Just shy of a year ago, we reviewed the Sony NEX-C3, a mirrorless camera that quickly became our benchmark when it came to entry-level interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs). We praised its excellent image quality, generally consistent performance, overall solid design and, best of all, its $600 price tag -- including an 18-55mm kit lens. Since then, the landscape has shifted drastically for this particular type of compact shooter, with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 raising the bar for focusing performance, Nikon's cute J1 winning the hearts of many (likely due to a heavy marketing budget and adorable design) and the Fujifilm X-Pro1 pushing the envelope when it comes to price and body size. For its part, Sony also attracted plenty of attention with its flagship NEX-7, which appears to have been the inspiration for the company's brand new NEX-F3.
Based on its price tag and release schedule, you might have assumed that the NEX-F3 is here to dethrone Sony's NEX-C3. That may or may not be the case (we're hoping for the latter) -- the F3 is much more a scaled-down version of the NEX-7 than an update to the C3. Sure, designs can change drastically from one year to the next, but we were quite fond of last year's model, and many of you were, too. From a specification perspective, the F3 has a new APS-C sensor (though resolution remains unchanged), with a higher top ISO setting of 16,000, a 3-inch LCD that can flip 180-degrees to face completely forward, a new NEX-7-esque pop-up flash and a bulkier design. But does bigger mean better in this case? Click past the break for our take.
Sony received a bit of heat for the size of its NEX-C3. That concept may be a bit hard to grasp, given that the camera is on the small side, even for mirrorless ILCs. However, the device looked quite petite when paired with the company's standard 18-55mm kit optic, and may have been difficult to grip for some giant-handed users. The F3 looks much more proportionate with the lens attached, but that also means a less svelte appearance -- you might even consider it to be a step back, from a design perspective, at least.
That larger housing does come with extra benefits in tow. There's a new pop-up strobe, located on the top panel, just to the right of the lens mount. The flash works just fine -- it's elevated enough to project beyond the standard kit lens with hood removed -- and considering the camera's top sensitivity of ISO 16,000, it'll probably come in handy more as a fill flash than it will as a dedicated light source. Beyond the added flash release button, control placement has remained unchanged for the most part, with the exception of the shutter release (now on the extended front grip), the playback button (located to the left of record) and a new dedicated power toggle -- the same control that you'll find on the NEX-5N, which should help to eliminate issues we experienced with the C3, where it would power on accidentally while in a bag.
Also up top is Sony's proprietary connector, which supports older accessories like the external shotgun mic, along with recent additions, like the $350 OLED viewfinder attachment that we first saw as an option for the NEX-5N. On the left side of the camera, there are micro-USB and HDMI ports, followed by a tripod socket, SD/MS slot and battery compartment on the bottom. Unlike the NEX-5N, there are separate doors for storage and power here, but the memory card slot is just to the side of the tripod socket, making it impossible to swap cards when the camera is mounted on a tripod.
As you may have guessed from the price tag and optional attachment, there's no built-in EVF here. There is a fairly sharp 3-inch LCD on the rear, however, with the same 921k-dot resolution found on the NEX-C3. Like its predecessor, the F3's display is mounted on a tilting hinge, but this year's model has been completely redesigned, with a brand new fixture. The new mechanism enables you to flip the LCD completely forward (180 degrees) -- for taking self portraits, we presume. Unfortunately, such functionality came at significant cost, with Sony eliminating the 45-degree down-facing mode, which we used quite often on the NEX-C3 for capturing overhead shots. You can still tilt the new display down, but only by about five degrees, which won't help much. Viewing angles are decent at best -- you can forget about seeing the display clearly at a 45-degree angle in bright sunlight.
Like its price tag, the NEX-F3 finishes in the middle of the road when it comes to performance. It won't be your first choice for the NFL sidelines, with a top continuous shooting speed of 5.5 frames-per-second and a focusing system that can't hold a candle to the Olympus E-M5 (or any full-size DSLR, for that matter), but if you're an amateur photographer on a budget looking to capture family fun, the F3 will do just fine.
One issue we continue to experience with the C3 is focus hunting during video capture, which seems to be less of a concern with this year's model. The F3 may take a second or two to make your subject sharp, but once it does, you should be able to move the camera slightly without prompting the lens to shift focus as you record a clip. We did experience some inconsistencies during still shooting, however, with the camera confirming focus and snapping a frame even though the image was completely blurred. You can work around this issue by simply forcing the F3 to refocus before pressing the shutter release the rest of the way, but it's an annoyance nonetheless.
Sony has upped the video capabilities with the F3, adding 1080/24p and 1080/60i AVCHD options, as well as a 1440 x 1080 mode in MP4.
Sony has upped the video capabilities with the F3, adding 1080/24p and 1080/60i AVCHD options, as well as a 1440 x 1080 mode in MP4. There's also a VGA capture option, though the company removed the 720p modes that we've grown to love on the NEX-C3, leaving only the aforementioned selections for HD shooting. As we've already covered, the focus hunting we experienced with the C3 appears to have been corrected here, so that should bring some relief to video shooters. Overall, video looks just fine and audio is clear, especially with the optional shotgun mic attached.
