Not ready to buy?
Despite having a rather odd progression in model names, the Sony Alpha NEX-F3 ($599.99 direct with 18-55mm lens) is the direct successor to our Editors' Choice Sony Alpha NEX-C3 ($649.99, 4.5 stars). Like its predecessor, the F3 sports a 16-megapixel APS-C image sensor that delivers top-notch images in challenging light, and can focus and fire off images with impressive speed. It adds a built-in flash, an LCD that tilts all the way to face the front of the camera, and support for the FDAEV1S Electronic Viewfinder ($349.99), and in doing so wrangles our Editors' Choice award for entry-level compact interchangeable lens cameras away from the NEX-C3.
Design and Features
Taking many of its design cues from the NEX-C3, the NEX-F3 sports a deeper grip, like the one found on the mid-range NEX-5N ($699.99, 4.5 stars). It's a bit larger and heavier than either camera, measuring 2.6 by 4.6 by 1.7 inches and weighing 11.1 ounces without a lens. (The NEX-5N is 2.4 by 4.4 by 1.6 inches, 9.5 ounces.) The rear LCD tilts, but unlike other NEX cameras, it can face all the way to the front for self portraits. When placed in that position it automatically activates a 3-second self timer and flips the image horizontally, so that you get the natural feeling of looking in a mirror. Of course, once the actual photo is taken it is saved to the memory card in a normal orientation. The front-facing capability does have a cost. The downward tilt, which is useful when taking shots with the camera above your head, is not as deep as in other models, and if you opt to use the EVF, it blocks a good portion of the view when the LCD faces front.
The larger body also makes room for a built-in flash. It's identical to the one found on the pro-level Sony Alpha NEX-7 ($1,349.99, 4.5 stars), and is hinged so that you can bounce light off of a ceiling to add softer illumination to a scene.
Despite being small for an interchangeable lens camera, the NEX-F3 packs an APS-C image sensor—the same size found in most D-SLRs. Compact systems cameras that use smaller sensors, like the Nikon J1 ($649.95, 3.5 stars) and the Olympus PEN E-PL3 ($699.99, 3.5 stars) have smaller lenses since the physical area that needs to be covered with light isn't as great, but they sacrifice some of the ability to create shallow depth of field. The 18-55mm (27-82mm equivalent) zoom lens included with the F3 isn't quite as large as a typical D-SLR kit zoom, but it's pretty close.
One area in which Micro Four Thirds trumps the NEX system is lens availability—Sony has released a number of lenses for NEX cameras in the past year, but it still lags behind the Micro Four Thirds library. The NEX system currently lacks a fast f/1.4 lens, and the longest telephoto optic only reaches 210mm.
Aside from its new hinge mechanism, the rear LCD is unchanged from the NEX-C3. It's a 3-inch display with a 921k-dot resolution and a 16:9 aspect ratio. The Live View frame is justified left, while a strip to the right displays the current function of the camera's programmable controls. You can customize three soft keys to suit your needs. My typical configuration is to set the bottom button as a focus assist, as I often use manual focus lenses with the NEX system, and I set the center button to bring up the Shooting Mode menu and use the right button to adjust ISO. In addition to the programmable controls, the camera has dedicated buttons for Drive Mode, EV Compensation, playback, and movie recording.
The menu system is vast and sprawling. Thankfully, once you have the camera configured to your liking you won't have to spend too much time adjusting things, but you may find yourself scratching your head in order to locate specific settings. Hitting Menu on the back of the camera brings up six options: Shoot Mode, Camera, Image Size, Brightness/Color, Playback, and Setup. If you can remember that Focus options are in Camera, Exposure controls in Brightness/Color, and any sort of customization options are in Setup, you should be good to go.
Auto Portrait Framing and Clear Image Zoom options are both located in the Camera menu, but are only active if you're shooting in JPG mode. The former works automatically, saving a cropped version of a portrait alongside your original shot—both in full 16-megapixel resolution. You'll have to activate Clear Image Zoom, which effectively doubles the focal length of your lens via an in-camera crop, although it can be programmed as a soft key function. Unlike traditional cropping, the image is saved as a full-resolution file, with some in-camera interpolation to better preserve detail. It isn't as sharp as with a telephoto lens, but if you're a JPG shooter and don't plan on making large prints, there is absolutely no reason not to use the function to increase the reach of your lens—the resulting files will be more than adequate for online sharing, and will retain enough detail for printing in, say, a photo book.
