frames per second, with subject-tracking autofocus. The subject-tracking AF attempts to keep up with the closest subject in the frame, and should be great for keeping up with erratic subjects.

Even though this camera is the entry-level model, plenty of controls are included that should satisfy the needs of more experienced photographers. Manual, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Program modes nestle alongside automatic scene programs and two fully automatic exposure programs.

Sony NEX-F3 review

The same Intelligent Auto mode found on previous models is still included alongside a new 'superior' auto program. This mode uses more of the Sony NEX-F3's features in an attempt to take the correct shot, including automatic scene detection and auto HDR.

Three metering modes are available, including 1200 zone evaluative, spot and centre-weighted metering and exposure compensation of plus or minus three stops, which can be used with raw and/or JPEG image formats when using one of the four creative manual exposure modes.

Exposure programs to suit all levels of experience are included. If the camera was handed to a novice, then the point and shoot automatic mode should help them to concentrate on taking pictures, whereas more advanced users may feel more at home with the classic Program, Manual, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority exposure modes.

Sony NEX-F3 review

The usual array of automatic scene programs give a certain amount of control for novice users too. Two Sweep Panorama modes automatically stitch images taken as the camera is moved from left to right across a scene. One of these will also create a three-dimensional effect, which can be seen on compatible televisions via the built in mini HDMI interface.

Exposure readings are taken by the image sensor in either 1200 zone Multi-segment, Centre-weighted or Spot metering.

A 3-inch screen with a resolution of 912,600 dots can be rotated around 180 degrees for taking self portraits. When the screen is flipped around, a three second self timer automatically engages, making it much easier to ready yourself for shots taken at arms length.

Sony NEX-F3 review

The screen is clear and bright, thanks to its high resolution. Saying that, even though a good anti-reflective coating has been applied, the shiny surface of the screen can be difficult to see properly in very bright conditions.

High contrast scenes can be difficult to capture properly in one image, so Sony has included two features to help increase the range of tones captured. The simplest is the DRO Auto mode, which lightens shadows and darkens highlights in an image to create an impression of more detail.

The second is the HDR Auto mode, which takes three shots at different exposures and merges them, taking the light and dark information from each image. The results from this mode are good, retaining plenty of detail in highlight and shadow areas of images. Care needs to be taken to hold the camera steady when using this mode, otherwise errors can occur when the three images are merged.

Sony NEX-F3 review

Video recording in full high definition resolution is possible at frame rates up to 25 frames per second, or 50 interlaced frames per second in the popular AVCHD format. MP4 format is also supported at up to 25 frames per second. Aperture priority and manual exposure settings can be applied prior to recording, which can be useful for altering depth of field.

Stereo sound is recorded by a pair of microphones in the camera, but there is no facility to add a standard external mic via a 3.5mm jack or XLR connection for better sound quality. However, Sony's ECM-SST1 mic can be fitted to the accessory port on top of the Sony NEX-F3. Maybe some time Sony will offer an adaptor for this purpose? Such an adaptor will be met with a warm reception, should it ever materialise.

A tiny flash unit folds out of the top of the camera body on a flimsy looking spring-loaded arm. This flash isn't very powerful, but can be used at close distances for a little fill. The articulated arm supporting the flash doesn't always hold it completely straight. More often than not, the flash unit is tilted downwards by a noticeable amount, which can lead to uneven flash coverage when shooting at wide angles.

At close distances, the hood on the standard 18-55mm lens can shade part of the image area too, leading to unsightly shadows in images. No hotshoe is provided for attaching larger external flashguns or lighting accessories.

Performance

Whether shooting in automatic or creative manual modes, the Sony NEX-F3 is capable of producing, sharp, well-exposed images with low noise and bags of detail. Evaluative metering produces accurate exposures in a wide range of conditions, only requiring compensation for high contrast scenes or those that are predominantly bright or dark.

The rotating thumb wheel on the rear makes applying adjustments easy when necessary in Aperture or Shutter Priority modes and Program auto.

Sony NEX-F3 review

Auto White Balance tends to err on the cool side, which can leave images looking a little flat, especially if taken in overcast conditions. Pressing the option button when selecting a white balance preset opens up a useful adjustment feature, which can be used to specify whether each preset should produce a warmer or cooler result.