All of the NEX cameras we've used have offered excellent battery life, and that's still the case here. The F3 ships with the NP-FW50 battery pack, which offers a capacity of 1,080mAh and dates back to the very first NEX models that launched in June 2010. That means you can swap batteries and chargers with other cameras in the series, beginning with the NEX-3 and NEX-5. In fact, based on the condition of the battery that shipped with our review sample, it appears that Sony has done just that, sending on an older power pack. Despite the battery's appearance, performance didn't take a hit -- we were able to snap nearly 1,000 frames, including several multiple-exposure HDR shots with a single charge, along with more than 10 minutes of HD video.
As with the NEX-C3, image quality is in line with what you'd expect from a $600 mirrorless camera -- it's not the best we've seen, but it's far from the worst. The F3 boosts the top sensitivity from ISO 12,800 to 16,000, which should provide a negligible bump in versatility for low-light shooting. While high-sensitivity images appear with significant noise on the LCD -- perhaps as an artificial warning to rookie shooters -- the entire ISO range is perfectly usable for web placement, though you'll want to stay at ISO 3,200 or below for all your billboard-printing needs. We also didn't notice an improvement compared to the C3, so if you're looking for a reason to upgrade, that wouldn't be it.
We spent the majority of our shooting time with the F3 set to the new Superior Auto mode (more on that below), which resulted in some slightly over-saturated and contrasty images. You'll notice these throughout our samples gallery -- none of the images were modified (or even opened) in Photoshop, so any effects came directly from the camera. Generally, the ILC did an excellent job of exposing, focusing and selecting the appropriate white balance (almost all images were shot with AWB). Video also appeared natural, with acceptable exposure, color balance and sharpness.
For better of worse, the user interface has seen almost no change since last year's NEX release. The most significant settings menu addition is probably a new camera icon that more closely represents the size and shape of the F3, compared to the C3's menu, which displays a mock-up of that model instead. The lack of major UI changes means initial setup and settings adjustments will still require a bit of digging, but once you configure your three custom buttons (to control frequent settings like white balance and ISO), you'll seldom need to jump into the main menu.
There's a traditional auto mode, and then there's a super auto mode that gives the camera a bit more creative control.
Another UI addition is a second auto mode. There's the Intelligent Auto mode, which we've seen on previous NEX models, along with an additional mode called Superior Auto. According to the Sony menu description, this new option "enables a wider range of shooting settings than Intelligent Auto including automatic scene detection, auto HDR and image saving," compared to Intelligent Auto, which simply "automatically identifies the scene's characteristics and shoots a photo." So, there's a traditional auto mode, and then there's a super auto mode that gives the camera a bit more creative control.
These are in addition to the Scene Selection mode, which lets you dictate some settings, rather than leaving it up to the camera to determine that your landscape scene needs to be shot in Landscape mode. Overall, both modes worked just fine, though we'd prefer to make the call to snap a multi-frame, HDR image on our own, especially considering there's little warning from the camera beyond the clearly audible triple-fire.
There's an excellent Sony ILC priced at $600. But it's not the NEX-F3. The NEX-C3 packs nearly identical performance, but with a more compact, sleeker design and an LCD that tilts downward for overhead shooting. It doesn't include 1080p video capture or an option to shoot at ISO 16,000, but if you can get by with 720p and ISO 12,800 -- and no built-in flash -- we find little reason to skip over last year's model. If you can't get your hands on a C3, the NEX-5N would also be a solid choice, with a smaller build and comparable feature set.
If you're dying to best the C3's performance, this may be the time to exit the Sony ecosystem.
If you're dying to best the C3's performance, this may be the time to exit the Sony ecosystem. The NEX-7 is a fine shooter, but it's pricey and doesn't come without faults of its own. The Olympus E-M5 is worth considering, if incredibly speedy performance is more of a priority for you than video shooting (focus hunting is the issue there, from our experience). The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 is also a solid shooter, and we're quite fond of the matching (though pricey) 14-42mm X-series optic, thanks to its performance and compact size. That camera also includes a pop-up flash. Both the E-M5 and GX1 feature Micro Four Thirds mounts, making them compatible with dozens of lenses from a handful of manufacturers.
The NEX-F3 is an excellent mirrorless ILC, but it's not the best entry-level camera -- not even from Sony. There's little here to push us to make the jump from the company's NEX-C3, which we find to be the better option, even at the same price (we're told to expect C3 price reductions beginning next month). If you're considering picking up an F3, you'll likely be best served by the camera's predecessor, which you may even be able to pick up at a discount. Even at $600, however, we find the C3 to be the better buy, and continue to stand behind it as one of the category's top values.
Sony's NEX-F3 is one of the top buys in the mirrorless category, but it fails to best its predecessor.