Sony Alpha NEX-3
A sister model to Sony’s NEX-5 interchangeable-lens camera with the ability to record 720p HD video clips with stereo soundtracks.The main difference between Sony’s NEX-3 and the more expensive NEX-5 model we reviewed in June lies in the video recording system. Whereas the NEX-5 uses the AVCHD format and can record Dolby Digital soundtracks, the NEX-3 uses the less efficient MP4 compression system for video and MPEG-4 AAC-LC for audio. The NEX-5 is also Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) compliant while top video resolution for the NEX-3 is 1280 x 720 pixels. . . [more]
The main difference between Sony’s NEX-3 and the more expensive NEX-5 model we reviewed in June lies in the video recording system. Whereas the NEX-5 uses the AVCHD format and can record Dolby Digital soundtracks, the NEX-3 uses the less efficient MP4 compression system for video and MPEG-4 AAC-LC for audio. The NEX-5 is also Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) compliant while top video resolution for the NEX-3 is 1280 x 720 pixels.
Colour options are different for each camera; the NEX-3 is offered in silver, black, red and white, while the NEX-5 only comes in black or silver. The NEX-5 can also be used with the optional RMT-DSLR1 Wireless Remote Commander, while the NEX-3 can’t.
Build and Ergonomics
The NEX-3 is marginally longer and taller than the NEX-5 and also 10 grams heavier. Otherwise the two cameras have identical specifications. Consequently, all the comments we made in our review of the NEX-5 apply to the NEX-3. Click HERE to link to the NEX-5 review.
Front view of the NEX-3 in red with the lens removed to show the APS-C sized sensor. (Source: Sony.)
Rear view of the NEX-3 showing the widescreen LCD monitor and dearth of button controls. (Source: Sony.)
Rear view of the NEX-3 in silver, showing the adjustable monitor screen. (Source: Sony.)
The monitor in use. (Source: Sony.)
Top view of the NEX-3 in silver. (Source: Sony.)
The twin lens kit. (Source: Sony.)
Anyone who purchases one of Sony’s NEX cameras needs to base their choice on the importance of video to their usage. If the camera will be used mainly for shooting stills, you may as well opt for the cheaper NEX-3 model, whereas users who place a high importance on recording Full HD video will be better off with the NEX-5.
The same dedicated Movie button engages the video mode in both cameras – and it’s easy to press it inadvertently when the camera is switched on. The default resolution for the NEX-3 is 1280 x 720 pixels and all clips are recorded in the MPEG-4 format using H.264 compression with a frame rate of approximately 25 frames/second. Soundtracks are recorded in the AAC audio format. Use of H.264 compression limits playback to devices that support this codec.
The bit rate of MPEG-4 is less than that of AVCHD, which means you require more storage capacity. It also varies with different image quality and resolution settings, as shown in the table below.
Average bit rate
Capacity on 4GB card
1280 x 720 Pixels
Recording quality is suitable for viewing on a high-definition TV set.
1280 x 720 Pixels
640 x 480 pixels
Records at a usable size for web uploads.
As with the NEX-5, shooting video clips is only possible with auto exposure and the camera restricts the range of adjustments you can make. You can’t adjust lens apertures, shutter speeds or sensitivity settings and the AF area is non adjustable – although the autofocusing system continues to operate. Manual focusing is also possible but focus-assist magnification isn’t available.
An HDMI cable (not supplied) is required to view movies recorded with the NEX-3 on a TV set. This will cost around $50. The NEX-3 is also compatible with the PhotoTV HD standard, which supports the highest quality playback of still images as slideshows. Owners of Sony’s BRAVIA TV sets may also be able to control certain functions of the camera via the TV remote control using an HDMI cable plus BRAVIA Synch.
Both the NEX-3 and NEX-5 are supplied with a tiny external flash unit that attaches to the Smart Accessory Terminal on the camera’s top panel. It has a guide number of 7 (metres at ISO 100) and covers a wide enough angle of view to be usable with lenses out to 16mm. We were unable to test this flash with the NEX-5 but, fortunately one was included with the NEX-3.
To attach the flash you must lift the plastic accessory terminal cover by sliding the tip of a fingernail into the tiny slot on its leading edge. The cover lifts backwards and is tethered by two flexible plastic straps. Between the strap anchor points is a slot, which the connector plugs into, drawing power from the camera’s battery and providing P-TTL metering support.
A lift-up hatch on the back of the flash reveals a thumb screw, which is used to secure the flash in position. It’s a rather clumsy solution theat makes the flash fiddly to fit and the accessory panel cover sits proud of the rear of the flash. The flash can be tilted upwards through approximately 30 degrees.
With the flash in place you can’t attach other accessories, such as the optical viewfinder for the 16mm pancake lens or an external microphone. The camera offers five flash modes: off, auto-flash, fill-flash, slow synch and rear synch. But they aren’t all available for all shooting modes.
