I've recommended Sony's NEX cameras to a lot of people over the last year or so. The NEX-7 is too expensive for most people, but the NEX-C3 and NEX-5N are relatively inexpensive cameras that offer big APS-C sensors, interchangeable lenses, and a lot of nifty features and functionality. To anyone looking for something better than an iPhone or a point-and-shoot but without the size or expenditure associated with a DSLR, the NEX cameras have been a perfect fit.
The NEX-F3 is the successor to last year's C3, and takes over the bottom spot in the NEX lineup. It's the same price as the C3 — $599.99 with an 18-55mm kit lens — but it offers some nice upgrades over last year's model: it records 1080p video, has a great tilting LCD that even lets you shoot self-portraits, and has upgraded internals that should make the 16-megapixel shooter faster and better than ever. Of course, the NEX-5N offers some additional features like a touchscreen and more video recording options, but it's also $100 more expensive. (There's also the excellent NEX-7, but it's playing in a whole different league.)
Competition is stiff and getting stiffer, though, as Olympus and Panasonic's lineups of Micro Four Thirds cameras continue to get better and cheaper. Sony's been our favorite "small camera, big sensor" choice for a while — does the NEX-F3 continue the trend? Let's find out.
Hardware / design
Some NEX-7, some NEX-C3
The NEX-F3 essentially looks like Sony glued a lens onto a point-and-shoot camera. The 4.6 x 2.6-inch body isn't pocket friendly (and it becomes even less so when you attach a lens onto the front), but it'll slide into a bag or backpack without weighing you down. There's a reason for the extra girth, though: Sony beefed up the NEX-F3's grip a lot, so it's really easy to hold and use in one hand. Cameras this small are often harder to hold than bigger, heavier DSLRs because they don't have much of a grip, so I'll take a little more weight for the extra security in my hand.
One look around the camera is enough to make clear that the NEX-F3 isn't designed to be a DSLR-like shooter, no matter how big its sensor. There aren't many buttons or controls, and even some of the common point-and-shoot decorations (like a Mode dial) aren't here. There's a power switch on the top, along with an accessory port (hidden underneath a plastic flap) and a pop-up flash plus the flash release. The flash is the same one as the NEX-7, and is similarly great: you can point it up or down and bounce it at almost any angle, meaning you're not left choosing between blasting flash at your subjects or shooting overly dark photos. Down on a small ledge below the top of the camera is the shutter button, nestled comfortably where your right index finger can access it.
The lack of buttons will either be refreshing or frustrating
The back of the NEX-F3 has a playback button next to an awkwardly difficult-to-press one for quickly starting a video recording, plus two function buttons, and a scroll wheel. That's really it. It's among the most sparing set of controls I've ever seen on a camera over about $200, and it means you'll be hugely reliant on the screen and menu system as you use the NEX-F3.
This may sound odd, but my favorite new feature of the NEX-F3 might be its charger. Rather, the fact that it doesn't need one — the camera charges via its micro USB port. You don't need to lug around a giant charger, or take the battery out to charge it and then have to remember to grab it before you go to use the camera again.
Display and interface
Sony's trying to teach you how to use a camera
Sony smartly acknowledges you'll be spending a lot of time looking at the 3-inch LCD on the back of the NEX-F3, so the company made it one of the camera's highlight features. It's filled with a super-sharp 921,000 dots, and more importantly is very accurate. I've made no attempt to hide my love for optical viewfinders, and I'm primarily a fan because I hate when I see one thing through the EVF or LCD, and then the shot I take has different colors or different exposure. With the NEX-F3, though, what you see is much closer to what you get.
The LCD also tilts up 180 degrees and down a bit as well, a nice improvement over the C3. Whether you want to hold the camera at your waist or over your head to get just the right shot, you can tilt the display and still be able to see it perfectly; it doesn't tilt quite as far down as it does up, though, so your mileage might vary. You can also flip it all the way up and point it at your subject. If you do decide to take a self-portrait, the camera will actually flip the shot around and display the frame as if you're looking in a mirror. (Once it takes the shot, it displays the frame properly.) The F3 also activates a three-second timer when the LCD is facing forward — you've never taken better self-portraits than with the NEX-F3. The screen isn't very bright by default, and in direct sunlight it's almost impossible to see; you can change its brightness in settings, and you should, but don't forget to change it back since the extra-bright screen will absolutely destroy the NEX-F3's battery life.