Sony NEX-F3 review

Since a full spectrum of colours are available to choose from, even green or magenta casts can be applied for correction, or for effect, which may be useful for simulating a certain retro or creative look in images.

Sony NEX-F3 review

JPEG images taken at the base sensitivity of ISO 200 are sharp, detailed and contain no significant noise, which is also true of images taken at up to ISO 1600. The performance at higher ISOs depend on the kind of light that the images are taken under, with some conditions resulting in noisier images than others.

Sony NEX-F3 review

At ISO 3200, noise levels have started to become visible, but only if you look hard enough for it, and details are still retained well, despite a little softening due to the in-camera noise reduction. At ISO 6400, more softening due to noise reduction is visible and very fine details start to break up due to noise. Images are still very usable at this setting and should still make good A4 (about US letter-sized) prints.

Sony NEX-F3 review

At ISO 12800, noise is much more visible, and blotchy patterns can be seen in flat areas of colour, especially in the shadows and colour saturation is reduced. Even though ISO 16000 should probably only be used as a last resort, images should still be perfectly acceptable for 6 x 4-inch prints, and for sharing on the web.

Sony NEX-F3 review

Overall, the noise performance is good for a compact system camera, which should facilitate image taking in a wide range of conditions.

Sony NEX-F3 review

In good light, autofocus is very quick, and accurate for the most part. A subject tracking mode keeps up with the closest subject during video recording, and seems to perform well, unless the subject being tracked is fast or very erratic. Low light conditions severely impact the performance of the AF system, resulting in the camera hunting for a lock, or even mis-focusing completely.

Sony NEX-F3 review

When light drops below a certain level, the camera switches to a wide-area focusing mode, no matter which mode has been selected. Unfortunately this impacts on the system's accuracy, quite often resulting in mis-focused images.

Sony NEX-F3 review

Sony NEX-F3 review

Sony NEX-F3 review

Sony NEX-F3 review

Image quality and resolution

As part of our image quality testing for the Sony NEX-F3 we've shot our resolution chart.

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-F3 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:

JPEGs

Sony NEX-F3 review

Sony NEX-F3 review

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

Sony NEX-F3 review

ISO 400, score: 22 (Click here to see full resolution image)

Sony NEX-F3 review

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

Sony NEX-F3 review

ISO 1600, score: 18 (Click here to see full resolution image)

Sony NEX-F3 review

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

Sony NEX-F3 review

ISO 6400, score: 16 (Click here to see full resolution image)

Sony NEX-F3 review

ISO 12800, score: 14 (Click here to see full resolution image)

Sony NEX-F3 review

ISO 16000, score: 12 (Click here to see full resolution image)

Raw

Sony NEX-F3 review

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

Sony NEX-F3 review

ISO 400, score: 22 (Click here to see full resolution image)

Sony NEX-F3 review

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

Sony NEX-F3 review

ISO 1600, score: 18 (Click here to see full resolution image)

Sony NEX-F3 review

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

Sony NEX-F3 review

ISO 6400, score: 16 (Click here to see full resolution image)

Sony NEX-F3 review

ISO 12800, score: 14 (Click here to see full resolution image)

Sony NEX-F3 review

ISO 16000, score: 12 (Click here to see full resolution image)

Noise and dynamic range

We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using the DXO Analyzer software to give noise and dynamic range measurements at every sensitivity (ISO) setting.

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

JPEG signal to noise ratio

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

Sony NEX-F3 review

Our lab tests indicate that the Sony NEX-F3 produces JPEG images that have a high signal to noise ratio in comparison with images from the Nikon J1 and Olympus PEN E-PL3. They are closest to the JPEGs from the Panasonic G3, but even this camera has a lower signal to noise ratio overall.

Raw signal to noise ratio

Sony NEX-F3 review

The difference in the signal to noise ratio of the Sony NEX-F3's raw files (after conversion to TIFF) and the other cameras' is much wider than the JPEG files. Although the Olympus PEN E-PL3 has the closest score, they're still pretty different. The Nikon J1 and Panasonic G3 have lower signal-to-noise ratios.

JPEG dynamic range

Sony NEX-F3 review

This chart indicates that the dynamic range of the Sony NEX-F3's JPEGs compares well with that of theOlympus PEN E-PL3, Nikon J1 and Panasonic G3. At lower sensitivities, it produces similar results to theOlympus PEN E-PL3, but overtakes it at mid-to-high ISOs.