For example, in iAuto mode the flash can only be set to off or auto-flash. Neither of these modes is available with the A, S and M exposure modes. Flash use is also incompatible with the multi-shot Anti Motion Blur, Sweep Panorama and Handheld Twilight modes – nor with the Night View scene mode or continuous bracketing and movie recording.
Since both cameras have identical sensors and we used the same E 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 (SEL1855) zoom lens for our tests with the NEX-3, it’s not surprising we obtained similar results with most of our tests. Where variations occurred, they fell within the parameters you might expect with manufacturing tolerances.
Test shots straight out of the camera appeared slightly soft and required a little unsharp masking to make them look attractive. JPEG images appeared slightly less contrasty and saturated than we found with similar shots taken with the NEX-5 we reviewed. However, this wasn’t reflected in our Imatest tests, which showed JPEG saturation as high as we commonly see in small-sensor digicams.
The review camera’s metering system was better balanced towards the centre of the subject brightness range. Consequently, blown-out highlights occurred less frequently than we found with the NEX-5 we reviewed.
Imatest showed the review camera to be almost capable of the resolution you would expect from a 14-megapixel camera when JPEG files were evaluated and slightly above expectations for ARW.RAW files. As with the NEX-5, resolution remained high throughout the camera’s sensitivity range, with gradual decline from ISO 1600 on. The graph below shows the results of our tests.
Low light performance was as good as we found with the NEX-5 and little noise was visible in long exposures right up to ISO 3200. Noise was also well controlled at higher sensitivities, although shots taken at ISO 12,800 could only produce noise-free prints up to snapshot size.
Flash exposures showed a little less noise than the long exposures. The supplied flash unit was capable of illuminating an average-sized room at ISO settings of 800 and above. However, we noticed some minor inconsistencies in flash exposures across the sensitivity range.
Digital zoom shots were just as artefact-affected as we found with the NEX-5. Close-up shooting was limited by the focusing range of the lens and the Macro scene mode was required to achieve the minimum focusing distance with the supplied zoom lens, which delivered attractive bokeh at wide aperture settings.
Auto white balance performance was slightly better under fluorescent lighting than we found with the NEX-5. However incandescent lighting produced similar results, with a noticeable orange colour cast in test shots. We also obtained similar results with the camera’s multi-shot modes.
HD video clips were slightly less saturated than the clips we shot with the NEX-5, although VGA clips showed normal saturation levels. Fortunately, both HD and VGA clips looked quite sharp for their formats when displayed on a computer monitor and a widescreen TV set.
Autofocusing was reasonably fast, given the camera’s contrast-based AF system, and the AF tracking system worked well. Soundtracks were clearly recorded, although we found the same problems with the camera recording a click at the start and end of each clip.
The review camera took just over a second to power-up ready for shooting. Shot-to-shot times averaged 2.2 seconds, with or without flash. We measured an average capture lag of 0.25 seconds, which was eliminated by pre-focusing.
It was difficult to tell how long it took to process image files because the NEX-3 lacks an indicator light to show when processing is completed. However, on the basis of the time taken to display the captured image, we estimate each shot took approximately 3.6 seconds to process, regardless of whether it was in JPEG, ARW.RAW or RAW+JPEG format.
In the normal continuous shooting mode, the review camera recorded10 JPEG images in 3.1 seconds. It took three seconds to complete the processing of this burst. The Speed Priority burst mode recorded 10 frames in 1.2 seconds and processed them in 3.7 seconds.
Switching to raw file capture with the normal continuous mode enabled the camera to capture seven ARW.RAW frames in 2.8 seconds. It took approximately 4.4 seconds to process this burst. For RAW+JPEG continuous capture, the review camera only managed eight frames in 2.7 seconds before slowing noticeably. It took approximately 6.5 seconds to process this burst.
With the Speed Priority mode, only seven ARW.RAW frames and RAW+JPEG pairs could be recorded per burst. Each burst covered 0.8 seconds, with the raw burst taking approximately 4.4 seconds and the RAW+JPEG burst 6.8 seconds to process.
Buy this camera if:
– You’re looking for a compact, large-sensor interchangeable-lens camera with PASM shooting modes plus support for raw file capture.
– You prefer shooting with automated exposure control settings.
– You would enjoy the multi-shot modes this camera provides.
Don’t buy this camera if:
– You require high burst capacity at high resolution.
– You require quick access to key camera settings.
– You want an optical viewfinder and built-in flash.
– You require Full HD video recording.
ARW.RAW images converted in Sony Image Data Converter.
Auto white balance with incandescent lighting.
Auto white balance with fluorescent lighting.
30-second exposure at ISO 200; 24mm focal length, f/4.
8-second exposure at ISO 3200; 24mm focal length, f/5.6.
3.2-second exposure at ISO 12800; 24mm focal length, f/7.1.
Flash exposure at ISO 200; 55mm focal length, 1/100 second at f/5.6.