Performance and Conclusions
The NEX-F3 can start and grab a shot in about 1.3 seconds, records a 0.2-second shutter lag, and can record about 5 frames per second in its Speed Priority continuous drive mode. In very dim light, it does take a bit longer to lock focus, about 2.1 seconds in our lab tests. It can keep up the fast shooting pace for about 8 photos when shooting in Raw format, but does better in JPG, where it can grab 15 photos before slowing down. If you need to shoot for a longer burst than that, you can keep holding down the shutter button—when using a SanDisk 95MBps SDXC card, JPG capture slows to about 0.4-second between shots.
Speed Priority locks focus and exposure, but the camera does have a standard Continuous Drive mode for those times when you want the it to refocus with every shot—it can manage image capture at 3 frames per second. The camera's autofocus is speedy and accurate enough for most situations, but the F3 did struggle a bit when trying to keep up with fast sports action—that's a job for which a D-SLR is still the best tool. In terms of pure shot-to-shot speed, the Samsung NX200 ($899.99, 3.5 stars), another APS-C mirrorless camera, does a better job—it can shoot at 6.7 frames per second, but can only keep that pace up for 11 shots.
I used Imatest to test the sharpness of images shot with the included 18-55mm kit lens, and the results were not at all surprising. The NEX-F3 uses the same lens and sensor as the NEX-C3, and as such produces similar results. At 18mm the lens scores 1,748 lines per picture height at its maximum aperture, which is just shy of the 1,800 lines required for a sharp photo. Stopping down from f/3.5 to f/5.6 increases the score to 1,921 lines. At 35mm the lens does better, notching 1,853 lines at f/4.5, and scores almost exactly 1,800 lines at 55mm f/5.6. The lens is adequately sharp, and its aperture matches that of other lenses in its class. It does struggle a bit with barrel distortion at its widest setting—it introduces 4.3 percent distortion into photos, which can make straight lines curve like the ribs of a barrel. Sharpness and distortion are two areas in which cameras with smaller Micro Four Thirds sesnors have a leg up—the 14-42mm (28-84mm equivalent) lens included with the Olympus E-PM1 ($499.99, 4 stars) notches 2,186 lines at its widest setting and records only 1.7 percent distortion.
Noise, on the other hand, is where a larger image sensor can shine. Like the NEX-C3, the F3 can capture photos with less than 1.5 percent noise through ISO 6400. Impressively, it does so without sacrificing too much image detail—although JPG photos at ISO 3200 do appear noticeably sharper. Enthusiasts who shoot in Raw will be able to squeeze a bit more out of the ISO 6400 files, but understand that going any higher than that will significantly hurt photo quality, regardless of the file format in which you shoot. To compare with a camera with a smaller sensor, the Micro Four Thirds Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 ($599.99, 3.5 stars) can only keep image noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 400.
The NEX-F3 also improves upon the C3's video quality. It can record 1080i60 or 1080p24 video in AVCHD format, whereas its predecessor was limited to 720p MP4 video. The camera supports autofocus during recording, and thankfully the sound of the lens refocusing is not overbearing on the soundtrack. Sony has addressed a major user complaint in terms of video recording—the button that activates the function now has a rim around it, making it harder to trigger accidentally. Unlike other NEX cameras, the F3 doesn't include a battery charger. You'll have to plug the camera directly into the wall, via the included micro USB cable and AC adapter, in order to charge it. This is a more compact solution, but you'll probably want to purchase a dedicated charger if you opt to purchase an extra battery or two. In addition to micro USB, the F3 also includes a mini HDMI port for HDTV connectivity. It can use SD, SDHC, SDXC, Memory Stick Pro Duo, and Memory Stick Pro-HG Duo cards.
The NEX-F3 manages to take almost everything that was good about the NEX-C3 and either improve upon it or maintain it—all at a lower price. The ability to add an EVF is a boon to more serious shooters, and the built-in flash can be used at the touch of a button, but is hinged so that it can be tilted up to add softer illumination to a scene. The camera is not without its flaws—it doesn't ship with a dedicated battery charger, it's autofocus isn't quite up to the task of shooting sports and other very fast action, and I'd gladly sacrifice the front-facing LCD in order to retain the downward tilt, but shooters who are more likely to turn the lens towards their own faces will undoubtedly fall in love with that feature. The Micro Four Thirds system presents more native lenses, which could steer you to a capable shooter like the Olympus E-PL3. Still, it's rare that you can find a camera that delivers the ease of use that casual snapshooters are after and the image quality and performance that for which enthusiast strive. When you put it all together, the NEX-F3 is an easy Editors' Choice for entry-level compact interchangeable lens cameras.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.