The NEX user interface hasn't changed much over the last few years. Since most cameras have gray-on-gray, text-heavy menu systems, Sony's colorful icon-based interface is a definite breath of fresh air, though I'm not sure it works better in practice than the more boring options. The grid of icons is perfectly suited to a touchscreen, as is the on-screen mode dial; when you're using a dial to scroll anyway, it might just be easier to have everything in a single column, pretty or not.
That said, the interface is fairly intuitive and simple. "Shoot Mode" is the first option in the intial menu, and it's basically just the mode dial. Sony's organization of features is pretty smart, too: the most-used settings are available in the Camera menu, and things are laid out in a way that will make sense to everyone. Make no mistake, though: operating the NEX-F3 is much slower and more cumbersome than a button-heavy device like the Olympus OM-D E-M5, or even Sony's own NEX-7, which uses two unmarked scroll wheels to control anything and everything. If you mostly shoot in Auto, that won't be a problem — and people who shoot in Auto are definitely the target market for this camera – but for anything programmed or manual, controlling the camera gets really clunky.
Every setting and option tries to be helpful and teach you about itself, sometimes to a fault. If you're in shutter mode, an icon depicting a running person tells you that if you want to shoot moving subjects, you should turn up the shutter speed; if your subject is standing still like the other icon, you can turn it down. Every menu option explains itself, often with an annoying overlay. It's a great way to learn a camera, but if you have any experience at all you'll probably tire of all the hand-holding and wish for a more sparing interface.
Since most NEX-F3 buyers are likely to be upgrading from a point-and-shoot, Sony outfitted the camera with most of the features, filters, and modes you'd find on a compact shooter. The requisite scene modes get their own space on the virtual mode dial, and as you scroll through them Sony explains each one and what it's really for. Filters are a little more buried, accessible only when you're in Auto mode. There are about a dozen different filters available, from Black & White to Toy Mode to a few really cool single-color modes that shoot everything in black and white except for the hue you specify. They've all been around in the NEX line, and they're handy ways to make your photos a little more fun. (Whether it makes them better or worse, I leave up to you.) Sony's cool Sweep Panorama mode is available on the F3 as well, as is the 3D Sweep Panorama.
One of the things Sony does that's really smart is give you a lot of manual controls, without making them feel like manual controls. In Auto, you can quickly change how soft or sharp you want the background to be, without need to know it's called depth of field. You can change the color temperature without knowing it's called white balance, or tweak a frame's brightness without worrying about ISO or exposure. It's yet another way of giving you artistic control without forcing you to learn a bunch of camera jargon.
If all these options still sound like a lot to remember and deal with, you can just use Sony's new Super Auto mode. Basically, Superior Auto takes standard Auto — automatically setting shutter speed, ISO, and aperture — and adds on a bunch of options, so that the NEX-F3 can do things like enter HDR mode while in Auto. It does a lot to help novice users take great pictures without having to know what HDR means, but it can get confusing — HDR takes three pictures at once before merging them, and if you don't know it's coming you won't know to keep the camera steady for three frames.
Image and video quality
Image quality is the product of a lot of different parts and processes, but three things matter most: the camera's sensor, processor, and lens. That the Sony NEX-F3 has an updated 16.1-megapixel APS-C sensor isn't as important as it once was, but it still means the camera's capable of shooting better, more versatile pictures than a point-and-shoot. Processor power is incredibly important, too — more so than ever — and the Bionz processor powering the NEX-F3 does a lot to help with noise reduction, applying filters, and speeding up shooting. Sony's lens ecosystem is still small (though the company's committed to growing it), but the lenses are generally really high quality.
It all adds up to generally solid images from the NEX-F3. Photos are impressively sharp throughout the image, even with the kit lens — a lot of cameras and kit lenses produce images that get softer as you move toward the corners, but the NEX-C3 is nicely uniform in that regard. Photos are really detailed and colors are impressively accurate — red strawberries look as juicy and delicious in photos as they do in real life.
