Sony Alpha NEX-F3 Review
Exposure Mode Dial Options
Now lets talk about the items you'll find on the NEX-F3's mode dial. What mode dial, you ask? Why, the virtual one that you get to by pressing a button or two! Here's what you'll find on it:
|Intelligent Auto mode||Point-and-shoot operation, with automatic scene selection and new Photo Creativity controls. Some menu options are locked up.|
|Superior Auto mode||Just like Intelligent Auto mode, but with the ability to use multi-shot modes like HDR, Anti Motion Blur, and Handheld Night Scene.|
|Program mode||Still automatic, but with all menu options unlocked. You can use the scroll dial to move through various aperture/shutter speed combos (Program Shift).|
|Aperture Priority mode||You set the aperture, and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The available apertures will depend on what lens is attached. For the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, the range is F3.5 - F32.|
|Shutter Priority mode||You pick the shutter speed, and the camera selects the proper aperture. The shutter speed range is 30 - 1/4000 sec.|
|Full manual (M) mode||You select both the aperture and the shutter speed. Same ranges as above. A bulb mode is also available, where the shutter is kept open while the release button is held down.|
|3D sweep panorama||Sweep the camera from side-to-side and a single panoramic image (in 2D or 3D) is created.|
|Anti Motion Blur||Takes six exposures in rapid succession and combines them into a single photo. Handy for low light and telephoto photography.|
|Scene Selection mode||If you'd rather be the one picking the scene mode, here's how. Choose from portrait, landscape, macro, sports action, sunset, night portrait, night scene, and handheld twilight. This last option is like Anti Motion Blur, but tends to user lower ISO sensitivities.|
Intelligent/Superior Auto Modes
If you want a 'set it and forget it' experience, then set the virtual mode dial to the Intelligent or Superior Auto positions. There, the camera will pick one of eleven scene modes automatically. It can even tell when you're using a tripod, in order to keep noise levels down. If you're using Superior Auto mode, the camera will use multi-shot modes like Anti Motion Blur and Backlight HDR to improve photo quality.
Both modes offer Sony's Photo Creativity Mode, which lets you easily adjust background blur (aperture), brightness (exposure compensation), color (white balance), and vividness (saturation), without having to know any technical jargon. Another part of the Photo Creativity Mode are Picture Effects, which include toy camera, pop color, posterization, retro photo, soft high-key (dream-like), partial color, and high contrast mono. Picture Effects are available in other shooting modes, as well.
Something else that you'll find in Intelligent and Superior Auto mode are shooting tips, though they're not as easy to get to as they used to be. If you want easy access to these tips, first you'll need to head into the Setup menu and then Custom Key Settings. There you can assign Shooting Tips to either the right direction on the four-way controller or the lower soft button. Once that's done, the camera will show a question mark next to the button you've selected, which means a tip is available. The tips that are shown are contextual, meaning that they depend on the shooting mode the camera chose. If you want to just browse through all of the tips, they're available in the main menu.
Sweep Panorama and Anti Motion Blur
Two of my favorite features on the NEX-F3 are sweep panorama and anti motion blur, both of which are on the virtual mode dial. For sweep panorama, you just pan the camera from left to right (other directions work too), and the camera instantly stitches together a huge panoramic photo. There are two sizes to choose from: normal and wide (there's no high resolution option on the F3), and this feature works in 3D as well as 2D. The results are almost always very impressive. The only thing I noticed on the NEX-F3 is that you need to pan a bit slower than on more expensive Sony cameras, probably because of the 5.5 fps maximum burst rate.
|A sweep panorama of the Bay Bridge. Chopped a little bit off of the top of the far western tower but otherwise looks great.|
Anti motion blur (and its related feature, handheld twilight) takes six exposures in less than a second, and combines them into a single image. The resulting image is generally sharp and blur-free, with less noise than if you just took the shot at a high ISO. Above you can see a photo of Zoe that was taken at ISO 6400 using AMB. It's not going to win any awards, but 1) it's better than using ISO 6400 alone and 2) it's good enough for a small print.
|Taken with anti motion blur, ISO 6400||100% Crop|
D-Range Optimizer and HDR
Let's move onto the D-Range Optimizer (DRO) and HDR features, both of which are quite effect. As I mentioned above, the D-Range Optimizer feature handles contrast by breaking the image into smaller segments, and adjusting each section individually. You can leave it on Auto (the default), adjust it manually from level 1 (low) to 5 (high), or shut it off entirely (though I don't know why you'd do so). The test below shows you what happens as you increase the DRO level:
|DRO Off||DRO Auto
||DRO Lv 1||DRO Lv 2||DRO Lv 3||DRO Lv 4||DRO Lv 5|
As you can see by flipping through all of those pictures, the DRO feature does a great job of brightening up the underexposed areas of the scene. Unfortunately, it doesn't do anything for highlight clipping. That's where our next feature comes in.
In the HDR (high dynamic range) mode, the camera takes three photos in rapid succession - each with a different exposure value - and then combines them into a single image with dramatically improved contrast. A photo taken with DRO turned off is also saved. You can let the camera automatically choose the exposure interval (which is the default setting), or you can adjust it yourself, from 1EV to 6EV. The camera shoots so quickly that no tripod is needed in most cases. In the example I'll show you a scene shot with DRO off, and HDR set to Auto, +3EV, and +6EV.
|DRO Off||Auto HDR||HDR ±3 EV||HDR ±6 EV|
The first thing you'll notice as you look at the images is how well HDR brightens up the shadows. The higher the exposure interval, the brighter things get, though at ±6 EV things are starting to venture into 'art' territory. If you compare the DRO Off and Auto HDR options, you will see a reduction in highlight clipping, specifically around the tree on the left of the hallway. I use the HDR feature myself quite often when scenes have with a bright backlight (at least on Sony cameras), and while the Auto mode works well in most cases, don't be afraid to switch into manual mode, either.
This probably goes without saying, but all of these cool multi-shot features (including sweep panorama) are for JPEGs only - no RAW allowed.
Clear Image Zoom
Clear Image Zoom boosts the focal range of your attached lens by up to 2 times with less image degradation than regular digital zoom. The example below shows how much zoom you get from this feature, and if you view the full size photos, you can see what happens to the image quality.
|Full telephoto (55 mm)||Full telephoto + 2X Clear Image Zoom (equivalent to 110 mm)|
While the boost in zoom power is nice, the drop in image quality makes this feature best suited for smaller prints. The NEX-F3 has a regular digital zoom feature, and if you lower the resolution, you can use it without any drop in quality. You can also combine Clear Image Zoom and regular digital zoom, if you so desire.
Auto Portrait Framing
Since this is an entry-level camera, Sony figures that not everyone is going to be a great portrait photographer. With this feature (and face detection) turned on, the camera will use the rule-of-thirds to crop your photos for tighter close-ups of your subject. Naturally, since the photos are being cropped, the image size drops. Sony has thought of this, and uses their 'By Pixel Super Resolution technology' (only in Japan would they come up with a name like that) to interpolate back up to 16 Megapixel.
Editors note - we explained Auto Portrait Framing mode in detail in our preview of the Sony Alpha SLT-A37
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