The Sony NEX-3 (companion to the NEX-5), one of Sony's first entries into the compact, interchangeable, mirrorless camera market, is at every stage an exercise in “why?”
From the moment you pick up the camera, you begin to go through the catalog of questions Sony must have had when they designed the camera. Such as:
“Why can't a mirrorless camera have a sensor to match a dSLR?”
“Why don't lightweight cameras feature lenses with better construction?”
“Why are we trying to follow Canon and Nikon instead of playing to our own strengths?”
In many ways the NEX-3's design choices do create problems as fast as they solve them, but what Sony has designed is a camera that is a joy to shoot with and provides a user experience that is entirely its own, rather than a pared down version of what a dSLR might offer.
The body itself is very sturdy, which I did not expect based on the press photos I saw. I thought it would feel like cheap plastic but everything about it feels solid (though it is plastic) and lends it credibility as a durable shooter that you'll have for a while. (As a reference, the NEX-5 has a sturdy magnesium-alloy body). Even the small compartment doors housing the USB and HDMI outputs feel well-built and offer a satisfying amount of resistance.
The most dominant physical feature on the NEX-3 is clearly its lens (we're discussing the 18-55mm kit lens here). Due to its large image sensor, which is about 50 percent larger than that in comparable Micro Four Thirds-format mirrorless cameras, the lens has to be larger, and is comparable to a dSLR in terms of size, which looks odd on such a little body.
As such, this creates the most glaring issue with the NEX: where to place your hands. Using a typical dSLR grip, I found my hands crowding together. Then again, given the lack of a viewfinder, holding the camera like that may not be in line with the thinking of Sony's engineers. It turns out to be a fair trade-off though, leading to better image quality overall in a body that's significantly smaller than a traditional dSLR.
User Experience and Performance
Overall the experience of shooting with the NEX-3 falls pretty well in line with what photographers have come to expect from compact system cameras like the Olympus PEN series and Panasonic G series, but with a pleasant surprise or two, including a sleeker design and interface as well as a faster auto-focusing system.
I took the camera on a short business trip to Minneapolis in order to get a feel for how the camera performed on vacation and certainly wasn't disappointed.
The NEX-3 fit easily into my carry-on bag along with several books, springing to life at a moment's notice when I felt it appropriate or necessary to snap a picture. This was with the 18-55 kit lens and not the much thinner 16mm “pancake” kit lens (which would make it even smaller and more stowable).
The camera's battery life was sufficient for several hundred photos and some short videos based on my testing, though the review unit in question is not to my knowledge a retail version and this could be subject to change. The camera did provide one very helpful feature worth noting, as well: a readout of the actual percentage of the remaining battery life, right on the LCD. Why most other consumer devices still use a bar system, I'll never know.
I was most impressed with the camera's menu system and LCD. Sony knows that for most of the audience its looking to attract that the camera has to do more than just shoot well. It also needs to be easy to use. The menu reflects this, and it's what I've come to expect from Sony's recent products: simple but elegant, with only a few frustrating quirks to deal with.
Indeed, that menu system ends up being one of the make-or-break features on this camera. Novice and intermediate shooters stepping up from a compact camera will love it, while dSLR users will probably find it frustrating.
This is a genuinely sleek camera, much moreso than dSLRs or even competing mirrorless models. It has a streamlined, futuristic build. Everything looks gorgeous on its tilting LCD screen. And best of all, it's extremely intuitive and attractively laid out. Even novice shooters can pick it up and go – in fact, novices and intermediate shooters are the target audience for this camera. Case in point: The NEX-3 comes packed with a number of tips for shooters who are still learning the photographic ropes. While all are available through the menu, a simple press of this button and the camera will automatically present a tip that is relevant to the current shooting situation.
dSLR users might wish that the NEX-3 had an extra physical dial on the top of the camera, perhaps something customizable for times one wants to make subtle adjustments to white balance, exposure or ISO without going into the menu. But compact-camera users stepping up to a mirrorless model will find that the menu is pretty easy to operate.
The camera's autofocus system is among the fastest I've seen in a mirrorless camera, rarely having to hunt for focus in even low-light situations. I would like a few hard focus stops on the lens itself, but perhaps other E-mount lenses will support this. The kit lens has an outer metal construction, which is a pleasant surprise in a world of plastic lenses, and it maneuvers smoothly.
While the NEX-3 is a credible shooter as far as general photography goes, it certainly has its share of “wow” features as well. It borrows the iSweep Panorama mode that has become a staple in Sony's digital cameras, but also incorporates the ability to record depth information, allowing for a panoramic image to be played back in 3D (when connected to a 3D-capable Sony Bravia TV, of course).
Image QualityThe purpose of the NEX line of cameras is to take the experience and image quality of shooting with a dSLR and shrink it down to a camera that is more comfortable to carry around. This is all for nothing if the camera isn't capable of producing images on par with a dSLR.
The NEX-3 doesn't disappoint, and is capable of some pretty amazing shots given its size. Its large sensor certainly boosts its low-light performance, compared to similarly sized cameras. Images are printable up to ISO 3200, and it can push up to 6400 and 12800 when necessary (though those shots are quite noisy). The NEX also features several preset modes to assist in low light, such as high dynamic range (HDR) shooting, which combines multiple shots, taken one right after the other at slightly different exposure settings, into one good-looking image.
With the use of those specialized modes, the low-light image quality is a notch above what Micro Four-Thirds cameras can do. General image quality is about equal to those cameras (which tend to be a cut above the lowest-end dSLRs), and the Sony has excellent saturation and color rendition, solid dynamic range and absolutely minimal chromatic aberration.
The camera also has the ability to shoot video in 720p HD with true stereo sound by way of two mics placed on the top of the camera besides the camera's flash attachment. The video is comparable to a dSLR only in terms of its shallow depth of field; my tests produced only highly-compressed 9MB/s .MP4s that weren't notably better than that of the best compact cameras.
The best aspect of the NEX-3 is its sleek design and portability. It's about the same price as an entry-level dSLR, so the choice comes down to whether you want an extraordinarily thin camera that is still a very capable shooter, or if you're willing to pony up for a larger, bulkier camera with slightly better speed and image quality. (A handful of other small mirrorless cameras are also worth a look, including the Olympus E-PL1 and Panasonic G10.)
The story of the NEX-3 is its ability to take many of the features and qualities that have generally been the province of dSLR photography -- specifically sensor size -- and put them into a more compact, easier-to-use camera. While I did run into some quirks with the camera's design versus my desire to shoot as though it were truly an SLR, I found the NEX-3 to be a very beginner-friendly camera that has significant potential as a photographic tool.