A step up from a point-and-shoot, but not DSLR quality
Dynamic range is the only letdown, but it's a big one. If you're shooting in Auto, and come across a scene with wide ranges in lighting — some parts of the shot are bright, some a little darker — highlights always get blown out. In fact, the brightest part of nearly every shot I took was blown out, occasionally to the point where the whole photo appears overexposed. You can fix a lot of this by shooting in Manual or a priority mode, but I'd wager most NEX-F3 buyers aren't going to be comfortable doing that.
Focusing is sharp and accurate, but it can be infuriatingly slow and inconsistent. The F3 frequently took a half-second or more to lock focus, and frequently seemed to rack past the correct point, and then come back. It also hunts and guesses a lot, so if you frame the exact same photo three times and half-press the shutter, you might focus on three different spots. It's most problematic when you're trying to shoot a moving target, or a bunch of shots at once — it's just inconsistent whether or not your subject's actually going to be sharp and clear.
The F3 shoots 1080p video at 24 frames per second, a big upgrade over the 720p capabilities of the C3 — though oddly you can't shoot 720p video on the F3 anymore, so if you'd rather shoot 720p30 and get smaller sizes and higher fps, you're stuck with the C3. 1080p video looks really good, smooth and clear with great detail. Autofocus performance hurts here too, though: the F3 still hunts around a bit, and it focuses suddenly rather than smoothly, so you really notice every time it changes.
Performance and battery life
The NEX-F3's flawed autofocus system makes the camera feel slow at points, but the Bionz processor inside the camera actually powers it quite well. The F3 will turn on and take a shot in an average of 2.1 seconds, and even in single-shot mode can capture a photo about every half-second. There's virtually no shutter lag, as long as you half-press to focus before you try to snap a picture.
Reviewing photos or navigating through menus is really fast, too — even spinning quickly through aperture stops or shutter speeds, the NEX-F3 always kept up. The only bit of lag I noticed was when I tried to start recording a video: it would occasionally take a couple of seconds to switch modes and start shooting, though more often it happened in about a second.
Every NEX camera I've used has had excellent battery life, and the F3 continues the trend: it lasted about 600 shots and nearly 20 minutes of 1080p video before dying. Plus, since the camera charges via Micro USB and thus doesn't require a giant extra charging brick, charging the F3 isn't such a chore. The battery drains considerably faster if you crank up the screen's brightness, which as I mentioned you'll definitely need to do whenever you use the camera outdoors.
Autofocus problems slow a fast camera
The NEX-F3 takes elements of the NEX-C3, 5N, and 7, and turns it into a great camera for anyone stepping up from a point-and-shoot. Its pictures and video both leave something to be desired from an APS-C camera, but quality is certainly a level above anything you'll get from a point-and-shoot. The NEX-5N is slightly faster and offers better video recording options and a touchscreen, but the F3 keeps most of the rest of the 5N's features and performance, and adds a roomy grip and a great pop-up flash. The self-portrait features are more gimmicky than useful, but the tilting LCD is a great feature.
If you've never owned a DSLR and don't know bracketing from ISO, the NEX-F3 is a great choice. It's neither powerful enough nor malleable enough for an experienced shooter, but if you're looking to step up from a point-and-shoot to a camera you can grow into with lenses and accessories, it's hard to go wrong with any of Sony's NEX cameras. There are a handful of great Micro Four Thirds cameras, plus a large and thriving lens ecosystem, but the price of entry there tends to be much higher. Samsung also (somewhat quietly) makes a viable competitor to the NEX cameras with its NX series, and the NX1000 appears to be worth a look.
It's also worth mentioning that the NEX-C3 is still a great camera, and can likely be found for considerably less than $599.99 now that the F3 is out — if you can do without 1080p video and the awesome flash, it might be a better option. As far as bang for your buck, though, for $599.99 the NEX-F3 is still hard to beat.
Compare this: Sony NEX-F3 vs. Sony NEX-5N, NEX-C3, and more!