Sony NEX-3 — and presumably NEX-c3, NEX-f3, NEX-5 and NEX-5n — Not So Good in Even Slightly Challenging Photographic Conditions — a Review

© 2012 Peter Free


21 October 2012



A review for budget conscious photographers


My camera equipment reviews are aimed at budget minded buyers.  These are people who are content to slightly lag (usually over-hyped) technological advances in order to save money.  Either by buying used or getting “obsoleted” new equipment, during closeout sales.



The below anecdotes are intended to help you decide whether my mirrorless camera requirements parallel yours


If they do not, what I say will not be pertinent to your situation.


You can get a sense of what I look for in small cameras by reading two related reviews:


Olympus E-PL1 Camera in Subdued Indoor Light — Review (here)


Olympus E-PL1 versus Sony NEX3 — Micro-Four-Thirds and APS-C — Review (here)



A general comment about camera reviews


They are too often written by people who lack wide-ranging photographic experience.  As a consequence, most equipment gets at least passing grades.  Even when it should not.


Perhaps most misleading is online sources’ frequent failure to highlight obvious of “in use” shortcomings with suitably attention getting language.


Hence this review.  It is based on about a year’s frequent use of the NEX-3.  And it is intended to serve more broadly as a caveat regarding many mirrorless cameras.



NEX models below the capable NEX-7 (and coming NEX-6) do not work quite as well as one might wish, when the photographic going gets even a little demanding


Contrary to many online reviews, these cameras do not work well enough across often encountered photographic conditions to meet even an experienced (work around-minded) photographer’s needs.


If your requirements are mostly limited to what they do well, they are excellent cameras.  But if you use them the way I do, they are annoying at best.


In some instances, low-end NEX cameras do not work even as capably as inexpensive point and shoots.  That is partly what prompted this review.



This review is divided into three point-making anecdotes


These are:


(1) How NEX failed to get the mountain pictures that I wanted, when a cheap pocket-sized Canon point-and-shoot could have accomplished the mission in its sleep.


(2) How a slow-moving plane came in and “docked,” before my NEX was ready to take a simple picture of it landing.


(3) How my NEX finally gained happiness — lollygagging at an indoor party.



Anecdote 1 — not a climber or high altitude hiker’s camera


As a general statement, cameras that get in the way of what you are trying to day are a pain.


This first anecdote demonstrates how NEX manages to screw simplicity up.  Unless you have it set on “intelligent auto” and your camera’s auto setting actually works.  Intelligent auto on my sample of the NEX-3 consistently underexposes by one to one and half stops, with no way to correct it.


Anecdote 1 begins with the string of Colorado fourteeners that I have hiked this year.  I carried the NEX to reduce a dSLR’s load on my arthritic body.  The NEX turned even simple shots into an irritating string of obstacles:


Its LCD cannot be reliably seen (even at its maximum brightness) under high altitude sunlight.


When I do see the screen, the camera settings are sometimes too small to be sure of, even with my reading glasses on.  (For example, with wind tearing my eyes.)


In extreme winds and/or cold — and when I can see the screen and its settings — it takes too many button pushes and (arguably) one too many hands to make the changes that I need in a timely fashion.


My camera’s automated functions also do not work very well, forcing me to make the added button pushes required by manual metering and focus.  (Which is why I consistently shoot RAW, so as to be able to correct exposure and white balance errors.)


The telephoto end of the 18-55mm kit lens produces poor picture quality, even by my now coarsened standards.  That makes even successfully taken photographs disappointing.


When conditions are pleasant and time available to fiddle, I can cope with these issues.


But when:


wind is shrieking


hands, feet, and face are numb (with cold)


and I am trying to cling to the mountain


my sample of the NEX line is a pain.



Anecdote 2 — the sheep will have come home to roost, before the camera is ready to take a picture of them walking home


I exaggerate.  But not by much.


The problem is Sony’s photographically idiotic menu system.  Users have to go to separate menus to change ISO, focus type, and mode.  Then you have button push your way through a series of selections, most of which are less important than the one you want.


In manual exposure mode, I also have to remember which unmarked, multi-purpose button changes aperture.  To do this, I need to be able to see the unnecessarily tiny, highlighted number on the camera’s LCD.


These problems are aggravated by the (low end) NEXs’ laggard startup and menu change times.


At leisurely events, and under photographically consistent circumstances, none of this ponderousness matters.  But when things speed up, the NEX’s inadequacies become blatant.


Ordinarily, reviewers concentrate on NEX’s (and other mirrorless cameras’) inadequacy for sports photography.  That is too constrained a criticism.  It misses the most essential point.  Low end NEX cameras are just slow to use.  And there are myriad photographic instances in which NEX’s molasses-like performance is going to kill picture taking, even of laggard and predictably moving objects.


In illustration of this, Anecdote 2 involves me trying to get a picture of a lackadaisical commercial plane coming in for a landing, as I saw it from a second floor window in our house.


It was evening, and I figured that I had about ten to fifteen seconds to prepare the camera, before the slow moving aircraft disappeared behind our neighbor’s home.  Fading light and variegated background clouds meant that I had to change ISO, mode, and aperture settings from their daylight positions.


Changing mode meant that I had to choose between:


aperture priority mode, with subsequent changes to aperture and exposure compensation




manual exposure mode, with further changes to the aperture and shutter speed,


while simultaneously estimating


how much light was left in the sky (and its few clouds),


on the plane,




how far the NEX’s exposure metering was likely to miss the appropriate exposure for the combination.


On a non-automated film camera, coping with this is easy.  Just change the aperture ring and shutter speed dial.  Do so in increments that span the range of possible exposure error.


On an early auto-exposure film camera, the process is still quick.  Spin the mode dial.  Followed by changes to aperture ring and/or shutter speed dial.  With a possible rotation of the exposure compensation dial.


On the NEX, however, the most basic photographic settings take forever.  By the time I had the approximate exposure dialed in, the plane had landed and the crew had gone home, eaten dinner, and put their kids to bed.




Yes, I exaggerate.  But not enough to matter.


All I got was a blurred streak of the plane disappearing behind our neighbor’s house.  I had not been able to progress far enough through the menus to select the appropriate ISO, aperture and shutter combination to stop the plane’s motion.


In contrast, my inexpensive dSLR would have had at least four or five successful photos of the plane’s glide-in.


That is what I mean by reviewers’ too confined emphasis on the camera’s inadequacy for sports.  The NEX’s problems go well beyond that limited arena.



Anecdote 3 — where the low end NEX works well


The NEX-3 and its subsequent siblings work well indoors, where mostly subdued light is moderately consistent and people are unable to move around very quickly.


I can stand back, compose on the LCD, and leave my initial settings mostly in place.  The camera’s decent sensor does the rest.


The NEX’s mini-flash also works reasonably well.  Far better than the Olympus PEN series’ grossly underpowered pop-up flashes.



The moral? — Low end NEX cameras are not suitable for quickly changing photographic situations — unless you have a sample with an “intelligent auto” mode that actually works


After experiencing the design frustrations of my sample of the NEX-3, under difficult conditions on one of Colorado’s fourteeners last week, I won’t be carrying it again.  Its annoyances outweigh its virtues.


I have come to prioritize functional utility over sensor quality.  That may be why Sony’s more photographically oriented competitors, Olympus and Panasonic, are still in the market.  Even with their small, comparatively inferior, sensors.