Sony has really hit its stride with the latest generation of Alpha NEX mirrorless interchangeable-lens compact cameras. With a streamlined interface, small -- but not too small -- bodies, solid performance, and very good photo quality for a modest price, the consumer NEX models don't excel in any particular aspect but deliver a nice, well-rounded package for people searching for something better than a point-and shoot. The entry-level NEX-F3 isn't a drastic departure from the model it replaces, the Sony Alpha NEX-C3; it does add a built-in flash and has a slightly bulkier, more workmanlike design, plus a new sensor and metering system.
The F3's photos generally look very good, though I wish raw file support were available, because I suspect the F3's raw photos at ISO 400 look a lot better. There's a visible loss of detail in the JPEGs between ISO 200 and ISO 400. Taken at face value, however, without comparing across various sensitivities, the camera's photos are good for its price class. ISO 200 JPEGs look clean and free of artifacts, and low-light JPEGs are usable at least up through ISO 800, and depending upon their content and how you plan to display them, as high as ISO 3200. They do get pretty soft, and you can definitely see noise in flat, dark areas, but it preserves the dynamic range and white balance quite well. If you're looking for a camera with better low-light photo quality than a point-and-shoot, the NEX-F3 definitely qualifies.
|Click to view/download||ISO 100
Color and exposure look about right as well, and though there's no neutral color style the default doesn't push the saturation so much that you get hue shifts.
Video looks good as well; though there are aliasing and moiré artifacts at the best quality, in part because it's interlaced rather than progressive, in dim and dark lighting there's surprisingly little noise. In decent light it's fairly flat and soft, but it's still far better than what comes out of.
While the F3 is generally pretty fast and an overall improvement over the C3, it can also be irksomely inconsistent. It's relatively slow to wake, taking 1.6 seconds to power on, focus, and shoot. That's assuming you haven't used an unfamiliar SD card; Sony's cameras automatically begin a Create Image Database cycle when you insert the card, which can get downright annoying.
By the numbers, the shot lag looks really good: only 0.3 second to focus and shoot in bright light and 0.4 second in low-contrast light. In practice, low-light autofocus can be iffy. As with other consumer NEX models, if it's having trouble focusing in low light it will automatically jump to wide-area AF, which embraces the entire scene, and you may end up with a focus lock, but on the wrong subject. And with some lenses -- the mediocre 50mm f1.8, for example -- it frequently hunts without locking. During video capture, the continous autofocus pulses a bit as well, even on a still subject.
At 0.7 second, it matches its peers on shot-to-shot speeds, and the flash recycles pretty quickly, adding only about 0.1 second to the sequential shooting overhead. Continuous shooting is a bit sluggish, but overall the camera should be able to keep up with a toddler in bright sunlight.
Design and features
Though it's a little bigger and heavier than the C3, I nevertheless like the extra bulk of the F3. It's got a deeper grip, for one thing, which makes it easier to shoot single-handed. The body's made of polycarbonate, and feels a little cheaper than previous models, but it still feels pretty well-constructed.
On top are a redesigned power switch, a newly added built-in pop-up flash, and a covered accessory connector for add-ons like a microphone. As on Panasonic's ILCs, the flash can be tilted backward for bounced indirect lighting in order to produce a much better shot. The movie record and playback buttons sit behind the power switch on the angled edge of the back. There's a lip around the record button to prevent accidental pressing, but I find it makes it annoyingly difficult to stop and start video.