Sony NEX 3

Sony have taken the compact digital camera market and blown a very big hole in it.

Traditionally, this market, aimed at those who wish their cameras to be just a simple point and shoot affair, has been populated with small, fashion accessories, most of which also happen to make perfectly good wallet-sized images. While some of them can actually take some fairly decent images, those are invariably at the higher end of the price range, but they are still limited by some aspects of the underlying technology, that being the size of the sensor.

You need to understand that the size of the sensor is very important in digital photography. As a generalisation, the bigger the sensor, the better an image the camera is potentially able to capture for you. The size of the sensor – and I’m talking physical size here, not megapixels – creates a relationship between the camera’s lens and the subjects of your image, and a larger sensor permits you to bring creative elements like selective focus (out of focus backgrounds, for instance) into your photos. Simple optical physics make this a difficult ask as sensor sizes get smaller.

In a typical compact camera, the sensor size might be as big as your fingernail. On your pinky. In a mobile phone, the sensor will be even smaller. The four thirds systems cameras go some way to address this problem by having much larger sensors, and typical digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) have sensors that are even larger again, with many today being what is known as “full frame”, referring to the old 35mm film standard. Compare the size of a 35mm film slide with your fingernail on your pinky, and you will get some idea of the extent of the differences here.

In the NEX 3, Sony have effectively taken the image sensor from a DSLR, and shoehorned it into a camera that’s about the same size as your typical P&S. This is a truly small camera, but with a big heart. Unlike the typical compact camera though, it accepts accessory lenses, (like DSLRs) which gives you a potentially good selection of lenses from which you may make creative choices in your shooting. I say potentially, because here you’re dependent upon the camera system that you buy into. Fortunately, Sony has created an adapter that lets you use their range of Alpha lenses, which will also include the many fine Konica-Minolta lenses that represent Sony’s photographic heritage; there’s no shortage of good glass here. Of course, there’s a small range of E-Mount lenses that are made for this camera as well.

But this camera is not a DSLR; it’s a MILC: Mirrorless, Interchangeable Lens Camera. In order to reduce the size (when compared with a DSLR) the mirror box, and its associated complexity, has been removed. The downside of this is that there’s no optical viewfinder, but on this camera, that doesn’t seem to be a major disadvantage; the digital viewfinder, with its large screen, seems to work very well.

Image quality, for a compact, is excellent, thanks to the large image sensor. Here’s a sample image, taken in a dark restaurant. No flash, camera set to fully auto.

Sony NEX3 sample image

Sony NEX3 sample image

Of course, all cameras today include video capabilities, and the NEX 3 is no exception. Making a video is as simple as pressing one button on the rear of the camera. But as well as shooting video, this camera has a couple of other tricks up its sleeves. Using some very intelligent technology, Sony have included what they call “Sweep Panorama” mode, whereby you can just sweep the camera across a scene, shooting, and the camera will automagically stitch together slices from the images made, into a panorama image.

And just for kicks, it can do that in 3D too.

Viewing what you’re shooting, and reviewing your work, whether still images or videos, is easily done on the large rear tiltable LCD.

Compact cameras are, by design, easy to use; so too is the NEX 3. Turn it on, and shoot. Controls are logically placed, and while it’s very easy to handle and use, I found it somewhat unnatural to use in portrait orientation, and I don’t understand why; that’s probably just me.

What is not “just me” are a couple of niggles with the underlying design of this camera. Sony continue to use their proprietary Memory Stick for storage (fortunately, not exclusively here) and this camera also uses the proprietary Sony flash hotshoe. There is simply no need, nor any good reason, for either of these proprietary technologies to exist at all, let alone appear in what is otherwise a very good camera.

The camera is initially available with a 18-55mm E-Mount zoom lens, as well as a 16mm f/2.8 E-Mount “Pancake” lens. This was my preference; it’s small, optically fast, sharp, and the camera remains very pocketable even with this lens mounted.

This is actually a camera that I might consider taking with me as my second system when traveling, such is the quality and ease of use. I like it, and with a RRP of around $850, I think it represents very good value.