Last month, word was leaked that Sony was about to release an update to its NEX-C3 mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. As anyone who follows the site may know, the NEX-C3 is my favorite compact camera. It destroys points-and-shoots--let alone cameraphones--in image quality, approaching DSLR cameras levels while remaining extremely compact and affordable (~$500 street price). This is a camera that I can put in my shoulder bag and take with me everywhere I go. If I had it my way, camera makers would stop selling point-and-shoots and would start their lineups with mirrorless camera models.
In fact, that's exactly what other camera makers like Samsung are doing. These interchangeable lens cameras are the next big hardware market for photographers--and surprisingly, DSLR goliaths Canon and Nikon haven't expressed interest...yet. That gives manufacturers like Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, and Samsung an early advantage in the ILC (interchangeable lens camera) market, which Sony expects to grow to 8.9 million units this year. That may be still a fraction of the millions of point and shoots sold every year, but those sales are trending toward the red--down 20% in 2011 according to NPD--while ILC sales are moving up.
If you can't tell, I'm very bullish on this category, which is why I'm pretty excited for the upcoming Sony NEX-F3. The replacement for the NEX-C3 is the third-generation mirrorless camera from Sony, incorporating not only physical and internal changes but also lessons learned from users of the C3 and NEX-5N. It officially launches in early June with a street price of $599. My impressions from time spent with the camera are below.
If the point-and-shoot (and to some extent, cameraphone) market was a battle of megapixels, the mirrorless camera market will be a battle of camera sensor sizes. Sony prides itself on using APS-C sized sensors in its ILCs, which are larger than the Micro 4/3rd sensors in Panasonic and Olympus's camera. In some regards, the size of a camera's sensor is yet another meaningless spec--the quality of a photo is determined by additional factors including manufacturing process, camera processor, and of course lenses. But sensor size is still a much better gauge of quality than megapixels--the larger the sensor, the more physical light can be received and processed. Cameras with larger sensors on average shoot images that are less noisy, clearer in low light, and can facilitate a smoother "bokeh" depth-of-field effect.
The APS-C sensor size that Sony, Samsung, and Fuji use in their mirrorless cameras is significant because that's also the (approximate) size used by Canon and Nikon in their non-full-frame DSLR cameras. In fact, Sony reps told me that the company will never build a mirrorless camera with a sensor smaller than APS-C (and only hinting at a full-frame mirrorless camera in the future). And as you can see, the new NEX-F3 has prominent APS-C branding on its front. I wouldn't be surprised to see APS-C touted in marketing and retail signage in the near future. This is a good thing.
So what are the big differences between the NEX-F3 and NEX-C3? First, the camera now has a built-in flash. The NEX-C3 included a flash, but it was a separate accessory in the box that fit on top of the camera via Sony's proprietary "Smart Accessory Port". The single port meant that you had the choice of using the flash accessory or the optional directional microphone that Sony sells for $130 but never both at once. On the new camera, the flash pops up with a push of a button. Its hinge felt sturdy, though I'm unsure if the new flash will be as accommodating for mirrored bounce flash modifications. Next to the flash is the same Smart Accessory Port, which now not only accepts the microphone accessory, but also the OLED electronic viewfinder that previously only worked with the NEX-5N camera. The accessories haven't changed, so I still find that the mic and EVF are cumbersome to screw into the port--this is still not as easy as something like a hot shoe.
The other modification is to the sharp 921k dot (640x480 pixel) 3" LCD viewfinder. I love that the NEX-C3's viewfinder can be popped out to tilt up and down for shooting from different vantage positions. The monitor on the NEX-F3 flips all the way up to 180 degrees, so the subject you're shooting can see themselves. I found this useful for monitoring video as well--the camera automatically flips the image so you see a "mirrored" monitor. Unfortunately, this design change also means that the downward tilt range is reduced from 45 degrees to 13 degrees--a bummer for lifting the camera up to shoot above your head.
Accompanying these external changes is a increase in the camera's body size. Uh oh. The camera is now a little wider and taller (about 7mm in all axes) to accommodate the new internal components. It also weighs 30 grams more than its predecessor. This will probably be the most controversial change to the NEX-F3, as users really loved the compact size of the C3. I didn't notice the weight change as much as I noticed the larger body, which is especially pronounced in the new grip design. The grip now resembles that in the 5N, which Sony claims is more comfortable to hold over a long period of time. It sticks out more, and the shutter button has been moved to the grip instead of directly on the body (as you can see in the comparison photo above). Personally, I had no problem with the C3's grip design, and often just held the camera by the zoom lens anyway.
