When I first picked up Sony’s new NEX-F3, I could only wonder whether its sensors would be dynamic enough to capture the giant chip on my shoulder.
The camera is aimed squarely at what I think of as the purgatory market; “compact” with interchangeable lenses and mirrorless shutter. That’s all code for not big enough to perform like an SLR, but too big to conveniently tuck into a pocket. In other words, what’s the point?
However, after taking the NEX-F3 on a weekend hiking trip the Big Sur, my snobbish dismissiveness shifted to pleasant surprise. The pictures were sharp, balanced and colorful, and were captured with little effort. The light meter was sensitive and on the mark, and the lens and sensor proved capable of balancing a surprisingly wide range of contrasts, capturing the deep shadows of a redwood forest without blowing out its sun-drenched hot spots.
1080p HD video isn’t exactly rare, but the NEX-F3’s manual control of zoom and exposure while recording live footage turn it into a powerful, palm-sized legitimate movie camera. The swappable lenses — and their fully functional manual focus rings — were enough to quench the thirst left by even the best pocket-camera zooms.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised — on paper, the NEX-F3 has all the right credentials. It boasts a 16.1 megapixel APS-C sensor, which means you can order vacation prints wide enough to span your dining room wall and still get a decent sense of detail and sharpness. The ISO range maxes out at 16000 — more than you need unless you like to replicate the look of a closed-circuit security camera in a dimly lit hallway — and the digital shutter will close at a zippy 1/4000th of a second. It will shoots up to six frames per second, supports RAW files and weighs less than 14 ounces with the included 27-83mm-equivalent E-mount zoom lens.
As long as the basic parameters for an up-to-date, technologically capable camera are met, though — and they certainly are — none of that spec sheet stuff matters more than what the camera feels like to handle and to shoot with. Out of the box, the NEX-F3 was lighter than I expected, but a little awkward to hold. It’s got an articulated grip that’s too small to rest in my palm and yet too heavy to pinch between my thumb and fingers, especially when I mounted a longer, 80-200mm barrel zoom. When I found the right hand position, my thumb banged belligerently all over the array of controls on the camera’s back.
On the trail, this gave me trouble. I couldn’t stop hitting the sensitive joystick-like button, or forgetting which way I wanted to tap it for the desired effect. To go one step down in shutter speed, do I click to the right, or down? Oops. Suddenly, I was changing the shooting mode or trying to exit the auto-bracketed self-timer mode I had inadvertently selected. That’s the double-edged sword of having one unavoidably positioned button do everything, and it would have been prohibitively annoying if the pictures themselves hadn’t turned out so well.
Compared side by side with photos from my favorite semi-pro point-and-shoot, the Sony’s output was crisper and more saturated. When I used the flash — or automatic exposure — the NEX-F3 balanced color and tone better than any camera of its class. My preferred mode for capturing natural light, and for judging any camera’s true potential, is to shoot manually. The Sony’s manual mode was impressive not just for stills, but for the full control it offers when shooting movies, too.
I like the barrel lenses. They give a little of a feel of a solid semi-pro camera. But I found myself wishing I could adjust the aperture on the lens barrel, too, instead of flipping into the electronic menu on the joystick. Again, awkwardly straddling two worlds of photography. And though the generous LCD screen is great for previewing manual exposure experiments, in the brightness of day, it was virtually impossible to see. The electronic viewfinder — sold separately — proved essential.
I had the most fun with this camera’s bells and whistles. The flip-up adjustable display screen can be moved a full 180 degrees until it’s facing right back at you. When in this position, the camera automatically flips your image right side up, so it’s like looking in the mirror: easy for self portraits, which is why it’s been fondly dubbed the “narcissist effect.” The pop-up flash is also hinged, so with a little dexterity, I could redirect it for softer lighting or bounce-flash effects.
That said, other features of the NEX-F3 proved useless, or were downright goofy.
There’s an auto-panorama mode that should be cool, but it annoyingly makes repeated shutter sounds as if you’re running a motor drive. Also, I kept getting error messages warning me to pan the camera faster… er, wait, slower. Fail.
A series of funny filters can process images in camera. There’s a retro filter aimed at the Instagram crowd, and even a skin-softening air brush effect to remove pimples and skin creases like a Cosmopolitan touch-up job. I tried it on my abs, but still no six-pack. Another fail.
The bottom line is that the NEX-F3 is a superb entry-level camera for photographers looking to break out of point-and-shoot mode but who aren’t quite ready to splurge on — or shoulder the weight of — a more robust camera.