Raw dynamic range

Sony NEX-F3 review

Again, this chart indicates that there is a bigger gap between results for the Sony NEX-F3's raw files than there was for the JPEGs. It compares well against the Olympus PEN E-PL3, Nikon J1 and Panasonic G3, which are clustered closer together. This test shows that the Sony NEX-F3 is capable of capturing a good amount of shadow and highlight detail, with the best results from the lower sensitivities.

Sample images

Sony NEX-F3 review

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Sony NEX-F3 review

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Images taken at high sensitivities show low levels of noise.

Sony NEX-F3 review

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Auto white balance tends to leave images with a cool cast, but this can be adjusted easily.

Sony NEX-F3 review

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Autofocus can struggle in low light conditions

Sony NEX-F3 review

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Sony NEX-F3 review

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Sony NEX-F3 review

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Adjusting exposure settings is easy, thanks to the direct nature of the controls

Sony NEX-F3 review

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Sony NEX-F3 review

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Sony NEX-F3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

Sony NEX-F3 review

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Sony NEX-F3 review

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Images from the NEX-F3 show good dynamic range

Sony NEX-F3 review

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Sony NEX-F3 review

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Sony NEX-F3 review

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Images are sharp and packed with detail

Sony NEX-F3 review

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Evenly lit scenes often require no exposure compensation

Sony NEX-F3 review

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Sony NEX-F3 review

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+1 EV exposure compensation was required for these contrasty scenes

Sony NEX-F3 review

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The relatively large APS-C sized sensor makes it easier to blur backgrounds, isolating your subject.

Sensitivity and noise

Sony NEX-F3 review

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

Sony NEX-F3 review

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ISO 200

Sony NEX-F3 review

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ISO 400

Sony NEX-F3 review

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ISO 800

Sony NEX-F3 review

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ISO 1600

Sony NEX-F3 review

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ISO 3200

Sony NEX-F3 review

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ISO 6400

Sony NEX-F3 review

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ISO 12800

Sony NEX-F3 review

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ISO 16000

Raw images

Sony NEX-F3 review

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ISO 200

Sony NEX-F3 review

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ISO 400

Sony NEX-F3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 800

Sony NEX-F3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 1600

Sony NEX-F3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 3200

Sony NEX-F3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 6400

Sony NEX-F3 review

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ISO 12800

Sony NEX-F3 review

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ISO 16000

Verdict

It's interesting that Sony has chosen to replace the NEX-C3 with this NEX-F3 camera so soon, but by doing so, it has addressed some, if not all common issues with the older model. Thanks to the slightly bulkier body, and inclusion of a decent finger grip, this camera is much easier to hold, and controls are easier to access. Photographers of all experience levels should appreciate this.

Focusing on ease of use doesn't mean that the Sony NEX-F3 will disappoint those who want to take complete control of the camera. All the usual metering modes and manual functions are included, along with two fully automatic picture-taking modes for those who wish to simply point and shoot.

Image quality is impressive too, especially at high sensitivities, where a slight improvement on the performance of the NEX-C3 has also been made.

Incompatibility with specialist accessories, such as audio microphones with a 3.5mm or XLR connection, or external flash equipment, can't really be held against the Sony NEX-F3. It is an entry-level CSC, after all.

We liked

The Sony NEX-F3 packs plenty of features into a lightweight and reasonably compact body. It is more than capable of producing high quality images under a wide range of conditions and feels very responsive in use. Features such as the 180-degree flip-out screen and customisable controls make this camera stand out from other entry-level CSCs.

We disliked

The articulated arm that supports the pop-up flash looks a little flimsy, as does the exposed ribbon cable between the flip-out screen and camera body. Autofocus performance in very low light conditions is poor too.

Final verdict

The Sony NEX-F3 is a well rounded entry-level compact system camera, offering excellent image quality and plenty of features. It is currently priced similarly to alternatives from other manufacturers - such as the Panasonic Lumix GF5, Olympus PEN E-PL3 and Samsung NX1000 - so it should make a good value choice due to the great range of features, handling and image quality.

Sony has packed the NEX-F3 with plenty of features to satisfy both novices and advanced photographers alike. Many of the shortcomings of its predecessor have been addressed and image quality improved. It should make a good choice for anyone in the market for a good quality compact system camera.

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