(The lens in the comparison photos look different because the NEX-F3 is attached to a new E-Mount 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 lens, which Sony is launching in July for $849. The NEX-F3 comes with the silver 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens.)
The repositioning of the shutter button had one side effect: I found that it was quite easy to accidentally hit the right side of the radial dial on the back of the camera. This button is programmable and defaults to having no effect, but it's what I typically program to change the ISO (which now ranges from 200-25000). The accidental pressing of the radial button may be a fault of my experience with the C3, so hopefully it's something that won't affect other users. Sony has also replaced the "shooting tips" button on the bottom right of the LCD to dedicated white balance access, and fixed the left radial dial for changing shooting modes (eg. single shot, continuous shooting, etc). Only the right radial dial is programmable now.
One other final notable body change is that the HDMI and USB ports are now grouped under one plastic cover, and USB will be the primary way for charging the camera's battery. While the NEX-F3 uses the same battery as the C3, the kit will no longer include a dedicated battery charger (it'll be sold separately). This is a little disappointing for people who like to keep two batteries--one always charging on the wall adapter while the other sits inside the camera. Now you can only charge the battery when it's inside the camera, and charging (even over a laptop's USB port) prevents data transfer. On the plus side, the F3 takes more photos with the same battery than the C3 (470 compared to 400), something that my test showed was pretty accurate. Sony is also only selling the NEX-F3 with the 18-55mm zoom lens. The 16mm pancake prime kit that was offered with the C3 is being phased out--that lens sells by itself for $250.
As for the actual shooting experience, the new processor and sensor cut (16.1 mp, but same output image resolution as the C3) felt noticeably faster than the NEX-C3. Browsing through the menus (which have undergone a very minor aesthetic redesign) definitely was smoother, though the organization of settings will still take getting used to for new users. The faster processor doesn't give the camera a higher burst rate (still 5.5fps on speed priority), though you can burst shoot up to 18 JPEGs now during continuous advance mode before the buffer fills up as opposed to the C3's 14 JPEGs. RAW+JPEG is of course still an option.
The photos I took with the F3 looked very comparable to the ones I've taken with the C3 and 5N. As you can see in the street photo above, the sensor doesn't suffer from fringing on bright edges. The dynamic range on the camera still could use some improvement--scenes with both overly bright and shadowed spots lose a little detail in both areas. The built-in HDR feature helped with this in the C3, though I never found myself using it that much. I expect that the low-light performance on the F3 will be comparable to the C3 as well, which is to say it's spectacular for a camera this size.
Sony also continues to do an excellent job making these NEX cameras easy to use for beginners. Plenty of on-screen messaging explains each setting in laymans terms, and the F3 now has a "Superior Auto" shooting mode to simplify settings further. For example, the camera can detect faces in Portrait mode and automatically zoom in and crop around the subject according to the rule of thirds. There are also 11 built-in picture effects like "soft focus" and "HDR painting" to tweak your photos in-camera. These aren't features that I would use on a day-to-day basis, but will make the camera less daunting and more fun for people who are used to cameraphones or point-and-shoots.
Finally, the NEX-F3 takes another welcome feature from the 5N in video recording. I always thought it was arbitrary that the C3 only shot 720p video, and now the F3 can shoot 1080p in Sony's AVCHD format. MP4 format recording is limited to 1440x1080 at 30fps. Full 1920x1080 video goes up to 60fps (interlaced) but the camera will also record at 24fps for progressive video capture. Neither the F3 or 5N have a direct line-in for audio, which tops my wish list of features for this type of camera. That's something that's still saved for the high-end NEX-7. I actually shot my hands-on video with the NEX-F3 using the new camera, with the LCD flipped up for self-monitoring and directional mic accessory attached for audio. As you can see in the video below, 1080p 24fps quality is quite good--the video has decent dynamic range which you can see in the shadows on half my face.
The improvements made to the NEX-F3 give me no doubt that this is the better buy than the NEX-5N. EVF accessory support, 1080p video recording, and longer battery life are all features that the 5N held over the C3. Now, the only major difference is the touchscreen LCD on the 5N, which I still think is not essential. Sony's done a good job on this generation--the only reason to pick up an NEX-C3 before they're all sold out is if you think the camera will be too big for your day pack.
You'll find a bunch of sample photos I took with the NEX-F3 on the next page, including a link to the original files. Post any questions you have about the camera in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them.