Flash exposure at ISO 3200; 55mm focal length, 1/100 second at f/5.6.
Flash exposure at ISO 12800; 55mm focal length, 1/100 second at f/5.6.
Macro scene mode; 55mm focal length, ISO 250, 1/100 second at f/5.6.
Macro scene mode; 18mm focal length, ISO 200, 1/125 second at f/5.6.
Attractive bokeh in a close-up shot taken with the 55mm focal length setting on the review lens; ISO 500, 1/100 second at f/5.6.
Still frame from an HD video clip showing reduced saturation.
Still frame from an HD video clip of a subject with a wide brightness range.
Still frame from a VGA video clip.
Still frame from a VGA video clip of a subject with a wide brightness range.
Image sensor: 23.4 x 15.6 mm Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor with 14.6 million photosites (14.2 megapixels effective)
A/D processing: 12-bit
Lens mount: Sony E-mount (accepts Sony α lenses via LA-EA1 lens adaptor)
Focal length crop factor: 1.5x
Digital zoom: Up to 10x
Image formats: Stills – RAW (ARW 2.2), JPEG (Exif 2.3), RAW+JPEG, Fine & Standard compression; Movies – MPEG-4 AVC.H264 (MP4/AAC)
Image Sizes: Stills – 3:2 aspect : 4592 x 3056 , 3344 x 2224, 2288 x 1520; 16:9 aspect: 4592 x 2576, 3344 z 1872, 2288 x 1280; Movies: HD: 1280 x 720 and 640 x 480 at approx. 25 fps
Image Stabilisation: 6-image layering plus lens-based Optical Steady Shot
Dust removal: Coating on low pass filter, plus image-sensor shift
Shutter speed range: 1/4000 to 30 seconds, plus Bulb; flash synch at 1/160 sec.
Exposure Compensation: +/- 2EV in 1/3EV steps
Exposure bracketing: 3 frames, 1/3, 2/3EV steps selectable
Self-timer: 2 or 10-seconds delay, (single, continuous 3 or 5 frames)
Focus system: Contrast AF with 25 AF points, Multi-point, Centre-weighted, Flexible Spot area selection, Predictive control
Focus modes: Single-shot AF, Continuous AF, Direct Manual Focus, Manual Focus
Exposure metering: 49-zone Multi, Centre-weighted, Spot metering
Shooting modes: iAUTO, Program Auto (P), Aperture priority (A), Shutter priority (S), Manual (M), Sweep Panorama, Anti Motion Blur plus 8 Scene pre-sets (Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports action, Sunset, Night portrait, Night View, Handheld Twilight)
Other features: Face Detection (up to 8 faces), Smile Shutter, Auto HDR, Hand-held Night Shot
Dynamic range control: D-Range Optimiser (Auto, Lv 1-5), Auto HDR, Adjustable Exposure Difference up to 6EV between 1.0EV to 6EV in 1 EV steps)
Picture Style/Control settings: Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, B/W (Contrast, Saturation, Sharpness adjustable in +/-3 steps)
Colour space options: sRGB, Adobe RGB
ISO range: Auto (ISO 200-1600), ISO 200 to 12,800 selectable in 1EV steps
White balance: Auto, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Flash, Kelvin temperature (2500-9900k with 19-step Magenta/Green compensation), Custom
Flash: External flash only; GN 7 (metres at ISO 100); Flash off, Autoflash, Fill-flash, Slow Sync., Rear Sync. modes (red-eye reduction selectable for Autoflash and fill-flash modes)
Flash exposure adjustment: +/- 2EV in 1/3EV steps
Sequence shooting: Up to 2.3 fps normal shooting for JPEG (unlimited to card capacity) RAW (8 shots) RAW+JPEG (5 shots); 7 fps in speed priority mode (AF/AE fixed)
Storage Media: Memory Stick Pro Duo, Pro-HG Duo; SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards
LCD monitor: 7.5cm (3-inch) Wide type XtraFine TruBlack LCD with 921,000 dots; angle adjustable 80 degrees up/45 degrees down
Playback functions: Single (with or without shooting information, RGB histogram and highlight/shadow warning), 6/12-frame Index View; Playback Zoom L: 13x, M: 10x, S: 6.7x, Panorama Standard: 24x, Panorama wide: 34x; auto rotate, slideshow
Interface terminals: HDMI out (with PhotoTV HD and BRAVIA Sync); USB 2.0 Hi-Speed
Power supply: InfoLitium NP-FW50 rechargeable battery; CIPA rated for approx 330 shots/charge
Dimensions (wxhxd): 117.2 x 62.6 x 33.4 mm (body only)
Weight: 239 grams (body only, without battery and card)
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RRP: Body plus SEL1855 lens (as reviewed) – $849; (Twin lens kit – $999)
Rating (out of 10):
- Build: 8.5
- Ease of use: 7.5
- Autofocusing: 8.5
- Image quality: Stills 8.5; Video 8.0
- OVERALL: 8.5