Sony NEX-3N Hands-on Preview

Preview based on a production NEX-3N with firmware v1.00

The Sony NEX 3N is the company's ninth e-mount stills camera since it launched the system less than three years ago, and its fourth entry-level model. The entry-level 3-series is specifically aimed at compact camera users looking for better image quality but hoping to avoid the bulk and perceived complexity of a DSLR. This market was one of the founding aims of the NEX system and the NEX-3N is the most obvious attempt yet at fulfilling it.

The NEX-3N builds on the feature-set of the F3 but adds two features that will be very attractive to this target market. The first is the inclusion of Sony's 16-50mm retractable power zoom lens, which offers an unusually-wideangle view (24-75mm equivalent) and optical image stabilization. This combines with the 3N's status as the smallest mirrorless camera to include an APS-C sensor, to make a usefully small (albeit still not pocketable) package. The other change is the inclusion of a zoom lever on the camera body (around the shutter button). This not only makes use of the power zoom's capabilities but also makes the camera's behavior considerably more compact-camera-like.

The 3N has a revised flip-up screen - it rotates up by 180 degrees to make self-portraits easier. The new articulated cradle is simpler than the one featured on the previous mode - it simply hinges upwards, rather than pulling out and hinging, as the previous one did. The result feels rather more secure than the F3's did. Another small change sees the SD card slot repositioned from the bottom of the camera to the accessory port panel on the side of the camera.

As time goes by, Sony is trying to make its different model lines more distinct - a key consideration now there are four NEX lines. As such, and in keeping with its affordable intentions, the 3N misses out on the faster on-sensor phase-detection autofocus seen on the 5R. To an extent this is an understandable piece of product differentiation - putting clear differences between models - but also removing one of the features that would be the biggest benefits at this end of the market. One of the best features on Nikon's 1 system cameras has been the implementation of its hybrid autofocus system, that does a better job of tracking subjects than any other camera in this class.

As such, the 3N won't offer much as much of an improvement over a compact when it comes to photographing running children as might have been possible. The camera also makes do without the touchscreen or Wi-Fi functions offered by the 5R, and forgoes the accessory port the F3 had, so there's no way of attaching an external viewfinder.

Compared to the Olympus PEN E-PM2

Despite having a larger sensor, the NEX 3N is very similar in size to the Olympus PEN E-PM2
From the top you find it's actually smaller. The Sony manages to find room for a built-in flash, and the power zoom lens retracts to a smaller size than Olympus' manually retractable lens. In return the E-PM2 has a hot shoe for an external flash, an accessory port for an electronic viewfinder, and in-body image stabilization which works with all lenses. 

Compared to the Sony NEX-F3

Compared with its predecessor, the 3N has been made much smaller, despite including most of the same technologies.
And that size advantage is equally true when you look from above, even before you consider the size of the respective kit lenses. But this does come at the cost of the accessory port seen on previous NEX models, meaning there's no facility to add an external flash or viewfinder.  

In the hand

Despite its down-sizing, the NEX-3N fits pretty well in the hand. A textured rubber lump on the front of the camera and a thumb pad on its rear corner provide something to grasp the camera with. The small and smooth zoom lever is a little subtle but can still be operated without any great difficulty.

E PZ 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 OSS Power Zoom lens

The Sony 16-50mm power zoom is probably our favorite retractable power zoom lens - not because of its optical properties, but mainly because it offers both a zoom slider on its barrel and a zoom ring around the front of the lens. Both control mechanisms operate the zoom's motor rather than giving direct mechanical control, but the zoom ring allows faster, more responsive control over the lens, more like a conventional mechanical lens, whereas the slider provides slow, subtle zooming for video work. This is a great improvement over Panasonic's X Vario 14-42mm power zoom lens, that tries to use a jog switch to fulfill both needs. The Sony's lens also allows you to re-dedicate the function of the lens ring to control manual focus. Despite having to wait for the lens to extend before you can shoot, the camera can fire off its first shot less than 2 seconds after hitting the power switch.

The 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 OSS Power Zoom provides two methods for zooming the lens. A slider on the lens barrel offers slow zooming that's appropriate for movie shooting, while a ring around the front of the lens offers more conventional behavior.

Alternatively, the front ring can be re-purposed to control manual focus.

Interestingly, the NEX-3N's default settings assume that you will want to make use of the camera's 'Clear Image Zoom' digital magnification, and turning the zoom ring very easily rushes into the digital zoom region. The results haven't been bad in previous models, but we've seen little advantage of it over a simple upscaling in Photoshop, so we're not sure it should be so easy to use unintentionally.

Body Elements

The most significant addition to the NEX-3N is its zoom lever.

While this might not sound like the most important change that could be made, in combination with the 16-50mm Power Zoom it allows the 3N to give a much more compact-camera-like shooting experience.
Despite losing a lot of size, compared to the F3, the 3N retains a small pop-up flash.
It also continues to offer the screen that flips up by 180 degrees. Unlike the more expensive 5R, the 3N's screen isn't touch sensitive.
The 3N finally gets an easily accessible SD card slot - along with the ports on its left flank.

The two ports are a micro HDMI socket at the bottom, along with a micro USB socket at the top, which also acts as the primary means of recharging the camera's batteries.
The NEX-3N uses the same NP-FW50 battery that has appeared in all NEX models so far. It's a 7.3Wh battery that Sony says will give around 480 shots, when tested using CIPA's standard method.

However, we have to assume that test doesn't include use of the power zoom lens, which we suspect will see the traditionally rather short NEX battery life get exhausted even faster than usual.

NEX Interface

The NEX-3N has the latest iteration of the interface Sony created for the NEX series. Its intent is still beginner-focused but five generations of redevelopment later, it's become rather convoluted, with icons littering the screen but no obvious way of interacting with them. However, the results-orientated 'Photo Creativity' system for taking a bit of control over the automatic modes is pretty good - a couple of button presses make it easy to adjust the brightness, warmth or vividness of an image. These options are available both in the camera's Intelligent Auto mode and the Superior Auto mode that will make use of the cameras multi-shot modes if it thinks they're needed.

The NEX 3N's default screen is a fairly conventional one. Oddly, though, none of the buttons you press allow you to change any of the settings represented by the icons on the left.

Pressing the downwards button gets you in to 'Photo Creativity' mode...
...which allows you to change five key camera parameters, based on outcome.

In this shot, we're adjusting 'warmth' (a proxy for White Balance).

The NEX-3N also builds on the Auto Portrait Framing mode introduced in the last generation of Sonys, gaining what is now called Auto Object Framing. The essential difference is that the camera will now attempt to re-crop images to concentrate on what it interprets as the subject of the subject, even if it hasn't recognized faces in the scene. Now, as well as portraits, the camera will re-crop Macro subjects or anything identified by the camera's new object tracking focus mode. As before, the camera saves the original image as well as demonstrating the crop it's choosing.

Samples gallery

The initial 15 shots in this gallery were all taken using the camera's Intelligent Auto and Superior Auto modes, with the camera choosing all settings.

Sony NEX-3N preview samples gallery - published 25th February 2013